Biodiversity in the Amazon: Promoting Indigenous Stewardship as Policy

by Jordan E. Erdos

February 1998

There are 1.7 million known plant and animal species on the Earth. This is only a small fraction of the many species believed to exist — estimated to total somewhere between 10 to 12 million distinct species. Studies have demonstrated greater productivity, resistance to disturbance, resilience and rate of recovery in ecosystems with high biological diversity. Much has been written in recent years about the threat of destruction to this biological diversity, or biodiversity as it is often called. Areas of highly concentrated biodiversity, such as the Amazon rainforest, have experienced increasing deforestation as developing countries seek to utilize their natural resources for economic gain.

It is not only biodiversity that is lost with the destruction of the Amazon forests, but cultural diversity as well. Many of the world’s original peoples, the indigenous tribes, also face extinction as resources become more scarce. When first discovered by Europeans in the late fifteenth century, the Amazon had an indigenous population of approximately 6 million people; there are currently an estimated 250,000 remaining. Ethnocide, introduction of Western diseases, depletion of important resources for survival, relocation, and acculturation into modern Western society have contributed to this loss.

With the disappearance of indigenous cultures, the world loses the original stewards of the Amazon. Historical evidence demonstrates that the great Amazon biodiversity is, in fact, anthropogenic in nature. Evidence links plant species diversity to indigenous agricultural practices. University of Berkeley geographer Bernard Nietschmann has further accentuated the connection with his Rule of Indigenous Environments: Where there are indigenous peoples with a homeland there are still biologically-rich environments.

The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that, in order to preserve biodiversity, policies must involve the participation of the indigenous and address the preservation of cultural diversity as well. The paper is divided into four sections. In the first section, I will seek to strengthen Nietschmann’s argument through an exploration of indigenous plant use and specific examples from different indigenous societies. Next, I will look at the current threats to biodiversity and cultural diversity. In the third section I will explore some of the efforts that have been made, both public and private, to address these issues and involve indigenous societies in preservation. Finally, the last section will examine potential policy directions which may be taken to preserve biodiversity through strengthening indigenous institutions.

The First Caretakers

Bepkororoti, an ancient shaman unjustly killed by fellow Mêbêngôkre tribesmen while seeking his heriditary share of tapir meat after a hunt, returns in the form of dangerous storms which threaten the tribe and its crops. To appease his spirit, natives, acknowledging his fondness for honey, leave honey and pollen in disturbed hives. The result is re-colonization of these hives by certain species of bees. From the fear of phantasmagorical retribution comes the reintroduction of species to once-barren hives. The story of Bepkororoti is just one example of the way in which indigenous mythology contributes to biodiversity.

For many indigenous tribes, it is a human obligation to maintain the balance and health of the natural world. Nature is inclusive; human beings are merely a part of the greater whole. In indigenous cultures, rituals and ceremonies serve to prevent overconsumption of natural resources; to these populations, environmental ethics are discernible in the very structure and organization of the natural world.

The native inhabitants use the forest’s products, among other things, for construction materials, food and alcoholic beverages, fuel, oral hygiene, and crafts. For those who live deep in the jungles of the Amazon basin and other areas of great biodiversity, the forest acts not only as a home, but as a pharmacy and general store as well.

Studies have consistently demonstrated the importance of a diverse ecosystem to indigenous tribes. The Chacobo of Bolivia employ 82% of species found in a measured area; the Quijos Quichua of Ecuador use more than 90% of a measured plot. The Shuar use at least 245 medicinal species in their pharmacoepeia. The indigenous peoples’ subsistence comes primarily from those resources found within their general vicinity. Given the limits of these resources, they operate efficiently. An example is the Kayapo, who create trails in the woods and carry seeds and tubers to plant along the trails when they defecate.

