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‘We have advanced, but with much pain’: Q&A with Indigenous leader José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal

  • José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal heads COICA, an association that represents the Indigenous peoples of all nine countries in the Amazon Basin.
  • He says the persecution of Indigenous peoples and destruction of their lands must end, otherwise “we also risk the disappearance of all human beings.”
  • In an interview with Mongabay Latam, Díaz Mirabal talks about the threats to the Amazon’s Indigenous peoples, whether any progress has been made, and the disconnect between what governments pledge at environmental conferences and what they really do on the ground.
  • “Indigenous leaders know that they are going out to fight, but do not know whether they will return,” Díaz Mirabal says. “And this has happened a lot.”

The Atabapo River, its waters black and flanked by rainforest and mountains, used to be part of an Indigenous territory some 200 years ago, says José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal. Today, it sits at the tri-border region of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. “States have split us, but we are one big family,” says Díaz Mirabal, a leader of the Wakuenai Kurripaco Indigenous people.

Although this part of the Amazon is still a site of incredible natural scenery, it’s threatened by human greed and its manifestation in legal and illegal developments — both of which are criminal to some degree, Díaz Mirabal says. “They seek gold, oil, wealth and power,” he says, adding that “it seems none of our governments have been able to control or monitor border territories, and as Indigenous peoples’ struggles have become global, so has crime.”

Díaz Mirabal is the leader of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), an organization that has advocated for the Indigenous peoples of all nine countries in the Amazon Basin — Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela — for nearly four decades now, bringing their demands before an international audience.

Amazonian Indigenous leaders, from left, Tuntiak Katan of Ecuador, Sônia Guajajara of Brazil, and José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal of Venezuela participating in the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice. Image courtesy of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities (AGCT).

“The violence makes it a very complex reality. The cartels are already a world power; they are everywhere and have reached all our countries in the Amazon Basin,” Díaz Mirabal says. “They are managing a parallel state using the power of fire, weapons and money to corrupt any structure. This is no secret; everyone knows this and we have had to start living with this reality.”

Mongabay Latam spoke with Díaz Mirabal recently about the challenges and threats facing the nine Amazonian countries, where cross-border cooperation is being sought to defend nature, Indigenous peoples and their rights, and also about the need to make these efforts central to decision-making and negotiations on the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. The following interview was translated from Spanish and lightly edited for style and clarity.

Mongabay Latam: What problems do the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon share? What are COICA’s findings?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: The main threats are extractivism and legal and illegal mining, which are constantly on the rise and out of control. But other threats include monocultures, such as soy, and extensive cattle ranching, which occurs mainly in Brazil, Bolivia and almost every meat-producing country looking for land and deforesting the rainforest. Drug trafficking is another, as of course are what governments consider “development” projects, pushing the boundaries of the Amazon.

We believe that the most serious threat is currently the lack of recognition of territorial rights: there are not enough titles. There are more than 300 million hectares [740 million acres] per title holder. This is a serious threat because governments or companies can invade Indigenous territories at any time.

Refusing a development process with governments and companies ultimately ends with the murder, persecution and criminalization of leaders or Indigenous organizations.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Image courtesy of Luis Barreto/WWF.

Mongabay Latam: Which Amazonian country faces the greatest difficulty in confronting the sieges against territories and Indigenous people’s rights?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: The issue of land titling applies to all the countries. But most conflicts and the highest rates of criminalization and murder worldwide are in Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. Because Indigenous territories there are rich in water, oil, gold, strategic minerals and oxygen, I think they are currently facing multiple threats.

Living in an Indigenous territory is a risk, unless you sell the land and hand it over for development projects, or to companies, public-private partnerships, to criminal economies or to those outside the law.

Mongabay Latam: In Latin America there are numerous cases of land defenders who have been murdered and also of communities being displaced by extractive projects and violence. How is this impacting the Amazon’s Indigenous communities?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: Starting with Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has created laws to invade Indigenous territories; he is allowing extensive cattle ranching and illegal mining, but by decree. This has caused a very high level of violence and destruction of nature in the Brazilian Amazon.

Next is Colombia, where three Indigenous leaders have just been murdered in Putumayo. This is common, with the government and armed forces complicit with the criminal groups.

Peru is currently facing significant oil and mining issues, which are the main causes of all this criminalization.

