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Daily CSR
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Empowering Indigenous Leadership: Vision for a Resilient Amazon Ecosystem


In the initial installment of our three-part series focusing on the efforts of Cisco Foundation grantees in the Amazon and South America, we aim to introduce you to eight organizations dedicated to the preservation and safeguarding of the Amazon basin. Through various initiatives, these grantees prioritize Indigenous sovereignty, promote sustainable livelihood opportunities, and explore innovative financing avenues, all intertwined to bolster enduring environmental conservation.
Collaborating closely with our partners at the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance and Digital Democracy, we delve into the significance of the Amazon, a sprawling tropical rainforest spanning nine South American nations. Home to an astonishing array of biodiversity and cultural heritage, the Amazon encompasses 6.7 million square kilometers and sustains over 47 million people, including approximately 2 million Indigenous individuals. It acts as a vital carbon sink, storing an estimated 200 billion tons of carbon and harboring around 10% of the world's remaining biodiversity, crucial for stabilizing global climates through its atmospheric contributions.
However, the Amazon faces severe threats from extractive activities like gold mining, oil extraction, and rampant deforestation for agricultural expansion. Scientists warn of an impending "tipping point" where irreversible ecological damage could occur within decades if these destructive practices persist unchecked. Despite these challenges, there is a palpable sense of resilience, hope, and opportunity emanating from the region, fueling optimism and a collective vision for a more sustainable and inclusive future.
Aligned with Cisco's commitment to sustainability and climate action, our engagement in the Amazon seeks to empower local communities and organizations striving to protect and regenerate this invaluable ecosystem. Through collaborative efforts and strategic investments, we endeavor to foster resilience, inclusivity, and regeneration in the face of environmental challenges.
Indigenous Territories in the Amazon
While the ecological importance of the Amazon region is widely recognized, its profound biocultural significance often receives less attention in contemporary discussions. It's imperative to place Indigenous voices at the forefront of conversations surrounding Amazon preservation and to acknowledge the essential role of Indigenous peoples in exercising self-determination over the lands they have cared for over generations.

Across the globe, some of the most biodiverse and resilient regions are those inhabited by Indigenous communities. For instance, areas managed by Indigenous groups harbor 80% of the world's biodiversity. In the Amazon alone, more than 500 Indigenous groups have inhabited over 300 million hectares of land since time immemorial, and satellite imagery confirms that land under Indigenous stewardship tends to be the most well-preserved. Serving as the primary organizational body representing all 511 Indigenous groups in the Amazon, the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) plays a pivotal role in advocating for Indigenous rights and interests (Please note: COICA primarily operates in Spanish).
Despite this wealth of evidence, Indigenous territories globally, including those in the Amazon, receive disproportionately little funding for conservation and climate mitigation efforts. It's essential to redirect resources towards supporting the resilience of these ecosystems by empowering their original custodians: Indigenous peoples. Two grantees of the Cisco Foundation are leading efforts to advance this paradigm shift by prioritizing Indigenous sovereignty through governance and digital access.
Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance: Empowering Indigenous Governance & Self-Determination
Established in 2017 by Indigenous federations in Ecuador and Peru, including COICA, the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance (ASHA) aims to safeguard and restore 86 million acres of rainforest within the Amazon headwaters, encompassing the Napo, Pastaza, and Marañon basins. Since its inception, the alliance has expanded to include 24 Indigenous organizations and 3 non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
According to Uyunkar Domingo Peas, the President of ASHA’s Board of Directors, these organizations are “joining together to mobilize significant financial and technical resources to ensure that our voices are heard, our rights are recognized, and our territories are protected.”
Domingo stresses the importance of a comprehensive alliance in the region, emphasizing that "we all belong to the same interconnected web of rivers and forests. We are all kin, and when we unite, we can better protect our lands and our rights." The guiding principle for ASHA, and many individuals within the region, is Buen Vivir, which focuses on collective well-being. To actualize Buen Vivir, the Alliance collaborated on the creation of the Bioregional Plan 2030, which aims to address five shared objectives: "improving living conditions, advancing Indigenous rights and territorial governance, halting deforestation and degradation, conserving forests and restoring degraded areas, and resisting the expansion of extractive industries (ASHA)."
The Bioregional Plan emphasizes close collaboration with government leaders to promote a new economic model, where extractive industries are replaced with what Domingo describes as a "regenerative standing forest bioeconomy." According to Domingo, this envisioned future is not a sacrifice but rather a "Win-Win-Win: For Indigenous peoples, the Earth’s biosphere, and the nation’s long-term economic prosperity." ASHA believes that bringing Buen Vivir to fruition will require "significant levels of international funding, investments, and financial mechanisms (e.g., debt forgiveness, climate and biodiversity adaptation and mitigation funds, philanthropy) to incentivize the protection of the Sacred Headwaters region."

Digital Democracy: Collaborating for Indigenous Digital Futures
Another recipient of Cisco Foundation support, Digital Democracy, collaborates with remote frontline communities to address climate change and defend their rights through accessible technology. Central to Digital Democracy’s approach is "co-creation," where Indigenous partners lead product development and engage in deep listening practices. In their own words: "Co-creating digital tools with Indigenous land defenders is critical because very little technology currently exists that meets their needs. Instead, technology is often used against Indigenous Peoples who are living in close relationship with nature and trying to protect vast, climate-sensitive ecosystems from destructive industries."
According to Co-Director Jen Castro, when the organization began in 2008, their partners required technology that did not yet exist, such as "mapping tools that worked offline, allowed for offline collaboration amongst users, and supported data sovereignty, and tools that help them tell their own story in a digital world."

In practice, Indigenous earth defenders in the Amazon need tools to document threats like oil spills or illegal logging. This data can then be used in legal proceedings or when seeking support. Digital Democracy’s custom and flagship product, Mapeo, fills this void: it is a free, open-source digital toolset that enables users to document, monitor, and map various types of data, even offline. Digital Democracy’s efforts have contributed to 70 projects in nearly 40 countries, resulting in the mapping and defense of 7 million hectares of territory.
When questioned about their vision for the future, Digital Democracy articulated a distinct vision: "We envision a future of abundance and climate justice, where Indigenous communities hold sovereignty over their territories and digital destinies. We aspire that the tools we collaboratively develop with our Indigenous partners will pave the way for this envisioned future."
A shared aspiration among the Cisco Foundation, Amazon Sacred Headwaters Alliance, and Digital Democracy is a unified vision: a thriving, harmonious, and resilient Amazon ecosystem. In this vision, local Indigenous communities play a pivotal role as active leaders, exercising full sovereignty over their lands, and guiding the preservation and protection efforts.
What binds these three diverse organizations together is their commitment to realizing this vision—whether through the principles of Buen Vivir, Digital Sovereignty, or the cultivation of Resilient Ecosystems. If our aim is regeneration and the establishment of a future where environmental systems flourish, achieving this necessitates safeguarding human rights, fostering diversity, inclusion, and equitable opportunities, and empowering local communities.
Stay tuned for the forthcoming article in our series, focusing on ecosystem restoration and regeneration through sustainable livelihood opportunities in the Amazon and South America.