Consolidation of the Amazon Region (COAMA)

(1999, Colombia)

...for showing how indigenous people can improve their livelihood, sustain their culture and conserve their rainforests.


The Consolidation of the Amazon Region (COAMA) is a group of Colombian NGOs struggling for the recognition of indigenous rights and their crucial role in the conservation of the world's tropical rainforests. Basing their work on intercultural analysis, the COAMA team established a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity with about 250 indigenous communities of 22 differential cultural groups, enabling them to determine their own development path. While safeguarding the rainforest, this work also led to the creation of micro projects in health, education, cultural and ecological recuperation and market product projects.

Contact Details

c/o Fundación Gaia-Amazonas
Cra. 4 No.26B-31
Santafé de Bogota



Between 1986-1990 the Colombian Government legally recognised 20 million hectares of rainforest in the Colombian Amazon region as 'collective indigenous territory' - resguardos.

This policy was an unprecedented move towards the recognition of indigenous rights and the important role of forest peoples in the conservation of the world's tropical rainforests. It was achieved through the pressure of indigenous communities, and the determined support of many Colombians, including Martin von Hildebrand, as Head of Indigenous Affairs at that time.

In 1990 funds were secured from the EU to set up a network of field officers to accompany the communities to develop and implement their recognised rights to continue to manage their rainforest ecosystem according to their own cultural norms and priorities.

This evolved into the COAMA Programme, which Martin von Hildebrand helped to foster and now coordinates, and which consists of a number of Colombian NGOs - Gaia Amazonas, Fundación Etnollano, Fundación Erigaie, Hylea, Fundación Ecologia-Social, FundaMinga, CECOIN, and the Gaia Foundation in London.

Through a process of intercultural analysis and reflection, the COAMA team (which eventually grew to about 50 people) established a relationship of mutual respect and reciprocity with those indigenous communities who wished to work in this way.

This has allowed them to make informed, collective choices to determine their own development path. Out of this process, microprojects developed in health, education, cultural and ecological recuperation and market product projects, through which the indigenous communities began to reclaim control of their livelihood systems.

The COAMA group of NGOs continued their cooperation through the 1990s, while maintaining respect for each other's differences, and thereby provided united support for about 250 indigenous communities of 22 differential cultural groups in this enormous rainforest sanctuary.

COAMA has provided a context in which a mutually respectful alliance has evolved between indigenous communities and occidental specialists which has helped to transform the historical relationship of exploitation into a creative joint search for sustainable options in the present context.

Based on the work and values of indigenous communities, COAMA has promoted an alternative approach to tropical rainforest conservation, which implies strengthening indigenous rights and promoting a genuine process of inter-cultural collaboration.

An international evaluation, undertaken in 1996, stated that the COAMA projects have had 'a big impact in the indigenous communities, which have strong bonds of trust with the expert personnel'. A former President of Colombia, Alfonso Lopes, has called COAMA a 'ray of light', describing it as 'our contribution... to the creation of a world of co-operation and solidarity and our fight to save humanity from the ravages of civilisation'.


Acceptance Speech by M.v. Hildebrand and P.L. Tanimuka

December 9th, 1999

Greetings to Stockholm, Madam Speaker, the Swedish Parliament, Members of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great honour for us to be here in the Swedish Parliament to receive this award, in the name of all the dreamers who seek a genuine respect for cultural and biological diversity on the planet.

America is the only continent that has never been de-colonised. The Creoles expelled the Europeans, but the original inhabitants are still fighting for the recognition of the right to their own cultural identity, to their ancestral lands, and to manage their lives according to their knowledge, criteria and dreams. These peoples have developed cultures that intimately reflect the forest ecosystems, of which they are part. They have understood that nature is something bigger than themselves, and have thereby honoured and preserved it.

Today, the extractivist vision of our consumer societies has led us to the verge of destroying the planet's life support systems, of which the tropical rainforest is one. Few of these forests remain. We are now turning to peoples with a traditional knowledge so that they can help us preserve these ecosystems, against the forces generated by our own culture. But do we have the right to think like this? To turn to indigenous peoples if we are not willing to fully recognise their rights? Can we think of a sustainable future for the planet without a real acceptance of all those cultures that have been denied in the name of development?

COAMA's commitment over the last decade has been, to accompany the indigenous peoples of the Amazon in their struggle to recuperate what is rightfully theirs, to support their efforts towards full recognition of who they are, and to search with them for alternative ways of respecting and preserving the tropical forests.

This implies the recognition that we have no pre-conceived answers to the problems. We must build new paths together, based on their principles and by adapting Western ways. It is a slow process of reflection and of finding new forms of communication, and of expressing ideas for alternative approaches to those of conventional development.

Based on their respect for diversity as the essence of life, the indigenous peoples seek allies that will listen and support their initiatives, rather than impose solutions or simply tolerate them. Inter-cultural approaches are not simply combining different elements, but are ways of respecting differences and of searching together for appropriate paths.

