Tag Archives: Indigenous

Indigenous and local communities are key for nature conservation

Effective and long-term conservation of biodiversity can benefit greatly from empowering and supporting indigenous and local communities around the world, a new study has found. Researchers reviewed the outcomes of 169 conservation projects and found that more than half were successful when local communities were involved in the process. 

Image credit: Flickr / CIFOR.

While discussions over what proportion of the land marine environment should be protected are quite common, we don’t talk about how nature should be conserved and by whom nearly enough. This undermines important debates on how biodiversity conservation should be done, by whom and with what outcomes. In other words, we’re only talking about one aspect of nature conservation, and leaving the others in the background — that’s not good.

With this in mind, a group of 17 researchers from diverse universities decided to explore how governance, the role that decision making plays in conservation efforts, can affect biodiversity and the well-being of indigenous communities. To do so, they reviewed 169 publications that referred to conservation projects around the world. Turns out, involving local communities offers a great boon to most conservation projects.

To the researchers’ surprise, 56% of the studies mentioned positive outcomes for both communities and for nature when a local control is implemented. Meanwhile, when projects were externally managed, only 16% referred to positive outcomes. More than a third of cases also had conservation problems due to conflicts with communities.

“It is time to focus on who conserves nature and how, instead of what percentage of the Earth to fence off,” Neil Dawson, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Conservation led by indigenous peoples and local communities, based on their own knowledge and tenure systems, is far more likely to deliver positive outcomes for nature.”

Conservation efforts

After the blessing of a water spring, a mother with a child returns home in Guangaje, Ecuador. Image credits: Azzedine Rouichi.

Locally-controlled conservation produces better outcomes because it fosters active and collective stewardship of the environment, the researchers said. Such approaches can establish a shared vision for the landscape communities inhabit and mobilize people to preserve, restore and defend it while adapting to any threats or changes.

But it’s not that simple. Local institutions can also be as complex as the ecosystems they govern. Just giving control of the land to the communities doesn’t automatically guarantee conservation success. There has to be social inclusion, effective leadership, shared knowledge and community cohesion too. The key is a mixture between the locals and external support and knowledge.

Conservation organizations and governments are usually the ones behind most conservation projects around the world but they tend to exclude or control local communities, the authors argue. This ends up creating a level of resistance from the people on the ground, who feel excluded from what’s going on in their own communities.

That’s why it’s highly advisable for indigenous leaders to be part of conservation efforts, with support from outside such as policies that recognize their knowledge systems and values, the study concluded. Approaches that affirm local rights are most likely to be successful in the long-term, while exclusive ones are no longer justifiable. 

“Conservation strategies need to change, to recognize that the most important factor in achieving positive conservation outcomes is not the level of restrictions or magnitude of benefits provided to local communities, but rather recognising local cultural practices and decision-making. It is imperative to shift now towards an era of conservation through stewardship,” Dawson said.

The policy message is then to transition to more equitable and effective conservation. The currently ongoing biodiversity negotiations, with an upcoming meeting later this year, have to ensure that the role of indigenous communities in biodiversity conservation is recognized. If not, ecological decline and social harms are set to continue, the authors said. 

The study was published in the journal of Ecology and Society. 

Indigenous communities in Latin America under threat due to coronavirus outbreak

With over 33 million people across the region, indigenous communities play a key role in Latin America. Almost 90% of them live in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Perú, accounting for a large part of the population of such countries.

As COVID-19 starts to spread on the continent, it may find an easy target in indigenous communities.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Land Seizures and Rampant Inequality

Oil exploration, mining, illegal logging and the expansion of agriculture threaten their livelihoods, their way of living and their basic human rights. Now, the coronavirus outbreak has added a new concern to the list, placing them in a highly vulnerable position.

“The health situation of indigenous peoples due to infectious-contagious diseases is already serious due to its high prevalence and very poor health service. The coronavirus would further aggravate this situation,” Peruvian anthropologist Beatriz Huertas, who specializes in indigenous peoples, told Mongabay.

In most places, indigenous populations are already in a precarious situation, to begin with. They face serious and persistent obstacles in gaining access to decent work and are often faced with discrimination social challenges. To make matters even worse, land seizures have become a constant threat in many areas. Their traditional livelihood strategies are increasingly under pressure due to the expansion of extractive activities, and integration is socially difficult.

There are marked inequalities between indigenous people and their non-indigenous counterparts in almost all socioeconomic and health indicators, and indigenous people are clearly at a disadvantage. They tend to die at younger ages and their health is worse than that of other population groups.

Worldwide, more than 50% of indigenous adults over the age of 35 have type 2 diabetes, and these numbers are projected to increase. In some indigenous communities, diabetes has reached epidemic proportions and jeopardizes the very existence of the community, according to the United Nations.

