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Combining The Power Of Technology With Grassroots Insight

Technology can do a lot to help an organization with its social mission, but it can’t make up for real, on-the-ground interaction with the problem you’re trying to fix.

Satellite imagery has better enabled us to identify and pinpoint the threats to the Colombian Amazon. It helps us monitor forest cover and fragmentation processes. Further, the world of advanced technology driven by Silicon Valley is more responsive to incorporating on-the-ground realities into their new data: witness Google Earth and Google Earth Outreach. But, while we strive to integrate new technology breakthroughs with local realities in order to implement new conservation measures, we cannot defer our everyday work.

As excited as we are to analyze what is happening to the forest from a distance, we cannot divert attention or resources away from what lies beneath the forest cover monitored by the satellites.

My organization, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), has worked for more than 12 years in the westernmost Colombian Amazon, known as the "Piedemonte." This transition zone between the Andes and the vast Amazon Basin is one of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. It is the home of indigenous experts in shamanism and traditional medicine. Though renowned for its rare species and cultural practices, and a recognized priority Amazon conservation region, it enjoys no special protection: its ecosystems and communities are exposed to deforestation caused by mining, ranching, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and the weakness of the national state.

Unfortunately, technology cannot observe and explain what is happening on the ground with the indigenous custodians of the rainforest. There are many questions that cannot be answered from high up, particularly at the juncture of cultural and natural preservation, where traditional ecological knowledge comes into play. Are the grandmothers teaching their granddaughters about the necessity of planting all of the ancient cultivars of cassava, some of which may prove resistant to climate change? Are the young men maintaining their traditional hunting calendars, essential to using game resources sustainably? Are the villagers continuing to fish with net, line, and barbasco (Lonchocarpus urucu, a vegetable that stuns fish without causing harm), or are they using dynamite? Are the communities harvesting moriche palm fruit by climbing the trees, or are they simply felling those trees?

It is tempting to see these questions as meaningful only to the small communities that maintain such traditions or, more skeptically, as merely spotlighting the potential for environmental degradation by the forest’s inhabitants. But some form of population in the forests is inevitable: outside of the realm of science fiction, there simply is no way to convert these vast terrains into museum parks. Today, it is widely recognized that at least some indigenous Amazonian lands rank among the most successful conservation landscapes in terms of intact forest cover. This is too often the case to be classified as mere happenstance. Imagine, then, trying to build this understanding of sustainable practices from scratch with fresh settler populations, indigenous or otherwise, especially those without strong respect for the forests and the plants and animals that thrive in them. These are the nuances on the ground.

We believe the conservation of biological diversity is linked to the conservation of associated traditional knowledge. With limited resources, we provide support so that the indigenous communities have—among other necessities—the ability to assert rights to their traditional territories, seeds for traditional agriculture, greater autonomy in decision-making, and the ability to transmit their knowledge both inter-generationally and inter-tribally. In Colombia, we have helped many tribal communities and groups form representative associations and then to register those associations before the state, giving them new-found self-governance authority for themselves and for their lands. With such capacity and authority, the communities typically find lost pride restored, traditional structures better valued by the outside world, and greater interest from the all-important youth in assuming the knowledge mantle of their elders.

These are the challenges we face in our day-to-day work, amidst the great weakness of the Colombian state, an ongoing and debilitating social conflict, and an accelerated loss of traditional ecological knowledge, which disappears when an indigenous elder passes.

Because the new pioneers of remote technology have shown willingness and eagerness to collaborate with those at the grassroots level, there are probably no more great "aha" moments left to convey. That said, it is our role to provide the perspective that the new tools and technologies cannot: one that embraces the human factors that impact the health of the rainforest. Our joint challenge is to develop conservation tools that impact the daily lives of indigenous communities and help reverse the acceleration of deforestation.

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