Ecological Governance: Africa Learns from the Colombian Amazon

Abstract from a talk by Mpatheleni Makaulule, Melesse Damtie and Ng'ang'a Thiong'o at the Gaia Foundation, June 2008. Written by Stephen Frank.

In the north-western Amazon Basin, in Colombia, an extraordinary process has been quietly taking place over the last twenty years: the Amazon Indians have been handed back their lands as both an environmental and human rights measure, with political and legal backing to protect the standing forest in perpetuity. Two hundred and forty seven thousand square kilometres of well-preserved tropical rainforest (an area much larger than the British Isles) is now in the hands of local indigenous people.

Mpatheleni MakaululeThis has been achieved thanks to a series of progressive reforms in the Colombian Constitution of 1991, backed by Colombia's assertive ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal rights. This led to the recognition of indigenous people's right to the collective ownership of their territories and the right to manage these territories according to their own traditions and cultures. Alongside the legal implementation of these reforms, the Colombian NGO, Gaia Amazonas, and its UK partner, The Gaia Foundation, have been helping to build the capacity and confidence of local people to put these rights into practice.

The Indians have come to respect creation again and understand that the universe is not created just for human needs.

This legally recognised territory has become a model for traditional governance and the con­servation of local biodiversity and is an example of good practice from which others can now learn. Each year, a small group of African community leaders and pioneers for ecological and social justice from the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) visit the Colombian Amazon and experience how the indigenous people are carving out political space to continue their traditional ways of protecting the forest. They witness how the communities live in harmony with their surroundings by governing their lives according to their earth-centred cosmology and how, under the guidance of the shamans and traditional knowledge-holders, they negotiate their way through Colombia's legal system to manage their territory and basic educational and health services. (See 'The Colombian Amazon: An Indigenous Peoples Journey', Earth Ethics Series - March 2007).

In June 2008, Mphatheleni Makaulule, a community leader from South Africa, Melesse Damtie, an environmental lawyer from Ethiopia, and Ng'ang'a Thiong'o, an activist and lawyer from Kenya, travelled through London and shared what they had seen, learnt and experienced in the Colombian Amazon.

Speaking of her homeland in South Africa and the VhaVenda people, Mphatheleni said that with 'progress' many of the traditional ways have disappeared, "leaving people less comfortable". She compared this with the Colombian Amazon experience where indigenous communities have opted for an education that is rooted in their own language, cultural and ecological knowledge. They had returned to this after having experienced how the modern state and missionary education systems had disconnected their children from the forest and their cultural identities. Melesse added, "The education they need is not about sitting in a classroom. It's not about abstraction. Everything must be in reality, seen in reality. Every child has to learn how to manage the territory according to their cultural practices." Through learning how to connect and interact with their territories once more, the Indians have come to respect creation again and understand that the universe is not created just for human needs.

The territory changes drastically throughout the year and each annual cycle has its main seasons, accompanied by the passing of certain constellations which influence nature and the weather. One of the main tools used in the Colombian Amazon is the Cultural Ecological Calendar, which maps the territory and time in a circular design, rather than a linear way. The Calendar is a source of knowledge that connects the whole territory with equal importance - trees, ground, animals, time, water, spirits. It defines daily activities and rituals in order to maintain the abundance of food, the health of everyone in the communities, and the preservation of all species living there. These relationships and the annual cycles have been expressed in a visual way in the Cultural Ecological Calendar, which captures ancestral knowledge and is used to strengthen local governance over territory, health and education.

Closely linked to the Cultural Ecological Calendar are the stories of origin, which describe the origins of the universe and the deep history of each ethnic group and their sense of place. They help people understand who they are, how they come to be in a particular territory, and give a context for how they should relate to their territory now and in the future. For the Amazon Indians, for example, their stories of origin tell how the rivers were born, why they have been given specific names, what makes certain sites sacred. Each story of origin is transmitted from the ancestors through the shamans to the elders, who are now the teachers of this knowledge in the communities and local schools.

When the Africans spoke about problems of malnourishment in their different countries, their indigenous hosts were shocked that people in Africa die of hunger and sickness. This only happens, according to their way of seeing, when the balance is disrupted because the laws of nature and the stories of origin have been trangressed.

When the Amazon Indians talk about the territory belonging to them they mean it in a quite different way to the way we are used to. Melesse told us that they consider themselves as a "part of that territory. They never consider themselves as masters of their territories. Land is not a commodity. You cannot just sell it. You cannot buy it." Thiong'o added that for us, "territory is equated to land, land is equated to property. Therefore land is mortgagable, it is saleable, because it is now reduced into property. But there, amongst the Amazonian Indians, it is a being, a living being."

