Indigenous communities hold the key – Rainforest conservation

When we talk about rainforests, the fact that they are a home, a place of community, a place with cultural heritage and beliefs that enrich the world isn’t always the first thing that springs to mind.

Likewise when we talk about climate change, we think of scientists, international funding, NGOs, wildlife and biodiversity – but we don’t often talk about indigenous communities.

Our new ESG partner Cool Earth is on a mission to prove that rainforest protection goes hand in hand with an inclusive, local, community-based approach. Their entire operating model is built on empowering indigenous communities who have kept their rainforest homes standing around them for thousands of years. They do this by giving them the new means to fend off threats and creating opportunities to help sustain their way of life.

With billions of dollars of climate funding sitting on the sidelines, is this strategy having an impact? Could it change our approach to rainforest protection and climate change? In this second instalment of a two part blog series examining rainforest conservation (read part one here), we speak to Cool Earth to find out more.

The threats of displacement and marginalisation

Indigenous people don’t just have a vested interest in protecting their home – they are driven to sustain their way of life.

According to Cool Earth founder, Matthew Owen, you only have to look how damaged rainforest leads to displacement of indigenous peoples to see what is at stake.

“One of the first things to disappear after you lose rainforest is the community. If the land becomes infertile or if the water becomes polluted with run off, the villagers will end up in local towns and cities very, very quickly. They then have to adjust to an unfamiliar way of life from the urban setting itself to the way they eat and the need for money, which comes with its own risks.  Displaced people looking for opportunities to provide, can go from living in harmony with the rainforest to putting pressure on it. Potentially the side effects of deforestation are worse because they fuel further deforestation. So the more you can do to stop it, the better.”

Displacement is just one issue though. The marginalisation of indigenous communities also places huge pressure on communities.

Matthew adds: “Access to things like medicine and sanitation can be real drivers of deforestation. Trips to hospital and healthcare bills can be extremely expensive for isolated indigenous communities. This issue alone forces many to sell land to pay for treatment, so a big part of our work is empowering communities to be self-sufficient and supporting them with things like access to clean water and medicine.”

The case for community-led conservation is building

Cool Earth is building a picture of evidence to prove that the community approach to conservation works and can be scaled.

“Indigenous communities are showing that regardless of their geography, language, location, ecosystem, or indeed the nature of the threat – they can protect rainforest. They simply need our backing. The bright idea we had was to trust indigenous communities to take decisions locally,” says Matthew.

The Asháninka which is the largest indigenous nation in central Peru has become so adept at keeping their rainforest standing that impact statistics show they are three times more effective at protecting rainforest than neighbouring indigenous nations or the region as a whole.

More than providing cash and relieving healthcare pressures, Cool Earth creates opportunities by funding projects that come from indigenous communities themselves.

“An idea that came out of the community has now turned into the newest and largest coffee and chocolate coorporative in North Amazonas. The project will transform family incomes for many years to come in a way that is entirely in tune with the rainforest. The plantation relies on the forest for the shade and soil fertility, so the rainforest remains standing sustainably.”

Let’s put our trust in people

While indigenous and local peoples are stewards of 80% of the world’s natural environments, they receive less than 1% of climate funding.

“When you look at the amount of money that’s sitting on the side-lines waiting to protect rainforests, from climate funds, to nature funds, to the World Bank and regional development funds – when you see how much money is actually ready to be used – proving this approach works could be a turning point,” says Matthew.

“And it works particularly well because putting money into the hands of communities can be scaled,” he adds.

The community focus brings a permanent aspect to conservation. Rather than making plans on a monthly or yearly basis, indigenous communities make plans which are generational and truly mean something because they want to preserve their home and way of life for future generations.

“Community-led initiatives get to the root of the problem rather than providing a temporary sticking plaster. Evidence is amassing to prove that the people living in the rainforest are the very best at protecting it.”

“Let’s put them back in control of their forests. Quite simply there is no one who will take better care of it,” says Matthew.

In case you missed it

The first part of this blog miniseries explored the importance of tropical rainforest biomes from their role as a carbon store to avoiding the multiplier effects of destruction. Catch up here.

Get involved

Find out more about Hexagon’s work with Cool Earth partnership here.

If you’re interested in supporting Cool Earth, please donate here.


  • Nadine Gröber

    Nadine is Vice President of Human Resources in the EMEA region of Hexagon's Manufacturing Intelligence division. She's an experienced HR leader with a passion for people and culture.

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