Press Release
At Briefing in Panama City, Nation’s Indigenous Leaders Respond to Signs UN REDD will Respond to Demand for Key Role in Climate Change Program

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA (7 JUNE 2013)— Independent United Nations investigators announced today at a briefing that officials with a global climate change program should correct their strategy in Panama, and work more directly with indigenous leaders in devising ways of protecting the nation’s forests, according to briefing participants. Birgitte Feiring and Eduardo Abbott spoke at the close of a week-long investigation into complaints by the Republic of Panama’s seven indigenous nations that they had been unfairly sidelined from the UN program designed to slow climate change by preventing the destruction of the world’s most vulnerable forests.    

"This report demonstrates that UN REDD is a program with problems, and that it has been rejected with reason by indigenous peoples. It makes clear that in the future, there must be a system in place that allows for the comprehensive, effective, and meaningful participation of indigenous peoples, in accordance with the rules and laws that protect our rights." said Betanio Chiquidama, president of the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP) and cacique (or chief) of a reserve that is home to more than 33,000 people in the eastern end of the country. 

He added: "If the world is serious about protecting the world's remaining forests in order to slow climate change, then they will indeed want to work with the people who are the best managers of those forests. We respect UN REDD's speedy response to our call for help, and we have great hope that the agency will act on the recommendations of its observers.”

UN REDD initiated the investigation in April, following COONAPIP’s announcement in March that it was pulling out of the national REDD program in Panama. According to the UN REDD website, the goal of the investigation was threefold: to investigate COONAPIP’s complaints against the national UN REDD program; to assess the implementation of the national program; and to provide guidance and recommendations for future implementation of national program and action that should be taken to address COONAPIP's concerns.

COONAPIP’s complaint marked the first major test of a key provision of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which says indigenous people have the right to refuse projects and investments that affect their natural resources. COONAPIP blamed the program for excluding them from full participation in REDD planning activities in Panama, and failing to guarantee that their rights would be respected.

“When it comes to the forests of Panama, we are not mere stakeholders to be consulted,” said Chiquidama. “More than half the country’s forests are on the lands of indigenous people in Panama. How can an effective plan to save these forests be negotiated if the indigenous leaders are not at the table?”

Susan Kandel, Coordinator (Pro tempore) of the Salvadoran Program for Research on Development and Environment (PRISMA), a Central American NGO engaged in research and dialogue, recently completed a study on the impact of REDD in Panama. Its findings echo the UN investigators’ findings.

“Our research suggests that despite the development of laudable principles for safeguarding the rights of indigenous people and forest communities in the UN-REDD Program, there are very few concrete measures that have been put into place that would ensure that these safeguards would actually be respected,” Kandel said. “The absence of such measures turned out to be critical in Panama, and we hope that this experience can help REDD processes correct this critical flaw.”

Launched in 2005 as part of a global treaty aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, UN REDD is the first international effort to combat climate change by slowing the destruction of forests. As implementation efforts intensify, however, indigenous people in tropical forest nations have begun to speak up. Citing a combination of national and international laws, as well as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, they are calling for greater attention to the needs of their people, and to the wisdom collected over centuries for how best to manage and live off the forests without destroying them.

“Panama’s indigenous people have demonstrated their critical role in defending Panama´s forests from external pressures,” said PRISMA’s Andrew Davis, a co-author of the study, Indigenous Peoples and Governance in the REDD+ Readiness Process in Panama: A case study on COONAPIP, UN-REDD and ANAM.
“A similar statement could be made for the Central America´s remaining forests, which are also mostly found on indigenous and collectively managed territories. These communities are under growing pressure from agroindustry, infrastructure, and extractive industry—and are currently in search of ways to defend their rights and keep their forests intact.”
The National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples in Panama (COONAPIP) is an organization representing the 12 leaders of the councils that represent the nation’s seven indigenous peoples—the Ngäbe, Kuna, Emberá, Buglé, Wounaan, Naso Tjerdi (Teribe), and Bri Bri groups. COONAPIP has a mandate from the 12 leaders to unite indigenous people under one national agenda, and the legitimacy to present demands and proposals at the national and international levels.
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