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New report: Human health and welfare interlinked with a healthy ecosystem

The report Sustainable rainforest management; Local initiatives meet supporting policies in Acre, Brazil, by  Rainforest Foundation Norway, showcases how indigenous peoples in the state of Acre in Brazil harvest produce from their forest and village gardens to sustain a healthy life for the community.

Fishing is important for the Ashánika’s livelihood, and they have taken actions to secure sustainable  management of both fish stocks and the tortoise population. Photo: Rainforest Foundation Norway

– We could get a substantial amount of money if we cut the valuable trees in this forest. But what would that leave for the next generation, asks Benki Piyãko of the indigenous Asháninka community along the Amônia river.

The Asháninkas of the Amônia river have quite different plans for their future. They will not log their forest, but manage it by investing in production from its renewable resources, their village gardens and orchards. The Asháninka territory consists of lush tropical forest that stretches as far west as to the Peruvian border.

Rainforest Foundation Norway’s new report outlines experiences and management strategies from the indigenous territory  of the Asháninka Indians living in the Brazilian state of Acre. It shows how human development, health and welfare are interlinked with our ability to safeguard ecosystems. 

– One of the targets under the United Nations Development Goals is to halt deforestation. Finding management strategies which maintain the rainforest ecosystem, with its biodiversity and the services it provides to people and the planet, is essential to achieve this target, explains Ane Schjolden, senior policy advisor at Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Forest- based development

The territories described in this report lie in the Brazilian state of Acre. Here, local communities and the state government have worked hand in hand since the 1990s to find workable forest management strategies which both safeguard the rainforest’s ecosystem services and secure forest peoples’ rights and livelihoods. This has resulted in what is called ‘florestania’, or the state’s “forest- based development” policies. The basic idea is that standing forests are one of the state’s great assets and they should be managed for long term sustainability, as a basis for development. 

The state of Acre  is home to 15 different indigenous peoples and various other forest dependent peoples. In the experiences described in the report, it is striking how closely management of land and natural resources is linked with and formed by history, culture and identity. Hence, forest management strategies must be well adapted to varied social and cultural circumstances.

One fundamental lesson learned from Acre is that recognition of indigenous land rights is a prerequisite for sustainable forest management and development, as well as for strengthening of culture and identity.

In Acre, land tenure regularization and recognition of indigenous territories from the 1990s and onward have changed the unequal distribution of land. It has enabled indigenous peoples to exercise greater control of their territories and also to recover lost forest lands in an impressive manner.

The territories of the indigenous Asháninka of the Amônia river and the Huni Kuin in Colônia 27 are illustrating examples. The communities have been planting local tree species, forbidding the commercialization of hardwood, regulating the collecting of river turtle eggs, and banning fishing and hunting in specific areas to protect the species. In both cases, securing and restoration of forest lands have gone hand in hand with a strong emphasis on traditional culture and indigenous identity, strengthening the communities internally and facilitating joint action.

Collective rights to land have also enabled the communities to plan and act for the future. Based on secure land rights, and in order to meet the demands of a growing population in the limited territories with fixed borders, local communities have also established new ways of resource use, such as fish farming and agro-forestry systems.

New ideas are put forward and implemented, based on increased security of land and resources, traditional knowledge and local needs, as well as the ability to make the best out of external input and opportunities.

The village school plays an important role in Apiwtxa development plans. The school was closed, but today the school books are open. Photo: Rainforest Foundation Norway

Dedicated forestry agents

Besides land tenure regularization, land use planning has been central to Acre’s forest maintenance policies as well as environmental education provided to the indigenous peoples, combining indigenous knowledge with information about alternative sustainable management practices for forests, such as agro-forestry systems. Dedicated “forestry agents”, many of them local representatives trained in agroforestry and other relevant skills, have played a key role in regeneration and recovery of forest landscapes.

Another important element has been the state’s support of initiatives for improved livelihood for the people in the forest. Acre has developed a System of Incentives for Environmental Services aiming to generate income from the environmental services of the forest. The system seeks to reward indigenous peoples, as well as other forest peoples, for conserving the forest.

It also promotes technical assistance and funding to improve access to markets for community products. Both the Asháninka and the Huni Kuin now sell produce from the forest to the local schools for their meal services. The Asháninka village won the tender for delivering food for the school in competition with strong, commercial external actors.  

Broad local involvement is key

Acre’s forest-maintenance development policies have achieved remarkable results with broad local involvement. Communities such as the Asháninka of the Amônia river have been able to take real ownership of the planning process, calibrating government policies with local realities and using local knowledge to plan according to local needs.

However, such achievements need long term support and engagement, where participation must be considered a continuous process. Real participation allow communities to consider the management plans their own, not something created by an outside government. When there is lack of participation in finalizing, prioritizing and implementing the management plans, the result is often not sustainable management of forests, something which is also illustrated by examples in the report.

Securing sustainable forest management while improving livelihoods is a complex task. There is a need for coordination of various policies and initiatives, since what happens in surrounding areas strongly impacts the biodiversity and the possibilities for sustainable management also within the indigenous territories.

Indigenous territories must be seen as part of the larger surroundings, and programs that can ensure the well-being of neighboring indigenous and non-indigenous populations together have to be developed. Insecurity undermines sustainable development; recognition of indigenous territories must be followed by protection against illegal invasions. In the border regions, networks of illegal logging and drug trafficking control large areas.

Governments must crack down on criminal activities

Indigenous people face harassment; even direct death threats. The criminal gangs consider the organized management of the territories as a challenge to the lawlessness they depend on, both for smuggling drugs and for illegal logging.

Without proper government enforcement against illegal logging and drug trafficking, the local peoples experience great insecurity, which severely restrict the possibilities for the sustainable management of indigenous territories.

Although there are still some challenges to be met, the interaction between local engagement and government support mechanisms have led to impressive results in Acre.

Back in the Asháninka territory, the impacts are clearly visible. In school, children get fresh and healthy food from their families’ and kin’s gardens. The community gets income from the government funding for school meals, and the village cooperative is ready to expand its activities to create new income from the territory’s natural resources – while leaving the valuable rainforest for coming generations.