The Amazon loses key defender to COVID-19

Robinson López, a lifelong defender of Indigenous rights and the climate, died Friday from complications associated with COVID-19. He was 36 years old.

López was the Climate Change Coordinator for COICA (Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica), an umbrella organization for Indigenous groups across the Amazon Basin, and Human Rights representative for the Colombian Amazon Indigenous Peoples Association (known by its Spanish acronym, OPIAC).

A recognized and respected figure in the fight to protect the Amazon’s Indigenous communities and defend the forests they call home, López was instrumental in the support and development of a number of key legal and policy measures.

In 2019, López spoke before California’s Air Resources Board in favor of the state’s recently endorsed Tropical Forest Standard, which promises to channel funding to tropical forest regions working to protect their forests while respecting the rights of Indigenous groups.

Robinson López (L) joined with Indigenous leaders across the Amazon to voice support for the California Tropical Forest Standard in 2019.

He worked closely with organizations, including Earth Innovation Institute, in the development of the Guiding Principles of Collaboration, a set of policy prescriptions aimed at safeguarding Indigenous rights and ensuring their political participation.

“Robinson touched so many lives in his tireless efforts to forge global partnerships in defense of Indigenous peoples’ rights and climate change mitigation,” said EII Scientist Maria DiGiano, who worked closely with López. “Robinson has left an enduring mark on the world through his work on the Guiding Principles, and will keep inspiring us all.”

EII President and Executive Director Dan Nepstad said, “Robinson’s death is a tragic loss to the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon and to all humanity; he was a powerful, young voice for the critical role of Indigenous peoples and tropical forests as a climate change solution.”

López was a representative of the Inga people. Born in Chaluayaco, an Indigenous territory in the Department of Putumayo, Colombia, his life as an activist began at the age of eight when he became involved in organizing his community in response to the ongoing violence of Colombia’s recently ended civil war. López would go on to found the Association of Indigenous Councils of Villagarzon Putumayo, which he led for six years. He also played a lead role in several court cases defending the rights of Indigenous communities.

López was born in Chaluayaco, an Indigenous territory in the Department of Putumayo, Colombia.

“The ancestral knowledge of the peoples of the Amazon Basin is a key contribution to climate change mitigation,” he was quoted as saying, summing up the purpose of his work. “We are preserving the forests that will guarantee the survival of humankind.”

Indigenous peoples manage 18% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests, critical to preventing global warming beyond the 2°C limit set under the Paris Climate Agreement. In the Amazon Indigenous territories account for close to 33% of total above-ground carbon storage. Reducing emissions from tropical deforestation is simply not possible without their involvement and cooperation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore inequities long-plaguing the Amazon’s Indigenous communities, including economic isolation, gross underinvestment and violence fueled by struggles over land rights. López is one of a number of Indigenous leaders to succumb to the pandemic, highlighting the risks these historically marginalized communities now face.

Data show that in Brazil, among the nations leading in COVID-19 related deaths, Indigenous people are twice as likely to die from the virus, stoking fear among Indigenous communities in neighboring countries, including Colombia and Peru, as often porous borders allow for the free flow of people and disease.

News of Lopez’ passing prompted an outpouring of grief from individuals and organizations on social media. 

A statement released by COICA noted, “Today, the Amazon basin is in mourning, we have lost one of our youngest and most combative leaders, who throughout his life fought for the protection … of the territory and the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The statement continued, "Our leaders, elders, wise men, grandparents and grandmothers are leaving us, and with them all their knowledge and wisdom."

According to his wife, for López, “everything was possible. He never lost hope of moving the processes of the Amazon forward.”

López’ body will be returned to his native Chaluayaco where traditional ceremonies will be held to mark his passing.

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