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Protecting our planet’s lungs

In Peru's Southern Amazon, the indigenous Harakmbut people are warriors against climate change

The Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) initiative

is a partnership between FAO, UNDP and UNEP.

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“We cannot live without our land,” says Cirila Tete, an indigenous leader living in the last refuge of the Harakmbut Amazonian people: the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

As a member of Boca Isiriwe, one of the 10 native communities in this protected territory, Cirila defends the largest, most intact primary forest in Peru’s Southern Amazon region. The area is the source of livelihoods for more than 1,700 indigenous people, and Cirila is one of its stewards, protecting it from the ravages of mining and illegal logging.

Because they breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen, tropical rainforests are often called the “lungs of the planet”. Protecting this natural resource is one of the most effective ways to combat climate change.

Community leader Cirila Tete passes on her knowledge of the forests to the younger generation © UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo

Indigenous peoples play a leading role in the fight against climate change and poverty, especially in countries like Peru, where 24 percent of the population is indigenous. With UNDP support, they are carrying out Peru’s most ambitious local mitigation, adaptation and conservation plan ever: the Amazon Indigenous REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative.

Gerardo Cruz, president of Boca Isiriwe, shows off some of the local produce. © UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo
© UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo
© UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo

Warrior people

There’s a saying in the Harakmbut language that the people living in the Amarakaeri forests are ‘warrior people’, and for thousands of years they have remained in the basins of the Madre de Dios and Colorado rivers to defend the forests. Together with 12 rangers from the National Service of Natural Protected Areas, they are the only guardians of over 400,000 hectares of this territory.

© UNDP Peru / Sally Jabiel

Ascencio Patiachi is one of the oldest park rangers and knows the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve like his own home, because it is.

“Indigenous people have been taking care of this forest for hundreds of years. Our ancestors bequeathed this land to us so we wouldn’t suffer, so our children would have a future,” says Patiachi.
Boca Isiriwe’s only schoolhouse serves 29 pupils. © UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo

The Amarakaeri desert

Two years ago, Patiachi decided to venture into the Amazon. Over the course of six days, he explored the Reserve’s unfamiliar corners. There he discovered the ‘Harakmbut Face’, an indigenous visage carved into rock, recognized by his ancestors as a sacred place. Previously it was only known from photographs from the 1930s.

However, the same cameras that documented Patiachi’s journey also revealed a devastating panorama: a great desert in the Amazon.

Children of Boca Isiriwe prepare for a bonfire. They preserve their environment and their customs. © UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo

This is the devastating legacy left by gold prospectors, who arrived in the south-eastern sector of the Reserve in 2013. They have deforested over 12,000 hectares of forest, the size of about 17,000 football fields.

“Since there aren’t many jobs in the communities, many people have turned to illegal logging. Some ask: Why take care of the environment? How does it help us?” Patiachi laments.
© UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo
© UNDP Peru /  Sally Jabiel

Forest culture

"The forests are our culture. This is where we keep our lives and experiences for all our future generations,” says William Tete, former president of the Amazonian community of Boca Isiriwe.

Already in its fourth year of implementation, the Amazon Indigenous REDD+ initiative works with 390 indigenous communities in the Amazon basin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The project links the community’s worldviews and life plans with the value of the forests, not only because they are an important carbon reserve, but also for their intrinsic value to the communities.

William Tete still works to protect the Reserve despite living several hours away. © UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo

EbA Amazonía is another project headed up by the National Service of Natural Protected Areas, with technical support from UNDP and financial assistance from the Government of Germany. It works to implement community-based adaptation (CbA) and ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) measures. Through the introduction of techniques for sustainable chestnut harvesting, fish farming and experiential tourism, among other things, communities are coping with climate change and generating livelihoods.

This is how these communities are ensuring a future where their children can enjoy the thousands of hectares their forebears left to them. And, the world will continue to benefit from their immeasurable environmental and cultural wealth.

© UNDP Peru / Mónica Suárez Galindo

Help UNDP equip countries and communities with the knowledge and tools to wage the fight against climate change.

Footnote: Text by Sally Jabiel/UNDP Peru; photos by Mónica Suárez Galindo and Sally Jabiel/UNDP Peru
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