An Experiment in Rainforest Conservation

In Ecuador, indigenous organizations are key actors in an ambitious experiment to transform the face of rainforest use and management. Since the discovery of oil in the country over 20 years ago, their homelands have come under severe development pressure, and Ecuador now has one of the highest rates of tropical forest deforestation in South America. At the same time, indigenous people and organizations claim much of the country's rain forests. the magnitude of the land claims - including a large area to which they have successfully obtained legal title - place indigenous people at the heart of the forest conservation debate in Ecudaor.

Indigenous leaders argue that traditions of forest use provide the most appropriate base for conserving forest resources. For centuries, indigenous peoples have used the rain forests of Ecuador's Amazon and Pacific coast regions, which are historic testament to their ability to use these resources wisely.

However, government policies have encouraged people to employ Western land-use models to justify native land claims, and these policies have led to resource degradation. The challenge today for indigenous peoples is to build on their knowledge, developing economic alternatives that don't destroy the resources. They must show the government that development grounded in traditions is a wise alternative, or else native peoples, and their children, will lose their forests in the not-distant future.

To advance that argument, the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Napo (FOIN) established a resource-management arm in 1988 in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. Known as PUMAREN (Program for the Use and Management of Natural Resources), this new program links land claims and natural resource management at a local level. PUMAREN's six staff members - work as a team to help member communities develop and implement sustainable land-use alternatives. The team also works with FOIN's Land Rights Department to support federation efforts to obtain legal recognition of indigenous territory.


Pressures on the indigenous peoples of Ecuador's rain forests, and the pace of development, escalated after the discovery of oil in 1967. Napo Province was the first area of the Ecuadorian Amazon to be transformed by the petroleum industry. Roads opened the region not only to oil companies but also to colonists, lumber companies, and agribusiness. The region's native people, who speak Quichua and call themselves Runa, had fought white incursions into their lands since the 1500s, but this was the gravest threat yet. To represent Indian interests and defend their land and resources, they began forming organizations. They had to fight the fact that as indigenous people they weren't respected - by hacienda owners, the church, or government authorities or by new colonists.

For 500 years, Indians had been subjected to forced labor and barely compensated for the work and resources taken from them, but now their organizations are among the most powerful in South America. Federations that represent local communities are united in regional and national confederations. For example, FOIN, formed in 1973, represents more than 60 Runa Indian communities in western Napo. In 1980, FOIN joined with other Amazon Indian federations to form the Confederation of Amazonian Indian Nationalities of Ecuador (CONFENIAE). Within a few years, the Confederation of Indian Nationalities of Ecudaor brought together organizations of the coast, highlands, and Amazon.

The need to organize in the face of an onslaught of colonists and business development was urgent. To the waves of colonists who arrived in the 1970s, the expansive rain forest was wide open for development. The settlements they encountered seemed small and inconsequential. Neither colonists nor government officials seemed able to comprehend that these extensive forests were home to the Runa. Indian houses and gardens spread throughout the landscape, and the people ranged far in search of fish, game, and other forest resources. Rivers and mountains served as landmarks of agreed-upon boundaries among different groups. Indians negotiated access to resources among themselves.

The new arrivals neither understood nor acknowledged claims to land and resources that were organized among indigenous peoples. Even though Indians have used the forests for centuries, Ecuadoran law considers them tierras baldias (empty lands) under government jurisdiction. To defend their land, Indians have had to learn to maneuver in Ecuador's legal system. Just as much as roads, this system transformed access to resources and dramatically changed the rules of the game in Ecudaor's Amazon.

When Indian organizations entered the fray, however, the region's people were in disarray. At first, the groups tried one by one to protect rights to the land where their people were born and lived. Ecuador recognized land titles under very restricted conditions and allowed a maximum of 124 acres to a family. Moreover, Indians, whose forebears had lived in the Amazon for millennia, were subjected to the same rules as the newly arrived colonists.

Soon, faced with the fragmentation of homelands and the loss of resources, the organizations urged member communities to obtain "global" - not individual - land titles. Ecuadoran law allows groups to hold land in common - as an indigenous comuna, a cooperative, or a productive association. For the past 20 years, securing global title at the community level has been the main strategy.

Indigenous federations, working with communities, have made remarkable advances to secure legal ownership under communal-titling laws. Twenty years ago, few indigenous communities figured on any map; today, most have been physically delimited by surveying their boundaries. Indian organizations have learned to move claims more effectively through the titling process. They help member communities to both document a claim and to submit blocks of claims rather than individual ones, which often get lost or delayed in the government bureaucracy.


Still, the splintering of Indian lands advanced as the battlefield moved from individual lots to community boundaries. The fledgling organizations were spread thin trying to overcome the multitude of conflicts that arose as communities attempted to protect delimited lands - or even lands to which they had obtained legal title - from homesteaders who invaded Indian communities by building houses and planting crops. In addition, the government continued to grant land titles to non-Indian settlers in areas Indians claimed as communities.

