asked in 2005,
answered by Martin von Hildebrand

1. What is the biggest challenge in working with Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon?

The great challenge in the work with the Indigenous Peoples, and indeed a crucial aspect in the success of the indigenous process itself in the Colombian Amazon, is the shift from claiming Indigenous Rights once they have been recognised to exerting them at roots level by indigenous organisations.

The impression one gets is that many of the Indigenous Peoples and movements around the world have adopted a social and/or political position where their rights are claimed for their implementation and respect from the part of the National governments and other national and international entities.

In our experience, once Indigenous Peoples have had their rights recognised, the challenge and focus has been on the exercise of such rights for the developing of intercultural processes to administrate their own [indigenous] government, their education, health, natural and financial resources and environmental management in a manner which is articulated to the national and international world.  

The concepts, structure and policies implied in these processes of intercultural governability are not present in the conventional national politico-administrative realms nor in the Indigenous traditional systems alone. Their construction requires a community based work where the communities reflect upon their realities (past, present and future), organisational policies and objectives.
In this context, Indigenous Rights are understood and implemented in function of the policies and goals collectively defined, expressed in written project proposals and executed in co-ordination with the government

2. Is it possible and is it desirable to 'protect' Indigenous Peoples from the influences of modernity?

In my opinion, it is impossible to 'protect' Indigenous Peoples from modernity.
The key issue is that Indigenous Peoples themselves must decide the type of relationship they want. All we can do, is to accompany Indigenous Peoples in the analysis and in the development of ways of handling their relationship with the 'modern' world. We can also focus efforts in making the Western world more aware of the value of Traditional Cultures as well as the need to recognise their rights, their cultures, territories and ways of life by opening real legal politico-administrative and cultural spaces where the Indigenous Rights can be implemented by the Indigenous Peoples.

3. Are cultural norms and priorities of Indigenous Peoples always good for the protection of the environment and the rainforest?

This varies from culture to culture and according to the context they live in and the pressures put on them, both inner and outer. In general, Indigenous Peoples tend to preserve their environment because it is the basis of their subsistence and the availability of land is limited by ethnic, cultural and traditional distributions for access and management. Indigenous Peoples have developed complex spiritual, social and economic practices to achieve a sound collective environmental management which guarantees the sustainability of both human and natural existence. However, the danger lies in the fragility of these practices in the face of overwhelming outer pressures and internal cultural degradation.
It is up to us to realise and recognise the importance of traditional knowledge and cultures per se and their role in environmental conservation and to create long term alliances with them. This can be done by developing multiple mechanisms (legal, political, administrative, educational, social, religious, etc.) where cultural diversity and integrity are respected and strengthened, therefore allowing the reproduction of traditional knowledge and the intercultural articulation of diverse human cultures in mutual respect and interest.


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