Amazon Uprising More Urgent Than Iran's: The Planet Depends on It

A Fight for the Amazon that Should Inspire the World

While the world nervously watches the uprising in Iran, an even more
important uprising has been passing unnoticed - yet its outcome will
shape your fate, and mine.

In the depths of the Amazon rainforest, the poorest people in the world have
taken on the richest people in the world to defend a part of the ecosystem
none of us can live without. They had nothing but wooden spears and moral
force to defeat the oil companies - and, for today, they have won.

Here's the story of how it happened - and how we all need to pick up this
fight. Earlier this year, Peru's right-wing President, Alan Garcia, sold the
rights to explore, log and drill 70 per cent of his country's swathe of the
Amazon to a slew of international oil companies. Garcia seems to see
rainforest as a waste of good resources, saying of the Amazon's trees: "There
are millions of hectares of timber there lying idle."

There was only one pesky flaw in Garcia's plan: the indigenous people who live
in the Amazon. They are the first people of the Americas, subject to wave
after wave of genocide since the arrival of the Conquistadors. They are
weak. They have no guns. They barely have electricity. The government didn't
bother to consult them: what are a bunch of Indians going to do anyway?

But the indigenous people have seen what has happened elsewhere in the Amazon
when the oil companies arrive. Occidental
Petroleum are facing charges in US courts of dumping an estimated nine
billion barrels of toxic waste in the regions of the Amazon where they
operated from 1972 to 2000. Andres Sandi Mucushua, the spiritual leader of
the area known to the oil companies as Block (12A)B, said in 2007: "My
people are sick and dying because of Oxy. The water in our streams is not
fit to drink and we can no longer eat the fish in our rivers or the animals
in our forests." The company denies liability, saying they are "aware
of no credible data of negative community health impacts".

In the Ecuadorian Amazon, according
to an independent report, toxic waste allegedly dumped after
Chevron-Texaco's drilling has been blamed by an independent scientific
investigation for 1,401 deaths
, mostly of children from cancer. When the
BBC investigator Greg Palast put these charges to Chevron's lawyer, he
replied: "And it's the only case of cancer in the world? How many cases
of children with cancer do you have in the States?... They have to prove
it's our crude, [which] is absolutely impossible."

The people of the Amazon do not want to see their forests felled and their
lands poisoned. And here, the need of the indigenous peoples to preserve
their habitat has collided with your need to preserve your habitat. The rainforests
inhale massive amounts of warming gases
and keep them stored away from
the atmosphere. Already, we are chopping them down so fast that it is
causing 25 per cent of man-made carbon emissions every year - more than
planes, trains and automobiles combined. But it is doubly destructive to cut
them down to get to fossil fuels, which then cook
the planet yet more
. Garcia's plan was to turn the Amazon from the
planet's air con into its fireplace.

Why is he doing this? He was responding to intense pressure from the US, whose
new Free Trade Pact requires this "opening up"
, and from the
International Monetary Fund, paid for by our taxes. In
Peru, it has also been alleged that the ruling party, APRA, is motivated by
oil bribes.
Some of Garcia's associates have been caught on tape talking
about how to sell off the Amazon to their cronies. The head of the
parliamentary committee investigating the affair, Rep. Daniel Abugattas,
says: "The government has been giving away our natural resources to the
lowest bidders. This has not benefited Peru, but the administration's

So the indigenous peoples acted in their own self-defence, and ours. Using
their own bodies and weapons made from wood, they blockaded the rivers and
roads to stop the oil companies getting anything in or out. They captured
two valves of Peru's sole pipeline between the country's gas field and the
coast, which could have led to fuel-rationing. Their leaders issued a
statement explaining: "We will fight together with our parents and
children to take care of the forest, to save the life of the equator and the
entire world."

Garcia responded by sending in the military. He declared a "state of
emergency" in the Amazon, suspending almost all constitutional rights. Army
helicopters opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition and
stun-grenades. More than a dozen were killed. But the indigenous peoples
did not run away. Even though they were risking their lives, they stood
their ground. One of their leaders, Davi Yanomami, said simply: "The
earth has no price. It cannot be bought, or sold or exchanged. It is very
important that white people, black people and indigenous peoples fight
together to save the life of the forest and the earth. If we don't fight
together, what will our future be?"

And then something extraordinary happened. The indigenous peoples won. The
Peruvian Congress repealed the laws that allowed oil company drilling, by a
margin of 82 votes to 12. Garcia was forced to apologise for his "serious
errors and exaggerations". The protesters have celebrated and returned
to their homes deep in the Amazon.

Of course, the oil companies will regroup and return - but this is an
inspirational victory for the forces of sanity that will be hard to reverse.

Human beings need to make far more decisions like this: to leave fossil fuels
in the ground, and to leave rainforests standing. In microcosm, this rumble
in the jungle is the fight we all face now. Will we allow a small number of
rich people to make a short-term profit from seizing and burning resources,
at the expense of our collective ability to survive?

If this sounds like hyperbole, listen to Professor Jim Hansen, the world's
leading climatologist, whose predictions have consistently turned out to be
correct. He says: "Clearly,
if we burn all fossil fuels, we will destroy the planet we know
. We
would set the planet on a course to the ice-free state, with a sea level 75
metres higher. Coastal disasters would occur continually. The only
uncertainty is the time it would take for complete ice sheet disintegration."

Of course, fossil fools will argue that the only alternative to burning up our
remaining oil and gas supplies is for us all to live like the indigenous
peoples in the Amazon. But next door to Peru, you can see a very different,
environmentally sane model to lift up the poor emerging - if only we will
grasp it.

Ecuador is a poor country with large oil resources underneath its rainforests
- but
its president, Rafael Correa, is offering us the opposite of Garcia's plan.

He has announced that he is willing to leave his country's largest oil
reserve under the soil, if the rest of the world will match the $9.2bn in
revenues it would provide.

If we don't start reaching for these alternatives, we will render this month's
victory in the Amazon meaningless. The Hadley Centre in Exeter, one of the
most sophisticated scientific centres for studying the impacts of global
warming, has warned that if we carry on belching out greenhouse gases at the
current rate, the humid Amazon will dry up and burn down - and soon.

study earlier this year explained
: "The Amazonian rainforest is
likely to suffer catastrophic damage even with the lowest temperature rises
forecast under climate change. Up to 40 per cent of the rainforest will be
lost if temperature rises are restricted to C, which most climatologists
regard as the least that can be expected by 2050. A 3C rise is likely to
result in 75 per cent of the forest disappearing while a 4C rise, regarded
as the most likely increase this century unless greenhouse gas emissions are
slashed, will kill off 85 per cent of the forest." That would send
gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere - making the world even more

There is something thrilling about the fight in the Amazon, yet also something
shaming. These people had nothing, but they stood up to the oil companies.
We have everything, yet too many of us sit limp and passive, filling up our
tanks with stolen oil without a thought for tomorrow. The people of the
Amazon have shown they are up for the fight to save our ecosystem. Are we?

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