July 22, 2019
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Anthropologist defends role of indigenous people as Amazon managers

By Mara Fernanda Guerrero and Margarita Muñoz Armella

Bogota, Jun 21 (efe-epa).- For more than 40 years, US-Colombian anthropologist Martin Von Hildebrand has fought to win acknowledgment of the rights of indigenous people living in Colombia's Amazon basin and of the work they do, since he firmly believes they are the real managers of that immense ecosystem.

"If we're going to measure a culture by the impact it has, let's have a look at the impact of the indigenous people on the environment, then look at the impact we've had. We have plunged the world in an environmental crisis," Hildebrand said in an interview with EFE.

The documentary "El Sendero de la Anaconda" (The Anaconda Trail), directed by Alessandro Angulo, illustrates the evolution of the indigenous battle to protect the rain forest, mainly the territory where the legend began of the origins of the ethnicities that inhabit the region and who are threatened by the interests of a Canadian mining company.

"The intention was to show that these cultures manage the environment with their traditional wisdom. They're important and they are fundamental...they protect the jungle without which we cannot survive," he said.

The first time Hildebrand came to the Amazon jungle was in 1972, the year he got to know the ethnicities and saw what little consideration the government had for them, since in those days there was no such thing as "indigenous rights."

The anthropologist, who planned to stay two years in the Amazon, ended up staying 46 years to join in the battle to protect nature and the culture of the ancestral people.

"I took a four-month trip through the jungle, from Mitu to Leticia, and it was like going back to the 18th century, going back in time, but I was also indignant to see how our occidental culture...was exploiting the indigenous people," the anthropologist said.

Down through the ages, indigenous people have faced different trials, like the so-called rubber boom between the 19th and 20th centuries, which led to slavery, the mistreatment of communities and the death of many of their members.

As if that weren't enough, they have had to fight against deforestation and mining, which according to Hildebrand represents "a threat, above all because of the mercury that is poisoning the vegetation and the people."

"Indigenous people and the planet have the same problem, which is the western view of the economy and its relation to nature and other cultures," he added.

The only effective solution the indigenous people found was to ally themselves with National Natural Parks to defend the land, protect nature, their culture and population, with the creation of the Yaigoje Apaporis Park where indigenous traditions would be observed.

"We can live and deal with Natural Parks all our life, but wherever mining companies move in, we're finished. We can't defend ourselves because it's not just the mining but what it brings with it," Hildebrand said.

However, he said "the government has been very slow in sitting down and saying 'Well, let's fix this together.'"

At the same time, he said the cost of getting an organization like National Natural Parks to work effectively is very high compared with what the ancestral communities need to manage the ecosystems.

"Natural Parks is expensive...but indigenous people are there to do the job. We couldn't look after 26 million hectares (100,000 sq. miles) of woodland with forest rangers if we can scarcely cover the 4 million hectares of Chiribiquete Park - imagine if it were 26 million," he said.

Nonetheless, Hildebrand said that close to 50 percent of the Amazon rain forest is in some way protected, and local and international organizations currently exist along with private operations that fight so that indigenous territories and protected areas are respected.

Hildebrand heads a project that includes Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia, and which strives to maintain an ecological corridor between the protected areas of those countries and that would connect the Amazon forest with the Andes and the Atlantic Ocean.

"We must understand that we are nature, that we live in nature and that we must coexist with nature," he said.

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