A Journey From Hell to Heaven: A Firsthand Account of Indigenous Communities Living at the Forefront of the Climate Crisis

Editor’s note: This piece is a translated op-ed written by Maria Elena Gutierrez, the Executive Director of our sister organization on the ground in Peru, Conservación Amazónica-ACCA. The original text in Spanish was published on La Mula and can be found here.

Installation of irrigation system in Infierno. Photo by Yessenia Apaza

A few days ago I visited the Indigenous community of Infierno in Madre de Dios, less than an hour from Puerto Maldonado, Peru in the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve. The community’s name in Spanish, “Infierno”, translates to “Hell” in English; according to some it was given by the ancient merchants of the region who navigated the demanding Tambopata River. They would say, “we’re going to arrive in Hell” while maneuvering through two formidable river bends under a scorching sun and insatiable mosquitoes that blinded and overwhelmed them. After a hundred years, albeit without the sailing, but with masks and the blistering heat of 40 ° C (104 °F), its name still seemed appropriate.

María Cordero, the president of the community, along with some of its members, welcomed us and expressed candidly how difficult it is to motivate entrepreneurship in the Amazon because it requires discipline, perseverance and respect for the land. On top of this are the impacts of climate change. The increase in average temperature and prolonged length of the dry season has been affecting agriculture, an economic activity that the majority of people that live there are engaged in.

One way forward has been the shift to agroforestry, since it combines cocoa or Brazil nut trees with annual crops such as banana or cassava in order to guarantee income during the first years of growth of forest species. Similarly, a promising alternative is the installation of irrigation systems and pumping water from the subsoil, but that constitutes thousands of Peruvian soles that makes it inaccessible to everyone. We were concerned because if we did not identify the appropriate approach to guarantee the sustainability of these technologies, the younger generation who moved back to the countryside due to the pandemic would opt for illegal activities.

From Infierno passing through Lima, the capital of Peru, we headed to the imperial city of Cusco, where my colleagues showed me how in the Andean highlands around the Ausangate mountain range, they are experiencing severe water stress due to the accelerated thawing of ice caps and the intensity of dry periods. For example, the Quechua indigenous communities of Phinaya are dedicated to alpaca farming that depend on a specialized ecosystem, the bofedales, which are highland wetlands.

Alpacas grazing at the foot of Ausangate. Photo by Ronald Catpo

Bofedales are wetlands where small vegetation areas or pastures rejuvenate like sponges from rainfall and moisture, and filter the water through the subsoil, forming lagoons and rivers downstream. Once again, we see how global warming is drying up wetlands at very rapid rates. Now there are alpacas that only manage to drink water every three days.

We hope to soon replicate the success of restoring wetlands and the sustainable management of livestock that we experienced in the Japu Indigenous Community, located at 4,700 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level and considered the last Inca stronghold. But if the world does not manage to control its carbon emissions by 2030 and temperature increases more than 1.5 °C since the industrial era, these ecosystems, and the habitats of our Andean siblings, will soon be inhospitable.

The Andes and the Amazon of Peru are home to an unmatched diversity of species and ecosystems, which we still have yet to fully discover, but whose functions generate key services for human subsistence such as providing food, fiber, medicines, crop pollination, water and climate regulation, among others.

This is everyone’s responsibility as we consume products produced as a result of deforestation or, on the contrary, we do nothing to stop the loss of forests, which are our key allies in carbon sequestration and the stabilization of the climate. For the COVID-19 pandemic there is a vaccine, but there is not one for the climate crisis. If we don’t do something soon, we are going to rewrite Dante Alighieri’s work with dramatic scenes from the climate emergency, initially starring the most vulnerable.

 

Key Takeaways from Building a Forest-Based Economy in the Amazon Virtual Panel

 

“The tipping point is here, it is now. A modern vision of the Amazon must include truly innovative elements to create profitable bioeconomies that would immediately eliminate illogical and short-sighted economies.”

-Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, renowned climate scientists

 

On September 22, we hosted the webinar panel “Building a Forest-Based Economy in the Amazon”, where a panel of international speakers discussed what it takes to build a profitable bioeconomy that keeps the Amazon standing for generations to come,  as part of Global Landscape Forum’s “The Tipping Point” conference. Local community members, Indigenous Peoples, and international experts covered three main topics:

  • Production Capacity and Market Connections
  • Scaling Up
  • Building Climate Resilience and Adaptation

 

Click here to see the full agenda or here to download the presentations (original presentation languages only).

