NEW YORK, New York — Earth’s oldest living ecosystems, rainforests are home to half the world’s species and naturally recycle harmful chemicals from the air. However, in recent decades, humans have contributed to the loss of upward of 13 million hectares of tropical forest a year. As a result, 18% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed, with the remainder facing threat of deforestation as trees are burned or cut down to produce disposable commodities.
Alongside having devastating impacts on global poverty and the environment overall, the loss of rainforests is compromising the lives and livelihoods of the many Indigenous communities who inhabit them. In a recent interview, The Borgen Project spoke with Suzanne Pelletier, director of the Rainforest Foundation, to learn how the organization is working to protect both the environment and the land rights of Indigenous peoples.
The Rainforest Foundation
Founded in 1988 by the singer Sting and actor Trudie Styler, the Rainforest Foundation is “the biggest NGO working on rights-based forest protection worldwide.” Based in the U.S., the U.K. and Norway, it targets regions with high surface areas of rainforest, which as a 2008 study showed, typically correlate to high poverty rates. Thus, by directing funds and expertise to protect the world’s rainforests, the Rainforest Foundation is simultaneously tackling global poverty. Currently operating in eight countries, it emphasizes combating biodiversity loss and human rights abuses, empowering local communities and securing the land rights of Indigenous peoples.
Many Indigenous communities do not hold rights to the rainforest lands they inhabit, making it difficult to hold illegal loggers accountable for the destruction they cause. For example, Pelletier said, Indigenous communities including the Embera and Wounaan in Panama; the Ticuna, Kichwa and Asheninka in Peru; and the Wapichana and Macuxi in Guyana and Brazil rely upon the land for food, shelter, medicine and a sense of collective identity. “Their territories hold deep cultural and spiritual significance,” she explained. “Indigenous communities engage in traditional practices like hunting, fishing, farming and gathering of medicinal plants for their survival, to provide their livelihoods, food security and to ensure their well being.”
The destruction of forests means the destruction of these communities. Unfortunately, many nations lack infrastructure to protect the rainforests that they have absorbed over centuries. For instance, the Brazilian government owns 141 million acres of Amazon rainforest that have become highly vulnerable to grabbers and illegal mining. The Rainforest Foundation works to legally bind native communities to their lands to ensure both the communities’ and the forests’ longevity.
“Securing land rights helps Indigenous peoples to protect their territories from land grabbing, deforestation, mining, and other types of resource exploitation by outsiders,” Pelletier said. Furthermore, she added, native ownership decreases likelihood of exploitation, with 99% of the 45 million acres of tropical forest in the Rainforest Foundation’s reserve remaining preserved. In addition to helping Indigenous communities secure land titles, the Rainforest Foundation helps to settle disputes, legally address human rights violations and draft bottom-up land management plans to facilitate long-term Indigenous stewardship.
The organization also works to ensure that Indigenous peoples have access to the technology needed to protect their land. Its Rainforest Alert program “provides training, tools and financial support to Indigenous organizations to map, monitor and secure their territories using cost-effective technologies like smartphones and drones.” The program works by transmitting satellite information to Global Forest Watch, a free web application. Upon detecting a threat, technicians save the location on a memory card, which couriers then transport to the relevant off-grid community. Indigenous patrollers investigate the site and document any illegal activity, equipping community leaders with the information needed to take legal action.
Underscoring Rainforest Alert’s success, the program led to a 52% reduction in deforestation for Indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon in 2021. Furthermore, studies show that, in the coming decade, the technology has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 100 million metric tons — equivalent to the emissions of some 21 million cars — each year. As of 2022, 12.2 million acres of rainforest are now protected through this monitoring, including 506,000 acres in Peru, 1.5 million acres in Panama and 10.1 million acres in Guyana.
Strengthening Community Institutions
The Rainforest Foundation is effective partly because it partners with Indigenous organizations that represent local politics, interests and values. For example, the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP) has been working to help Indigenous communities in Peru gain titles to their lands since 1980. However, according to Waldir Azaña, Coordinator of the Center for Territorial Information and Planning, “The group financing the titling project were always the ones that sat at the negotiating table, and AIDESEP was left to the side. In this partnership with Rainforest Foundation US, we feel that we are trusted to manage these funds, and we are the ones at the negotiating table.”
Through a recent agreement with the Rainforest Foundation U.S., AIDESEP directly liaised with the local government to quickly secure land titles for 18 Indigenous Peruvian communities. Elsewhere, the Rainforest Foundation’s support has similarly helped bolster local institutions and communications, resolve internal land disputes and advance Indigenous governance. Last year alone, the organization helped advance titling efforts for 9.2 million acres, Pelletier said: 104,995 in Peru, 1.2 million in Panama and 7.9 million in Guyana.
In 2017, the United Nation’s Strategic Plan for Forests 2030 established the ambitious goal of increasing forest area by 3%, or 120 million hectares, by 2030. Indeed, the Rainforest Foundation’s progress in protecting the land rights of Indigenous peoples is becoming more vital than ever.
– Caroline Crider