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As the small plane's engines roar, the far-below patchwork of cattle ranches, farms and roads set amid fragments of Amazon rainforest gradually give way to an unbroken expanse of pristine jungle extending to the horizon in southeast Colombia.

This rare undisturbed forest, stretching across three provinces, is an indigenous sanctuary, a key repository for vanishing plants and animals, and a crucial natural buffer against rising climate change risks.

But the mining, ranching and logging threats devastating large areas of the Amazon basin are creeping toward this isolated corner of Colombia, and anxieties are growing.

"We fear for our future. We know there's gold here," said Alfredo Yucuna, an indigenous leader, as he traveled by motorboat along the muddy Miriti-Parana River, snaking through dense tropical wilderness to visit other riverside communities.

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Indigenous leader Alfredo Yucuna, who heads the Indigenous Council of the Miriti-Parana Amazonas Territory (CITMA), travels along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Rather than wait for the threats to arrive, however, these communities are forging ties in an unusual and proactive bid for power.

With help from organizations and governments desperate to find ways to stem surging Amazon losses, they aim to incorporate as what will effectively be state-recognized local governments, giving them stepped-up power over their land and state funds.

Today, much of Colombia's Amazonas, Vaupes and Guainia provinces - where this vast tract of remote forest lies - are not part of any municipality. 

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Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tom Finn

That can leave indigenous communities exposed to future development on their land with few recognised legal rights to control what happens, said Francisco von Hildebrand, head of Gaia Amazonas, a Colombian non-profit that works with indigenous people to protect the Amazon.

"Indigenous forms of governance and the way they manage and preserve their territory aren't fully recognized by the Colombian state," said von Hildebrand, who is working with the indigenous groups on their push.

That means "they don't have the scope or the political-administrative power to decide about their territory, including the sustainable use of the forest and well-being of their people according to their culture that respects the rights of nature," he added.

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A set of arrows used by riverside indigenous communities in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province to hunt animals in the forest, December 18, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Becoming the land's official legal governors - and formally part of Colombia's political and administrative map - would make it harder for arriving miners, loggers or ranchers to cut land and development deals without their prior knowledge or approval.

"Being a legally recognized 'indigenous territorial entity' would give us more political force and legal protection. It would mean power with autonomy," said Alfredo Yucuna, who heads the Indigenous Council of the Miriti-Parana Amazonas Territory (CITMA), which represents about 1,150 indigenous forest residents from nine ethnic groups, including his own.

"By coming together in a collective entity, we're stronger. We can put up more of a fight against those who want to exploit our territory and have a unified voice to resist," he said.

Tipping points

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An indigenous woman and her child walk in near-pristine Amazon rainforest in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, Miriti- Parana, Colombia, December 20, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest - crucial to avoiding runaway climate change and nature losses - are failing as global demand and prices for soybeans and beef surge and as political will and cash to protect the forest fall short.

Oil exploration and illegal gold mining also are spurring deforestation, even on the nearly half of the basin - spanning eight South American nations - under some form of official protection or indigenous stewardship, according to 2020 research.

Altogether, the Amazon basin has lost 17% of its original forest while another area that size has been degraded, according to a 2021 study by the Science Panel for the Amazon, a U.N.-convened group of 200 regional scientists.

Nearly 70% of the basin's protected areas and indigenous territories face current deforestation threats from road building, expansion of mining, oil and gas development, dam creation or other incursions, the study noted.

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An aerial view of farms interspersed with Amazon rainforest that gradually gives way to pristine forest towards Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 21, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Scientists predict forest losses of 20% to 25% could lead to accelerating drying and the Amazon's irreversible decline into a savanna, with catastrophic impacts for climate change and biodiversity.

With researchers fearful tipping points could be approaching, and forest protection groups frustrated at failures to stem losses, many are looking at innovative new ways to shore up protection, often working with indigenous groups.

"We see indigenous communities as the best guardians, those who manage to protect the forest in their territories in the best manner. (That's) according not only to anecdotes but empirical and scientific evidence," said Ole Reidar Bergum, counsellor for climate and forests at the Norwegian Embassy in Bogota.

Model 'state-building'

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Shaman Faustino Matapi, the spiritual leader of the Puerto Libre community of 13 families who live along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, does paperwork in a traditional dwelling called a maloka, December 19, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

With funding from Norway, Amazon groups living in indigenous reserves have for two years been organizing themselves into self-governing councils.

The effort is part of their broader landmark initiative to become 'indigenous territorial entities' - with the same legal and political rights as any other local government -  based on their own culture and systems of governance.

The project covers 11 million hectares of rainforest across three of Colombia's six Amazon provinces. If successful it could become a blueprint for other groups now fighting failing battles to protect vanishing tropical forests.

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Lucio Matapi, 'captain' of the Puerto Libre community, sits next to his father, shaman Faustino Matapi, during a meeting in Miriti-Parana, a rainforest village in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

"We strongly believe that this could be a model and should be a huge inspiration for indigenous groups in forested areas in other parts of the world, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Brazil," said Bergum, who leads on the initiative for Norway.

