Consolidation of the Amazon Region (COAMA)
( 1999 , Colombia )

...for showing how indigenous people can improve their livelihood, sustain their culture and conserve their rainforests.

Inter-cultural approaches are not simply combining different elements, but are ways of respecting differences and of searching together for appropriate paths.


The Consolidation of the Amazon Region (COAMA) is a group of Colombian NGOs struggling for the recognition of indigenous rights and their crucial role in the conservation of the world’s tropical rainforests. Basing their work on intercultural analysis, the COAMA team established a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity with about 250 indigenous communities of 22 differential cultural groups, enabling them to determine their own development path. While safeguarding the rainforest, this work also led to the creation of micro projects in health, education, cultural and ecological recuperation and market product projects.

Contact

COAMA
c/o Fundación Gaia-Amazonas
Cra. 4 No.26B-31
Santafé de Bogota
COLOMBIA

www.coama.org

Biography

Between 1986-1990 the Colombian Government legally recognised 20 million hectares of rainforest in the Colombian Amazon region as ‘collective indigenous territory’ – resguardos.

This policy was an unprecedented move towards the recognition of indigenous rights and the important role of forest peoples in the conservation of the world’s tropical rainforests. It was achieved through the pressure of indigenous communities, and the determined support of many Colombians, including Martin von Hildebrand, as Head of Indigenous Affairs at that time.

In 1990 funds were secured from the EU to set up a network of field officers to accompany the communities to develop and implement their recognised rights to continue to manage their rainforest ecosystem according to their own cultural norms and priorities.

This evolved into the COAMA Programme, which Martin von Hildebrand helped to foster and now coordinates, and which consists of a number of Colombian NGOs – Gaia Amazonas, Fundación Etnollano, Fundación Erigaie, Hylea, Fundación Ecologia-Social, FundaMinga, CECOIN, and the Gaia Foundation in London.

Through a process of intercultural analysis and reflection, the COAMA team (which eventually grew to about 50 people) established a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity with those indigenous communities who wished to work in this way.

This has allowed them to make informed, collective choices to determine their …

Between 1986-1990 the Colombian Government legally recognised 20 million hectares of rainforest in the Colombian Amazon region as ‘collective indigenous territory’ – resguardos.

This policy was an unprecedented move towards the recognition of indigenous rights and the important role of forest peoples in the conservation of the world’s tropical rainforests. It was achieved through the pressure of indigenous communities, and the determined support of many Colombians, including Martin von Hildebrand, as Head of Indigenous Affairs at that time.

In 1990 funds were secured from the EU to set up a network of field officers to accompany the communities to develop and implement their recognised rights to continue to manage their rainforest ecosystem according to their own cultural norms and priorities.

This evolved into the COAMA Programme, which Martin von Hildebrand helped to foster and now coordinates, and which consists of a number of Colombian NGOs – Gaia Amazonas, Fundación Etnollano, Fundación Erigaie, Hylea, Fundación Ecologia-Social, FundaMinga, CECOIN, and the Gaia Foundation in London.

Through a process of intercultural analysis and reflection, the COAMA team (which eventually grew to about 50 people) established a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity with those indigenous communities who wished to work in this way.

This has allowed them to make informed, collective choices to determine their own development path. Out of this process, microprojects developed in health, education, cultural and ecological recuperation and market product projects, through which the indigenous communities began to reclaim control of their livelihood systems.

The COAMA group of NGOs continued their cooperation through the 1990s, while maintaining respect for each other’s differences, and thereby provided united support for about 250 indigenous communities of 22 differential cultural groups in this enormous rainforest sanctuary.

COAMA has provided a context in which a mutually respectful alliance has evolved between indigenous communities and occidental specialists which has helped to transform the historical relationship of exploitation into a creative joint search for sustainable options in the present context.

Based on the work and values of indigenous communities, COAMA has promoted an alternative approach to tropical rainforest conservation, which implies strengthening indigenous rights and promoting a genuine process of inter-cultural collaboration.

An international evaluation, undertaken in 1996, stated that the COAMA projects have had ‘a big impact in the indigenous communities, which have strong bonds of trust with the expert personnel’. A former President of Colombia, Alfonso Lopes, has called COAMA a ‘ray of light’, describing it as ‘our contribution… to the creation of a world of co-operation and solidarity and our fight to save humanity from the ravages of civilisation’.

 
 

FAQ about COAMA

Questions asked in 2005, answered by Martin von Hildebrand

1. What is the biggest challenge in working with Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon?

The great challenge in the work with the Indigenous Peoples, and indeed a crucial aspect in the success of the indigenous process itself in the Colombian Amazon, is the shift from claiming Indigenous Rights once they have been recognised to exerting them at roots level by indigenous organisations.

The impression one gets is that many of the Indigenous Peoples and movements around the world have adopted a social and/or political position where their rights are claimed for their implementation and respect from the part of the National governments and other national and international entities.

In our experience, once Indigenous Peoples have had their rights recognised, the challenge and focus has been on the exercise of such rights for the developing of intercultural processes to administrate their own [indigenous] government, their education, health, natural and financial resources and environmental management in a manner which is articulated to the national and international world.

The concepts, structure and policies implied in these processes of intercultural governability are not present in the conventional national politico-administrative realms nor in the Indigenous traditional systems alone. Their construction requires a community based work where the communities reflect upon their realities (past, present and future), organisational policies and objectives.I

In this context, Indigenous Rights are understood and implemented in function of the policies and goals collectively defined, expressed in written project proposals and executed in co-ordination with the government

2. Is it possible and is it desirable to ‘protect’ Indigenous Peoples from the influences of modernity?

In my opinion, it is impossible to ‘protect’ Indigenous Peoples from modernity.

The key issue is that Indigenous Peoples themselves must decide the type of relationship they want. All we can do, is to accompany Indigenous Peoples in the analysis and in the development of ways of handling their relationship with the ‘modern’ world.

We can also focus efforts in making the Western world more aware of the value of Traditional Cultures as well as the need to recognise their rights, their cultures, territories and ways of life by opening real legal politico-administrative and cultural spaces where the Indigenous Rights can be implemented by the Indigenous Peoples.

3. Are cultural norms and priorities of Indigenous Peoples always good for the protection of the environment and the rainforest?

This varies from culture to culture and according to the context they live in and the pressures put on them, both inner and outer. In general, Indigenous Peoples tend to preserve their environment because it is the basis of their subsistence and the availability of land is limited by ethnic, cultural and traditional distributions for access and management.

Indigenous Peoples have developed complex spiritual, social and economic practices to achieve a sound collective environmental management which guarantees the sustainability of both human and natural existence. However, the danger lies in the fragility of these practices in the face of overwhelming outer pressures and internal cultural degradation.

It is up to us to realise and recognise the importance of traditional knowledge and cultures per se and their role in environmental conservation and to create long term alliances with them. This can be done by developing multiple mechanisms (legal, political, administrative, educational, social, religious, etc.) where cultural diversity and integrity are respected and strengthened, therefore allowing the reproduction of traditional knowledge and the intercultural articulation of diverse human cultures in mutual respect and interest.

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