OVER the familiar sounds of morning rush-hourtraffic in western San José rose the voice ofEsperanza Colop in traditional prayers from theQuiché people of Guatemala – and a tower of rosemary-scented smoke that turned the heads of passingbusiness executives, distracting them from theircell-phone conversations.A crowd of environmentalists and indigenousleaders from all over the world gathered outside theHotel Corobicí on Wednesday to watch Colop performthe traditional ceremony, the kickoff to thethird day of a conference of 100 internationalexperts in conservation, environmental policy andindigenous rights, here to discuss the role of indigenouspeople in tropical forest conservation.The five-day conference, titled “OurKnowledge is Our Survival” and held at the hotel,ends today. It was organized by the InternationalAlliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples ofTropical Forests, while its Costa Rican members,the Ixacavaa Association and the NgobegueCultural Association, did the logistical planning.ORGANIZERS seek to coordinate a growingnumber of international efforts to involve indigenousgroups in the fight to save the forests many ofthem call home. Indigenous representatives at theconference say it’s only natural for them to take aleading role in conservation efforts, since theknowledge passed on to them by their ancestors make them experts in the flora and faunaof their respective countries.“An indigenous child knows so muchmore about the species surrounding themthan any ecologist,” said Ricardo Carrere,who is from Uruguay and directs theWorld Forest Movement.Daniel Kobei, from Kenya, agreed.“Every government has a ministry ofthe forest or of the environment, yet noneof those involve indigenous groups,” hesaid. “We know which trees to cut and notto cut, which season to cut which tree,when it’s okay to have fires, and so forth.We can preserve the forest without (consulting)documents.”ANOTHER urgent reason for givingindigenous people a greater voice is thatenvironmental destruction often affectsthem more severely than other groups, saidconference attendees.“Dozens, if not hundreds, of indigenouspeoples are being eliminated becausethe forests that are their homes are beingdestroyed,” Carrere said.He added indigenous presence is oftenthe key to saving a forest.“In general, where forests have beenpreserved, it’s because there is an indigenousgroup living there,’’ he said.ACCORDING to conference participants,there is no shortage of internationalresolutions and agreements regarding therights of indigenous people and theirinvolvement in conservation. The problemis ensuring governments meet those loftygoals with concrete action.“One of our primary goals at the conferenceis to make an evaluation of all thepromises governments have made inrecent years,” said Ester Camac, of theconference’s organizing committee.A series of preliminary meetings inparticipating countries produced reports onlocal implementation of internationalaccords. Conference participants willexamine these reports and make recommendationsfor furthers steps.COSTA Rica’s indigenous rightsrecord was praised by some leaders at theconference, but received scathing criticismfrom the indigenous leaders who attendedthe preliminary meeting, held Nov. 6-7.Ghazal Badiomazani, Group Coordinatorof the United Nations’ PermanentForum on Forests, said Costa Rica consistentlyplays a leading role in both internationalagreements and local implementation.“It is far ahead of many other countries,”she said.Allan Flores, Vice-Minister for theEnvironment and Energy, said the CostaRican government has committed its“unconditional support” to the involvementof indigenous people in environmentalconservation.“The people who live in the forest havethe knowledge to ensure its conservation,”he told participants, “but the ray of hopethey represent is not strong enough on itsown. They need all of our support. This isof great interest for the Costa Rican government.”HOWEVER, indigenous leaders heresay this interest is not enough. Those presentat the November meeting published adeclaration denouncing the national governmentfor allowing abuses of indigenousrights.The statement, called the OchomogoDeclaration, was signed by representativesfrom Costa Rican indigenous groupsincluding the Ngöbe, Cabécar, Bribri,Teribe, Brunca, Chorotega and Maleku.“We have not been taken into accountin the elaboration of legislation, policiesand forest plans.” it reads.THE declaration also criticizes plansby the Costa Rican Electricity Institute(ICE) to construct hydroelectric dams thatwould flood or otherwise damage indigenouslands in Boruca and the TérrabaSierpe region, both in the country’sSouthern Zone (TT, Feb. 20).One of the signers, Pablo Sivar of theNgobegue Cultural Association and theMesoamerican Indigenous Council, said atthe conference that indigenous groupshave suffered “unequal treatment, lies,hypocrisy, destruction of the forests, andmanipulation by politicians.”The Ochomogo Declaration also asksthe Legislative Assembly to reject theCentral American Free-Trade Agreementwith the United States (CAFTA) andthe Plan Puebla-Panama because,according to the signers, these agreementsviolate indigenous rights and biodiversitylaws.Environmentalists have long criticizedCAFTA, saying its regulations prevent thepassage of new conservation laws (TT,June 4), while proponents maintain itwould not affect local sovereignty.ORGANIZERS of “Our Knowledgeis Our Survival” said they plan to presentthe conference’s recommendations today,and that the concerns and plans discussedwill form part of the agenda at the fifthmeeting of the United Nations Forum onForests in May 2005.