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Indigenous Voices Amplify Urgency for Amazon Protection
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Nina Gualinga and young Indigenous leaders share their experience on the frontlines of environmental activism at COP27

On November 9, indigenous activist and climate advocate from the Kichwa People of Sarayaku, Nina Gualinga took the centerstage to deliver her keynote speech, ‘Living Forest: Kichwa People of Sarayaku, Amazon Basin Ecuador,’ as part of Impact One’s Possible Futures programming at COP27. In a powerful statement, she emphasised the rampant exploitation of Indigenous lands, highlighting the catastrophic consequences for the Amazon's environment and its Indigenous communities. She urged Western societies to confront the destructive impacts of global extractive industries and to champion symbiotic approaches to development, infrastructure, and construction in these regions.

Emphasising the critical role of Indigenous communities in preserving the Amazon, Gualinga underscored the urgent need to protect Indigenous territories, a vital strategy for mitigating the destruction of natural habitats. Based on a report by MapBiomas, out of the 69 million hectares or 170 million acres of native vegetation lost in Brazil within the last 30 years, approximately 70 percent of this loss occurred on private land, while merely 1.6 percent occurred within Indigenous territories.

We have different value systems and understandings of what development means, what wellbeing means; in my community it means fertile soil, it means clean water, fresh air and it means the solidarity of our people. – Nina Gualinga

This data exposes the vital role of Indigenous communities in mitigating Amazon deforestation, and highlights the crucial significance of protecting Indigenous lands as a key strategy for slowing the degradation of natural habitats. And yet, despite their vital contributions to environmental preservation, Indigenous communities continue to bear the brunt of climate change and systemic inequality—a global predicament that must be collectively transformed.

Following her keynote speech, Nina Gualinga invited Shirley Djukurna Krenak, member of the Brazilian Krenak community, and a leading activist for Indigenous voices within the climate movement to the stage to speak. She highlighted the dangers of an individualistic approach that solely focuses on specific biomes within the Amazon and explained the interconnectedness of all biomes, stressing the urgent need for collective action. She concluded her statement by honouring the role of youth and grassroots knowledge in driving sustainable practices and called for a shift towards recognizing and respecting the contributions of all biomes and their Indigenous communities worldwide.

Honouring the words of Shirley Djukurna Krenak who praised the youth for their contribution to the fight against climate change, the event concluded with a panel of young Indigenous leaders, curated and moderated by Nina Gualinga. Titled Indigenous Youth: Collective Actions For Our Future, the panel included activist and Indigenous rights defender from the Kichwa community Leo Cerda, visionary young Yawanawa Leader Isku Kua, Kichwa activist and defender Alexis Grefa, Indigenous advocate from the Kichwa community Maria Jose Andrade, and activist from the Terena community Taily Terena. The group shared their individual experiences on the front-lines of environmental activism, and collectively, as a generation inheriting the cost of extractive industry dependence and ideological polarisation in the face of destruction. Their voices ultimately conveyed a message of resilience and determination in preserving their cultural heritage.

Taily Terena underscored the importance of respecting the wisdom of their elders in preserving their ancestral legacy.

Yes, we are living in the city, yes we are going to university, yes we are going outside to work, but this doesn’t mean that we are losing our identity. It’s actually the opposite, we are getting stronger. Because when we understand who we are, it is not upon the other to decide it. — Taily Terena

This new generation of committed and inspiring Indigenous youth leaders is paving the way for systemic change and greater decision-making power for their communities on a global scale. Faced with the enormous responsibility of protecting their territory, encompassing forests, and biodiversity, as well as preserving their communities' ancient knowledge, cultures, and languages, the panel showcased how Indigenous youths are embracing their cultural identities in the midst of the climate crisis. They assume leadership roles and drive the fight for rights, inclusion, and solutions. Isku Kua provided insight into their community's approach to development, underlining their commitment to blending traditional knowledge with modern systems to ensure sustainable growth within their territories.

The panel culminated in a demonstration of cultural heritage as Yawanawa representatives, comprising both elders and youth, led traditional ceremonies, featuring indigenous music and chants.

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