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Indigenous Communities: Protectors of our Forests

August 8, 2022

It has now become widely understood in environmental circles that Indigenous groups around the world are often the best stewards of land conservation because of their longstanding cultural, spiritual, and physical connections to their territories. August 9, is UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a day that recognizes the unique role of Indigenous communities in protecting our planet.

In honor of this day, join us in celebrating the contributions of these communities—including numerous Goldman Prize winners—in protecting one of our planet’s most critical resources: the Amazon rainforest.

The Importance of the Amazon

Beyond providing habitat for 30% of the world’s species, the Amazon rainforest stores an estimated 90–140 billion tons of carbon. In turning carbon dioxide into oxygen (photosynthesis), the trees house leftover carbon molecules in their branches, roots, and surrounding soil. The forest also stabilizes rainfall cycles throughout South America, absorbs solar radiation, and helps to regulate temperatures—globally.

The 2.5-million-square-mile sanctuary makes up 54% of the world’s remaining rainforests, creates most of its own precipitation, and inspired the term “biodiversity” as the planet’s biggest ecological reservoir. Simply put: Without the Amazon, our global climate would be drier, hotter, and less habitable.

Threats to the Amazon

350 Indigenous groups live in the Amazon basin, dependent upon an environment that teeters on the brink of collapse. Two main issues plague the world’s “green lung”: deforestation, and drilling and mining.

Deforestation isn’t limited to the logging industry. Industrial agriculture, increased urban development, and unsustainable forest management all result in shrinking forests, initiating a negative feedback loop. Due to these human practices, forests like those in the Amazon are facing increased wildfires and climate change—not only rising temperatures, but also more frequent natural disasters—and, subsequently, pests and disease follow.

Drilling and mining present another set of trickle-down issues. Beyond clearing the land for industrial use and accessibility, the practice leads to soil erosion, water contamination, chemical pollution and toxic waste, and negative health impacts on wildlife—and humans.

Indigenous Guardians of the Amazon

Fortunately, there are many leaders committed to protecting the Amazon and their traditional ways of life. Here are just a few Indigenous Prize winners working to protect this global greenway:

Alexandra Narvaez and Alex Lucitante (Ecuador, 2022): With their lands facing mining projects without Indigenous consent, the pair took legal action against the Ecuadorian government and won, nullifying 52 mining projects across 79,000 acres of rainforest and the headwaters of the Aguarico River.

Liz Chicaje Churay (Peru, 2021): Working with the Peruvian government, Liz was instrumental in the creation of Yaguas National Park. The newly protected wild space supports 29 Indigenous communities and comprises some two million acres—roughly the size of Yellowstone.

Nemonte Nenquimo (Ecuador, 2020): Spearheading an Indigenous-led campaign against oil concessions in traditional Waorani territory, Nemonte’s legal victory set a precedent in court  and protected some 500,000 acres from development.

Wanze Eduards and Hugo Jabini (Suriname, 2009): Working with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Wanze and Hugo won legal recognition and territorial rights for the Samaraka and other Indigenous groups in Suriname—and stopped corporate logging and deforestation projects on their lands.

For more inspiration, read the stories of Julio Cusurichi (Peru, 2007) and Berito Kuwaru’wa (Colombia, 1998).

How to Show Your Support

Dozens of organizations are spearheading efforts to protect both Indigenous communities and the forests that they safeguard. Our partners working in the Amazon include Amazon Frontlines and Amazon Watch; Ecuador’s Alianza Ceibo; and global organizations like Rainforest Action Network, Survival International, and The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

About the author

Jacqueline Kehoe

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer whose work focuses on citizen conservation and public lands. She has been published in National Geographic, Sierra, Lonely Planet, and more.

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