Mountains of gold, rivers of mercury: Poisoning of Guiana and the French Amazon
The IUCN World Conservation Congress taking place in the southern French city of Marseille this week hightlights the urgency for action in protecting the planet's biodiversity and natural habitats. RFI speaks to Claudette Labonté, indigenous rights activist from French Guiana about Covid, illegal gold mining and the poisoning of French Amazonia's rivers.
The global environment conference being held in Marseille, after a year-long delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, kicked off last weekend with much pagentry by President Emmanuel Macron, with opening panels featuring such notable figures as ECB president Christine Lagarde and film-legend-turned-activist, Harrison Ford.
France has positioned itself as the vanguard in the fight against global warming, following the COP21 Paris Climate agreement signed in 2015. However, since then, the French government has been found guilty of failing to cut carbon emmissions in line with its own targets.
Although the French state was only fined a symbolic €1, it has become clear that France has a lot of work in convincing the world that its heart is still in the fight to keep global warming below the +1.5°Celsius that it brokered and signed-up to six years ago.
In a recent article published in France's left-leaning daily, Libération, Claudette Labonté, President of the Palikur Federation of Guiana - an indigenous rights organisation and member of the COICA umbrella group that represents the natives of 9 nations in South America - claimed France is destroying the Amazon and its biodiversity with the help of European subsidies.
Although people are more aware of the rhertoric of Brazil's populist President, Jair Bolsonaro, and his disregard for the rights of the indigenous Brazilians, Labonté has highlighted the failures of the Paris government towards the indigenous Guianese in French Amazonia.
French administration and indigenous people
But can we really compare the policies of Paris and Brasilia in the same context when it comes to indigenous rights?
Yes and no, Labonté told RFI: "The French government has supported, through emergency funds, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. So Paris has helped us and COICA, which represents nine countries including French Guiana.
"But what happened - and nobody knows about it - is that the French government still asked for the indigenous peoples of French Guiana to withdraw from the country.
"So, we couldn't benefit from these funds and we needed them in French Guiana, since illegal gold mining was increasing enormously with Covid-19. It was absolutely necessary to supply the villages. It was absolutely necessary to give care kits to villages which were very isolated.
"And that was not the case. The French government took it away from us and Paris knows it.
"Illegal gold mining is ravaging all the rivers that border French Guiana. So, if we look at the level of [support for] French Guiana, there is a lot of work to be done. Before going to help the indigenous peoples of Brazil or other countries, the French government must first acknowledge its responsibility to the indigenous peoples [under French juristiction] who are turning against it."
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Covid-19 and Amazon lifestyles
The impact of Covid-19 on indigenous peoples was huge, especially when trying to communicate the sanitary protocols required to combat the pandemic in local languages. Traditional lifestyles were turned upside down - it is extremely difficult to self-isolate when you live in a remote, native Amazonian community.
Labonté explains: "When the first villages were affected by Covid, we could predict that this was something that was going to hit us hard. We have our culture, our knowledge... then the masks came, the hand etiquette came... and we were scared.
"In first village that was affected, it created a cluster. Then it arrived in a second village, then a third village, despite the warnings in our native languages.
"But in practical life, we were looking at a complete change of lifestyle. We insisted that information on dealing with the disease be given by natives who work directly in health, who work in the villages, to be able to communicate and warn people what will happen.
"This was not done at the beginning, so many villages were contaminated."
"At that time, people called for help from the Indigenous Council and native leaders so that we could get the message across correctly.
"We did the work because it was our people who were affected. But we have reached a point of no return. Who can native people call upon when they need help?
"We are never consulted - we are just listened to, but never heard," Labonté adds.
Today, María Cristina Feliciano (@alianzabosques), Claudette Labonté (@coicaorg) and Fany Kuiru (@OPIAC_Amazonia) are visiting Cerro Azul, a place full of #indigenous history. They are meeting to strengthen the coalition of indigenous women that protect #Earth. Follow them. pic.twitter.com/Woekaco4np— Guardians of the Forest (@GuardianesBos) March 10, 2021
The scourge of illegal gold mining in French Guiana
French Guiana has been a black spot for illegal gold panning for decades, that has led to mercury poisoning among the native population and contaminated rivers.
Labonté underlines that scientists have been asked to raise the issue of the scourge with the French state - as France has done the research - but the indigenous communities never get any feedback.
According to the activist, with this research, indigenous people could have moved things forward or filed a formal complaint: "We're dealing with fundamental human rights here," she says.
With the arrival of Covid, illegal gold mining increased three-fold in the French Amazon: "It has tripled in French Guiana and some villagers were even going to take up arms to combat the scourge. But the government took over the case, with Operation Harpie," she recounts.
"We get a lot of feedback from families who are forced to drink water that is completely white or green and make themselves sick because they have no choice.
"They eat fish that is completely contaminated with mercury or drink water that is untreated. That's the reality of things. And in addition to that, health care and aid doesn't reach all the villages," she adds.
Expectations from Marseille
There is however some hope on the horizon, that indigenous voices will be heard. At the World Conservation Congress taking place in Marseille this week, representatives of indigenous peoples have come to the table armed with voting rights for the first time. And there are hopes the indigenous participants will leave France this weekend with something tangible in hand for the protection of biodiversity and the future of the inhabitants of the Amazon.
So what does Claudette Labonté expect to walk away with from this conference once is wraps up?
"Through COICA," she says "French Guiana is represented at an international level, so this gives us a platform to denounce what is happening in our country.
"We strongly support COICA because the problems that we have in Guiana are the same as the eight other countries within the organisation. But they have it much worse, because their leaders - the people who protect this forest - are being killed.
"This is why we have put forward a motion - "Motion 80x25" to protect the Amazon before 2025. Why are we doing this? Because it is now that it is most threatened, not yesterday," Labonté points out.
The Amazon has been under threat for decades, and its native inhabitants can't wait until 2030 for concrete action to be taken.
"We hope to have something concrete to work with - a plan with an agenda - to begin REAL work.
Labonté muses that participants get a lot of feedback, using beautiful words, but nothing concrete.
"We also hope that the European Union will take up the fight, as it also affects human rights. So that's the goal," Labonté concludes.
The closing ceremeony of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille takes place this Friday evening.
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