Pirá Paraná River

Report By
Zoe Scheffy
Fiona Wilton and Nelson Ortiz, Gaia Foundation
September 20, 2018

What might the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí have to do with the successful protection of a sacred river and rainforest in Colombia that has long been threatened by gold mining?

The Pirá Paraná River flows into the Apaporis River in the southeast Colombian Amazon, close to the Brazil border. The Pirá Paraná River corridor is home to 2,000 indigenous Tukano-speaking people of the Barasana, Eduria, Macuna, Bará, Tatuyo, Tuyuca and Carapana ethnic communities. These seven groups live along the river in small settlements and malocas (traditional communal houses). In 1996, to achieve greater autonomy in the management of their livelihood, education and health, and to safeguard their land and resources from external threats, such as gold mining, elders and traditional leaders formed the Association of Indigenous Captains and Authorities of the Pirá Paraná (ACAIPI). The territory of ACAIPI covers 600,000 hectares (6,000 km2) of tropical forest. The Pirá Paraná forms the heart of a large sacred landscape called Hee Yaia Godo ~Bakari—territory of the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí. In 2010, the area was afforded some protection as a collectively-owned indigenous territory or resguardo, but despite this legal title and collective “ownership” by the indigenous communities, the subsoil belonged to the nation and remained vulnerable to mining.

On April 10, 2018, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos signed a Decree of Non-Municipalized Areas which strengthens the autonomy of indigenous peoples of Guainía, Vaupés and Amazonas, the three political-administrative departments of Colombia’s Amazon region, and effectively allows indigenous communities to administer state resources. Tatuyo leader Libardo Bolivar Marín said, “Right now, we are content because we will have legitimate autonomy and self-government. It is a recognition by the government of our fundamental rights.” And ACAIPA’s Guillermo Rodriguez Neffa said, “This decree is an opportunity for us to govern our own territory with our own policies—and we now have a responsibility with the state for the administration of state funds.”

The “Heart-Center”

Familial and spiritual identity of the Barasana, Eduria, Macuna, Bará, Tatuyo, Tuyuca and Carapana ethnic communities is intertwined through proximity, marriage, language and connection to the land, water and cosmos. According to Kaj Århem, communities are symbolically associated with cosmic domains—Earth, Sky or Water—and an individual’s group affiliation and integration with the wider Pirá Paraná society expresses the wholeness of the cosmos. Likewise, the communities of the Pirá Paraná conceptualize their territory as a maloca, a world-house formed symbolically by the river, mountains and wider landscape. The Pirá Paraná River is understood as a nested series of houses within houses made up of clans and groups. Identity, community, natural spaces and spirituality are interconnected. Any disruption of family, community or landscape affects the survival and health of all life along the Pirá Paraná.

According to ancestral wisdom, the Pirá Paraná forms the heart of a large sacred territory called Hee Yaia Godo ~Bakari—territory of the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí—a macro-region in the Amazon formed by the river basins of the Negro and Caquetá-Japurá Rivers, which run through Colombia and into Brazil. The ancestral knowledge for governing the sacred Yuruparí territory—Hee Yaia~Kubua Baseri Keti Oka—is expressed in rituals, sacred instruments and plants like yagé, coca and tobacco. The wisdom concentrated in a network of sacred natural sites is perceived and handed down to all of the ethnic groups that inhabit the Apaporis, Pira Paraná and Mirití river regions of the Amazon, in both Colombia and Brazil. This knowledge has been well preserved because it is still practiced.

The Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí are the guardians of the sacred sites of the Pirá Paraná, which, according to practice, contain vital spiritual energy that nurtures all living beings in the world. Their traditional knowledge is an organic system that seeks to maintain the balance between humans and nature, using both traditional knowledge and rituals to heal, prevent sickness and manage natural resources. The shamans’ knowledge is vital to their communities and natural spaces. For example, during the Hee Biki ritual, male children learn traditional healing guidelines as a part of their passage into adulthood, ensuring understanding of cultural knowledge by the next generation.

The traditional communities of the Pirá Paraná have been in intermittent contact with colonial European communities and influence for more than 300 years. Regular contact between colonial and indigenous peoples increased in the late 19th century, when the commercial exploitation of wild rubber began in the Colombian Amazon and indigenous men were taken by force to work for European rubber plantation owners. However, due to its remote location, and the difficulty European explorers had reaching the communities of the Pirá Paraná, the Catholic Church only established its first mission station, schools and community settlements along the river in the 1960s.

