When thinking about deforestation and climate change and possible solutions to these urgent matters, it is imperative to understand that deforestation continues to happen if we don't focus our attention on the socio-economic aspect of the problem.
Over the last several generations, influenced by outsiders, especially oil, mining and timber industries, indigenous communities of the Amazon have moved away from traditional practices and become dependent on natural resource extraction to fulfil their immediate needs. In addition to making them dependent on others for survival, these actions have resulted in devastating consequences for the rainforest.
"We cleaned out everything; we even cut down the forest that we had set aside for tourism. We made guayusa monoculture because they offered us a business to sell plants and earn money to feed our families. Then they terminated the agreement without warning; we never knew who to complain to. We were left without sales and without our forest." - José Narvaez, Mushullakta Community of restorers
When I read José's testimony, I think of the typical uneven rainforest in the Amazon, covered with different shades of green; shrubs with colourful flowers, and tall trees with moss-filled branches that carry bromeliads and orchids.
It is sad to imagine all this diversity turned into a monotonous monoculture of guayusa. Guayusa is a plant native to the Ecuadorian Amazon that for thousands of years has been used by indigenous people.
Guayusa: Mass Production Over Ancestral Knowledge
The guayusa leaf infusion is most commonly sipped during the 'guayusadas': family members wake up at dawn, at 4:00 am or 5:00 am, and they light a fire, on which they boil water for the guayusa infusion. Usually, this ceremony takes place in each family’s home; however, sometimes, the entire community meets to drink guayusa and share their dreams.
After new studies proclaimed to the world that this plant, in addition to caffeine, has many antioxidants, it became a sought-after product worldwide. The growing interest in guayusa unleashed a massive production that has forced many indigenous families to plant, following the demands of the people offering them the business.
They call them intermediaries, and locals depend on them because sometimes it is the only possible way to get the product out and sell it. This is not an isolated event; it also happens with other products such as naranjilla, pitahaya, and even timber. When these offers arrive, locals like José and their families have no choice but to accept the conditions proposed by the intermediaries.
"Guayusa is a big bush" says José. Then he adds,"I know how it grows; it has to be planted every two meters, but they forced us to plant every meter to have more plants to sell. We had to clean our two hectares of the forest because to be part of the project, we had to reach the minimum quantity they demanded."
A Matter of Survival Rather than Choice
Amazonian communities living closest to the forests are also the poorest and most displaced in society. Each family decides to act independently in their space, no matter how much land they own. Their intention is to provide for their own family; they stop thinking as a community because they do not see it as an opportunity, not even as an option for survival.
They have to abide by the rules of the intermediaries according to the use of the product and fall prey to deception; they are monitored and any false step means punishment for having broken the rules. According to José's experience, this harms all the families involved in the same project, even if it is only one family that breaks the rules.
"The condition was that we do not use chemical products in the guayusa plantation, but someone introduced the product, and we all fell for it because of that person. The intermediaries didn't even warn us, they just stopped coming... they never came again..."
Lack of Support
On the other hand, when communities decide to invest in less environmentally aggressive projects, and in general any sustainable activity, they do not get support. Sometimes they even receive threats, their land is invaded or they are involved in conflicts; it is a kind of modern colonialism that nobody condemns.
Intermediaries do not consider these activities attractive because they do not generate profits. In fact, the times they have received some kind of incentive, it has been in the form of machinery to extract wood, gasoline, or chemical products to treat monoculture pests. In other words, they are incentives that promote unsustainable activities.
Governments become blind to visible deforestation because they prioritise economic gains, see local people as an obstacle to development, and therefore, the little "legal aid" from ministries translates into handing out licenses to harvest timber.
"Everything is through intermediaries. They don't pay us in cash, only when they have sold the product; sometimes they come back and say that they couldn't sell anything, but we don't know what is true and what isn't..."
Not everything is lost
Inequality or social inequity is what has historically given rise to all these injustices experienced by indigenous communities, but all is not lost. People like José learned from the previous situations of having monocultures and not being able to sell the product.