Deep in the heart of the Amazon, a compelling concept is taking root alongside towering ancient trees: that indigenous peoples — given the training and technology — can play a central role in mapping and preserving the rainforest.
A five-day conference in Puyo, Ecuador this week, “Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin” – hosted by COICA (the coordinating body of all Amazonian indigenous organizations) with support from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) in the United States - brings together eight indigenous leaders from four Amazonian countries, representatives from the government of Ecuador, educators and scientific experts to increase indigenous participation in forest governance, particularly policies like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The meeting represents the materialization of a proposal to the Inter-American Development Bank for which I – in whatever small part – helped COICA push through incredible Washington bureaucracy and conditions back in 2010.
Perhaps most significantly, this is the first time the Inter-American Development Bank has ever chosen an indigenous organization to execute a grant. It’s a big — if somewhat late — step for the multilateral development bank of the Americas, a region of 40 million indigenous peoples, about 12.7% of the population. So while indigenous peoples were the originators of this project, COICA has reached out for help in navigating what can sometimes be a frustrating system of finance and project management. They worked diligently to select the best indigenous technicians from their Amazonian constituency to come to this meeting.
And the stakes are high.
“Indigenous peoples’ knowledge will be the salvation of the planet.”
A longstanding interest in this idea – and belief in its viability – is why I found myself trekking ankle-deep in mud with eight indigenous colleagues from Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador yesterday. Equipped with GPS devices, measuring tapes, flagging tape, field guides, compasses and timber crayons, we weathered the tempestuous tropical climate to learn how to find coordinates, plot forest parcels, and measure tree diameters according to international standards.
The somewhat banal trials of the day – an uninvited boa constrictor in our hotel, painful wasp stings and torrential rain in the field – paled in comparison to the immense challenge that inspired this conference: the need to incorporate forest dwellers themselves into the mapping, monitoring, and governance of their lands.
Much talk of indigenous participation in forest governance these days is just that: talk, and much of it prosaic.
But here in Puyo, I can’t help but feel that the COICA/EDF/WHRC joint initiative represents the technical frontlines in this struggle for indigenous participatory mapping and carbon monitoring. Participants in this conference will spend the week not only learning critical skills, but also planning curricula to teach these skills to other indigenous communities in their countries.
These leaders are foot soldiers in a world of information asymmetries, asymmetries that will take a lot more than talk – money, time, technology, information, and patience – to correct.
Amazonian indigenous peoples are traditional forest dwellers and stewards of their lands. Ideologically, ethically, financially and logistically, it makes sense that they should play a central role in monitoring their increasing changes. Many of them now see opportunities to leverage this position to play a larger role in global climate change discussions.
“Many governments are skeptical that indigenous peoples can collect these data, but they can,“ he said. “I know because I’ve seen what they are capable of with even minimal training. They absolutely can do this.”
By the end of this week, the conference will have created a cadre of indigenous experts equipped with the basic skills necessary to locate forest coordinates, create parcels, measure trees and estimate biomass and forest carbon in these areas. They will then train others in the Amazon on climate change, forests and surveying skills. This field surveying, in turn, will help calibrate and validate satellite imagery of the Amazon. The resultant maps will serve as a critical resource for understanding forest change and estimating carbon emissions worldwide.
Day one of the conference featured almost twelve hours of information-packed presentations, covering topics that ranged from the international instruments that enshrine indigenous rights, visions for indigenous-centered REDD+, the status of REDD+ in international negotiations, as well as the basics of climate change, deforestation, and the methodology for creating national forest inventories. Woods Hole Research Center presented the big picture of how indigenous ground-truthing integrates with satellite imagery to create more accurate carbon maps.
But most indigenous participants here are not discovering this information for the first time; indeed, many are already well-versed in these topics. Instead, the discussions of the day centered on how to disseminate this basic information about climate change, REDD, and forest monitoring to indigenous communities in the Amazon in an effective and personalized way.
Pablo Santillan, Executive Director of the Metis Foundation, recounted his experience in distant Ecuadorian communities where some believed that REDD would bring tanks into the rainforest to suck the carbon out of the forest, deflating trees. “We don’t want to be left with shrunken trees!” these communities objected. Pablo’s pedagogical workshop offered practical tools to fight these misconceptions and make complex information like forest carbon emissions more accessible to remote indigenous villages.
