BELÉM, Brazil - A human banner made up of more than 1,000 people, seen and photographed from the air, sent the message "SOS Amazon" to the world, in the first action taken by indigenous people hours before the opening in northern Brazil on Tuesday of the 2009 World Social Forum (WSF).
The mass message reflects "our concern about global warming, whose impact we will be the first to feel, although we, the peoples of the Amazon, have protected and cared for the forests," Francisco Avelino Batista, an Apurinán Indian from the Purus river valley in the Brazilian Amazon, told IPS.
"We are raising our voices as a wake-up call to the world, especially the rich countries that are hastening its destruction," said Edmundo Omoré, a member of the Xavante indigenous community from the west-central state of Mato Grosso on the border between the Amazon region and the Cerrado, a vast savannah region in the center of the country.
Both men belong to the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), which joined the Quito-based Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) to create their "message from the heart of the Amazon."
Nearly 1,300 indigenous people from about 50 countries, although mainly from Brazil, plan to raise the issues of their rights as original peoples and environmental preservation at this year's edition of the WSF, which runs through Sunday in Belém, a city of 1.4 million people and the northeastern gateway to the Amazon.
Indigenous people have participated in the WSF in previous years, but this time a much larger presence was sought. The aim was for 2,000 to take part, but transport costs and financial difficulties prevented many participants from coming from other countries and from remote areas within Brazil itself.
In addition to indigenous groups, original peoples at the WSF include Quilombolas (members of communities of Afro-Brazilian descendants of escaped slaves) and other native peoples.
The key location chosen for the WSF, and the various global crises that are occurring, have created "a special moment" for original peoples to take a leading role, according to Roberto Espinoza, an adviser to the Andean Coordination of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI).
"A crisis of civilization" is under way, said Espinoza, who described the serious economic, energy and food problems, as well as climate change, as part of the same phenomenon.
In this situation, indigenous people should have political participation as of right, not "as folklore or as a merely cultural contribution," Espinoza, one of the coordinators of the indigenous peoples' presence at the WSF, told IPS.
The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, approved by the United Nations General Assembly, is of paramount importance here, he said. It should not be seen as a "utopian" document; rather, its provisions should be binding, like those of the International Labor Organization's Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples.
Espinoza said he hoped this WSF would produce an agreement for global demonstrations similar to those held in 2003 against the United States' invasion of Iraq.
This time around, the goal would be to mobilise "in defence of Mother Earth and against the commercialization of life," added to specific causes championed by each nation, such as the fight against hydroelectric power stations in Brazil that flood vast areas of Amazon rainforest and displace riverbank dwellers, he said.
The voices of indigenous people are bound to have a greater impact on environmental matters when "the risk of catastrophic climate change in the near future and disputes over natural resources are threatening the survival not only of indigenous peoples, but of humanity itself," Espinoza said.
Indigenous and environmental issues will be even more visible on Wednesday, which is to be dedicated entirely to the Amazon region in an attempt to revitalize the PanAmazon Social Forum, inactive since 2005.
Launching a campaign led by the peoples of the Amazon, who "want a society that values them and understands the value that the land has for them," is a proposal for discussion at the WSF, according to Miquelina Machado, a COIAB leader belonging to the Tukano ethnic group.
This is necessary for "a greater balance with nature," at a time when Brazil's plans for economic growth and the physical integration of South America are fueling projects which have "strong negative impacts on the Amazon and Andean regions," she told IPS.
"The hydroelectric dams flood the land and destroy biodiversity," she said, while lamenting the fact that attempts to block the building of highways, that cause immense deforestation, have been frustrated in the courts, "which have more power."
The presence at the WSF of presidents of Amazon region countries like Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, as well as Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, should increase the impact of the event, hopefully benefiting the peoples of the Amazon, Machado concluded.
Indigenous peoples' voices should be heard, because "we are the ones who were born and raised in the middle of the forest, and who lead a lifestyle that contrasts with the ambition of capitalism, which does not bring benefits to all," said Omoré.
Furthermore, "we are the first to suffer the effects" of climate change. Rich people can cool themselves down with air conditioners and buy food in supermarkets, but "we depend on the fish in the river and the animals in the forest, so we are concerned about the future that belongs to everyone," added Batista.