Here in Ecuador, despite recent amnesties being granted for more than 250 of our brothers, most of them for opposing extractive or oil and mining projects, the government is calling for these amnesties to be revoked and is promoting decrees for extractivism.

So here Indigenous people are now facing a lot of lawsuits. Some have managed to win, others are awaiting a response, but ultimately the government wants to continue imposing this extractive policy, intervening in the rainforest and, above all, searching for oil and minerals.

Amazonian Indigenous leaders, from left, José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, Leonidas Iza and Marlon Vargas ratifying the unity of the Indigenous peoples of Abya Yala, as part of COICA’s 38th anniversary. Image courtesy of COICA.

Mongabay Latam: Amnesties are also being given in countries other than Ecuador because persecution is a constant threat. What is happening with these processes? What is the situation of leaders who are under judicial pressure and in what countries is progress being made or change being achieved?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: Ecuador has given the most amnesties in recent years, totaling more than 250. There are leaders, perhaps very visible leaders, such as Leonidas Iza, Jaime Vargas and Antonio Vargas, who were involved in the 2019 uprising and the paralyzing of oil wells and mining entities with large mobilizations. Those [actions] are most visible because they have been world news; the Ecuadoran Indigenous movement is very strong.

In other countries, such as Brazil, amnesty is being fought in the courts. In Colombia there are more murders, with many brothers still in jail. We are concerned to see that laws are only passed when there is strong mobilization, but in other countries, for example, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela, the same problems continue either because the Indigenous movement is divided, or the Indigenous population is very small.

The situation is similar in the case of extractivism. It seems that this is the only solution that South American countries’ governments have; we are proposing the recognition of ecocide, the questioning and monitoring of governments in line with international justice because they are destroying human heritage, and because Indigenous territories currently guarantee water, food and clean air, so if destroyed, we also risk the disappearance of all human beings.

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal at the Climate March in Glasgow, Scotland, during the COP26 climate summit. Image courtesy of COICA.

Mongabay Latam: In this context, what does it mean to be an Indigenous leader? What is it like living under threats, criminalization and persecution, and seeing other leaders going through this type of pressure?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: Being an Indigenous leader now means many things. First, when you defend a river, a territory, one or several cultures, as in the case of COICA, which is made up of nine countries [and represents] more than 500 peoples, more than 100 peoples in voluntary isolation and the largest tropical forest on the planet, it is a very big responsibility.

In general, we support national and territorial processes and we witness brothers dying, being murdered or put in prison. We identify why they were imprisoned if they have not murdered anyone — they are not drug dealers, they are simply defending the territory, their identity, their family, villages, the water, mountains … which seems to be a crime.

Being a leader in an oil zone or where there are significant natural resources is a death sentence or facing criminalization if you do not negotiate or accept companies’ or governments’ conditions. But it also means having great respect for peoples, territories and all the leaders, both men and women, who courageously take up the role, even when knowing that denouncing a company or government and demanding rights, prior consultation and land titling is going against many economic and political powers.

Indigenous leaders know that they are going out to fight, but do not know whether they will return. And this has happened a lot. Unfortunately, South America is the most dangerous region in the world to defend biodiversity, territories, mountains, rivers and the rainforest.

Mongabay Latam: You said that Indigenous peoples’ biggest problem is land titling; what is the situation of the peoples of South America? Is delaying titles the main reason behind increasing threats?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: Currently, in the Amazon Basin, we believe that if we want to ensure that climate change does not exceed 1.5° Celsius [2.7° Fahrenheit] — which we are proposing now in the Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD] in Geneva — we have to title at least 100 million hectares [247 million acres] of land. Though 300 million hectares would be ideal. We have been saying this for almost 15 or 20 years. Very little progress has been made, all the scientific studies report that Indigenous territories are the best preserved because we are there, but many of them do not have a guaranteed titling, meaning governments or companies can intervene.

This is a great contradiction because at U.N. climate change conferences and biodiversity COPs, governments claimed that they were going to protect [Indigenous territories] and fight against climate change. But in reality, they are the first to promote deforestation and do so through decrees and laws, many of which ignore Indigenous peoples’ rights.

If this is not resolved and the conserved territories, regardless of whether they are already protected areas or Indigenous territories, continue to be destroyed by extractivism or other economic activity promoting deforestation, then the extinction of biodiversity will continue to increase every day, we will have more extreme climate events, and, of course, there will not be enough food or drinking water.