John Beavers, the Executive Director of Amazon Conservation, opened the session affirming how a forest-based economy is a key conservation and development method. “From our view, the local & national economy can sustainably optimize the use of healthy forests as a path to a just and prosperous way of life, and for the effective conservation of the Amazon at scale through a great bioeconomy.”

Thomas Lovejoy, a renowned conservation biologist nicknamed “the Godfather of Biodiversity”, reminded viewers of the ecological importance of the Amazon, highlighting that it makes half of its own rainfall and we are at a tipping point close to where there isn’t sufficient moisture for the Southern and Eastern Amazon to support rainforest. “The solution,” he said, “is to bring back the capacity of the forest to generate moisture, which relates to the new vision of forest-dependent Amazon economies that do not require replacement of forests by large-scale plantations.” He also highlighted the construction of transportation infrastructure and the importance of communication with people on the ground. “We must engage in the local discussions about the infrastructure projects, and what are good and not good ways to go about them, so that wherever the bad ideas begin, there will be a local and informed populace that can argue against them.”

Production Capacity and Market Connections

During the first of three sections, panelists covered how local people are building their capacity to sustainably produce from the forest and create market connections that optimize production and increase incomes from forest-friendly commodities. Marcos Terán, Executive Director at Conservación Amazónica – ACEAA, our sister organization in Bolivia, introduced this section by highlighting the resources the Amazon provides its countries. “If we are talking about building forest-based economies, we cannot overlook the vast biodiversity of the Western Amazon, which gives us resources that directly relate to the development of Amazonian countries.”

One example of a community doing this is Porvenir, in the Bolivian Amazon. Gresley Justiniano, the mayor of this town and the youngest mayor in Bolivian history at 26 years old, discussed how one of their municipal development strategies is to build an economy based on Amazonian products such as açaí, as the region where she is mayor is home to the 79,000-acre Porvenir Conservation Area, an area we helped establish last year. With these resources, they are looking to access larger markets through a better fruit transformation process, sanitary certification, and improved harvesting practices. She also adds that, “our town’s location allows us to access different markets…This allows us to strengthen productive chains and diversify to other Amazonian fruits such as palma real and majo.”

The next speaker was Sara Hurtado, a Brazil nut concessionaire and entrepreneur from the Peruvian Amazon. She is also the manager of the Peruvian Brazil Nut Industry (INCAP in Spanish) and spoke about the benefit of sustainable harvesting, partnering with harvester associations, and Brazil nuts’ importance as a non-wood product that doesn’t result in deforestation. Sara also mentioned how they are working to be resilient to climate change, saying, “We know that climate change will affect Brazil nut production in Madre de Dios and the world. That’s why harvesters are organizing to strengthen our work in the field. We monitor our land to prevent…deforestation, and reforest with Brazil nuts.”

The last speaker of the section was Daniel Larrea, the Science and Technology Program Coordinator for Conservación Amazónica – ACEAA. He provided statistics about Brazil nut capacity in Bolivia, such as that there are 20 million Brazil nut trees in the country valued at USD 130-135 million per year, with 87,000 people participating in their harvest. But, he emphasizes that this productivity is dependent on the well-being of the Amazon. “Maintaining a healthy forest is the first step to keeping it productive, to strengthen the livelihoods of local communities. If a forest is healthy, it is productive, it is resilient to the effects of climate change.”

Scaling Up

The following section covered how to scale locally-based production so that it covers the entire Amazon, through strengthening local producer associations and indigenous federations. Isabel Castillo, Country Director of NESsT Peru introduced this section and discussed investment in the Amazon, and how we have to start speaking the language of the two worlds of the financial system. “As facilitators our role is in the world of investment–traditional & nontraditional, but it is also to help local entrepreneurs go national & see their avenue of options to be able to do business.”

