Martin von Hildebrand has dedicated most of his life to the Colombian Amazon, its conservation and self-determination of indigenous peoples. Having secured territorial ordinance with the Predio Putumayo under President Virgilio Barco to expanding the size of the country’s National Parks systems within the Amazon basin, von Hildebrand’s environmental legacy transcends physical space to include the sharing of ancestral knowledge with the global community. The Colombian ethnologist of Irish-German descent recently journeyed with Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis along the Apaporis river, and the subject of a landmark documentary called The Path of the Anaconda.

The City Paper (TCP). Mr. Hildebrand: The recently released Caracol documentary El Sendero de la Anaconda (The Path of the Anaconda) in which you and Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis recreate the journey taken by Richard Evans Schultes in the 1940s along the Apaporis River, comes at a time when there’s global outrage concerning a rash of fires in the Amazon. What lessons can we take away from this ecological disaster?

Martin von Hildebrand (MvH): The dry season always arrives toward the end of the year, and frankly, one can never be prepared given extreme weather. If our indigenous communities who inhabit this vast region are not prepared, Colombia could face similar problems like Brazil. The fires on the Brazilian side are a warning. Of course, what’s happening is terrible, but none-the-less a warning. Colombia needs to enforce prevention mechanisms. Once a fire breaks out, it is very difficult to control.

TCP: Colombia is taking important strides with biodiversity protection. There are state policies in place, but then, new threats such as fracking and aerial fumigation of glyphosate are being proposed. Is this a contradiction?

MvH: Despite what’s happening in Brazil, we are seeing positive developments in forest conservation. Truth is, President Bolsonaro “put the cards on the table.” As he perseveres with agro-industrial expansion for cattle ranching, his mindset reflects that of many presidents. They just don’t say it publicly, but witnessed in the lack of funding of their Ministries of the Environment, park services, etc… Governments will always be weighed down by the interests of the private sector. Bolsonaro created a “perfect storm,” and this, in turn, is forcing governments to live up to their words. Take the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and all the scientific evidence out there. The time has come to respect international commitments. Colombia, in this regard, has a good track record.

TCP: Has the rise in populism around the world benefited environmental conservation?

MvH: In some ways, yes, and we have the European youth movements to thank. Youngsters like Swede Greta Thunberg remind us time is running out. For me, the fire spirit is telling us that we must either care for the Earth or it will end. This is not just a matter of negligence, it ties in pollution, contamination, pesticides, over-exploitation of natural resources. It was the Amazon that set off the alarms, and hopefully, we will hear its cry for help.

TCP: In The Path of the Anaconda, Wade Davis remarks: As the world falls apart, Colombia is falling together. What are your thoughts on this phrase?

MvH: I have spent 47 years of my life in the Amazon, starting at a time when there was no notion of indigenous rights. I had the fortune of working alongside Presidents Alfonso López Michelsen (1974-1978) and Virgilio Barco (1986-1990). During those decades we created large collective territories for our indigenous peoples, including the Predio Putumayo, Mirití Paraná Reservation, Cahuinarí National Park and Yaigojé Apaporis National Park. When one puts this into numbers, 26 million hectares are in the hands of our indigenous communities, which today represent 53 percent of the Colombian Amazon. In terms of pioneering conservation, Wade is right: “Colombia is falling together.”

TCP: In a major policy decision at the end of his second term, President Juan Manuel Santos expanded the Serranía del Chiribiquete National Park to 4.3 million hectares. Does this prove that he was concerned about Colombia’s environmental protection?

MvH: Even though President Juan Manuel Santos’ mind was focused on peace, he immediately supported my project of establishing the Biological Corridor Amazon-Andes- Atlantic – also known as the Triple-A, and presented it at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris. This project initially aimed to safeguard 135 million hectares of forest, now involves more than twice the size and eight nations. President Santos understood that PNN Chiribiquete plays an essential role in the conservation connectivity between the Atlantic and the Amazon. Connectivity is fundamental to genetic diversity, which in turn gives life to the jungle. The Path of the Anaconda stresses this. When it comes to President Santos, I would call him and ask for five minutes of his time. He once told me: “No, Martin I will give you two.” But, he always listened.

TCP: The Path of the Anaconda is then a metaphor for the inter-connectedness of our shared biodiversity?

MvH: Yes, and it demystifies stereotypes many have around the world of our tropical rainforest. The documentary is told from the perspective of those who live in the jungle, rather than just featuring “exotic” flora and fauna.

TCP: What was the experience like filming in the remote Apaporis?

MvH: You imagine the jungle is going to be tough and hostile. But that’s not what one discovers. I won’t tell you that it’s comfortable, because that’s not an accurate description by Western standards. It was nice in the sense that you walk endlessly, the air is pristine, the food is so healthy that you feel great and don’t get sick. All you need is a hammock for a good night’s sleep.

