Maintaining biodiversity in the Amazon requires a fresh approach to protecting indigenous territories

Jul 2, 2021

Author’s note: Time is running out for Ecuador to save its Amazon rainforests — areas which have 10,000 times the biodiversity of the Galapagos islands. Ethno-ecologist  Adam Gebb looks at the problems and possibilities in a seven-part series. This article explores the opportunity for indigenous nations to drive their own conservation planning.

By Adam Gebb

The rapid destruction of the super biodiverse Ecuadorian Amazon has the indigenous nations of the region scrambling to knit together the remaining rainforest fragments before it’s too late. While the greed of outsiders has been tragic, it has also become clear that rising indigenous populations are a major threat to the area’s remaining functional ecosystems.

Conservation in Indigenous territories is essential to regional biodiversity. (Photo by Mark Fox)

Indigenous communities around the world are drawn to conserve the biodiversity that is the base of their cultures. When they understand that their own unplanned human development sprawl can be prevented by conservation districts that they create with rules that they decide on, there’s often motivation and excitement.

This is the next essential chapter in global biodiversity conservation.

An influential World Bank report, The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity Conservation, declared that while indigenous people only make up 4 percent of global population, “traditional indigenous territories encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity.”

All too often, outsiders come in with their own ideas that do not include the knowledge indigenous nations have after hundreds or even thousands of years of experience in caretaking the regions where they live. These outsiders are most likely to be national governments and NGO’s.

Native culture is alive and well. (Photo by Adam Gebb)

Maintaining global biodiversity requires that a fresh new approach is taken where indigenous territories are understood as offering the most benefits when left intact. They also hold the best conservation opportunities on the planet in an age of collapsing ecosystems.

There are very few landscapes left on the planet that are just empty and available for plunder. Indigenous peoples with rights to their lands have often maintained much more intact ecosystems than surrounding areas.

With accelerated global warming and habitat fragmentation caused by the growth of human populations, new strategies are urgently needed to maintain the processes that increase biodiversity. Empowering indigenous nations to create their own conservation land use plans is the logical next step.

The scale of a conserved area large enough to save the region’s biodiversity is so enormous that waiting is not an option. There are numerous growing challenges that can’t be solved unless action is taken now. Pressure on the planet’s remaining functional ecosystems to provide resources for the manufacturing of consumer goods is on a collision course with local people’s needs for sustainably harvested medicines, fibers and foods.

The next generation deserves clean water and healthy ecosystems. (Photo by Adam Gebb)

Conservation that will benefit the true caretakers of an area is a slow process. Sorting through how and where larger future populations can live without cutting off critical wildlife migration corridors has no shortcuts and requires permanent land use planning processes. There will always be new challenges and new generations with fresh ideas about how to solve them.

Will people protect conserved areas or plunder them when socio- economic pressures increase? Indigenous peoples are far more likely to protect conserved areas that they themselves created.

What can outsiders do? Support indigenous nations to create their own land use planning boards that work to gain a consensus among the very people that depend on conservation to maintain their cultures. This amounts to limitations in the use of surrounding landscapes today so that future generations continue to have functional ecosystems for the long run.

A mother nurses her baby while carrying a 10 pound bucket of chicha, a diet staple. (Photo by Adam Gebb)

Outsiders can also help to reduce the targeting of indigenous territories by the extractive industries. This remains a major threat that needs urgent attention. The world will benefit immensely by helping indigenous peoples who live much more sustainable lives to care for the rich ecosystems of which they are a part. It is the modern world’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods that drives destruction around the planet and it is therefore the modern world’s responsibility to reduce the damaging effects of what amounts to senseless materialism.

However, the indigenous do need to acknowledge that they can improve their ways as well. In many areas it is indigenous land use sprawl that is reducing biodiversity and this is where the indigenous have the power to take control and create a richer future.

The enormous scale of conservation that is needed in areas like the Amazon to maintain ancient evolutionary processes will require that indigenous nations go beyond buy in and instead drive the process.

Around the world, the fantastic natural wealth of indigenous territories has often been taken, sold or thrown away for 10 cents on the dollar. Governments  could make wiser decisions about balancing extractive industries that create small economies that benefit the few and conservation/tourism economies that are much larger, more sustainable and spread wealth to a greater portion of the people.

The long run wealth that Ecuador can foster with large scale conservation is perfectly in line with its reputation around the world as a biodiversity hotspot. Indigenous nations are in the best position to save the world’s biodiversity and should be supported by international organizations and governments to do so.

The foundation for a rich biodiverse future requires a hard look at the ancient rhythms that created an area’s biodiversity before the modern world started interfering. The art and science of landscape connectivity which is required to succeed will be the topic of the next article in this series.

Adam Gebb is Executive Director of the Andes Amazon Conservancy.