Comment: Indigenous peoples protect the planet from nature loss – empowering them protects us all

Indigenous communities helping sustainably manage and patrol rainforest threatened by gold mining and illegal logging
Participation of women in the chestnut harvest in the Amarakaeri Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon. Community management has meant 98% of the forest has been protected, despite powerful outside threats. ECA-RCA/Handout via REUTERS

February 22 - Deep within the lush, green rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon, several members of the local Indigenous community, together with khaki-clad state park rangers, are on a surveillance patrol of the land, after receiving an alert that illegal miners may be moving into the area.

They set off a drone, which flies high overhead as they walk, capturing the wider picture of the surrounding forest. After several hours, the patrol team arrives at an area where trees have recently been cut and a trench dug into the earth. The shock of red-orange dirt is an open wound against the dark green of the surrounding forest.

After a moment’s silence, one man begins snapping photos of the scene on his phone, while others enter information into a geo-monitoring device. They will continue to observe this area closely over the next few months, ready to instantly alert the park authorities if the miners return.

The work of this team is one small step towards reaching an ambitious global goal agreed just a few months ago – to conserve nearly a third of nature by 2030. Achieving it will be impossible with greater support for Indigenous people, in the Amazon and elsewhere.

The patrol is make up of members of the ECA-Amarakaeri, which brings together 10 Indigenous groups and the Peruvian state to co-manage 402,335 hectares of primary rainforest in the Amarakaeri Reserve. Their collaborative model of conservation has been so effective that more than 98% of the forest is successfully being conserved, despite facing constant threats from illegal gold mining, logging and deforestation for settlement and agriculture. This achievement has been recognised by the IUCN Green List, which certifies the highest conservation standards worldwide.

As well as protecting their ancestral territory, ECA-Amarakaeri are increasing families’ incomes in communities living within the reserve through sustainable businesses such as Brazil nut and cacao production through agroforestry, sustainable tourism, fish farming and poultry breeding. Profits are directly paid to families in the reserve, enabling them to continue preserving and living off the forest without negatively impacting their territory.

Pak Karim gave up his chainsaw to change his livelihood in Sukanda, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) has been working with indigenous communities in Indonesian Borneo to reverse illegal logging and deforestation. ASRI/Handout via Reuters

In Indonesian Borneo,12,000 miles away,, Karim is paddling his small, blue-painted wooden boat down a wide river lined by lush, ancient rainforest. In the serene first light of day, he tosses out his fishing nets, and waits patiently.

Karim once cut down trees to make a living and provide for his family. But a few years ago he sold his chainsaw to Indonesian forest charity Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) in return for a zero-interest loan to help him turn from logging and find new, sustainable work as a fisherman. Through this chainsaw buy-back scheme, anyone in the community who had been surviving through logging is encouraged to trade in their chainsaw in return for a loan and support in starting a new, more sustainable, business. Popular activities include beekeeping, raising chickens, opening juice stalls or, like Karim, fishing.

Because of this innovative scheme, in a shed a few miles from the river now sit hundreds of chainsaws that once belonged to loggers from forest communities, who thanks to ASRI have now found better-paid work that does not destroy the forest. ASRI has also built a new healthcare clinic in the community where families can pay for treatment with goods such as seedlings and manure.

ASRI has spent 15 years working to protect and restore the ancient rainforest in the Gulung Palung and Bukit Baka Bukit Raya national parks in Borneo. These are some of the most richly biodiverse places on Earth and home to the orangutan, yet also at serious risk of total destruction from fires, industrial oil palm and timber plantations.

Optometry services are provided as a part of routine care at Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) Medical Center in Sukadana, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Community members can pay for these services through cash or non-cash payment systems such as with seedlings, handicrafts, or volunteering. ASRI/Handout via REUTERS

The result? Over the last 15 years, ASRI has seen a 90% reduction in illegal logging, and a 67% reduction in infant mortality levels in the communities they work in. Their innovative model is now being replicated in West Papua, Madagascar and Brazil. This achievement caused ASRI to win the 2022 Ashden Award for Natural Climate Solutions. Closing date for the 2023 awards, which are free to enter, is 8 March.

Preserving and regenerating ecosystems is critical to solving the climate crisis. An agreement reached at COP15 in December 2022 commits governments to conserving nearly a third of Earth for nature by 2030 while respecting indigenous and traditional territories in the expansion of new protected areas.

Indigenous peoples represent only 4% of the global population, yet they are guardians of more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Strong Indigenous land rights have been recognised as an important climate solution. Yet in many parts of the world, Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) do not have tenure of the forest land they live on, despite the fact that when they do, they are better able to conserve it. Support for sustainable livelihoods is also crucial to ensuring Indigenous peoples can fulfil the role of guardians and protectors.

Still, locally led solutions do not receive more than a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars the international powers are pouring into solving climate change. It’s vital that funding is channeled directly to Indigenous-led conservation and regeneration in Peru, Indonesia and beyond.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Dawn Stevenson is a sustainable development programme officer helping to run Ashden’s international climate awards, searching for the most game-changing solutions globally. Her focus is on rural livelihoods, clean energy access and climate solutions led by indigenous peoples and local communities. Dawn's experience spans international government climate programmes and NGOs in the UK and abroad.