In December 2012, I blogged about a cool community project in the Colombian Amazon’s lower Caqueta and Apaporis river basins.
Through the implementation of conservation agreements, this initiative addresses over-harvesting by commercial fishermen and improves management of lakes, creeks and the surrounding forest — all while providing direct benefits to the indigenous and farmer communities who have committed to protect them.
On my most recent visit to eastern Colombia, I was gratified to see that the conservation agreements are continuing to have an impact — though they’re not without their challenges.
As the manager of Latin American programs for CI’s Conservation Stewards Program, part of my job is to pay periodic visits to the communities involved in these conservation agreements. In exchange for making specific conservation commitments, such as refraining from logging, communities receive specific benefits determined by the local people themselves, such as help improving community infrastructure or wages for patrolling forests or lakes in search of illegal activities.
On this trip, I wanted to talk to the women and men of two indigenous communities I did not visit the previous year. I was particularly interested in learning how they felt about the program and the main challenges they faced.
Indigenous communities in this region of Colombia are composed of several ethnic groups, including the Tanimucas, Yucunas, Mirañas and others. Each group has its own language, which makes working in the area challenging. However, they share many customs, making it possible for them to live together.
Fish is the main source of protein for all these groups. Some still use traditional fishing gear, but most purchase modern hooks and nets. Before the conservation agreements were established, they also used more destructive methods like dynamite and barbasco (a poisonous plant that kills fish).
Both of the communities I visited are far from La Pedrera, the main town in the region, which itself is an hour away by plane (or seven days by motor boat) from Leticia, the main city in the Amazonas department. Ñumi, a community within the Yaigojé Apaporis Indigenous Reserve, is two hours from La Pedrera by canoe, plus an hour by foot during the dry season, and more than seven hours away by boat during the rainy season. Curare, one of the two communities within the Curare-Los Ingleses Indigenous Reserve, is three hours away by canoe.
During this trip, I was reading “One River,” a book written by Wade Davis about the life of Richard Evans Schultes, the father of modern ethnobotany. Schultes carried out field research in the communities of the lower Caqueta and Apaporis rivers during World War II.
While visiting the communities and walking in the forest, I kept thinking about how much the area had changed since Schultes’ time. For sure it’s now easier to get to La Pedrera, and canoes with motors make the trips to more distant communities shorter than in the past. Yet places like Ñumi and Curare are still far away from health posts and have no access to basic services. In some seasons, up to 90% of community members get sick with malaria.
Community members told me that conservation agreements were designed collaboratively by community members and the CI-Colombia team. They mentioned that now there are more fish in the lakes, and that outsiders no longer come there to fish illegally. Monitoring in El Grillo, the lake near Ñumi, confirmed that populations of pirarucu — one of the umbrella fish species of the initiative — have increased from 291 individuals in 2009 to 359 in 2012, with an important increase in the ratio between juveniles and adults.
They also said that although conducting patrolling activities was hard, it is a good opportunity for all of them to get to know their territory, as otherwise they have no money to pay for fuel to visit areas that are far from the villages. They can also earn a stipend that will allow them to buy certain groceries and to pay for school materials, medicines and clothes.
I was very pleased to see that one of the communities had finally decided to build a permanent camping site, so that community members — who carry out monitoring activities based on a rotation system — can stay fairly comfortably in the conservation area for as long as a month.
I also learned about the problems villagers face in terms of receiving the benefits from the conservation agreements. La Pedrera has no bank; funds for the project have to be sent from Bogotá. Despite the CI-Colombia team’s efforts to find solutions for this issue, there are months when there are no options for sending cash, causing delays in the provision of funds.
Community members understand the situation, but they wish there was a better solution. We hope that eventually a bank will open a branch in La Pedrera, or perhaps Colombia will gain the ability to make deposits to cell phones. Most people in these communities have cell phones, though they must travel to La Pedrera for reception. I know the CI-Colombia team sometimes loses sleep trying to figure out these issues.
2014 should be an exciting year for this project. At the end of last year we received a three-year grant from the Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas and a one-year grant from Corpoamazonia, the regional environmental authority, to implement activities. These grants will be complemented by a current grant from the Toyota Environmental Activities Grant Program.
This funding will help maintain patrolling activities, gather data about fish populations, carry out socioeconomic monitoring to measure the program’s impacts on people and sustain provision of technical support by the team. We also want to continue to measure the recovery of the pirarucu population to determine whether we can begin to allow sustainable extraction of fish.
When this happens, communities will see firsthand that their efforts to protect their lakes will pay them back. As the work progresses, I will continue to report the latest updates on Human Nature, so stay tuned!
Margarita Mora is manager of Latin American programs for CI’s Conservation Stewards Program.