A scenic shot of Amazon rainforest in Ecuador
Ecuador contains just 2% of the Amazon rainforest, but its rich biodiversity is a testament to the sustainable management practices of Indigenous Peoples.  (Byron Sigcha)

Editor's note: Since we published this piece, Ramiro Ortiz's uncle Eduardo Mendúa was shot and killed in what is believed to be a targeted attack on activists fighting to preserve the rainforest. Ortiz and others continue to fight, despite the dangers.

The descent from Ecuador's Andean foothills to the Amazon is breathtaking. The rainforest unfolds in front of you — a lush sea of seemingly unending green. But before long, the dense jungle gives way to a mix of oil infrastructure and cattle operations and the landscape is fouled by abandoned oil derricks, rusting pipes and chemical settling ponds.

The entire northeast corner of Ecuador was once inhabited by the A’i Cofán people, but the population has dwindled as the land has been fragmented by development. “The A’i Cofán Dureno territory is an island of green surrounded by oil wells and monoculture,” says Ramiro Ortiz, 31, a young A’i Cofán leader.

A’i Cofán leader Ramiro Ortiz headshot
For Ramiro Ortiz, protecting A’i Cofán land is a constant, sometimes dangerous, struggle. (Leslie Von Pless)

Two years ago, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the A’i Cofán against Petroecuador, the national oil company, seeking to shut down gas flares due to air pollution. They won in court, and the company was supposed to stop flaring months ago, but when A’i Cofán guardians mapped sites using cell phones, they counted 447 still operating. 

Then, last year, when news spread that Petrocuador planned to drill more wells on A’i Cofán territory without consulting the Indigenous community, activists armed with spears shut down the access route. Protecting their land has become a constant, sometimes dangerous, struggle for the A’i Cofán who rely on the forest for food, medicine and to preserve their way of life. 

Scientists warn that further degradation of the Amazon pushes it closer toward a dangerous tipping point in which the whole ecosystem collapses, turning lush jungle into a dry savannah that emits more carbon dioxide than it absorbs — supercharging global warming with catastrophic consequences for humans and wildlife. 

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But there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon. 

It's called LEAF (which stands for Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance), and it's the largest-ever public-private partnership that invests in protecting the forest, rather than extracting its resources.

Tuntiak Katan and Santiago Garcia walking through the rainforest
Santiago Garcia (right), an Indigenous Peoples engagement specialist for the Environmental Defense Fund, speaks with Shuar leader Tuntiak Katan (left). (Leslie Von Pless)

LEAF is part of a broader trend of companies and governments paying to preserve tropical forests through the purchase of high-quality carbon credits.

These credits have the potential to drive a significant amount of private sector money to forest conservation, but quality is key. That's why the Environmental Defense Fund, along with seven other major environmental and Indigenous Peoples organizations, created the Tropical Forest Credit Integrity Guide.

“We can’t limit climate change to safer levels if we don’t keep forests alive,” says Steve Schwartzman, senior director of tropical forest policy for EDF. “And we can’t do that at the scale and speed the climate crisis demands without the support of the private sector.”

So far, the LEAF coalition, which EDF helped create, has mobilized more than $1.5 billion to support rainforest communities. Early backers include Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as major international companies, such as Amazon, Nestle and Unilever, that are eager to strengthen their corporate emissions-reduction strategies. 

When the money starts flowing, Ecuador is expected to benefit — being paid if the country achieves reductions below their five-year baseline of deforestation to encourage greater ambition over time.

The coming challenge is to ensure that money also reaches Indigenous communities. 

WATCH: Tuntiak Katan offers a look inside the Shuar community

Over the past several months, EDF has been leading workshops with government officials and Indigenous leaders like Tuntiak Katan (featured in the video above) on the development of mechanisms to guarantee fair participation of Indigenous groups in the implementation of forest conservation plans. 

Katan's message? If you're trying to save the rainforests, you have to work with the people who know them best.

Indigenous Peoples manage more than 30% of the Amazon rainforest. Because they typically practice sustainable forest management, through agroforestry and low-impact agriculture, satellite imagery shows that deforestation rates in their territories within the Amazon are roughly half of what they are in similar surrounding lands.

But reward for that stewardship is often lacking. Over the last decade, the international community has poured $2.7 billion into rainforest preservation. Yet, according to Rainforest Foundation Norway, less than 1% of climate assistance lands in the hands of forest communities.

“We’re finally getting recognition for our role managing forests,” says Katan, who was recently elected general coordinator of COICA, “but we need to be seen as partners.”

Santiago Garcia, EDF’s Indigenous Peoples specialist, agrees. “Indigenous organizations must be directly involved in decision-making on how funds will be distributed,” he says. “It’s more than about trees and carbon. It’s about people and communities.”