It is not difficult to understand why the elders signed: in Colombia, poverty rates among the Indigenous population are two and a half times higher than the national average.

“I heard a grandfather say, ‘I need money, I need to dress, because I am not going to dress myself with the cassava peel,’” Cabrera recalls. She says she saw other elders years ago wait in vain with bags in hand for a promised plane full of money to distribute, that never arrived. She knows from experience that such promises are not kept.

She also understands the dangers of mining: water pollution, decreased river flow, landslides, the disappearance of animals and plants, among others. There is an important spiritual aspect, as well. “My mom says that gold is the representation of the beauty of Mother Earth. Gold, she told us, is what gives it heat: if we continue doing what we are doing, in the future what we do not want to say will happen,” Cabrera says.

She and six other Uitoto women refused to allow the reservation to become a mining area, and in 2017 they asked the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) to help them file a legal action at the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court. Their goal was to obtain prior consultation to prevent future threats. Although prior consultation is mandatory for projects on Indigenous lands in Colombia, in Araracuara it was never sought.

Image of one of the areas of Araracuara, the territory that Nazareth defends from mining. Photo: Courtesy Nazareth Cabrera.

The women concealed their court bid from the men in the Indigenous leadership. “We think, ‘when the Andoques find out, they will banish us,’” Cabrera says. But she is adamant about revealing the women’s efforts here, now, to a reporter. “We Indigenous women cannot keep silent every time one of our brothers goes to the city, and is given the opportunity to be in political spaces, and to do what they want with their territory and with their people.”

In the end, the Constitutional Court agreed with the women and ordered the National Mining Agency that it must hold a process of prior consultation before declaring Araracuara a mining area. When the community learned of the ruling, many were happy. That was three years ago, and there has still been no prior consultation or statement. Even so, the risk remains, as there are still people trying to convince those who live in the reservation.

Cabrera’s firm demeanor belies the fact that she is fully aware of the danger of defending these causes in Colombia, the country with the highest number of murders of environmental leaders in the world last year.

She finds courage in the traditions of her people.

“To deal with environmental issues or to be a leader, you have to defend yourself with ancestral wisdom. In my case, to protect myself, I have the ambíl,” a traditional Uitoto tobacco-based product. “Then in the dream, through him, the elders introduce themselves to me and tell me, ‘This is your path, take strength, keep going.’”

It shows: she seems to not be afraid of anything.

Nazareth in a program on women and self-government. Photo: Courtesy Nazareth Cabrera.

Sweet words

Cabrera’s reputation precedes her, even outside of the communities she works in. That might be due in part to the fact that she is a woman of multiple struggles.

“I would say that she is the most Amazonian Amazon woman I have ever known,” says Fanny Kuiru, the OPIAC coordinator for women, youth, children and family. She says she has seen closely how many times Cabrera, at the cost of her own safety, has denounced what no one else dares.

When it was still taboo even to mention the word “rape” in Indigenous communities, Cabrera dedicated herself to documenting cases of sexual abuse of children and women.

“Nazareth begins to uncover that [abuse] and in meetings she begins to say it openly. Later, in work with Family Welfare, she showed that there was indeed a violation of the rights of both women and children,” says Rufina Román, a fellow Uitoto leader and general secretary of the Regional Indigenous Council of the Middle Amazon (CRIMA).

In addition to environmental issues, Naza, as she is called, has also taken it on herself to advocate for the protection of groups at special risk. Today, she works as the coordinator for women, youth, children and family at CRIMA.

It has not been easy. Indigenous societies, much like Western society, struggles with long-held constructs that limit the participation of women in decision-making spaces.

Cabrera says that in meetings she can only talk about women, despite the fact that her work as a leader expands much further. “The same organization limits it to one, but in this journey I have realized that the issue of women is transversal to everything, and I am very sorry, but I have to give my opinion,” she says. “So they always tell me that I am very combative.”

Not everyone thinks so.

“She has a lot of strength to say things, but the way she says them is not through a contentious action, but from wisdom,” says Ángela Santamaría, a professor at the Center for Peace and Conflict and the Center for Intercultural Studies, both at the Universidad del Rosario.

In 2001, Cabrera was threatened after openly criticizing the FARC rebel group in front of two of its members over an attack that the armed group had carried out at the airport in the region.

She says she felt fear, but defended her position with reason.

“I told them, ‘My uncle Marceliano has the last word, because I belong to the community and he is the only one who makes the decision about me, not you.’” Marceliano is a malokero, a great Indigenous authority, and Cabrera’s spiritual guide.

She later went to tell him what had happened, and because she was not the only one threatened, a meeting was called between the Indigenous authorities and guerrilla commanders. There, the Indigenous peoples of the region demanded that their right not to be dragged into the FARC’s conflict with the Colombian government be respected. Nobody had to leave.

Cabrera was also instrumental in saving a group of Indigenous children from being recruited — or perhaps even killed — by remnants of the FARC, who still control territory in the middle Amazon, in 2018.

To get the minors to leave the area safely, she faced Family Welfare, the Ombudsman’s Office, and even took the case to the highest levels of the government. The process was strewn with obstacles, threats and various warnings that Cabrera did not know who she was going up against. But she persevered, as she always has: today, the children are safe, and so is she.

Indigenous women collect food in their chagras. Photo: Stefan Ruiz, Gaia Amazonas Foundation.

