How a sustainable rainforest can serve as an example

How a sustainable rainforest can serve as an example

Over de thesis van Stijn Kuipers

Reaching sustainability in the rainforest : The role of sustainable alternative agriculture and indigenous land rights in the Peruvian Amazon (2022)

Promotor(en) Dr. Maria Martin de Almagro Iniesta & Mary Ann Manahan, Faculteit Politieke en Sociale Wetenschappen
Picture: Noah Buscher via Unsplash
Redactie Stijn Kuipers; Emma Verboven

Research about sustainable development at Ghent University often responds to Belgian and Western societal issues. However, if we zoom out from Belgium or Western Europe to other equally important cases, much is there to be learnt. The Peruvian Amazon presents such a case.

Diversity, conflict, and how to overcome this

The Peruvian Amazon is hugely diverse and uniquely huge. The general opinion is that the Amazon represents 40% of remaining rainforest in the world and that 25% of the world’s biodiversity can be found here.

Likewise, many Amazonian countries are considered megadiverse, Peru included. This diversity extends into the human world as well: just in Peru, the Ministry of Culture identifies 55 different indigenous peoples, of which 51 are native to the Peruvian Amazon.

However, the region has experienced many social and environmental conflicts over the past years, that especially affected marginalised groups such as indigenous peoples and women. Therefore, there are a few concepts that are essential to overcome this.

Firstly, the concept of interculturality is important, which signifies equally respecting all these coexisting cultures. A second key concept is intersectionality, which means understanding that specific social categories are discriminated against differently.

In addition to that, the conflicts mentioned earlier often caused environmental degradation and deforestation, mainly because of agriculture. Therefore, it is key to find agriculture that does not harm the environment or the people that call the Amazon their home. Hence, Stijn Kuipers proposes the concept of Sustainable Alternative Agriculture (SAA).

Picture: HOLIET via Pixabay

Sustainable Alternative Agriculture

SAA is a type of agriculture that is both alternative to damaging conventional agriculture, and sustainable. Examples of SAA can be agroforestry, organic agriculture, or permaculture. But while this might seem obvious, a definition of sustainability or sustainable development is needed.

Stijn Kuipers defines sustainable development “as a pluralistic approach to humanity finding their space within planetary and social boundaries, while combining multiple aspects, realities, and complexities”. While this might seem like a mouthful, it is important to remember the three main aspects that together form sustainable development: ‘the environmental’, ‘the social’, and ‘the economic’. These must always be safeguarded in every decision.

Similarly, in many post-colonial contexts where indigenous peoples inhabit the land, such as Peru, it is fundamental that their land rights are respected. Many indigenous peoples have a multitudinous relationship with the land, as they see themselves as intrinsically part of their natural environment. But this relationship is often broken in Western societies.

Laws and rights must therefore protect and ensure the access of indigenous peoples to their land and territories on their own terms.

SAA in the Peruvian Amazon

Now that we know what SAA is, we can see how it is applied in the Peruvian Amazon. Stijn Kuipers analysed publicly available information about twelve agricultural companies and not-for-profits from twelve Peruvian departments, from Loreto to Puno, that together make up the region.

landscape of the Peruvian rainforest
Picture: Young n via Pixabay

It became clear that the SAA companies and not-for-profits can be placed within the framework of sustainable development. They all make mention of its environmental, social, and economic aspects, although in different grades, and prioritising different issues. However, since a real sustainable development will always have to be context-specific, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

On the other hand, when it comes to indigenous land rights, the situation is different. They are mentioned much less. Only very few of the analysed companies and not-for-profits refer to indigenous peoples either within their organisation or in the local community. This might prove problematic in case indigenous land rights are not respected or even ignored.

Consequently, Kuipers could place the SAA organisations he analysed in the sustainable development framework, but not in the framework of indigenous land rights. Especially here, an intercultural and intersectional lens can be very useful to overcome inequalities and inequities in the region.

How to move forward?

With all of this knowledge in mind, Kuipers explains how we could move forward. In general terms, he considers the application of SAA in the Peruvian Amazon to be sustainable. Nonetheless, SAA represents only a small part of all agriculture in the region, and more organisations need to implement it. State policies should favour this implementation, but always with free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous peoples.

SAA can really benefit by focusing on the inclusion of marginalised groups in society, such as women and indigenous peoples. By emphasising gender equality, the rights of women and girls, as well as indigenous rights and their right to access their land and territories, a lot is to be gained for everyone.

This is especially important in the context of the Peruvian Amazon, considering its recent history, as well as the threat that climate change, environmental degradation, and deforestation pose to the future of the entire Amazon rainforest and its inhabitants.

But this is also very relevant for the Belgian and Western European context. For the sake of modernisation, much of nature here has been lost and destroyed over the years. We need to rewild our natural spaces and respect our Mother Earth. It really is necessary to find ways to live sustainably and in harmony with our natural environment.

wheat field
Picture: Ant Rozetsky via Unsplash

In countries with such a strong agricultural sector, like Belgium, SAA will help us get closer to that goal. Also here, we need to include marginalised groups and communities, and get rid of historical inequalities and inequities. Only then can we reach real sustainability.

We know what needs to be done, it is up to us to implement it, before it is too late.


Over Stijn Kuipers

I am a young professional passionate about international cooperation, human rights, and sustainability, especially related to Latin American and EU-affairs. I am a Dutch national, and after studying and working in the Netherlands and Chile I finally came to Belgium in 2019.

However, after a few years here I noticed that something was missing. I feel a strong urge to improve the world around me, and I thought the MSc in Conflict and Development Studies at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences would provide an excellent academic foundation to do so. I wasn’t wrong. After a year of investigating different important topics and cases, I can say that I am very happy to have participated in this exciting programme.

When it comes to sustainability, I believe it is key for humanity to (re-)connect with nature. In Western societies, the link between humans and their natural surroundings is often broken. I draw great inspiration from indigenous peoples that see themselves as intrinsically part of their natural environment.

Nevertheless, sustainability is also social. Therefore, I think it is paramount to address historical inequalities and inequities all over the world in order to overcome them, and include those groups and communities that have been marginalised.
I believe that by cooperating on a local, regional, and global scale from an intercultural perspective, and always with free, prior, and informed consent, we can tackle many of today’s pressing issues. I hope to be able to contribute to this process, and help create a more equal and sustainable world.