Nature and Biodiversity

Amazon indigenous groups want to create a nature sanctuary the size of Mexico

Uraricoera River is seen during Brazil’s environmental agency operation against illegal gold mining on indigenous land, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, in Roraima state, Brazil April 15, 2016. At over 9.5 million hectares, the Yanomami territory is twice the size of Switzerland and home to around 27,000 indians. The land has legally belonged to the Yanomami since 1992, but illegal miners continue to plague the area, sawing down trees and poisoning rivers with mercury in their lust for gold. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly     SEARCH "AMAZON GOLD" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "THE WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES - GF10000395306

The 'corridor of life and culture' would be the world's largest conservation area. Image: REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

John McKenna
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Indigenous people in Latin America want to create the world’s largest protected area to help fight climate change and protect biodiversity.

The national park-like area would stretch from the bottom of the Andes, through the Amazon to the Atlantic and would cover 2 million square kilometres – roughly the same land mass as Mexico.

It was put forward at this week’s UN conference on biodiversity in Egypt by the
Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA), an alliance of 500 indigenous groups from nine Latin American countries.

Speaking at the conference, COICA vice president Tuntiak Katan said: “We have come from the forest and we worry about what is happening. This space is the world's last great sanctuary for biodiversity. It is there because we are there. Other places have been destroyed.”

Katan added that his organization wanted world leaders to agree to protect a "sacred corridor of life and culture" through the creation of the protected area.

Biodiversity’s ‘Paris Agreement’

This week’s conference in Egypt is part of ongoing work by the UN to develop a global agreement on biodiversity similar to the Paris climate change agreement. The biodiversity agreement is scheduled to be signed at the UN’s convention in Beijing in 2020.

COICA wants government-level representation at Beijing 2020 and argues that “any post-2020 agreement must include active participation of indigenous peoples since their territories are home to 80% of biodiversity and 24% of forest carbon”.

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“Indigenous peoples and local communities are a solution to the devastation of our ecosystems and climate change both in the Amazon as well as in the rest of the world,” said Katan.

“But whether policies addressed at mitigating climate change and promoting the restoration of rainforests succeed depends on the security of having possession of community lands. Sixtyfive percent of the world’s lands are indigenous territories, but only 10% are legalized.”

Research published earlier this year put indigenous lands as a much smaller proportion, around a quarter of all land outside Antarctica. However, this is still would still cover 38 million square kilometres – 19 times the size of the proposed Latin American protected area – for people who now represent just 5% of the planet’s population.

Crucial for conservation

The research, published in Nature Sustainability, details how valuable indigenous lands are for conservation: about 65% of Indigenous lands have not been intensively developed, compared with 44% of other land. Similarly, just 10% of the world’s urban areas, villages and non-remote croplands are on Indigenous lands.

Katan’s argument that Indigenous groups having “possession of community lands” is critical for protecting the biodiversity of the rainforests is backed up by data in the Nature Sustainability research. It shows the significant overlap between lands under indigenous management and those left in their natural state.

The overlap between indigenous and natural lands. Image: Adapted from Garnett et al. 2018.

“Guaranteeing indigenous territorial rights is an inexpensive and effective way of reducing carbon emissions and increase natural areas,” said Katan.

“Ensuring possession of community rainforests is a low-cost, high-benefit investment to protect our Mother Earth and stop extinctions.”

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