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As Rio+20 kicks off, locals on the front lines of conservation

As the world gathers in Rio on June 20 to discuss how to move toward a more sustainable future, locals have the self-interest to conserve as a source of income and sustainable way of life.

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Members of the Chankin family return from a trip to obtain some bananas in the Lacandone jungle where they run an ecotourism lodge.

Asel Llana

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The Ache people in eastern Paraguay lived for centuries amid the lush Atlantic Forest as hunter-gatherers, but were displaced by colonists and ranchers. When loggers and livestock producers began to eye the land onto which the Ache had already been displaced, offering fast profits at the end of the 1990s, most chose the money.  

But Margarita Mbywangi refused to watch the habitat on which her tribe depend disappear once again. So, in 2000, breaking away from the majority of the tribe, she led 40 families to a 4,700-hectare tract of untouched land.

“We decided to separate, because we have to protect the forest. Otherwise we have nothing,” says Ms. Mbywangi, the community leader, as children from the reserve bustle about her backyard.

The Ache won land rights to the Kuetuvy Reserve last year, where today men hunt tapirs with bows and arrows and forage in the forest, sometimes for weeks at a time. Today their reserve sits amid vast soy farms, the newest threat to the area, where some 9 million hectares of land have been degraded in 50 years, leaving only a million hectares of primary forest today. "If they did not enter the forest to fight for this land, it would be a soy plantation today,” says Enrique Bragayrac, who works on social and environmental conservation at the NGO Guyra Paraguay.

Ecosystems throughout the region face the threat of development spurred by farmers, loggers, oil workers, miners, and mega development projects. And as the world gathers in Rio de Janeiro on June 20 to discuss strategies to move forward in a more sustainable future, locals like Mbywangi in Paraguay – who are not necessarily environmentalists with ideals about pristine lands but locals on the front lines of protection – have the self-interest to conserve as a source of income and sustainable way of life.

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