Restoring Ancestral Lands for Conservation

"The strategy of returning to our ancestral lands has brought many birds and animals back to the forests, which are healthier now. We are proving that the indigenous approach to conservation is lasting and effective."

Danilo Villafañé
Community leader in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

by Molly Castillo Keefe
Vea también en español

In Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, indigenous communities that descended from the great Tairona culture believe their home is the heart of the world, and that on its health the well-being of the entire Earth depends.

Driven by this belief, local communities have set forth an ambitious plan to recover their ancestral lands and restore their vitality, as they were before the expansion of agriculture and deforestation threatened their survival. And The Nature Conservancy is helping them do so.

In January 2009, the Conservancy transferred more than 3,000 acres of protected lands to members of the Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo indigenous communities here. These lands are now legally-recognized indigenous reserves.

The indigenous communities’ environmentally friendly agricultural practices will help conserve the region’s unique natural areas and protect the Sierra Nevada’s 35 river basins, which supply fresh water to nearly 2 million people.

A Fair Deal for People and Conservation

The indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are committed to returning both their people and their traditional approach to conservation to their ancestral lands, making them a likely partner for The Nature Conservancy.

For nearly five years, the Conservancy has worked with local councils to create new indigenous reserves, first by identifying priority conservation areas using maps that overlaid biodiversity priorities onto areas of cultural significance. Based on these findings, the Conservancy purchased nearly 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of land throughout the Sierra, which were then transferred to the indigenous communities. 

This process of establishing key conservation sites was guided by generations of local knowledge that expanded our science-based understanding of the area’s natural systems.

The land transfer was accompanied by a conservation agreement that ensures the ongoing protection of biodiversity within the reserves, guided by a traditional vision of conservation through which 70 percent of natural forests remain intact and 30 percent of lands are occupied by small parcels of subsistence crops, such as coffee, yucca, corn, potatoes, plantains and fruit.

Indigenous leaders have their own approach to conservation that is just as effective — if not more so — than conventional efforts. Traditionally, community leaders and mamos, or spiritual leaders, gather to decide which lands have become exhausted from production and should no longer be used to grow crops. They move production away from those sites, allowing nature to take over with her tried-and-true remedy for recovery.

According to Rogelio Mejía, the governor of the Arhuaco indigenous group, “The work advanced by the Conservancy in the Sierra will help protect the sources of freshwater upon which more than 2 million people depend. Regaining land allows us to strengthen environmental and cultural conservation and will therefore help restore the integrity of our ancestral territories and affirm our traditional land use practices.”

Protecting a “Biological Gem” for Migratory Birds

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an area of unique biodiversity. The largest coastal mountain in the world, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta emerges from the shoreline a mere 26 miles from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, creating a sharp contrast of landscapes where palms, cacti and tropical dry forest meet tropical rainforests, treeless plains and snow-capped peaks. Its isolation from the Andean chain makes this place an island of biodiversity, where species have evolved distinctly and spawned unique flora and fauna found no where else in the world. More than 628 species of birds call the Sierra home, 71 of which are migratory birds that make the long journey from the U.S. and Canada to winter here.

Familiar North American birds like the rose-breasted grosbeak, Swainson's thrush, American tedstart, and Tennessee and blackburnian warblers are frequently found in the Sierra's varied habitats, where they mingle with resident birds. Protection of this important area will ensure that wintering birds survive for their spring migration and find food, shelter, and water to continue on their long journeys.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a biological gem. To lose it would be to lose an invaluable treasure for future generations,” says Aurelio Ramos, the Conservancy’s conservation programs director for Latin America.

Next Steps

Now that the indigenous reserves have been established, the Conservancy is taking on a new role in helping design a system to monitor the protection of lands that have been designated for conservation. This model of indigenous management and local monitoring is being created in such a way that it can be replicated in the future in other priority conservation sites.

As the Tairona believe, the health of the whole world may just depend on what happens here. Following the lead of indigenous leaders, it would serve us well to better steward the Earth’s tired and exhausted lands, giving them a chance to take a much-needed rest and let nature take back over for a while.


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