Sunset in the Amazon. Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, Peru. © Ana Garcia/TNC


Ancestral Memory: Key to Saving the Amazon

From Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, different voices stress the importance of protecting Indigenous traditions under threat in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the absence of ancestral wisdom, we have no way of ensuring that the Amazon will be preserved.

When you ask 21-year-old Milena Pinto for her story, the first person she mentions is her grandmother, Ana Rita Aroca, 85 years old, who lives in the Pijao Indigenous reserve in Albania, Caquetá, Colombia. She evokes a childhood image: the two of them walking great distances to places where there were no hospitals and her grandmother would help deliver babies.

She also remembers as a child accompanying her father, then governor, to meetings with Indigenous leaders from different communities: the Uitoto, Inga, or Koreguaje. She grew up alongside them, attended a leadership training school, represented the Pijao people at the regional, departmental, and national levels, and became a leader herself. “We start with words, from the counsel of elders,” she says.

Quote: Milena Pinto

We must rethink our way of life, our own government, our food autonomy.

In talking about the COVID-19 pandemic from the Indigenous perspective, Milena returns to her grandmother, Ana Rita, who said that no law keeps her from identifying as Indigenous and to exercise her rights as such. Her rights, from the ancestral viewpoint, are granted by having seed in hand, for taking care of the land; by having water, for taking care of the forests; and by being alive, for taking care of nature.

"We have lived at odds with the environment. Our neighbors, the White people, often say that they want to return to normal. You hear our grandparents talking and it is just the opposite: a return to normal would be a return to deforestation. We must rethink our way of life, our own government, our food autonomy, heed Mother Earth's crying out," says Milena, from Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, Colombia's most deforested department—the region lost 46,765 hectares of forest in 2018.

Spotted Tree Frog
Spotted Tree Frog in Oiapogue, a part of the northern Brazilian Amazon where TNC works with Indigenous communities. © Fábio Maffei

The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have a fundamental role in preserving it: they are the first line of defense and surveillance. The places they inhabit are usually the least deforested. In Brazil, Indigenous lands represent 23 percent of the Amazon territory and have an average deforestation rate of only 1 percent, according to the National Institute of Spatial Research.

"They always say that the forest is there because they are there. They and their traditional ways have maintained it," says Isaí Victorino, a specialist in local and Indigenous communities at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Colombia.

The coronavirus further compounds the situation. “In the region of Vale do Javari, a very large area on the border with Peru, where most of these communities are found, COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in nearby communities in recent weeks. It will be catastrophic if it reaches them, as their immune systems are not well armed to deal with this kind of disease,” says Helcio Souza, strategy coordinator for Indigenous territories with TNC Brazil.

The pandemic also threatens the communities' economies as their products fail to find buyers and they lose crops, making them more vulnerable to the various illicit activities that surround them, Souza explains.


The Indigenous peoples of the Amazon are first line of defense and surveillance.

Their living memory is also threatened. Older populations are hardest hit by the virus. The death of an Indigenous elder results in the loss of knowledge, handed down orally from generation to generation, which in turn shapes life itself in their territories.

"In the town of Oiapoque, on the border with French Guiana, the pandemic has swept away to the world of the constellations great warriors, leaders who were a mirror along my path. The knowledge they passed on to me on the importance of this land and its conservation was impeccable," says Lilia Oliveira, leader of the Karipuna people in Brazil.

The Kawsak Sacha: The Living Forest. "It is a living being, conscious, with rights, in which all living beings are wholly interconnected. On this depends the balance between human beings and nature", explains Daniel Santi, leader of the Kichwa Nation. With the Kawsak Sacha they have attempted to take on the coronavirus. They have had no other option. They have resorted to plants such as wild garlic and ginger for treatment, based in traditional medicine.

Rio Curipi in Brazil
The Rio Curipi flows through the Oiapoque Indigenous region of the Brazilian Amazon. © Haroldo Palo, Jr


In the face of this, the challenge of finding alternatives to preserve ancestral knowledge emerged. "We have neglected our grandparents. A grandparent is a library, a book, and we have not thought out how to record and consolidate that knowledge. If we fail to do so, we are heading towards oblivion," explains Iván Illanes, leader of the Kichwa Nation in Pastaza, Ecuador.

"We aim to support the recovery and preservation of ancestral knowledge to benefit the communities themselves," explains Marco Robles, an Indigenous communities specialist with TNC in Ecuador.

Quote: María Marlene Martínez de Garay

What I learned, I learned to pass on.... You die and have to leave the tree of life planted,

María Marlene Martínez de Garay, from the Murúi-Muina people, died at the age of 68 in July, when her cough, fatigue, and flu symptoms worsened. Her son, Carlos Garay, 42, suspects that she was infected when María Marlene left the community at the beginning of the month to claim a senior citizen's benefit. Due to lack of access, there was no way to warn her to exercise caution.

María Marlene was one of 15 people, according to Carlos, who still spoke m+ca, the local dialect. She would teach it to others in the community. From her, Carlos remembers that even though she was very busy, she always shared her knowledge of the language, medicine, weaving, and crafts.

She once said, "What I learned, I learned to pass on. That's what my mom and dad used to say. You die and have to leave the tree of life planted.”

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) in Colombia.
Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra) in Colombian forest. © Timothy Boucher/TNC

Experts at The Nature Conservancy have built direct relationships with Indigenous leaders. They seek to strengthen and preserve their territories through implementing projects aimed at providing them with sustainable livelihoods consistent with their socio-cultural reality. To this end, they guarantee the preservation of ancestral knowledge and strengthen family economies to withstand outside pressures from illegal mining and deforestation.

For 15 years, TNC has worked with different communities in the Amazon on projects suited to local contexts and needs. In Ecuador, for example, TNC supports a community-based tourism initiative; in Brazil, a women's enterprise producing babaçu coconut oil; and in Colombia, a process of intercultural dialogue between rural farmers and Indigenous people to reduce deforestation and support forest restoration.

Despite the clear impacts, the challenge of the pandemic represents an opportunity as well: “to further strengthen our own economies as a strategy for preserving these territories,” explains Isaí Victorino.

Originally published at Semana Sostenible
September 17, 2020
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