‘Think about what is to come, for all generations’

Melania Canales 
Credit: CAAAP

What do you most hope will emerge from COP26?

Melania Canales, ONAMIAP: I am from the Organization of Amazonian and Andean Indigenous Women of Peru and one of things I hope for is a guarantee of the territorial rights of indigenous people. Not just bits of land, but collective territory in its entirety. We hope that people can see territory in its entirety, not just look at forests but rivers and glaciers too. That is the proposal and the aspiration of indigenous women.

Osver Polo, MOCICC: From the Citizens Movement Facing Climate Change perspective we hope that progress is made on the climatic ambitions of countries [represented by their National Determined Contributions or NDCs]. If this is not achieved, it won’t be possible to achieve the 1.5 degrees centigrade [limit needed to avoid catastrophic climate change].

In terms of financing, the countries of the Global South are still waiting for funding promised nine years ago. We also hope that rules are finalized so that countries can prepare the mechanisms for informing, reporting and monitoring. And that there is a balance between mitigation and adaptation.

Combating misuse of forests and soils is crucial if Peru is to meet its emissions pledge, but figures for the past year show a big increase in deforestation – from 150,000 to 203,000 hectares

Is Peru on track to meet its Paris Accord pledges to reduce its impact on global warming by 2030?

Henry Córdova, MOCICC: Peru’s climate ambition to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent has been upped to 40 per cent. However, there is an institutional weakness affecting the state’s ability to meet this commitment. The Ministry of Environment is especially weak in comparison with the Ministry of Energy and Mines which heads the national policy of extractivism. The country is not ready to meet its pledges for the following reasons: The economic policy is in contradiction with environmental policy; of the 62 measures for mitigation and 92 for adaptation [that form Peru’s NDC] very few have full economic evaluations; there are no clear indicators or budgets; and there is no means for measuring progress.

Peru’s economic model is based on extractives – petrol, gas, minerals, timber – and these do considerable environmental damage as well as being the main cause of social conflicts. How can the country become carbon neutral without making fundamental changes to this development model?

Melania: Extractivism is certainly doing us harm. We need to look at other forms of development. They always tell indigenous people that we have no development, that development has to be brought to us from outside. But they need to look at the science, the knowledge, the technologies of indigenous people. Our development is also a way of looking at life. One of the things that has to happen is the promotion of an economy that is in solidarity with Mother Nature or Pacha Mama. And the autonomy of indigenous people – in relation to food sovereignty, for example – needs to be respected by governments.

A birdseye view of the main base of operations for the Camisea project. Credit: 
Ministerio de Defensa del Perú/Flickr

Should there be a moratorium on any further expansion of fossil fuel extraction?

Melania: There is no ‘territorial code’ [to control what is allowed to happen where] in Peru. Where should mining, for example, take place? [Not] in places where there are springs, wells, where it contaminates water, rivers, livestock. Or petrol exploitation? Is it contaminating the people who live there? We are proposing a territorial code for Peru. There needs to be a change in ways of doing things and at a profound level.

Henry: We in the social movements are calling for an energy transition away from fossil fuels, especially in the vulnerable areas of Peru which have been badly affected by mismanagement of hydrocarbon and mining extraction.

In terms of financing, the countries of the Global South are still waiting for funding promised nine years ago

What about Camisea a massive gas project, involving several transnational corporations, that is officially viewed as central to Peru’s energy and export future?

Melania: We have to ask: who does this gas from Camisea really benefit? The people of Peru? The communities where it is being extracted? Or where the pipes are passing through? Where is the gas going, who will get it? There is no transparency with this project. And there are real problems in the communities where the gas is being extracted. Big projects like this one lead to contamination and cause conflict. They create corruption in communities, in the authorities and at the highest levels in government. They destroy collective organizing.

Henry: Camisea is a very sensitive issue in Peru. Negotiations of the contracts [with foreign companies] involved people prone to corruption. We are calling for transparency and for a renegotiation of the contracts. Another concern is the impact on the environment and on indigenous people – including those in voluntary isolation – in the territories through which the gas pipes will pass. Studies show that Peru’s oil and gas reserves are not due to last for many years. We need to find a new energy policy which looks to renewable energy for our future.

President Castillo is continuing with the policies of the past. He is not changing the foundations. He is for extractivism

The Amazon rainforest is an invaluable carbon sink and ‘the lungs of the world’, providing it is treated well. But if treated badly exploited, degraded, deforested, polluted, mined it contributes massively to global warming. Peru has the second largest part of the Amazonian rainforest after Brazil. How is Peru doing in terms of protecting it?

Henry: Protecting the forests of the Amazon is seen as the main part of the climate struggle. Combating misuse of forests and soils is crucial if Peru is to meet its emissions pledge, but figures for the past year show a big increase in deforestation – from 150,000 to 203,000 hectares. Only eight of the 62 proposed measures to reduce emissions relate to the protection of forests and soils. This is a problem because Peru should be putting most if its mitigation effort into protecting the Amazon and it is not doing so.

