The Indigenous People who joined Traditional and Western Wisdom to Study their Territory

Posted on April, 23 2018

For the first time in Colombia, an Amazonian indigenous organization analyzes its territory’s ecosystem services and the impacts of losing them.
By Viviana Londoño Calle, WWF-Colombia

 “Our grandparents knew our territory well, its sacred and productive places and the risks we assumed if we did not use resources appropriately. But part of that ancestral wisdom remained with them and was not registered or was difficult to translate into a language that would allow us to defend our territory and make decisions. Today we know how to access that information.”

These are the words of José Zafiama, a teacher of the Uitoto people and member of the Azicatch Indigenous organization, which brings together the Uitoto, Muinane, Bora, and Ocaina peoples of La Chorrera district in the Predio Putumayo Indigenous Reserve, the largest in the Colombian Amazon. José just finished presenting the results for the first ecosystem services analysis in his territory, and he cannot stop smiling. He knows that his community has achieved an important precedent for his territory that can become a key tool for the sustainable development of other indigenous peoples in the Amazon.

How did they carry out this analysis and create a technical guide to serve similar processes? Reaching La Chorrera is not easy. A flight is scheduled every two weeks and seldom follows a set itinerary, and the alternative boat trip can take more than fifteen days from the nearest city. Nevertheless, a team led by WWF and Fundación Puerto Rastrojo travelled continuously to the region for almost an entire year to form and train an indigenous technical team that could advance this initiative. 

The objective was to create a pilot project for the evaluation of ecosystem services from an indigenous viewpoint to both analyze the risks of forest transformation and the loss of ecosystem services and to strengthen indigenous governance. The result is a complete guide, which will be published in the following weeks, showcasing the methods used and the results obtained during its application in La Chorrera.

The achievements still amaze participants. In the words of Chela Umire, one of the women from the Muinane people who participated in the process, “We never thought we could learn something like this. At first everything seemed complicated, but we eventually learned how to use a GPS, to understand maps and find specific places, and to comprehend the size of our territory.” 

Young and elderly women and men representing four indigenous peoples formed part of the team and joined their voices and knowledge to consider the contribution that an indigenous vision can make to forest conservation.

“This process allowed us to become close to our grandparents again, to work with women and with the four communities as a single team. I particularly liked preserving traditional wisdom and complementing it with western elements. We know our territory, but we knew very little about it technically and got to learn about it,” says José Miller Teteye, another member of the team from the Bora people.

This pilot project is part of the achievements of the REDD+ Indígena Amazónico initiative, RIA, which seeks to promote the integration of an indigenous viewpoint in conservation policies and REDD+ programs implemented in Amazonian countries like Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. 

COICA, the Indigenous Organizations Coordinator of the Amazon Basin, led the RIA initiative in partnership with national and local indigenous organizations like OPIAC, with WWF’s support and BMUB-IKI’s financial backing. 

Amazonian Indigenous peoples’ vision of their territories is vital to facing the current climate challenge and supporting governments in the implementation international commitments like the Paris Agreement. Pía Escobar, WWF’s focal point for the RIA project in Colombia, highlights that one of the most important achievements of the Chorrera pilot project is that it has given communities new technical tools to aid their contribution to climate change mitigation.

More than half of Colombia’s Amazonian forests are inhabited by indigenous communities, but until now it had been difficult for them to both identify and characterize the ecosystem services that make up the enormous value of their forests and to participate in processes to protect these services and make them visible. The Chorrera pilot project opens a door to show that the forests they inhabit serve purposes that go way beyond carbon storage. 

La Chorrera is also the setting of one of the most painful pages in Colombia’s indigenous history. During the early twentieth century it was one of the epicenters of the rubber boom that resulted in the genocide of more than thirty thousand Indigenous People. “Our grandparents tell us that during the rubber fever Indigenous People were abused and thousands of them slaughtered.”

“It was a time of pain and suffering,” explains Tirso Candre, leader of the Ocaina indigenous people, as he describes the fallouts in the Amazon of the rubber boom. He adds, “We are regaining strength, advancing, and working on re-signifying our territory.”

La Chorrera has changed, and as the years go by, the four peoples that inhabit this region have begun participating in processes to promote a better use of their territory. Tirso is also one of the leaders of the ecosystem services evaluation project.

“Indigenous peoples have conserved forests because forests are like our mother. It is very important for us to keep taking care of productive spaces and sacred places, and this project is a tool to protect our territory, to make decisions. We want to keep conserving the forest, and now we have more information to do so,” says Tirso.

And their voices have travelled far. Representatives of the indigenous technical team have shared the pilot project’s results not only with neighboring communities and in indigenous regional spaces, but also in international settings like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Their story is the story of a people willing to demonstrate the value of an indigenous vision and of traditional knowledge in conservation efforts. And the process they have put forth proves that acknowledging this vision is the only path to ensure effective strategies for the sustainable use of the Amazon’s forests.
Equipo Técnico Indígena La Chorrera
© Equipo Técnico Indígena La Chorrera