The planet breathes. According to a census published in 2016 in the scientific journal Nature, there are 3.1 billion trees on the planet. Incredible as it may seem, it means that there are more trees on Earth than there are stars in the Milky Way. Hence, there is an unimaginably vast planetary respiratory system, a gigantic green machine that extracts enormous amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, especially in the warmer months. A single mature, leafy tree produces a daily supply of oxygen for between 2 and 10 people; such is the significance of our forests.
In addition to providing habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, forests also offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion, and are central to combating climate change, the most pressing challenge facing humankind. Forests shelter us from storms; provide us with food, fuel, medicine, and construction materials; without them, other plants and animals would be lost forever. We are only beginning to fully comprehend their social nature, and we need them, too, because their grace and beauty lift our spirits and restore our calm.
The Amazon is the largest tropical forest in the world and, therefore, the most important at many levels. The Amazon is a vast expanse of seven million square kilometers spread over eight countries. 60% of the forest is in Brazil, where just under half of the territory have some form of legal protection, either in nature parks or indigenous reserves. Despite its vital importance, deforestation in the Amazon is not new. During the first half of this year, the Brazilian Amazon lost 3,988 square kilometers of its surface, an area equivalent to two and a half times the size of the city of Sao Paulo. This is the worst record for this period in the last seven years.
Deforestation has devastating impacts on biodiversity, food security, and global heating. Better protection, expansion, and improved management of the world’s forests are considered by many experts as among the most promising nature-based solution. In this regard, the oft-repeated idea that indigenous peoples are the “guardians of the forest” is not trivial. In the last three decades, while the loss of vegetation cover in private areas was 20.6%, on indigenous lands it was only 1%. Those forests that are still under indigenous stewardship remain healthy and biodiverse and their importance for the preservation of these ecosystems is such that, according to the World Bank, although indigenous peoples make up 5% of the world’s population, they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity and 50% of all intact forests. Indigenous forests are, consequently, the largest terrestrial storehouses of carbon, so the contribution of indigenous peoples to tackling climate change must be recognized. Their solutions must be heard.
Nevertheless, the protective role of indigenous peoples in Latin America is under siege. In Brazil, from 2016 to 2018, deforestation increased by 150% in the country’s indigenous territories. Industries such as mining and oil are boosting forest destruction and invasions by ranchers and settlers, who burn and bulldoze land to make way for cattle and crops. Indigenous peoples and local communities in Latin America care for 200 million hectares of forest, lands to which they have recognized rights. But with forests increasingly under threat, and despite the proven effectiveness of helping these communities by covering part of the costs of being good stewards of forests, these efforts are not being adequately funded.
One of the community facing these challenges is the Waninawa community, whom we had the opportunity to spend time with and learn about their way of life. The Waninawa is a relatively recent community, dating back to 2005. They are the offspring of the indigenous people who used to live in the same region, where they settled and built a small community based on the traditions of their ancestors. During the time we spent with them, we had the opportunity to witness their expertise in traditional healing methods, as well as acquire a basic understanding of first aid methods that trace back to millennia- old wisdom. We were likewise able to witness how powders for treating wounds are made, how poisoning is treated, and how some herbal syrups are prepared to treat respiratory problems. As the original stewards of the land, indigenous peoples hold vital ancestral knowledge. The importance of connecting with nature is new to western science, but has long been known by indigenous peoples. Those parts of humanity that have forgotten the lessons of the forest must begin to relearn them. And yet, the living conditions of these indigenous peoples of the Amazon have much room for improvement.
In the efforts of NGOs around the globe to raise people’s awareness about the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the state’s lack of protection for those who watch over their preservation, there is an initiative of projects worldwide to facilitate direct knowledge of the Amazon forest through conscious and sustainable tourism.
Ecotourism has the potential of being an important sustainable development tool, as it frequently operates quite differently than other segments of the tourism industry because ecotourism is defined by its sustainable development results: conserving natural areas, educating visitors about sustainability, and benefiting local people. As globalization makes local economic control increasingly difficult, ecotourism seeks to reverse this trend by stressing that local business owners and local communities must be vitally involved. In this regard, the Waninawa community is ready to welcome travelers from all over the world into their homes, offering them the opportunity to learn about their culture, the social and cultural threats that local people face, and their understanding of local ecology. Our aim is for these initiatives to be targeted at assisting local communities with health care, education, and maintaining local traditions.
Indigenous peoples are the forest, the river, the biodiversity, the ecosystems, and the sacred spaces. They are often the world’s best guardians of nature, grounded in their ancient knowledge. Indigenous ways of seeing the world as connected, that we are all one, embody a responsibility to care for Mother Earth. Our planet is facing an unprecedented climate crisis, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We are fully capable of being better stewards of nature, with the good practices of the indigenous communities as our model.
Together we are stronger. Together, we can give the planet a breath of life.