The other problem is that the state bodies that should be monitoring and protecting against deforestation and contamination do not have the resources to do so. Meanwhile, some 10 human-rights and environmental defenders have been killed in our country in the past year and the state has no policy to protect them. Last year Congress failed to ratify the Escazú Accord which would have given some protection. So, there is no integrated policy in the Amazon to protect forests, indigenous peoples and rivers too, which often get forgotten about.

Melania: Our sisters and brothers are losing their lives trying to defend nature. When we are attacked the government does not protect us. These killings are not punished by the justice system. The government only talks about protection, it does not do it. [Rather] it promotes cattle ranching in the forest. Often, it’s the authorities themselves that are involved in these dispossessions of territory.

The state has created a climate platform in which we, seven indigenous and peasant organizations, participate. But this platform has no power. It’s only to give an opinion. It guarantees no rights; it gives us no power to control or supervise.

What needs to happen?

Melania: First the people and groups need to be organized. That’s very important. Congress needs to ratify the Escazú Accord. We need a law that protects Mother Nature, respects its rights, in its integrity. That is what we want. The Ministry of Environment has to be given the clout it needs.

Henry: For years we have been calling for a social pact that includes recognition of the pluri-national nature of the country as well as the rights of nature. And to strengthen the environmental sector.

The earth is not producing as it used to. We notice a loss of seeds and our medicinal plants are disappearing

Should richer countries pay Peru to protect the Amazon and its biodiversity?

Melania: I’m not sure. Sometimes when people offer to pay it’s so that they can continue with their emissions, while we have to protect our forests. I think the industrialized countries need to change. They have to reduce their emissions. That is the issue. Sure, we need the forests. But they need to stop producing all the things that come from petrol which is doing so much harm. It’s not just about money. The important thing is to protect life.

Peruvian Armed Forces closely monitor the gas development.
Ministerio de Defensa del Perú/Flickr

Most of the greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere have been put there by more industrialized countries. Yet countries like Peru (responsible for just 0.3 per cent of emissions) are the most vulnerable to climate change. What form does this vulnerability take? What changes have you seen?

Melania: One of the main changes we have seen is the disappearance of glaciers; there is less water. The seasons are not the same; we see both drought and torrential rainfall. Some animals are disappearing. In the Andes, a frog which is important for biological control, is vanishing.

Climate change has affected our nutrition too. The earth is not producing as it used to. We notice a loss of seeds and also our medicinal plants are disappearing. And women are having to walk further to get water now.

Osver: We hope to have a forum in COP26 to talk about this theme of water as well as deforestation. Cities depend on glaciers. Lima draws increasingly on the water supply. The same applies to other coastal cities. We are going to have to start emigrating. Another concern is the loss of biodiversity. With climate change the Amazon will become a Savannah.

Indigenous Peoples are traditionally the ‘defenders of Nature’. There was some recognition of this by the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia. Do you think Peru’s new president, Pedro Castillo, will follow suit?

Melania: [Laughs] I don’t think so! I’ve never heard Pedro Castillo say that he’s indigenous. Is there consciousness of collective territory that has to be respected? No. President Castillo is continuing with the policies of the past. He is not changing the foundations. He is for extractivism. I don’t have much hope. And there is the pressure of economic interests on him...

Henry: Traditionally the Peruvian state has turned its back on indigenous people. It’s taken many years for there to be a bit of recognition, but not in terms of indigenous peoples having political rights as decision makers in their own development or being recognized as equals. That’s why we are calling for recognition of the pluri-national nature of the country. This is a discussion that needs to begin in Peru.

Do you think women have a special role to play in defending the environment?

Melania: Yes. We are the ones who transmit the wisdom, the knowledge, the science from one generation to the next. Men often leave the territory to look for work. Women stay in the territory, looking after it, protecting it. We do more of the farming. We cannot detach ourselves from territory. It’s like detaching yourself from life. Territory is life itself for us. Women also have a different sensibility towards all living things. It’s difficult to talk about this difference in sensibility between women and men.

What can activists in Peru and abroad do to help Peru’s environment and its defenders?

Henry: For several years we have been building a citizen’s movement on climate change. Young people play a very significant part in this, along with indigenous peoples. Information and its dissemination to a wider citizenship is very important.

We can mobilize for an environmental politics that does not just consult but includes civil society. It’s slow work. We are in the networks, in the alternative spaces, but it needs to be a discussion at national and international level.

Melania: It’s important that we articulate the defence of life. We indigenous women are organized, we are not servile, we are seeking rights. We have presented our project – the Law for the Rights of Mother Nature – and are mobilizing our struggles, the right to territory, continent-wide.

What is your message to world leaders, some of whom will be gathered at COP26 in Glasgow?

Melania: I would like to ask them to become fully conscious that Mother Nature needs protecting. That this protection is beneficial for all of us, not just indigenous peoples.

We [human beings] are destroying lives, not only the lives of persons but also of animals, of plants. I think that we are just travellers, passing through this life; we need to think about what is to come, for all the generations.

This interview was arranged and hosted by the Peru Support Group.