Yawanawá man in Brazil

All images: @maiharamarjorie

Goal 15: Life on Land

INDIGENOUS PEOPLES: GUARDIANS of the forest

Why handing over stewardship of forests to Indigenous communities is the most effective way of protecting the Amazon 

By leanne walstow AND EMMA ELMS
17 SEPTEMBER 2021

Indigenous peoples play a crucial role in protecting some of our most precious forests, according to a major report by the UN Food and Agricultural Association earlier this year. Focusing on areas of Latin America and the Caribbean, the report emphasised that Indigenous peoples are the best guardians of our forests, particularly when supported with ownership rights and political protections. However, governments are not only failing to protect communities, but in some cases, such as in Brazil right now, are moving against Indigenous peoples and attempting to remove previous protective legislation.

 

The introduction of a controversial proposed new bill, known as PL 490/2007, threatens to strip over 300 Indigenous communities in Brazil of their existing land rights. If it passes, it would throw open their lands to exploitation, putting their very survival at risk. Right now it’s more important than ever that we raise our voices in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. 

The Amazon: a vital carbon store

Amazon Rebellion, the Environmental Conservation Organisation, a branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), has been campaigning strongly against the bill. Maya Sherwin is a prominent activist from Amazon Rebellion, which advocates mass non-violent disruption to pressure for change. Her group views the proposed new law as the ‘Bill of Death’ and the #TimeLimitTrick which could legitimise the theft of Indigenous lands.

 

‘Bill PL 490 is an affront to the planet,’ Maya says. ‘Amazon Rebellion’s biggest fear is that the 'Bill of Death' will be passed by Brazilian congress and that it will not only destroy Indigenous lives and cultures but tip the Amazon rainforest to a point of no return. This bill must be seen for what it is: a huge push towards one of the planet’s most imminent tipping points – aka Amazon dieback.’

The Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it is able to absorb, scientists recently confirmed for the first time. The giant forest had previously been a carbon sink, absorbing the emissions driving the climate crisis, but is now causing its acceleration, researchers revealed.


‘Passing the tipping point would release billions of tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere, taking millions of years of evolutionary history and innumerable lives – human, plant, and animal – with it,’ adds Maya.

In total Indigenous peoples physically occupy about 404 million hectares of land in Latin America, 60% of which is in the Amazon basin - this equates to an area bigger than France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Spain combined. This massive area is in fact 80% forest and unsurprisingly has massive carbon storage potential. If we were to lose this vital carbon store, the global repercussions would be huge.

Yawanawá man in Brazil

The Yawanawá in Brazil

Guardians of the forest

One crucial discovery from the UN report, is that handing over stewardship of forests to Indigenous populations is a far more effective way of protecting these lands than granting land protection alone. Looking at areas of the Peruvian Amazon between 2006 and 2011, deforestation was reduced by twice as much in Indigenous territories compared with protected areas. Another study that the UN report took into consideration confirmed this as a global trend, with forests reducing by only 4.9% in Indigenous areas compared with 11.2% elsewhere.

Legal rights mean better protection

Of the 404 million hectares occupied by Indigenous peoples, governments have only formally recognised 277 million hectares of this, leaving vast amounts of land with weaker protections. In Brazil, areas where Indigenous peoples had received full collective property rights had a 66% lower deforestation rate. These legal rights not only protect the forests but also offer legal protection to Indigenous peoples who are often targets for violence resulting from land disputes.

 

A larger study that encompassed titled Indigenous territories in the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Colombian Amazon, showed that due to lower rates of deforestation, the equivalent of between 42.8 and 59.7 million metric tonnes of CO2 emissions had been saved – the same as taking 9-12.6 million vehicles off the road for a year. Impressive.

Yawanawá women create our Yawa Bands in Brazil

Yawanawá women create our Yawa Bands in Brazil

Strengthening Indigenous communities for the future

Based on the collective studies included in the report, the UN has recommended that governments should extend and strengthen the legal protections given to Indigenous peoples, including ownership rights. The UN also calls for greater investment to protect the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples, with particular focus on cultural revitalisation, environmental services and increasing the participation of women and youth.

 

‘Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated,’ states the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. ‘Indigenous peoples today are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognises that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.’

 

The Yawanawá, who live in the rainforest in the Acre region of Brazil and are our official partners on a major new project Yawa #TOGETHER, are a prime example of an Indigenous community who are sustainably innovating, whilst preserving their traditional culture. Community leaders have worked to gain legal rights over their lands, allowing them to engage with the outside world on their own terms, while continuing to protect their precious part of the Amazon rainforest.

Our Yawa Bands made from the rainforest's natural açaí seeds

We are working directly with the Yawanawá to produce an exciting new range of Yawa Bands, a collection of 17 beautiful, beaded bracelets made from açaí seed waste, all in different colours representing the 17 different Sustainable Development Goals. Yawa #TOGETHER will help to provide long-term sustainable employment for the community.


Indigenous cultures like the Yawanawá are gaining greater recognition, but we need to match this with investment and political representation to ensure that the guardians of the forest can continue protecting the lands that represent their sacred home.

The threat of the PL 490/2007 bill in Brazil 

The proposed PL 490/2007 bill threatens to cancel legal protections for Indigenous territories and throw them open to exploitation. The consequences would be catastrophic. We need the local and international community to amplify the message of Indigenous peoples of Brazil and call on the Brazilian government to uphold the mandated Indigenous rights.

 

In May an open letter signed by 40 international grocers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s and leading investment firms urged Brazilian lawmakers to reconsider legislative proposals that further environmental destruction or face boycotts of the use of Brazilian agricultural products such as meat and soy.

How you can help

Add your voice to the movement by signing the petition from Survival International here which calls directly on President Jair Bolsonaro to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. The aim is to urge those who will vote on Bill PL 490/2007 to uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples and Brazil’s commitments to halting deforestation and climate change. 


We have collaborated with the Yawanawá on the Yawa #TOGETHER Project in the heart of the rainforest, creating Yawa Bands from ácaí seed waste and Parley Ocean Plastic®️, each featuring a single Humanium Metal bead, made from melted down seized illegal firearms. Updates coming soon!

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