Protectors of the Amazon: How Indigenous People are the Key to Amazon Conservation

By Jiordan T. Dror

The Amazon rainforest is one of the most crucial areas of land on our entire planet concerning the earth’s viability, a reality that indigenous groups in the forest have known for thousands of years. When we look to the future of conservation efforts in the Amazon, we must turn our attention to perhaps its most sage residents, with knowledge and wisdom of the forest that transcends even the best science and research.

Indigenous people have been preserving their forests for millenniums, learning from their ancestors the keys to keeping their forests intact, while still providing for their communities and continuing their natural ways of life. A report by the World Bank shows that indigenous territories contain over 80% of the world’s biodiversity. This not only showcases their ability to be natural conservationists, but it demonstrates the instincts they have to alleviate and decrease climate disasters that have been, and will continue to make way in our lives.

The Ese Eja people of Peru have done this through protecting the trees on their land, specifically trees that have been around since the time of their ancestors. By protecting these centuries-old trees, they prevent fauna from disappearing, which in turn protects the habitats of both plants and animals. By doing this, they are ensuring the survival of their forest, their home, and are keeping the harmonic relationship between themselves and the forest alive. Only using what they need is second-nature to them. This enlightened outlook on the connection between nature and humans is desperately needed in a world so lost in greed and material gain. Indigenous people have cared for their ancestral lands with such mastery, it is only logical to look to them for the answers we have all been searching for to bring back the Amazon they have known and cherished for lifetimes.

An Ese Eja man looks up to the massive tree while collecting Brazil Nuts. Photo by Jon Cox

The Amazon rainforest is an area of land which contains such an overwhelming array of plant life that is vital for our wellbeing, that it has earned the name, “the lungs of our earth”, and for good reason. Containing 1/3 of all life forms on earth, and producing 20% of the earth’s oxygen, this forest is the poster child for one of the greatest expression of life on earth. Being surrounded by such an environment, indigenous people in the Amazon have learned to have a symbiotic relationship with the forest. They learned the ways of not only living in this incredible place, but living with it, becoming one with the forest and not separating themselves from the very place that supports their existence.

Many indigenous groups in the Amazon have ideologies of limiting the exploitation of natural resources due to their belief that humans must sustain the balance of the universe. An example of this can be seen with the Ese Eja, who sustainably harvest Brazil nuts annually. The Ese Eja do this by never overexploiting the trees that provide them with the nuts. These trees can sometimes be over 500 years old and reach over 150 feet above the forest floor, which is why they never cut them down. This creates habitats for all kinds of animals such as birds, sloths, and countless insects. By sustainably harvesting Brazil nuts for their own community, as well as selling them as a manufactured good, they are contributing to the conservation of their forest, while simultaneously providing themselves with an income to support their families.

The Ese Eja are only one of many examples of how allowing indigenous people to manage their lands is exceedingly more efficient in terms of conservation. A study orchestrated in the Peruvian Amazon observed the effects of granting the rights of indigenous lands to native communities, showing that decentralized forest governance and giving indigenous groups the rights to their ancestral lands has had a significant impact on deforestation rates. The study showed that the titling of the land reduced the clearing of their forests by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds in the span of two years (Blackman et al. 2017). These results suggest that awarding formal land titles to local indigenous communities can promote better forest conservation throughout the Amazon.

Rainbow emerges over the trees of the Peruvian Rainforest. Photo by Jon Cox

Yet another study conducted by the National Institute for Amazonian Research, found that indigenous lands were more effective at avoiding deforestation in locations with high deforestation pressure than sustainable use areas. It also found that deforestation in indigenous lands was, “less likely to be driven by the external, market-driven pressures, and more likely to be a result of internal, subsistence-oriented resource use” (Nolte et al 2013). Despite the evidence that indigenous people are the best resource for preserving the Amazon, there are still many policies preventing native people from gaining back the rights to their land and putting forest management back into their hands. Prohibiting indigenous people from protecting their own lands is detrimental to the future of the Amazon rainforest and climate change mitigation as a whole.

