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Creating a commons: sustainable fishing and hunting in the Colombian Amazon

  • Resguardos are indigenous territories established by Colombia in 1991, now covering about one-third of Colombia’s territory.
  • Local communities have created a jointly managed common property out of what had been an “open access resource” where there were no rules, where many fishermen were pulling out as many fish as they could to sell in local markets.
  • However, commercial tourism has had a relative boom in the region since Puerto Nariño received certification as the first ecotourism municipality in Colombia.
Lisette Johanna Escobar checking paperwork with the fishermen on the monitoring houseboat on Lake Tarapoto. Photo by Elvira Durán.

It’s shift change time on the monitoring raft on Lake Tarapoto, deep in the Colombian Amazon. Lisette Johanna Escobar, an undergraduate student researcher at the Universidad Nacional in Leticia, climbs onto the rustic houseboat from the aluminum boat which has brought us from the fishing village of Puerto Nariño, and briskly takes charge of the process. Three fishermen have spent the last week on the houseboat to monitor and enforce the fishing agreements established in 2009 for the lake after three arduous years of regional meetings with 22 communities.

With a rapid fire delivery, Escobar reviews the situation. “The monitoring program is what makes the agreement work, it’s a symbol of vigilance,” she says to the fisherman, and reviews how many days they have been on the houseboat. “Three days,” says one young fisherman.  Escobar reminds him the commitment is for seven days. “If you have to go for a few hours or a few days, you should let the Foundation know.” The Omacha Foundation, a Bogotá-based conservation non-governmental organization, has been working in the region for 28 years and was crucial in stewarding the fishing agreements that Escobar is now here evaluating. 

Escobar moves on to paperwork. Then, finishing up with the shift change, she asks if there are any comments or questions from the fishermen. Urbano Ferreira, a lean, weathered fisherman leaning against one of the waist-high walls of the houseboat, with Tarapoto Lake gleaming in the sun behind him, has something to say. “We want this to keep going!” he says, enthusiastically. “It’s really good for those who have children, that they can keep all the fish we have. If we don’t take care of this all the fish and wildlife will be finished off, and it’s a benefit for all of us, for the tourists. All of the resguardo should be helping with this, so the dolphins and the fish don’t leave.”

Resguardos are indigenous territories established by Colombia in 1991, now covering about one-third of the country’s territory. The resguardo TICOYA — named for the three indigenous groups, the Tikuna, Cocama, and Yagua, who inhabit it — stretches over 383,400 acres and occupies more than 92% of the municipality of Puerto Nariño, in southwestern Colombia. About 10% of it overlaps with the Amacayacu National Park, which stretches over 792,450 acres of lowland rainforest and wetlands. Lake Tarapoto is the largest of a complex of six lakes, which are actually only seasonally lakes. In the annual flooding of the Amazon, surging pulses of water connect the lakes with the river through vast stretches of flooded forest, creating one enormous body of water.

From 2006-2009 the villagers developed a monitoring program; they were determined to find a way to grapple with the decline in fishing, which they’d noticed for years. This was a matter of enormous concern for the fishermen and their families, since studies by the Omacha Foundation showed that 24% of their food and cash income came from fishing. Overall, 82% of these indigenous fishermen’s livelihoods comes from the sale and direct consumption of the exuberant nature which surrounds them, including food production from their fields or chagras, fishing, firewood and timber harvesting, and to a lesser degree, hunting.

Agreements to establish local rules for fishing have been strikingly successful elsewhere in the Amazon. In Mamirauá in Brazil’s Amazonas state, fishing agreements had resulted in a 350% increase in the population of the enormous Pirarucú fish, a mainstay of the Amazonian diet. A booklet published by the Omacha Foundation lays out the rationale for the effort quite clearly: “The collective construction of simple and clear rules of the game, developed and backed by the majority of the people who inhabit the zone, is the first step for local communities, to construct a system of governance of their own for the collective management of the natural resources.”

What the communities have done is to create a jointly managed common property out of what had been an “open access resource” where there were no rules, where many fishermen were pulling out as many fish as they could to sell in local markets. They developed ten simple rules over the years of meetings, including banning fishing by anyone not from the resguardo or Puerto Nariño, limiting the daily fishing to 20 kilos per fisherman, and the use of only traditional fishing equipment; banning toxins and firearms and large nets, and prohibiting fishing during breeding periods. Also, the fishermen are only allowed to enter the lakes in paddled canoes or canoes with the tiny outboard engines known as pekepekeBut the fishing agreements are only one of the many initiatives and struggles facing sustainable livelihoods in the resguardo.

The day after the visit to the monitoring houseboat, we head up the Loretoyacu River, an Amazon tributary, with great piles of cottony cumulus clouds crowding the horizon, reflecting in the glassy surface of the river. The flooded forest on either side gives the illusion of the vegetation just sitting on top of the water, the foliage a hundred shades of green with as many textures.

