On the face of it, Tessa Felix was like any young office worker. She turned up promptly for our morning meeting, cycling from her home in trousers and a T-shirt bearing a corporate logo; she logged on to the internet connection as we chatted and cursed its slow response. But when I asked about her work, her world suddenly seemed very different from that of the average office drudge. She began telling me about her grandfather, who was once a chief, or toshao, of the village where we met – a village deep in the south of Guyana in South America. ‘When I was a child, my grandfather took me into the forest. He went fishing. He showed me the secret places of our people and told me our stories,’ she said. ‘My work now is about preserving my grandfather’s legacy. I feel the land belongs to me and my people. Everything we want is here. My grandfather said that I was born from the Earth and I believe that. Our land is like our mother. Now I want to fight for our land.’
We were in Rupununi, a region of Guyanese forests and savannah grasslands bordered by Brazil to the west and south and Surinam to the east. Felix lives in Shulinab, a village of some 500 people, two hours’ drive down a potholed road from the rodeo town of Lethem. Her people are the Wapichan, a tribe of Amerindians. They are forest hunters with bows and arrows, but also farmers and cattle ranchers. They are, like many Indigenous communities, trying to embrace two worlds. They speak their native language, but also fluent English. They can spend weeks in their territories, walking the ancient trails, swimming the creeks, climbing the trees and visiting their ancestral graves and sacred forests. But they navigate as much with GPS apps on their smartphones as by traditional knowledge and would happily drive home in one of their beaten-up all-terrain vehicles.
Guyana is one of the most forested countries in the world. It is 87 per cent trees. Its government gets international plaudits for its low rate of deforestation. But most of the forests are in areas populated and used by Indigenous communities. Of these, the traditional territory of the Wapichan people is the largest. To an outsider, their land can appear empty. Travelling between villages, I drove for hours across grasslands and past forest without seeing more than an occasional hunter or cattle herder. There are just 9,000 Wapichan, occupying a traditional territory the size of Wales. That amounts to three square kilometres per person. Some question whether, in the modern world, they can rightfully claim so much land. The Wapichan insist that they have a right to full legal title.
‘Our land is being taken away from us often without us even knowing,’ Nicholas Fredericks, once a precocious Wapichan cowboy and now a village leader and coordinator of land-use monitoring, had insisted the night before as we cracked open beers while Brazilian soccer played on the village’s solar-powered TV. ‘These forests are our life, but they are being taken from us. We have to protect them for the future of our people.’
He shares that task with Felix, who, as a worker for the community, investigates reports of their territory being invaded – by gold miners crossing the border from Brazil, and by loggers, illegal fishers and cattle rustlers. Her last trip, she told me, took her to the Marudi Mountains in the south of the Wapichan lands, to record how a new Canadian-owned mine was polluting rivers that the Wapichan rely on for fish. ‘I know villagers who get their fish from that river,’ she told me in horror, showing on her phone the video she took of a once-clear rushing stream turned to a cloudy cascade of mud and mercury. On one six-day patrol along the river that forms the border with Brazil, Wapichan scouts found thirty illicit paths across the border, six of them in regular use by miners. The patrols have a deterrent effect. ‘The rustlers fear what they call the “monitors with smartphones”. They turn back if they hear we are around.’
The Wapichan are proud of their adoption of technology, and see no reason why it should make their land needs and entitlements any the less. Felix – a twenty-five-year-old IT whizz, political sophisticate and bush tracker – is a living refutation of the idea that the new generation has to choose between modern and traditional ways. She wants her traditional lands and a better internet connection.
Nobody knows how long the Wapichan have been in Rupununi. They probably moved north from the Amazon before the eighteenth century. Like most Amerindian communities, they suffered both from raids by slave traders and from European diseases. In the nineteenth century, Jesuit missionaries established schools and churches, and persuaded them out of the forests. In the early twentieth century, British colonial authorities created a series of ‘reservations’ around major villages and offered up the rest of the Wapichan traditional lands for commercial cattle ranching. There were not many takers, though a Scottish entrepreneur leased 670,000 hectares of what he claimed was the most remote ranch in the world. It once had a cattle trail all the way to Georgetown on the coast. The trail was abandoned long ago, but the ranch is still there, albeit with only a sixth of the cattle.