They are dependent upon their local ecosystem, and have derived a great understanding of their surroundings from long-term cyclical observation over many years in which they have been able to observe seasonally reoccurring phenomena. In fact, often the indigenous understanding exceeds that of the Western scientist. Ethnobotanists — scientists who study the relationship between people and plants — have encountered native classifications of strains of wild species which, to their trained eye, offered no tangible differences. For example, the Barasana Indians of Amazonian Colombia can identify all tree species in their territory without having to refer to the fruit or flowers. Richard Evans Schultes calls this the indigenous ability to recognize “hidden” diversity in plant species.

It is through necessity that the natives make such recognitions. Different species serve different uses. With no written language, the indigenous orally transfer this knowledge from the elders to their students. One ethnobotanist has determined that it is this very nonliterate tradition which influences processes in which rationalistic knowledge is acquired about ecological associations. The forest serves not only as a home, but as a laboratory and school as well; it is the universe from which arises all indigenous social institutions and sacred rites. “The Indians often tell me that the difference between a colonist [a non-indigenous settler] and an Indian,” notes Martin von Hildebrand, Colombian anthropologist, “is that the colonist wants to leave money for his children and that the Indians want to leave forests for their children.”

This is precisely what the indigenous have done for generations. In “The Pristine Myth,” University of Wisconsin geographer William Denevan explores the history of the American landscape since 1492, concluding that the first peoples of the America had, in fact, modified forest extent and composition; created and expanded grass lands; and engaged in agricultural practices which had local impacts on soil, microclimate, hydrology and wildlife.

Today, indigenous agricultural and gathering practices continue to transform the landscape in manners which often encourage biodiversity and sustainable use. Studies have shown the effect of indigenous soil management and in situ plant management on biodiversity: Gathering strategies such as rotation of gathering areas prevent the decrease or loss of some resources; enhancement strategies, such as sowing seeds in areas occupied by populations of wild plants or weeds and of course, protection of plants through the elimination of competitors and predators also serve to transform the landscape.

As subsistence farmers, most indigenous engage in sustainable practices. Problems arise when economic pressures force tribes to engage in the growing of cash crops or when local resources have been plundered by outsiders of the community. Then, as with most societies in similar circumstances, the indigenous are prone to overuse resources, overhunt game, and fell forests for timber.

Non-sustainable practices arise from differences between societies resulting in conflicts between the Western economic system and its demand for products and the indigenous ethos of humankind as nature’s steward. The relationship between these conflicting interests is best understood through the concept of “ecosystem people” and “biosphere people.” The former are those who live mostly on those resources which have been gathered or produced within their immediate vicinity, whereas the latter are characterized as those who have access to resources from all over the world and are able to transport themselves to locations in which these resources are found.

While ecosystem people are at risk to local catastrophes which could eliminate their resource base, the same catastrophe has a minimum impact upon the biosphere people, who can simply draw more heavily upon a different ecosystem. Because of their lack of integration and a feeling of independence from the environment, biosphere people may never develop the strong cultural ethics necessary for wise resource management. The next section of this paper explores the consequences of these conflicting world views.The Price of Progress

Each year, an estimated 170,000 km2 (approximately 65,637 square miles) of tropical forest is felled, often to satisfy the world market for tropical woods or to provide space for cattle ranching. In Eco Travels in Brazil alone, the forests are disappearing by an alarming rate of nearly 30,000 km2 (approximately 11,583 square miles) per year. Between 1991 and 1994, forest clearing in Brazil increased almost 34% and according to a recent study by the Environmental Defense Fund, during the last two years forest destruction has further increased by another 28%.

Often the destruction has been the result of government policies promoting cattle ranching and logging through tax incentives. Addressing the House Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs in July 1993, Luciano Pizzatto, representing the Special Commission on Indigenous Rights of the Chamber of Deputies of Brazil, testified: “. . . in some municipalities it is still even considered that only deforestation proves that land is used.” In economically-depressed Brazil, in which many landless peasants pressure the government for land reform, the idea of unexploited land is counter to what many believe are the country’s economic needs.