Eiji Misael Campos Fernandez was the first speaker of the section, and he currently serves as the President of the Departamental Federation of Açaí and Amazonian Fruits of Pando (FEDAFAP) in Bolivia, a regional association representing rural families and farmers across the Pando Department. He noted the importance of advancing sustainable harvesting saying that, “it is very important. In the Pando department, what was done before was not sustainable…palmera was being lost in this region. Today we have good harvesting practices.” He also emphasized the importance of working within associations, and how they help meet the objectives set for forest concessions.

Martin Huaypuna, the President of the Indigenous Forest Association in Madre de Dios (AFIMAD), spoke next. Based in Puerto Maldonado, Peru, AFIMAD represents seven indigenous communities from the lower Madre de Dios river area who are dedicated to sustainable Brazil nut production. He discussed some lessons learned so far, saying that, “Being an Association has made us stronger, before we were victims of intermediaries, now we can negotiate better with buyers and generate greater volume. Although there is little financing for our activities, we finance ourselves with: contributions from partners, we manage loans with international and national entities, though help is always welcome…Now we are better at conserving our forests.

Building Climate Resilience and Adaptation

The last of our three topics covered at the conference covered some of the ways in which communities are building resilience and adaptation into their forest management and production. James Hardcastle, the Associate Director of IUCN, introduced the section, noting the importance of scaling up through local channels whether that be through local harvesters’ associations or non-governmental organizations on the ground. “When we think of bioeconomy and we think of scaling up we tend to think of volume and finance…but really what we need to see scaling up is the connection to approaches and organizations, to see scaling up as growing something from strong roots…This really means public and private investors need to incorporate these elements that we’re facing, this ability to support good governance and scaling up through the local channels, local connection, peer to peer knowledge and local agents and information flow…bioeconomy is built on financing the whole resilience.”

The first presenter of the section was Hilda Maria Cordero, the first woman President of Ese Eja Infierno, an indigenous community close to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon. She gave firsthand accounts of how her community has noticed the difference in weather patterns the past few years, likely as a result of climate change. “The dry season is getting drier, there are days that reach 104° F (40 °C) at noon…and Brazil nut production has changed a lot. There are years when production drops a lot and affects us economically. In the dry season, the smoke that comes from Brazil and Bolivia (from the fires) reaches Madre de Dios. This affects people (vision, lungs) and we do not know how it is affecting crops or wildlife.” However, she also noted how they’re adapting to this current situation and supporting forest-based economies, saying, “We are empowering community organizations so they can negotiate with buyers and get better prices, and are seeking the organic certification of our agricultural products to have a sustainable production and to be able to enter better markets.”

Adivaldo Moura Silva, the Director of the Amazon Productive Development Service of Integral Technical Assistance (SEDEPRO in Spanish), which is part of the local Pando, Bolivia government spoke about what his community is doing to be resilient to climate change. Pando spans 156 million acres (63 million hectares), with 84% of its surface being Amazon forest. “We are implementing mechanisms that contribute to the mitigation & adaptation to climate change, through the sustainable management of our forests and Mother Earth,” which includes coordination between public and private sectors, and the diversification of the use of Amazonian fruits.

Closing

After a brief question-and-answer session, Fabiola Muñoz, the Former Minister of Environment and Agriculture for Peru, closed the session with the main takeaways from this session. She noted how information to local actors is a key element, with another being financing. “We cannot advance without accessible financing. We also have to work on financial inclusion…show what it is possible that these are truly scale-ready profitable businesses. We have to learn to grow, and we have to start speaking this language of the two worlds of the financial system. We also have to work on financial inclusion, and show that these are truly scale-ready profitable businesses.” She also concluded on a hopeful note, saying, “I believe that this event has shown us that it is possible to have an economy based on the products of biodiversity.”

Thank you to all our participants and panelists for attending our session. To see what other upcoming events there are, please visit amazonconservation.org/events.

 

Securing Organic Certification for Bolivia’s Flagship Conservation Area

We recently helped solidify the renewal of the certification of the Manuripi-Heath Amazonian Wildlife National Reserve in Bolivia, and now more than 803,000 acres (325,000 hectares) have organic certification, a long-term task we’ve been working on since 2012. This was the result of extensive technical work from our sister organization in Bolivia, Conservación Amazónica-ACEAA along with the Bolivian National Service of Protected Areas (SERNAP in Spanish) and WWF-Bolivia.

