ACT History

A Brief History of the Amazon Conservation team

In 1996, ethnobotanist Dr. Mark Plotkin and conservationist Liliana Madrigal—previously leading staff of large conservation NGOs—founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) to implement a unique and novel strategy: biocultural conservation. At that time, the dominant environmental conservation model entailed creating protected areas that displaced local communities. In contrast, ACT began with the conviction that the viability of Amazonian ecosystems and the integrity of traditional cultures are interdependent aspects of an integrated whole. Particularly, ACT nurtured relationships with prominent indigenous healers, who often represented both a community’s natural leadership and its cultural core.

In its early years, in addition to efforts in the South American rainforest, ACT also developed impact-rich projects and programs in Mexico and Costa Rica thanks to established relationships with forward-thinking local indigenous communities. With urging from the ACT Board of Directors, by 2002 the organization was focused strongly on Amazonia. Core initiatives, still emphasized today, were strengthened in the Colombian Andean-Amazon transition region and the deep rainforest interior of Suriname. In the first decade of the 21st century, ACT continued to work on its longstanding “Shamans and Apprentices” programs, and added two further marquee initiatives: collaborative ethnographic and land use mapping, and the training of indigenous park guard corps. To date, ACT has worked with more than 30 indigenous tribes to advance their conservation priorities.

Over time, ACT gained recognition from a variety of institutions for its innovative conservation and indigenous rights leadership. In 2008, ACT received the prestigious Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, which recognizes innovators whose work has the potential for large-scale influence on the critical challenges of our time. In 2010, ACT became one of 15 Tech Awards Laureates, selected by the Tech Museum from hundreds of nominees representing more than 50 countries. ACT’s founders also have been honored by the Jane Goodall Institute and the Yale School of Forestry.

Leading ACT accomplishments:

  • Partnered with indigenous groups to map more than 70 million acres of the Amazon with GPS technology
  • Purchased approximately 5,000 acres of land to create corridors between protected areas and indigenous reserves
  • Trained more than 150 indigenous people to become certified park rangers 
  • Provided legal support to 20 indigenous groups to help them understand and exercise their rights to self-governance, territory, language, and education
  • Sponsored the first large-scale gatherings of male and female traditional healers in the Amazon
  • Worked with the Colombian national park service and local indigenous leaders to establish new categories of co-managed protected areas, notably the Alto Fragua Indi Wasi National Park and  the Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Plant Sanctuary
  • Partnered with the Kogi Indians and the Colombian government to purchase a coastal sacred site, which became the first such location to be declared a national cultural monument
  • ​Confirmed the presence of uncontacted tribes in Colombia and provided information essential to defining public policy for the protection of these groups
  • Sponsored the establishment and continuity of Colombia’s Yachaikury K-12 Ethno-Education School to help preserve traditional knowledge 

ACT Milestone Timeline


  • ACT is founded.


  • Shamans and Apprentices programs are initiated in the northwest and northeast Amazon.


  • ACT sponsors the first large-scale gathering of shamans of the Colombian Amazon.


  • A first of four eventual traditional medicine clinics is established in the Suriname rainforest.


  • In southern Suriname, 15 million acres of indigenous rainforest lands are collaboratively mapped.


  • In northern Brazil, the 10-million-acre Tumucumaque Indigenous Reserve is collaboratively mapped.
  • The Alto Fragua Indi Wasi National Park is created in Colombia.


  • The indigenous radio station of Colombia’s Ingano community goes live.
  • The Shamans and Novices program is initiated in southern Suriname.


  • In Brazil, the seven-million-acre Xingu Indigenous Reserve is mapped.
  • ACT sponsors the first large-scale gathering of indigenous women healers of the Colombian Amazon.


  • In Suriname, six million acres of Wayana indigenous lands are collaboratively mapped.
  • A first indigenous park guard training and certification course is initiated in Brazil.


  • In Brazil, half a million acres of Surui indigenous lands are collaboratively mapped.
  • ACT’s indigenous park guard training program is expanded to Suriname.


  • The 25,000-acre Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Plant Sanctuary is established in Colombia.
  • 15 indigenous communities of Brazil’s Médio Rio Negro II reserve develop a land management and protection plan. 


  • In Brazil, ACT begins work with the Surui indigenous people to curb deforestation through an indigenous-led carbon (REDD) project, the most advanced of its kind in the Amazon.


  • The ACT-sponsored Yachaikury Ethno-Education School gains Colombian state financial support.
  • 90% of all indigenous and maroon lands in Suriname, constituting 64% of the nation’s area, are cumulatively mapped. 
  • 25 million additional acres are collaboratively mapped in the northern Brazilian Amazon.


  • In Suriname, ACT co-organizes a first national pan-stakeholder conference on land rights and demarcation.
  • In Colombia, ACT holds meetings with the national parks service, the interior ministry, and administrators of the two-million-acre Río Puré National Park to begin defining a policy for the protection of indigenous groups in voluntary isolation in the Park area.  ACT’s research determining the existence of such groups in the Park area provides the basis for such protection being mentioned in the National Development Plan and officially decreed on a national basis. 


  • As part of a long-term project led by Colombia’s Kogi indigenous people, who seek to manage a vast stretch of coastal territory, ACT provides essential funding for purchase of a sacred site, Jaba Tañiwashkaka.  The site is officially declared by the Colombian government in a new and unique conservation category. 


  • ACT completes the first of a series of three Junior Park Ranger training manuals as a conservation teaching tool for the children of five Surinamese indigenous communities.  The series was approved by Suriname’s Ministry of Education to be included in its nationwide Environmental Education Box project, with boxes to be distributed to all national primary schools.
  • In Colombia, in the Solano municipality of Caquetá, ACT trained indigenous project promoters to develop sustainable production and conservation projects in eight communities.  Because conservation agreements were signed by all participating families, approximately 100,000 hectares were zoned for sustainable production and conservation for the benefit of local populations. 


  • The ACT-sponsored Yachaikury School achieves the Colombian Ministry of Education’s official recognition as an autonomously-administered indigenous public school, the first of its kind in the department of Caquetá, enabling Yachaikury to serve as the central administrator of a regional network of indigenous public schools.
  • In Colombia, ACT leads the development of a national first-contact contingency plan to ensure the health of isolated indigenous groups.