By: Christopher Pollen, Ann Espuelas and Steve Zwick Ecosystem Marketplace

19 February 2015 | Catarino Gavião had been listening patiently, but now he rose to speak.

“We knew well before First Contact that the djala would come to destroy the forest,” he said. “How do we know this isn’t more of the same?”

It was October of last year, and he was addressing 80 or so other members of his people, the Gavião of the Brazilian Amazon, who had first made contact with the djala – the non-indigenous people – in the 1940s. In October, they gathered under the thatched-roof structure that serves as their town square, clad in a combination of traditional and western clothes – feathered headdresses, ceremonial beads, and blue-jeans. On one side of the open-air structure, they’d hung a shroud to block out sunlight. After all, bright light interferes with PowerPoint presentations, and they were about to endure hours of them.

On the agenda: their Ethno-Environmental Management Plan (Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental), which is a shared vision for the future of Igarapé Lourdes, the indigenous territory that the Gavião share with their neighbors, the Arara. Such plans – often called “Life Plans” (Planos de Vida) – have been proliferating across the Amazon for more than 20 years, beginning in Colombia in 1992.


Their objectives often seem nebulous to outsiders: The plans typically identify and map important hunting and harvesting areas, as well as sacred historical and ceremonial sites, and of course forested areas – categorized by quality of cover and species. But they also aim to create good internal governance and an outward-facing political organization – which is especially important for the Gavião and Arara. The two peoples have spent a quarter-century fighting efforts to build a hydro-electric dam that threatens to submerge large swathes of their territory, according to the most recent draft of their Plano de Gestão Etnoambiental.


Life Plans are as diverse and varied as the people of the Amazon themselves, but they almost all focus on ways of reviving dead and dying traditions – many of which are related to agricultural practices that evolved over thousands of years and have proven to be more resilient (but less efficient) than the modern agriculture that was injected into the Amazon in the last century.

Western farmers, for example, have cleared the forest to grow soybeans and graze cattle. These activities offer efficient production, but they lay bare a clay-like soil that quickly degenerates in the glare of the sun – the exact opposite of a resilient, sustainable farming system. Indigenous people, on the other hand, have tended to prune their forests more than clear them – preserving fruit-bearing trees and clearing small patches for corn or manioc, but abandoning these clearings (except those quite near their villages) after a couple of years so the forest would have time to heal. These strategies aren’t as lucrative in the short term as soybean farming or logging, but they’re practices that people can use to both feed themselves and nurture the forest for centuries.