As the British left in the 1960s, Guyana’s Amerindians campaigned to get their traditional lands formally recognized in the independence settlement. Felix’s grandfather was among the elders who made the claim to Queen Elizabeth. They were granted title to less than a sixth of their claim, however. When, in the 1990s, they demanded the rest, the country’s president, Cheddi Jagan, challenged them to say how they would use the land. So they decided to map and document their existing use and draw up future plans.
The task took almost a decade, with financial and technical support from, among others, the EU, the UN Development Programme and the British government. Tom Griffiths of the UK-based Forest Peoples Programme, which works with the Wapichan, says that probably no Indigenous community in the world has devoted so much time and energy to such a project.
‘In the early days there was no GPS,’ said Tony James, former chief of all the Wapichan. ‘We just walked, following government maps and adding detail to them from our knowledge. But with GPS we have been able to do things much more precisely.’ Angelbert Johnny, a former village chief, remembered, ‘The elders and experts on the creeks, forests and mountains were our guides as we walked, or took boats and bicycles and horses to survey the land. We sometimes travelled for a month. It was hard. People got bitten by snakes. One guy got lost for two days. But we went everywhere and mapped everything. Often we had to put our GPS equipment on poles and push them up through the forest canopy to get a signal.’
They ended up with 40,000 digital points collated and crosschecked by Californian digital mappers. They found numerous errors in the government’s maps. Several of their seventeen villages were wrongly situated and different creeks endlessly confused. Government mappers have refused to accept their errors, says Ron James, who was in charge of the mapping. ‘They just say our maps are wrong, even when the evidence is obvious and corroborated by satellites.’
Along with the cartography, the Wapichan documented their lives, culture and traditions. Claudine LaRose, from Shulinab village, recalled, ‘The elders told us how we came to be in the mountains, about the sacred sites and the spirit grandfathers that preside over natural resources. How, if you cut down certain trees in the forest you will get sick and die, punished by the spirits who live in the mountains and creeks.’ They also developed a plan to protect their land using traditional knowledge and methods. In particular, they want to create a community forest, managed for hunting and gathering, for shifting cultivation and, they hope, for science and tourism. Covering 1.4 million hectares, it would be one of the world’s largest community forests. They reasoned that if they documented their existing customary use, the government should recognize their land. Things weren’t so straightforward, however. It took seven years for the government even to agree to begin talks, and four years later, as I write, there has been no outcome.
During my visit, I joined a two-day meeting of Wapichan leaders and activists at which they discussed what to do next. It was held in the nursery school in Marora Naawa village, where shifting cultivator Patrick Gomes, whom we met in the previous chapter, was chief. Portraits of the country’s president and prime minister hung on the classroom walls. People had travelled for a day or more to be there. There was anger that government officials had told three village chiefs not to attend because the meeting was not sanctioned and was therefore illegal. Villages would suffer if their leaders attended, they said. Such threats were real. Activists said government services which might be taken for granted elsewhere only reached Wapichan villages in the form of high-profile gifts and favours from the president and ministries. Things such as drugs for clinics, solar panels to provide electricity and the internet service now available in three villages came through this patronage. Most villages feared losing these amenities.
The Wapichan claim not only that they have a right to their land, but also that their knowledge of it means they are the only effective custodians. They hunt for deer, bush hogs, agouti and armadillos, but only take what they need for their families. They know that killing more would empty the larder for future generations. They practise shifting cultivation in the forests. Their cattle range over huge unfenced areas. But they leave some areas of land entirely alone, either because of its spiritual meaning or as refuges for wildlife.
Today there are probably fewer commercial activities in the forests than there have been for a century. The Wapichan used to bleed the native bully trees for balata, a latex that was a major export for Guyana until the 1970s. There were air strips to fly it out. Today the trade has ended and the grass strips are maintained only for occasional use by the flying doctor. Ranching is no longer a thriving business because transport costs are too high. Many families send members to work in Georgetown, in Brazilian gold mines or in Boa Vista, the boom town just over the border.