Pressures on traditional ways of life, spirituality and the indigenous communities’ relationships with natural spaces continued throughout the 20th century. Mining policies and the emigration of young people to work in more densely-populated centers have had an impact on the lifestyle of the peoples of the Pirá Paraná, and they constitute serious threats to the viability of knowledge systems, particularly relating to the management of natural resources and sacred sites. This was acutely felt during the economic boom of the 1970s and 80s, when gold mining and cultivation and sale of coca leaves increased throughout the region. While the boom brought money to the area, it also brought contamination and devastation to the natural landscape and sacred sites, along with differential access to traded goods, temporary abandonment of subsistence production and, with the departure of many young men from their communities, the loss of indigenous knowledge.

The process by which the people of the Pirá Paraná responded to these threats and successfully protected land, culture, traditional knowledge and sacred natural sites is worth in-depth study.

Agency and Preservation

In the 1980s, Colombia began to recognize indigenous communities connection to the land. In 1988, the Colombian government of Virgilio Barco returned more than 18 million hectares of Amazon territory to indigenous communities for cultural and spiritual practices. However, these territories remained ‘Non-Municipalized Areas’ and governance and ultimate control over land use remained with the State. Beginning in 1996, the communities of the Pirá Parana, through their cooperation as the Association of Indigenous Captains and Authorities of the Pirá Paraná or ACAIPI, embarked on a journey to formally protect their sacred natural sites and traditional knowledge from external threats like gold mining and coca production. These efforts intensified when applications for mineral exploitation were filed in 2002. With support from the Colombian nongovernmental organization Gaia Amazonas, the communities of the Pirá Paraná have worked to strengthen their cultural identity as the basis for governing their ancestral lands, highlighting their traditional knowledge as an organic system that seeks to maintain the balance between humans and nature. Francisco Benjamín from the Eduria community says, “We are all ACAIPI. It is the territory, the rivers, the forest, the animals, the sacred sites, the people and our origin. Our association was born to defend our rights, our territories and our autonomy.” Throughout the 2000s ACAIPI has maintained these efforts, even as mining, rubber and coca production expanded in the surrounding Amazon region.

On August 5, 2010, the Hee Yaia~Kubua Baseri Keti Oka, the ancestral knowledge for governing the sacred Yuruparí territory by the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí, was registered on Colombia’s “Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Nation.” This success was followed by inclusion in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011. Also in 2011, ACAIPI developed a Special Safeguard Plan for their traditional knowledge. The Special Safeguarding Plan received support from Colombia’s Ministry of Culture between 2011 and 2013. Objectives of the program were to practice traditional land management, facilitate the transmission of traditional knowledge to youth, and document the sacred sites of Yuruparí territory.

A central component of the Special Safeguarding Plan for the traditional knowledge of the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí is a research program first conceived by ACAIPI in 2003 as a community-driven initiative that would ensure that indigenous communities are gathering valuable environmental and wildlife data to better understand the ecological dynamics of the territory. Communities use this information to then advance sustainable livelihoods that ensure the health and functioning of forest ecosystems. A core component of the project involves youth and elders working together to create cultural maps of sacred natural sites linked to hunting practices, ceremonial calendars and origin stories. This visionary, inspiring program is ongoing. However, due to budgetary constraints, it no longer enjoys the same level of support from government resources.

In spite of challenges, ACAIPI continues to lead the effort to preserve indigenous cultural identity, traditional knowledge and sacred places through current activities that support the objectives of the Special Safeguarding Plan. ACAIPI has produced several notable community and youth-driven projects.

In 2015, they published Hee Yaia Godo ~Bakari: El Territorio de los Jaguares de Yurupari (Traditional knowledge of environmental management: the territory of the Jaguars of the Yurupari), which profiles 90 people from the Pirá Parana, including shaman Ignacio Macuna (Anaconda Water people), shaman Isaac Macuna (Anaconda Water people), Uriel Betancourt (Anaconda Yeba people), Ricardo y Roberto Marín (Anaconda Yeba people), Reynel Ortega (Anaconda Yeba people), Tarcicio Vanegas (Anaconda Yeba people), Juana Marin (Anaconda Yeba people), Gonzalo Valencia (Anaconda Water people), Antonio León (Star people), as well as allies, such as anthropologist Martín von Hildebrand. Barbara Santos and biologist Nelson Ortiz of Gaia Amazonas edited the publication and coordinated the research program from 2002 to 2017.

During 2016, the youth initiative “Laboratorio arte & tecnología desde el Saber Ancestral Hee Yaia Keti Oka,” a project of Barbara Santos’s Efecto Mariposa, was supported by ACAIPI, the Colombian Ministry of the Interior and the Director of Indigenous Affairs. Communities of the Pirá Parana brought together and recorded the wisdom of 30 indigenous leaders, seed protectors, professors, researchers and traditional medicinal shamans or Kubua.

In 2017, with the support of UNESCO and Gaia Amazonas, Nelson Ortiz coordinated a project with ACAIPI that included fieldwork conducted by indigenous youth groups at the most significant sacred sites, the processing and systematization of the information collected, and publication of six bilingual booklets.

In addition to these important local efforts, the communities of the Pirá Parana have also engaged in a series of exchange visits with African community leaders who visit the heart of the Colombian Amazon. These cultural exchanges have inspired revival of traditional knowledge and safeguarding of sacred natural sites and territories in South Africa, Kenya and Benin.

After 30 years of concerted effort by many communities of the Amazon Basin to preserve and protect their cultures, spiritual practices and sacred places, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a Decree of Non-Municipalized Areas on April 10, 2018, acknowledging the fundamental role of indigenous peoples as guardians of the environment. In his speech to local indigenous leaders, Santos acknowledged that it is indigenous people who are “most interested in conserving their forests, in conserving their rivers, in not contaminating—they are our best allies.” The president added: “That is why it is very important to see their autonomy, which today we give them, with the preservation of our environment.” The decree grants the right to execute and administer state resources, without intermediaries, to the indigenous peoples of the Departments of Guainía, Vaupés and Amazonas through their cooperation as the Associations of Traditional Indigenous Authorities. Martín von Hildebrand, anthropologist and founder of Gaia Amazonas, who has worked alongside the indigenous groups of the Pirá Parana for 45 years said, “This is the most important thing that has happened to the indigenous Amazonians in 30 years.”

Lessons Learned

The communities of the Pirá Parana, united as the Association of Indigenous Captains and Authorities of the Pirá Paraná, led by the elders and traditional authorities, together with the spiritual guidance and knowledge of the Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí, and joined by community youth, have demonstrated how an agenda conceived by indigenous people can succeed. Employing community-driven initiatives has preserved and strengthened traditional knowledge, protected sacred sites, ensured intergenerational cultural transmission, and in the political realm secured indigenous autonomy and rights to administer state resources within Colombia.

Speaking with Sacred Land Film Project director Toby McLeod at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Australia in 2014, Martin von Hildebrand reflected on the successes he has witnessed in the Amazon over the past four decades with Gaia Amazonas. He asserted that the agenda must come from the people—from their land, mythology, health, sacred natural sites—and that this inspires unity. “Work on territorial resources, and people come together. Focus on sacred natural sites, and shamans get together. This is the healthiest approach to revive traditional knowledge and create unity. What matters is the system and flow of energy that the shaman sees so clearly—in both the land and the human body. The true focus is not on equilibrium or balance, it is about keeping the energy flowing. Health flows via hunting and fishing and healing plants, what we eat, how we move at different times of day and year, knowing when not to hunt or fish, understanding how the nervous system works.”

And, according to Martin von Hildebrand, indigenous research projects work. Shared cultural/spiritual/ecological inquiry with key elders engages young people in their communities, customs and traditional knowledge, and positions them at the center of practicing and safeguarding their cultural and natural resources for future generations.

What You Can Do

Read more about the communities of the Pirá Parana River and the work of the ACAIPI at Gaia Amazonas—and consider making a donation. Additionally, you can find information, news and updates on current actions in the Amazon at the Gaia Foundation.

For more information and resources, contact:
Fundación Gaia Amazonas
Carrera 17 # 39-73 Bogotá, Colombia
Email: contacto@gaiaamazonas.org

The Gaia Foundation
6 Heathgate Place
London NW3 2NU
Email: info@gaianet.org


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Århem, Kaj. “Powers of Place: landscape, territory, and local belonging in northwest Amazonia.” Locality and Belonging. Edited by Nadia Lovell; Routledge, 2003.

Daly, John. “Traditional knowledge of the jaguar shamans of Yuruparí (Colombia).” UNESCO In the Spotlight: Education and Culture, December, 2011.

Gomez, Silvia. “Saving Sacred Lands.” World of Possibilities.

Hosken, Liz. “Saving Sacred Lands.” World of Possibilities.

Montague, Brendan. “The most important thing that has happened to the indigenous Amazonians in 30 years.” The Economist, April 12, 2018.

Reubold, Todd, interviewer. “Martín von Hildebrand: An audacious plan for the Amazon.” Ensia, November 2, 2015.

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von Hildebrand, Martín. “Indigenous Autonomy: New decree recognises autonomy of indigenous communities across Colombian Amazon.” The Gaia Foundation, 2018.

von Hildebrand, Martín. “Creation and planning of the Yaigojé Apaporis Indigenous Reserve and Natural National Park from an indigenous cosmovision.” Panorama: Solutions for a Healthy Planet, March 2, 2018.

UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. “12 COM 1 BUR – Intangible Cultural Heritage.” Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, March 17, 2017.

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Laboratorio con ACAIPI

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