For this reason, loggers and miners continue to infiltrate demarcated indigenous territories, in spite of the 1988 Constitution, which explicitly expresses Brazil’s commitment to ensure that the lands traditionally occupied by the indigenous population are intended for their permanent possession and that they have exclusive rights to use and benefit of the resources found therein. Return of traditional land to the natives spawns great resentment in a country in which 45 percent of the land belongs to 1 percent of the population. It seems unreasonable to some of Brazil’s landless that approximately 217.5 million acres are given to about 250,000 individuals.

Lacking resources and the desire to enforce the law, the Brazilian government has stood by and allowed continued infiltration and exploitation of these demarcated lands. In October 1988, 14 Ticunas were killed in an ambush by loggers. The Gorotire have experienced mercury poisoning due to its use in mining operations. Between 1988 and 1996, 14 Macuxí have been killed in the state of Roraima and not a single case has ended in a conviction.

But it is not only those in search of riches who have negatively impacted the indigenous. For a long time, poorly-conceived development projects overseen by multilateral lending institutions such as the World Bank were responsible for the displacement and deaths of many indigenous peoples. Indigenous lands have been described as a type of ‘no-mans-land’ when it comes to finding sites for development projects; it is the native lands which are always the first option for mining, hydroelectric projects, and land reform.

In this century alone, some 80 entire societies have vanished in Brazil. Yet extinction is only an extreme of other ongoing problems. In addition to loss of land and population decreases, many indigenous tribes face the loss of their very identity. Acculturation has long detracted from cultural identity. Now, the threat is even greater as generations of knowledge may be lost with the passing of elders who have no students interested in continuing the ancient traditions. “Of all the shamans with whom I have lived and worked in the northeast Amazon,” writes ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, “not a single one had an apprentice.” With the growth of Western medicine use, many no longer feel it necessary to practice shamanism. Yet, often it is the shaman who harbors the greatest knowledge of the forest and its products. As one old Amazonian shaman said, “It is true the youngsters do not want to learn. One day the medicines that the missionaries send from the city will no longer arrive. The people will come to me to relieve their pains, to conquer the evil spirits that kill their children. But I will be gone, and I will have taken my plants with me.”

Recent Efforts

With the growing concern regarding the depletion of the world’s resources, international organizations, national governments and private industry are taking action to protect the remaining biodiversity and encourage its sustainable use.

International Efforts

In the 1970s, the idea for creating protected areas in the world’s most diverse ecosystems first gained attention. Eventually this idea evolved into the UNESCO Man in the Biosphere (MAB) program.

The concept of a protected biosphere reserve is simple. Scientists determine areas in need of preservation which have not encountered too much exploitation. The area is divided into zones, with a core area, a delineated “inner buffer zone,” and an undelineated “outer buffer zone,” known as the “transition area”.

The core areas are strictly protected according to conservation objectives. They are made up of ecosystems which have experienced the least disturbance. Surrounding the core area is a buffer zone in which only activities compatible with the protection of the core areas may take place. These include particular research (R), environmental education and training (E), and tourism and recreation (T). Encompassing the core area and buffer zone is the transition area — a multiple-use area. Here, efforts are made to develop cooperative activities between researchers, managers and the local population, aiming to ensure appropriate physical planning and sustainable resources development in the region.

One example underway is the Beni Biosphere Reserve in northern Bolivia. Working in local villages, Chimane natives, park personnel and non-indigenous locals are making an inventory of plants which are used in agriculture, traditional medicine, crafts manufacturing and other aspects of community life. The park staff is coordinating the project with the Gran Consejo Chimane, an indigenous organization, to develop Chimane settlements within the boundaries of the reserve. Working together with the indigenous should encourage greater opportunities for the indigenous to maintain control of their traditional resources.

