A blazing ring of fire encircles one of the last places on Earth where, even today, people can carry on their ancestral way of life.
Viewed from space, flames from burning forest – cleared mostly for cattle ranching – almost perfectly outline the deep green of forest covering indigenous territories that span tens of millions of acres in the southern and middle portions of the Xingu River Basin in the southeast Amazon of Brazil.
This block of indigenous lands forms almost half of a 71-million-acre (29-million-hectares) network of conservation areas, which secure legal protection for 56 percent of the Xingu River Basin. On the lawless frontier, however, protection in practice is another matter. Yet this corridor and the indigenous people who live here are the greatest hope for survival of significant tracts southeastern Amazon forest, with its magnificent ecological and cultural richness intact.
IN PHOTOS: View a photo gallery of unique species in the Amazon
The importance of this area also extends to helping battle one of today’s most pressing environmental threats: global climate change. As this issue gains more attention among the public and policy makers, perhaps the voices of indigenous people will finally be heard as they fight to protect their forests and their futures. So far, they are not at the bargaining table for negotiation of a global carbon markets as a tool for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Two opportunities present themselves to truly enable indigenous people to determine their own destinies. One is the United Nations’ General Assembly ratification last September of the Declaration for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, which had been on the table for more than two decades. Another opportunity lies with governments involved in the ongoing international climate change discussions to recognize the important role indigenous people play in the protection of forests and climate mitigation.
Over the past three decades, indigenous territories have proved formidable barriers to forest destruction in the southeastern Amazon. Ten legally ratified indigenous territories are located in the southern half of the Xingu protected areas corridor. These indigenous territories comprise some 35 million acres (14 million hectares) controlled by approximately 7,000 Kayapó Indians and another 5,500 Indians from 14 ethnic groups, including the Panara, Wawi, Batovi, Yawalapiti, Kamayurá, Wauja, Kalapalo, Narowuto, Kuikuro, and Kisedje. But outside development pressure continues to mount and, today, funding for helping indigenous people gain capacity in the twenty-first century for territorial control and protection of the Xingu basin is an order of magnitude less than what is needed.
VIDEO: The Kayapó Nation: Protectors of the Amazon
Without constant monitoring, indigenous territories across this large and logistically daunting region constantly risk invasion by ranchers, colonists, fraudulent land developers, commercial fishermen, loggers, and gold-miners. If illegal loggers cannot gain entry through a back door, they then try to buy off certain members of indigenous communities in order to gain access to rich timber stocks. When indigenous people are inhibited from leveraging their rights and lack proper and adequate information to make strategic decisions and sustainable economic alternatives, they are vulnerable to outside pressure to liquidate their natural resources, which in turn threatens their very existence as a culture.
Indigenous people of the Amazon strive to preserve their cultures and the natural ecosystems on which their cultures are based. However, they lack support in the twenty-first century to gain sufficient capacity for territorial control and for developing sustainable economic alternatives to predatory resource exploitation. Indigenous people could gain adequate support by accessing carbon markets and payments for maintaining globally and regionally significant forest ecosystem services and for protecting vast stores of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.
ACT: Offset the carbon released from your lifestyle now
Funds raised from sales of carbon offsets would enable indigenous people to strengthen their governance structures and provide for educational needs. This could also pay for the infrastructure, training, and technical and administrative support they need to adequately monitor their territories and for developing sustainable economic enterprises that fit with their societies. In the broad sense, the aim of carbon markets is to control rampant deforestation by empowering indigenous people to improve their standards of living while continuing their traditional lifestyles.
Every year the ring of fire burns more of the Xingu’s rich forests where indigenous people have lived for millennia. The world should recognize the rights of indigenous people to live on their lands and control their destinies.
Barbara Zimmerman is director of CI’s Kayapó Project.
Want to learn more?
Brazil's Kayapó: Powerful Allies in the Amazon
The Kayapó Nation: Protectors of the Amazon
Amazonia: The Last Eden
Unique Species in the Kayapó Nation
The UN's Permament Forum on Indigenous Issues