Diego Leal, ’15, waded into a jungle, literally and figuratively, this past summer.

The Guatemalan native interned in Pucallpa, Peru, with Centro de Investigación de Fronteras Amazónicas (CIFA), an interdisciplinary research center at the Universidad Nacional de Ucayali. CIFA is dedicated to improving living standards of the indigenous people living in the Amazon on the border of Peru and Brazil and to promoting biological and cultural conservancy in the region.

The Amazon is an unparalleled jungle, not only in terms of its biodiversity, but also in terms of the people jockeying for dominance of the rainforest. 

“Illegal loggers, drug traffickers, new settlers, and the government are all competing with indigenous peoples for control of the region’s natural resources,” Leal said. “The struggle for indigenous communities has become, do we have control over our own resources?”

This human rights question lay at the heart of Leal’s work this summer.

Leal enjoyed engaging in heated human rights debates at the multi-national high school he attended in Norway. So when Dr. David Salisbury, assistant professor of geography and the environment, asked Leal to work with him on his land-titling research in the Amazon, Leal jumped at the chance to become a human rights practitioner. 

“Titled land is taken for a given in the United States,” Salisbury said, “but this is not the case in most developing countries. Titling, or the process of being formally included into a legal property system, has been called the primary means of capital generation by economists, the critical first step in conservation by conservationists, and our first priority by indigenous Amazonians. 

“Without title, Amazonian communities have no capacity to defend their homelands from illegal extractors or government appropriation, no means of securing loans, and no incentive to invest in long-term sustainability or conservation.” 

Anxious to work on these issues, Leal applied for and received a competitive Burhans Civic Fellowship from the University’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement to fund his internship with CIFA. He spent the summer helping indigenous communities secure legal title to their ancestral lands in the Amazon and then talking with them about land and resource management.

“I explored these issues by communicating with so many actors, including community leaders, Peruvian and Amazonian nongovernmental agencies, and CIFA,” Leal said. “I realized there are different stakeholders even within the indigenous communities.” 

For example, leaders of the indigenous communities sometimes act out of self-interest rather than communal interests. Women often have different opinions than men on managing the community’s natural resources. Too often women’s voices are not considered. 

“Many women are opposed to logging,” Leal said. “One woman told me, ‘We’ve lost all our fish and animals. The only people with money now are the presidents of the communities.’”

Since returning to campus, Leal has continued conducting research on titling, but now for the Upper Amazon Conservancy (UAC), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to protecting the biological and cultural diversity of the upper Amazon River in southeastern Peru. Leal’s efforts with UAC have advanced the titling process for the Ashéninka community of Saweto, a community featured in an article in the April 2013 edition of National Geographic Magazine. 

Later this year, Leal and Salisbury will co-present their research at the annual meetings of the Association of American Geographers in Los Angeles, Calif., and the Latin American Studies Association in Washington, D.C. 

Leal is creating his own major in Latin American politics and social justice. He plans to continue his work in the Amazon, focusing on replicating the success of the environmental movement among several indigenous communities in Brazil.

“I see myself as an instrument indigenous communities can use,” Leal said. “I think we can strengthen networks that work across the Brazilian-Peruvian border and share knowledge about how to address issues affecting the Amazon.”

Photo: Diego Leal, foreground, attends a workshop on a new forestry law in Peru with people from 38 indigenous Amazon communities.