Allies in Biodiversity Conservation: Integrating Indigenous Human Rights and Biodiversity Conservation in the Amazon




This case study was recognized for identifying support to indigenous peoples as a key approach for conservation and sustainable landscapes and using political economy analysis to inform integrated climate, biodiversity, and democracy, human rights, and governance programming decisions.

Funding Approach: Single Funded with Co-benefits. Sectors Integrated: Climate Change; Biodiversity; and Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

The Amazon region is home to 1.6 million Indigenous peoples, all of whom depend on the region’s forest and water resources for their material and cultural survival. Studies have shown that deforestation rates are much lower in places where Amazonian Indigenous peoples have strong land tenure rights, making Indigenous peoples important allies in biodiversity conservation. However, Indigenous peoples are currently under threat from multiple economic, political, and cultural pressures, including loss of their languages and cultural practices. Indigenous lands in the Amazon are threatened by illegal logging, mining, and land conversion, as well as large-scale infrastructure projects, such as oil and gas, road construction, and dams. This story describes how USAID/South America Regional’s Amazon Regional Environment Program identified support to Indigenous peoples as a key strategic approach for integrating biodiversity conservation and sustainable landscapes — activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the land use sector — and used political economy analysis to inform programming decisions and activity design.

USAID/South America Regional and the Amazon Regional Environment Program had a history of working with Indigenous peoples and their organizations, but support was ad hoc and Indigenous peoples were mostly treated as beneficiaries, rather than true development partners. Indigenous peoples’ organizations approached USAID/South America Regional’s Program, as well as USAID’s Indigenous Peoples’ Advisor in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA), to urge the Agency to provide more direct support.

In response, the South America Regional Program worked closely with the Indigenous Peoples’ Advisor and his team, as well as the Forestry and Biodiversity Office in the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), to design an activity focused on supporting Indigenous peoples, conserving biodiversity, and promoting sustainable landscapes objectives in Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Guyana, and Suriname. The activity design team identified strengthening the capacity of Amazonian Indigenous peoples to participate in decision-making about large-scale infrastructure and extractive projects affecting their lands as a strategic approach to directly respond to identified threats to biodiversity. This process resulted in the Strengthening the Capacity of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon (SCIOA) activity, which integrates biodiversity and human rights objectives and is aligned with the broader biodiversity conservation and sustainable landscapes objectives of the Amazon Regional Environment Program’s Project Appraisal Document.

During activity startup, Peru, Brazil, and Colombia used applied political economy analyses to analyze the state of Indigenous peoples’ rights in the face of large-scale infrastructure and extractive projects, as well as their abilities to negotiate with government and private sector decision-makers during design and approval of these projects. The SCIOA implementing partner originally proposed to communicate directly to Indigenous groups in each of the five countries although they did not yet have networks established in all five countries. As a result of the applied political economy analysis recommendations, the implementing partner adapted SCIOA’s structure to instead incorporate a series of sub-grants to local non-governmental organizations that already had strong relationships with Indigenous organizations and were viewed as neutral by multiple parties including government officials, other non-governmental organizations, and the Indigenous organizations themselves. The applied political economy analyses also helped USAID to validate other elements of its design, such as a focus on supporting gender and youth inclusion in indigenous organizational leadership and decision-making, and supporting Indigenous organizations in voicing their concerns on large-scale infrastructure and extractive projects impacting their lands. Lastly, the applied political economy analyses provided timely updates on evolving political contexts across the Amazon, some of which were less favorable to Indigenous rights.

The regional SCIOA activity is now strengthening the administrative and financial management capacity of ten Amazonian Indigenous organizations in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Suriname, and Guyana as a critical first step to improving their ability to directly manage donor-funded projects and is equipping Amazonian Indigenous peoples to better advocate for their rights and economic interests, key steps in the journey to self-reliance. Each organization received a US$20,000 grant to test drive their new skills with financial oversight and management support from local partner organizations, while using their traditional knowledge to develop a range of creative projects contributing to the integration of biodiversity conservation and sustainable landscapes.

SCIOA informed the development and implementation of a larger US$18 million Amazon regional activity, the Amazon Indigenous Rights and Resources (AIRR) activity, which will improve participation of Indigenous peoples in the sustainable economic development of the Amazon through increased rights advocacy and sustainable enterprise. These activities will contribute to the South America Regional Program’s higher level purpose to reduce the impacts on Amazon forest and water resources from large-scale infrastructure projects, extractive industries, and climate change.

Lessons Learned

Identify individual team member’s strengths and areas where outside expertise can help:

Reach out to Washington colleagues to complement mission skills and help think through the problem and potential solutions. Engage other sector colleagues to employ new tools, such as political economy analysis, and draw upon the strengths of multiple operating units. Continue to encourage outside support, such as the Indigenous Peoples’ Advisor’s team and E3 Forestry and Biodiversity Office staff, throughout the development of the theory of change, annual work plan, and monitoring, evaluation, and learning plan.

Collaborate across operating units to design and implement integration:

Empower colleagues to work across operating units (missions and Washington, DCHA and E3) and earmarks (biodiversity and Indigenous peoples) rather than stay siloed. Design integrated programming to maximize the impact of limited funds. The SCIOA design team emphasized that as a result of working across operating units, USAID is now better positioned to achieve its environmental objectives in the Amazon as well as its global commitment to supporting Indigenous peoples.

Learn More

Explore more case studies on the USAID Biodiversity Integration Case Competition website.

Learn more about biodiversity integration with other USAID technical sectors on the Biodiversity Conservation Gateway.

Visit USAID/Peru or Pact for more information on biodiversity conservation and human rights.


Annie Wallace, Environment Officer and Feed the Future Coordinator, USAID/Guatemala