Large parts of Colombia are designated as Indigenous territories. Within these, Indigenous communities support forest conservation, based on a worldview that sees humans as an integrated part of nature. There is a need to cherish and pass on Indigenous culture, while at the same time taking their development aspirations seriously, according to Carlos Rodriguez, director of Tropenbos Colombia.
Indigenous territories in Colombia are known as resguardos. They make up about 28% of the land—which is the size of the United Kingdom. Through the resguardos, the government formally recognizes the ancestral rights of Indigenous groups, and their traditional way of life, in an intimate relationship with nature. Carlos Rodriguez, director of Tropenbos Colombia, has been working with Indigenous communities in resguardos for more than 30 years. Here he talks about why the recognition of Indigenous territories is so important, and some of the challenges that remain.
Imagine if there were no resguardos, what would be different?
Without resguardos, a lot of land would be accumulated by a few rich people—they would end up owning most of the land. And this would have implications for the forest as well. There would be more extractive industries, more agricultural expansion, and more forest fires.
Are the Colombian resguardos safe from outside threats?
The resguardos also have their problems, of course. Farmers and companies are looking for land, and will sometimes encroach on the Indigenous territories. But I believe the situation would be much worse without the resguardos. Most people are aware that intrusion is illegal and will result in penalties.
Resguardos come in different sizes, and face different types of threats. In remote locations deep inside the Amazon forest, the size of the territories is enormous—some cover more than a million hectares. In the more populated parts of the country, the territories are relatively small. These smaller territories are often under a lot of pressure, as peasants from surrounding areas may enter the territories to open up parts of the forest for cattle grazing, leading to tensions with Indigenous groups.
Rodriguez’ organization does a lot of work in the Solano landscape in the south of Colombia, where there are 20 relatively small resguardos. The area used to be under control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which kept deforestation in check, to maintain forest cover and protect themselves from air raids, among other reasons. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016, the FARC has left the area, and deforestation has been increasing. Local governments do not have sufficient capacity to fill the governance gap that emerged. Tropenbos Colombia tries to help fill this gap, for example by assisting the local government with landscape planning, and organizing trainings in conflict resolution and restoration.
What is the main challenge for the Indigenous groups you work with?
There are very few sources of income, and this pushes people to engage in illegal activities, such as gold mining, coca production and narco trafficking. The state hasn’t been able to provide people with decent livelihood opportunities. This is a problem, both outside and inside the resguardos.
How can livelihood opportunities be improved?
I believe that this is best done by adding value to the forests. We have to make sure that people can earn money with forest management, for example by marketing timber, non-timber forest products, and environmental services, such as carbon sequestration. But this requires a lot of changes. For example, many communities in the resguardos do not have permits to sell timber. This means we have to change the legal agreement between the State and the Indigenous groups, to create possibilities for marketing timber, which also requires the development of detailed sustainable forest management plans.
Is there a tension between traditional subsistence-based livelihoods on the one hand and commercialization and market integration on the other?
There are NGOs who are against any form of commercialization. This is a common discourse, and in some cases it may be valid. Some isolated groups may prefer to minimize interactions with outsiders. But there are many other cases, like here in Solano, where communities are already participating in the economy of the country. They are often at the losing end. So we need to find ways to help them, by harnessing the value of the forest, without destroying it.
Efforts to add value to the forest do not have to be at odds with Indigenous culture. They may even reinforce each other, says Rodriguez. Indigenous communities have been managing the forest for millennia, so they hold a wealth of knowledge about their surroundings. Next to that, he stresses that the Indigenous worldview has an engrained conservation ethic, based on the fundamental idea that rivers, trees, plants, animals and people are all part of one integrated system—they are all connected, and thus depend on each other. Rodriguez: “There is a strong notion of the intrinsic value of nature’s diversity. It means that Indigenous communities do not think exclusively in commercial terms, but also in terms of the ethical treatment of the environment.”
Has working with Indigenous groups changed your own worldview?
Yes it has, in many ways. First, working with Indigenous groups I learned more about ecology than I did in university. Second, and more profoundly, they introduced me to new ideas and concepts. Consider, for example, the idea that you can see a tree as a person. When you start seeing trees and plants as people, it completely shifts your way of thinking. A fundamental element of the Indigenous worldview is that we are all part of nature, and this means that our interactions with the environment have a clear ethical dimension.
Is the Indigenous worldview threatened?
There are many threats. Sometimes the Indigenous culture has weakened, and within the community there may be a loss of traditional values. Young generations are not always interested in cultural issues. Many of them are more attracted to mobile phones, social media and rap music. They leave the territories, looking for new opportunities in urban areas.
Is that a problem?
Not necessarily. When Indigenous youth carry their traditions with them, they can share their culture and worldview in a dignified manner, and with self-esteem. They can use their knowledge to contribute to societal and academic debates, for example about ways to add value to the forest. We are therefore working with Indigenous communities to help maintain and revive their culture and knowledge. It is an important foundation for empowerment.
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