This is a dream that is becoming reality in the Colombian Amazon; a real example from which we can draw inspiration, from cultures that know how to live in harmony with nature. COAMA strives to show how it is possible to co-exist on this planet with diverse cultures, rather than being reduced to a materialistic  utilitarian development process.

The future of the planet depends on a genuine respect for all ways of thinking in the world. We see that the West is the exception; it is here that in recent times we have deviated from the path of living in balance with the planet, and in a short period we have reached the edge of the abyss.

We talk about recognising the other, but in reality our first need is to recognise that we are the ones out of line, and that this needs to change.

We call to all inhabitants of the blue planet, to try and understand and listen to those who are different to ourselves. This means the dominant West must constrain itself from imposing or impinging on other cultures; it means recognising the rights and needs of other cultures, on their terms, so that they can continue to reflect different expressions of humanity.

It also means, in a positive way, the possibility of building alliances between different cultures, to find a way back to the ecological laws that govern life on the planet. This is the contribution indigenous cultures can offer the all-consuming global culture, if it has the sense to change.

From our point of view, the value of COAMA resides in this effort to construct genuine inter-cultural paths that provide alternatives for the preservation of nature, based on new ways of education, production and use of natural resources, and territorial management. But these ideas should be put forward by my colleague from the Colombian Amazon.


My name is Pascual Letuama Tanimuka, and I am President of the  "Association of Indigenous Captains of the Mirití-Paraná Amazonas", known as ACIMA.

I am proud to talk in my own language, and in my mother-tongue I can more easily express my thoughts.

When we talk about 'indigenous territory', we are talking in a holistic way: health, education, environment, government, all of which are embodied in our 'territorial management'. The indigenous world cannot be sub-divided, and likewise our territory cannot be managed piecemeal; everything is contained within the world of indigenous thought.  This is what we seek to strengthen: so that our knowledge for taking care of the world, which means knowledge from nature, is not lost; and so that this wisdom continues to manage our territories.

It is not only the trees that need to be cared for. Everything has a spiritual guardian: the animals, the fish, the rivers, the water. All this is what our elders manage with their shamanistic thought; that is, with spiritual knowledge. This is what we call 'territorial management', and it is done through our healing, chants, dances and other rituals. This is what managing the world is about, so that all that exists and everything we do within our territory will not cause harm.

There are norms that we must respect and there are special places that have spiritual owners, and when we ignore these norms or violate this order, then we are inviting 'dis-ease'. Knowledge about all this comes from our own ways of learning; the child has to learn to respect many different things, both places and animals, and different types of food, because all this carries illness.

If we did not have the traditional healers, we would live with sickness (dis-ease) all our lives, because who would do our chanting to prevent ills and for healing. Until now we have been living in a healthy way, practising and conserving this knowledge.

Our traditional authorities have been using their knowledge to manage our territories, in order to preserve the forest. This implies relating in a deep way to the guardians of the animals, the trees, the rivers, the environment, through shamanistic thought.

We have formerly put forward to the Colombian Government our plans for territorial management, in order to preserve the forest and our worldview, and also to strengthen our relationship with them through mutual respect and understanding. We are seeking acknowledgement of our traditional ways of managing our world; to participate in the development of education and health programmes, to empower our worldview and find a more subtle way of articulating both the Western and the indigenous cultures. When we refer to territorial ordering, sometimes we subdivide it into different aspects, so that the white people can grasp what we are saying, but in fact it is a wholeness in one basket.

We seek to manage our territories, with the knowledge of our ancestors. It is not for the national law to come and tell us how to manage them, because the way of nature already exists. In the forest, we clear small areas to cultivate "chagras" (forest gardens), and then allow the forest to recuperate these spaces and the animals to return. This is a continual healing process, which maintains the natural order. This is how we think and strengthen our territorial ordering.

In health we are articulating traditional and Western medicine in such a way that the knowledge of our communities can be perpetuated. We want our knowledge to be respected, in the same way that we respect Western know-how. We believe that these views can be complementary.

The same goes for education, which is the cornerstone of our culture. It is one thing to access national education, and each ethnic group or community can seek its own way to learn from the West; this is useful. But our traditional leaning is fundamental. This is what I have been discussing with my father, Rafael.

We have been honoured with this prize, thanks to our work and to our efforts in maintaining our culture, which is basic for environmental management and for taking care of the world. We are part of COAMA, because COAMA is the consolidation of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. COAMA does not dictate to us the way in which to do things. We ourselves look for support without impositions, a support to strengthen and maintain our own knowledge, as it is from there that all work begins.

The support from COAMA is to implement the works that the indigenous communities propose, in our own way of thinking and self-determination. The work is carried out in a concerted and inter-related way, with mutual respect between COAMA and ourselves.

We are enabled by this support to strengthen all that I have mentioned, seeking to create the territorial autonomy that is intrinsic in the origin of each ethnic group. This is what we mean by territorial management.



Questions 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.I

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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