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

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

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.

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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.

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.”

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.

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