yusef yusef, April 5, 2017

There are big things happening in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon rainforest, both bad and good. The outcomes will directly affect New Mexicans.

For the last ten years, Rafael Correa’s administration has pushed hard to develop Ecuador’s substantial natural resources including petroleum, minerals and forest products. Because Correa’s regime defaulted on Ecuador’s debt, the country is now in a heap of trouble, mired in billions of dollars of loans from the Chinese government which is now extracting payment in the form of oil and mineral extraction. Though the election for a new Ecuadorian President is still being contested, the favored Presidential candidate, Guillermo Lasso, will likely veer toward the right, pursuing increased resource extraction without regard for indigenous rights or environmental consequences.

Meanwhile the Achuar, Shuar, Shiwiar, Sapara, Kichwa and other Ecuadorian Amazon tribes are working to maintain their right to ‘free, prior and informed consent’ to govern their individual territories, often through multi-tribal federations. They will press for autonomy to approve or disprove what happens in and on their tribal lands. Given that Ecuador is a pluri-national state with conflicting jurisdictions, that is no small feat.

Currently, indigenous leaders are considering their participation in a major new effort – the Sacred Headwaters Project (SHP), which intends to create sustainable economic opportunities for preserving tribal ways of life, while permanently protecting the Amazon headwaters from extractive pursuits, particularly oil drilling, mining, and the accompanying road building. Several tribes are developing aquaculture and permaculture projects to support their communities. They are also developing community-scale ecotourism as well as arts and crafts to offer to the outside world. In conjunction with sustainable food production, the potential for expanded micro- economies will allow tribal communities to focus on permanently protecting their territories, which include some of the most pristine rainforest remaining in the entire Amazon region. Indigenous leaders leave no doubt that they will defend their pristine forests with their lives.

From the perspective of the international community, the Sacred Headwaters Project is offering the world an extraordinary opportunity to permanently sequester a magnificent parcel of pristine rainforest located in the heart of the planet’s most biodiverse locale. This swath of Amazonian forest sequesters substantial carbon in the standing forest – 199 Mg carbon per hectare (1). Three massive rivers – the Napo, Pastaza and Maranon – form the heart of the Sacred Headwaters and nourish a substantial portion of the Amazon basin with eroding minerals from the Andes Mountains. They are, in large part, responsible for perhaps the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet. As climate change encroaches on the Amazon, scientists are encouraged that the slopes of the Andes might provide new habitat for rainforest species to adapt to climate challenges.

That said, the Sacred Headwaters Project will require a much larger engagement to permanently protect it, beginning by ascribing a large economic value to an undisturbed, intact Amazonian ecosystem rather than having it viewed as a huge untapped resource according to the “old model.” Having the SHP play a major role in a world carbon market monitored by the United Nations REDD+ forest program is one important aspect being considered. The project has already garnered praise from the United Nations Forests Program for the respectful role assigned to the indigenous people. Exploring national- scale debt forgiveness is another powerful approach. Perhaps China’s new role (2) as the world climate policy leader will encourage Chinese leaders to forgive loans to Ecuador in exchange for the climate and environmental gains that will result from supporting the permanent protection of the SHP. China might also employ its influence to cajole recalcitrant nations such as the USA to fulfill on climate commitments by suggesting a similar arrangement with the USA and other rich countries, potentially enabling Ecuador to rebuild its economy based on tourism, the current second most important sector of Ecuador’s economy.

The Sacred Headwaters Project, which was launched in January 2017, is an important and hefty undertaking that is expected to take from 20-25 years to complete. It was conceived by the Pachamama Alliance and Amazon Watch, two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have been working with indigenous Amazonian partners for 20 years. Several other organizations are considering the scale of their participation, ranging from the United Nations REDD+ forest conservation program and international NGOs to the local, provincial and national governments of Peru and Ecuador.

With respect to climate change, it is important to note that New Mexico’s future, along with the rest of the southwestern USA, depends on what happens in the equatorial Amazon headwaters, an area that has direct and important effects right here at home. As the moist, equatorial air of the Amazon rainforest moves west, it is forced up the Andean mountains, forming towering clouds. The westward-moving moist air mass splits, one arm – technically known as a Hadley cell – circles to the south and the other to the north, releasing rain as they move. After the northern Hadley cell releases its moisture over subtropical countries, the now-dry air cools and descends back to the earth at about the Mexico – New Mexico border, resulting in the dry desert biome that defines our borderlands. If carbon emissions continue to rise, the northern Hadley cell will likely grow larger, spreading the bubble of dry air farther north. Scientists predict that the growing mass of dry air could spread as far north as Denver, Colorado within a few decades, causing snow packs in the Rocky Mountains and flows in the Colorado River to decline drastically, beyond what our thirsty modern world has previously experienced.

Due to both bad and good circumstances, New Mexicans have a big stake in supporting the Sacred Headwaters Project which is designed to permanently preserve the Amazon headwaters. Please click on this link to learn more about the Sacred Headwaters Project. Your contribution could alter New Mexico’s future. Thanks for thinking as big as the Amazon!

Vickie Peck

1) Molina, et al, Remote Sens. 2016, 8, 9; doi:10.3390/rs8010009

2) NY Times March 30, 2017, Page A1 of the New York edition: As Trump Backtracks, China Seizes Chance to Lead on Climate.