Climate change is daunting. Fierce storms threaten to displace millions of people, disrupt agriculture, and devastate coastal cities. To some extent, we know what we need to do. We know that we need substantial political upheaval and unprecedented international coordination to meaningfully fight climate change. But when we look around and see the state of politics in North America and elsewhere in the world, it can often feel like we are, well, fucked—even irredeemably so.
Deforestation in the tropics is a major contributor to human-wrought climate change and is responsible for somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of all global warming-causing carbon dioxide emissions. Regardless of the exact figures, if we’re serious about confronting climate change, protecting tropical forests had better be a top priority. Indigenous peoples across the Global South, and perhaps particularly in the Amazon, have been at the vanguard of protecting these forests. All available evidence suggests that when governments recognize indigenous peoples’ land rights, they steward forests effectively, protecting them for all of humanity.
This is a story about my experiences working with indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon—about how their campaigns for justice help me understand what hard-fought political victory looks like, and how they inspire me to believe that a better world is possible, even when the odds seem insurmountably stacked against us.
November 9, 2016: I’m waking up feeling spectacular. There are beautiful mountains on every side of me covered in a mosaic of natural vegetation and crops, with a low mist in the sky. I’m in a coffee-growing community in the mountainous high jungle of the central Peruvian Amazon: the Selva Central. We’re trying to push local environmental conservation initiatives to work with, rather than against, local people.
I am in Peru as a part of a Chicago-based environmental conservation organization that has, over the past 20 years or so, been working with indigenous and non-indigenous communities, Peruvian NGOs, and government agencies to help protect over 12 million hectares of Amazonian forests while putting local people in a position to help manage many of those areas. The Amazon hosts more biodiversity than any other place on Earth with soils and trees that lock up a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide, mitigating climate change.
The coffee farmers who live here migrated in the early 1980s from the Peruvian highlands while fleeing the violent conflicts between Maoist insurgents and the government. They started growing coffee, moving between the forest and nearby towns periodically, and slowly making this place home.
Then, in 1987, the government declared the whole place a “protected forest,” supposedly to preserve local watersheds. Trouble was, they didn’t bother to actually tell anyone who lived there that they were now in a protected area. They didn’t really bother to manage the place at all until 2009, when, endowed with some foreign aid funding for conservation, the service in charge of protected areas set up a management unit. This did not go over well with the coffee farmers. Reading between the lines of what local people told me, they felt that because they’d already been living there for 30 years, the government could fuck right off suggesting that their livelihood, indeed their very existence in this place, was somehow illegal now. Tensions escalated to the point of violence.
So here, in the Selva Central, after years of fraught tensions between the Peruvian park service and the coffee farmers, progress is being made. My colleagues and I have just trained seven park rangers on an approach that we’ve developed with indigenous peoples elsewhere in the country called “quality of life planning.” The idea is to create spaces for communities to critically reflect on what kind of future they want, and then identify priority actions that will allow them to build it.
Carrying this out involves work of different kinds. Sometimes we spend long sessions in communities working with local people to map out how they use natural resources, taking stock of traditional modes of social organization, and documenting their rich ecological knowledge; we call this “asset mapping.” In other moments, we use that information, alongside detailed data on biodiversity, to advocate for conservation and the rights of local people. And sometimes we work with government functionaries in Lima in an attempt to influence higher level policy processes to better reflect the interests of Amazonian communities and to better protect the Amazon. Throughout all of this, though, we spend a lot of time building collaborative relationships between different organizations, facilitating dialogues and joint projects that create trust—often in highly challenging circumstances.
Most conventional development initiatives in the Global South, ranging from extractive activities like oil drilling to well-intentioned conservation initiatives, work in more or less the same way: a company (or environmental NGO) with lots of capital (or foundation or aid money) comes to a community and highlights the things that they don’t have—the things that make them poor. They then make the case that the way out of poverty, or supposed environmental decadence, is through oil, or agricultural intensification (or agroforestry, or reforestation, or whatever the organization happens to have on offer). Our approach to conservation and development tries to flip this whole thing on its head by creating spaces for communities to think carefully about what they really want, and what makes sense based on what they already have and know how to do well. While environmental organizations frequently partner with corporate interests, diluting their conservation projects and undercutting the ethos of indigenous empowerment, our work aims to push back against these mores of development and extractivism by empowering local people, despite how inherently fraught it can be to navigate this terrain.
That is to say, managing my own role in this requires care: no person or organization from the Global North should presume to be free from the paternalistic trappings of development and neocolonial projects. I try to proceed with self-awareness and self-criticism. This is also to say, while I came to this with due skepticism, here, in November 2016, I’m seeing it work with my own eyes.
A big part of how we do our work is with the tools of anthropology, and particularly, ethnography—or as I’ve better heard it described, “deep hanging out.” The park rangers, whose relationship with the coffee farmers had been strictly antagonistic in the past, are heading out with our team to hang out with farmers, work their fields with them, hear their stories, understand their concerns, and connect with them as individuals. All of a sudden, the community is thinking about working with the park service to find ways to control new migration and reduce coffee expansion in the protected area. The park service, for its part, is thinking about how to help farmers earn more with less land by improving their roads or hooking them up with improved agroforestry technologies. It might not sound like much, but it beats the hell out of violent conflict and evictions, which a few years ago seemed like virtually inevitable conclusions to this saga.
On November 9, 2016 I spent the day with a thousand yard stare on my face while using a machete to chop weeds with a local farmer. I thought about my own status as a person of color in the United States, and the fact that some 50 percent of the electorate had just committed an act of aggression towards me. I thought about how environmental devastation, family-wrecking deportations, and rampant inequality had advanced with scarcely any check under ostensibly benevolent liberal technocracy. And I thought, somewhat frantically, about what I might grab onto to help me comprehend this new and uncertain future.
Many of the park rangers, and most of the coffee farmers my age or older, had grown up trapped between brutal Maoist insurgencies and the sometimes more brutal government-funded paramilitary reactions to them. They’d seen their communities destroyed or uprooted, and their ways of life altered fundamentally—recently.
In 2016, I spent about a month with indigenous peoples like the Murui, Ocaina, and Bora in their villages along the Putumayo River, which divides Colombia and Peru. I learned about how their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents’ generations had each lived through the veritable end of everything they knew. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were enslaved, mutilated, raped, killed, and moved over long distances by cruel rubber barons funded by the Anglo-Peruvian Rubber Company. A generation later, after the British made wild-harvested rubber obsolete by planting stolen Amazonian rubber in Southeast Asian plantations, indigenous peoples throughout the region were forcibly relocated to watersheds closer to urban centers as indentured agro-pastoral laborers. Then, in the mid-20th century, many were taken by Spanish missionaries to enclosed settlements where they were enrolled in Spanish language schools, and lost much of what remained of their native languages. Each of these transitions was culture-rending to varying degrees, driven by the whims of profiteering neo-colonial ghouls. And that’s just one part of the Amazon, where worlds have ended time and again in just the past century. But in spite of these endings, there’s been endurance, and that endurance often comes from political organizing. While I was hacking away at those weeds on November 9, I thought about how, regardless of all of this shit, I’d seen people achieve real wins through popular movements, and that, maybe, we already know what we have to do now.