Sacred jaguars
The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is a protected area of Amazonian rainforest in my home country of Ecuador. I had visited the area several times, and was aware that six indigenous communities of the Cofan, Siona, Secoya, Quichua, and Shuar peoples were living within its boundaries, but I knew nothing of their relationships with the reserve.

On one occasion I was approached by a group of four leaders of the Cofan people. Most of the time, when encountering indigenous inhabitants of the area, I would converse informally with them about various topics, but I had not had the opportunity to address broader conservation and protected area issues with them. This time, however, I knew it was going to be different; four indigenous leaders would not approach you dressed in ceremonial costumes unless they had something very important to say.

What the Cofans told me was, unfortunately, a story that is all too common around the world: the Wildlife Reserve had been established on their traditional lands without their involvement and, as a result, the indigenous communities had lost their land and resource rights. They had suddenly become strangers in their own homeland, or as Valerio, a leader of the Quichua people later put it, "We went to sleep one evening in our ancestral homelands, and the morning after we found ourselves within a government- owned reserve - and this changed our lives forever".

The Cofans then told me about several of the problems they were facing. Two issues struck me in particular. One of the Cofan leaders, named Randy, produced from his woven bag a copy of a map of the reserve and showed me an area of riverine forest bordering the Z?balo river which the reserve's management plan had designated as strictly protected. Here the Cofans had ancestrally made selective cuts of trees (thinning) and used the timber for house construction and other community needs - a practice that the management plan had banned. "This ban is wrong," he said, "since our practice is ecologically sound". I asked why, since riverine forests are of great ecological importance and I would tend to agree with the banning of timber extraction in that area. In response, he reminded me of a major flooding some five years back, when river streams produced very serious damage, sweeping away villages and in places the forest itself. "The majority of riverside trees will collapse into the river anyway, he said, and not cutting them may cause floods to uproot them and thus increase the mass of materials carried downstream, with higher destructive power".

The second problem had to do with jaguars - considered sacred by the Cofan people - and tourists. The Cofans explained that tourist trails built in the reserve following the management plan had fragmented jaguar territories, with the consequence that jaguars would be less free to wander, encounter other jaguars, and reproduce, since they would not cross human paths. "Jaguars adjust their territorial boundaries to coincide with our traditional hunting trails, said Randy, so when building trails it is important to maintain sufficient space between them not to affect their territorial needs". Rather than jaguars being a danger to tourists, as sometimes one may think, here it was tourists (their presence and infrastructures) being a danger to jaguars, because the reserve managers had overlooked the Cofans' experience of creating trails that respect jaguar territories.

This conversation with the Cofan leaders was followed by many meetings with government protected area officials, where I spoke in favour of finding solutions that recognize the rights of indigenous communities to their lands and resources within the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. The discussions were not easy since the country's protected area law did not allow for such an accommodation. Eventually, however, the government signed a co-management agreement with the Cofan people, admitting their right to continue using and possessing their 80,000-hectare territory, and recognizing indigenous zonation as an integral part of the reserve's management plan. The country's first ever co-management agreement with indigenous communities, it paved the way for other co-management arrangements in the country - although it remains the only agreement guaranteeing both use and possession of traditional lands by indigenous communities.

This story is certainly about making justice, but it is also about putting different systems of knowledge and experience to work for the sustainable management of natural resources, protected areas in particular. Some indigenous rights activists, when confronted with this and similar examples, would argue that protected areas are not really necessary where indigenous peoples live because they know how to manage their lands and resources. But it is also true that protected areas can help indigenous and traditional peoples protect their own lands, resources, and cultures. The Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is in fact surrounded by oilfields, roads, villages, and cattle ranches. Had the reserve not been created, the land would most likely have succumbed to external threats and developments much too powerful for indigenous communities to resist. "It has been to our advantage as a people to be able to claim national protected area status, says Randy assessing the experience, and it has certainly been to the advantage of the National Protected Area System to have us on site doing management and enforcement work. We have used the combination of forces to halt petroleum companies and miners, and our participation in the protected area has allowed us freedom from pressures to cut down our forests and turn them into farmlands. It's been a good combination".

In 1997, WWF granted its Award for Conservation Merit to Randy "in recognition of his commitment to the defence of the rights of Ecuador's indigenous peoples; for his achievements in the conservation of the territories and natural resources of the Cofan people; and for his research on the cayman populations of the Napo river". In February 1999, the Ecuadorian government designated the Cofan, Siona, Secoya, and Quichua territories of the reserve an 'Intangible Zone' - an area for the exclusive use of its indigenous communities and the conservation of biodiversity.

WWF works with indigenous and traditional peoples in all regions of the world. As examples, it supports sustainable wildlife management with indigenous communities in Brazil, Cameroon, Namibia, Central African Republic, Thailand, and Zimbabwe; traditional resource use and collaborative management of protected areas in Mongolia and in the Koryak Autonomous Region of northern Russia; community-based actions for the preservation of traditional knowledge, systems and practices in India; freshwater and wetland conservation, using culture-based knowledge and management, in Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea; research on traditional knowledge of predators in Sweden; integration of cultural and spiritual values of traditional land management in protected areas of Canada; conservation and sustainable use of wetlands in Malaysia; conservation of marine biological diversity in the Miskito region of Nicaragua; traditional weaving and salt-making by indigenous women in Fiji; community resource management and development in the Solomon Islands; community land care in Papua New Guinea; conservation of a biodiversity-rich traditional pilgrimage route of the Huichol people in Mexico. These examples of WWF's work with indigenous and traditional peoples illustrate what can be done for biodiversity conservation in such a way that it also supports conservation and revitalization of traditional cultures.

Gonzalo T. Oviedo C.
October 2001
If you want to learn more about the efforts of the Cofan people to conserve their traditional lands in the Ecuadorian Amazon, visit: