The Amazon Rainforest is the largest rainforest in the world, with a nickname of “the lungs of the planet”. It covers an astonishing nine countries, Colombia being one of them. 10% of the Amazon rainforest is in Colombia, which makes up an area of 403,000 square kilometers. The forests are very important to Colombia, as the environment of Colombia is 80% forest.
Deforestation is the biggest threat to the Amazon rainforest, as well as all of the world’s other forests. Each year Colombia loses nearly 200,000 hectares of natural forest. An estimated 100,000 hectares of native forest are illegally cleared every year. Deforestation in Colombia results primarily from small-scale agricultural activities, logging, mining, energy development, infrastructure construction, large-scale agriculture, and the cocaine trade.
On September 21, 1989, The National Serranía de Chiribiquete National Park was reserved. In July 2018, the national park was expanded by more than twice its original size, from 2.7 million hectares to nearly 4.3 million (that’s like adding Northern Ireland to it!), making it the world’s largest tropical rainforest national park.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos welcomed UNESCO’s decision to designate Chiribiquete a heritage site, declaring it “great news for Colombia”. To celebrate the decision and formalise the extension of the park, the president announced his intention to visit the site within the next week of its expansion in July. In addition he vowed to boost the country’s conservation budget with an extra $525m (£398m) to “protect and defend our environment”.
As Chiribiquete is the confluence point of four biogeographical provinces, (Orinoquia, Guyana, Amazonia, and North Andes) not only is it special for having an incredibly diverse ecosystem, but also for its historical importance as well. Some 75,000 rock pictographs have been found on the walls of 60 rock shelters at the foot of table-top mountains or mesas. The portrayals are interpreted as scenes of hunting, battles, dances and ceremonies, all of which are linked to a purported cult of the jaguar, seen as a symbol of power and fertility. Such practices are thought to reflect a coherent system of thousand-year-old sacred beliefs, organizing and explaining the relations between the cosmos, nature and man. The archaeological sites are believed to be accessed even today by uncontacted indigenous groups.
The Union of Traditional Yage Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) brings together five ethnic groups — the Cofán, Inga, Siona, Coreguaje, and Kamëntsá — who practice spiritual ceremonies for individual and community healing based on ayahuasca, or yagé. All five of these Indigenous groups are also classified by Colombia’s Constitutional Court as being at “risk of physical and cultural extermination.” Miguel Evanjuanjoy, advocacy and project manager of UMIYAC, says “As stewards of the Amazon rainforest, we care for the land because it is she who nourishes us spiritually and through her sacred products.”
According to Gaia Amazonas, intact Indigenous groups are key to protecting the Amazon rainforest. The organization recently published the results of 30 years’ worth of data collected by the Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) showing that indigenous-controlled territories lost less than 1% of their forest during that time. That compares with more than 3% forest loss across the Colombian Amazon in general in the same period. Recent research that looked at 245 Indigenous territories in the Amazon over a span of more than 30 years shows that, indeed, indigenous groups are the best stewards of the Amazon rainforest, especially when they have autonomy and full land rights. But environmentalists still struggle to find ways to ensure those rights. For UMIYAC, the answer lies in their ancestral spiritual practices.
While the world is struggling with conserving ecosystems and forest necessary for all life on earth, some places, like Colombia, seem like they are heading in the right direction.