To Protect Our Rainforests, Protect Rainforest Dwellers

If you destroy an ecosystem, you destroy the people who live there. But too often, the plight of indigenous peoples is ignored by conservationists. As indigenous leader Gregorio Díaz Mirabal recently told the New York Times, “If you’re going to save only the insects and the animals and not the indigenous people, there’s a big contradiction… we’re one ecosystem.”

Rainforest Foundation US works with indigenous groups throughout the Americas to protect the tropical forests they depend upon. Our organization is guided not just by humanitarian values, but also by the evidence, which shows that indigenous communities conserve their forest territories more successfully and cost-effectively than other protective entities—including national parks.But indigenous territories are vast, and are under attack from powerful black-market forces: narcotics cultivators, gold miners, and loggers, amongst others. Indigenous peoples shouldn’t have to defend this territory on their own. 

In Peru, we’ve trained indigenous peoples to fight deforestation via a mix of technologies, including drones, smartphones, and satellites. The system we’ve deployed (known locally as “community monitoring”) is scalable, cost-effective, and illustrates what we’ve always believed: That indigenous peoples are capable of using sophisticated technology to play a leading role in the fight against deforestation. 

We conducted a study over the past two years that proves this approach works. In the Peruvian Amazon, we divided dozens of indigenous communities into two groups: a “treatment” group, and a “control” group. The treatment group was trained in (and implemented) the technologies. The control group was not. Two years later, the data are clear: using smartphones and satellites, indigenous communities drastically reduced the destruction of their lands. 

Tropical rainforests are integral to blunting the effects of climate change—they trap approximately half of all human-made emissions. And these forests are disappearing at an astonishing rate. In 2020, the world lost more than 10.4 million acres of tropical rainforest—an area the size of the Netherlands. And when a tropical rainforest tree is felled, we pay the price twice. First, because cutting down a tree means one less tree capturing carbon and creating oxygen; the world’s green lungs are diminished. Second, because the burning of a felled tree releases carbon into the atmosphere; instead of fresh air, we get smoke. 

Our trajectory is unsustainable. On the course we’re on, climate change will pose an existential threat to humanity in our lifetimes.Protecting the land rights of indigenous peoples is a key part of the solution. Around the world, more than 1.8 million square miles of rainforest fall under government-recognized indigenous territories—an area the size of India and Greenland combined. Indigenous people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to live in harmony with the natural world. If we’re going to win the war against climate change, we need to protect the people who protect the land.

Rainforest Foundation US is on the front lines of that struggle. And in the last year alone, we’ve made so much progress.

In Guyana, we recently completed an indigenous land tenure assessment with our partner, the Amerindian Peoples Association. That project maps historic indigenous land holdings across the nation, down to the acre: an unprecedented project that will serve as a valuable tool for indigenous rights attorneys and public advocacy groups as they petition their government in the near future. 

In Brazil, we’re working with partners to scale up a reforestation program in the northern state of Roraima, where we’re also working to combat the deleterious effects of gold mining, which has wrought violence and pollution on indigenous communities like the Yanomami.

And in Panama, we helped create an online map that tracks COVID cases and shows resource scarcity amongst 48 indigenous territories so that humanitarian organizations like the United Nations are better able to allocate their resources and efforts. That’s proven especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has simultaneously heightened demand and complicated outreach.

To learn more about Rainforest Foundation US, please visit our website at Together, we can bring about a world that is healthier and more compassionate. We hope you’ll consider joining us in our mission: to help future generations. To help distant neighbors. To help each other. Our forests are the lungs of this planet. When selfish, we choke. Together we breathe.