Nature 460, 457 (23 July 2009) | doi:10.1038/460457c; Published online 22 July 2009

Indigenous people defend rainforest as well as their rights

Glenn H. Shepard1

  1. Department of Anthropology, Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Av. Perimetral, 1901 Terra Firme, Belém, Pará 66077-830, Brazil


What can we learn about the relationship between native peoples and environmentalism in the Amazon from last month's tragic clashes between indigenous protesters and government security forces in Bagua, Peru? The event, in which more than 30 people were killed, underscores the overlooked and sometimes hazardous role of indigenous groups and organizations in confronting powerful commercial interests in the Amazon.

The assumption that heavily forested, indigenous-occupied lands are unproductive has fuelled colonization, deforestation and tribal displacement in Amazonian Peru for a century. Following enactment of the United States-Peru Trade Promotion Agreement in February this year, Peruvian president Alan García issued a series of decrees aimed at opening native communities to oil, mining, logging and other economic ventures. Indigenous Awajun and Wampis protesters, calling for the repeal of these decrees, set up a roadblock in April that was violently dispersed on 5 June by security forces. After two weeks of intense international media attention, the government repealed a few of the decrees.

The incident, which has been called the 'Bagua massacre', provides a sobering lesson for the conservation community. The 'ecologically noble savage' debate has revolved around whether demographically growing and politically engaged indigenous populations represent a threat to biodiversity conservation or an opportunity for it. Defenders of native rights to vast tracts of Amazonia say that indigenous reserves deter deforestation, whereas some conservationists say that their exploitation of natural resources has adverse effects (see S. Schwartzman et al. Conserv. Biol. 14, 1351–1357, and J. Terborgh Conserv. Biol. 14, 1358–1361; 2000). But ultimately, the dual goals of nature conservation and indigenous rights have proved compatible. Three-quarters of Latin American national parks include native inhabitants, and Amazonian indigenous reserves maintain forest cover and refuges for many animal species — unlike surrounding colonized areas, which suffer heavy losses to biodiversity and forest cover.

Indigenous people's intimate connection with the Amazon rainforest has led them, countless times, to lay down their lives in defence of their territories and, incidentally or not, the biodiversity and carbon stocks they harbour. Hard-core conservationists should remember these sacrifices when factoring out the 'ecologically noble savage'.

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