One of the major reasons land is taken from indigenous people is to exploit and capitalize off of it, with the biggest contributors being cattle ranching, mining, and timber harvesting. Indigenous Amazonians have been modifying their environment for thousands of years, rarely over-exploiting it, and carefully practicing and developing farming techniques to reduce the amount of environmental damage done in the long run. Slash and burn techniques used by many tribes have often been condemned by many countries, however, they fail to differentiate between indigenous peoples’ shifting and small-scale farming methods, which have been shown to be sustainable, and the permanent destruction of large areas of forest by mining and large-scale agriculture (Valqui et al 2015). The methods used by indigenous tribes have been shown to encourage biodiversity at a greater rate compared to commercial agriculture, which leaves the land with little to no wildlife habitats and pollutes the environment with the heavy use of pesticides. The knowledge indigenous Amazonians have of the forest around them, and the methods they’ve created to enhance the forest’s ability to provide for their livelihood, is only one of the many ways we can look to them for guidance and inspiration when it comes to rainforest conservation.

Although studies have demonstrated that the rainforest is in better hands while managed by native Amazonians, to this day, indigenous groups such as the Ese Eja have limited access to their ancestral lands. Indigenous people have lived in the Amazon for thousands of years, but have never “owned” it. Conflict with the Peruvian government over land rights has resulted in the destruction of their forests, including pollution created from the overexploitation of their land from mining operations and commercial agriculture. These practices have devastated their lands and have negatively impacted the biodiversity contained there.

When their land is destroyed, a little piece of their culture and ancestral wisdom goes along with it. The incessant genocide of indigenous knowledge is disastrous for the future of their cultures, but also for the world that so gravely needs the knowledge they possess of the rainforest. In a time where the world is facing immense pressures environmentally, their wisdom and understanding of the rainforest ecosystem is not only needed for their own preservation, but is vital for our own.

ACEER has worked with the indigenous Ese Eja for many years now, collaborating on a book, “The Ancestral Lands of the Ese Eja, The True People”, and a cultural mapping project. This project documented their culture, recording traditions for future generations, and continues to empower them to keep their culture identities alive while they face monumental hardships to simply exist in their native homes.

By supporting ACEER, you are making a true difference in the lives of native Amazonians. Purchasing the book, “The Ancestral Lands of the Ese Eja, The True People”, will not only provide you with a unique perspective on the problems the Ese Eja face in Peru, but all donations go to a community development fund to support different community projects, including safe drinking water systems, eco-tourism opportunities, as well as expanding education programs to create the next generation of conservation leaders.

Join ACEER today in the fight to preserve the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous cultures by donating, sharing, or joining future workshops. Indigenous communities are the best stewards of conserving their rainforest, but it is still up to all of us to use our voices and actions to do the best we can to protect it.





Blackman, A., L. Corral, E. S. Lima and G. P. Asner. “Titling indigenous communities protects forests in the Peruvian Amazon.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2017. 114(16): 4123. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1603290114

“Indigenous Peoples.” World Bank, 24 Sept. 2019, www.worldbank.org/en/topic/indigenouspeoples.

Nolte, Christoph, et al. “Governance Regime and Location Influence Avoided Deforestation Success of Protected Areas in the Brazilian Amazon.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 26 Mar. 2013, www.pnas.org/content/110/13/4956.

Valqui, Michael, et al. “Revealing the Hidden: Indigenous Perspectives on Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon.” Forestpeoples.org, Mar. 2015, www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2015/02/fppperureportenglishinternetfinalaug32015.pdf.


ACEER’s Puppet House

PuppetHouseFun fact! ACEER Foundation has its own puppet program used by teachers to develop learning activities through the use of puppets, music and songs, artistic creativity and field activities, strengthening their capacities and attitudes about knowledge and care of the environment.

puppetssStories like “Yoqui the brave little parrot”, “My little paradise” and “small Fish fleeing” among others, relate to local environmental problems and offer students the ability to critically think and generate viable solutions to promote the conservation of the Peruvian Amazon.