If they are to prosper, the Wapichan badly need new sources of income from their lands. For a while, back in the 1990s, it seemed as if they might earn substantial royalties by allowing their traditional medicines to be turned into new pharmaceuticals for the outside world. One of their number, Conrad Gorinsky, the clever son of a Polish cattle rancher and an Indigenous mother, had left for a biomedical career in Britain, taking with him plants containing two natural potions that he had known as a child in the forests.
The Wapichan had long used the bark of the greenheart tree to prevent malaria. In his lab, Gorinsky isolated the active ingredient. He did the same with a poison found in the leaves of a local shrub that he and other Wapichan children had made into spit balls and thrown into ponds, where it made fish so disoriented that they could easily be picked out of the water by hand. He reckoned that the powerful nerve stimulant in the leaves could have many medicinal uses. But the hopes of turning these potions into cash evaporated. Gorinsky and the Wapichan fell out over who should have the patent rights and no drug companies took up his discoveries.
Today, the best chance to raise Wapichan incomes may lie in nature tourism. Currently, the few hundred visitors to their territories each year are mostly scientists, students and ecotourists. Many stay at the big commercial ranch. Some Wapichan villages have built small guests houses, modelled on successful enterprises run by other Amerindian communities. But, while the food is good, they rarely meet Western expectations. One I stayed in required a hundred-metre walk in the dark to find a latrine. There were rattlesnakes, I was told.
Such drawbacks can be fixed, however, and the daytime experience is magical. There is spectacular bird life, with harpy eagles, pearl kites, savannah hawks, the near-endemic Finsch’s euphonia and a small bright orange finch called the red siskin. Once thought to be extinct, the red siskin was rediscovered by Wapichan rangers, prompting the WWF to organize a major biodiversity assessment of Rupununi. Their rangers led the investigators to more than a thousand species. The Wapichan believe international recognition of the bird life could encourage visits by birdwatchers and bolster their land claim. An obvious tourist destination would be the forested Kanuku Mountains in the north of the Wapichan territories. The mountains have more biodiversity than anywhere else in Guyana, with black caiman, giant river otters, giant anteaters and arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in South America. The Guyanese government eyes the mountains as a protected area to place under its control, but a more logical approach would be to open it up to tourists under the environmental stewardship of the people who know it best, the Wapichan.
We should not be too romantic. A clash of cultures is being played out in Wapichan communities. Self-sufficiency and dependence on the forests are losing out to computer games, canned vegetables and the lure of cash. Many of its young people seek work and education outside. But villagers still slaughter their own animals for meat and make cassava and tapioca bread from local ingredients, as well as wine, jams and a pungent pepper sauce – usually sold at village stores in old vodka bottles. They make their own leather too and every village has a sewing circle, where women make traditional hammocks and baby slings.
Tony James told me of his plans to introduce summer classes in bushcraft for children who go away to secondary schools. ‘We should teach them how to make bows and arrows, how to survive in the forest and how to hunt,’ he said. ‘At the end of the course, they could go into the forest on their own and prove their prowess in finding food. And then return with what they have hunted or gathered to prepare a village feast. The young women could welcome the hunters. There could be a bushcraft graduation ceremony. We could even fly in tourists to watch.’
Is that wishful thinking? Perhaps, though I found the sense of purpose among the community’s leaders deeply impressive. Yes, the modern world poses threats, but it also offers opportunities for them and their forests. Just maybe, modern technology and the global links it can bring will take them on a road where digital mapping, environmental concern and global advocacy can secure their land rights for future generations – and secure their forests.
Earlier in this book, I stood at the boundary between the forested Xingu Indigenous reserve and the Tanguro soya farm in Mato Grosso. It was a sobering experience to see two worlds collide so dramatically on the ground. It was almost equally staggering to view on a computer screen back home satellite images of that boundary extending for hundreds of kilometres, and to see the same pattern repeated across the entire Amazon basin. The Amazon today is a giant patchwork made up of huge islands of green forest surrounded by brown areas of land cleared for farming. In places, satellite time series show the brown advancing, year by year. In others, the green holds firm. Why the difference? Because the secure green areas mostly belong to assertive Indigenous communities. In most places, at most times, they are the ones who are saving the Amazon.