Melesse DamtieAnother focal point for learning in the Colombian Amazon is the maloca, the community house which is usually circular in construction. The maloca stands as a symbol of the spiritual centre of the tribe and it is here that the elders pass on their knowledge to the younger generation, usually by way of storytelling and rituals. It was here too in the evenings that the Africans shared their stories with the elders, the women and the youngsters whose lives are so closely interwoven with the surrounding forest and rivers of the Amazon. When the Africans spoke about problems of malnourishment in their different countries, their indigenous hosts were shocked that people in Africa die of hunger and sickness. This only happens, according to their way of seeing, when the balance is disrupted because the laws of nature and the stories of origin have been transgressed.

Many indigenous and traditional communities in Africa also have stories of origin and a strong spiritual link to their territories and communal lands. The African Biodiversity Network works especially with traditional knowledge holders to ensure that techniques for managing forests, agricultural systems, pastoral lands or watersheds, are passed on from elders to the younger boys and girls through schools, youth groups or other units within communities.

Thiong'o was able to share with the indigenous people in the Amazon how 'restoring balance' lies at the heart of community projects back home. He has watched weather patterns change drastically since he was a child. "We all knew that the rain came from the East. Far away you could see that, every day the rain starts from the East and all the rivers flowed from the East." Then, with the advent of tea factories in the 1960s, the indigenous trees where he lived were cut down and replaced with eucalyptus trees, which are used in drying tea. Gradually the eucalyptus wiped out the indigenous eco-system and consequently the 26 streams that flowed from the hills dried out. Thankfully, however, the local community reacted, and with the backing of the Porini Association and the African Biodiversity Network they have managed to get rid of the tea factory and the municipality that supported it and have reverted back to community management. They have begun removing the eucalyptus trees, replacing them with indigenous ones. "And I can tell you, in the short time we have worked there, the rains are coming back."

In Kenya, strengthening the position of rainmakers is part of a separate project with which Thiong'o is involved. "With the coming of Christian and Muslim missionaries the wisdom of the rainmakers was lost and communities were planting inappropriate crops that failed. A community needs to know when the rains will come and how intense they will be in order to plant maize and wheat or, alternatively, drought resistant crops. This bio-cultural knowledge needs to be restored".

By contrast, the cultural knowledge and identity of the indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon is now very strong. So is their well-being. They have grown to understand that their well-being is connected to having a cultural identity and knowing how to manage their lives within their natural environment. Well-being is not just connected to having things. It is about having the consciousness that you are part of nature, you are embedded there and all your answers lie there.

In the Venda community that Mphatheleni comes from there is much destruction of nature and sacred sites are no longer valued. When local people talk about reviving culture they are faced with the challenge of religious and education systems that are not connected to their tribal life. Many of the traditions have been almost completely lost through the work of the missionaries and the sweep of various economic fashions and ways. The people have gone to the brink of their own cultural destruction. However, it is out of that consciousness of what they have lost that some are now committed to restoring their traditions.

Ng'ang'a Thiong'oMphatheleni has come away inspired by what she has seen in the Amazon, and convinced that she can cultivate the seed of change in her own local community. "If we can find the time to sit down with their younger generation and help them understand what life is and how to manage it, and what the purpose of nature might be, then there is a possibility of re-establishing a meaningful connection to their territory and their lives again. We have to take what was valuable in the past and use it to try to solve what is missing now. How did our ancestors manage to live a full and long life and not die at the age of twenty as is happening to our younger generation today?"

Her thoughts are echoed by Thiong'o: "We have had a golden chance to go and see and feel and experience another living culture, completely different from the one we grew up in, where concepts are completely different, maxims are completely different - a completely different outlook. It's another knowledge system, it's another science, it's another mathematics, it's another biology, it's another philosophy, another history."


In loving memory of Ng'ang'a Thiong'o who sadly passed away in 2010. His work lives on through Porini Association the Kenyan organisation which he co-founded. Thiong'o was a highly respected Human Rights advocate whose life was transformed when he was inspired by Thomas Berry's Earth Jurisprudence. Thiong'o then became a committed "barefoot lawyer", inspired by the Colombian Amazon. He was dedicated to learning from the Elders and enabling diverse cultures to be recognised as living expressions of human diversity, all embedded in the universal understanding of Earth Law.

Mphatheleni Makaulule is a community leader pioneering cultural solutions to the environmental and social challenges of her community in Venda, South Africa. She is working with elders to teach young people about the wisdom of traditional ecological knowledge and governance systems, through the Mupo Foundation.

Melesse Damtie is a biologist and an environmental lawyer from Ethiopia. He is a founding member of Melca Mahiber, an Ethiopian organisation that works to empower communities to conserve their bio-cultural diversity and strengthen their livelihoods. Mellese is former Dean of the Legal Department at Ethiopia's Civil Service College.

The African Biodiversity Network unites individuals, organizations and communities across the continent, working towards vibrant and resilient local communities rooted in their own social, cultural, spiritual and ecological diversity, governing their own lives and livelihoods. The network is a strong voice that can speak out on bio-cultural diversity issues based on practical work on the ground in Africa.