Thus, in the mid-1980s, Indian leaders began talking about a new concept, Indigenous Territory, an idea that has since crystallized into a strategy for securing indigenous land rights. Indigenous Territory corresponds conceptually to Indian Nations, not to constituent communities. Moreover, the idea of territory includes resources other than land, including subsoil, forest, water, and other natural resources, as well as cultural heritage. And by promoting Indian Territories, indigenous people are insisting on their capacity to manage their homelands.

This idea has refocused efforts as the federations try to apply the concept of territory to the distinct realities of different ethnic groups in the Amazon. As a result, indigenous nations in Ecudaor have come to claim much of the Ecuadoran Amazon, and have been won legal recognition of many of these claims.

In areas where traditional lands have not been fragmented, Indians are fighting for title to all traditional territory. Two successes stand out. First, in 1990, after many years of struggle, the government added nearly two million acres to the Huarani Indian Reserve. Two years later, in April 1992, OPIP (the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza) startled the country. Two thousands indigenous people marched from the rain forests of Pastaza, gathering support along the way to Quito. They demanded title to nearly 70 percent of the province - almost 4.5 million acres. The arrival of 10,000 men, women, and children in the capitol convinced outgoing President Rodrigo Borja to award more than half the territory OPIP claimed - 40 percent of Pastaza Province, totaling 2.75 million acres. This is the largest land claim yet attained by Ecudaor's Indian organizations, although Borja rejected the demand for title as in Indigenous Nation. The government insisted awarded communal land titles to 19 contiguous blocks that include most of the indigenous communities of Pastaza Province.

In Napo Province and other areas where uncontrolled development has divided lands, Indians are pursing a different strategy. They are trying to weave contiguous land together into territorial blocks and simultaneously protect their boundaries against invasion using a broad range of methods. For example, FOIN continues to fight to secure global community title for each member community. At the same time, indigenous organizations are negotiating with the government to develop joint-management agreements for protected areas adjoining communities, including Sumaco and Galera mountains. In addition, they have started to buy back hacienda and church land and are developing a fund for the these purchases.


Intricately linked with these strategies is a movement to train indigenous people to develop plans for using the resources in Indian Territories and provide viable economic alternatives for communities. Through training and preparation, Indian organizations demonstrate their capacity to manage extensive land areas and benefit both the country and forest conservation. PUMAREN and programs like in thus strengthen the contention in government negotiations that Indians can manage their own territories.

The birth of PUMAREN followed a chain of disasters. On March 5, 1987, a strong earthquake shook the northwest Amazon. The shaking followed days of rain, and massive landslides poured tons of earth into the rivers, killing most of the fish. House, people, and animals slid off the mountains, and Cascabel, one of FOIN's member communities, was destroyed. The main roads to Napo were cut off, and the pipeline from Amazon oil wells to the coast split apart, spilling millions of barrels of oil into the muddy rivers.

Since petroleum is the main source of income for the government of Ecuador, the disaster precipitated a crisis. By the end of the year, the government had opened an alternate route to the oil fields through Runa territory and had resettled quake victims along the flanks of the mountain Adjoining several communities. The Hollín-Loreto road cut through the rain forests. A PUMAREN team found that the road's opening affected nearly 9,000 of an estimated 50,000 Runa Indians in northern Ecuador.

After the road opened, two large lumber companies, Endesa and Arboriente, began to buy timber from indigenous communities along the road, paying the equivalent of $3 or $4 per tree. The companies mostly bought copal, a species of tree that only grows in this part of the Ecuadoran Amazon, to make plywood. Indians use copal for its fragrant resin, which has medicinal properties. They had also used it for torches before the introduction of kerosene lamps and electricity. The Catholic Church uses copal for incense.

Most of the communities near the new road belonged to FOIN, and the new road belonged to FOIN, and the uncontrolled logging and the exploitation of the communities dismayed federation leaders. To stem the cutting, they knew they had to offer alternatives. With support from cultural Survival, in April 1988 FOIN established the PUMAREN program, which formed a 10-member team of recent high-school graudates. At first, the project was known as the Program for Indigenous Land Legalization and Resource Management.

The federation knew that exploitation would continue if people had only insecure land titles and had to show outsiders the land was being used. So the PUMAREN team set out to find out how many communities were legally recognized. After Cultural Survival personnel taught the team how to conduct surveys, it determined that less than half the communities along the road had title to their land. The people in a fifth of the communities held titles to individual lots; the communities had failed to convince the government to award a global title. Under a third of the indigenous communities near the road held global land titles. In September 1988, FOIN presented these findings to Borja's newly inaugurated government.

