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Indigenous groups want changes to plan for Amazon biodiversity corridor

Tribal leaders welcome Colombia's plan but say it leaves out key part of forest management — the people who live there

Indigenous leaders representing some 250 Amazon Basin tribes said Tuesday that an ambitious plan proposed earlier this year to create a protected corridor roughly the size of France in parts of Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela is a great idea to safeguard biodiversity and combat climate change, but it leaves out a key aspect of forest management — the people who have been successfully protecting the rainforest through sustainable practices for centuries.

“The proposal of the Colombian government was only to conserve biodiversity — they didn’t include the human part,” said Jorge Furagaro, climate coordinator for Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indigenas de la Cuenca Amazonica (COICA), an indigenous environmental group, in a call with reporters.

The group supports the plan, proposed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, in concept. It would create a contiguous area of 135 million hectares, or more than 300 million acres, that would become off-limits to deforestation and other destructive resource extraction practices in order to protect the area’s biodiversity.

“The corridor will not only protect indigenous people but also the Amazon Basin that is giving pure air to the world,” Furagaro said.

The Amazon region contains the world's single largest tropical rainforest as well as at least 10 percent of the world’s known biodiversity.

But indigenous leaders say that simply banning certain activities in the forest isn’t enough. So last month, 25 indigenous leaders from Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela trekked into the middle of the Amazon by foot, boat and bus to come up with something better. They discussed how to improve on Santos’ idea while keeping their territorial, cultural, social and economic rights.

In the past, similar "protected areas" led to what they consider an erosion of those rights. Prohibitions on hunting, for example, sometimes equated all hunting, which some indigenous groups consider part of their subsistence lifestyle, as "poaching."

The tribes represented at the meeting called for the final corridor proposal to allow free travel in the protected area for indigenous people so that they can continue to manage the forest using traditional methods, which are often thwarted by political borders.

“The corridor could also protect 245 different indigenous peoples’ communities, 245 different traditional languages and 245 different traditional uses of the land,” Furagaro said.

While indigenous people have managed the land for centuries, in recent decades deforestation, illegal mining and oil and gas drilling have increasingly threatened the Amazon forest. It is often referred to as the "lungs of the world," because the area combats the effects of climate change by sequestering the carbon dioxide that causes global warming.

Indigenous groups, if given the authority in the final corridor proposal, could also survey the forest to assess damage and monitor future intrusions by companies trying to extract natural resources, said Henry Cabria, president of Organizacion de los Pueblos Indigenas de la Amazonia Colombiana (OPIAC), an indigenous umbrella group in Colombia.

“If companies are coming in, they should have environmental standards that match the aspiration of indigenous peoples and their lifestyle,” Cabria said.

Santos plans to announce the final proposal for the corridor at climate talks this December in Paris, as part of Colombia’s national pledges to reduce emissions. 

Colombia's Ministry of Environment had not responded to Al Jazeera's request for comment at the time of publishing.

Indigenous leaders from Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela will continue to meet in order to compare their goals with the plan as proposed by Santos, and eventually create a proposal that unifies both aims, Furagaro said. 

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