"It's a historical endeavour. We are talking about state building - but state building through indigenous structures," he said.

Since 2019, Norway has invested $7.4 million in the project, and is considering up to an additional $4 million in funding until 2026, he said.

'Mini-government'

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Indigenous people gather in a maloka – a traditional thatched communal dwelling – for an evening meeting in the Puerto Libre community, in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 19, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

With little or no electricity, mobile phone coverage or internet service, Colombia's Amazon leaders from different indigenous ethnic groups -  each with their own culture and language - face significant barriers to working together.

Overcoming those has required them to, for instance, repeatedly travel huge distances to meet face to face, often by slow dugout canoe in a region without roads.

For months now, Alfredo Yucuna and other leaders have traversed the region's waterways visiting small hunting, farming and fishing communities to help them organize into councils - the first step in the arduous legal process to becoming an indigenous territorial entity.

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So far, the indigenous council CITMA and four other indigenous territories have been granted government recognition as councils, covering about 25,000 people living in three Amazon provinces.

In all, 16 indigenous territories are seeking such recognition, with each community at a different stage in the process.

Alfredo Yucuna, 49, hopes that within three years CITMA will become the first indigenous council in Colombia to be recognized as a full indigenous territorial entity - a step that would allow it to receive and administer government and external funds directly.

"This would give us greater political status, like a mini-government, and be an example for others," he said.

'So the world can breathe'

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A view of a maloka, a traditional thatched communal dwelling used for rituals, meetings, cooking and as a home for some community members, along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

As he reaches Puerto Libre, a riverside community of 13 families, Alfredo Yucuna steps out of his boat and enters a maloka - a traditional triangular thatched communal dwelling - where he sits beside an elderly Matapi tribal shaman and other leaders.

They chew powdered coca leaves and green tobacco paste, an age-old custom performed to start a meeting and to connect them with nature and their ancestors.

Near their circle, women hunch over a wood-burning stove making cassava cake, while outside children dangle from hanging vines and splash into the river as a salmon pink dusk settles over the still jungle canopy.

"We want to have our own government and govern our territory according to the way we use our lands and our culture and traditions," said Faustino Matapi, the shaman.

"Any roads, any foreigners coming in, would be a threat to our way of life," he said, as shadows streamed through the wooden slits of the dark and smoky maloka.

Forest communities respect and know how to safeguard nature, he added, and should be left alone to do that.

"We live with nature, water and the earth. We're not the ones who destroy the forest. We protect it so the world can breathe," said the 74-year-old, who provides spiritual guidance passed down through generations and acts as a healer in his community.

"If humans wish to live well on the planet, we need to respect nature. Behind the destruction of forests is illness and death. Look what happened with COVID," he said, hunched on a low wooden stool.

Enforcing rights

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Shaman Faustino Matapi, 74, of the Matapi ethnic group sits in a maloka traditional dwelling in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province. He is the spiritual leader of the Puerto Libre community and in charge of preserving cultural practices and oral traditions, including the community’s relationship with nature, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Colombia's 1991 constitution recognizes the rights of its indigenous people, who make up about 4% of the country's total population of 50 million.

Yet the exact rights and extent to which indigenous groups can claim sovereignty and autonomy over their ancestral lands is unclear and often lacks formal and legal status.

What is clear is that Colombia's subsoil is national property, meaning the government has the right to develop energy projects and extract minerals on any land.

But laws require that communities be consulted first, properly informed about projects and their impact, and allowed to participate in any decisions made.

In communities across the wider Amazon basin - from Ecuador to Colombia and Peru - that often hasn't happened, indigenous leaders say.

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Indigenous children work and play along the bank of the Miriti-Parana River at the Puerto Libre community in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province. Dugout canoes are the main form of transport in a region with no roads. December 19, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

"Our rights are enshrined in the constitution but haven't been put into practice and formalized and aren't guaranteed," warned Faustino Matapi.

"We've been fighting for our rights to be respected for the last 30 years. Becoming an indigenous entity would allow us to claim our rights and preserve our culture," he said.

Bergum said recognition of indigenous municipalities would strengthen governance deep in the Amazon and make it more difficult for miners or others to illegally take over land and "exploit the natural resources for their own benefit."

Approaching deforestation

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An aerial view of Colombia’s remote rainforest province of Amazonas, home to near-pristine forest largely spared the onslaught of illegal mining and logging, December 21, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Colombia's Amazonas and neighboring rainforest provinces of Vaupes and Guainia have largely been spared the onslaught of forest losses - for now.

But across Colombia, deforestation increased by 8% in 2020, according to environment ministry figures, with 171,600 hectares (424,000 acres) of forest lost, an area twice the size of New York City.

Nearly 64% of the destruction took place in the country's Amazon region.

Colombia's environment minister Carlos Eduardo Correa has said the country - home to an outsized share of the world's biodiversity - hopes to reach zero deforestation by 2030.

But Colombia, along with other South American Amazon nations, also continues to push for investment at home in oil, gas and mining and to award exploration permits to prop up its economy as it seeks to maintain energy self-sufficiency.

