Mama Narcisa (far right)—a Kamentsa master weaver, healer, and founding member of ASOMI—
with three apprentices holding a woven chumbe, traditionally wrapped around the waist. Photo courtesy of ACT.

How Women are Saving the Amazon One Acre at a Time

For our Spring Hummingbird Lip Chic, we’re teaming up with Liliana Madrigal and the Amazon Conservation Team to help a group of indigenous women healers and elders buy back their ancestral land in the Andean Amazon.

Last summer’s massive fires put the Amazon on the map for much of the world. But Liliana Madrigal and Mark Plotkin, co-founders of the Amazon Conservation Team, have for decades been immersed in this lush forest landscape that spans nine countries from Brazil to Peru and is home to at least one in ten known species of flora and fauna. Partners in life and in work, these conservation vets—she as an organizer behind renowned national parks in her native Costa Rica and he as an American ethnobotanist—launched ACT nearly 25 years ago with a then-radical approach: working with and on behalf of indigenous local communities to protect their native lands and preserve traditional culture.

One of our favorite ACT’s projects in Colombia—they also have teams in Brazil and Suriname—involves working with a group of indigenous women, ASOMI (Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas), to conserve their ancestral territory in the Putumayo region of the Amazon near Ecuador. Our Hummingbird Lip Chic will support Chantecaille’s $75,000 donation for the purchase of 75 biodiverse acres adjacent to ASOMI’s headquarters.

We sat down with Liliana at the couple’s indigenous art- and artifact-filled home in the Washington, D.C. suburbs to talk about their transformative efforts in the Amazon–and how women are standing up for the intertwined futures of their environment, their cultures, and their families.

ACT co-founder Liliana Madrigal (second from left) with four Siona ASOMI apprentices at a gathering. Photo courtesy of ACT.

ACT’s approach is really unusual. What inspired your vision?
Working in conservation for a long time, Mark and I grew really disenchanted. Not just because we thought the money could be used more effectively, or because so often it was more about the institution than the mission, but because we were really interested in working with indigenous people in a true partnership, rather than just creating borders around protected areas.

They grew up with this land; we didn't. When you own something, when it’s going to be for you and for your kids and honor your past, you’re going to use the best possible practices. And now studies confirm it—deforestation can drop dramatically when under indigenous management, many times even lower than national parks.

So in your view, conserving land is also about conserving culture. How do they work together?
Our original mission was the conservation and protection of biodiversity, health and culture. From the perspective of many indigenous people, these are inextricable. They go hand in hand: without the land, they don't have the materials for their baskets, the plants for their medicines, the inspiration for their clothing. Land is such a fundamental component of indigenous identity—it is sometimes said that indigenous people are not indigenous if they don't have their land.

"When nature is met halfway, left alone with time and space and supported by thoughtful human activity, life thrives."

How do you work with indigenous groups and what do you typically do for them?
If we are doing something well and it resonates, then people come to us naturally. It’s a neighboring community talking to and supporting another neighboring community, learning about our work and wanting to be a part of it. Sometimes people have traveled days to attend a gathering we are supporting because they want to make contact.

When it comes to land rights specifically, we understand the legal systems, but also provide the direction that the communities need to be able to use their knowledge and exercise their rights. Land protection is very complicated. There have been cases where our staff spends the holidays going over files all the way back to the Conquest, because God forbid you should get or claim an inch of land that doesn’t belong to you. We’re very mindful about the work, and the legalizations we do are impeccable and strategic.

Taita Arturo, an Inga Shaman from Alto Putumayo; ceremonial beads. Photo courtesy of ACT.

And what does it mean when the communities finally own their land?
It becomes part of their reserves. It becomes collective. It means that they will be able to manage these lands ancestrally, they are not going away, and they have the right to oppose any kind of development because there must be prior and informed consent.

Tell us about the ASOMI women. Who are they?
ASOMI is an organization of female elders, healers, and knowledge-keepers from five different tribes spanning 100 thousand acres in the Andean Amazon region of Colombia: Sionas, Kofanes, Koreguajes, Ingas, and Kamentsas. Their mission is to revitalize the knowledge and practices of indigenous communities regarding medicinal plants, artisanship, women’s self-care, and ecological stewardship of their territory.

