Tragedy and transformation in Brazil’s Xingu River Basin

Since 2004, Environmental Defense Fund and partners Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and Foundation for Life, Production and Preservation (FVPP) have been working on a project to create and implement the world’s largest continuous tropical forest corridor, in Brazil’s Xingu River Basin.

Xingu River Basin Protected Areas from space. The Protected Areas Corridor covers about half of the basin. Source: Alicia Rolla, Instituto Socioambiental (2009)

At 27 million hectares, the corridor is about the size of the United Kingdom.  Like the United Kingdom, you can see it from space.

While protected areas are still verdant, an explosion of deforestation around cattle ranching, soy farming and other activities has devastated forests on the frontier.  If you were to look on the corridor from Earth’s moon, you could make out a distinct line where the forest stops and the frontier begins.

Since deforestation contributes to about 15% of global carbon dioxide emission, there’s an environmental imperative to preserve tropical forests.

But there’s also a very real human element: The Xingu Indigenous Park area of the basin alone is home to 18 indigenous communities and features 16 languages.

Indigenous community survives disease and displacement, takes future into own hands

One of these groups is the Panará community.  Thirty years ago I lived among the Panará while doing anthropological field work. One of their leaders, Krentom, is a friend to this day.  When I think about what’s happened (and happening) in the region, I think about it through the experience of Krentom.

My friend Krentom, a leader of the Panará community.

The story of indigenous communities in Brazil since the last half of the 20th century is one of tragedy and transformation.  They went from having generic constitutional rights, but almost no land, to enjoying full recognition under the law and extensive forested territories.  They’re now stewards of 20% of the Amazon – an area of forest twice the size of California –and are  at the core of the Brazilian government’s forest protection efforts.  None of this came easily.

In the early 1970s, the Brazilian government built a major road through the Panará’s traditional homeland, which would prove devastating to the environment and the community.  With the road came previously unknown diseases that claimed 60% of the population at the time.

Areas of deforestation in the Xingu River Basin shown in orange. Deforestation levels in 1994 are on the left, and in 2005 on the right. Source: Instituto Socioambiental (2009)

The survivors were relocated by the government, and Krentom led them through the difficult process of putting their community back together as their traditional lands were destroyed by ranching and logging.  In the mid-1990s, EDF and ISA helped the Panará regain a forest area about the size of Delaware — their remaining traditional land — in what is today the Xingu Protected Areas Corridor.

The Panará took their future into their own hands, establishing their presence by way of villages and gardens to secure their territory before land grabbers and ranchers could take it.  Their population has returned to at or above pre-1968 levels.

Protecting forests offer indigenous communities path to sustainable prosperity

Many indigenous communities like the Panará are now faced with a dilemma.

Growing up, Krentom didn’t know what it was to be poor.  Now he does.  But what to do?  He’d like economic opportunity, but not from anything that degrades the land (e.g., unsustainable farming) or that violates the law (e.g., illegal logging).

Krentom gets the concept of payment for environmental services, and he likes the idea of REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) programs, which would create a positive economic value to reducing deforestation.  Environmental Defense Fund is working independently and with partner organizations around the world to advance REDD+ work at the regional, national and international level.

This photo from the Panará village of Nansepotiti (their first village in their remaining traditional territory) illustrates the group's vibrant ceremonial life.

REDD+ means much more than cash for forest protection. We’re constantly exploring ways we can better support indigenous communities in their quest for sustainable prosperity.  There are projects that add value to responsibly produced Brazil nut oil, and others that collect seeds from native tree species for sale to reforesting efforts outside of the indigenous lands.  Our partner ISA also worked with indigenous beekeepers, getting jars of certified organic honey on the shelves of the largest supermarket chain in Brazil.

There’s clearly no one simple answer, but there are viable options that can add up to a solution.  The key to all of them is creating a basis for sustainable prosperity, which is why we are working to bring REDD+ into carbon markets.

If you’re interested in other work we’re doing in South America, my colleague Chris Meyer recently wrote about the important role indigenous communities play in Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador are playing in the monitoring, reporting and verifying (MRV) activities associated with REDD+.

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