Check out the below video for more detail:

In presenting Peru’s National Award of Environmental Citizenship to The ACEER, Peru’s Minister of Environment, Manuel Pulgar Vidal, specifically cited ACEER’s Puppet House, a traveling puppet show for rural Amazonian elementary school children.

The Puppet House is the brain child of ACEER’s Director of Education, Licia Silva Ortiz, who delivers the popular program to hundreds of school children each year in the southeastern Peruvian region of Madre de Dios.

Through rainforest characters, such as Yoqui the Brave Parrot, the Puppet House teaches rural Amazonian children the value of the rainforest, and why it is important to them and to the world to keep it standing, intact and used sustainably.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with this award,” says ACEER President, Dr. Roger Mustalish. “It speaks to ACEER’s commitment to provide life inspiring experiential learning to those living in the Amazon as well as a global audience.

“This Puppet House, and its assortment of zany Amazonian animals and plants, brings a simple, yet powerful, message of the need for rainforest conservation.”

ACEER was selected for this award following a national competition with over 150 organizations vying for the award. Last year, ACEER was a finalist, showcasing its teacher training program using a unique “leaf pack” sampling device to monitor aquatic biodiversity.

Headquartered in West Chester, Pennsylvania, ACEER has offices and programs throughout the Peruvian Amazon. To learn more go to www.aceer.org.

ACEER wins Peru’s National Award of Environmental Citizenship

ACEER receives Peru’s National Award of Environmental Citizenship for its environmental education programs promoting conservation of the Amazon Rainforest. In announcing this prestigious award, Peru’s Minister of Environment,

Manuel Pulgar Vidal, specifically cited ACEER’s Puppet House, a traveling puppet show for rural Amazonian elementary school children. ACEER was selected for this award following a national competition with over 150 organizations vying for the award. Last year, ACEER was a finalist, showcasing its teacher training program using a unique “leaf pack” sampling device to monitor aquatic biodiversity. Such a tremendous honor.

From Intern to Thesis Researcher to a Graduated Engineer!

Lizeyka Xilena Barra Polanco, joined ACEER in 2012 as a pre-professional intern with the “leaf pack” project. With her characteristic charismatic manner she worked guiding students in the field, and classifying and identifying samples of benthic macroinvertebrates in the laboratory. In 2013, Lizeyka continued her work as a field assistant on our water quality research project on the Puerto Maldonado-Cusco interoceanic highway. Thanks to her experience with ACEER, Lizeyka decided to specialize in macroinvertebrate ecology for her research thesis.

Lizeyka Xilena Barra Polanco

Lizeyka was hired by ACEER during 2015 as assistant coordinator of the educational project “leaf pack”, while she was also working on her research thesis. She graduated as a Forest and Environmental Engineer in 2016 from the Madre de Dios National University (UNMAD), evaluating and researching the water quality of nine ravines in Madre de Dios, using the leaf pack method. She is currently working independently and studying English; she plans to pursue a master degree in the near future.

From Volunteer to ACEER Staff

Therany Gonzales Ojeda
Therany Gonzales Ojeda

Therany Gonzales Ojeda, first became an ACEER volunteer in 2005, working out of our Puerto Maldonado office. At the request of our program coordinator there, he joined the project “From School to the Garden”, supporting the content and activities in our medicinal plant gardens aimed at teaching local school children about the botanical biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest.

An already accomplished engineer from the region, Therany brought to ACEER an impressive record of field experience, including numerous research projects in the southern Peruvian Amazon. Therany’s work with us grew to include serving as a field guide for many of ACEER’s university outreach workshops and academic courses.

Seven years later, he was hired by ACEER to work as the lead coordinator of the “Leaf Pack” research project to assess the impact of the interoceanic highway on the aquatic biodiversity of adjacent watersheds. He was instrumental in its success, from planning and execution in the field, through to the presentation of results. Therany is now ACEER’s Scientific and Education Coordinator in Madre de Dios and has been part of ACEER’s family for over 11 years, continuing his professional growth with us.

