Benny Wanda, Jean Wyllys, Julie Wark – Manifesto For a Rainforest Defenders International

The ‘Green state vision’ for West Papua could be the basis for a real rainforest international, based not on states and corporations but on peoples

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Picture by Jo

Why a manifesto?

In the terrible state it’s now in, planet Earth is screaming out for a movement from small to big, but not in the usual sense of the small begging the big (= powerful) for help because the big powers are hellbent on making matters worse. We mean big in terms of everyone coming together to fix this disaster: Indigenous rainforest communities, sinking islands like Tuvalu, occupied countries like West Papua, and millions upon millions of individuals, young and old, who all share the same concerns and fears. This planet is ours and “ours” includes all species. It’s not the private property of the powers that are ravaging it with a global economic system that has produced “its own grave-diggers”.

It began a long time ago. For capitalism to exist, beliefs linking people to animals, soil, sun, stars, moon, seas, rivers, and rocks had to be destroyed. It also required a separation of humans and the animals they exploit. Today, contempt for animals and their habitat is at the core of the global system that has caused the climate crisis. In their sterile, high-rise (literally away from the earth), airconditioned offices with fake exotic plants, the people who are making decisions about the fate of the planet are also the most alienated from nature, most responsible for the attacks on nature. In 1932, eleven angry Francophone authors wrote that the powers-that-be, knowing “their days to be numbered and reading the doom of the system in the world crisis … rely more than ever on their traditional methods of slaughter to enforce their tyranny”. It’s still happening.

Where’s the solution?

It’s not with the big powers. It could come from one of the Earth’s most castigated nations, the occupied country of West Papua, with the Green State Vision of its government-in-waiting, a statement of intention that spells out how “to restore, promote and maintain balance and harmony, amongst human and non-human beings, based on reciprocity and respect toward all beings”. The West Papuan people, in the direst of circumstances after more than half a century of Indonesian military occupation, violent repression, and out-and-out genocide have managed to organise a government-in-waiting and, not only that, but to produce an official plan of action for “Making Peace with Nature in the 21st century” and “to restore, promote and maintain balance and harmony, amongst human and non-human beings, based on reciprocity and respect toward all beings”. The rest of us need to be equally determined and creative.

If the big states and institutions choose to ignore this vision of harmony we, The People, must insist on its implementation. If any state wishes to set an example and join this project as one of the “international partners” it shouldn’t be as a leader but as a listener and learner, like everyone else, giving its best, according to its abilities. This Manifesto is a call to all the people who are systematically marginalised and ignored, especially Indigenous peoples, to come together in a Rainforest Defenders International. It’s an invitation to city-numbed people to find a way back to nature, to try to learn how to live as part of, and not dominators of nature. It means abandoning consumption habits that are destroying the Earth but, then again, this could mean living more fulfilled lives.

States won’t save rainforests

State power is based on support for and from the corporate powers that are destroying nature. In the desperate situation the planet is facing, the best the powers-that-be can think of is COP(out)27, with some 33,449 registered, mostly male participants all locked up in a tourist resort on the Red Sea, Sharm El-Sheikh. Egypt has at least 65,000 political prisoners and Sharm El-Sheikh is heavily policed with aggressive surveillance of attendees in a system they themselves made. If the Cop26 summit spewed about 100,000 metric tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, this one is bound to be bigger and better.

The usual approach to such a delicate, crucial task as saving the rainforests—which is recognised by scientists as essential for saving the planet—is “the bigger the better”. It’s tempting to think like this. At first, we wondered whether an alliance of the Indigenous peoples of countries with the three biggest rainforests (Brazil, the Congo, and West Papua), representing and including all the world’s rainforests, might be a good way to go. But, once again, big power diplomacy put paid to such dreams with the announcement of an alliance between Brazil, Indonesia, and the Congo, which they are thinking of calling (of all things!) an “OPEC for Rainforests”. This is all about interests of state. But now, right now, we must listen to the voices of rainforest defenders who have long been ignored, marginalised, silenced, and murdered.

Interests of state

So, what are Indonesia’s rainforests of this alliance? Uncritically repeated by prominent environmental journalists in The Guardian and elsewhere, the story goes that the three countries are “home to the Amazon, Congo basin and Borneo and Sumatra forests”. What? And West Papua? If Indonesia has cancelled West Papua in this project, it’s not because it’s repented and recognised that its occupation is illegal in international law and is finally going to grant independence. Rather, president Joko Widodo, is desperate to hide his country’s brutal 50+ years of war against the Indigenous people of West Papua, the world’s longest military occupation. This is the result of a sham UN-supervised referendum, after which the General Assembly formally “took note” that it didn’t represent the will of the people, but went ahead anyway to recognise Indonesian sovereignty, and then to cover up the killing of up to (or more than) ten percent of the population since the 1960s. We can’t know how many have been killed because it’s not in Indonesia’s interests to have accurate censuses. And, by the way, the former head of the Indonesian Intelligence Agency, advocated on 6 January 2021 the forcible removal of two million West Papuans from their homeland and their replacement with Indonesians.

The problem of the global system

It’s not only Indonesia. Its allies, the United States, European governments, Australia, et cetera, are complicit by remaining silent about the genocide and helping to conceal it. Everyone pussyfoots around Indonesia, which plays an increasingly dominant role in global affairs, partly because of its strategic position at the intersection of the Pacific Ocean, the Malacca Straits, and the Indian Ocean. More than half the world’s shipping passes through Indonesian waters, including US nuclear attack submarines in a dangerously gung-ho facing-off against China. Effectively, any country that joins a coalition with Indonesia to protect rainforests (except those of West Papua), will also, willy-nilly, be part of the internationally orchestrated coverup.