“Indigenous peoples are overall in much poorer in health, more likely to become disabled and their quality of life to decline, and ultimately to die younger than other people,” the UN claims. Their life expectancy is up to 20 years lower when compared to developed nations such as Australia.

Pre-existing health conditions

Image credits: Alev Takil.

Indigenous communities experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and child mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular disease, HIV / AIDS and other infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis. Indigenous women are particularly prone to these health problems.

Pre-existing illnesses and a weaker immune system have been shown to be associated with more severe COVID-19 cases. In Italy, 76.1% of patients who died from COVID-19 had hypertension, or high blood pressure, while one-third had heart disease.

This means that indigenous communities could face a larger threat from coronavirus, making self-isolation and quick action highly important in their communities. But self-isolating may be extremely difficult for people whose livelihoods depend on going outside.

There are already four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among indigenous groups in Latin America, but many more could not have been formally registered. The first one was in Peru by Aurelio Chino, the leader of the Quechua del Pastaza community, who recently came back from the Netherlands.

Two other cases were reported in Colombia two weeks ago in the Yupka community, which is now under lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus. At the same time, a woman member of the Kokama community in northern Brazil also tested positive last week.

The main concern lies in the communities that exist in voluntary isolation, with no contact with non-indigenous populations. They are extremely vulnerable as they have not developed immunity against current diseases that can be found across the world, experts agree.

There are 76 communities with 10.000 people that live in isolation across Latin America, specifically in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú and Venezuela, according to the UN. If the virus enters any of those communities, the health impact could be very significant.

Responding to the outbreak

There has been a disparity in the decisions of Latin American governments to the coronavirus outbreak, ranging from a lockdown to a much more flexible approach. This has led to many of the indigenous communities to declare quarantine on their own and close their borders.

For example, the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) has recommended avoiding contact with non-native people, suspending the entry and exit of the territories, and restricting activities inside the communities. 

Meanwhile, In Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (Confeniae) gave freedom to each community to take the most pertinent measures within their territory.

In Bolivia, the government closed the 22 natural areas of the country before the imminent advance of the virus in its territory. Meanwhile, In Peru, the mandatory confinement decreed by the government since March 16 has facilitated control of the communities’ territories.

The Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) made an emergency call to the governments of the member countries to take sanitary measures and prepare contingency plans according to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.

The regional indigenous organization proposed strict control of entry and exit to indigenous territories, especially of people who do not belong to these communities, as well as limiting indigenous access to places of tourism or where find crowds. In addition, they suggest developing specific plans for possible outbreaks of the coronavirus.

“There are 506 indigenous communities who would be at imminent risk, in addition to 76 isolated indigenous peoples, whose immune system is very weak and any flu can lead to their disappearance. A pandemic of this magnitude for native communities would mean a catastrophe of great proportions,” said Robinson López, coordinator of climate change and biodiversity at COICA, in a press release.

As a guide for prevention and control strategies, a recent document by FAO highlights that all measures or interventions that affect indigenous peoples must have “their free, prior and informed consent”, and the will to remain in isolation must be respected.

FAO also recommends that governments include indigenous leaders in COVID-19 response groups, offer prevention information and audiovisual materials, and support translation and dissemination in their different languages. It also asks to consider traditional indigenous caregivers and healers and offer them training.

“We urge governments to intensify protection measures to stop the invasion of indigenous territories by external producers, ranchers, industries, miners, private companies and other actors, who can take advantage of the current crisis situation,” FAO claimed in its document.

The usual threats

Latin America is also the most dangerous region for indigenous leaders, with 83 assassinations last year, according to the Global Witness report. Colombia was registered as the most dangerous country, with 24 deaths, followed by Brazil, Guatemala, and Mexico.

The conflicts linked to mining expansion in the region were found to be the main reasons behind the assassinations, the report showed. The expansion of the agricultural sector ranked second, followed by activities to defend water resources by the indigenous leaders and illegal logging.

With all these concerns and the recent threat of COVID-19, indigenous populations may be faced with a significant crisis. A fast and reliable response from national and local authorities to avoid the spread of the virus will be key to deal with this new challenge — but this response needs to be inclusive and culturally appropriate. This is far from an easy challenge.

Illegal loggers kill indigenous leader in the Amazon

During an ambush over the weekend, a member of an indigenous group in Northern Brazil that works to protect the Amazon rainforest was killed by illegal loggers, who also wounded another member of the group, according to local reports.

 Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot and killed inside the Araribóia Indigenous territory in Maranhão state. Credit: Reuters TV.

