Restoring Forest Continuity and Empowering Communities: An Interview with ACT’s María Patricia Navarrete Serna

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Q: Where are you from?

A: I am from El Darién in the municipality of Calima, in Colombia’s Cauca Valley. It is a small town located along the Pacific coast of Colombia and known by many as the “Switzerland of Colombia” for its rolling green hills overlooking the Calima Lake, the largest artificial lake in Colombia.

Q: What is your academic and professional background?

A: I’m trained as an ecologist, with a specialization in sustainable development of agricultural systems from the Pontifical Xavierian University. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on issues related to conservation and its relationship with food security, agricultural systems, agroecology, and agroforestry. Moreover, I’ve always been involved in projects related to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Most recently, however, I’ve begun to work with peasant communities in the Caquetá watershed.

Q: How did you first become involved with ACT?

A: I started working for ACT in November of 1999. At the time, I was involved with an NGO based in the Pacific coastal region of Colombia named Herencia Verde, where I managed an ethno-medicine project with Afro-Colombian communities inhabiting the Anchicayá River watershed. I was approached by ACT to provide support in the coordination of traditional knowledge exchanges in the indigenous reserve of Cozumbe between shamans of the Inga tribe and Afro-Colombian healers, and after these events were completed I was invited to join the organization.

Q: What do you enjoy most about working at ACT?

A: Something I’ve said since I began working at ACT is that it is an organization that permits you to be creative and to engage and develop participatory processes with members of partner communities in ways you’d never be able to in other organizations. It enables you to develop your expertise, take risks, and develop innovative projects and methodologies.

Also very enriching for me is our work with indigenous peoples and communities knowledgeable about traditional medicine, which has served as a fundamental axis of ACT’s work and helps guide our current efforts.

It’s a job that I truly enjoy. Working with indigenous people, shamans, women healers, peasants, and a variety of other local actors is extremely enriching. As previously mentioned, the organization supports individual creativity, ownership and engagement in the projects. The organization does not impose top-down policies, ensuring that in fieldwork, local staff can guide the work and propose solutions that fit the local context.

Lastly, all members of the organization seem to immediately internalize ACT’s mission and vision when they join, making our efforts as a whole very coherent.

Q: Tell me about the Connected Landscapes project.

A: I’m the Program Coordinator for the Connected Landscapes in a Fragua-Churumbelos Conservation Corridor project in Colombia. The project is being developed in the Andean foothills (“piedmont”) landscape in the areas of influence of the Alto Fragua Indi Wasi and Serranía de los Churumbelos Aika Wasi National Parks in the municipalities of Belén de los Andaquíes and San José del Fragua (department of Caquetá). The project’s objective is to restore the continuity of forests and the sustainable land use planning of the existing forest remnants, contributing to the consolidation of a biocultural corridor in this landscape.

In this project, we build upon ACT’s 20 years of work in the Andean Amazon and develop comprehensive conservation strategies that approach rainforest conservation through cross-cutting activities that take into account watershed management, reforestation, food security, alternative livelihoods, agroforestry, and traditional knowledge, and are centered on local contexts and people (all the fieldwork staff is from Caquetá and has in-depth on-the-ground knowledge of the region). It is a project that permits the assembly of all the components that are necessary for the establishment of an effective conservation strategy in the region.

One of the project’s most important outcomes has been the building of capacity and empowerment of over 20 local fieldwork staff and many more local community members, which in turn promotes local ownership of the project and lasting change, therefore increasing overall effectiveness. Mapping and cartography has been a key tool in the capacity building strategy. When community members are able to view ACT maps and see the amount of surrounding lands being deforested, they immediately commit to take action and begin reforestation activities. By not bringing in outside technicians and experts, and thus building local capacity, we are creating local conservation leaders with the capability to scale up local and regional conservation efforts, to reduce the work’s overall costs and to make the effort’s impacts more sustainable. This engagement in the local context and with local actors is what makes ACT special.

Q: As we celebrate ACT’s 20-year anniversary, what do you think will be the biggest challenges in the region for the next twenty years?

A: ACT is very well established and respected by the local communities and government agencies in the region. In the future, I see important organizational emphasis in the sustainability and strengthening of local efforts, the promotion of local capacities, and the solidification of our policy-based work. The achievement of the ratification of an indigenous peoples’ public policy for the department of Caquetá is a good example of an effort that has incorporated all three of these aspects.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: ACT has a lot to give in the region and is being recognized nationally for its efforts. For example, most recently the Colombian National Training Service (SENA) contacted ACT to teach its instructors in Caquetá and Putumayo about food systems and agroforestry, highlighting the increasingly high-profile of the organization in the region. However, it is important for ACT to stay focused on its founding mission, which is to partner with indigenous people to protect the rainforest. ACT is an organization that will stay true to its founding spirit no matter how large the organization grows.

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