One simple word can have radically different meanings depending on who’s listening.
Throughout the history of the environmental movement, the word “conservation,” has signified hope in the minds of some, and suspicion in others. Many indigenous and other rural communities have historically opposed conservation measures not from lack of environmental concern, but because in the past, some of these efforts restricted their use of the land, threatening traditional livelihoods and cultural practices.
In 1996, when Conservation International (CI) helped propose the 350,000 hectare (about 864,869 acre) Caparú Park in the Apaporis River region of Colombia, local indigenous groups living in the nearby Yaigojé Apaporis indigenous reserve opposed it, believing the park’s restrictions would limit their access to important resources and damage their ancestral lands. Caparú Park was never created, largely because of this indigenous resistance. Yet 13 years later, these same communities have played a critical role in strengthening local environmental protection.
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What caused this change? The story of Yaigojé Apaporis Park reveals a new hope for indigenous empowerment in conservation efforts worldwide.
At the intersection of the Amazon Basin and the Guiana Shield, the Caquetá River’s lowland forests shelter unique species such as the black curassow (Crax alector) and the brown wooly monkey (Lagothrix lagotricha). Along the banks of a nearby tributary, the Apaporis River, a number of small indigenous communities—including the Tanimuka, Letuama, Makuna, Yuhup, Barasano, Itana, Eduria and Tatuyo ethnic groups—also make their home.
Descended from generations of ancestors whose cultures have evolved here, the region’s forests and rivers mean more than basic survival to its human inhabitants: the landscape also has a deep spiritual value. The La Libertad rapids section of the river is an especially sacred place to local people, thought to be the origin of life itself.
In 2007, a Canadian mining company began prospecting for gold in the region without consulting the indigenous authorities. Under its status as an indigenous reserve, the land of the Yaigojé Apaporis still belonged to the national government and was open to exploitation, with its residents powerless to stop it.
Although intensive gold mining would threaten the many natural resources that sustain indigenous community livelihoods, it was the threat to their sacred site that spurred people to action.
Facing the threat of destructive gold mining, the indigenous Association of Traditional Authorities of the Yaigojé Apaporis (ACIYA) recognized that a greater level of park protection was essential. The Association approached CI and the Gaia Amazonas Foundation for help in appealing to the country’s National Parks Unit to better protect the region’s resources.
LEARN MORE: Find out about CI's work with indigenous and traditional people.
As a result, the Connecticut-sized former indigenous reserve of Yaigojé Apaporis has been reclassified as the country’s first “indigenous cultural national park.” Under this new categorization, local indigenous groups will manage more then one million hectare (about 2.5 million acre) park themselves, allowing them to restrict gold mining and other activities. The indigenous peoples will continue to be free to use the park’s resources as they see fit for their daily needs and cultural traditions, as long as certain conservation standards are met. The National Parks Unit and ACIYA will determine and enforce these standards.
A New Role in Fighting Climate Change
The creation of this new protected area is more than an important step for local indigenous peoples; if its management is successful, it may also serve as an example for land tenure projects in other communities in Colombia and around the world.
Greater protection could also lead to other benefits for local people. The Apaporis River region has a history of good governance and low deforestation. Data collected by CI scientists suggests that the mostly intact ecosystem may be more resilient to the effects of climate change than more degraded areas.
The existence of both indigenous groups and rich biodiversity within the park could make it a prime candidate for a new initiative called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation + Social and Environmental Standards.) Under this system, not only would local communities continue to reap the benefits from the intact natural systems that make their lives possible, but they would also be directly compensated for their conservation of the forests and other ecosystems that sequester carbon, protect wildlife and provide other benefits for the planet as a whole.
CI and partner organizations are pushing for the inclusion of funding for REDD+ projects in the climate agreements that will be determined in Copenhagen’s December meetings. With proper funding and standards that respect community rights, a local REDD+ project could expand the indigenous voice in the fight against climate change.
READ MORE: Conservation by Tradition