"The Forest Cannot Be Bought"

The Amazon rainforest is a hugely contested battleground in conservation today. It's a region where the demands of industry and those of ecology come face to face, but the voice that is least heard in the debate could turn out to be the most important one – the contribution of the indigenous people. What is their role in conservation?

As we all know, the Amazon is vital in maintaining the stability of the biosphere in all kinds of ways. Its huge organic mass affects everything from rainfall patterns to humidity levels. It's our biggest carbon sink, and unfortunately it's also our biggest source of timber. Every year, enough trees are cut down in the Amazon rain forest to clear an area the size of Britain – 50 million acres.

That the forest needs to be protected is not in question. Just how that's done is a different matter. Some are in favour of sustainable logging and re-planting, others are focusing their attention on illegal logging. Some conservation trusts have taken to buying the logging rights to forests and then not using them, making nature reserves instead. It is this practice that hit the news recently, drawing the accusing label 'green colonialism'.

All through the Amazon are tribes that have been living sustainably, in harmony with their environment, since time immemorial. You might think most of the earth's surface has been explored by now, but just this month a group of people were spotted from the air on a riverbank in Peru, in a region thought to be uninhabited. In the 1980s, the Survival charity estimated that there were 12 uncontacted tribes left in the Amazon. They now believe there are 107.

These are the people best equipped to maintain the forests, and yet by nature are the least likely to be heard. Some are undiscovered, and have no voice on the international stage at all. Others avoid contact with the wider world. For many of the tribes who have tried to engage with outsiders, the results have been catastrophic. Because isolated tribes have never been exposed to common diseases, an encounter with outsiders can result in devastation, with 50-90% of a tribe dying from illnesses as 'insignificant' as flu or colds. This alone makes it very difficult to engage indigenous people in discussion, let alone language barriers, lack of understanding of land ownership and logging rights, or any of the workings of the modern world. Consequently, the end result is almost always decimation. The people are relocated, and knowledge of the forest and ways of life that care for it, are lost.

However, there has been some recent good news. After 20 years of discussion, the UN did finally adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007. Among other things, the declaration recognises the "right to unrestricted self-determination, an inalienable collective right to the ownership, use and control of lands, territories and other natural resources." Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA all opposed the declaration, but it has passed, and it will hopefully make negotiations easier in the future.

One model of how indigenous people can play a role in conservation is the Wai Wai tribe in Guyana. Working alongside Conservation International, the tribe have designated their land as a protected area, by an act of parliament. It is a battle they have been fighting since 1969, and represents a major victory. Under the scheme, the tribe will manage a community owned conservation area, running ecotourism initiatives, working with researchers, and profiting from sustainable forest resources.

"This shows the power of giving land rights to indigenous populations, because they know what's best for their communities," said Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier. "The Wai Wai could have sold off the timber and other natural assets for a one-time payoff, but instead they chose to protect the rainforest and allow future generations to continue to benefit from it."

It's a model other tribes may like to imitate, if they can persuade their governments, or wider global community to listen to them. This week a shaman of the Brazilian Yanomani tribe, Davi Kopenawa, is travelling to Britain to argue the case for working with indigenous tribes in conservation. I'll let him have the final word:

"The forest cannot be bought; it is our life and we have always protected it."
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  • Posted on Oct. 18, 2007. Listed in:

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