How to protect tropical forests? Let indigenous people lead | Opinion | Eco-Business

Tropical forests have often been in the headlines lately for all the wrong reasons — wildfires, illegal logging, difficult politics, and the list goes on.

However, there are also reasons for hope. One such bright spot is the effort gaining momentum in the Pastaza region of Ecuador.

Why tropical forests? Because right now, deforestation in the tropics adds only slightly less carbon to the atmosphere than the United States.

According to one estimate, if we protect tropical forests, they could contribute more than 20 percent of the climate emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement targets.

Despite the urgency, we need to stop and consider not just why we should protect tropical forests, but how we can most effectively do so.

The answer? Let the indigenous peoples lead the effort. That’s the key.

Indigenous peoples have always lived on their land, including in the tropical forests, and they know how to take care of it.

When RAISG, a consortium of non-governmental organizations, mapped and analyzed deforestation trends in the Amazon rainforest, they found that indigenous areas there had even lower rates of deforestation than protected areas. Indigenous peoples are truly nature’s greatest guardians.

This is easy to say, but much more difficult to put into practice.

There are deep-seated political and economic interests that are indifferent or even hostile to meaningful, rights-based participation by tribal peoples because it would disrupt lucrative activities on tribal lands (from which tribal peoples often do not benefit).

Even when the intentions are good, it is a challenge to encourage participatory decision-making that puts indigenous people’s needs, desires and worldviews first. But it can be done. Pastaza, a province in the Ecuadorian Amazon, shows how it’s done.

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More than a decade ago, the Pastaza provincial government began incorporating conservation principles into the province’s zoning and development plan.

At the same time, with the support of Nature and Culture International, several Pastaza indigenous nationalities began enrolling parts of their lands in Ecuador’s SocioBosque program, which pays communities to maintain their communal forests.

These early achievements formed the basis for the creation of a 6.2 million hectare provincial protected area in 2017.

Subsequently, the partners in this effort – the provincial government, the seven indigenous Pastaza nationalities, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) and several conservation NGOs – developed and are now implementing a REDD+ plan to stop deforestation reduce and create a conservation-based economy in the protected area.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+ for short) is a United Nations framework designed to guide and finance developing countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from tropical deforestation.

There is a lively debate about the pros and cons of REDD+. Some criticisms of REDD+ are of an ideological nature: nature should not be commodified. Some are practical: REDD+ payments are linked to reducing deforestation rates, leaving areas with historically low levels of deforestation limited in their ability to receive REDD+ credits.

In other words, REDD+ rewards improvement, not being good in the first place.

One of the most glaring criticisms is that, by and large, the benefits of REDD+ have not reached the indigenous peoples who are doing most to save tropical forests.

Although REDD+ has shortcomings, we should improve it and not abandon it. And there are exciting advances in creating REDD+ models that engage indigenous peoples in decision-making and ensure indigenous communities see real benefits. That’s what happens in Pastaza.

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As a member of the Governors’ Climate and Forests (GCF) Task Force, the Pastaza Provincial Government has formally endorsed the GCF Guiding Principles for Cooperation between Subnational Governments, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, as has CONFENIAE.

These 13 principles, based on the recognition of indigenous rights and security, participation and benefit-sharing, establish a cooperative framework between sub-national governments and indigenous peoples to protect forests and mitigate climate change.

To implement these principles in Pastaza, an inclusive governance structure was created to oversee and manage the provincial protected area and the REDD+ plan implemented within it.

The governing consortium includes an Advisory Board composed of representatives of the seven indigenous nationalities in Pastaza, each with one vote, and a technical working group comprised of 10 non-profit conservation organizations.

Formal structures are important, but successful partnerships are based on trust. That is why the early activities in Pastaza were important.

We’ve leveled and achieved the milestones in Pastaza one by one. This was done deliberately to build trust.

In our world of fleeting attention spans and instant gratification, that kind of patience is elusive and rarely fits short funding and political cycles. But it is necessary if we want to achieve the desired lasting results.

Matthew Clark is President and CEO of Nature and Culture International.

This story is published with permission from the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Thomson Reuters dedicated to humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit

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