TCP: You have championed the protection of indigenous wisdom in your life’s work. What can we learn from this wisdom regarding deforestation?

MvH: For indigenous peoples, the rainforest is their home, so they take care of it. Even in dry seasons, the jungle is always humid, so there’s no reason why it should burn by itself – not even during the dry season or prolonged droughts. Forests only burn after trees are felled. Indigenous peoples have traditionally burned one hectare, or half hectare, and before they do so, study the direction of the wind. As they have mastered burning techniques, they cultivate all year round. For them, burning is a positive and effective means of rejuvenating the soil. The problem comes down to what value are we giving the Earth. If trees are cut down so that three cows can graze on three hectares, monetary interests are generally involved. There’s no point in learning ancestral techniques if the objective is an illicit one.

TCP: Young people around the world are demanding results when it comes to environmental issues. Do you see Colombia’s youth responding?

MvH: No doubt. There is frustration among many young people with linear thinking. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed in an office, to be part of corporate hierarchies, have bosses. They are searching for alternatives in their lives. I see more and more young people getting involved with conservation initiatives and The Path of the Anaconda has helped. We have to keep spreading the word.

TCP: What challenges does Colombia face regarding the protection of its indigenous communities and cultures?

MvH: We have to break with paradigms. We do a grave disservice to all indigenous peoples when we think that they want to be primitive, or even, white. Our indigenous peoples aren’t just part of our common past, but represent our future given a holistic and integral vision of the world. When Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared in 2017 that the Atrato River is entitled to rights on par with humans, this ruling represents indigenous thinking. A tree has a right to clean air, to reproduce and be with other trees. If I have a right to live, so does a tree. Nature isn’t a grouping of objects, but a communion of subjects. Humans are part of this communion.

TCP: Among many of your achievements is working for territorial self-determination and local governance. Can you explain?

MvH: The 1991 Constitution established Amazonas as a department. With this recognition, it joined the multi-ethnic, pluricultural fabric of the nation. However, 38% of Amazonas did not have local government. For the indigenous peoples of a territory that is their ancestral home, this created a legal limbo known as “Non-Municipalized Areas.” It took three decades of pressuring every government to finally get a decree passed that protected land titles and indigenous governance. The decree was signed in 2018 by President Santos, and since taking effect, it has strengthened the autonomy of indigenous peoples in the Guainía, Vaupés, and Amazonas. The so-called Associations of Traditional Indigenous Authorities created with the decree allow local representatives to execute and administer the state’s resources without intermediaries.

TCP: Are land titles fundamental for future conservation efforts?

MvH: By recognizing indigenous land titles, we also inherently recognize every other aspect of their culture, from the importance of an oral tradition to the power of negotiation. These Associations of Traditional Indigenous Authorities determine every aspect of a community’s existence and break with paradigms rooted in paternalistic thinking. In other words: if we are going to protect endangered environments, we need to treat our indigenous brothers and sisters as equals. Cooperation comes from negotiation, not imposition.

TCP: With the Triple-A corridor you continue with the land title cause. Where does it end?

MvH: From the moment I first entered the Amazon in 1972, paddling alone along rivers without speaking any indigenous languages, I knew that if I was going to fight for 500,000 hectares, I might as well fight for 20 million. Now I am fighting 200 million. When one takes on a cause, one has to be willing to wager it all. My Irish-German ancestry has also motivated me to fight for the underdog. Conservation requires courage.

TCP: Does the recently signed Leticia Pact for the Amazon open a door for the Triple-A to become reality?

MvH: It’s an important step forward. Being ranked as the second most bio-diverse county on the planet is our great capital. If we want to preserve this distinction, we also have to defend indigenous causes, not as a political objective, but something more profound: recovering dignity. Strangely, the words and actions of President Bolsonaro have given our foundation Gaia Amazonas plenty of free publicity, putting the Triple-A back in the top-of-mind of foreign governments and international conservation entities. If we follow the path of the Anaconda, we ensure the survival of 30 million people. The 19th-Century human rights crusader and explorer Roger Casement (1864 – 1916) once wrote in his field diaries that, “it took an Irish man to free the Huitoto from enslavement by the Peruvian rubber barons.” He then wrote: “it will take an Irishman to give them their rights.” I guess this is me (laughing).

TCP: So you are saying that your life’s mission has been destined?

MvH: When I look at all the things I have done, maybe the Amazonian shamans took a person to channel their collective consciousness. I often think to myself: “Why did this happen at a crucial moment?”. “Why did I work alongside so many Presidents?”. “Why have so many doors opened to me?”. My only answer is: “Maybe I’m a messenger of the shamans.”