Indians, Environmentalists Meet


NEAR the outskirts of this sweltering city on the banks of the Amazon River, buzz saws scream as they cut through fresh cedar trees. But only a short distance away, monkeys frolic in the lush rain forest and tribesmen hunt their prey with spears. Environmentalists worry about the future of this jungle, but a historic encounter here between ecologists and indigenous leaders may help slow down the pace of destruction by loggers, oil companies, and other developers.

At a recent conference, 17 environmental organizations including the World Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, and the Rainforest Action Network met with Indian representatives from the Council of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) Nations.

At the May 9-11 meeting, the two groups - whose aims to preserve the forest have at times seemed at odds - formed a coalition to issue the ``Iquitos Declaration,'' which recognizes the claims of indigenous peoples to own and manage their own territories.

``This alliance is without precedent and encourages us,'' says COICA president Evaristo Nugkuag, an Aguaruna Indian from Peru. COICA represents 1.1 million indigenous people. ``We simply have to come together to defend the Amazon or we will lose it.''

The groups formed a coordinating committee to plan political action campaigns. The next meeting will be in Washington in September to coincide with the annual meeting of the World Bank.

Scientists estimate that a patch of jungle the size of a football field is bulldozed and burned every second. They also maintain that deforestation contributes to global warming by pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The indigenous leaders insist, however, that in the rush to conserve the forests, their rights - as people just as much a part of nature as trees and butterflies - have regularly been overlooked.

At the Iquitos meeting, however, the territorial rights of indigenous people took center stage, along with recognition that Indian leaders should figure prominently in any plans to conserve and manage the rain forest.

In Iquitos, and in Washington last October, Indian leaders expressed their doubts about the viability of debt-for-nature swaps, a strategy developed by ecologists to save rain forests.

Environmental groups have recently purchased portions of South American nations' national debts from foreign banks in exchange for projects to protect the environment or to conserve parks.

In 1987, Conservation International retired $650,000 of Bolivia's debt in exchange for creating a national park on the land of the Chimani Indians. Similar swaps have taken place in Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Madagascar, and Zambia.

The Bolivian swap has drawn strong criticism from indigenous leaders. ``We were never consulted about the agreement,'' said Jos'e Uranavi of Bolivia, COICA's general secretary. Mr. Uranavi and other leaders succeeded in getting a government decree to grant land titles to the Chimani people and restrict lumber cutting in the area. But the content of the resolution was never respected, Uranavi said.

Some environmentalists, too, are wary of debt-nature exchanges. They contend such deals do little to relieve third world's $1.3 trillion foreign debt.

``If you look at a half a dozen of these swaps you see significant problems,'' said a banking expert who asked that his name be withheld. ``There has always been a lack of consultation with grass-roots people, especially indigenous groups. The transactions get cumbersome, too.''

Indigenous leaders such as Uranavi insist that all parties to debt swaps should ensure that Indians get title to their territory. ``Only by having our territory can we begin to talk about saving the Amazon,'' he said. ``What the environmentalists propose is to buy the furniture before building the house.''

Despite criticisms, some ecologists say debt for nature exchanges should be given a chance. ``I think these projects are viable if they are carefully planned,'' says Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation.

At the Iquitos meeting, journalists and ecologists traveled by motor boats and bus to several agricultural projects managed by Indian agronomists. In one such program, indigenous agricultural experts rehabilitated a degraded cattle pasture without the use of fertilizer and pesticides. ``To see what they've done gives you a sense of hope,'' said an environmental activist attending the conference. ``And they've done it with a small amount of money.''

But only a few miles away the visitors observed nonindigenous farmers cutting trees and burning underbrush. ``Ideally, the current rate of destruction could slow down as governments work with local communities,'' says Peggy Hallward of Probe International, a Canadian environmental watchdog agency.

``But as long as significant portions of society remain poor, then the rain forest can never be saved. These people will consume it in their desperate need to survive.''

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