La Pedrera, Colombia:
In 1992 when I first arrived in the Amazon
, this hamlet on the banks of the Caquetá river, some 870 kilometers southeast of Bogotá, was a tiny cluster of isolated dwellings far from any services in the middle of a vast green wilderness. My plan was to spend two years in the region doing fieldwork for my B.A. thesis, but the awe-inspiring forests of Amazonia and their stunning biodiversity soon signaled that my future lay here.
In all, I spent four years in field studies of large vertebrates and was particularly fascinated by primates like the widow monkey (Callicebus torquatus
), the black-headed uakary (Cacajao melanocephalus
), and the woolly monkey (Lagothrix lagothricha
). The area was also home to numerous indigenous groups
and I was able to document wildlife use by the forest people. I didn’t know it in those early days, but working with them became part of my fieldwork vocation that continues to this day.
In late 1997 I joined CI, and with my new colleagues, began planning the La Pedrera Environmental Center (LPEC) project to work on regional conservation issues with indigenous peoples. After developing relationships with local leaders, and building a headquarters and a residence, the LPEC was opened in 1998 as the field base for the CI-Colombia Amazonia Project
The adults were initially apathetic about our project and regarded us as an obstacle to their slash-and-burn farming, and their small-scale logging, fishing, and hunting – some subsistence, some commercial. And we did not know if they were harvesting sustainably.
Because they weren’t interested in participating, our first approach to co-operative conservation was simply to learn what their children thought about wildlife. Our first workshops at La Pedrera were geared to the youngsters who spent happy hours eagerly learning about the animals their parents hunted for food -- tapir, deer, and large primates such as woolly monkeys and red howlers.
From there, we made the transition to adults who gradually became aware that the growing scarcity of their forest resources was caused by unsustainable hunting and gathering practices.
From those modest beginnings seven years ago, we gradually widened the scope of our work with some ten indigenous groups in the region. Their lands cover thousands of square kilometers, including a great proportion of ecosystems outside of the protected areas system.
Building a cohesive strategy with indigenous people to conserve their forests has been a significant focus of our efforts. Our workshops have ranged from teaching the use of computers to understanding Colombian environmental legislation. We have trained people to perform environmental studies, analyze data, and diagnose problems on issues like hunting, wildlife scarcity, clean water
supply, and health.
Absorbing conservation principles in turn has been an enriching experience for the indigenous organizations and when CI launched it’s Amazonia project, we were able to provide guidance and advice on protecting their biodiversity.
The forest people increasingly recognize the importance of safeguarding their lands for future generations by setting aside portions of their most resource-rich areas and those with the highest cultural values such as sacred sites.
There is still much work to do at La Pedrera to strengthen these conservation initiatives. The capacities of local indigenous organizations to build partnerships
with environmental and government institutions will be improved. Conservation in one of the most bio-diverse regions of Colombian Amazonia is a challenge and a great opportunity. The local people are now aware of what is at stake for them, and for the health of the rainforest that nurtures them.