Conservation and Biodiversity

Honoring Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities on World Rainforest Day

June 22 is World Rainforest Day, a day to raise awareness and encourage protective action on one of the world’s most remarkable ecosystems: rainforests.

Healthy forests are one of the most effective climate change mitigation tools for reducing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, regulating the water cycle, and producing oxygen. In addition to their function as a carbon sink, forests provide social, environmental, and economic benefits to many communities worldwide. 

We would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that indigenous peoples are the best stewards of rainforests and have been for generations. There is an intrinsic relationship between indigenous people and the rainforest; their knowledge is the key to protecting our forests.

Over 1000 indigenous rainforest communities still exist, and of the world’s 300 million indigenous people, 50 million live in or depend on tropical rainforests. The Amazon alone is home to over 30 million people, including 350 Indigenous and ethnic groups who directly rely on the rainforest for food, clothing, medicines, and culture. 

Unfortunately, all of these communities face the threat of deforestation, forced removal, and extinction. With the eradication of these groups, we also stand to lose generations of indigenous knowledge and practices that come from thousands of years of peaceful coexistence between ethnic groups and rainforests. 

Five Indigenous Rainforest Communities 

Here are five indigenous rainforest communities around the world and their practices we should all celebrate this World Rainforest Day: 

The Sateré-Mawé of Brazil 

The Sateré-Mawé are forest people whose ancestral homelands are the headwaters of tributaries of the Amazon. Due to encroachment and interaction with colonizers, most of the Sateré-Mawé have been driven out of their homes and forced to settle in urban areas. The government of Brazil has eased environmental controls in hopes of developing the Amazon, and as a result, indigenous reservations have been invaded by miners and loggers. Fire is used to clear the land for cattle and farming, and a large part of the forest has already been destroyed. 

Samela Sateré-Mawé is a young grassroots activist who takes inspiration from her indigenous culture and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg to fight for the environment and for rainforests. She believes that indigenous people are an extension of nature and that nature is an extension of her; if the rainforest were to die, so would her people. 

The Kuku-Yalanji of North East Queensland, Australia 

The Kuku-Yalanji are an aboriginal tribe located in the tropical rainforests of Australia. ​​They are the only tribal rainforest people in Australia who still have their own culture and language, and have a history that dates back 50,000 years to the earliest human occupation of Australia. They are dedicated conservationists, taking from the forest only those things that are absolutely necessary. They believe that taking from the forest today means less for tomorrow. They also believe that the spirits of their dead ancestors find refuge in the forest and remain there, watching the tribe and ensuring that all obey their rules and laws.

The Penan of Sarawak, Malaysia

Sarawak is a part of Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, and is home to many tribes. The Penan are the last surviving hunter-gatherer tribe in South-East Asia. From early childhood, children are taught to share anything caught or picked. Sihun is seen as a significant transgression for these people and roughly translates to failure to share. Due to logging and other human-wildlife conflicts, only 200 of the 10,000 Penan people are able to maintain a nomadic lifestyle. The Penan rely entirely on the forest for survival and are masters of tracking and hunting, but the Sarawak state government does not recognize the Penan’s rights to their land. Due to the destruction of their forests, many of the Penan suffer from malnutrition. 

Peng Megut is one of the last nomads of Borneo. He and other men of his tribe are currently fighting against a palm-oil plantation that has been developed on their land. Most members of the Penan tribe have relocated to villages and are now plantation workers on the forest land which used to be their home. 

The Desana of Colombia 

The Desana are a small community of hunter-foragers from the Amazon region of eastern Colombia. The Desana have passed down myths that convey the importance of preserving the forests from generation to generation. The Desana believe that all living things are connected by shared energy and feed into each other. Human beings should only take no more than necessary of this life energy. When they hunt, they treat each animal with respect and care, and when they consume the animal, the energy is then transferred to the human. When a human dies, their soul is returned to the animals, and the energy replaces any animals lost to hunting. This allows their energy to flow in a cycle continuously. 

The Mbororo of Chad 

The Mbororo are a nomadic community of cattle herders that live throughout the Sahel of central Africa. They observe nature and study animals’ behaviors to define their seasonal migration patterns. In Chad, the seasonal migration of communities helps fertilize the soil and produces a natural barrier against deforestation. They have also helped to regenerate vegetation and fight desertification. In the tropical forests of Africa, where some communities use wood products to build settlements, they do so without negatively affecting the nature around them.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim is an environmental activist, the coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), and a co-chair of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change, the indigenous peoples’ caucus to the UNFCCC. She is a member of the Mbororo pastoralist people in Chad. She works to incorporate indigenous knowledge with science to fight climate change. She understands that indigenous peoples must be equal partners in the fight and urges world leaders to implement indigenous-led solutions. 

Save the Rainforests 

These are only a few of the thousands of indigenous communities that exist within the world’s rainforests. Indigenous people are the best guardians of the forest because they depend on its biodiversity to survive and are not motivated by the greed driving environmental destruction. 

Indigenous people must be on the frontline of nature conservation. Preserving the balance of the ecosystem has always been the indigenous way of life.  Unfortunately, while they are the first to preserve the environment, indigenous people are also the first to suffer the consequences of climate change. 

EARTHDAY.ORG understands that reforestation is one of the most important and accessible ways that people can contribute to solving the challenges of climate change and protecting indigenous communities. 

We are committed to continuing The Canopy Project and investing in responsible reforestation programs internationally. 

We ask that everyone Invest In Our Planet through individual action and grassroots activism. As individuals, through changes in awareness, behaviors, and practices, we all have the capacity to make a difference and take action against climate change. We hope to encourage and inspire everyone to engage their communities in environmental activism.

Finally, we must use our network and privilege to prioritize the voices and knowledge of the communities who inhabit and have been the strongest protectors of the rainforests.