Why It Matters: Amazon Conservation
The reality of climate change casts its murky shadow over the forest and its people. Though we cannot know the future, this is what we do know: the ecosystems of the tropics store massive amounts of carbon and help stabilize weather patterns across the planet. But human-caused deforestation is responsible for 10-15% of the yearly global greenhouse emissions that drive warming. Rising temperatures can trigger drought or floods, which weaken or even kill already stressed forests, leading to even more deforestation. Moreover, the people who live in tropical forests can lose their homes, their livelihoods, and sometimes even their lives from the destabilizing effects of global warming.
Tropical ecosystems harbor not only the greatest number of species in the world, but also the greatest species variation in form and function. We know that high biodiversity is a marker of ecosystem health and resilience, but we don’t always understand the relationships between species. As climate change begins to impact the survival of some species, we need more knowledge if we hope to maintain the strength and well-being of the forest.
Fortunately, the accumulated knowledge of indigenous and local people help explain the interactions of many species. We collaborate closely with our partners, utilizing their unique insights into the mysteries of the forest, to identify, catalog, and protect the biodiversity of their territories.
Worldwide, indigenous people represent only 5% of the world’s population but protect nearly 80% of the remaining terrestrial biodiversity on the planet.
In nearly every Amazon country, cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation. Ranchers set illegal fires to clear the forests, then gain title to the land by bringing in their cattle. When native grasses are depleted and can't sustain the herds, the ranchers lease the land to soy plantations. The frontier of destruction, especially along rivers, continues to expand as ranchers seek new land. When local people try to protect their territories, their protests can be met with extreme violence.
Indigenous elders of our partner communities warn us that the cattle ranches and plantations fragment the forest and block the natural connectivity between ecosystems. We work with local people and local governments to expand indigenous reserves and protected areas, in order to create healthy forest corridors and restore the natural movement of clean water.
Though they provide renewable energy, dams are probably the most controversial of all development projects in the Amazon. When dams are poorly sited, the consequences are dire. Valuable forests are flooded, rare wildlife may be drowned, and fisheries may be destroyed. Construction roads can become avenues of deforestation. Dams often displace large populations of indigenous and local people, separating them from their lands, their medicinal plants, and their sacred sites.
Some of our indigenous partners view the planet’s water systems as similar to the circulatory systems of the human body. Free movement of water is a critical part of maintaining the health of all beings, the communities’ elders say. For them, even a well-sited dam might cause unforeseen problems.
Tropical forests are complex ecosystems containing whole galaxies of life forms, from the tiny microorganisms that form the forest’s foundations to the gigantic and ancient trees that are homes to all manner of flying, climbing, and crawling creatures. In indigenous belief systems, forests also are the source of culture, medicine, language, and memory.
Seen through the lens of biodiversity, deforestation is a massacre. When a forest is felled, many of its inhabitants also perish. About 20% of the Amazon’s original forests are gone, forever. Much remains in unconnected fragments that struggle to survive, as fragile as oases in the desert. Yearly deforestation rates may rise and fall, but local governments remain under constant pressure to exploit forests for their resources.
Deforestation levels can fall dramatically when indigenous and local people gain control their own territories. We help our partners secure legal title to their lands, where possible, and provide them with the tools they need to manage their forests sustainably.
Underneath the Amazon’s forests and along its rivers, gold hides. The lure of this precious metal attracts transnational mining companies, which are somewhat regulated, and individuals - often impoverished - who work outside the law. Concealed by the immensity of the jungle, outlaw miners obliterate riverbanks and forests in search of gold. When deposits are found, large amounts of mercury are used to separate gold from other minerals. The toxins wash into rivers and accumulate in the food chain, and local communities who depend upon fish can be poisoned. Yet the promise of wealth continues to lure people away from their villages and into this deadly business.
In 2015, we created an online map, “Amazon Gold Rush,” which tracks the destruction of many thousands of acres of pristine rainforest in the remote regions of Suriname. Distant eyes now have the opportunity to see first-hand how illegal mining scars the forest.
Why It Matters: Amazon Populations
The diverse cultures of the Amazon are tightly woven into their ecosystems, depending upon them for everything: food, water, medicine, material goods, and spiritual well-being. The accumulated knowledge of these oral cultures, spanning thousands of years of coexistence with the forest, lives in the minds and bodies of the elders. These women and men may be master herbalists, ceremonial leaders, storytellers, bone setters, law-givers, or shamans. They function much like the libraries of western culture, preserving and transmitting knowledge from generation to generation.
But modern life, with its temptations and conflicts, has penetrated deeply into most of the Amazon and disrupted the traditional chains of succession. When elders die without passing on what they know, thousands of years of information can be lost, forever: knowledge of the forest fades, histories vanish, languages and dances are forgotten. Without their cultural memory, communities begin to lose coherence.
We work on several fronts to strengthen traditional knowledge and culture, including ethno-education programs for youth. We help restore and support the relationship between elders and apprentices to insure the continuance of knowledge. We believe this strengthens our partners’ cultures, contributes to scientific understanding, and powerfully aids the conservation of their lands and their forests.
If the forests of South America have stories to tell, the most depressing ones describe a history of colonialism. Conquering Europeans seized control of indigenous peoples’ territories, and set up property structures that enabled taxation and prioritized resource extraction. For centuries, the original inhabitants had no legal rights to their own land and were silenced if that land was despoiled. Not only has the legacy of colonialism been manifestly unjust, it virtually ensures the forest’s destruction.
Across the Amazon, local communities want and need secure rights to their territories. We believe these communities are our best possible allies in conservation as we face accelerating pressures on the forest’s resources. While each country has different laws regarding property (for more details, see Colombia, Suriname, Brazil), we collaborate with our partners to strengthen their collective voice and to improve their ability to reclaim, manage, and govern their lands.
When healthy tropical ecosystems begin to disintegrate, the catalog of consequences for our partner communities is long and somber. Deforestation destroys livelihoods, wipes out plants used for medicine, destabilizes local rainfall patterns, and can lead to catastrophic mudslides. If lands are deforested for agriculture, rivers may be poisoned with chemicals and clogged with sediments, and fisheries may be ruined. Fires set to clear forests can make the air unbreathable. Entire communities are weakened, and the most affected are the very young and the elderly.
But people whose lives and cultures are completely enmeshed with their territory suffer more than the loss of “ecosystem services” when their lands are degraded. When the forest is destroyed, our partners are deprived of not only foods and medicines, but also the source of their language, their philosophies, and a profound and beautiful sense of belonging.
Together with our partner communities, we strive to reclaim and restore damaged ecosystems. We also work, in a variety of initiatives, to reconnect fragmented forests, which then flourish when cared for and protected by our partners.