Mongabay Latam: Last year, during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, it was said that Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of nature. In the case of the Amazonian countries, what must happen so that their proposals are heard and implemented, and that resources actually reach territories?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: A lot of announcements were made in Glasgow. Almost five months have passed, almost six months now, and the announcement that $1.7 billion would be allocated to tackle climate change and support Indigenous people still lacks a mechanism to distribute the resources to these peoples. So far, only 1% continues to reach Indigenous territories, with 99% remaining with consultancies, in government bureaucracy and in the payrolls of large global nongovernmental organizations. We recently had another meeting with the donors of this $1.7 billion and we demanded a mechanism.

The problem is bureaucracy. We are trying, really asking that they trust Indigenous peoples and seek a direct mechanism because there really is not much time and the money would help somewhat stop deforestation in the territories.

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal celebrates the approval of a proposal that 80% of the Amazon be protected. Image courtesy of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)/Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB)/International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Mongabay Latam: How has it helped having COICA as a political organization to defend all these causes of the Amazonian Indigenous peoples? To what extent are they being listened to and addressed by the different governments of the nine Amazonian countries?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: In South America there is no organization at the level of COICA. We have tried to responsibly assume an international voice and have had a global impact by uniting with Asia, Africa, Central America and the Indigenous peoples’ organizations there, as this enabled us to sit down with some European governments as well as our own governments in Europe. It is amazing — we cannot talk with them here in South America but have to do it at world conferences.

We seek out such dialogues with the governments to see whether they fulfill their promises at international level. The nine countries and COICA’s organizations are making this effort to seek an action plan because although there are many promises, actions take too long.

If we do not participate in climate and biodiversity governance — as we have proposals that have been tested over thousands of years — and if we are not at the center of decision-making, participation, planning and implementation of actions, we will continue on the current path: a warlike situation, with drinking water, biodiversity and life destroyed. A huge food crisis is coming without these decisions. We are part of the solution to this global crisis and that must be reflected in action, in coordination with the governments responsible for it.

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal at the Climate March in Glasgow, Scotland, during the COP26 climate summit. Image courtesy of COICA.

Mongabay Latam: Despite this, do you think progress has been made in recent years?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: We have advanced, but with much pain. The pandemic took away many brothers as the government did not reach Indigenous territories as it should have. Another issue is the murder rate of our imprisoned brothers. Despite all this, despite the pain and the fact that we must be in the streets — because our best achievements have been made in the streets and not because the government has awarded us rights — we believe that the organizations are the ones fighting in the territories. All the organizations that are defending rights in their countries are necessary; they are key to the life of Indigenous peoples.

We have a voice, we have rights, that is true, but that has been achieved with much pain, with much sacrifice and with many losses. It has not been gifted to us. But this is not enough — we need our rights to be really implemented, to materialize in actions.

Mongabay Latam: What has been most difficult and what has marked Indigenous peoples the most during the pandemic?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: The pandemic was something that no one expected. When something like that happens, we must alert the territories and close the communities with the help of Indigenous guards. We realized that there were no medicines, no health posts, not even any schools. The pandemic gripped those communities in complete isolation due to their geographic location; the pandemic has ended, and in many cases governments still have not arrived.

We made an emergency plan and managed to obtain oxygen, food and medicine, with a lot of effort made to reach the communities not reached by the government. But the hardest thing was seeing friends die, become infected and, like all families in the world, lose their loved ones. That happened to us too.

Mongabay Latam: What does the word territory mean to you?

José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal: Territory is the house, the maloca [village], the farm, the water — it is life. If you want to destroy Indigenous peoples, take away their territory because they would no longer be Indigenous. They would be beggars in the cities. Territory is life, it is your pharmacy, your school, your place of entertainment, of healing, your spiritual place, of celebrations too. It has everything and you do not need to leave.

But we have always been cursed, ever since the Spanish arrived. Before they wanted gold, now they want oil, strategic minerals — they never see the territory as water, food, as a spirit and a living being, but as a business. It has always been this way and we are misunderstood. We are strange beings who do not want to exploit nature, but to live with it always, as in the past and for millennia to come. No one understands that we sleep on top of so much wealth and want to continue living this way.

Banner image: José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, a leader of the Wakuenai Kurripaco Indigenous people. Image courtesy of COICA.

This interview was conducted by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 24, 2022.