Nature and Biodiversity

Lessons from Indigenous leaders to protect the Amazon rainforest 

Indigenous Peoples account for just 6% of the global population but are responsible for protecting 80% of the world's biodiversity. Image: World Economic Forum

Pablo Uchoa
Writer, Forum Agenda
Laura Beltran
Digital Media Specialist, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Indigenous Peoples, representing just over 6% of the global population, serve as stewards for 80% of the world's remaining biodiversity.
  • Indigenous leaders from across the Amazon region attended the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting held in Davos, Switzerland, between 15 and 19 January.
  • These leaders shared their perspectives on how to build an economy that works in harmony with nature, and emphasized the need to ensure Indigenous Peoples have a place at the table.

Indigenous Peoples account for just over 6% of the global population, but they are custodians for the conservation of 80% of the world's remaining biodiversity.

Research indicates that at least 25% of the carbon stored by the world’s tropical and subtropical forests is under the stewardship of Indigenous Peoples. Crucially, Indigenous Peoples also possess vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and natural disaster risks.

Indigenous leaders from across the Amazon region attended the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. They shared their perspectives on how to build an economy that works in harmony with nature, protects biodiversity and the ecosystems it sustains, and leverages Indigenous knowledge that can help the world achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Fany Kuiru, the first woman appointed General Coordinator of the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), representing 511 Indigenous communities in 9 countries of the region, emphasized the need to ensure that Indigenous Peoples are given a place at the table. During a session in Davos, she stressed the need for the world to ensure 'full and effective participation in decision-making' regarding policies affecting the region.

Kuiru urged leaders to adopt a holistic approach that takes into account the natural and cultural diversity and the Indigenous approach to sustainable economy and resource management. Indigenous Peoples are 'the best guardians of the Amazon', she said, and represent a rich diversity of world outlooks, with own systems of government, traditional knowledge systems and more than 300 spoken languages. Therefore, it is urgent to ensure legal security and economic viability of Indigenous territories to enable environmental preservation.

Indigenous territories are the best preserved in the Amazon because we make respectful use of our territory and natural resources.

Fany Kuiru, General Coordinator, Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin (COICA)

The value of the standing forest

During a separate session of the Annual Meeting, panelists engaged in a discussion regarding strategies to assign value to standing forests. This comes at a time when data increasingly confirms economic advantages associated to preserving biodiversity.

Beyond the question of economic value, Uyunkar Domingo Peas, President of the Board of Directors, Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance, reminded attendees that, for Indigenous Peoples, the debate on preserving the Amazon forest is deeply ontological. Commenting on 'how to put a price on nature', he said the forest is 'priceless' for Indigenous Peoples and shared a glimpse into how deeply connected the Indigenous cosmology is with the forest, which it considers a living being that gives life to all humanity.

While big companies talk about value, for us, that whole ecosystem, which is a living thing, is priceless.

Uyunkar Domingo Peas Nampichkai, President of the Board of Directors at the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance (Cuencas Sagradas Amazónicas)

Uyunkar Domingo Peas urged leaders at Davos to align the Indigenous concept of the natural world as a provided or life, with economic practices of sustainable harvesting, 'done with care and love', he said. He reminded the audience that all monocultures are detrimental to the environment, highlighting his culture's ancestral focus on product diversification, a key reason the forest remains standing.

'One of our products making its way onto global markets is Vanilla', he said. However, Indigenous Peoples have found it challenging to access international banks and financial mechanisms that enable their participation in the economy.

Domingo stressed that Indigenous Peoples 'work for free because nature gives us [Indigenous Peoples] everything,' but lack access to basic services such as health and education — activities that require significant investments, which Indigenous communities rarely can access. 'I urge financial entities to facilitate access to help us educate our people and help us continue maintaining our forests for the benefit of humanity', he said.

A spiritual connection with nature

A similar view was echoed by Chief Nixiwaka Yawanawá and Putany Yawanawá, leaders of the Yawanawá People on the Brazilian border with Peru. During a session about art and spirituality, they urged humanity to rekindle its spiritual connection with nature, stressing its role in charting a sustainable future for the planet. Chief Nixiwaka said: 'We [Indigenous Peoples] are the children who never left home, the home of the Divine Creator.'

We are the only people on this planet who still speak the language of the water, the earth, the air, the stars, the water, the animals, the forest and all the Creation of the planet. We not only protect nature; we are nature itself.

Chief Nixiwaka Yawanawá

Global support to help Indigenous communities thrive

Marina Silva, the Brazilian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, urged leaders to listen to Indigenous Peoples and local communities and benefit from the wisdom of 'those who have thousands of years of knowledge associated with these resources.'

Brazil has set up a task force to develop mechanisms to pay communities for enabling ecosystem services. Silva illustrated this using the example of water. 'The Amazon produces 20 billion tonnes of water a day. Fifty percent of this water is used by the forest, and the other 50% is dispersed into the atmosphere, which is responsible for our rainfall regime, to which 75% of South America's GDP is related. These are called flying rivers,' she said.

'If we were to pump this water, we would need 50,000 Itaipus, which is a large binational hydroelectric power station [between Brazil and Paraguay]. Can anyone imagine an investment like that, 50,000 Itaipus pumping water non-stop to feed our hydrological regime?'

'But nature does that, only using the land, nutrients, the forest, the sun and the wind. It's an incalculable ecosystem service.'

Gretchen Daily, Bing Professor of Environmental Science at Stanford University, highlighted the initial success of quantifying nature using a metric developed in alliance with local communities called the Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP), which focuses on nature’s contributions to people and the economy as a whole, creating an actionable parameter to influence decision-making. A series of innovative policies based on GEP have been designed and implemented in China where '51% of land is now zoned for regeneration and about 200 million people are being paid to regenerate nature in a way that aligns with a view that is represented by Indigenous communities worldwide and many other local communities', she said. Several other countries including Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Sweden are also beginning to engage with GEP accounting.

Nature has values that we often haven't discovered because of the stage we're at. And later on we will find that value and perhaps even in ways that can be priced.

Marina Silva, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change of Brazil

Investing in the Amazon's bioeconomy is one of the goals of Amazonia Forever, a holistic umbrella program for sustainable development created by the Inter-American Development Bank, which aims to bring together the public and private sector to upscale financing in the region and strengthen the planning and execution of projects to generate impact. Fany Kuiru pointed out the role of Indigenous communities in the co-creation and governance of such initiatives to ensure a dignified life for Indigenous Peoples by offering them economic alternatives.

Indigenous communities joined global and regional discussions around nature and climate at Davos 2024. Their message was clear: Humanity needs to return to its core spirituality, remember that the forests are alive, and integrate global prosperity with a humanized approach to nature.

At Davos 2024, the World Economic Forum launched The Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge and Leadership Network, an initiative aimed at engaging the most prominent Indigenous leaders and experts across the Forum's 10 Centres to foster greater public-private cooperation through traditional and innovative Indigenous knowledge.

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