News from Latin America – Indigenous communities defend the Amazon

(Thompson Reuters image)

By Anastasia Moloney

MIRITI-PARANA, Colombia, Thursday, February 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Using a machete, Norma Souza Matapi slices a pineapple from its roots and places it in a woven bag slung across her forehead as she tends to a family vegetable garden deep in the Amazon rainforest Colombian.

Indigenous communities in this remote southeastern corner of the Amazonas province have preserved swaths of largely pristine forest for millennia based on ancient belief systems and a culture closely tied to nature.

“The women take care of the seeds and ensure that each family and the community has enough to eat, and that the food for our dances and meetings is available,” Souza said, surrounded by dense jungle in the small riverside community of Bella Vista.

Relying on centuries-old techniques of fallow cultivation, Souza will cultivate this plot for five to seven years and then, through controlled slash-and-burn clearance, move to a nearby plot, allowing the soil to regenerate and the trees to regrow.

“We give the earth time to rest. We live off the forest and take care of it, taking only what we need,” she said, standing next to cassava crops, a garden of medicinal herbs and tobacco plants and of coca used in rituals.

“We have lived here for thousands of years and there is no destruction of the forest,” said Souza, a member of the Matapi indigenous group.

The natives carry a map in their heads – and sometimes also on paper – of the distribution of their lands, with designated areas for hunting, fishing and farming.

There are also areas that cannot be touched – both sacred sites and sections of land near small, isolated indigenous groups who avoid contact with others.

“We must first get permission from the shaman before cutting trees, and we can only cut certain species,” said Celestino Yucuna, the community’s “captain” and Souza’s husband. dynamite, a method used elsewhere in the Amazon to kill fish, is prohibited.

And “we don’t have cattle. Cattle destroy everything and the ground,” he said as he sharpened a hunting spear used to kill peccary – a small wild boar – and other animals.

Celestino Yucuna, “captain” of the Bella Vista riverside community, Amazonas province, Miriti-Parana, Colombia, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica


These practices explain why indigenous peoples – in the Colombian Amazon and in many other parts of the world – are considered by scholars, conservationists and many officials to be the best guardians of the forest.

According to the United Nations, almost half of the remaining intact forests in the Amazon Basin are in indigenous territories.

A 2021 UN report found that in almost all Latin American countries, indigenous lands had lower rates of deforestation than other forest areas.

As deforestation rates continue to rise across the Amazon, finding effective ways to preserve the remaining strongholds of the planet’s largest rainforest will be crucial to both address the risks of climate change and the increasing losses of nature.

Trees absorb about a third of the global warming carbon dioxide produced worldwide by the burning of oil, gas and coal. They also help regulate rainfall, ensuring more stable moisture for crops and a reliable supply of food.

Establishing and maintaining indigenous land rights in the Amazon Basin regions of Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia costs less than $6 per hectare per year, UN researchers have found.

They estimated that securing land rights to 100 million hectares of native forests – an area almost twice the size of all of Central America – would cost less than $600 million a year.

Evidence of the benefits of indigenous forest management is now influencing funding priorities, with more money being spent on strengthening indigenous cultures and protecting their unique rights and knowledge.

Donor governments including Britain, the United States, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands pledged around $1.7 billion at November’s COP26 climate conference to help people indigenous peoples and forest communities to advance their land rights by 2025.

In Colombia’s remote rainforest provinces of Amazonas, Vaupes and Guainia, a $7.4 million project on 11 million hectares aims to help communities become ‘indigenous territorial entities’ or governments state-recognized locals with greater power over their land.


Several hours downriver from Bella Vista, along the Miriti-Parana River that meanders through thick jungle foliage of cascading vines and soaring palms, lies the community of Puerto Guayabo of about 35 families.

Inside a maloka – a traditional thatched-roof communal meeting place and dwelling – lives the shaman Evelio Yucuna, who guides the community’s relationship with nature.

