by: Marion Adeney and Paulina Arroyo

In April 2019, thousands of Indigenous people gathered in the streets of Brasilia for “Free Land Camp,” an annual gathering to emphasize the indigenous struggle for their constitutional rights to ancestral lands, cultural determination, and forest preservation. Fast-forward to April 2020, and though a global pandemic had emptied the streets and forced Indigenous people to shelter in their communities, it could not silence them. Instead, the virtual corridors of social media resounded with the voices of Indigenous leaders from Brazil and other countries across the Amazon. From remote villages, capital cities, and online platforms, Indigenous people spoke out, demanding protection of indigenous rights and preservation of the Amazon.

Although Indigenous peoples[1] have distinctive values, languages, cultures, and governance structures that should not be generalized, several decades of Western scientific research has corroborated that overall, and compared to areas not subject to traditional governance, Indigenous peoples effectively steward large tracts of intact forests, freshwater ecosystems, and associated biodiversity. For example, in a world acutely concerned with climate change, Walker et al. 2020 found that while indigenous lands hold approximately one third of the Amazon’s above-ground carbon, they suffered only a 0.1% net carbon loss from 2003-2016 – the smallest net loss of any land-use category. Recent analyses by the Wildlife Conservation Society show that indigenous lands in the Amazon shelter up to 49% of vertebrate species in South America.

Through their success in stewarding these resources in the face of growing pressures, Indigenous people continue to teach us about perseverance and solutions with tenacity and resilience. A fundamental building block for indigenous stewardship is securing land and resource rights, and such rights are recognized in some form in the constitutions of eight out of the nine Amazonian governments. Securing land rights contributes to ensuring Indigenous people’s traditional vision that they are intimately part of their environment and in harmony with the natural world. “This marks a fundamental characteristic of how Indigenous people see themselves – as part of their land – a stark difference from how non-indigenous people see themselves,” states Francisco von Hildebrand, Director of Gaia Amazonas in Colombia. Yet although Indigenous people once traversed large areas of the Amazon, legally recognized indigenous lands today only make up about 28% of the basin (in many cases not their historic, or the most desirable, areas). Indeed, for Indigenous people in the Amazon – and around the world – efforts to secure these rights still fall short.

For the Moore Foundation’s Andes-Amazon Initiative, collaboration with Indigenous people as conservation allies remains critical to achieving the long-term goal of preserving a healthy and functioning Amazon ecosystem. Indigenous territories, totaling ~56 million hectares (~138 million acres or an area about twice the size of Michigan) represent fully half of the Andes-Amazon Initiative’s portfolio. Protected areas adjacent to, or overlapping with, ancestral and titled indigenous territories sometimes result in tensions around land use and governance. Yet sustained dialogue between protected area managers, communities, and Indigenous leaders have often yielded innovative models of shared stewardship. For example Gerardo Macuna, from the Macuna people and legal representative of the Indigenous Council for Yaigoje-Apaporis, whose territory overlaps the national park of the same name in Colombia, asserts that “if the state wants to protect the park, they have to do so based on the values and vision of what our traditional elders are telling us; if there is disease, it’s because there is an unbalance with the natural world, and we have to listen to our elders to find the balance.” This is the conceptual basis for their governance agreements with the national park service.

A photo of Gerardo Macuna, from the Macuna ethnic group and legal representative of the Indigenous Council for Yaigoje-Apaporis.

A photo of Gerardo Macuna, from the Macuna people and legal representative of the Indigenous Council for Yaigoje-Apaporis.

“If the state wants to protect the park, they have to do so based on the values and vision of what our traditional elders are telling us; if there is disease, it’s because there is an unbalance with the natural world, and we have to listen to our elders to find the balance.”

