‘Protecting forests is crucial to cure pandemics,’ indigenous leaders say

Levi Sucre Romero, BriBri indigenous person from Costa Rica and the Coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB). Photo of Joel Redman/If Not Us Then, used with permission.

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19

Indigenous leaders from Costa Rica, Brazil, and Indonesia who recently attended a conference in the United States have said that pandemics like COVID-19 will become increasingly common if forests are not preserved.

The leaders gave a press briefing in New York on March 13 organized by Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative co-founded by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation

At least a quarter of medicine molecules derive from plants; 80 percent of people worldwide rely on botanical drugs, and biodiversity is crucial to finding new medicine. Yet, deforestation in the world's most biodiverse forests is advancing fast.

A growing body of scientific research suggests that indigenous peoples are key to protect forests, but those peoples are increasingly victimized by violent land conflict. In Costa Rica alone, two Bribri leaders have been killed in the past 12 months and so far no one has been prosecuted.

At the press briefing, the leaders also blamed large multinationals such as Cargill and Unilever for not respecting their land rights.

To find out more, I interviewed Levi Sucre Romero, from the Bribri community in Costa Rica and leader of the Coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB). The interview has been translated and edited for brevity.

Melissa Vida (MV): What's the link between COVID-19 and our way of life?

Levi Sucre Romero (LSR): Reading about the origins of the coronavirus, we can see that human activities have invaded and reduced the space available for animals. Not only has it been reduced, but we are in such a predatory development model that humans are encroaching their space too much – that is what is happening with the soybean plans in the Amazon forest. All these animals are gathering in one place… and who knows what effects pollution and chemicals have on these species, which are vulnerable. It's a mismanagement of our so-called development.

MV: How can we recover from COVID-19?

 LSR: The coronavirus, like the other pandemics that will increasingly occur, is a consequence of our planet's imbalance. There will be many other pandemics, such as the “fungus disease from Panama”, likely to attack all our banana production and have enormous consequences on our communities.

What is the alternative? Variety and diversification, but it is unlikely to happen because the market is concentrated on a single product. Diversifying is key and our traditional indigenous farms have medicine and all kinds of products. And I've been thinking: we in the indigenous territories can still sustain ourselves even when cities fall. We are returning to our capacities of self-sustainability.

Woman and child from the Rama Indian River community in Nicaragua, petting a wild boar. Photo by Melissa Vida, used with permission.

MV: So hope can be found in the forest?

LSR: Yes, but when the forests are cut down, where are we going to get medicine? We have said it over and over again but… So far decision makers haven't paid much attention to us. Imagine, countries have actually increased their number of mega-projects and monocultures, which accelerate deforestation, to fix their budget [by making profit]. They're going backwards.

MV: Do pharmaceutical companies come to see you for medicine?

LSR: That's another angle. We have always said that our knowledge is available for anyone wishing to help cure diseases created because of climate change, but we have never said: “Come exploit us, come and steal everything we have.” I find it hard to understand that economic powers can be so blind to certain things. Whenever they see an opportunity to plunder and make money, well, they'll do it. That is what we have always denounced, we must be careful [with these companies].

MV: Why isn't Costa Rica listening, according to you?

LSR: I believe that Costa Rica is a reflection of what is happening regionally: The governments have not been able to understand that the communities — that is, the people, the indigenous people, those of us who live with the forest — are a key factor in the protection of those resources and a key factor of human survival. Politicians just do not understand.

MV: Why has deforestation accelerated in Central America in the past ten years?

LSR: First, the economic situations in our countries are dire and big companies use that argument to say, “We are going to plant a monoculture and we are going to give you a job.” People think that that is [economic development], but it isn’t. They are taking advantage of the poor economic situation of rural people. Second, the legislation and enforcement of laws [to protect forests and our rights] are really weak in the region. Third, drug-trafficking is growing in the region, they are using our forests. Fourth, and that is my personal opinion, Central American countries are more focused on solving their budget deficit than on protecting the forests. They are more concerned about their revenues, about their taxes, about foreign investment.

Woman and child from the Rama Indian River community in Nicaragua. Photo by Melissa Vida, used with permission.

MV: So maybe the Coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to think differently?

LSR: I do not see it as an opportunity, I see it as what we have been saying for a long time to the world and to politicians and which is evident today: we must take care of the forest, we must have our own development system, we must not accept these mega-projects… we have been saying this for years and nobody listens to us.

So, I believe that when pandemics like this happen, politicians may think to themselves: “These people are right”. We know what we are talking about. This is knowledge that has been passed down ancestrally and we know that any type of imbalance ends up deteriorating everything. The Earth is a living being like us. When she becomes unbalanced, there are consequences, and we are living them now.

MV: What gives you hope?

LSR: The fact that we, as indigenous peoples, are increasingly organized. We are gaining more and more knowledge. We have more communication tools. Also, we have successful experiences in the region, like in forest management, in organic production, in solar panels managed by women. We are returning to our roots, to our indigenous cultural knowledge in order to survive. Because now it is about survival.

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