Traditional knowledge of plants, trees and forest products can be relevant for well-managed forests, food security programmes and the strengthening of local governance. Traditional knowledge-holders have a millenary comprehension of the ecological and cultural aspects of the Amazon region and such knowledge is relevant for the formulation of local life plans and for strengthening the dialogue among local communities, traditional authorities, government institutions and other organizations.
Within this framework, the local research program of Tropenbos International Colombia promotes the documentation of traditional knowledge and the linkage of the indigenous and academic understanding of tropical forests. The following life story of Abel Rodríguez is an example of this program and its achievements.
Abel Rodríguez, a seventy years old Nonuya, an indigenous group from the Mid River Caquetá traditionally nominated as the ‘people from the center’, has been part of the local research program of TBI Colombia for many years. He was born in La Chorrera, over the Igaraparaná River, where he grew up and began his traditional education. He learned about the forest, how to make a living in this isolated territory and the mythological narrations of his people: “I began to study shamanism, I learned how to understand the cycles of time and the ecological and cultural relationships in our world, but I did not get to learn how to heal (one of the traditional practices of shamans). My traditional education was interrupted when I went to study at the local boarding school.”
As many young people in the area, Abel was involved in tapping of rubber as it was practically the only source of income available around the 50’s in spite of being an activity with a violent recent history. Later, he managed to buy a chagra (a land destined for the local agricultural system) not far away from Araracuara, where he contributed to the establishment of the Resguardo Villazul Nonuya.
Abel came for the first time in contact with scientific researchers of the Araracuara Corporation that began a research programme in the area supported by the Dutch cooperation in the 80’s. At that moment, he considered himself a simple indigenous person in charge of cultivating cassava and plantain: “I was the local refrigerator”, he says in allusion to the fact that he was the supplier of agricultural products. National and international researchers had arrived to study trees, medicinal plants, soils, and other elements of the forest. Many locals were invited to work as guides and boat drivers for the researchers but were not asked about their own knowledge.
At the beginning of the 1980’s, Abel accepted to participate as a guide for a commission sponsored by Tropenbos International Colombia and led by Joost Duivenvoorden which had the objective of characterizing the land use in the Mid River Caquetá area. In the beginning he was very quiet: he did not know how to speak Spanish well and thought he would disrespect the visitors by contradicting them. With time he agreed to give some information about the plants in his territory and their uses: “I learned about the forest the hard way: I had to be awake for long hours at night, I had to lend my ears to the elders and make special diets. Our learning was a spiritual process; that is why we consider knowledge as very valuable. I understood that external researchers had a different way of learning and they valued things differently. Instead of getting upset, as many locals, I explained it in a way I thought they would understand.”
Abel was much appreciated by the scientists because he was excellent at classifying plants and explaining their ecological aspects. “We were doing marvelous work until the ‘good people’ arrived.” He meant, of course, the guerrilla armed groups which gradually displaced the researchers and many indigenous people in the area. In the 90’s, Araracuara became a red zone -an area under the control of illegal armed groups- and consequently ended up without government institutions, without military presence and without non-governmental development programmes.
That is how this plant expert ended up in Bogotá making drawings of the plants he knew: “I had never drawn before, I barely knew how to write, but I had a whole world in my mind asking me to picture the plants.” And he did so, outstandingly.
He has produced detailed studies on the variety of reeds and lianas, palm trees, timber and non-timber trees and cultivated plants in the forest. He has also illustrated the various seasons in the forest: the annual cycle in flooded forests, mature forests, and in maloca plants. Last year he illustrated a non-existing tree, The tree of life, which narrates the origin of food for the indigenous people of the Mid River Caquetá and he published the book “The cultivated plants of the center people from the Colombian Amazon”, which is one of the main inputs to the food security project of TBI Colombia under the framework of TBI’s Landscape governance and management programme. Abel’s inventories of the forest have become the bases for local management strategies: they are one of the most complete references of plant biodiversity in the region and their seasonality.
The results are so amazing that Abel has been invited to participate in many art exhibitions, such as the one on Natural history and politics organised in the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango in 2009. This year he is exhibiting his work in the exhibition Sakahán: International Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada and in the Visual Arts of the Indigenous People organized by the Cultural Center of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil. As a reward to his hard work as a plant expert and artist, he has also been invited to feature in the Salón Nacional de Artistas (National Artists’ Exhibition, the most important exhibition in Colombia) which will take place in October 2013 in Medellín.