This mission is manifest in their chagras, or traditional gardens, that shelter more than 700 plant species altogether—medicinal, artisanal, timber, food, you name it. At these gardens—currently 54 speckled across the region—ASOMI elders train young apprentices in traditional medicine, horticulture, culture, and seed conservation. Through these gardens, the women are not only maintaining their traditional knowledge across generations, but also exchanging over 200 seeds, recovering at-risk native plants, improving their food security, and generating sustainable income.

ASOMI also gathers at their headquarters and meeting house “Chagra de la Vida” or Garden of Life—a 52-acre nature reserve (soon to encompass over 125 acres with Chantecaille’s support!). Here they exchange experiences, plan and evaluate their organizational activities in the territories, perform traditional ceremonies, and exchange seeds and ethnobotanical knowledge. It also serves as a learning space for the community, offering bird-watching programs and nature trails that guide learning about the ecosystem and the traditional cultures of ASOMI. A garden and nursery are also located here, which are shared and cared for by all of the ASOMI women.

Mama Narcisa (front) and Charito (rear)—both Kamentsa founding members of ASOMI. Photo courtesy of ACT.

Where are the 75 acres? What will they gain with this acquisition?
It's just up the hill from the existing ASOMI Chagra de la Vida headquarters. It’s very beautiful, with waterfalls and the headwaters of a river that is important for the communities surrounding ASOMI. It’s also become a real refuge for wildlife—there are two species of endangered monkey, and they’ve even spotted a jaguarundi.

Acquiring it has been a dream of ASOMI’s since their founding in 2004, but we either didn’t have the money or we couldn’t locate the seller. Mining companies have had their eyes on the whole region for years, which the ASOMI women know would contaminate their communities’ resources. Even the cattle ranching and pasture clearing taking place is increasing erosion and affecting the water flow. So this land purchase will protect the water that all of these people are depending on, and all the biodiversity.

This will also more than double the size of the Chagra de la Vida, which is on its way to becoming the first legally-recognized Civil Society Nature Reserve in Colombia dedicated to the protection of indigenous women's knowledge.

We are using the hummingbird, the muse of our Spring collection, as a symbol of a healthy Amazon ecosystem. Can you tell us what special importance the hummingbird holds in this region?
Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with almost 2,000 bird species alone. Nearly half of those are in the Andean Amazon region, a mega-diverse area in all respects and a top priority for conservation. Beyond their ecological importance, birds have a cultural prominence here as well. You can see that a lot of the traditional crowns and headpieces they use have bird feathers, and birds play very significant roles in ceremonial settings.

Different indigenous groups will have different stories. But the common theme is that they are the bearers of good news. With the Kogi [who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta], for instance, they are messengers who deliver people’s prayers up to the sun. They also believe that if you find a nest and place a piece of cotton in it, it is a great omen.

A hummingbird feeding (Photo by Manuel Sánchez Mendoza) and pollinating; aerial view of the Amazon

Has all the attention for the Amazon this year arguably been a good thing?
Yes. When they get burned, we all get burned. But I wouldn't say that you have to suffer to learn. I'm hoping that the evidence is now clear that we can no longer just sit by idly and not do anything. It’s a reminder that we can’t take a single day, a single hour for granted—not only in terms of fighting for nature, but also remembering our rights and that we have to be really mindful citizens. The work has to be like that of a hummingbird, moving nonstop. I am completely hyper and have little tolerance for lack of energy. In that space, nothing is too complicated.

Even with ACT’s amazing work, how do you keep from feeling despair at times over where things are headed in the Amazon?
For me and for ACT, we believe in the resilience of nature. We see it all the time. We have satellite images of degraded areas where we started working 20 years ago, and those areas have come back. Are they completely the same? No. But especially with the Amazon being the most diverse place on earth, every day they're finding something new, too—new species of eels, the tallest tree in the Amazon, there's so much there. When nature is met halfway, left alone with time and space and supported by thoughtful human activity, life thrives.


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