Cultivating Indigenous Forest Economies in the Amazon

An indigenous federation is forging a new partnership with the Rainforest Alliance to cultivate sustainable forest economies across the Amazon.

In November 2017, a delegation of indigenous and rural leaders traveled throughout Europe under the banner #GUARDIANSOFTHEFOR­EST, meeting with officials, environmental NGOs, and youth groups in several cities. They ended their tour in Bonn, Germany, with a clear message for the world leaders gathered there for the UN climate conference: the leadership of indigenous people is critical to the success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

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,” said Edwin Vásquez, the general coordinator of COICA (La Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica), a federation of indigenous Amazon communities (and Rainforest Alliance partner) that partici­pated in the bus tour. “For example, we know how to harvest the fruits of plants that grow in the wild—camu-camu, cocoa, Brazil nuts—as well as timber, without disrupting nature’s balance. Indigenous people, or the majority of them, still live from their culture and their traditions.”

Communities organized around these forest-friendly economic activities have proven to be powerful defenders against the ever-present threats of illegal logging and industrial mining. To this end, COICA and the Rainforest Alliance have entered into a landmark partnership that leverages indigenous expertise and leadership networks to scale up a collaborative model of sustainable economic development that the Rainforest Alliance developed in partnership with forest communities in Guatemala and the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. The efficacy of this model is supported by a scientific study released by RAISG (Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socioenvironmental Information, a consortium of civil society groups across the Amazon) on the eve of the November 2017 Bonn Climate Con­ference. The study analyzes 15 years’ worth of data and concluded that deforestation rates are 80 percent lower in indigenous territories and conservation units than outside those areas.

“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

As indigenous groups across Latin America and Asia regain rights to their ancestral lands, linking their sustainable enterprises to the global marketplace is key, said Edwin, who is a Huitoto from the Loreto region of the Peru­vian Amazon. This is one of the principal aims of COICA’s collaboration with the Rainforest Alliance. “Many of our communities don’t have adequate information about the market, so they’re easy prey for middlemen—they end up practically giving away their products. But if we have information about markets, not only at the international level but also at the local and national level, that will allow us to circumvent these intermediaries and sell our products directly,” said Edwin.

The Rainforest Alliance has a long track record of success in working with indigenous commu­nities in the Amazon Basin to create sustain­able livelihoods. In the Tres Islas community in Perú’s Madre de Dios region, for example, support from the Rainforest Alliance led to a 480 percent increase in per-board foot income for sustainably harvested timber sold there; a three-fold increase in the price that Brazil nut harvesters receive from their buyer; the launch of the community’s own brand of gourmet Brazil nut products; and access to financing for sustainability improvements. These impacts have all contributed to a marked decline in deforestation in Tres Islas, an area that had previously suffered one of the highest rates in the Amazon.

Women shelling Brazil Nuts in Madre de Dios, Peru

Women shelling Brazil Nuts in Madre de Dios, Peru

Photo credit: Mohsin Kazmi

Roberto Espinoza of AIDESEP, Perú’s fed­eration of indigenous people (and a member of COICA), sees the indigenous struggle for self-determination as one that benefits every­one. “The environmental crisis is very grave. That’s why the indigenous struggle is so import­ant: where there is indigenous resistance, there is resistance in defense of the life of the planet.”

Indeed, cultivating sustainable indigenous economies creates benefits far beyond the Amazon, said Edwin. “What we’re proposing as an indigenous network is that we are able to live as we’ve always lived—from our tradi­tions—and that we can create an indigenous economy, living sustainably from our land, as we always have—not just for our survival, but for everyone’s.”

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