Empowering Indigenous Communities in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon

By Katy Puga

At the foothills of the Andes Mountains lies the Amazon Basin, source of the mighty Amazon River and home to more than 300 indigenous communities that have safeguarded their ancestral lands for centuries. The groups inhabit more than 3.9 million square miles (10 million km2), much of it intact forest that is increasingly threatened by unsustainable resource extraction by outsiders. The Nature Conservancy, Instituto del Bien Común in Peru, and Fundación para la Sobrevivencia Cofán (FSC) in Ecuador have formed a partnership called the Indigenous Landscapes Consortium to help ensure that indigenous groups make informed decisions about how their resource-rich lands are managed.

The consortium is part of the Initiative for Conservation in the Andean Amazon (ICAA), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Launched in 2006, ICAA aims to build constituencies and agreements that foster sustainable development, biodiversity conservation, and ecosystem services in the Amazonian regions of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia.

In Ecuador, the Indigenous Landscapes Consortium is working with Cofán, Shuar, Kichwa, and Secoya communities on 1,025,050 acres (415,000 hectares) that include three protected areas and neighboring Secoyas, Shuar, and Quichua communities. The FSC is the technical arm of the Indigenous Federation of Cofán Nation of Ecuador (FEINCE), a legally-recognized organization that represents the Cofán people and provides technical and administrative support to leaders of the Cofán nation to strengthen the management of their territory.

USAID has worked with indigenous groups in Ecuador for the past eight years and has funded previous capacity building programs with FEINCE. “With our support, the Cofán people now have a community park rangers program that is undoubtedly the best organized in the region,” says Mónica Suquilanda, project officer for USAID in Ecuador. “Moreover, it has been an example for other countries like Peru and Bolivia.”

Women - Photo by Martha Puga/USAIDThe Indigenous Landscapes Consortium has helped the Cofán people by giving them driving classes and teaching them Spanish, focusing on Cofán women. “The Cofán were isolated until 40 or 50 years ago, so it is not surprising to find women and elderly people who do not speak Spanish. They need to be able to communicate in Spanish in order to negotiate with authorities,” explains Paulina Arroyo, the Andean Amazon program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy. Learning to drive has helped them to more quickly meet the requests of community park rangers in charge of defending their territory, she adds.

The consortium has also helped FEINCE strengthen its strategic plan and focus on improving livelihoods throughout the Cofán nation. It has also provided training on topics related to land management such as indigenous rights, climate change, biodiversity, and more.

According to FSC director Luis Narváez, this training has allowed FEINCE to maintain an office in Lago Agrio in northern Ecuador, from where they coordinate efforts with local government, patrol their territory, attend to calls from park rangers, and provide training to nearby communities. FEINCE also supports creating a new municipal reserve in the nearby Gonzalo Pizarro district. “We know that we must strengthen relationships with our neighbors to maintain control of our territory,” Narváez emphasizes. “We’re proud to see that the people of Gonzalo Pizarro have set aside 19,760 acres (8,000 hectares) bordering the Cofán Bermejo corridor and supports our conservation goals.”

Indigenous People - Photo by Sebastian Suito/ICAAWith help from the consortium, indigenous organizations in Peru are now taking an active role in policy development and the struggle for their ancestral rights. Indigenous Landscapes is working in 8.6 million acres (3.5 million hectares) of land belonging to the Ashaninka, Llaniza, Yanesha, Cacataibo, and Shipibo people. This area encompasses four tributaries of the Ucayali, Pachitea, Aguaytia, and Callena Rivers; the Tamaya River watershed; and the El Sira Communal Reserve, Cordillera Azul National Park, and the Isconahua area, which has been set aside for indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation.

Instituto del Bien Común (IBC) is working closely with local organizations such as the Federation of Native Communities of the Ucayali and Tributaries (FECONAU), the Federation of Native Communities of Puerto Inca and Tributaries (FECONAPIA), the Federation of Native Communities of Cacataibo (FENACOCA), AIDESEP’s Ucayali Regional Organization (ORAU), and the Interethnic Association for Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP).

With support from IBC, in the last year these groups have been active participants in the Peruvian government’s Roundtables for National Dialogue, which aims to design a sustainable development plan for indigenous groups. FENACOCA has been particularly active in ensuring that the problems the indigenous groups are facing are a focus of the policy debate.

According to IBC regional coordinator Carlos Arana, the situation in Peru was tense this year due to government policies that favored extractive activities that run counter to indigenous peoples’ interests. That meant the consortium’s support to the local communities was all the more crucial, he says, “because communication among the indigenous groups’ boards of directors and their communities was significantly improved through decentralized meetings of the three federations’ boards. This improved their coordination, confidence, and security.”

Another major success in Peru was the legal recognition of the two indigenous federations FECONAU and FECONAPIA, as well as another group from a native Saasa community. This recognition entails the legal acceptance of their territorial rights, leading to their gaining titles to their lands.

Trainers at Work - Photo by Sebastian Suito/ICAAThe consortium is also providing training in territorial management, project design, environmental impact studies, mapping, zoning, gender, and leadership topics. Indigenous leaders are also learning to better communicate with their communities to better meet the needs of their people.

The Nature Conservancy’s Arroyo points to the importance of training that can lead to empowerment. For example, FENACOCA president Fernando Estrella significantly improved his management and leadership skills, leading him to run as the first indigenous candidate to serve in the Aguaytía District Municipality of the Ucayali region. “Fernando will become part of the local government and will be able to support the Cacataibo people, especially with regards to territorial management,” Arroyo says.

Arana adds that another success story was the significant reduction in size of an oil field that overlapped with and threatened the proposed Northern Territorial Reserve, which would provide shelter for the isolated Cacataibo indigenous people, as well as other indigenous territories.

The Indigenous Landscapes consortium hopes that these organizations will become a model for other indigenous federations and has held meetings for groups from Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia to share experiences.

Contacts: Paulina Arroyo, The Nature Conservancy, Quito, Ecuador. Tel: +593/2334-1706, parroyo@tnc.org, www.nature.org. Carlos Arana Courrejolles, Instituto del Bien Común (Pucallpa). Tel: +061-572-688, carana@ibc.gmail.com. Randall Borman, Fundación Sobrevivencia, Cofán.coordinationfsc@gmail.com. Luis Narvaéz, FEINCE, Tel: +593/09830-91523, luis.narvaez.feince@gmail.com.

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