Since that time, FOIN and the communities of the area have worked together with PUMAREN to secure land tenure. Today, only a quarter of the communities still have no legal claim, while 60 percent have communal title. In 1992 PUMAREN finished a management plan for six communities. Located within a protected forest area, these communities now have deeds in hand.


After PUMAREN finished the 1988 survey, FOIN focused on training the team in land-use planning and resource management. Starting in early 1989, the team visited a number of innovative projects, including an agroforestry project in Napo, the Aw Land Delimitation Project on Ecuador's Pacific coast, and Project PEMASKY, a Kune effort in Panama to promote conservation and ecotourism. It also began getting training from the staff of these and other indigenous resource-management efforts. For example, two Kuna from Project PEMASKY organized a four-month course in land-use planning, protected areas, determining land-use capacity, mapping techniques, and forest inventory.

During this time, PUMAREN developed a draft regional resource-management plan, which was revised in a series of workshops with communities and FOIN directors. This plan was intended to contribute technical advice to leaders as they developed their regional strategy for Indigenous Territory. PUMAREN also participated in CONFENIAE working sessions to develop a proposal on Indigenous Territory to present to the government.

In 1990, Peruvian representatives of the Yanesha Forestry Co-Op (COFYAL) came to Ecuador to help PUMAREN evaluate forest resource and advise it on the feasibility of a forest-management enterprise. For three months, six members of PUMAREN received internsive training in Peru, working in the co-op to learn about the forest industry COFYAL had established (see "A Natural harvest" on page 48). This training also enabled PUMAREN to evaluate the enterprise and determine which aspects of it might fit the Ecuadoran situation.

In April 1991, in response to community requests, PUMAREN launched a pilot project. There FOIN communities have joined in the initial stage - Huahua Sumaco, Chonta Cocha, and Amazonas. Along with two members of the Uanesha Forestry Coop in Peru and Robert Simeone, a forestry consultant who has worked with the Uanesha, the PUMAREN team visited the three communities agement enterprise. The visitors looked specifically at the amount and quality of the forest in the communities.

because the advisors said that individual communities couldn't succeed on their own - none had enough forest to sustain an enterprise - the communities agreed to work together. PUMAREN, and FOIN formed an organizing committee to guide the process. Since then the committee has helped plan and coordinate work, including developing a work plan and structure based on community priorities, ongoing training of PUMAREN and designated community members in developing forest management plans, and other activities needed to move ahead. Since July 1991, World Wildlife Fund's Tropical Forestry Program has support these activities with funding and technical assistance.

The committee also established a Forest Management Team staffed by PUMAREN members and local people. The management team maps areas designated for different kinds of activities, including agriculture, family plots, and forest, reserves. The communities have each designated part of their land as "production forest" where forest management will take place. In addition, "areas of protection," which will never be cut, and "forest stands," where extraction is being planned, are designated in the production forest.

PUMAREN is now identifying the tree species and sampling the volume and number of trees in the forest stands. It hopes to finish the inventories in 1993 and incorporate the information into three community forest-management plans to present to the government. Progress has been slow, however, in part because the staff is learning itself as it trains community members. It is also slow because FOIN takes advantage of the PUMAREN team's new mapping abilities to survey other communities that are trying to get land title or resolve disputes.

Since November 1991, after an assessment by a forest-industry consultant, the organizing committee began to decide what kind of enterprise to develop. It hopes to harvest relatively to develop. It hopes to harvest relatively small volumes of wood and, to receive a better price, process them locally. Thus, it plans to use small portable sawmills to cut the trees into sections that can be hauled out by mules. It would also like to have a carpentry shop to supply local communities and to make products to sell in the region. In conjunction with PUMAREN, the committee has drafted a proposal for this.

The enterprise may also sell this wood outside Ecuador, because "alternative trades" offer a much higher price than is paid locally. However, these traders require high-quality, liln-dried wood, which is difficult to produce locally. Not only is the environment very humid and rainy, but there is no electricity. Solar-powered kiln dryers might work but are expensive.

One of the more difficult parts of designing this enterprise is planning how to use the many tree species in the forest. Only a few species are well known and sold on local markets, but many others have good wood or other properties that make them valuable. Some international traders, who want to promote locally run, environmentally sensitive enterprises, are interested in helping market these other species.


PUMAREN is a first effort by an Indian organization in Ecuador to directly link the development of sustainable alternatives to indigenous land claims. As it works on the ground with FOIN member communities to develop new ways of managing forests, it also works with the organization to directly contribute to indigenous efforts to regain control of Indian territories. PUMAREN staff want the lessons they learn and the progress of this project to benefit not only the communities that participate but also Indian federation.

As part of FOIN, PUMAREN sees forest management as a promising alternative for indigenous people. There is much to accomplish before this potential will be realized, and the path is no easy, but a forestry project under indigenous control could adapt to current economic and political conditions, while incorporating traditional knowledge of the forest and its plants and animals.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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