Colombian activist encourages library patrons to 'discover' the earth

No one understands the ins and- outs of your home like you do. That doesn’t change when your home is a one-million-hectare jungle in South America called the Amazon.

One of the most exploited natural resources in the world, the Amazon is home to 55 individual ethnic communities that, with only a small amount of outside support, are in the best situation to protect their own home from outsiders and profiteering.

“There’s no way the Colombian government could put in thousands of forest guards in the Amazon,” says Martin Von Hildebrand, a noted Colombian conservationist. “But we have people there that you don’t have to train. We just have to support them and help them make their own governments more stable.”

For the past 30 years, Mr. Von Hildebrand has worked with the indigenous populations of the Colombian Amazon, supporting their journey from exploitation at the hands of logging and rubber companies to self-governance and constitutional recognition. He spoke of his experiences Sept. 23 at Wilton Library.

When he first came in contact with those populations as a young traveler, he was in awe of their traditional knowledge. He first met Colombian natives while traveling throughout the Colombian Amazon by himself.

“There is a lot to be discovered on the earth, as long as we listen. The people who live in the rain forest, they understand the rain forest. They marry into different [tribal] groups so there is a chain, and during traditions, they pass that information down. Those indigenous to the Amazon are aware of enormous areas of the rain forest.”

Since those first meetings, Mr. Von Hildebrand has become a Western confidant to the people of the Amazon, first as a friend, then as a minister of indigenous affairs in Colombia, and later as the head of the largest NGO group in the region, Gaia Amazonas.

Together with his native partners, Mr. Von Hildebrand has helped conserve more than 65% of the Colombian Amazon. Running on a budget of just $1.5 million a year, his organization’s work has saved a piece of property the size of France, he says.

Rather than encourage natives to become increasingly isolated from contemporary society — there remain more than 50 uncontacted tribes in Brazil, Peru and Colombia, he says — the activist has focused on providing access to the portions of modern society they want and need.

We enable them to exist in our society, because there are things they want from us. They use 80% traditional knowledge, and 20% of ours. There are things, illnesses for instance, that their traditional knowledge cannot solve. They do need things from our society.”

Providing access to modern solutions and civil rights has not always been the simplest process, Mr. Von Hildebrand explained, because the world view of native Colombians is fundamentally different from that of their national government.

As an example of those differences, the activist used a situation in which he wanted to help native Colombians get official ownership of their traditional land.

Upon suggesting this idea to native leaders, he got a simple answer back.

“‘Who is going to take our land? No one comes here, no one likes it here,’ they’d say. To them, the jungle belonged to the trees, the birds, the animals. Not just to them.

“From their point of view, it always has been their land. It makes no sense that they needed someone from the outside to solve any problems. I helped stop the problem of encroachment of the western world. For both of our benefit, they can protect the forest on their own.”

Rather than simply reprimanding leaders for being unable to understand the western concept of land ownership, he gave them pertinent information and allowed them to make their own decisions, for better or worse.

“OK, Martin. Why don’t you go get that paper and we’ll sign it,” they eventually told him.

“We all believe that we want the right or opportunity to be ourselves, to be respected,” he continued. “We don’t like other people to come into our house and tell us what to do. We’ll provide them with education and health, but we’re not going to tell them what to do.”

Even today, he continues to use this theory of education and free will to help native populations chart their own paths through an increasingly complicated modern world.

“Education equals increasing the capacity to make decisions. To empower them in their own culture.”

“The child decides what they want to learn. If they want to know fish, the first question is, What do you already know about fish? And then, Who would know about the fish?

“OK, now let’s catch the fish, open the fish, and see what the fish has eaten. Within one lesson, you can touch on social, mathematical and ecological learning,” he said.

This concept, however, is a two-way street. From Mr. Von Hildebrand’s perspective, the Western world would benefit from lending a closer ear to those people who live in close communion with the natural world.

“As we become more sensitive to their world, that is where my optimism is. If we don’t listen to [natives] and accept them, they will be pushed into a corner and disappear because we are the stronger aspect,” he said. “Difference is important. We must be patient, even if we don’t understand them.”