by Jena Webb /

February 2019 /

Chronicles /

Climate change, deforestation, conservation and protected areas – these topics now abound in the mainstream media. Some of the most recent studies have begun to look at the interaction between these current issues and indigenous peoples’ land management practices. But what does it all really mean? In this article, we unpack the most important recent studies in Western Amazonia and beyond.

When we look to our world’s last standing forests, our attention must turn to the world’s best and most experienced conservationists: indigenous peoples, who have cared for their forest homes for thousands of years. A recent LandMark study showed that, globally, indigenous people are exceptionally good at protecting their territories (Garnett et al. 2018). The study aggregated data worldwide and found that indigenous territories (both recognized and de facto) represent over a quarter of terrestrial habitats and overlap with about 40% of the world’s protected areas (as defined by states and/or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)) and natural areas (defined as having a Human Footprint score less than four). Further, a World Bank report estimates that 80% of the world’s biodiversity resides inside traditional indigenous territories (Sobrevilia, 2008). Indigenous people have been extremely judicious in their use of land, leading to high-quality, natural landscapes, and because of this, indigenous lands will be instrumental in the quest for preserving the last intact forests on earth and, thus, tackling the climate crisis.

In the Amazon, as elsewhere, indigenous ancestors discovered through thousands of years of observation and trial and error how to not only promote the regeneration of their native ecosystem but to enhance its properties for their own community’s benefit. The forest contains not only species richness and carbon sinks, but ancient home gardens, cultivated by the great-great grandmothers; Amazonian dark earth, built up by generations of organic waste, and oxbow lakes, meanders purposefully cut off by the old-timers to make fishing trips shorter.

Indigenous lands will be instrumental in the quest for preserving the last intact forests on earth and, thus, tackling the climate crisis

An old Ungurahua tree, Amazonian dark earth, and an Oxbow lake.

Conservation, check

The most recent studies conducted across the Western Amazon indicate that native communities are faithful stewards of their ancestral lands. Indigenous land tenure was found to be strongly indicative of the fate of the forest in the Bolivian Amazon, where private, colono holdings were the best explainer of old-growth forest loss (Paneque-Gálvez et al. 2013). Indigenous-held lands and conservation areas fared equally well in forest-cover indicators. “From a biocultural conservation perspective, our results suggest that future conservation policies in Bolivia should emphasize the potential key role of native Amazonians in effectively protecting old-growth forests and expand the existing network of indigenous TCOs [titled indigenous territories] accordingly.” (Paneque-Gálvez et al. 2013, p.12)

In the Peruvian Amazon, a study which used satellite images to gauge the effect of titling indigenous lands between 2002 and 2005 found that, “on average, titling reduces forest clearing by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds in a two-year window spanning the year title is awarded and the year afterward. These results suggest that awarding formal land titles to local communities can advance forest conservation.” (Blackman et al. 2017, p. 4123) The impressive 75% deforestation curtailment associated with land title does not come without hurdles. In Peru, the law is built to make land titling for indigenous peoples an obstacle course, whereas companies can more easily obtain title. Further, cases in Peru highlight how rights to land do not mean rights to resources; the Peruvian government still owns all the resources in the subsoil of titled indigenous lands.

In Colombia and Ecuador, a participatory mapping project carried out with the Kofan people in their traditional territories showed that they are highly protective of forests. In the areas of their land that have not been illegally invaded by colonizers, 80% of the forest remains (Stocks et al. 2016). As another example, Sinangoe, a Kofan community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, recently won a landmark legal case to protect their ancestral lands and safeguard a biodiversity hotspot of international importance, which had been allocated – without free, prior and informed consent – by the government as gold-mining concessions abutting the Cayambe-Coca National park.

