What We Experience When We Walk Through the Mountains
by María Fernanda Franco, Putumayo Process, ACT-Colombia
Each time I have returned from an expedition in the territories in which we work, a mixture of joy and nostalgia has suffused me, because many sensations and lesson learned remain after our time there and our exchanges with the people. The expeditions present the possibility of becoming familiar with the territory in which we work (and that we seek to conserve)—of more intimately knowing the people with whom we work, and even ourselves. Talking about territory in workshops is different after having traveled it, because the territory goes beyond conversation, social cartography, and the reality we perceive when we go to meetings. The territory becomes something tangible: not only traveled, but also felt.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a forest expedition with several taitas (traditional healers) from the municipality of Santiago in the Sibundoy Valley of the upper Putumayo River basin. These forests are spaces with multiple purposes, with one purpose being to encourage more people to get to know and explore their territory. However, knowledge of the path is not enough: it is also very important to know what is in the mountains and know how it is managed. In this regard, asking permission, clearing the spaces, knowing how to be silent when it is appropriate, as well how to properly depart, are things that those who arrive from the outside only understand when they experience them, and when they see the effects.
Through ACT, we have understood that conservation depends on the welfare of the communities, and it is from this basis that we work. But if we talk specifically about forests, are we aware of what we want to conserve? Do we know these forests? Do we know how are our actions as an organization are enabling conservation, or not enabling it? Although it is clear that when we talk about conserving, we are not thinking about only one thing: being able to clearly articulate some key elements of what we seek to conserve turns out to be a pillar that provides stronger support for our reflections and actions—not only for us as ACT, but also for the communities with which we work.
Given the above, on this expedition, it was very pleasant to find within the forest three specimens of Colombian pine (Podocarpus oleifolius), because it is a vulnerable species reported in the IUCN red lists because of its exploitation for woodwork. This species is one of the few conifers native to the tropical zone, which is why it has a special character, since conifers are very old plants predominantly from non-tropical areas. In the mountains, we also found a forest of encenillo (Weinmannia balbisiana), which despite being a pioneer species experiences high pressure because its wood is dendro-energetic. The encenillos create very characteristic forests, where they dominate in long, thin and mossy rods, which makes them attractive because of their structure.
My surprise came not only from locating these species and valuing them on the basis of knowledge I acquired in academia: my surprise also came from observing that for the taitas, they were also a striking and important species. It is at this point where, though each person has their own perspective, values and knowledge, we are able to approach a common understanding. What we call “conserving the forest” makes much more sense when we begin to know the forest, knowing what is inside of it and how species are related to each other and to people, in addition to identifying common points on which to build dialogue and create by drawing from different banks of knowledge.
Another reflection that emerged was on the potential of accessing water. When we carried out an expedition in the Amazon plains region, every few meters, we encountered streams with available water. But here in the mountains, where the water is born and where many imagine that it abounds, the reality is a bit more complex. Indeed, water is abundant, but it is in storage mode. That is, everything is very humid: the environment, the soil, and the plants. But there are places where one can walk for more than 10 hours without finding the smallest rivulet of running water. That is why equating the existence of forest cover with a guarantee of water is a conclusion that must be nuanced.
Carrying out expeditions in the company of the communities with which we work is a means to continue strengthening relationships and bonds of trust, because sharing the path, food, and sleeping quarters puts us face-to-face with the community in another context. They value being accompanied and having exchanges, as it is a way of drawing even closer to the everyday life of the communities and the use and knowledge of their spaces.
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