This annual certification includes 8 communities and 21 individual farms. With this distinction, local communities can manage the commercialization of their harvested Brazil nuts to the organic market. For the past ten years, the Manuripi-Heath Amazonian Wildlife National Reserve has been the protected area with the largest area of certified organic Brazil nuts, meeting the criteria of the Bolivian, European and American standards, which allows the Reserve to commercialize them in these markets and bolster local communities’ economies.

Photo by Ana Carolina de Lima

Organic certification is an incentive mechanism that assesses wild production for the development of specific markets, and every year more and more effort is required to maintain it. Areas must develop pre and post harvest activities and complete information specific to the harvesting of Brazil nuts, as well as follow specific norms for organic wild production. Over the past two years, certification has been even more complex due to limitations and restrictions caused by COVID-19. It is granted after a long process of inspection and assessment by a certification committee that evaluates all the supporting documentation, and is granted by the international certifier CERES – Certification of Environmental Standards, based in Germany.

 

This achievement was possible within the project “Strengthening sustainable productive capacities in communities of the Manuripi Amazon National Wildlife Reserve, Pando, Bolivia” which is implemented between Conservación Amazónica-ACEAA, WWF-Bolivia, and financed by BMZ, and WWF Germany.

 

Partnering With Descendants of the Incas to Combat Climate Change in the Peruvian Andes

Photo by CORBIDI, courtesy of Conservación Amazónica – ACCA
Photo by CORBIDI, courtesy of Conservación Amazónica – ACCA

Among the soaring mountains of the Andean Andes live the Japu indigenous community of Peru. Part of the Quechua-speaking Q’eros ethnicity, they are considered to be the last direct descendants of the Incas. Their nearly 85,000-acre territory ranges between 500-5,000 meters above sea level, spanning across Andean highlands and Amazonian foothills. Because of the vast altitudinal gradient, it is home to unique ecological biomes, endemic and endangered species, and bofedales — wetlands in the highlands that store water from melting glaciers or rivers. Due to the effects of climate change, however, the snow-capped mountains the Japu live nearby are melting faster than ever. For example, seventy years ago the nearby Apu Mama Rosa mountaintop was covered in snow, but now only a little remains.

Bofedales are key for the community’s resilience against climate change, as they are not only regarded as reservoirs of water but also for carbon, which is stored in the form of peat 4,000 meters above sea level in the high elevations of the Andes. In fact, bofedales can store as much as 300-700 tons of carbon per hectare, compared to an average of 150 tons of carbon per hectare stored in the Amazon rainforest. However, these incredibly important areas are also at risk of deterioration due to overgrazing of locally raised animals, high animal density, and poor management. Thus, our current project in Peru aims to restore and improve the management of highland wetland areas in this unique region.

Saving the Bofedales

The work to restore these key areas began in 2016 and 2017, with a first phase of studies that obtained a biological baseline on the community’s bofedales. We investigated different aspects of the community through socio-economic evaluations, and the wetlands with agrostological, hydrochemical and plant ecology evaluations. This helped us develop a management plan that would improve both the community and the lands’ situation.

From 2019 to 2021, we have been in the process of restoring and revegetating 32 acres, with the current goal to recover six wetlands throughout the community. We are also promoting the wetlands’ value among the inhabitants of Japu, so local community members fully appreciate their ecological benefits and commit to taking care of them. Local authorities and community members are responsible for their monitoring and recovery, as they can easily observe the capture and growth of the species in the specified plots and thus will be able to replicate the activity. All actions to be done during the execution of this project are coordinated in the Communal Assemblies, which involve the full participation of the community.

Together, we have advanced to phases II and III of the management plan, which include valuation and practice of traditional knowledge, revegetation of native species, fencing of vulnerable areas, creation of water redistribution channels, and internships in the Japu wetlands with members of the Cusco Glaciology Platform. So far, we have created water redistribution channels and constructed small dams to reduce water speed so it can distribute itself more effectively among the wetlands. In total, there are 13 wetlands identified for restoration, 6 of which we consider priority for restoration between Phase II and Phase III.