Inhabitants of Sinangoe, a Kofan community accessible only by footbridge or boat, have successfully kept their forest intact and recently demonstrated their continued commitment to conservation in a landmark ruling against mining

Despite the overwhelming evidence – locally and globally – of indigenous-led conservation’s ecological merit, many indigenous territories are highly threatened and not all completely escape the modern pressures and threats put on ecosystems. The Ecuadorian Amazon is criss-crossed with more than 9500 km of roads, built for the oil industry and leading, eventually, to market. A study conducted among four Kichwa communities in the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, Ecuador, found that market integration has an important impact on forest clearing, even when indigenous rules and institutions are in place, highlighting the need to address factors such as urbanization, market demand, and road construction near ancestral indigenous territories (Oldekop et al. 2013). In the Ecuadorian Amazonian provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana – the heart of the oil boom – indigenous lands that were not also in a government sanctioned protected area did not fare better than privately held land (Holland et al. 2014). However, parks were shown to reduce deforestation especially well where they overlapped with indigenous territories, contradicting the theory that intersecting land tenure leads to ambiguity and, hence, profiteering and demonstrating that, when done correctly, national parks can be beneficial.

These few cases, located in a hotly contested area of one of the earth’s main deforestation fronts, should not lead us to believe that indigenous communities will systematically turn to clearcutting their forests once they are connected to market. Several recent studies in Brazil have attempted to disentangle different pressures and point to the fact that the percentage of salvaged rainforest in indigenous lands is not a result of their remoteness alone (Jusys, 2018; Nolte, et al. 2013; Nelson and Chomitz, 2011). In a comparison of strictly protected areas (e.g. national parks), sustainable use areas and indigenous lands in Brazil, Nolte et al. (2013; p. 4956) conclude that “indigenous lands were particularly effective at avoiding deforestation in locations with high deforestation pressure.”

The World Resources Institute looked at the benefits of avoided deforestation in indigenous lands in the Western Amazon region. They found that deforestation rates were 2.8 and 2 times lower in indigenous lands of the Bolivian and Colombia Amazon, respectively, than outside indigenous lands. Securing indigenous forestland in Bolivia and Colombia could avoid 8.04 and 3.01, respectively, of Mt CO2 annually, the equivalent of roughly 1 700 000 passenger cars per year in the case of Bolivia’s forestland. A paper evaluating the unrecognized contribution of indigenous territories to forest carbon in the entire Amazon basin found that an area larger than the Amazonian regions of Ecuador, Colombia and Peru combined is, nonetheless, at risk of disturbance by ongoing or planned development schemes (Walker et al. 2014).

“The sheer scale of Amazonian indigenous territories and protected natural areas, the forests they contain and the carbon they store, combined with the substantial risks posed by present and near future development, suggests that basin-wide incentives to upwardly harmonize and implement indigenous land and resource rights, together with forest protection and sustainable use policies, are justified on the basis of the climate benefits alone, but would also produce multiple social, cultural and ecological co-benefits” (Walker et al. 2014)

Wellbeing and health, check

Along with the climate and biodiversity benefits of conserving forests, regaining land-title and authority over their lands also has health benefits for indigenous peoples – a win-win-win solution. In a worldview where wellbeing encompasses much more than economic solvency, one can generally group indicators of health and wellbeing into three categories: material, social and spiritual/cultural (Hiemstra et al, 2014). The material needs include food, water, health care, shelter, and, importantly, in this case, security. Social wellbeing indicators are relational and comprise requisites for identity, belonging and self-esteem. The spiritual and cultural aspects cover tangible values related to sacred places, totemic animals, artefacts, and custodians as well as intangible values related to festivals, beliefs, customs and language.

Waorani woman harvesting from the forest, Ecuadorian Amazon.

Seen from this standpoint, intact and thriving ecosystems are integral to almost every aspect of health for forest peoples. The forests provide food, water, medicines and housing materials, meeting indigenous peoples’ basic, material needs. Acquiring land title affords land security, ensuring peace-of-mind that one’s basic needs will be met. Intact ecosystems also protect from many of the natural disasters that affect disturbed environments, such as landslides and water shortages, which are on the rise in the face of climate change.

