In Focus, December 2006
By Ben Jolliffe
In their own language, the Awá people call themselves the Inkal Awá or “People of the Mountain.” For generations they have lived on the lower slopes of the Andes, straddling the border of Colombia and Ecuador. This name reflects their belief that the Andes Mountains are not just where they live, but who they are.
“For us, people and nature are not two separate concepts,” said Olivio Bisbicus Pascal, president of the Unidad Indígena del Pueblo Awá (UNIPA), an umbrella group for Awá Indigenous People in Colombia. “We are one.”
Yet human migration pressures, civil conflict, and increasing integration with the modern world have led to environmental degradation and a loss of traditional knowledge and skills for the Awá in the Chocó-Manabi biodiversity conservation corridor in the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena biodiversity hotspot.
In the last few years, UNIPA has developed an innovative solution to these problems with support from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) under the strategic direction in the hotspot of establishing and strengthening local and regional mechanisms to foster corridor-level conservation.
Preserve Culture, Protect the Environment
“Our traditional beliefs and practices are inherently sustainable,” explained Eduardo Ariza, UNIPA’s project manager and anthropological advisor. “We conserve our natural heritage by preserving our culture.”
UNIPA conducted a comprehensive cultural and historical survey of the 24 reserves that make up the 220,000 hectares of Awá Indigenous Territory in Colombia. At the same time, the team organized the first scientific survey of the region, combining detailed mapping, a biological survey, and an ecosystem analysis.
These surveys confirmed the region’s wealth of species such as Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii) and golden poison frog (Phyllobates terribilis). The future of these Endangered species remains uncertain, however, due to continued habitat degradation and the violence and destruction of the illegal drug trade.
Coca cultivation threatens the habitat not only through opportunists clearing new areas of forest for illegal coca plantations, but also as result of government measures against the drug trade. Fumigation with glyphosphate, a toxic chemical that kills coca plants, has impacted 2,000 hectares of Awá forest.
According to UNIPA, spraying glyphosphate kills not only coca plants but also degrades all other crops used by the Awá for sustenance. The chemical also makes it way into waterways, causing a myriad of health problems among residents who rely on the water, such as vomiting, nausea, and fever.
Progress is nonetheless being made in the municipalities of Barbacoas and Tumaco where most of the Awá territory lies. Local officials are using maps produced by UNIPA to update land titles, clearly marking Awá territory. They hope that more accurate land-ownership records will help protect land not planted with coca from being fumigated.
Management Plan in Place
In December 2005, Awá representatives adopted a cultural and environmental management plan aiming to comprehensively protect the area’s biodiversity. The plan is based on the results of the earlier surveys and months of discussion and public participation from community representatives in all the reserves.
In addition to sections detailing the Awá people’s mythology, ritual, and traditional medical practices, there is a conservation management plan that details the agreed areas of Awá territory for strict conservation and multiple-use zones.
It includes regulations for land management in different habitat areas, detailing best practices for crop cultivation, hunting, fishing, and raising domestic animals. The plan also presents suggestions for sustainably harvesting the approximately 200 plants that the Awá use for food, medicine, construction, and trade.
Early Signs of Success
Although it is still too early to see populations of threatened species bouncing back, the management plan is already showing signs of success. For example, community representatives agreed to change their unsustainable hunting practices, which had led to the extinction of some of the larger mammals in the reserves.
The plan also provided another benefit to each of the reserves: individual 1:50,000-scale maps incorporating geographical, soil, and biodiversity data as well as information on climate and land use in combination with “cultural maps” that specify sacred sites and paths.
UNIPA held workshops to ensure local leaders, including more than 100 Awá representatives, can make good use of science-based conservation tools like ecosystem analysis, map management, and the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS). In addition, more than 2,800 Awá children took part in environmental education activities.
Turning the Plan into Policy
Most importantly, the municipalities of Barbacoas and Tumaco recently included UNIPA’s management plan as part of their official land-use plans, ensuring that sustainable Awá practice is included in local and regional government policy for the area.
“After the terrible difficulties which the Awá people have endured, it is a wonderful thing to see their traditional beliefs and customs enshrined in a document recognized by law,” Ariza said. “Tragically, there is still much violence in the area, but at least it is clear who the land belongs to and how they want to manage it from now on.”
For more information, contact , project manager and anthropological advisor, UNIPA.