The Colombian Amazon: An Indigenous Peoples' Journey

Abstract from a talk by Martin von Hildebrand at the Gaia Foundation, March 2007. Written by Stephen Frank.

Martín von Hildebrand is founder and director of Gaia Amazonas and the Colombian Amazon (COAMA) programme, which was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1999. A former President of Colombia, Alfonso López Michelsen, has called COAMA a 'ray of light', describing it as 'our contribution... to the creation of a world of co-operation and solidarity and our fight to save humanity from the ravages of civilisation'.

In 1972 Martín von Hildebrand travelled into the heart of the Colombian Amazon. The indigenous people he met there were heavily in debt to the local rubber traders - one man Martin met had been paying off his wife's sewing machine for the past 33 years. The indigenous people were also under the control of Christian missionaries who taught their children to reject their local religion, language and culture in order to embrace the Christian way. This caused severe disruption within the communities when these children returned home as teenagers.

Debts were paid from the pittance the indigenous people earned harvesting rubber for the traders. Martín showed the Indians how and where to trade the rubber themselves with the result that the system of exploitation eventually collapsed. However, this was just the beginning of a conversation between Martín and the indigenous people that is still going on today. 'You have to claim your rights to the land,' he would tell them. 'But the land doesn't belong to us,' they would reply, 'we belong to the land.' Slowly, however, the Indians began to understand the concept of self-rule. It still took another 20 years before they gained legal control over their land.

At first the indigenous people just wanted the things the 'white man' had - outboard motors, radios. Many left the forest to work in towns. There they experienced broken families, loneliness, poverty. As some began to return to the forest, a dialogue began about their real concerns. How to reclaim their language was one of them.

The current area of legally recognised indigenous territories in the Colombian Amazon is greater than the size of Great Britain. 70,000 indigenous people live there speaking 52 languages. This cultural diversity came under threat when the missionaries stopped the children speaking their local languages and taught them Spanish, the language common to everyone. In addition, the indigenous people were dispersed by the rubber traders and, as a result, the languages became mixed as people created new strains of mixed dialects to communicate with each other.

Language is a way of thinking, of relating, of being. It is tied into territory as it emanates from the things in the particular territory it describes. The more we resonate with a territory and its language, the more secure we can feel in our identity. Lose your language and you begin to lose your identity. The indigenous people with whom Martín was in conversation began rebuilding their local languages by borrowing lost words from neighbouring tribes. They then checked whether the forest and the forest spirits spoke to them through these borrowed words. Did these acquired words resonate with their rituals? As they recuperated their language, so their identity and culture returned to them.

One of the biggest steps was taking back control of their children's education from the missionaries who had imposed an outside faith and curriculum on them. With curiosity as the starting point, the teachers asked the children what they wanted to learn. When they said 'Fish', the children were sent to speak to their grandparents, fathers, brothers to get their stories: 'What are the names of the fish? When is the best time/season to catch them? How does the fisherman talk to the fish and ask the spirits if he can catch them? How are the traps made? What kind of wood? Why this wood and not that one? How many sticks do you need to collect for a trap? How many long ones, how many short?' (Add them together and we are into arithmetic). And then leading on from that: 'Let's open the fish and see what it eats. Look, it eats different food now to the food it ate in winter. Now let's eat the fish.' Class over.

However the kind of learning that gets a child thinking like this is never over. Relating to one's immediate environment in this way, where most things lead back to their relationship with their world, with the forest, does not stop when class ends. The indigenous people became good researchers, weighing and measuring whatever they could. They began collecting data on health, gardens, everything. They began making charts, drawing maps. As the Indians' knowledge base expanded, they also began understanding their rights better and better.

Today the indigenous people in the Colombian Amazon administer 24.7 million hectares, roughly the size of the UK. Ideas are not imposed from outside.

The inclusion of indigenous rights to their own territory, education and language in Colombia's 1991 Constitution and the government policy of returning ancestral lands to indigenous people, were unprecedented moves towards the recognition of the important role of forest peoples in the conservation of the world's tropical rainforests. These were achieved through the pressure of the indigenous communities themselves, with the determined support of many Colombians, including Martín von Hildebrand as Head of Indigenous Affairs at that time.

By 2002 the indigenous people wanted to exercise their rights to manage their territories themselves. The missionaries and politicians opposed this. So the indigenous people took them to court - and won! At first the government officials were suspicious and defensive. However, the community-embedded indigenous people are emotionally astute; they did not demand or threaten. They arrived with huge amounts of data and sound proposals such as their ability to educate a child for $500 a year when the missionaries were charging $1000.

Today the indigenous people in the Colombian Amazon administer 24.7 million hectares, roughly the size of the UK. Ideas are not imposed from the outside. The indigenous people arrive with their own proposals and then see them through because they feel passionate about them. When they make a proposal, the Indians want to know how much money is available and where it goes. Because the community is involved in developing the projects, they keep an eye on their leaders. With greater transparency there is less corruption than there used to be. The governance of the area works better than ever.

This legally recognised territory has become a model for the conservation of local biodiversity. Today people from a number of other countries visit the indigenous people to observe their system of governance and to learn from them in the hope of applying what they have learnt to intractable situations back home. Because their territories are governed so much better than their neighbours' their methods are beginning to spread to other areas in Colombia, still under the control of the politicians and missionaries. Across the border, Brazil lags years behind the advances made since Martín von Hildebrand first sat and talked to the indigenous people. Self respect and confidence is soaring amongst the Indians. They now consider that knowledge and dignity makes you rich, not financial wealth or possessions.

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