The Kofan study points out the importance of intact areas for the sustainability of forest materials and medicinal plants such as yagé (known elsewhere as ayahuasca). A protected area designated in 2008 in Colombia is innovative in that it has established traditional ecological knowledge as a conservation target and is working with the Kofan to monitor the health of culturally important species such as Paullinia yoco, used in a traditional morning beverage, and Geonoma sp, used in thatching.

Siona woman caring for a yoko plant, Ecuadorian Amazon.

On illness, Andrea Bravo Díaz, a doctoral candidate at University College London conducting research on the sensorial experience of wellbeing among the Waorani, explained in an interview that in the Waorani cosmovision, many pathological elements (both physical and social) come from the outside, often along roads, and are associated with disturbed environments, not intact ones. The Waorani territory, situated in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon, is one of the most pristine, although over the last half-century the petroleum industry has opened up roads into their ancestral lands and with the recent announcement to auction off one of their last roadless areas, this could soon change.

“Indigenous-led conservation is key as it provides forest people a space where they experience themselves as strong, healthy, and vigorous.” – Andrea Bravo Díaz

Land is equally important for social identity and wellbeing. Title of traditional lands validates a sense of belonging in cultures whose identity is intricately linked to landscape features, strengthening social ties and providing them with the autonomy to make collective decisions. The ability to meet one’s families’ needs and negotiate with external agencies on equal footing, as rightful owners of the land, nourishes individuals’ and communities’ self-esteem, which is a critical social wellbeing indicator. Andrea Bravo Díaz illustrates it this way, “For the Waorani, and other forest peoples, health is intricately linked to identity. At the same time, Waorani identity is inextricably linked to the forest – the smells, the freshness, the flavors, the nutrients. When you destroy the forest, you destroy forest people’s identity. In this sense, indigenous-led conservation is key as it provides forest people a space where they experience themselves as strong, healthy, and vigorous.”

Specific arrangements based on communal laws can have profound impacts on social equality by eradicating the inequality inherent in private property, where no two lots of land are equal. This can be especially sticking in terms of women’s equality in areas where traditional land management practices do not exclude women. In that inequality in-and-of-itself has been linked to negative health impacts and considering the importance of land to other aspects of health and wellbeing, addressing land-inequality can have positive impacts on health and wellbeing, especially for the most vulnerable in society.

The spiritual wellbeing of forest peoples depends on intact ritual sites and the wellbeing of ecosystems as a whole. The Ashaninka people of the Peruvian Amazon are advocating for a conservation project which they see as, “[a] process aimed at restoring the socio-natural relations between Ashaninka people and their other-than-human neighbours that were undone by the violence of war and are still being undone by extractive development projects. Indeed, in this context the links between humans, other-than-humans, and place are such that the wellbeing of one is impossible without that of the others.” (Sarmiento Barletti, 2016, p. 47) Conservation, in this context, means protecting the indigenous cosmovision, which sees the forest as a living being in which every natural space has a spirit population.

Numerous studies have shown that the alienating effect of creating parks without local consent can backfire on conservation objectives and also compromise the wellbeing of people who relied on the area for their material, social and spiritual health (Fernández-Manjarrés et al. 2018; Redpath et al. 2013; Young et al. 2010). And still, most conservation projects have been dreamed up and evaluated using Euro-centric standards (Le Tourneau et al. 2015); if we were to embark on a truly integrative journey we would shed our occidental assumptions and yardsticks.

Amazon Frontline’s sister organization, an Ecuadorian alliance of four indigenous nations fighting for land rights and self-determination, chose the name Ceibo Alliance for their unique coalition. Ceibo is the Spanish name for the Kapok tree. This great Kapok tree is much more than a carbon sink or a habitat for epiphytes; it is a symbol of indigenous identity, pride and solidarity, a temple, and a custodian of tradition, wellbeing and health – a reminder of the importance of understanding conservation holistically.


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