After a year and a half of the fencing and revegetation intervention, the results began to materialize. Community members, excited at the success, were motivated to replicate the process in other wetlands in need of restoration, and requested these activities to continue. According to the agrostologist, who is a specialist in the study of pastures, in October of this year it will be possible to graze the alpacas and continue with the gradual recovery before reaching the optimum level. Meanwhile, the community members await the moment when the alpacas can graze again in the restored wetlands and continue with their management.

This community exemplifies how the preservation of cultural values and traditional knowledge can directly translate into effective ecosystem conservation through community-based natural resource management.

We thank Acción Andina, New England Biolabs Foundation and U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service for supporting us with the financing of our conservation projects in the Japu Community.

San Antonio Community in Bolivia is First in the Region to Receive Equipment That Improves Sustainable Harvesting

 The Amazonian forests of northern Bolivia are home to acres upon acres of Brazil nut trees that support a myriad of animal and plant species, as well as local communities, such as San Antonio within the national Manuripi Amazon Wildlife Reserve. Like many in the Bolivian Amazon, the members of the San Antonio community work to sustainably harvest forest products to support their livelihoods. 

On September 12, our sister organization on the ground Conservación Amazónica-ACEAA, delivered equipment that will make sustainable harvesting for the community members of San Antonio easier, including a tractor and seed-dispersing equipment, with an approximate investment of 380,000 bolivianos (55,000 USD), together with our funder WWF Bolivia and our partner Bolivian National Service of Protected Areas (SERNAP in Spanish). The delivery of this equipment to support productive harvesting will help bolster the local economy and improve the quality of life for Amazonian communities, as well as encourage protection of the forest. 

“This is a longing that we have always had. Now we have the challenge of organizing ourselves in the best way to use these tools for the benefit of everyone, always maintaining the health of our forests,” said Ronald Montes Beyuma, President of the Community of San Antonio during the delivery ceremony. The San Antonio community is the first in the region to have this equipment, which supports the extraction and removal of Brazil nuts and improves transport practices in collection and storage. We will also support training processes for the use and management of these tools. 

“The importance of promoting the integral management of Amazonian forests and supporting the production of Amazonian fruits are activities that keep forests standing in time to improve the quality of life for local communities,” said Marcos Terán, the Executive Director of our sister organization Conservación Amazónica-ACEAA.

This equipment will benefit 22 families that each own plots of 1,200 acres, whose objectives are the conservation of this area and the promotion of the use of wild resources. Sustainable harvesting of products such as Brazil nuts promotes the preservation of forests, as it generates income for local communities without resulting in the deforestation that products such as timber would cause. Additionally, Brazil nuts can only survive in healthy forests, not in aggressive monocultures, making protecting these forests essential to their harvest. 

This collaboration is part of the project “Alliances and Multiactor Platforms: Sustainable economic management of natural reserves in Bolivia, empowering local and indigenous communities” with financing from BMZ Germany.

 

 

145 Fires Impact 2.1 Million Acres in Bolivia: September 2021 Fires Update 

Our Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project team has been using our fires app throughout the season to provide real-time updates about the fires raging across the Amazon. In Bolivia, we registered around 145 fires in the country to date, of which more than 100 are considered major fires.These are distributed mostly in the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz, with some in La Paz and Chuquisaca, burning mostly in grassland areas, followed by forest areas. The most affected places are the Chiquitano forest and the Chaco.

Acreage of Burned Areas

In the Beni there are currently more than 1.7 million acres (700,000 hectares) of forests impacted due to the fires, corresponding mainly to grassland areas. According to data from colleagues in the department of Santa Cruz, more than 338,000 acres (137,000 hectares) have been impacted since the end of July. This number will have increased considerably since then, due to the peak fire season being in August. As the fire season lasts through November, we will update with more information as the season progresses.

Fires Last from Days to Weeks

Fires can last from one day to multiple weeks depending on the type of land cover where they are burning. For example, the fires in the department of Beni, where the majority have been, usually burn for one or two days in the savanna areas. In Santa Cruz the fires are more intense, sometimes lasting weeks. Most of the fires now are burning agricultural areas, but there are already several protected areas impacted, already exceeding thousands of acres. These fires are concentrated in the transitional sector of the Pantanal savannas and Chiquitanos forests.