Across the Amazon, Indigenous people and their lands are in the crosshairs of ever-increasing threats ranging from invasions and land grabbing to illegal and unsustainable resource extraction (e.g., logging, hunting, and gold mining), to impacts from large-scale agriculture, infrastructure development, and climate change (e.g., uncontrolled fire, reduced rainfall, pesticide contamination). The global COVID-19 pandemic has had highly disproportionate impacts on Indigenous people and exposed deep inequalities – some rooted in systemic racism – in basic entitlements such as health care, food security, and internet connectivity. With reduced public budgets and all government hands on deck to combat the pandemic, illegal economic activities have run rampant, exacerbating existing risks (including the spread of COVID-19). In turn, Indigenous people frequently risk their lives defending their territories. Murders of environmental defenders are on the rise worldwide, and Brazil and Colombia stand out for their high rates.  

Partially in response to these heightened threats, a bold wave of indigenous voices has emerged. Indigenous women and youth, in particular, have stepped into visible leadership roles. They are adeptly using Western technology, leveraging innovative tools and bringing new allies and ideas to bear on their struggle. Indigenous women hold prominent leadership positions in national and regional indigenous organizations, and Joenia Wapichana of Roraima state is making history as the first Indigenous person elected to Brazil’s  congress. Indigenous people emphatically assert their rights and values, articulate their contribution to global climate stability, and have mobilized international allies including celebrities, academics, activists, business leaders, and politicians – as well as garnered support from the public. Among calls for cultural determination, protection of isolated peoples, and adequate government protections, the demand for land rights as a vital necessity for their physical and cultural survival continues to rise to the fore.

Indigenous woman holding a sign REFLORESTE o seu pensamento para curar o futuro - reforest your thinking to heal the future

Indigenous leader Watatakalu is a coordinator of the Indigenous Association of the Xingu Indigenous Land (ATIX) in Brazil. Among other activities, she played an influential role in organizing the COVID-19 response in her area, especially with regard to the needs of women. The sign reads, "Refloreste o seu pensamento para curar o futuro." English translation: "Reforest your thinking to heal the future." Image credit: Instituto Socioambiental.

This concern is well aligned with the Andes-Amazon Initiative strategy of establishment and effective management of protected areas and indigenous lands as key to conservation of large intact ecosystems. Over the last 15 years, we have supported alliances among civil society and indigenous organizations to secure legal title to over five million hectares of their ancestral and community lands, especially in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. In concert with land titling (considered an enabling condition, but insufficient alone for management effectiveness), we support local organizations to develop and enhance indigenous territorial environmental management plans and Life Plans as key instruments to advance forest conservation. Far beyond a simple land-use plan, these are powerful tools of community reflection, engagement, and self-determination. They are constructed through detailed bottom-up processes that bring together Indigenous elders, formal leaders, women sages, and the younger generation who will steward their peoples’ future culture and survival. Indigenous women, in particular, contribute their critical expertise to land management because they assess soil capacity and cultivate a diversity of crops that will have impacts on plant composition dozens of years later. In another concrete example, consultation protocols in alignment with the International Labour Organization Convention 169 are constructed by indigenous communities with support from civil society partners. These tools facilitate the interface of traditional knowledge, values, and customs with outside legal and socio-economic frameworks, allowing indigenous communities to define the terms and conditions within which they must be legally consulted about projects that impact their territories. Civil society partners such as Amazon Conservation Team in Colombia, Instituto Socioambiental in Brazil, Instituto del Bien Común in Peru, and Wildlife Conservation Society in Bolivia establish long-lasting alliances with indigenous organizations and together use such tools to diligently build the future management and protection of their territories. Over time, these alliances can result in resilient partnerships with strengthened indigenous and civil society organizations that enhance their influence and capacity to defend indigenous lands for future generations.

Alongside the painstakingly detailed work of planning and managing territories, Indigenous leaders are harnessing multi-scale strategies, including leveraging international platforms. For example, national and Amazonian coordination organizations of Indigenous people in Brazil and Peru have taken their demands for recognition and protection to international bodies like the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Climate Conference of the Parties, and to government, religious, and private sector stakeholders across Europe and beyond. These voices are being heard. Ecuadorian Waorani women and leaders defending their lands from state-sponsored oil extraction were recognized by Time Magazine, Colombian Yaigoje Apaporis youth and elders received the United Nations-sponsored Equator Prize for the decades-long struggle to defend their homelands for the Tanimuka, Letuama, Cabiyari, Yauna, Gente Dia, Yujup-Maku, Makuna and Barasana peoples, and many other national and international news outlets have showcased their long struggle.

