Described as the lungs of our planet, the Amazon rainforest acts as a massive carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and producing oxygen. It provides habitat for 10% of all species known to science and holds 20% of the world’s freshwater. It is also home to 30 million people, including 350 indigenous ethnic groups; 60 of which remain largely isolated.

The challenges of managing the human-environment interactions within this remarkable ecosystem represent a microcosm of the conservation and development dilemmas we face globally.

How do we maintain the vital services provided by Amazonia while supporting its human inhabitants and addressing international demand for the region’s rich resources, such as gold, timber and rubber? How do we sustain clean air and water, healthy soil, thriving forests and fisheries globally, while meeting the needs of the planet’s 7 billion people, nearly 3 billion of whom live on less than US$ 2 a day?

I recently returned from co-directing a course on investigating conservation and development dilemmas in the Amazon with Professor William Durham for Stanford University students and alumni. We shared 10 days of intensive lectures and discussions on the Stanford campus before flying to the Peruvian Amazon to explore firsthand the concepts we had examined in class.

Each night, students gave presentations on particular conservation and development challenges in the region. They were required to propose a hypothesis, test it with literature and field-based interviews, and draw conclusions. Students explored possible solutions, including the potential for non-timber forest products – Brazil nuts, urukum seeds and medicinal plants – to create sustainable livelihoods for Amazonian communities. They examined the role of ecotourism in providing governments and communities with an economic alternative to lucrative but destructive exploits, such as logging and gold mining.

We spent a few days with the Ese Eja tribe to learn more about the potential benefits of ecotourism. Having secured legal rights to their territory from the Peruvian government in the 1990s, the community partnered with Rainforest Expeditions – a local company founded by Kurt Holle, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader – to build the ecolodge where we stayed.

Encouraged by this partnership, Peru demarcated a conservation zone in the surrounding area, protecting over one million hectares of rainforest. Community members and scientific partners have reported increased populations of several endangered species within the protected area, including jaguars, giant river otters and scarlet macaws. The incomes of the Ese Eja have grown in tandem.

We also explored new relationships between communities and corporations that foster both economic development and rainforest conservation. The Yawanawa Indians of Brazil have been working with the cosmetics company, Aveda, to sustainably grow and harvest urukum seeds, which Aveda uses as a natural red pigment in its make-up products. According to Chief Tashka, who leads the Yawanawa, Aveda has helped to more than double the size of the Yawanawa’s land rights to 178,000 hectares and has provided support to protect the land. That, in turn, benefits the environment, preventing the release of 30 million tonnes of carbon.

Corporations looking to reduce their carbon footprint have formed partnerships with indigenous communities, paying them to preserve the rainforest by using a system of internationally certified carbon credits. Natura, Brazil’s largest cosmetics company, recently bought 120,000 tonnes of carbon from the Paiter Surui indigenous people to advance its company goal of becoming carbon neutral. The Surui people will use the proceeds to jumpstart their 50-year “life plan”, designed to create a sustainable economy that blends modern, scientific methods with traditional land-use practices, ecotourism and the harvesting of non-timber forest products.

One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is to find solutions to the conservation and development dilemmas we face, to move towards a future where people and the natural environment thrive.

Witnessing the imminent threats to the diversity of life in the Amazon and the struggles for survival of local people revealed the gravity and urgency of this challenge. Yet new community management strategies that combine traditional practice with Western science, and emerging partnerships between indigenous communities and global enterprises, illuminated transferable models of adaptation and innovation that have the potential to spur the transition to a more sustainable global society.

Author: Julia Novy-Hildesley is a Lecturer at Stanford University. Her research and teaching focus on 21st century leadership orientations and the emergence of a sustainable economy. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Image: A man climbs a tree in the Amazons to collect plants REUTERS/Sergio Moraes.

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