The Xingu reserve, which is home to a number of Indigenous groups, covers 2.6 million hectares. It is 85 per cent forested, but surrounded by a sea of soya. Immediately to the north the Kayapo people control more than eleven million hectares of forest. There is no deforestation within their territory either. Together the two reserves form a green island rather larger than England, surrounded by the brown of cattle pasture and soya farms.
Those communities, numbering just a few thousand inhabitants, have held back an invasion by outsiders that has engulfed areas close by. Where government agencies have failed to act, the communities have had to violently repel loggers, gold miners, cattle ranchers and soya farmers. On one famous occasion, after learning that gold miners had moved into a remote area of their reserve, Kayapo warriors raided the camp by boat and on foot, destroying the equipment and successfully pressuring the government to send in helicopters to remove the miners. The miners never returned. We used to be told that forests have to be saved from the people who live in them, but the opposite is usually the case. The 300 or so Indigenous territories created in the Brazilian Amazon since 1980 are now widely recognized to have played a key role in a dramatic decline in deforestation this century. The laws creating the reserves give Indigenous communities the right to repel outsiders and control of the natural resources their reserves contain. They have used those powers. One study found a two-thirds reduction in deforestation since 1982 in parts of the Brazilian Amazon covered by the ‘collective property rights’ of Indigenous communities.
Another found that across the Brazilian Amazon from 2000 to 2014, deforestation was at 0.6 per cent per year in areas under the control of Indigenous groups, compared to 7 per cent outside. This is not, incidentally, because their land has fewer people than other parts of the forest. On the contrary, population density is often higher inside Indigenous territories than outside, says Rodrigo Begotti of the University of East Anglia, ‘dispelling the often-repeated argument that there is too much land for too few Indians’. To the west, in the Peruvian Amazon, the story is similar. Where Indigenous communities have the title to their land, it ‘reduces clearing by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds,’ says Allen Blackman of the Washington think tank Resources for the Future.
Forest dwellers are modern-day forest saviours and they do best when the going is toughest, says Christoph Nolte of the University of Michigan. He found that in the Brazilian Amazon, ‘Indigenous lands were particularly effective at avoiding deforestation in locations with high deforestation pressures’. You can see that too in the satellite images. State-protected areas may be overwhelmed; places where the locals are in charge rarely are.
Let’s not see Indigenous groups as pure environmentalists. They are defending their land and resources as much as they are defending nature. For them the two are indivisible. In the Brazilian Amazon, an estimated 70,000 people still make a living by tapping wild rubber and harvesting Brazil nuts, tonka beans and acai, a palm whose fruit is now reckoned to be the third most valuable forest product out of the Amazon, exceeded only by beef and timber. Much of this rainforest harvesting now happens within twenty or so extractive reserves set aside for local people. They cover an area of Amazon jungle the size of England. The first reserve commemorates the work of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper from the western Amazon whose campaign to protect forests by creating such reserves was adopted by Western environmental groups in the 1980s. He was assassinated by a local rancher. But his disciple, Marina Silva, later became environment minister, and secured his legacy by establishing a network of reserves that protect the forests while using them.
‘The Amazon is a working landscape, protected by those who use it; not a model of purity,’ says environmental historian Susanna Hecht of the University of California, Los Angeles. Even if that sometimes disappoints lovers of intact forests, they should remember that the ‘intact’ Amazon is mostly regrowth of pre-Columbian forest gardens. In any case, they should see that forest communities, their techniques and jurisdiction, are part of the solution, not the problem.
The Amazon is not exceptional. In critical frontier zones across the world, two things are becoming clear. The first is that forest communities protect the forests; the second, that they are generally better at it than governments or outside environmentalists, especially when they have secure title to their land. This is not just about forest cover, extent or even carbon. Forests managed by Indigenous communities also turn out to have more biodiverse ecosystems than areas protected by national parks and other reserves, according to an analysis of more than 15,000 locations, from Brazil to Australia, led by Richard Schuster, of the University of British Columbia. There was little doubt, he concluded, that ‘it’s the land-management practices of many Indigenous communities that are keeping species numbers high’
Often, in tropical forests, it is the areas with a history of human occupation that are the richest in species. As a former head of the UN Environment Programme, Klaus Töpfer, once put it, there is ‘clear and growing evidence of a link between cultural diversity and biodiversity, between reverence for the land and a location and a breadth of often unique and special plants and animals’. Or, as Guatemalan Indigenous activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú has it, ‘It is not accidental that where Indigenous peoples live is where the greatest biological diversity exists too.’