International conferences have also addressed many issues important to biodiversity and the indigenous. In 1992, representatives from 179 states met in Rio de Janeiro to convene the U.N. Conference on the Environment and Development, which has since come to be known as the Earth Summit. The Conference was called in response to a growing concern over the environmental degradation of developing countries, vividly illustrated in the influential 1987 U.N. report, Our Common Future, commonly known as the Brundtland report in honor of the chair of the special U.N. commission, Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Both the Brundtland report and the Earth Summit served to focus greater attention on the Earth’s rapidly depleting resources and the need to change the manner in which development is approached, focusing upon sustainable resource use. Two important documents resulting from the Earth Summit were Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Both include specific sections addressing the role of indigenous peoples in the promotion of sustainable development.

Agenda 21 emerged from the Earth Summit as the blueprint for reaching the many goals set forth in Rio. Included among the forty-chapter document for economic, social and environmental change was Chapter 26, “Recognizing and Strengthening the Role of Indigenous People and their Communities”. In this chapter, indigenous people are recognized as having practiced sustainable development for generations, and it is recommended that international development agencies and governments commit resources to educate and train indigenous people, with particular attention to strengthening the role of indigenous women. The inclusion of the indigenous in this document is a monumental step forward in recognizing the impact indigenous people have had on biodiversity. Agenda 21, however, is not a binding agreement, but rather, suggestions and guidelines for participating countries.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, the other major accomplishment of the Earth Summit, arose out of a growing concern for the rapid acceleration of species extinction which has occurred over the past few decades. It has been estimated that if all of the currently threatened species become extinct over the next century, the extinction rate will multiply ten-fold. The CBD was written to be a binding treaty which could provide a multinational framework for coordinated action. It is the first global approach to biodiversity through protection of ecosystems, rather than individual species.

It would appear natural that such an approach would include those we have called “ecosystems people,” and, in fact, Article 8(j) provides expressly for participating nations to, “. . . respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices.” This in situ approach to promoting biodiversity is complemented by Article 9, which calls for additional, ex-situ species management.

An essential component of the treaty is the call for nations to control their own resources. While this is written with the understanding that biodiversity is better managed at the national, rather than international, level, it nevertheless endorses the continuation of resource control by biosphere people. Indigenous organizations have expressed concerns that this offers a carte blanche sanction allowing for continued environmentally destructive practices within national territories.

The CBD does, however, explicitly address the importance of the indigenous in creating biodiversity and conversely, the importance of biodiversity to the indigenous way of life. The Preamble to the Convention recognizes the necessity of biological resources to the traditional lifestyle and the need for those who utilize native resources to return benefits to the indigenous. Determining how to return benefits, however, is a question which arises again and again.

National Efforts

The CBD alone is not enough to halt deforestation and save biological and cultural diversity. Most of the work falls upon the individual countries, whose interests often appear to contradict the intent of the convention. The nations of the Amazon river basin are some of the poorer nations of the world. Exploitation of natural resources appeals to these economically-deprived lands.

In Brazil, years of ill-conceived policy which promoted the clearing of land for cattle ranching and provided incentives for heavy logging of mahogany have been re-evaluated and altered. Yet, as the previous section demonstrates, this has not been enough to deter continued exploitation by miners and loggers. With the new 1988 Constitution, Brazil began an ambitious program of demarcation of indigenous lands. Lacking the financial resources and political will, the government has yet to fulfill its promise, leaving 259 undemarcated territories.

Evidence has demonstrated that the government has used demarcation in a political manner; in 1981, the Kayapo of Gorotire took action against illegal gold miners who were trying to establish themselves in the Kayapo’s undemarcated territory. The government bargained with the tribe, promising them the land would be demarcated if they allowed the miners to work. The agreement was accepted. While this may be a loss for the promotion of biodiversity, it is a victory for the indigenous tribe, who may now control land in a country in which 1 percent of the landowners control half of the agricultural land and half of the landowners occupy about 3 percent of the land.

In spite of discouraging progress, a rise in awareness and a strengthening of indigenous political power have resulted in positive steps toward remedying the crisis. In the state of Amazonas, the government has created a new reserve, which will be the world’s largest contiguous block of protected rainforest. It is called the Ama a Sustainable Development Reserve, and is the third of a network of protected areas in the Central Amazon Basin that together make up over 22,000 square miles of unbroken habitat. The reserve will be managed like the adjacent Mamirau Reserve, which, based on a legal category created in 1996, permits residence in protected areas and encourages local participation in their conservation.