“For many of them, global climate change is a distant concept,” he explained. “It doesn’t reflect the reality of their everyday lives. How can we bring in local traditional knowledge and experience to personalize these lessons?”
Participants’ discussions in day one struck me as pressing as they are daunting: How can we balance western science with traditional ways of knowing without devaluing either? How can each Amazon country deal with different national conditions of indigenous land ownership rights in the context of REDD? Could these mapping skills also be used to create cultural and social maps? How do we engage more women in this training process? Should we emphasize the financial incentives of REDD to communities, or focus instead on the implicit value of forests to traditional culture?
Day two began the technical field work component of the workshop, hence the inch of mud now caked on my boots. Utilizing their GPS systems, indigenous participants undertook a “scavenger hunt” of sorts to following coordinates on the way to a field where Wayne walked us through the step-by-step technical process of laying a 40 x 40 meter parcel. After laying the parcel, he demonstrated how to measure all the trees within the plot by placing a tape around the trunk at the standard 1.3 meters above the ground, known as “DBH” — diameter breast height.
But on day three when indigenous representatives went to plot their own parcels in a nearby forested ethnobotanical park, many found that the standard 1.3 meters barely reached their chins.
“We need a new DBH,” they joked, “a ‘diameter chin height’ for the malnourished.’”
The forest erupted in laughter, but the measurements continued. Chris Meyer, Wayne, and Alessandro stood by to attend to the occasional doubt: do I include this palm? Is this tree inside or outside of the plot? How do we correctly measure this vine-wrapped leaning tree with towering roots?
At the end of day three, we were exhausted but continued working on each countries’ plan to carry out local workshops and create curriculum on climate change tailored for their communities. The logistics overwhelm: how will the Brazilians carry out effective workshops with maximum participation in such a vast region? Will the Ecuadorians travel by boat, bus, or plane to reach their workshop locations? Is it cheaper to bring the facilitator to the communities, or the communities to the facilitator? The leaders worked late into the night organizing their plans.
Wayne and Alessandro are scientists at heart, but scientists with their eyes set on affecting policy for an improved planet. Their field requires a certain level of commitment to pure science, with academic publications serving as a metric for one’s professional “success.” Indeed, they have published an academic article related this project in Nature and Climate Change. But it is heartening to see them bravely reaching beyond the boundaries of their discipline to complete the kind of outreach that some scientists eschew. Public science outreach is a painstaking and expensive process, and Chris, Wayne and Alessandro deserve immense credit for democratizing information critical for indigenous participation in climate change discussions.
These guys are not afraid to get their hands dirty – both literally and figuratively – to teach indigenous peoples technical skills in the field.
For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of REDD, the idea – originating at the 2005 UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal – is elegant in presentation: deforestation emits large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, almost one-fifth of global anthropogenic emissions. If we can incentivize forest preservation (financially, say) than we have an economical way to combat climate change, save trees and reduce global carbon emissions. This financial incentivizing could be facilitated through credits bought and sold on the carbon market and/or through bi- and multi-lateral aid.
However sexy in its conception, REDD continues to generate doubt and controversy. Indigenous peoples weren’t always in favor of the concept, fearing possible land grabs or scams; some continue to resist its very premise – placing an economic value on forest preservation.
Yet many – a group most prominently represented by COICA – recognize that the world will move forward with the hope of reducing emissions from deforestation, with or without indigenous input. But considering that 25% of Amazonian territory is inhabited by indigenous peoples, many prefer to be at the negotiating table making the decisions.
Better yet, after this week, they can make the maps too.
As my year-long research project is showing, the international call for human rights protection is increasingly being met with data points, satellite images and carefully-crafted maps. Technology is only one component, but a critical component to help bring information access – and hopefully, human rights protection – to indigenous communities.
This week will give Amazonian indigenous peoples the necessary know-how for informed involvement in climate change schemes, particularly REDD. This week will also provide science with critical new data sets needed for improved understanding of Amazonian biomass and forest carbon stocks.
In a sense, it’s a beautiful symbiosis. It feels a bit like we’re crowd-sourcing geographic data in the Amazon, but to groups of individuals with specific training and information who also have a vested interest in the result.
After this week, the Amazon will be one step closer to ensuring indigenous communities have the tools – and data points – to represent their interests in the forest.