Such analysis is still a shock to many environmentalists, who have for decades encouraged governments to remove Indigenous peoples and local communities from forests in the name of environmental protection. Over the decades more than 40,000 people have been displaced from nine protected areas in six Central African countries, with many more deprived of hunting and gathering grounds. The global total may run into millions of people removed, says anthropologist Dan Brockington of the University of Manchester, in a strategy he calls ‘fortress conservation’.
Around 17 per cent of the land area of the planet is now ‘protected’ for nature. About half of these protected areas overlap the traditional territories of Indigenous peoples, while many more – probably most – impinge on areas claimed by non-Indigenous rural communities. Yet according to the UN Environment Programme, most of the world’s national parks still do not have any form of community management. This is both unjust and stupid.
In one of many cases catalogued by human rights activists, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in the US convinced the government of the Republic of Congo in 1993 to turn 400,000 hectares of forest in the north-west of the country into the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. In the process several thousand semi-nomadic Bayaka ‘pygmy’ people were expelled from their ancestral hunting grounds in the park. It is an old story, but cannot be consigned to history. The injustice remains. Cruelly, the park is adjacent to a large logging concession, also annexed from Bayaka land. In effect, the loggers and conservationists have carved up the forest, cutting out the Indigenous inhabitants. To rub salt into the wounds, in early 2020 the WCS’s website was still describing the park as ‘arguably the best example of an intact forest ecosystem remaining in the Congo Basin’, having ‘little or no contact with people’. No mention of the Bayaka.
The WCS is not alone in its troubling history, or its failure to apologize or make reparations. In 2020, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) catalogued how the WWF has for years been funding guards in another Congolese green fortress, the Messok-Dja National Park. These guards have beaten up and intimidated hundreds of Bayaka, expelling them from their ancestral lands, imprisoning them, burning their houses and confiscating their crops. It reported that the top echelons of the environmental organization had, despite public denials, known for years about the abuse there and in other parks that the WWF has funded in neighbouring Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Environmentalists often talk about engaging with forest communities. But ‘funds from well-meaning people in Europe and North America are still helping to pay for these violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights’, says John Nelson of the Forest Peoples Programme. Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, which helped record the Congo abuse for the UNDP, calls it ‘a disaster for conservation, as it’s destroying the very people who are the best conservationists’. It was also beginning to impact on funding. In the aftermath of the UNDP report, US authorities halted funding of more than $12 million for the WWF, WCS and others working in the region.
There is a culture war going on here over what being green is about. Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences says conservationists often suffer from a ‘tainted-nature delusion: the view that nature is only good enough to conserve when it satisfies our mental ideals’ – that is, a nature without people. But this is also, more crudely, a turf war over who is in charge of the wild lands. Is it the locals who live in and among the forests? Or is it the outside experts, who arrive in SUVs to assess the ecology and depart again to write up their reports? Perhaps that conflict helps explain why it has taken so long for many environmentalists to recognize that Indigenous peoples may know better than them how to manage forests.
Even so, a shift in perspective is coming. I was fascinated by an interview in Yale Environment 360 with top forest botanist Charles Peters of the New York Botanical Garden. He was publicizing his 2018 book Managing the Wild. I expected an exposition of how Western science is deployed to understand and conserve the forests. Instead, he argued that ‘local people know a lot more about how to manage tropical forests than we do’ and have ‘this incredible body of traditional knowledge’. Of a visit to Dayak people in Borneo, he enthused, ‘These guys are managing 150 species of tree in a hectare. We Western foresters can’t manage four species in a plot . . . As a forester you just go: “Oh my God, how do they do this?”’ It is no longer acceptable to see such folk knowledge as some quirky leftover from ancient times, charming but essentially irrelevant to the modern world. Indigenous knowledge is in most respects superior to the knowledge of outsiders. If we are to save, nurture and restore the world’s forests, the best expertise for achieving that is alive and well, living in those forests right now. They cannot be bystanders in the conservation of their territories. They should – and must – be in charge of the process.
Image © NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team