In the spring of 2020, as COVID devastated communities around the world, news spread in the village of Culden, Peru that the virus that causes COVID came from bats. Mistakenly assuming that the animals transmitted the virus to humans, the villagers burned a nearby colony of mouse ears to eradicate them.
During the pandemic, bats culling became common practice around the world – at a time when their habitats are already existentially threatened. Bat populations are declining worldwide. Ironically, scientists suspect that the destruction of bats and their habitats can lead to more disease outbreaks. But the effects of bat species loss go far beyond disease: bats play a crucial ecological role in the world’s most biodiverse regions.
“Bats have been associated with evil and darkness for millennia. People don’t know them and it’s easy to be afraid of what you don’t know, ”says Adrià López-Baucells, senior researcher at the Granollers Science Museum in Barcelona. “They have an incredible number of functions, all of which contribute to maintaining the fragile balance of their ecosystems.”
According to a new paper published in Perspectives in ecology and nature conservation, Threatened and endangered bat species thrive in areas where indigenous peoples have exclusive land rights. Some threatened bat species live entirely in indigenous areas, where deforestation is less than in some protected areas.
“The deforestation is enormous. It’s one of the main threats to bats … and it’s increasing, ”says López-Baucells, one of the co-authors of the paper.
All over the Amazon, logging, gold mining and agriculture are advancing into indigenous areas, displacing the indigenous peoples from their land. These commercial forces are destroying the biodiverse dense jungles and forests that indigenous peoples have ruled for millennia and making bat habitats more homogeneous. Bats are prone to losing the trees on which they build their nests.
As a result, threatened and endangered bat species are disappearing.
One of these species is the marine trowel’s sword-nosed bat, which hurls insects out of the air with its unicorn-like horn. It was found almost exclusively in indigenous areas.
Night after night, López-Baucells catches bats in the fields around the world in the pitch-black jungle. Bats play important ecological roles because of their food intake. Big-nosed fruit bats dig into large, ripe fruits, disperse the seeds and pollinate plants. Insectivores expertly capture disease-carrying beetles and literally consume pests. The mouse ears burned in Peru, for example, hunt the mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as malaria.
The fate of these bats is inextricably linked with that of the indigenous communities. For millennia, indigenous peoples have inhabited and managed 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Indigenous practices not only play a role in conserving but also improving bat biodiversity. For generations, indigenous peoples have had a significant influence on the design of their environment through forestry, traditional hunting practices and plant cultivation. The idea that the Amazon is an untouched natural habitat is a myth. Indeed, the Amazon is a center of cultural diversity as well as biodiversity, and indigenous peoples have historically played a major role in maintaining the Amazon’s ecosystem.
López-Baucells and his colleagues used data from the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to map the areas where bat species live and the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), which lists the boundaries of the indigenous areas. Of the 223 bat species in the Amazon, the researchers found that the habitats of 22 were a quarter of their range in indigenous areas. Some indigenous areas have been home to more than half of the bat species in the Amazon. Some rare and threatened species have only been found within the boundaries of indigenous areas.
“Worldwide, indigenous peoples are at the forefront, not only in protecting the environment, but also as stewards of a long-term legacy of managing and shaping biodiversity, agrobiodiversity and protecting water catchment areas; They are central to sustaining a large part of the agrobiodiversity on which we all depend, ”says Eduardo Brondizio, anthropologist at the University of Indiana at Bloomington. “In the Amazon, for example, it is well documented [that] You have managed, preserved and helped to shape the incredible biodiversity and agrobiodiversity of the Amazon. “
López-Baucells hopes the dataset, which includes a list of bat species and their proportion in indigenous areas, will be used as a tool to make important conservation decisions with local land managers, policy makers and other stakeholders that involve indigenous groups.
“We wanted to create something that could be brought directly to the table where conservation decisions could be made. It is clear that for future research and conservation we need to interact more with [local leaders and researchers] and with indigenous peoples who do not function solely as western researchers, “says López-Baucells,” It is nature conservation that is born with and by people who [are] live there.”
Indigenous peoples are rarely given a voice in public policy. Because of this legacy of neglect and discrimination, some argue that engaging indigenous people solely as conservationists is not the right approach.
“We need to recognize that indigenous rights are important for their own sake, regardless of their contribution to conservation goals,” says Brondizo. Although by and large indigenous peoples have a unique, symbiotic relationship with nature, he adds that their needs must first be identified. “We have to recognize that indigenous peoples are diverse and live in different social contexts and in most cases do not have adequate and culturally appropriate access to health and education and a voice in public policy.”
Indigenous peoples are fighting for land use rights throughout the Amazon, including in the largest indigenous area in the world, the Kayapo Territory. On the border of the Kayapo region in the Brazilian states of Pará and Mato Grosso, pastures give way to dense forests. Although indigenous peoples have exclusive rights to use their land under the Brazilian constitution, the Brazilian government under President Jair Bolsonaro has openly declared its intention not to enforce the exclusive rights of indigenous groups along the southern border of this territory, making it vulnerable to intervention by opportunist forces, who cut down wood on indigenous land, destroy pastures and want to mine for gold. In the face of an actively hostile government, indigenous NGOs are one of the only ways for the Kayapo to mobilize external resources for border protection.
“Kayapo’s southeastern border is essentially lawless,” said Barbara Zimmerman, a conservation researcher at the University of Toronto who leads the Environmental Defense Fund’s contribution to the Kayapo project. “The government is actively trying to take over indigenous land and destroy indigenous NGOs that fund important border protection services. Without them the Kayapo people wouldn’t be there anymore…. They would have been wiped out. “
Although Zimmerman reports that most Kayapo have been spared COVID-19, many other indigenous communities have not. The coronavirus has killed indigenous peoples almost twice as often as other South Americans. Most indigenous communities have been forced into isolation to contain the spread and external forces have seized the opportunity to penetrate further into indigenous areas.
“It’s not just pandemics…. If we do not change the roots of human interaction with the planet, not only will pandemics come, but we will lose a whole world of animals and plants, ”says López-Baucells.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.