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.
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As the resources around the indigenous territories are widely depleted, “you have all this pressure,” says Renata Soares Pinheiro, the socioenvironmental manager of Conservation International Brazil. “If you fly over this area, you will see a very huge difference between territories inside indigenous land and outside, where there are no forests, only farms.”Skip to next paragraph
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Small scale, big impact
But such ideas are taking place on a much smaller scale too. In the town of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas state in the Lacandon Jungle of Mexico, visitors will not hear the beeping of cell phones – there is no service – but instead the growling of howler monkeys. The jungle is one of the most significant rainforests in the region, and is home to 1,500 types of trees and 25 percent of Mexico's animal species, including the jaguar.
Over the past 30 years, however, it has also been one of the most threatened areas in the country. Peasant farmers from other parts of the state and country have moved into the area and set up pastures, which dot the highway that leads south into the jungle. Today only about 10 percent of the original forest stands, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
To counter the destruction, various local and international NGOs helped the indigenous community here, the Lacandones, set up a series of ecotourism facilities that today draw visitors seeking a “rustic” experience in the jungle. Log cabins are built on the edges of tributaries. Locals have constructed guest rooms with mosquito screens and palm-covered roofs.
“Ecotourism has helped us persevere,” says Carlos Chankin, wearing the traditional white tunic of the Lacandones, as he walks behind his family's lodge, the tapping of a woodpecker echoing across the forest. Without that income, they might have to relocate elsewhere, and then no one would stand as stewards of the forest, says his father-in-law, Enrique Chankin, among the first to start an eco-tourism project here.
The Lacandones preserve the forest by using a system of crop rotation, leaving some fields fallow for a decade to regenerate, and they say the biggest threat is the invasion of other peasants seeking timber and clearing forest patches for fields.
“Trees for us are our life, it's how we breathe,” Carlos Chankin says. “[Newcomers] have gotten rid of their forest, they have consumed it, and now they will never have the riches that we have.”
Local people are 'most important'
Involvement of locals on the front lines of conservation has been evolving for 20 years, but it is still a work-in-progress, with many challenges, including a lack of capacity for locals, newer challenges brought by climate change, divisions within indigenous communities as to what sorts of development should proceed, and criticism – especially of international NGOs that are viewed as turning forests into commodities, particularly when it comes to carbon projects.
In Paraguay, the challenges are daily. Despite their land being protected in a reserve, the Ache say they face land invasions constantly. Ms. Mbywangi, who was kidnapped at age 5 and forced to work as a domestic servant in a middle class family until she found her way back to the Ache community at the age of 18, was just recently in a dispute with peasants who set up a camp in her tribe's forest, presumably to cut down timber. Because she had already lost her “way of life” once, she is not willing to have it happen again.
“I already lost my freedom once,” says Mbywangi, who also held a ministerial position for indigenous affairs in Paraguay in 2008, “I will fight for this forest until the end.”
It is that drive to conserve, that comes not from a set of international standards created in air conditioned conference rooms but a way of being, that has helped keep this 4,700-hectare patch of land safe. She is just one of millions that could play a similar role.
“For me the most important thing for conserving land is local people,” says Alberto Yanosky, the head of Guyra Paraguay.