Some national indigenous parks have been successful as well. The Xingu reserve, a positive example of demarcation, has experienced few problems with invading loggers or miners. FUNAI, the Brazilian government agency responsible for indigenous land issues, helps guard the frontiers of the reserve, and the State has given money to the establishment of guard posts along the frontiers. Xingu is an example of what can be accomplished when resources are available.

Brazil is not alone in addressing indigenous issues. Following the lead of the Biodiversity Convention, Ecuadorian Parliament approved the Law for the Protection of Biodiversity in Ecuador on September 2, 1996. In addition to recognizing the State as the holder of property rights over the country’s biodiversity, the legislation guarantees both the ancestral rights of local campesinos and indigenous communities regarding the knowledge and intangible components of biodiversity. Additionally, with this recognition, the law gives them the right to decide on the use of these components. This sort of indigenous empowerment will pave the way for future self-determination of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. With autonomy, the indigenous should be able to continue practice of sustainable methods of resource use.

Private Efforts

The nature of rewarding the indigenous for use of their biological resources has been a controversial issue for some time. Nowhere is it more controversial than in the search for new medicines. In the 1990s, the costs of assessing plants for their medicinal value has fallen dramatically; processes which once costed upwards of $6 million ten years ago can now be performed for $150,000. Diminished costs coupled with concern over the loss of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge have inspired a resurgence of interest in ethnobotany.

As mentioned previously, ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between human beings and plants. It is a multi-disciplinary science whose practitioners are often trained in anthropology, biology and chemistry. Ethnobotanists perform field research in indigenous lands, frequently spending prolonged periods of time with their subjects in order to develop relationships allowing them access to the traditional knowledge. Through their research, ethnobotanists may learn about important medicinal plants which could provide information for cures to diseases such as AIDS and cancer. In the United States and Canada, at least 25 percent of prescription drugs contain bioactive compounds derived from or modelled after plant products and total annual sales of plant-derived pharmaceuticals world wide have totaled over $20 billion.

With the potential for enormous profits comes an equal amount of responsibility to those with whom the ethnobotanists work — the indigenous. Some private companies have begun to tie ethnobotanical research to biodiversity protection, working with national governments to set up protective reserves and arranging for some profits to be returned to the local populations. Research has demonstrated the economic potential of ethnobotanical exploration. According to one study, two plots of rainforest yielded herbal remedies with values of $726/hectare and $3,327/hectare based on sustainable yields, while the same plots, if cleared for agriculture, would be worth about $288/hectare. Advocates argue that the promotion of ethnobotanical studies can provide greater incentives for sustainable use of the forests’ products.

Two of the best-known practitioners of bioprospecting, as the practice is called, are Merck & Company, Inc., the largest pharmaceutical firm in the world, and Shaman Pharmaceuticals, founded upon the premise of returning benefits to local populations.

Shaman Pharmaceuticals was established in 1988, dedicated entirely to the ethnobotanical search for new medicines. The company works with native healers to determine active plants with possible uses. Shaman provides benefits to local people, communities and countries with which the company has worked. Additionally, Shaman has created a non-profit organization, The Healing Forest Conservancy, which is involved in a number of programs aimed at benefitting local communities, including: the promotion of sustainable development by local harvesting of natural products; provision of resources to survey, demarcate and deed historic territories to indigenous communities; training of local individuals (especially women) in methods for species collection, identification and inventory. To date, Shaman has tested more than one hundred plants; half have demonstrated potential, and three have led to patents pending.

