Honoring Indigenous Leaders

You only have to glance at the news to see we are in the throes of a climate crisis—headlines trumpet stories of droughts, wildfires, and deadly heat waves on an almost daily basis now. This is why protecting forests is more important than ever—we can’t afford to lose their massive capacity for absorbing carbon dioxide.

The Rainforest Alliance has always taken a holistic approach to forest conservation, working with a broad alliance of farmers, foresters, companies, governments, and other kinds of partners. But today, we honor some of the most heroic forest guardians that we work with: indigenous leaders and their communities.

Indigenous communities manage roughly a quarter of the world’s land—and they do a better job of it than anyone else. A recent Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) study showed that indigenous people “are achieving at least equal conservation results with a fraction of the budget of protected areas.”

But the recent murder of an indigenous leader in northern Brazil at the hands of miners seeking to pillage the community’s protected ancestral lands, is just the most recent example of how dangerous forest protection can be. In honor of International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, we would like to recognize the incredible courage and commitment of indigenous leaders and communities around the world—and thank them for protecting the forests that we need so badly to help slow the climate crisis.

Here are just a few of the valiant indigenous leaders the Rainforest Alliance has worked with over the years.

Edwin Vásquez, Amazon Basin

Edwin Vásquez, general coordinator of COICA (La Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica)

Edwin Vásquez, general coordinator of COICA 

“As indigenous people, we make use of our natural resources—but we do it sustainably, without laying waste to our Amazon.” –Edwin Vásquez, general coordinator of COICA

Creating indigenous economies is key to protecting ancestral lands, according to Edwin Vásquez, general coordinator of COICA, the Amazon’s umbrella federation of indigenous communities. With more economic opportunities—opportunities that align with indigenous traditions and beliefs—indigenous groups can better resist external forces trying to steal land and destroy it with mining, reckless logging, and unsustainable farming. Vásquez has advocated to governments and organizations for the recognition of indigenous people in achieving conservation goals—even calling on Pope Francis to support the creation of indigenous economies. In 2017, the Rainforest Alliance and COICA signed a landmark agreement to conserve the Amazon through efforts to bolster indigenous economies.

Juana Payaba Cachique, Madre de Dios, Peru

Juana Payaba Cachique

Juana Payaba Cachique

"As leaders, we have to think about the future and our children. We can’t think about ourselves." –Juana Payaba Cachique, former president of Tres Islas

The vast rainforests in the community of Madre de Dios, deep in the heart of the Andean Amazon, provide many indigenous communities with their livelihoods. One of our many partner communities, Tres Islas, uses sustainable methods to harvest timber, Brazil nuts, and palm fruits. When mining companies came in and began to destroy the forests around them, the former president of Tres Islas, Juana Payaba Cachique, began an epic legal battle to defend her community’s way of life for future generations. She took her fight all the way to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and eventually to the Peruvian Constitutional Court, which ruled in her favor against the mining companies. With support from the Rainforest Alliance, Tres Islas created a robust local economy built on responsible forest businesses that respect the indigenous imperative to live in harmony with the Earth.

Tomas Grefa, Ecuadorian Amazon

Tomas Grefa

Tomas Grefa

“The forest gives us life. Because the forest for us is full of medicine, it’s our pharmacy. It has everything. It has medicine, it has food. We are alive thanks to the forest.” –Tomas Grefa, an elder in Cuyabeno region of the Ecuadorian Amazon

Nestled deep within Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, the Sani Kichwa people did not want their forest to suffer the same fate as the poorly-managed, developed lands of its neighboring communities. A local shaman’s vision of a room full of gringos offered an unexpected answer to conserving their forest: tourism. The Sani community worked with the Rainforest Alliance to build Sani Lodge, an eco-lodge that protects biodiversity while generating a sustainable economic alternative for the indigenous people within the reserve. For communities like Sani that rely on eco-tourism for their livelihoods, keeping forests healthy is vital to their survival. Now, both outsiders and the Sani community can enjoy the splendors of one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems. The Sani Lodge is Ecuador’s only eco-lodge completely owned and run by indigenous people.

April Churchill, Haida Nation, Canada

April Churchill, Haida weaver and former Vice President of the Council of the Haida Nation under Guujaaw.

April Churchill

Photo credit: Pat Floyd / Rainforest Alliance

“The Haida people are the Haida people because of the land and the sea around us. We are a product of it—we are a part of it and we are connected to it. If we don’t protect it, there won’t be an ‘us’ anymore.” – April Churchill, former vice president of the Haida Nation

The indigenous people of Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, live by the idea of Yah’guudang, which translates to “respect for all living things.” This principle guides the way they manage the Taan Forest, a 270,00-acre stretch of ancient rainforest. The Haida’s own strict cultural norms made it easy to achieve Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for the Taan Forest. Former Haida Nation vice president April Churchill says their annual cedar harvest tradition reflects the Haida people’s relationship to the forest. “The annual cedar harvest is important because it’s not just about accepting a gift. It’s about making an annual commitment to the forest—a promise from you to the trees. When you’re accepting the harvest, you’re saying, ‘I’m here. I’ll protect you no matter what.’”

Burning Peruvian forest - photo by Mohsin Kazmi

Forests are falling at an alarming rate.

Each minute, 85 acres are destroyed.