Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.com
A stunning profile of the Amazon rainforest.

Indigenous Territories Play Dual Role As Homelands and Protected Areas

Barbara Fraser
2/19/15

Indigenous communities claim—and scientific evidence increasingly shows—that indigenous forested territories are as well protected as, or better protected than, government-designated parks. In areas under pressure from roads or development projects, deforestation rates are sometimes even lower in indigenous territories than in official protected areas.

With such data backing them up, indigenous leaders argue that they are better protectors because they actually use their territory. When they hunt, fish, and travel from place to place, they acquire a detailed and intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna, allowing them to note changes better than an outside monitor would, and help keep invaders like illegal loggers or miners at bay.

"In many places, there aren't even government officials to patrol [protected] areas. The only ones who safeguard the areas are Indigenous Peoples," Jorge Furagaro of the Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, COICA) said during the most recent UN Climate Summit held in early December in Lima.

But indigenous groups cannot effectively protect their forests if they do not have formal rights to them, he added. Furagaro and other leaders at the summit called for governments to grant title to territories that are still awaiting official designation.

About 100 million hectares (247,105,381 acres) of indigenous land in the Amazon basin still have not been titled, according to Edwin Vásquez, who heads COICA.

Pressuring the Peruvian government to grant indigenous communities title to some 20 million hectares in the country will be a priority for the Inter-Ethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Amazon (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana, AIDESEP), notes Henderson Rengifo, who took over as president of that association in December 2014.

Policy makers also should figure those indigenous territories into their conservation plans, creating corridors between government-managed conservation areas and indigenous lands, especially given the uncertainties about how climate change will affect the Amazon forest, says José Alvarez, director of biodiversity for Peru's Environment Ministry.

The people living in indigenous villages as well as other communities along Amazonian river banks are "good allies" for governments, he says. "There's no one to whom mitigating the impacts of climate change matters more."

But while they may be complementary at times, indigenous communities' territorial claims sometimes conflict with local and regional governments' plans for protected areas.

In Peru and other countries, indigenous communities that were once evicted to make room for conservation areas are beginning to demand their territorial rights back. Kukama Kukamiria leaders around the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve in Peru's northeastern Loreto region and Ese'eja communities near the Tambopata National Reserve in the southeastern Madre de Dios region are among those seeking expanded rights.

Alfonso López, president of the Kukama-Kukamiria organization ACODECOSPAT in the lower Marañón River Valley in Loreto, says the communities along the edge of the reserve would manage Pacaya-Samiria better than the government can with its small force of park guards.

In mid-December, government officials confiscated more than 750,000 board feet of timber cut illegally in the reserve and its buffer zone. The seizure of these logs showed that protected areas, despite their designation, are still hugely vulnerable to illegal activities, such as logging, wildcat mining, poaching, and growing drug crops, which can put park guards and people living nearby at risk.

The multi-agency task force that staged the raid was established after four Asháninka men were killed on the Peruvian-Brazilian border in late August, allegedly by illegal loggers.

Edwin Chota Valera and Jorge Ríos Pérez were leaders of the community of Saweto, on the Alto Tamayo River. They and two other community members—Leoncio Quincima Meléndez and Francisco Pinedo—apparently were ambushed and murdered as they traveled on foot from Saweto to the neighboring Asháninka community of Apiwtxa, across the border in Brazil. Chota and other community leaders had spent several years trying to get the government to title the community's land.

In addition to illegal logging, park guards have also found fields of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, inside the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. Biologists doing field research have reported coca in other protected areas, including the Cordillera Azul and the Sierra del Divisor on the border with Brazil.

Illegal activities are only part of the problem. Development plans promoted by governments or private companies also jeopardize official protected areas. The principal threats include oil drilling, farming and ranching, mining, logging, and road construction.

There have been spills from oil wells inside Pacaya-Samiria, which existed when the reserve was created and are now operated by the Argentinian company, Pluspetrol, Meanwhile, an oil pipeline operated by state-run PetroPeru leaked oil into the buffer zone at least twice this year.

A pipeline spill in June killed fish in lagoons around the Kukama villages of Cuninico and Santa Rosa, affecting both the families' diet and their income, as buyers stayed away from the spill-impacted fish. While community members can buy fish from others, the local scarcity has pushed prices up to two or three times the normal level, according to Galo Vásquez, president of the community of Cuninico.

Throughout the Amazon, about 1.4 million square kilometers (540,543.02 square miles) of protected areas and indigenous lands are threatened or under pressure from development activities, according to a study released during the Lima climate summit.

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