Story at a glance

  • The Rainforest Foundation US is a charity dedicated to protecting both rainforests and the Indigenous peoples who live in them.
  • The organization is adapting modern technology for Indigenous communities to utilize in their fight against deforestation.
  • Deforestation has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, threatening the environment.

British rock artist Sting might seem like an unlikely ally in the fight against deforestation in the Amazon. But when he first met Raoni Metuktire, a chief of the Kayapo Indigenous peoples and environmentalist, in 1987, he believed what researchers would confirm years later: The people who can save the rainforests are those who live in them. 

The next year, Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, founded the an organization with Jean-Pierre Dutilleux to support Raoni in his fight to protect indigenous lands and territory in the Amazon. 

“What started as something that just seemed to be common sense, over the years more and more research has [confirmed]. Where indigenous people live and have strong rights, the rates of deforestation are much lower,” said Suzanne Pelletier, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation US.


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As the organization expanded from Brazil to Peru, Panama and Guyana in the following decades, so did the threats to the environment. Meanwhile, the foundation, which offers grants to projects addressing biodiversity loss, climate change and human rights in Latin America, faced criticism over how its financial assets were managed, with just 60 percent of funds spent on programs on the ground in 2006. 

"The low marks we received more than a decade ago for our low relative expenditure of expenses on programs were the result of an error in our internal bookkeeping," said the Rainforest Foundation by email, noting that a "narrow definition" of program expenses only included direct transfers. 

But this has changed in the last decade, securing the charity a four out of four rating from Charity Navigator.

Time is running out, however. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has increased deforestation by nearly 10 percent in Brazil, the highest rate since 2008. 

“When the pandemic hit, officials were just looking elsewhere, so the illegal actors were still working and no one was really paying attention,” said Pelletier. “It’s discouraging but not surprising.”


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Now the Amazon is nearing a tipping point, after which the damage would be irreversible and the rainforest could cease to sustain itself, turning into a savannah in some areas.

“There’s an incredible urgency right now to stop as much deforestation as quickly as possible,” said Pelletier. “We’re looking at what we know works and doubling down on our efforts.”

What works, the foundation has discovered, is supporting Indigenous leadership with more modern technologies, which are getting increasingly user-friendly and cheap. Using drone technology and publicly available satellite data, local technicians trained by the foundation are able to monitor the forest and send information directly to Indigenous communities, who decide how to handle threats using the knowledge they’ve gleaned over the years from their connection to the forest and land.   

“These are not just trees, these are not just lands, it's such a virtual part of their culture, it’s how they maintain their health and wellbeing. Environmentalism takes on a very different meaning when it’s tied into your culture,” said Pelletier.

Indigenous people protect roughly a quarter of the Amazon, which contains between a quarter to a third of the carbon absorbed by the rainforest, but they are often left out of environmental efforts. The foundation is hoping to address that by creating a blockchain-based direct payment system to allow donors to give directly to the communities themselves.

So what can you do? First, stay informed, said Pelletier, understand the drivers behind deforestation and try not to be a reason the Amazon is being destroyed. Then, support work that's proven and work directly with indigenous communities when possible. Finally, she said, reach out to your elected officials and make sure they’re supporting efforts to protect the rainforest some call, “the lungs of the Earth.”


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Published on Jan 15, 2021