May 10, 2010
Indigenous groups in the Colombian Amazon have long suffered deprivations at the hands of outsiders. First came the diseases brought by the European Conquest, then came abuses under colonial rule. In modern times, some Amazonian communities were virtually enslaved by the debt-bondage system run by rubber traders: Indians could work their entire lives without ever escaping the cycle of debt. Later, periodic invasions by gold miners, oil companies, colonists, and illegal coca-growers took a heavy toll on remaining indigenous populations. Without title to their land, organization, or representation, indigenous Colombians in the Amazon seemed destined to be exploited and abused.
But new hope would emerge in the 1980s, thanks partly to the efforts of Martin von Hildebrand, an ethnologist who would help indigenous Colombians eventually win control over 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest—an area larger than the United Kingdom.
Von Hildebrand first visited the Colombian Amazon in 1970, spending four months living amongst remote indigenous communities. He found them exploited by rubber traders and deprived of basic human rights. Indigenous communities were in decline as youths abandoned their homeland for towns and traditional knowledge was lost with each passing elder.
Living with tribes during the 1970s, von Hildebrand learned of the traditional land management practices of indigenous societies as well as their philosophies of co-existing with the rainforest. He helped free communities from the tyranny of rubber and started developing an education system for the indigenous. Inspired to help them win title to their territory and therefore greater autonomy, von Hildebrand joined the Colombian government in 1986, as Head of Indigenous Affairs and adviser to President Virgilio Barco Vargas. In government von Hildebrand helped push through legislation that would lead to the establishment of 20 million hectares of collective indigenous territory—a move that would become a fundamental part of the country's 1991 constitution.
Winning recognition of land rights however was only a first step towards autonomy so in 1990 von Hildebrand founded Fundacion Gaia Amazonas to establish a governance structure that would allow indigenous to have greater control over their health and education systems, and the fate of their rainforest environment. Today von Hildebrand serves as head of both Gaia Amazonas and the COAMA Program, a coalition of NGOs that aims to strengthen ties between indigenous groups across Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela to help them develop sustainable livelihoods and approaches to self-governance. The alliance includes 250 indigenous communities across 22 tribes. Some 70 million hectares (270,000 square miles) have been recognized as Indigenous collective property, but tribes are looking to double that amount. Gaia Amazonas is working with several NGOs, the Ministry of Environment and National Parks on a strategy to conserve 80 percent of the Colombian Amazon.
Over the course of his life's work, von Hildebrand has been honored with many accolades including the Right Livelihood Award (Sweden—1999), the National Environmental Prize (Colombia—1999), Order of the Golden Ark (The Netherlands—2004), National Prize of Ecology (Colombia—2004), and the Skoll Foundation's Social Entrepreneur Award in 2009.
Mongabay had an opportunity to talk with von Hildebrand at the 2010 Skoll World Forum at Oxford University.