The nature of the Merck arrangement is somewhat distinct. On November 1, 1991, Merck signed an agreement with the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) with the purpose of “collaborating . . . to obtain plant, insect and environmental samples for evaluation for pharmaceutical and agricultural applications.” INBio, a non-profit, private, scientific organization, was founded in 1989, according to recommendations by the Costa Rican government. It is based on a partnership of cooperative support and guidance with the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines (MIRENEM). Its mission is to inventory Costa Rica’s biodiversity, to determine potential biodiversity prospecting and to manage and disseminate information on the country’s biodiversity in accordance with the existing legal framework.

The arrangement calls for Merck to provide research funding of $1 million during the first two years of the agreement. INBio, in turn, collects plant, insect and environmental samples and provides them to Merck; the samples are processed in laboratory facilities at INBio, which has received equipment and materials for operation from Merck. Through the agreement, Merck recieves the right to all samples provided by INBio. In return, Merck will pay a royalty to INBio on any pharmaceutical product which is produced as a result of the samples. While no new products have yet emerged from the deal, the agreement has been renewed twice: in July 1994 and August 1996, each for an additional two years.

Both Shaman and Merck demonstrate manners in which economic incentive can contribute to biodiversity protection. Ecologist Walter V. Reid has called such agreements a “win-win situation.” Others do not necessarily share the enthusiasm. One concern regarding the growing ethnobotanical presence in areas of high biodiversity is the fear of overexploitation. As the demand for certain plants grows, the overcultivating of monotypes and overharvesting of individual species threatens to disrupt the balance of the ecosystem. Some drugs may be chemically-synthesized in the laboratory, but others require vast amounts of the primary plant matter.

While the Merck/INBio deal appears to benefit all parties involved, the agreeement included collections on lands of eight indigenous peoples, none of which was ever consulted or named as a beneficiary. The argument most often encountered against bioprospecting, however, is not a question of economic resources, but of cultural resources. Indigenous knowledge is not protected under existing intellectual property rights (IPR) systems. The Convention on Biological Diversity has determined that countries are the owners of their natural resources. Yet the nations do not always act in the best interest of their indigenous peoples, who we have already determined are responsible for much of the biodiversity found within these nations.

Implementation of indigenous intellectual property rights, however, encounters even greater problems. For example: IPR systems do not account for collectively-owned property, such as the biological and cultural resources of the indigenous; exclusion of some while others control is foreign to many indigenous communities; some objects can not be possessed, such as those things which belonged to the ancestors or are sacred; patents cannot protect information that does not result from a specific historic act of discovery.

These are only a few of the problems encountered in attempts to apply Western laws aimed at individuals to collective indigenous societies. Numerous other ethical questions arise as decisions are made regarding who speaks for the indigenous populations, how participating societies or members of societies should be remunerated, and whether it is even appropriate to introduce economic measures into native societies.

Positive Directions

The efforts outlined in the previous section all demonstrate a willingness to begin compensating for a tragic past, in which resources are exploited without consideration for the delicate ecosystems or the indigenous caretakers who have produced them. With the Earth Summit, the 1988 Constitution of Brazil and the efforts of Shaman Pharmaceuticals, it is apparent that the world is heading in new directions with regard to the protection of its biological and cultural diversity. Unfortunately, as the continued rapid deforestation of the Amazon demonstrates, this is not enough. Specific policy actions will have to be taken, specifically at the national level, to prevent further destruction. Such must address not only the depleting biodiversity, but the disappearing tribes who have been caretakers of the world’s biological resources long before national governments existed.

Much of the growing interest and concern over biodiversity in the past decade is owed to concern for the depletion of the Earth’s resources. Promoting biodiversity is no longer a question of intrinsic value, so much as economic value. Americans, as biosphere people, have long enjoyed the fruits of ecoystems peoples’ labor. The United States, the top consumer nation in the world, is responsible for taking action to prevent the irreversible loss of the rainforests and all other threatened regions of the world.

U.S. policy should follow a two-fold strategy: first, work to ensure that present adverse practices are discouraged, and second, to encourage national governments to pursue rational resource use and pro-indigenous policies.