Surely a “global system” must include everyone. But the words “global system” usually refer to the G8, or maybe the G20. They don’t refer to us, The People. One thing for sure is that rainforests and all the species that dwell in them won’t be protected if the human rights of their Indigenous inhabitants—the 5% of the world’s population who care for 85% of its biodiversity—aren’t included in the project of saving the rainforests. Their human rights are crucial for those of everyone else, as the climate crisis is encouraging the rise of neofascism everywhere. They’re the ones who must lead the project.

State deals won’t cut it

In Brazil, president-elect Lula has promised to protect the Amazon, and the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela, Gustavo Petro and Nicolás Maduro, together with the president of Suriname, Chan Santokhi, have launched a call for a broad rainforest alliance that would have to include Brazil. However, Petro recognises that sub-soil hydrocarbon reserves in the Amazon, starting with Venezuela, might stymie the plan, and the Colombian Indigenous leader, Harol Rincón Ipuchima of the Maguta people points out that, “Not only Venezuela, but Colombia too has many oil companies in these territories. Likewise Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador”.

Talk of carbon credits and markets is neoliberal guff. Governments are part of a global system that’s destroying everything. The only moral clarity is coming from the most afflicted people, the forest defenders themselves. Any emancipatory project, “needs to look into the margins of our society and ask how we are treating people there”. If protecting and nourishing rainforests isn’t an emancipatory project, it will only be a catastrophic farce. By definition, an emancipatory project must include human rights. Almost all humans crave, in their own lives, the three basic principles of human rights: freedom, justice, and dignity. And the ones who understand most about them are those who painfully suffer them in their absence.

A new (Green State) vision

Only one country in the world envisages becoming a truly green state, respecting all the rights of humans and other species involved. It’s totally outside the international system (except for the internationally supported military occupation): West Papua. “As laid out in our Provisional Constitution, a future republic of West Papua will be the world’s first green state and a beacon of human rights.” This Vision is based on three main pillars, environmental and social protection, customary guardianship, and democratic governance and envisages making ecocide a serious criminal offence, restoring stewardship of natural resources to Indigenous authorities, combining Western democratic norms with Indigenous systems, and requiring all extraction companies to adhere to international environmental standards. The Green State Vision is a truly emancipatory project. As the first Indigenous (interim) government project of this nature, it’s also one that understands rainforests first-hand because it’s written by Indigenous people who know, in their own life experience as nature’s custodians, what must be done if rainforests are to be protected.

Indigenous knowledge

One huge stumbling block to westerners’ understanding of how Indigenous people experience their rainforest habitats, source of their sustenance, is that their food is divorced from social life. Sanitised, plastic-wrapped, genetically manipulated, it’s trucked in from around the globe to be sold in supermarkets where you queue by numbers and the cashier barely has time to look up and say hello. By contrast, rainforest communities are organised around fishing, hunting, gathering, and planting. The environment is essential for their health, so they love, understand, and care for it. Human nature is part of this cosmos, and the cosmos is part of human nature, language, and culture. They’re inseparable. Indigenous peoples know the rainforests because they’re part of them.

Of course, Indigenous knowledge isn’t homogenous. In the world’s different rainforests, people interact with their environment in historically diverse ways, which means that general, quick-fix solutions must be avoided, and proper attention must be given to particular ecosystems which, in turn, will benefit biodiversity. However, with its solid general principles, the Green State Vision can serve as a foundational document for a Rainforest Defenders International while, at the general, international level, also tackling the question of ecocide (and its associated genocide).

Change the system 

Saving rainforests isn’t going to happen within the system. Small nations and little creatures are almost always overlooked. Insects, for example, mainstay of ecosystems and food source for animals and birds, are in dramatic decline, which will eventually cause food chains to collapse and the extinction of large species. Since 1997, Tuvalu’s leaders have been officially pleading for help as their small country is sinking. And in 2022, Prime Minister Kausea Natano has had to point out yet again, “if we can save our islands, we can save the world”.

Change must come from rebellion against the system. In the West people are sadly isolated from each other but we can still use social media. If everyone who reads this manifesto sent it to 50 contacts, it would take just four rounds of 50 x 50 x 50 x 50 to reach 6,250,000 people. And what could these potential exponentially growing circles of people do? They can boycott polluting industries, engage in civil disobedience, picket, go on strike, start graffiti campaigns especially among young people (from writing the words rainforest , floresta, selva, hutan hujan …. everywhere to painting works of art, or denouncing governments on walls and buildings), block roads, give legal aid, hassle MPs, demonstrate, occupy, pressure town and city councils to phase out cars and introduce urban versions of a Green State Vision, translate it and this Manifesto into as many languages as possible, call for taxing billionaires out of existence, demand a universal basic income … and any other kind of defence of rainforests (and thus of the world and all its human and other creatures) that occurs to anyone, any group, anywhere. Humans aren’t innately stupid, passive “resources” to be dumbed down and kept docile by unreal life presented on screens and popping tranquilisers. We can be imaginative. We can rebel. And we are part of nature. In the Amazon, a Runa hunter instructs anthropologist Eduardo Kohn to sleep face up because if a jaguar sees him as a self like herself, a you, she won’t attack. If he sleeps face down and cannot return her gaze she’ll see him as prey, an it, dead meat. The animal, the predator who recognises Kohn as another self and determines his survival, isn’t the it. The self-blinded human is.

A sense of wonder

In 1929, another Manifesto proclaimed that “the marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful”. This is about a sense of wonder, but we need to join nature in a mutually loving gaze to achieve it. We need a Green State Vision. If we can’t acquire this, all the signs are telling us that we’re looking away and are therefore “dead meat”.

Benny Wenda is the Interim President of the Republic of West Papua. Jean Wyllys is a Brazilian lecturer, journalist, and politician. Julie Wark is a translator, writer, and human rights activist.

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