An indigenous group in Guyana, backed by government decree and a U.S.-based conservation organization, has banned miners and loggers from its section of the Amazon jungle and pledged to pursue an economic strategy based on ecotourism, research and traditional crafts.
The leader of the Wai Wai said the group — which has about 200 members — has developed a management plan for its homeland in remote southern Guyana, near the border with Brazil, that is intended to preserve forest, create jobs and keep young people from leaving for cities.
"We want to protect our land for our way of life and also for our future generations," the group's chief, Cemci Sose, said by telephone from Bariloche, Argentina, where he announced the protected status this week at the second Latin American Parks Congress.
The Wai Wai received control of the 2,400 square miles of tropical forest and savanna — nearly half the size of Connecticut — from Guyana's government in 2004. It is habitat to rare animals including the jaguar, blue poison frog, and scarlet macaw.
Under the plan outlined at the conference, some of the Wai Wai would train to become forest rangers or to help researchers studying plants and animals of the rainforest. The group developed the strategy with Guyana's government and Washington-based Conservation International, which set up a $1 million trust to help manage the area.
Sose said he feared his land would be destroyed by miners who entered the Wai Wai's territory illegally from Brazil. The effort to preserve the land comes as development pressure is expected to increase as Guyana prepares to pave a dirt road linking it with Brazil.
The protected area includes the watershed for Guyana's largest river, the Essequibo, and makes up part of the Guiana Shield, an area of Amazon forest stretching across international borders that contains more than 25 percent of the world's remaining humid tropical forests.
"The really exciting part is the indigenous community owns it, and they did it themselves," said Lisa Famolare, vice president of the Guyana program for Conservation International.
The Wai Wai were the first indigenous group to receive ownership of traditional lands through a government program in the former Dutch and British colony. Native groups now hold a total of 93 titles, accounting for 14 percent of Guyana's land mass, said Carolyn Rodrigues, the country's minister of Amerindian affairs.
"Who is better placed to protect the environment than those who have been doing it for time immemorial?" Rodrigues said.
The Wai Wai this week became the first group to declare their territory a Community Owned Conservation Area, as recognized by government legislation, but Rodrigues said others would likely follow their example.
The indigenous group lives mainly in thatch-roof huts, but the village of Masakenari has a few modern structures, including a schoolhouse where children who grow up speaking Wai Wai learn English as a second language, according to conservationists.
As contact with the outside world has increased, the population has shrunk from about 240 in recent years as young people have left. Sose said he hopes the prospect of work will persuade some to return.
"When people get to know about money they look for work and move into Brazil and settle outside," he said.
While extending invitations for foreign researchers and other visitors, the group does not want tourists inside its village. Instead, the Wai Wai are restoring a nearby village that was flooded and abandoned in 2000 where they will display their production of traditional baskets, jewelry and beaded aprons, Famolare said.
With technical advice from Conservation International, the group has completed a long-term management and zoning plan and will begin developing a budget in January.
"My people are happy," Sose said. "We want work just to maintain family."