The United States is the second largest Brazilian mahogany consumer in the world. Numerous other products also have their origins in the tropical forests of the Amazon. Illegal logging and other illegal practices exist because of high demand for the forest’s products. In order to reduce demand, it is necessary to inform consumers of the products’ origins. Originally proposed in 1991, the Tropical Forest Consumer Information and Protection Act suggested the labelling of tropical hardwoods by species and country of origin. This way informed consumers could avoid contributing to the problem. This sort of policy, seeking to create an educated consumer, is vital, not only to prevent overexploitation, but to promote universal environmental awareness among the biosphere people.

As the primary funder of multinational lending instituitons such as the World Bank, the United States Congress has oversight to promote reforms which would prevent future development project disasters. Congress has already been instrumental in persuading lending institutions to adopt the use of environmental impact assessment procedures. It is time now to exercise influence in the adoption of indigenous impact procedures, noting which tribes exist in a proposed site, how many individuals would be affected by the development project, whether the proposed project would create divisions in indigenous tribes, and so on. These territories must no longer be considered “no-mans land”.

Additionally, the U.S. is in a position to pass legislation allowing banks to renogotiate debts with foreign borrowers. In the 1980s, “debt-for-nature” swaps were a common manner of encouraging the preservation of threatened lands. Banks were allowed to receive a tax write-off for 40 percent of the face value of the debt as long as the debt was offered to private voluntary organizations, which would purchase the debt in hard currency, with a commitment from the indebted countries that they would invest an equal sum of the national currency in environmental programs. Unfortunately, this system drew many complaints, as national governments set aside nature reserves on indigenous lands and continued to exploit the buffer zones. However, the idea of a “debt-for-indigenous stewardship” swap has been suggested in which the state debt would be exchanged with state territorial assertions for the demarcation and conservation of indigenous homelands. This may fair better if, as with all indigenous policy, the relevant tribes are consulted and participate in the process of determining the details of the swap.

Based upon evidence of a strong connection between areas of high biodiversity and independent indigenous populations, U.S. policy aimed at meeting the goals of the CBD should focus upon ways of assisting the indigenous populations in their quest for self-determination. Through USAID, and other relevant government agencies, the United States should provide financial support to national government agencies dealing with indigenous issues, such as FUNAI in Brazil or CONAE in Ecuador. These agencies are often sorely underfunded and unable to implement policies which would benefit not only the indigenous populations, but the promotion of sustainable resource use as practiced by those populations. Additional support should be targeted at helping fund non-governmental organizations (NGOs), environmental groups, Indian rights groups and human rights groups which are active in bottom-up efforts to promote sustainable resource use and indigenous autonomy.

There are many other manners in which the current threat of deforestation can be halted, but the responsibility lies outside of the U.S. domain. Biosphere reserve programs, private initiatives such as the agreements between Shaman and local communities, and national conservation programs all offer the opportunity to address the joint issues of biodiversity and cultural diversity and determine what must be done. However, no programs will be successful if they alienate the indigneous peoples from their traditional homelands. For this reason, the most important policy decision that can be made is to include indigenous participation in the preliminary discussion and all subsequent decisions. This decade has seen a great strengthening of indigenous political participation, culminating in the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent indigenous rights to their lands, territories and resources.

The United States, and all other nations interested in saving the Earth’s disappearing species, should make indigenous empowerment their first priority. If the world’s political powers fail to act now, centuries of knowledge and genetic resources will be lost, and the vicious cycle of ecosystem destruction will continue.


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Jordan Erdos has written a number of articles for including, Biodiversity in the Amazon: Promoting Indigenous Stewardship as Policy: Ethnobotany, Property and Biodiversity: Ethical Dimensionsof Multi-Institutional Interests. Atawallpap Mikhunan: Quinoa, Mother Grain of the Incas: and Plant Life and the Maya: Relationships and Conceptualizations.

This article was compiled, written and is copyrighted by Mr Jordan Erdos.

Raintree Health wish to express our thanks to him for allowing us to use it.

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