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Colombia creates rainforest reserve to protect medicinal plants

Colombia creates rainforest reserve to protect medicinal plants

Colombia creates rainforest reserve to protect medicinal plants
Rhett A. Butler,
June 12, 2008

Colombia today announced the creation of a rainforest reserve dedicated to the protection of medicinal plants.

The Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Flora Sanctuary encompasses 10,626 hectares of biologically-rich tropical rainforest ranging in altitude from 700 to 3300 meters above sea level. The sanctuary is based on an initiative launched by local indigenous communities with the support of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an innovative NGO working with native peoples to conserve biodiversity, health, and culture in South American rainforests. Members of the communities — which include the Kofán, Inga, Siona, Kamtsá, and Coreguaje tribes — combined their rich knowledge of medicinal plants with cutting-edge technology to determine the placement and extent of the reserve. Their contributions to the effort are reflected in the name of the reserve, according to ACT.

The Union of Yagé Healers of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) is the result of the ACT-sponsored Gathering of Shamans that took place in 1999 in Yurayaco, Caqueta. At the Gathering, 40 of the most prominent indigenous healers from seven tribes met for the first time to discuss the future of their forest, their medicine and their people. There they jointly signed a declaration that has become the basis of their alliance.

“The name ‘Ingi-Ande,’ which means ‘our territory’ in the language of the Kofán people, is being used to underscore the robust participation of local indigenous peoples in the design and declaration of the sanctuary, part of which lies on Kofán ancestral lands and is long celebrated in their rich oral traditions,” said ACT in a statement. “The process of creating, designing, and declaring the Orito Ingi-Ande sanctuary has been the result of a coordinated effort among the Ministry of the Environment, Housing, and Territorial Development; the Special Administrative Unit of the Colombian National Park System; the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT); Rosario University; and especially the Union of Traditional Yagé Healers of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC), whose traditional healers and apprentices provided the support and knowledge necessary to undertake the process.”

Orito Ingi-Ande will be the only protected area in Colombia dedicated primarily to the conservation of medicinal flora. ACT says that special emphasis was put on the presence of the yoco plant (Paullinia yoco), a liana that is one of the most highly regarded medicinal plants in the northwest Amazon.

“Yoco can be considered a ‘keystone’ species in terms of conservation, necessitating the protection of the surrounding ecosystem,” said Jose Pablo Jaramillo, Program Director of ACT-Colombia.

The Yoco plant.

Famed ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes did the original field work on Yoco and co-wrote the botanical description of the plant.

Kofan Shamans – the fellow on the left is Taita Fernando Mendua who died last year at the age of 107. He was the spiritual leader of the Kofans. Photos courtesy of Mark Plotkin.

Indigenous groups used GPS units to map the occurrence of yoco plants and other important medicinal plants identified by shamans, or indigenous healers. By combining technology with traditional plant knowledge, the effort helped strengthen cultural ties between indigenous youths and elders at a time when such cultures are disappearing even faster than rainforests.

“GPS can help you mark the geographic coordinates of a location but all the technology in the world is not going to explain to you the spiritual significance of a spot or identify what plants can be used for what purpose,” said Maria Elvira Molano, an anthropologist who has been working in the process of creating Orito on the part of the National Parks Service and is the liaison with ACT. “This is where the elders come in — they are the ones with the knowledge. Now we’re seeing the shamans appreciated as tremendous sources of knowledge by the younger generation as well as government agencies seeking to protect forest areas.”

ACT calls this approach, which protects biodiversity, improves traditional health systems, and helps preserve culture in a holistic and synergistic way, “biocultural conservation.”

“Biocultural conservation has been the most overlooked approach to rainforest conservation, and the establishment of the Inge-Ande Reserve shows that this methodology is finally gained traction,” said Mark Plotkin, president of ACT. “It’s our strong belief that the people who best know, use, and protect biodiversity are the indigenous people who live in these forests.”

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