Angela Amanakwa Kaxuyana (center) part of the senior leadership of the Brazilian Coordinating Body of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon (COIAB) participates in a public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding the situation of indigenous peoples in Brazil. She is flanked by Luiz Eloy Terena, general counsel for the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (right) and a Pankararu leader (left). Image credit: Indian Law Resource Center

Though important, these examples (among many) of international recognition of Indigenous voices have also provoked deep reflection as to how Indigenous people can leverage Western technology and institutions to protect their traditional ways of life, while adapting to an ever-changing world. Western-educated Indigenous professionals bring their skills and determination to apply these tools to this struggle. In Brazil for example, Indigenous lawyers are partnering with national and international law organizations to create a network that can access federal courts and prosecutors in support of indigenous organizations and lands under threat. More locally, Indigenous organizations and their civil society partners apply technological and institutional innovations to protect their territories. In the Tambopata National Reserve in Peru, the Ese’eja Indigenous representatives in the reserve’s management committee defend both the reserve and their community forestry concessions that buffer it from irresponsible mining and logging, oftentimes putting themselves at high risk from organized crime. Here, as in Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Amazonas states in Brazil, indigenous organizations integrate satellite imagery and drone technology with boots-on-the-ground patrols. The resulting data and analyses provide powerful evidence for legal proceedings aimed at preventing and prosecuting land invasions. Indigenous organizations and their civil society partners mobilize and hold government enforcement entities to account, while also putting strategic pressure on international corporations, their shareholders, and extralegal actors. Finally, Indigenous people, such as the Uru-eu-wau-wau in Rondônia, Brazil are also documenting their own experiences to get their stories out to urban centers and to the world.

Importantly, Indigenous women and men continue to focus on participation at the decision-making table. They articulate a narrative that links their ancestral rights to their self-determination, cultural and physical survival, and the preservation of their lands and ecosystems. They position their struggle within the global context of climate change and biodiversity loss to assert their capacity and legitimacy for stewarding the natural systems that we all depend on. As Valéria Paye Pereira of the Kuxuyana people (Brazil) Executive Director of the new Indigenous-led fund Podaali noted in her New York Times opinion piece entitled “We Know How to Stop the Amazon Fires”, “Indigenous peoples have maintained the Amazon for millenniums…. [and] can keep doing so, if we let them.” Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and beyond defend these, their lands, for their own survival and that of all of us. At the Moore Foundation, our Environmental Conservation Program is committed to safeguarding large, relatively intact, ecosystems for their intrinsic value as well as their critical role as a fundamental human right, for present and future generations, maintaining a livable and equitable world.

As we wrestle with competing forces that strive to define the future of development in the Amazon, we continue to ask ourselves, "development for whom?" While some may try to claim that the time of traditional peoples has passed, the indigenous history of the Amazon tells a different story. Instead of “empty forests” inhabited by a few nomadic peoples, archeologists now recognize a long presence of large, complex civilizations. Connected by earthworks, rivers, and trade networks, these people may have shaped the very forests that we now recognize for their outsized biodiversity and ecosystem function. Through consecutive invasions brought on by resource booms and busts, and by surviving violence, disease epidemics, slavery, and removal from their homelands, Indigenous people in the Amazon have persisted and fought for the survival of their forests and rivers. Their struggle for survival and their voices continue today with enhanced power and urgency that extend beyond environmental conservation, to a broader and interlinked challenge — and fleeting opportunity — to build a global, enduring, sustainable future for all humanity.

To learn more:

Marion Adeney is a program officer for the Andes-Amazon Initiative at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation
Paulina Arroyo is a director for Adaptive Management and Evaluation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation  


[1] The United Nations-system body has not adopted an official definition of “indigenous” and uses a modern understanding based on a set of descriptions.


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