Ethnobotanical Studies Scholarship: James A. Duke

This scholarship from Dr. James A. Duke, was created by the Board of Directors of the ACEER Foundation to honour this renowned Ethnobotanist and member of ACEER.

Dr. Duke, whose professional training was as a systematic botanist, was leading the service’s research at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an expert in Economic Botany. In addition to his research at the USDA for more than 30 years, Dr. Duke has published more than 30 books, numerous articles and reviews, and remained active in his research on medicinal plants.

Dr. Duke was a catalyst and guiding figure of the award-winning gardens Ethnobotanical, workshops and ACEER programs. New commercially viable medicines were developed by researchers at ACEER gardens. In 2012, ACEER granted Dr. Duke with the Legacy Award, in recognition to his great contributions and achievements in research and conservation.

Beca de Estudios Etnobotánicos en Español

Ethnobotanical Studies Scholarship

ACEER’s Next 25

The ACEER Foundation has just celebrated its 25th anniversary as a dynamic force for rainforest conservation and looks forward to its next 25. The ACEER has two new and exciting initiatives: The Learning Hub and Conservation Café and the Global Conservation Leadership Institute. These initiatives will allow us to continue to grow and expand our efforts as an effective organization for Amazon conservation in these upcoming years.


The Learning Hub and Conservation Café will be a state of the art learning center. It will unite teachers, conservation professionals, and community leaders in an interactive meeting environment. The learning center will allow them access to innovative learning technologies, enhanced Internet, digital databases, computers, and much more. All of this will serve to create real world outcomes that measurably promote conservation and restoration in the Amazon.

Our second initiative, the Global Conservation Leadership Institute, will create a new cadre of leaders. It will focus on fostering leadership skills for emerging, top tier professionals, through immersive and experiential learning opportunities. It is designed to promote creative problem solving in truly transdisciplinary ways. The institute will provide access to, and direct interaction with, a world-class faculty, allowing participants to create lasting personal and professional relationships with peers from around the world. The Global Conservation Institute will encourage an entrepreneurial spirit and desire to improve people’s lives and protect the Amazon.

These exciting initiatives are the foundation of ACEER’s next 25 years of devotion to the conservation of the Amazon Rainforest. We are looking forward to them.

Help us to make these initiatives a reality by
making a donation via check or PayPal here.

Dr. Paul Morgan elected new President of the ACEER Foundation

The Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research Foundation (ACEER), a US 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with offices in West Chester, PA, and Puerto Maldonado, Peru, is pleased to announce that Dr. Paul Morgan was unanimously elected Paul MorganPresident of ACEER at its December 16, 2016 annual board meeting.  He succeeds Dr. Roger Mustalish, who will now serve ACEER as Chair of the Board of Directors.  Dr. Morgan holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He is a Professor of Professional and Secondary Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and the director of undergraduate and graduate certificate programs in Education for Sustainability. In addition, he served as West Chester University’s Sustainability Coordinator from 2011-2014 and continues to be a member of the University’s Sustainability Advisory Council.

Dr. Morgan had been ACEER’s Chair of the Board, its representative to the Lima and Paris United Nations Climate Change Meetings (COP20 & COP21), and a workshop and expedition leader to the Amazon.  In July, Dr. Morgan headed a delegation from Dubai, UAE, studying climate change impacts in Peru.  His vision created ACEER’s Emerging Leaders in Sustainability Institute, and forged strategies to grow ACEER’s flagship program, the AMIGOS Partnership for Education.

As President, Dr. Morgan will be the CEO of the organization, which has been a dynamic force for rainforest conservation for 25 years, having touched the lives of more than 1 million individuals worldwide. He will lead the implementation of two new ACEER strategic initiatives: a Global Leadership Institute built on the success of the Emerging Leaders in Sustainability Institute, and creation of a state of the art conservation education “Hub” in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.  The “Hub” will offer innovative, experiential learning programming, networking capabilities, and empowerment opportunities to students, scientists, teachers, and community leaders with a goal of developing local and global environmental leaders who work to conserve and restore functioning landscapes in the Amazon. Learn more about ACEER at www.aceer.org.