This includes performing rites to protect farmers from snakebites before granting them permission to burn small plots of land allocated for growing crops.

His vast library of knowledge is centered on a fundamental belief that nature – including water and forests – has spirits and an owner, and that permission from that owner is needed to use anything.

An indigenous prepares powdered coca leaves used in the centuries-old mambe ritual, riverside community of Puerto Libre, Amazonas province, Miriti-Parana, Colombia, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Shamans ask permission by performing healing rituals to connect with forest spirits before trees are cut down.

“Trees are treated like humans and are the source of life,” he said, chewing green powdered coca leaves and tobacco paste as part of the centuries-old mambe ritual used to start meetings and connecting participants to nature.

“We are a product of nature, we were born from the earth. We live and depend on nature,” he said.

“That’s why we take care of it and have to defend it,” he added, sitting under boxes in the wooden rafters of the structure containing traditional clothing and sacred items used in ceremonial dances.

As a spiritual leader, Evelio Yucuna is responsible for ensuring the preservation of cultural practices and ancestral beliefs.

“I have a mental map that I must pass on to future generations. I have to convey theory and practice and what is sacred and what is not. I am the memory of people,” he said.


In communities up and down the Miriti-Parana River, these beliefs are taught to children in dilapidated wooden schools on stilts, built by Catholic missionaries who once banned indigenous languages ​​and dance and have since been expelled. .

Indigenous teachers now teach in native languages ​​and Spanish and ensure that children learn an ecological calendar, based on the cycles of the moon, which helps produce two main harvests per year, enabling communities to be self-sufficient.

Indigenous leaders warn that their culture and ancestral lands are facing increasing pressure from miners and loggers, who have not yet encroached on this part of the Colombian Amazon but are closing in.

Elsewhere in the Colombian rainforest and other parts of the Amazon, including Peru’s Madre de Dios region, intermittent gold rushes and illegal mining have turned once untouched forests into dead landscapes of Mining craters sunk in the middle of sand dunes.

Women preparing cassava, a staple food crop of indigenous groups in the Amazon, in a riverside community in Amazonas province, Miriti-Parana, Colombia, December 17, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

In the indigenous worldview, nature is sacred and anything in the forest and its soils – including gold and other minerals – cannot be traded.

“Nature has its life and it does us a favor,” said Alirio Yucuna, a 44-year-old indigenous chief, sitting on a wooden bench inside a shady maloka.

“It does not matter whether it is legal or illegal gold mining, it causes the same harm. Gold is not a product or something to be produced. For us, it is sacred,” he said.

Francisco von Hildebrand, director of Gaia Amazonas, a Colombian nonprofit that works with indigenous peoples to protect the Amazon, said such views are at odds with Western culture, in which “we see nature as a collection of objects to be used for humanity”. Needs”.

“Indigenous people see nature as a collection of subjects, each with soul, power and owner” – and this view makes their definition of “development” very different, he said.

These indigenous views are increasingly incorporated into the laws of countries ranging from Bolivia to New Zealand.

New Zealand grants “rights of nature” to rivers and ecosystems.

Such laws, which now exist in at least 14 countries, could, for example, prevent the allocation of all water in a river to human users without leaving a share for trees and animals.

It is likely that more countries will adopt such laws to address the growing tension between the need to protect nature, the climate and indigenous groups, and the growing global demand for beef, soybeans, minerals, energy and other products.

The pressures are particularly intense on rainforest nations that seek to create jobs, boost export earnings and often prop up budgets with oil and mining royalties – but struggle to access green finance and find themselves offering too little international funding to keep crucial forests intact.

If these financial incentives and pressures are not changed, everyone will pay the price, warn indigenous leaders and environmentalists.

“Respect for nature maintains the balance. If we don’t obey his rules, he will take revenge,” said Alirio Yucuna.

“Any type of development must maintain our balance and harmony with nature. Otherwise, we don’t want it and we cease to exist.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Laurie Goering.)

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