Paulino Guajajara was an indigenous warrior who belonged to a group called the “Guardians of the Forest” and was also a member of the Guajarara tribe. He was reportedly shot by illegal loggers while he was on a hunt in Maranhao, a state in northern Brazil that spans part of the Amazon rainforest.

Paulino Guajajara’s death comes as Brazil sees a rise in illegal loggers invading reservations and forest lands since President Jair Bolsonaro was elected. The right-wing leader has repeatedly called for the development of the Amazon region since taking office.

This is also in line with a spike in deforestation in Brazil during the Bolsonaro administration. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported a record 72,843 fires this year, an 80 percent increase from last year. NASA noted that the fires were large enough that they could be spotted from space.

Sonia Guajajara, a member of the APIB, which is committed to fighting for indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil, said on Twitter that it’s “time to stop this institutionalized genocide” after Paulino’s death. “Stop authorizing the bloodshed of our people!” she continued.

In an interview with Reuters in September, Paulino Guajajara told the news agency that though protecting the forest is dangerous, he and his people must continue the work.

“I’m scared at times, but we have to lift up our heads and act. We are here fighting,” he said then. “We have to preserve this life for our children’s future,” added Paulino Guajajara.

A recent study said killings of environmental defenders have doubled over the past 15 years to reach levels usually associated with war zones. The study revealed how murders of activists are concentrated in countries with the worst corruption and weakest laws.

At least 1,558 people in 50 countries were killed between 2002 and 2017 while trying to protect their land, water or local wildlife, says the analysis from NGO Global Witness, which calculated the death toll is almost half that of US troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.


Traditional zebra-like tattoos protect tribes-people from insect bites

Zebra-like striped body paint patterns can reduce the number of horsefly bites a person receives by up to 10 times, new research revealed. While this isn’t their explicit purpose in indigenous communities, such tattoos can be seen as an “adaptation to the environment,” says the study’s first author.


A selection of typical body painting styles from different African tribes.
Image credits Horvath et al., 2019, RSOS.

Indigenous tribes from Africa, Australia, and southeast Asia have old and rich bodypainting traditions. Such traditions have been enshrined as central cultural components in their respective communities for generations. White, gray, bright yellow, or beige paints — customarily mixed from materials such as clay, ash, chalk, or cattle dung — are applied during specific ceremonies on the bodies of tribesmen and women.

Such patterns serve individuals “as body decoration, for emotional expression, or as marks to signify personal identity and/or group affiliation,” the team writes. It’s also possible that the bright pigments — which reflect incoming light — help with temperature regulation in the blistering sun of the savanna and other similar areas. However, it may also help protect them from biting insects.

Previous research with zebras has shown that horseflies (family Tabanidae), potentially-dangerous blood-sucking insects, tend to avoid the stripe-patterned animals. The team wanted to check if similar tribal tattoo patterns would have a similar effect.

For the study, the team worked with three mannequins, just like the ones you’d see in a clothing store. One of the mannequins had dark skin, another light skin, and the third one was painted in a dark color with white stripes. Each mannequin received a coat of adhesive and was then deployed in a meadow in Hungary for eight weeks of summer. The team chose this location because ‘numerous horsefly species’ buzz around in Hungary during the summer.


The mannequins used in the study seen in reflected/normal light (top row) and polarized light (middle, bottom row).
Image credits Horvath et al., 2019, RSOS.

After the study period, the team counted how many horseflies and other biting insects each mannequin collected. All in all, the team reports, the dark-skinned one had 10 times more horseflies stuck to it than the striped one, and twice as many as the light-skinned dummy. This likely comes down to how the horseflies (and other insects) perceive the patterns. The stripes may disrupt the polarisation of light reflected from the tribespeople’s bodies, making insects believe they’re not looking at a person at all.

“Traditional bodypaintings with their typical white-striped patterns on a brown body surface have the advantage of deterring blood-sucking horseflies as these patterns are unattractive to these parasitic insects,” the study reads.

Horsefly bites are not only irritating, they’re also very dangerous. The insects can transmit a host of potentially-deadly diseases as they suck on a host’s blood.

Because horseflies lay their larvae in ponds and lakes, indigenous people often come into contact with them when retrieving water. Gabor Horvath from the Department of Biological Physics at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, and paper lead-author, told AFP that the patterns aren’t meant to repel the insects. Such tattoos carry cultural significance, but, luckily, they also happen to be good at confusing insects such as horseflies.

“We are however convinced that these people know well the horsefly-repelling characteristic of their bodypaintings,” he added. “Essentially, the use of white-striped bodypaintings can be considered as an example for behavioural evolution/ecology and an adaptation to the environment.”

The paper “Striped bodypainting protects against horseflies” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.