The photo above shows the extraordinary way one can often trace the outline of indigenous reserves in the Amazon on satellite images: Total destruction outside reserve boundaries gives way to standing forest on the dividing line between indigenous and non-indigenous land.
The image comes from the Waiãpí reserve in the Brazilian state of Amapá, in the northern Amazon. Lurching towards it along a small road, one sees a line of unbroken forest where the reserve begins from miles away, for the simple reason that all the forest beyond the reserve in this direction has gone.
The story of the Waiãpí is not untypical of how indigenous peoples have fared in the Brazilian Amazon. Around 700 Waiãpí live in a number of small villages in a reserve covering 1.5 million acres of what is conventionally described as pristine rainforest but is actually nothing of the kind — it is intensively used by the Waiãpí, but in ways that have low impacts.
The Waiãpí are doing well — their population is growing, their reserve boundaries are protected, they get some help from the Brazilian government and non-governmental organizations run by anthropologists who speak their language.
They are certainly doing much better than they were a generation ago, when waves of settlers and a series of invasions threatened to wipe them out. But they live at the center of a paradox. Despite their modest needs and demands, funding to satisfy these needs and demands is a perennial problem. Meanwhile, new markets being created to stimulate conservation look as if they will channel resources not to them, but to their non-indigenous, deforesting neighbours.
Further south, in Mato Grosso state, where there are far larger indigenous reserves, a distinguished group of politicians, foundation staffers, conservationists and others will meet in early April to explore how to move forward with avoided deforestation projects — a potentially transformative idea that, simply put, rewards deforesters for foregoing deforestation.
It is one of the more exciting developments in conservation thinking in recent years — a way to confer value on standing forest and create an incentive to conserve rather than destroy.
But there’s a hitch. What if you never destroyed the forest, but conserved it instead, like the Waiãpí? To avoid deforestation, you have to be deforesting in the first place.
To even identify the unfairness and lobby for something to be done about it, you have to master the esoteric details of how carbon impacts climate change, where funding for avoided deforestation projects comes from, how it’s applied, what a viable alternative might be and who to talk to change things.
Difficult enough for specialists — and a tall order for the Waiãpí, even with outside help. Not the least of the paradox of the Waiãpí is that, in conservation terms, they are both cutting edge and a long, long way from that edge.
A lot of smart people have seen this paradox and are trying to work something out. But no convincing solution to the Waiãpí paradox has yet been found. Some indigenous leaders in the Amazon, and their organizations, have also spotted it. Once the implications are fully realized, and trickle through the indigenous movement in the Amazon, there will be hell to pay, rather than carbon credits to sell.
We need to be smarter, and move faster. The Waiãpí, after all, did the right thing.
(Image: Waiãpí reserve in the Brazilian state of Amapá, in the northern Amazon. Credit: Márcio Sztutman/TNC.)