No unified definition exists for “indigenous peoples.” Generally, indigenous peoples are considered to be descendants of those who have ancient ties to a certain region—the one in which they live or a region from which they have been expelled—dating back to precolonial times. Indigenous peoples usually have distinct languages and cultural practices, as well as spiritual and practical connections to nature. Many indigenous communities live within some of the most biologically diverse and most ecologically threatened ecosystems on Earth.
EcoLogic works with rural and indigenous peoples in Mexico and Central America to help them sustainably manage the ecosystems in which they live. We focus on indigenous communities because we know that the people who directly depend on these environments and resources are the best positioned to restore and protect them. Indigenous peoples are intimately tied to the land and hold traditional knowledge of how to manage it. Their traditional practices tend to be holistic and sustainable, and in many cases they have kept ecosystems intact for millennia.
However, for reasons such as poverty, marginalization, and pressures to develop, many of these communities have become increasingly alienated from their cultural history and have been forgoing their traditional practices in favor of modern and often more-destructive ones. These include slash and burn agriculture, a practice of cutting and burning down forest to make fields that renders land infertile and unusable after a few years. Farmers also increasingly only plant monocultures, which involve growing only one species on a plot of land; this rapidly depletes the nutrients of the soil, and increases food insecurity. In addition to modern and often unsustainable techniques, the environments of indigenous peoples face degradation from natural disasters and rising sea levels exacerbated by climate change. The destruction of their environments further contributes to the poverty and marginalization these indigenous peoples face.
For these reasons, conservation programs on and near the lands and territories of indigenous peoples must take both ecological and social needs into account. When we say “sustainable development” we mean livelihood solutions that provide long term economic benefits that are also environmentally benign or even beneficial. We empower local and indigenous communities to restore and protect tropical ecosystems, while respecting their cultural heritage and promoting economic prosperity.