Women Reclaim Cultural Knowledge in Northwestern Amazonia

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An hour before dawn, we landed at a small airstrip deep in the mountains of the Colombian Amazon. This remote forest — ringing with the sounds of frogs, monkeys and parrots –seemed surreal, as did my reason for visiting. Over the next five days, I would photograph the annual conference of the region’s female indigenous healers.

I traveled with Liliana Madrigal, Senior Director of Program Operations for the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT). Thanks to nearly two decades of work with the region’s indigenous communities, ACT was asked to help organize a gathering of the region’s women healers in 2004. Called ASOMI, short for Asociacion de Mujeres Indigenas, the meeting was the first of its kind and presented a unique opportunity. After years of cultural oppression from missionaries and increasing exploitation of their forest, these women shamans and healers could now share — and therefore rebuild — their traditional ecological and medicinal knowledge.
A pickup truck took us the last leg of the journey to a tiny, nearby town and dropped us off outside a thatch and brick open-air structure built symbolically in the shape of a womb. It was here that the indigenous women — collectively called mamas — began to gather. Unassuming and gentle, these elders came by canoe, foot, and bus, sometimes traveling multiple days from the interior of the Colombian rainforest. Each brought gifts for the others: a live chicken or two, loaves of freshly baked bread or pans of their favorite homemade fare. As each mama arrived, she was greeted with huge smiles and enthusiastic hugs. Because of the long, expensive journey, this conference was the only time each year the women would see each other and they obviously cherished the opportunity.

Liliana, too, was greeted with an outpouring of emotion before giving the informal welcoming words, including an introduction to me as chronicler of the week’s events. Simply to present the idea of photography at such a gathering showed the trust between Liliana and these women. Many indigenous people adamantly refuse to have their pictures taken, believing that the image captures their soul. To appease the Mamas’ worries, Liliana explained how important it was to document this aspect of their unique and dwindling culture for future generations. She also reminded the women of pictures they had seen of themselves in the past. They had poured over these photos for hours, recalling all the details of when, how and why they were taken. This documentation served as an important part of oral history and a way to remember and honor the mamas who had passed away. At a time when the culture and land of these women is so endangered, these photos are crucial to safeguarding memories and traditions.

Assaults to indigenous peoples’ territories by mining and logging concessions have turned many rivers black with contamination, poisoning drinking water and killing off fish — many communities’ primary source of protein. Coupled with unfettered deforestation and ill-conceived government programs, many native peoples are being driven from their ancestral territories, forcing them to leave behind their homes and many of the ceremonies performed there.

With a growing number of communities seeing their lands and rivers stripped, stolen or poisoned, it’s no surprise that these indigenous communities — and their incredible cultural knowledge — are being pushed to the brink. Should they vanish, humankind will lose priceless knowledge about forest management and nature’s vast pharmacological cornucopia. While male shamans are renowned for their medicinal secrets, indigenous women have their own unique set of knowledge that harbors cures for diseases, methods for subsistence agricultural, and other valuable information for both their communities and, potentially, people across the planet.

Although my camera initially made the women uncomfortable, by day four I was invited to join and document them in dance, to take their portraits, and even to record a sacred ceremony — something far beyond what Liliana or I expected. Out of respect, I initially refused, but the women insisted. By the end of the gathering, I had become integrated into the experience.
On the final day, as I prepared to leave, one of the oldest Mamas — a woman named Conchita — approached me with a handmade sisal basket in hand. With a departing hug, she handed it to me.

As we drove away, I learned it was a bittersweet gift.

“You know, she made that basket herself,” Liliana said. “Mama Conchita is the very last of her tribe that knows how to make those baskets. All of the other members have succumbed to the effects of the ‘black water’ in the river. I worry that we’ll not see her here again next year.”

The incredible rate of logging, mining and acculturation endanger not just the knowledge of Amazonian communities, but their very survival. The Amazon Conservation Team works to preserve the rainforest and its knowledge-rich cultures through partnerships with indigenous peoples. To learn more, visit ACT’s website.

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