Preserving Cultures: ACT helps the keepers of the forest keep the forest

Saving Amazon rainforests is the goal of many environmental groups around the world, but the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) differs from most of its fellow organizations in its motivations. "The agenda we have is driven by the Indians," said Executive Director Liliana Madrigal. ACT strives to work with indigenous people to preserve their cultures, as well as the plants and animals living in their midst. Founded in 1995 by Madrigal and noted author and conservationist Mark Plotkin, the group has paired Western conservationists with shamans, tribal elders and local authorities from about 30 tribes in several countries to preserve the traditional medicine and land of the indigenous people in the Amazon. ACT has helped map over 30 million acres of rainforest; currently its members and partner tribes are plotting land in Brazil, Suriname and Colombia using GPS technology. Western-trained cartographers are working with the Indians to compose these maps. One of the results is better protection from extractive industries, and from encroachment by miners and settlers that may environmentally compromise the Indians' native land.

Yet the group's work goes beyond just saving the environment—its Shamans and Apprentices Program provides young men and women in partner tribes with small stipends so they can learn knowledge of medicinal plants and practices from their elders. Like many indigenous cultures around the world, people native to the Amazon have been heavily influenced by Western culture in recent years, often with strongly adverse effects on the cohesion of their communities and the continuity of their traditions.

This is true of both the men and women in Indian tribes. However, ACT faced an additional obstacle in working with indigenous women. "We recognized the role women played, but it was very hard to get to work with them," Madrigal explained. The traditional Indian societies required ACT to earn the trust of male tribal leaders and shaman before they could interact with the women. "It literally took five years before we were able to even think about developing something," she said. In 2004, ACT finally began a women's program in Colombia at the request of male healers.

Many of the practices of women healers already seem antiquated to Indian women in their 30s and 40s, Madrigal said. Because of the increased acculturation in the communities, as well as the declining health of the most knowledgeable female healers, the indigenous communities ACT works with in the Colombian piedmont are in danger of losing much of their traditional knowledge. Tribal leaders helped assemble the most knowledgeable elder women in six Colombian tribes in Feb. 2004; the team lived in a house together for a week, cooking and sharing stories about the future and the past, as well as discussing traditional medicines.

The Amazon rainforest is home to millions of different species; many are found nowhere else on earth. Yet in this precious milieu, habitat destruction and the actions of humans constantly harm both animals and plants. In the Americas, 39 percent of amphibians are threatened or endangered—particularly in an area of Colombia where ACT works. Countless birds and even large mammals may also some day be extinct because of deforestation and over-hunting. A preservation of indigenous cultures and habitats is crucial to the survival of the spectacular species living in this region.

In early June, this progress was highlighted in another gathering of 40 women healers, with 11 new "health promoters" who serve as a bridge between the elder healers, their apprentices and the formal health services to help empower them to pass their knowledge to other women in their communities and to assist in the attainment of the rights enumerated in the Colombian Constitution. Hard work lies ahead for Madrigal and her team, but having the opportunity to improve the lives of many by preserving a culture and its land for future generations more than compensates ACT's ongoing effort.