Fires in the Chacho dry forest this month

Effect on Animals

The negative effects on fauna and plant species is evident especially in protected areas. Cloudy skies from fire smoke affect animal populations, as Amazonian species breathe in smoky air that was carried beyond the burned area by the wind. Rehabilitation of animals as always will be difficult in the affected regions, especially where they have experienced a longer fire season. In our next evaluation, we will likely see the severity be more intense than what we are observing at the moment.

Support Fires Response Efforts in Bolivia

Currently, we are aiding fire response efforts on the ground in Bolivia, as many municipalities are underfunded and in some areas do not even have access to water. Click here to protect forests and animals from the impacts of these fires and support our fire response efforts.

 

1,500 Major Fires Across the Amazon, But What’s Behind the Burning?

We’ve passed a grave milestone this fire season in the Amazon. Last week, the Director of our deforestation and fires monitoring initiative, MAAP, Matt Finer, announced that over 1,500 major fires across the Amazon have been detected via our real-time fire monitoring app.

The vast majority of the blazes are not the result of forest fires tearing through tracts of land as a regular part of the seasonal cycle. The climate of the Amazon is quite unlike areas of California or Australia, where dried plants and dead trees can become the unlucky targets of a violent lightning strike and erupt in flames. Instead, the relative humidity of the rainforest makes it so it doesn’t easily catch fire, even during the dry season. It is actually very rare for forests to burn by themselves, and the delicate ecosystems of the Amazon are unequipped to manage seasonal fires.

Thus, instead of forest fires, what we’re seeing is that the major fires we’ve detected in the region are caused by humans on deforested land, and follow a specific pattern of clearing forest and burning it months or a year later.

Deforestation Leads to Fires

Ranchers and farmers clear forest in early months of the year and leave behind the remains of the cut trees or use them for timber. Then the plot is set on fire, giving this process its name “slash-and-burn”. The burned remains become a layer of nutrients feeding the soil, and the recently deforested area is ready for agricultural activity or cattle ranching. Farmers may also burn recently deforested lands in order to quickly eliminate excess vegetation. 

This human-caused deforestation-to-fires pattern is what we’ve primarily seen in the Brazilian Amazon using our fire tracker app combined with Planet satellite imagery. Our multi-country Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project team can pinpoint major fires in real time, gather its coordinates, and look at a timelapse of the area over several months. With this method, we can discover exactly when the area was deforested and when people set the fires. 

This methodology also works the other way around, where our researchers can predict where major fires will occur based on an area’s deforestation patterns. Last year, when we first relaunched our fires app, our team was able to successfully predict where the first major fire in the Amazon was going to be.

 

Human-Caused Fires on Deforested Land Escape to Healthy Forest

With slash-and-burn agriculture, it is a perpetual concern that fires set on deforested lands will grow uncontainable and escape to the healthy forest around it. This fire season, we’ve already seen some agricultural fires in Brazil overwhelm the surrounding forest, causing actual forest fires. Though the Brazilian government has instituted a fire ban to try to mitigate the damage done to untouched forest, we have identified hundreds of illegal fires that have burned forests. 

These types of fires can be especially severe because they crawl along the forest floor eating up debris and ground cover, and are obscured by the tree canopy. When undetected and unaddressed, these blazes can destroy the thin-barked tree species in the Amazon, as these trees aren’t adapted to handle fires the same way some in the U.S. have evolved to do.

 

What’s to Be Done?

Our MAAP team is tracking the Amazon fires daily with our app and satellite imagery to keep everyone informed on what’s happening on the ground. Not only do we make this information available to the public, but we also provide policy briefs to governments of Amazonian countries so they can take action to combat fires. Additionally, we provide fire management workshops in key communities in the Bolivian Amazon to train local people on how to prevent and combat forest fires, as well as provide them with the equipment to do so. 

Because clearing forests for agricultural purposes or timber is a major driver of fires, a core aspect of our work is building a fire-free, forest-based economy that promotes protecting standing forests for their long-term economic benefits instead of aggressively clearing them for short-term gains. We partner with local communities in Peru and Bolivia to harvest sustainable forest products, such as açaí berries and Brazil nuts, that require healthy forests for them to grow.

Interested in supporting fire prevention and response efforts in the Amazon?

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