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July 19, 2018
Carolina Gil is among the women who have dedicated themselves protecting the forests of the Amazon. The challenge that Colombia has ahead can only be met with many hands. She believes in collective work, for a rainforest without heroes.

At the most recent Climate Change Conference, in Bonn (Germany) last year, a group of Latin American indigenous representatives traveled to deliver a message: they are the guardians of the forest. And dozens of scientific studies have been published confirming the leading role of indigenous communities in the protection of the Amazon’s landscapes. “Natural resources are better preserved in indigenous territories”, read the titles.

Years ago, the paradigm was different. “Conservation” was a marginal concept. The resources of the Inter-American Development Bank or the World Bank were invested in infrastructure and not in that remote, endless forest of the Amazon, visited only by a few lunatics and believed to be untamable. Conservation had nothing to do with development.

Before the Amazon became a hot topic in the media because of the 144,417 hectares razed in that region of Colombia, the mining threats and the science that began to explain the Amazon’s importance in the regulation of global climate, Carolina Gil, program director of the NGO the Amazon Conservation Team, knew the other face of conservation, which few others were emphasizing: to try to conserve a territory without taking into account the people who live in it was a formula for failure.

“It is the communities that can ensure that a forest is healthy, with the means of living that they require.”

Although she studied law, and served as an attorney for the National Parks Unit for a time, the currents of life led her to work at CORPACOT, an organization that managed funds from international cooperation agencies, the government of the Netherlands and other major funders of the environmental struggle in Colombia. Then she went to the governmental foundation Fondo Patrimonio Natural, which is financed by 34 public and private entities and is dedicated to managing resources for the conservation of natural areas of the country.

“The conservation strategy of recent years, now that we know the importance of the communities that inhabit the territories, particularly the indigenous communities, has been to legalize their land claims, but it has not been enough.”

Beginning with the government of Virgilio Barco, when he gave the Uitoto Indians 5,000 hectares of what was once belonged to the rubber barons of the Casa Arana (and which we now know as the Predio Putumayo Reserve), currently, there are 27 indigenous reserves and 18 protected areas within the Amazon.

“At the Amazon Conservation Team, I understood that conservation is not a matter of the state or the national center. It is the local communities who play the fundamental role in the health of forests and the environment.”

Undoubtedly, to defend the Amazon—which comprises 48% of the country of Colombia, is difficult to access, has the most serious poverty rates in Colombia and is faced with more imminent threats—resources are needed. And if there is something Gil knows, it is how to put conservation funds to work. She has been engaged in this learning process since seven years ago, when she took the reins as Colombian program director of the NGO the Amazon Conservation Team. But she is emphatic on one point: “This is not about heroes, it’s about collective action.”

She, then, ensures that collective action more than the sum of its parts: it is an exercise in judicious dialogue with all the stakeholders.

“There is an irony here. The spaces for the different stakeholder institutions—civil society, private, public and that of the communities—are flourishing. There is more science, more information in real time, more potential to take action, more security. Why is no one coordinating? The Amazon cannot tolerate any more speech,” she says.

Because of comments like that, and because of her black blazer, short hair and discreet makeup, Carolina has a reputation for seriousness. Her silver shoes say the opposite. She is, rather, a tenacious observer.

She says emphatically: “I do not think that the conservation of the Amazon is a matter of one person. With respect to conservation issues in the Amazonian forests, there are no heroes.”

For this attorney from the University of Antioquia, there is a lot of discourse, but little beyond that. What is it that Gil has done differently with respect to the other twenty directors of Amazonian NGOs? She has understood that no man is an island, that only joint work between communities and public and private institutions can change things.

A good example of this paradigm shift is what was signed this week. After five years of work, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon achieved recognition of the right of peoples in voluntary isolation to remain in a “natural state”. The ACT team proposed a methodology that also applies, with variations, in Peru and Brazil: enable the residents of neighboring communities to take care that no one enters the 17 territories where, it is believed, these peoples exist.

“The process that seems to me the best example of these small victories of collective action is when the Inga reserve of Yunguillo was expanded in May 2015. We were always told that it was not possible, and it was half-true: the dialogues were not work working, and the studies were not conclusive.” After more than 30 years of solitary struggle, the Ingas of Putumayo achieved legal recognition of nearly 20,000 hectares of their territory in the Andes-Amazon transition region, an area of mining interest. Why? Because for two years beginning in 2013, INCODER (the national land titling agency), the National Parks Unit, indigenous communities, surveyors, historians and officials of the Ministry of the Interior began to seek the same objective. They sat down, in the end, to talk.

“What does it matter who led the processes? Here are the indigenous people, who will have that title in perpetuity, for the benefit of all. That’s what matters. If not, who else will protect those forests, and that history?”

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