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As Rio+20 kicks off, locals on the front lines of conservation

As the world gathers in Rio on June 20 to discuss how to move toward a more sustainable future, locals have the self-interest to conserve as a source of income and sustainable way of life.

By Staff writer / June 19, 2012

Members of the Chankin family return from a trip to obtain some bananas in the Lacandone jungle where they run an ecotourism lodge.

Asel Llana

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Kuetuvy Reserve, Paraguay and Lacanja Chansayab, Mexico

The Ache people in eastern Paraguay lived for centuries amid the lush Atlantic Forest as hunter-gatherers, but were displaced by colonists and ranchers. When loggers and livestock producers began to eye the land onto which the Ache had already been displaced, offering fast profits at the end of the 1990s, most chose the money.  

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But Margarita Mbywangi refused to watch the habitat on which her tribe depend disappear once again. So, in 2000, breaking away from the majority of the tribe, she led 40 families to a 4,700-hectare tract of untouched land.

“We decided to separate, because we have to protect the forest. Otherwise we have nothing,” says Ms. Mbywangi, the community leader, as children from the reserve bustle about her backyard.

The Ache won land rights to the Kuetuvy Reserve last year, where today men hunt tapirs with bows and arrows and forage in the forest, sometimes for weeks at a time. Today their reserve sits amid vast soy farms, the newest threat to the area, where some 9 million hectares of land have been degraded in 50 years, leaving only a million hectares of primary forest today. "If they did not enter the forest to fight for this land, it would be a soy plantation today,” says Enrique Bragayrac, who works on social and environmental conservation at the NGO Guyra Paraguay.

Ecosystems throughout the region face the threat of development spurred by farmers, loggers, oil workers, miners, and mega development projects. And as the world gathers in Rio de Janeiro on June 20 to discuss strategies to move forward in a more sustainable future, locals like Mbywangi in Paraguay – who are not necessarily environmentalists with ideals about pristine lands but locals on the front lines of protection – have the self-interest to conserve as a source of income and sustainable way of life.

'New voices'

Indigenous peoples in Latin America have gained new voices in the past two decades, defending their lands against large-scale development projects. Protests from Peru to Ecuador to Bolivia have derailed projects, like roads and oil exploration, and communities have demanded that “prior consultation” laws be enforced before companies can commence resource extraction.

On the sidelines of the Rio+20 conference, the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Territories, Rights, and Sustainable Development is expected to draw some 600 participants from across the globe.

But if once the conservation ideal was to leave areas untouched, there is more recognition today that some degree of development must take place – and the goal is to incentivize governments, corporations, and citizens themselves to keep forests standing. The point here is that you have to show people they are better off saving the forest, so that, for example, they can get profits year after year for an ecotourism project, instead of the one-time fast cash of cutting down trees for timber.

“The really daunting problem, that if solved could really transform conservation, is how you mainstream conservation into the motivations of the citizens of the countries who are geopolitically responsible for biodiversity resources,” says Jim Rieger, director of climate adaptation, Latin America region, for The Nature Conservancy.

Much of the work begins at the most local level. Last year the international group Conservation International announced a trust fund for the Kayapó indigenous peoples in the southeastern Amazon of Brazil, who live amid the largest block of tropical rainforest in the world. It's an area that also sits in Brazil's so-called “arc of deforestation.” With help from the government, they are monitoring illegal land invasions and setting up sustainable development projects like Brazilian nut exportation, to help protect the lands that are under threat. This type of project again provides communities with regular income so they are less likely to be persuaded by timber companies, experts say.

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