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Amazon Rainforest: The Legal Battlefield for Land Ownership and Land Use Rights

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Lily Wong Americas Dec 8th 20225 mins
Amazon Rainforest: The Legal Battlefield for Land Ownership and Land Use Rights
Land ownership has always been a sensitive issue in the Amazon rainforest because of what the term entails – a persistent tension between the government and Indigenous people that is almost unresolvable within the system of capitalist exploitation. The struggles between economic and cultural interests are found all over the rainforest, from conflict to cooperation, from destruction to rebuilding, and they are still ongoing to this present day with no end in sight. As South American governments accelerate the speed of destructive economic projects in the rainforest, claiming legal rights becomes the only way for Indigenous tribes to protect their culture and homeland.

The Amazon rainforest has long been a place of struggle for its inhabitants over the issue of land use and ownership. For the government, the rainforest represents a great potential to drive the country’s economic development through mining and setting up plantation sites in hopes of overturning the battered fate history it has dealt with through the impacts of colonialism and civil conflicts. Yet, for the indigenous tribes, the rainforest has been their home since thousands of years ago – it is the place where families and societies are formed and held together by cultural practices that are passed on to the next generations to inform their individual and connective identities. 

The strained relationship between indigenous tribes and the governments is further complicated by the fact that the Amazon plays a crucial role in regulating global carbon emissions while containing the largest pool of plant and animal species in the world. Thus, the management of the Amazon rainforest encompasses economic, cultural, and ecological aspects whose influences go beyond the local scale to affect the climates and ecosystems all over the world. It is a problem that might at times feel too complex to resolve. 

Land Ownership; amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest has the largest collection of plant and animal species in the world

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Over the years, indigenous tribes have been fighting for their legal ownership of the forest land which was theirs before the formation of nations and governments. The Cofán of Sinangoe is an example of such a challenging battle that has ultimately won them the legal sovereignty of their homeland. The Sinangoe is a community made up of 52 families residing in the west of the greater A’I Cofán territory where they fish, farm, and hunt on the banks of the Aguarico River. In 2018, the top court in Ecuador remarkably ruled in favour of the Sinangoe to block development projects in their territory. As of February this year, the constitutional court suspended 52 gold mining concessions granted across 32,000 hectares of their land for up to 30 years. Upon being given the right to approve or reject major extractive projects, the Sinangoe has now suspended all mining activities in their territories after a series of legal victories. Previously, the richness of oil and minerals in the rainforest has attracted endless development projects to the area as initiated or promoted by the South American governments.

According to a new study, the rate of deforestation significantly decreased by two-thirds in places where Indigenous people are granted full ownership rights as found in the Brazilian Amazon. The principle here is that Indigenous people possess precious knowledge and experience that is passed down from generation to generation to live sustainably while being respectful of nature. Thus, Indigenous cultures are closely linked to resource management that upholds and preserves biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem in the rainforest. 

On the border between Venezuela and Brazil, the Yanomami have similarly witnessed an influx of illegal miners in the past that brought about violence and pollution in the area. In 1992, after a series of protests, the government finally granted 94,000 square kilometres of territory to the group. This year, the Yanomami celebrated the 30th anniversary of their territorial demarcation, showing once again the power of perseverance and determination in the face of imminent danger and threat to one’s homeland.  

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Yet, under the governing of the current and last Brazilian President, no new land has been demarcated for Indigenous use. There were even attempts to revive deforestation projects by revoking Indigenous rights to protect their territory through the Ministry of Agriculture, which is keen on expanding economic activities in the rainforest. What is shocking to most people is that global financiers like HSBC, JP Morgan, and Barclays were alleged of having supported deforestation in Brazil through funding and stocking products from the largest Brazilian meat processing company JBS. Meanwhile, international companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla were accused of using illegally mined gold in their products, either consciously or unconsciously, as imported from Chimet and Marsam which are currently under investigation by Brazilian authorities. In the past decade, illegal mining in the Amazon has increased drastically with a growth rate of 495% in 2021. Mining activity is not only blamed for accelerating the rate of deforestation, but it is also a cause of mercury poison in water which can seriously threaten the lives of Indigenous people. 

Despite the seemingly urgent need of the government to promote economic development through the cheapest and fastest means possible, it remains senseless to argue over the environmental and cultural damage caused by agricultural and mining activities in the Amazon rainforest in the long term, whose consequences are already surfacing in present times. At this point, a solution that is favourable to all parties seems nearly impossible to reach due to an overwhelming sum of conflicting interests and values. Nonetheless, to those who strive to seek balance in an unbalanced power dynamic, the only way to realize their goal is through rigorous setbacks and struggles as proven by the many Indigenous tribes who have successfully overturned the destructive and often illegal human activities in the rainforest. Such victories can ultimately serve as an example for other tribal communities from across the Amazon as they continue to battle against corporate invasions to the very soil they call home.

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