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Generations of Respect for Nature and Shamanic Healing Sustain This Remote Village

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Lowland rainforest in Sulawesi's Tangkoko Reserve, Indonesia. Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay

By Wahyu Chandra

In a remote village on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi lies a small garden of near-mythic repute—a place whose stewards grow not mere plants, but hopes and cures that have served the community for generations.

Packed into a single hectare (2.5 acres) in a Pakuli Induk village, in the Central Sulawesi province, are 400 different types of herbal plants, first collected and grown by Sahlan, a shaman or sando, from the Kaili tribe.


Like a real-life Getafix, Sahlan relied on plants that grow in the area to treat the needs of the villagers, venturing deep into the forest to pick the ingredients for herbal remedies for everything from sore eyes to kidney problems to ovarian cysts. The son of shamans, he was bequeathed the small lot for a garden in 1999 by the local chief, who was taken by Sahlan's passion for his craft.

Nearly 20 years on, Sahlan now practices traditional medicine in Palu, the provincial capital, and has left the running of the garden to the children and young adults of the Assyfa orphanage.

"It was Sahlan who taught us at first," said Risfa, 21, one of the 70 youths at the orphanage now tasked with caring for the garden.

Risfa then rattles off a list of plants grown there and their purported qualities: kada buku, whose leaves are used to treat external wounds; kanuna, believed to be effective in the treatment of ovarian cysts; keji beling, prescribed for kidney and appendix problems; kulei, whose sap is used as eye drops; and mavana, said to cure coughing in children.

There's also the ginseng-like root of the tudong layu plant, which, also like ginseng, is said to help treat erectile dysfunction. "It's best to mix it with eggs and honey," Finra, another of the caretakers, said while laughing.

A group of orphans in Pakuli Induk village, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, manages a small garden which houses up to 400 different types of herbal plants. Wahyu Chandra / Mongabay Indonesia

Traditional Healing

As in most other parts of rural Indonesia, traditional medicine is the only kind of healthcare most people here have access to. In 2015, there were all of 12 medical professionals registered in Sigi district, where the Pakuli Induk district is located, according to the national statistics agency; of those, only two were doctors, serving a population of nearly 230,000.

"Sando are believed to be more effective" than medical doctors, said Amran Tambaru, a local environmental activist. He added that for communities like Pakuli Induk, shamans are often the first choice of health provider.

It's little wonder, then, that Sahlan's garden plays a central role in the lives of the villagers, who can buy a packet of mixed herbs tailored to treat specific ailments for about $2. Zainal, a former charge of the orphanage, said many of the plants grown in the garden are also found around the village. But the villagers are welcome to come in and pick, for free, any herbs they can't find elsewhere, as long as they ask for permission first.

A man shows the bark of a tree called Lengaru, which is used to treat headache, cyst and other diseases. Wahyu Chandra / Mongabay Indonesia

Safeguarding the Forest

The reverence with which the community has long regarded traditional medicine, and by extension the plants on which it is based, has cultivated a respect for the environment that holds to this day. Any activity with the potential to disrupt the integrity of the natural ecosystem is strictly regulated to minimize damage.

Logging, for instance, can only be carried out if the timber is to be used to build a house. Even then, it requires permission from the village council, who also determine the location within the forest where trees may be felled. Violations of any of these rules is punishable by fines in the form of money or livestock—a serious financial setback in a community of subsistence farmers.

Similar rules are in place to protect the wildlife. Pakuli Induk's forests are rich in fauna, bordering Lore Lindu National Park. The 2,180-square-kilometer (840-square-mile) reserve is home to 77 species of birds found only in Sulawesi, including the rare and endangered maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), a striking-looking fowl with a black helmet casque atop its head.

A captive-breeding center has been set up for the maleo in the Pakuli Induk forest. The bird is considered sacred among the community, and the punishment for any attempt to poach it is suitably severe.

"If anyone dares try to catch one, they can be fined a water buffalo," said Zainal, noting that the high value and scarcity of buffalo make them a commodity not worth losing.

For the villagers, the forest and its plants and animals have long been a source of sustenance and well-being. And thanks to the orphans of Pakuli Induk, the stewardship of the local environment appears to be in safe hands.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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