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Bolivian indigenous group wins big prize for reducing deforestation

  • The Tacana have legally secured legal rights to more than 389,000 hectares of their traditional land in the mega-biodiverse Madidi region of northwestern Bolivia.
  • Their sustainable land-management strategies have resulted in four times less deforestation than in areas outside their bounds.
  • This year’s Equator Prizes were awarded to just 21 of 1,461 nominations, for efforts to prevent deforestation.

The Tacana, a Bolivian indigenous group, have spent years developing sustainable land-use methods for their communities. Earlier this week their efforts were rewarded when U.S. actor Alec Baldwin presented the prestigious Equator Prize to the Tacana indigenous council during a ceremony at COP21 in Paris.

The Equator Prizes, sponsored by the Equator Initiative, recognize sustainable development solutions. It is a difficult award to obtain; this year there were just 21 winners of the 1,461 nominations from 126 countries. The theme of the 2015 prize was deforestation prevention, seen as a pivotal player in slowing global warming.

The Tacana consist of around 20 communities in northwestern Bolivia, near its border with Peru. Through their years of effort, they have legally secured legal rights to more than 389,000 hectares of their traditional land. They work to ensure its protection by developing sustainable livelihoods, conserving biodiversity, and protecting forests. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been facilitating their efforts since 2001, as well as those of other indigenous Bolivian communities. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Andes Amazon Fund, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation are also partners in the Tacana initiative.

Nicolas Cartagena (left) and Ruth Chuqui (center) of the Tacana Indigenous Council accept the prestigious Equator Prize (presented by actor Alec Baldwin) at a recent ceremony at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Credit: Getty Images for UNDP.

In total, WCS estimates that areas under Tacana management have been subject to four times less deforestation than areas outside their bounds.

This upholds previous research that finds local communities tend to manage land more effectively than private landowners or governments – if they have the rights to protect it. However, with the world’s indigenous communities lacking rights to 75 percent of their land, there is much room for improvement.

Many conservationists, including Dr. Lillian Painter, Country Director for WCS’s Bolivia program, see land rights clarity as a crucial part of local stewardship.

With officially recognized rights to their land, communities have zoning plans, Painter said in an interview with Mongabay in June. “They’ve got natural resources regulation, and a structure of decision making that represents the collective land rights of communities. Because they’ve got land rights, they’ve got motivation [and] incentive for sustainable management of those resources.”

These sustainable management practices include special ways to harvest forest resources without harming trees, such as making only a certain number of cuts when harvesting incense.

“They develop these regulations themselves,” Painter said. “They know that if they cut a tree too much, it will die.”

The communities are also actively involved in monitoring, recording data on such things as the volume of incense harvested from each tree and the number of trees tapped. Periodic external evaluations are also conducted every three to four years to ensure sustainable practices are being followed.

The Tacana Original Indigenous Territory partly overlaps with Madidi National Park, one of the world’s most biodiverse protected areas spanning from snow-capped Andean peaks to humid lowland Amazon rainforest. The Tacana’s sustainable land-use techniques are important to the connectivity of the greater Madidi landscape, home to more than 50 endangered wildlife and plant species. In June an ongoing expedition led by WCS in partnership with many Bolivian institutions discovered a new frog species at the edge of the park.

“There are few places in the world that can claim to have the richness in both natural patrimony and cultural patrimony of Bolivia, and the Madidi landscape is the country’s crown jewel,” Dr. Julie Kunen, Executive Director of WCS’s Latin America and Caribbean program, said in a statement. “We salute the indigenous stewards of these lands and celebrate their success.”

A new species of robber frog (genus Oreobates) was discovered in Madidi National Park earlier this year. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.
The Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus) is one of Madidi’s flashier residents. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.