In a remote part of the Amazon rainforest on the border between Colombia and Brazil, accessible only by plane, Isaí Victorino and Francis Palacios have been working with local communities for the last four years. They are implementing five conservation agreements with three indigenous reserves and two communities. The agreements involve communities in the protection of five lakes and a creek that provide habitat for two threatened fish species, the pirarucu and arawana, as well as the surrounding forest. In total, 400,000 hectares of primary forest and freshwater ecosystems are being conserved and 800 people are receiving benefits in exchange for their conservation efforts. But what does this really mean for Isaí and Francis? Between jokes and laughter, Isaí and Francis share their perspectives on living in La Pedrera and working with communities.
A 26-year old ecologist, Isaí has always been captivated by the Amazon rainforest and loves working with communities. Four years ago, while doing his bachelor’s thesis, he became involved with Conservation International (CI) and moved to La Pedrera, the field station in the Amazon where CI-Colombia has been working for the last 10 years. “The Amazon is a unique space. I know that I am contributing to improvement of the communities’ livelihoods and to the conservation of the Amazon. Thus, by working here I am contributing to my life mission.”
Francis is the economist of the team, and has worked in La Pedrera for the last seven years. Before going to the Amazon he worked in the insurance sector. He became involved with the program because he was always interested in working with communities, but never had the chance. He says that at the beginning it was hard, but now he loves seeing how communities have been strengthened and are more independent.
Working in La Pedrera is not easy. On a daily basis Francis and Isaí face many different challenges, as La Pedrera is extremely isolated from the outside world. There is only one flight per week to La Pedrera, from the Amazonas Department capital Leticia. While in the field working with the communities, Francis and Isaí have little contact with their families and friends. Moreover, in the event they become sick, things can be difficult.
Isaí and Francis visit the communities on a regular basis. Usually they leave the CI station at 7:30 in the morning and go up the Caquetá River by boat, a trip that takes between one and four hours depending on the location of the communities. After meetings or workshops they stay in the communities to play soccer. When the workshops last more than one day, they stay until late at the Maloca, the ancestral long house where the communities gather, talking with the people. Participating in gatherings at the Maloca allows them to reflect on the activities carried out during that day and to learn more about the culture of the communities.
Francis and Isaí are sure that the agreements are not only useful for conserving freshwater ecosystems and providing income opportunities for the people. They believe the agreements have also reinforced social values within the communities such as honesty and loyalty. Women are very involved in making sure that negative attitudes within the community change and that people comply with the agreements. This has strengthened governance within the communities. The communities have always had rules, but the agreements appear to be fostering greater respect for those rules.
According to Isaí and Francis, the satisfaction from working in the Amazon is incomparable. Once while walking in the forest, Isaí saw a group of woolly monkeys that were waiting for one of the troop members to recover after being shot by a hunter. “They were like humans, just like us, showing solidarity with one of their members.”
Francis likes working with communities because it forces him to be creative, and he knows that his work has an impact. The challenge is to continually improve in order to obtain the best possible outcomes. He was very proud the day he saw a leader from one community discussing the environment with other community leaders, using strong arguments for conservation. This meeting gave him confidence that his work was yielding important results.