The people of the lush tropical rainforests of Panama and Brazil possess age-old wisdom to protect the Earth and these secrets must be harnessed to save the planet, say two women who call the areas home.
Sara Omi of the Embera people in Panama and Cristiane Juliao of the Pankararu people in Brazil are at Cop28 with a common goal: to ensure the world’s indigenous people have a presence in climate negotiations and in the distribution of funds to protect the environment.
Ms Omi is her community’s first lawyer and Ms Juliao is the first among her people to study for a doctorate.
Both have launched battles from within their villages to protect their heritage, gain title rights over ancestral land and also protect women from discrimination and violence.
In their largely patriarchal societies, the women have taken on leadership roles and want to connect their communities with the outside world to be part of climate solutions and conservation efforts.
“Our people have done the work to protect Mother Earth for thousands of years. I want to raise the call so people listen to our experiences,” said Ms Omi.
“This is our truth. Ancestral knowledge transferred by grandparents to young people has immense value.
“That is work our women are doing – recovering information from the elders to regenerate the land, to keep the forests alive.
“We also have genuine solutions in ancestral medicine. We must join forces to save our people and save the planet.”
The UN estimates that there are more than 370 million indigenous people in the world across 5,000 cultures who speak more than 4,000 languages.
They share common challenges of deforestation, land rights abuses and illegal exploitation of territories rich in minerals.
Protecting a way of life
Ms Omi is among many indigenous people keen to show how they can contribute with their wealth of knowledge on sustainable land management to preserve forests, reduce erosion, conserve water and build soil nutrients.
She heads several national and international alliances and was recognised by Forbes as one of the 100 most powerful women in Central America for her role in defending territorial rights and the rights of women.
In an interview with The National, Ms Omi spoke of wanting to protect the way of life of the 600 people of the Ipeti Embera community in eastern Panama.
She lives by a river in a cluster of wooden and thatched-leaf roofed homes raised on stilts – a symbol of how her grandparents’ generation attempted to resist their age-old village being taken over for a hydroelectric project in the 1970s.
“Each of the trunks of wood represents a member of my family and is a symbol of their resistance,” said the 37-year-old lawyer, whose face lights up when she speaks of mi casa, “my home”.
“It shows how they took care of the community and reminds us how despite their fight, my grandparents were forced to move out of our ancestors’ home.
“My grandparents tell me it was really sad to see water cover their sacred territory.”
There was irrevocable damage done as families split up, with many settling in a forest less than an hour away from their old homes.
“Despite our crisis and the crisis with climate change, we live in harmony with nature,” she said.
As a lawyer, Ms Omi has dedicated her life to protecting her tribal the territory – the local land is a hotspot for land grabbers and illegal mining.
She makes it clear that most times, indigenous people have not given their consent to land takeovers and received no money.
“All the time we hear about development, development,” she said.
“We are on the other side and receive all the bad consequences of that development, like how my grandparents suffered.
“Development has not come to our territory.
“There is still no recognition of our rights or any understanding that our traditions are the solutions for the climate crisis we are facing.”
Ms Omi is following in her mother’s footsteps in challenging deeply entrenched patriarchal traditions to take on senior community roles usually reserved for men.
“I resist violations against women inside and outside my community,” she said.
“My mother was the first traditional woman who broke barriers.
“I’ve heard the same words – that women cannot lead and should not be in high positions.
“I work with climate change and on violence against women.
“When I see a new tragedy, I go to work.
“It is important women know our rights and we reclaim our voices.”
Guardians of the forest
Indigenous people make up about 5 per cent of the world’s population but constitute 15 per cent of the world’s poor, according to the UN.
Industry and non-government groups often pledge finance to fight global deforestation but this rarely reaches people who live in the forest.
Indigenous groups are asking for direct funding to support sustainable projects and that these lessons can then be used globally.
Ms Juliao represents the Pankararu people who live in the forests of north-eastern Brazil.
She lives with her siblings in their parents’ house in Brejo dos Padres village and is studying for a doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Rio de Janeiro.
“There are always people saying the region is inhospitable and filled with misery,” she said.
“We face so many issues of deforestation, mining, garbage and lack of hygienic conditions.
“Our people lack access to education, nutrition and then we have the climate crisis to battle.”
Both Ms Juliao and Ms Omi are part of the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities, which represents 24 nations at Cop28.
“We are chosen to conserve the earth,” said the 45-year-old, who wore hand-carved jewellery made by indigenous women.
“But we are always colliding with political systems that created these issues.
“My ambition is to give visibility to what our people can do because we are the guardians of the forest.”
Ms Juliao stressed the importance of coexistence.
“Our forests hold genuine magic because we connect with fauna, flowers,” she said of the 8,000 Pankararu people.
“We need to connect with our spirituality but degradation of land destroys this.
“Our people can teach how to take care of plants, trees, the water.
“We can fight this [climate change] together.”