Forest and indigenous conservation groups see winning new legal status and power for indigenous forest communities, and strengthening their governance structures, as a way to counter those pressures.

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The current push for expanded powers got its start after Colombia passed a 2018 decree that paved the way for those living in indigenous reserves to formalize their traditional systems of governance to effectively become local governments.

The decree, issued under the country's previous government, came after sustained pressure from Amazon indigenous groups for the change.

While the decree only applies to Amazonas, Vaupes and Guainia provinces, it could prove a rare opportunity to try to "pre-empt deforestation from happening in areas that are more or less pristine," Bergum said.

In Colombia, illegal armed groups and "mafias" of drug traffickers, illegal miners, illegal loggers and "people stealing land" to grab natural resources are the main threats facing forest areas, Bergum said.

As the groups expand into new forest areas, "these pristine areas are under pressure, and I'm sure that in the years to come these areas will be under heavier pressure," particularly from mining, he said.

'Treated as equals'

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Indigenous children play at the Puerto Libre riverside community near thatched classrooms where native languages and cultural practices are taught, December 19, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

To become an indigenous territorial entity, Amazon communities must show the state they have their own systems for justice, managing forests, governing, auditing and accountability, as well as health and education plans ensuring women's participation.

Proving that involves not only clearly demarcating their lands and carrying out censuses, but also collecting, translating and interpreting oral traditions and social and governance hierarchies of different tribes.

That in turn is collected into thousand-page-long reports the "white world" can understand, said indigenous leader Antonio Matapi, of the Matapi tribe.

"We have to show the state that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have effective systems of government based on our own culture, and that we have the ability to receive and administer funds," said the leader, part of a 10-member indigenous committee overseeing the process.

"This is our opportunity to make ourselves heard and be counted, to be recognized and treated as equals, to have an exchange and dialogue between cultures and not a colonist approach so that no side imposes their view on the other," he said.

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Indigenous leader Antonio Matapi, of the Matapi ethnic group, is part of a 10-member indigenous committee putting together the paperwork needed for them to become an ‘indigenous territorial entity,’ in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

His committee aims to submit their paperwork to Colombia's justice ministry by May seeking full approval as an indigenous territorial entity, he said.

Any decisions about new entities will most likely be made by a newly elected government, following Colombia's presidential elections in May, indigenous leaders said.

"It's very important that the new government is absolutely married to the concept and the idea of setting up these indigenous-led municipalities ... and I'm sure that will happen," Bergum said.

'Confront the white world'

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Lucio Matapi, 'captain' of the Puerto Libre community, (at the rear) travels with other residents as they fish along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 19, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

For Colombia's indigenous Amazon communities, becoming territorial entities would allow them to directly receive government funds, giving them a greater say in how money is spent on their lands.

It could also open the door for them to seek and receive a share of the $19 billion in public and private funds pledged at last year's Glasgow U.N. climate conference to promote indigenous land rights and forest protection.

Indigenous leaders say they aim to spend money on improving health services that combine western and traditional medicine, and on education so future generations can preserve their culture and lead the new indigenous entities.

Lucio Matapi, 'captain' of the Puerto Libre community and the son of shaman Faustino, said they are "preparing how to confront the white world."

"We can't yet do all the accounting and write technical reports but we're training our youth leaders to do so," he said, sitting on a grass bank as women washed clothes in the river.

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Women of the Puerto Libre community wash pots, pans and clothes in the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Several hours downriver, past tangled jungle layers of rubber and palm trees punctuated with the haunting sounds of monkey mating calls, a set of straw-thatched homes built on stilts appears on the riverside - the Puerto Nuevo community.

Shaman Pascual Letuama, 57, says communities face enroaching threats, in particular gold mining and forest being cleared to grow the illegal coca crops used to produce cocaine.

"You hear rumours about miners approaching closer and that a Canadian mining company is interested in coming in. As one single community, we can't do much to resist people who want to come," said Letuama, swaying in a hammock inside a maloka.

"But being unified as an indigenous entity, it's much more possible," said Letuama, as women worked outside skinning freshly hunted green parrots.

"Having our own government is a mechanism to protect our territory so that decisions aren't made behind our backs and money isn't taken in our name," he added.

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Lucio Matapi, 'captain' of the Puerto Libre community, stands in dense tropical rainforest near his community living along the Miriti-Parana River in Colombia’s southeast Amazonas province, December 16, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica

Indigenous Amazon groups in this region have not been immune from outside threats, from the arrival of gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors in 1499 to a rubber boom in the 19th Century that enslaved and wiped out ethnic groups.

Catholic missionaries - eventually hounded out in 1995 - for a time banned native languages and traditional dance and dress.

Faustino, the Matapi shaman, said indigenous people have had to reconstruct their culture time and time again - but the new government status they are seeking could be a powerful weapon to confront the next invaders.

"Our culture has been violated by the white man," said Faustino. But "we've been surviving and resisting outsiders for centuries."

Reporting: Anastasia Moloney
Text editing: Laurie Goering
Photography: Fabio Cuttica
Videography: Fabio Cuttica
Video editing: Fran Rankin
Graphics: Tom Finn
Producer: Amber Milne