We are going to visit the last fishing village in Colombia, San Pedro de Tepisca, before the Loretoyacu flows into an even more remote corner of Peru, passing a string of other fishing villages on the right bank as we go. The late, legendary Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes spent much of World War II and beyond in the Colombian Amazon, looking for highly productive and disease free rubber trees for plantations as a  crucial part of the war effort.  For periods of time between 1944 and 1946, Schultes lived on a rubber farm at the mouth of the Loretoyacu where it flows into the Amazon, near present-day Puerto Nariño, surveying some 120,000 individual rubber trees. Today, all those rubber trees are just another stem in the forest, with their history almost entirely forgotten — even locally.

We arrive after a half an hour to the collection of 40 wooden houses and some 270 inhabitants that is San Pedro de Tepisca, and quickly locate the 34 year-old curaca or elected leader of the community, Arley Ferreira. Ferreira tells us that Lake Tarapoto is too far for them to go for fishing, so they rely more on hunting, and not as much on the less productive river fishing. But now they have to go further and further from the village to find game. This has led to new initiatives to breed some of the game animals and seek new legislation to permit the sale of bushmeat, particularly the fast-breeding and meaty rodent, paca agouti.   

The breeding efforts have met with a few challenges. Baby tapirs can become tame and domesticated relatively easily — one that was raised in the village began disappearing during the day to forage in the forest to return every night. But one day it did not return, and as Ferreira related the sad tale, “One day he came back with a bad bullet wound in his jaw, the people in the next community over shot him, so we had to kill him and eat him then.” The paca, on the other hand, being rodents, don’t need much help in reproduction. One international research group is currently undertaking studies using camera traps to determine the abundance of the population, in hopes of promoting legislation that would make the sale of it legal in order to generate another source of income for the communities.

Children playing in the water on the basketball court flooded by the Amazon, in the lower part of Puerto Nariño. Photo by Elvira Durán.
Children in the flooded community of Santa Clara de Tarapoto. Photo by Elvira Durán.

During our stay in the resguardo in May of this year, the Amazon River was at a historically high flood stage — the second such high water mark in recent years — in what some regard as a harbinger of climate change. Many of the villages are built on terraces well above even this high water mark, with only the lower parts being flooded. In Puerto Nariño, the floodwaters were just about a foot below the hoop of the basketball court, giving the delighted children swimming around unaccustomed opportunities to dunk the ball. But some of the smaller villages saw river water flooding into their houses. An interview with 30 year-old Ciro Laulate Gomez in the tiny village of Santa Clara de Tarapoto, with only 11 families and the only village right on the lake, was conducted while I balanced on a thick plank bobbing in the water.

Laulate was enthusiastic about the fishing agreement, and said it had helped to rebuild populations in the lake. But he told me about a problem that was not anticipated in the fishing agreements: commercial tourism has had a relative boom in the region since Puerto Nariño received certification as the first ecotourism municipality in Colombia. Now, rapid river boats zoom out of Leticia, stopping for lunch in Puerto Nariño, and buzzing around Lake Tarapoto before heading back downriver. The tourism boats have massive outboards, while the fishermen are confined to their pekepekes. “The tourists make a lot of noise. Once I caught one of those fish, but a big one,” said Laulate, gesturing to a string of small bright yellow-striped fish floating in the bottom of the canoe tied up to his house. “I gave it to my wife to prepare a fish soup, and it tasted like gasoline. The boats are contaminating the lake.”

Bringing the tourism operators to the negotiation table to include them in the Lake Tarapoto rules is something the communities have not been able to take on. And gasoline contamination is only one of the many environmental pressures which are bearing down on all parts of the Amazon.

In Bogotá, I was able to meet with the science director of the Omacha Foundation, Dr. Fernando Trujillo, who detailed some of these larger issues. “There are 150 hydroelectric dams in the southern Amazon, with another 170 under construction or planned,” he said. “And then there is the subject of mercury. The majority of the species of fish in the Amazon now have mercury in them. It’s a subject that is handled with great care because of its implications for human health. Fish are also contaminated in regions where there is no mining, since many of the species are migratory.”

Fishermen creating their own rules to establish a commons, regulate local fishing, and finding ways to generate income from hunting see themselves as a key part of the governance and sustainability puzzle for the Amazon and its tributaries. “Its time to begin a new stage in the history of the Amazonian peoples,” says Trujillo, “a stage where we evaluate the resources that we have and how we can use them wisely so that they will endure through time.”

The author’s visit to the region was supported by a grant from the US Agency for International Development to Florida International University and the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.

The Loretoyacu River. Photo by Elvira Durán.