World Rainforest Movement

The vision of protected areas as seen by the Indigenous organization COICA

The Greater Amazonia that stretches over approximately 7,8854,331 km2 (*) possesses the largest rainforest in the world, with flora and fauna that constitute, on their own, over half the world’s biota, comprising hundreds of thousands of plants and millions of animals, many still unknown to western science. At the same time, its waters represent between 15 and 20% of the planet’s total fresh water reserves, and the great River Amazon alone empties 15.5% of the non-salt water into the Atlantic Ocean.

We, the Hunikuin, Shuar, Yine, Kichwa, Tagaeri, Machsco and hundreds of other millenary Peoples, known as Indians, live in this world of extraordinary diversity of species, protectors of our territories where almost 100% of the forests and biodiversity existing today are to be found. Threatened by political, economic and social factors, the Amazon is in a continuous process of occupation, tension, disputes, human and environmental damage, justified by the myths of integration and poverty alleviation in other regions, while attempting to find here the model of sustainable development based on ancestral knowledge and forms of harmonious relationships between the Indigenous Peoples and nature.

Various interests in the strategic resources existing in the Amazon (uranium, oil, nickel, zinc, copper, gold, genetic resources, among others) have made this vast region a propitious venue for starting disputes, with the creation of categories and concepts granting adjectives to nature, under the form of protected areas such as national parks, forest, fauna and ecological reserves, etc. The impact on our territories has been enormous due to the superimposition of false conservation interests over our territorial rights, ignoring that we have existed since time immemorial. None of these categories offers a true guarantee to the protection of Indigenous territories, affected by the 181,251 hectares of protected zones in the Amazon Basin countries, as they are absorbed by interests in mining, oil and timber exploitation, colonization and tourism. As an example we highlight what has happened in the Yasuni National Park (Ecuador), where recently a genocide of the Tagaeri people took place, permanently instigated precisely by timber traffickers, without the State (through the Ministry of the Environment) having been able to exercise any authority or control.

Furthermore, management plans for protected areas have not considered the existence of local inhabitants in an appropriate manner, forcing them to migrate to other places where other social actors already exist.

In addition to this, there is a lack of compliance with the scant legislation existing in the countries of the region, because of an economic model destroying the environment and facilitating operating licenses without considering the basic human and social principles of the Indigenous Peoples. Such is the case of the presence of oil companies on Huaorani territory (Province of Pastaza, Ecuador), where the following oil blocks have been granted: Petroecuador, Block 14 Vintage, Block 16 to Repsol-YPF, Block 21 to Kerr MacGee, Block 31 to Perez Compac.

For us the impacts are even more complex, considering the usual practices of assistance, division and cooptation to justify agreements or consultations that have supposedly been reached with the communities, peoples and organizations.

As a way of overcoming these disputes, it is essential to ensure that our territories are guaranteed as a means of protecting nature. This must be respected and supported, primarily by the governments, because it is the best way of guaranteeing conservation with the presence of human lives, represented by us, the Indigenous Peoples. This is the only way that the Earth Summit declaration of principles, the Agenda 21, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests and other international instruments of relevance regarding the environment can be put into practice.

In those cases in which protected areas are superimposed on our territories, our pre-existence should be recognized and the consequent existence of ancestral rights, even before adopting any legal standard of recognition for the use and management of natural resources existing in Indigenous territories and the responsibility for co-management with the participation of our local government institutions.

It would seem that this relationship between protected areas and Indigenous territories has generated more disputes than agreements, requiring the implementation of practical action plans and respect for our existence as peoples in our diversity to face the systems or criteria created by economic interests or territorial occupation. We would therefore highlight the following proposals:

– The pre-eminence of our territorial rights over any figure of protection together with free access to and control over existing natural resources;
– The prohibition of all types of external extractive activities in already declared protected areas and the guarantee to the Indigenous Peoples of economic benefits for environmental services;
– The elimination of superimposition of protected areas, in particular those which affects our territories;
– The direct participation of our representative organizations in the formulation of political, legal and other decisions affecting us.

(*) Bolivia 824,000 km2; Brazil 4,982,000; Colombia 406,000; Ecuador 123.000; Guyana 5,780; Peru 956,751; Venezuela 53,000; Surinam 142,800 and French Guyana 91,000.

By: Sebastião Haji Manchineri, General Coordinator of COICA (Coordination of the Amazon Basin Indigenous Organizations), Quito, 29 July 2003.