A lifetime of leading

The history of this struggle, Cabrera says, began many years ago, when she was not called a leader yet, but simply Nazareth. There were two formative events.

At the age of 5, she was sent from Araracuara to Bogotá to be treated for a disease that made it difficult for her to walk. During the two years that she lived in the capital, she walked between foster homes and the houses of nuns. She almost forgot her family and her mother tongue. She says she learned what it is to be part of that system and what it costs. For that reason, and because she is a mother, she says, she has invested so much time and effort to defend children.

The second factor that shaped her into who she is today revolved aroundher fear of Saturday arriving every week.

“From Monday to Friday my dad was very divine, very beautiful, very responsible, but on weekends he transformed. He would drink and then ask my mom for food and, if he didn’t like it, he would throw it in her face. That really marked me to work with women,” Cabrera says.

So she confronted her father.

“I could no longer bear the beatings he gave my mother and I confronted him. He told me, ‘You are rude, none of your sisters do what you do to me.’ And I told him, ‘Not rude, but I am defending my mother’s rights.’”

Everything about Cabrera seems to be based on an absolute conviction, as if she were all an incontrovertible cause.

The president of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Mariam Wallet; Indigenous expert from Mexico and Nazareth Cabrera in 2018. Courtesy: Nazareth Cabrera.

From the chagra to the U.N.

The daughter of a midwife and the niece of a community spiritual leader, Nazareth Cabrera has the blood of a leader. Her grandparents were among the first to arrive in Araracuara and she does not even contemplate leaving. It is her land, where she had her children and where she has buried her dead.

The times she has left the shelter of home, she has done so to educate herself or to participate in events. One of them, perhaps the most important at the international level for Indigenous peoples, is the U.N. Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, which is held in New York annually and which Cabrera has attended as a Uitoto representative four consecutive times since 2016. In this space, she has made statements regarding climate change, environmental defense and the problems facing the Amazon.

The first time she participated, it was thanks to a U.N. foundation grant. It was Isis Álvarez, campaign coordinator for the Global Forest Coalition, who convinced her and helped her apply. They had met two years earlier, and Cabrera had left such a strong impression that Álvarez, having worked with so many other Indigenous leaders, thought of her first as soon as she heard the announcement.

From that first event, Cabrera gained recognition and connections.

She established networks of Indigenous women, academics and diplomats that allowed her to be invited again for the next three years, financed by the Universidad del Rosario and the University of New York. It was also a new awakening: “I heard various Indigenous representatives talk about illegal mining and within myself I said, ‘Oh, I thought that only I in Caquetá had that problem.’”

After that, her conviction for the environmental fight became stronger.

“Whenever she makes pronouncements, all the photographers come and surround her because she is very beautiful in how she does them: she starts out in the Uitoto language, from the base, then talks about very complex issues and goes back to her origin again,” says Ángela Santamaría, who has attended the U.N. forum with Cabrera. “You hardly see that anymore, because generally Indigenous professionals attend who no longer have that connection with their territory. Instead, when she speaks, she does it in such a genuine way that it really impacts.”

It is not only what she says but also the scope she speaks on.

“All these years, Nazareth has made very forceful pronouncements before the General Assembly that have fed into the reports of the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples,” Santamaría says.

Nazareth Cabrera in New York, when she attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Photo: Courtesy Nazareth Cabrera.

In 2018, before going to New York again, Cabrera asked her brother, a well-known artisan in the region, to make a traditional Uitoto basket. She wanted to give it to the president of the permanent forum, an unapproachable diplomat, in the words of Santamaría. “I thought, ‘But how are you going to deliver it?’” Santamaría recalls.

It took Cabrera more than two hours to fly from Araracuara to San José del Guaviare in a cargo plane, followed by a walk and a nine-hour bus ride with the basket to get to Bogotá. “Since we met in Bogotá, Nazareth told me, ‘I am taking this gift to the president.’”

And somehow, she managed to deliver the basket.

“Suddenly I see her arrive with a photo and she shows it to me,” Santamaría says. “I was with the president, they came out hugging. That’s what she is: first she makes a statement full of depth and then she delivers a gift that she ordered to be made in a special way. She is a leader full of strength and forcefulness, but at the same time supremely loving and generous.”

She does the same within her community. Santamaría and Cabrera met in 2015 during a diploma course that the former was teaching in Guanía. Cabrera felt it was not enough for just herself to acquire that knowledge; she wanted the people in her shelter to have it as well.

Indigenous territories in Colombia. Photo: Mayra Martínez / Gaia Amazonas.

It was for her that, with the help of the Universidad del Rosario and Santamaría, they came to Araracuara, for three consecutive years, with diplomas to train young people, women, the elderly and teachers. The first course was on intercultural education; the second on youth and environmental conflicts; and the third on Indigenous women, youth and children.

“She told me, ‘Oh, I want you to go to Caquetá, to go to Araracuara.’ In many places they tell me that, but it is seldom specified. However, she did it and in a very short time organized the community to make it possible,” Santamaría says. “All this makes that, when you analyze your leadership process, you realize that your process is the ideal, which theoretically one would like: grassroots leaders who reach the national level, the international level, and then return.”

For the first diploma course, Cabrera persuaded the local priest to let them learn at the boarding school. The following year he refused. Without a place to study, Cabrera convinced the owner of the hamlet’s nightclub to let them do it there. It was classic Nazareth: opening paths for her people.

“The graduates served a lot. We have women working with national parks, others as health promoters with EPS” — the government-run health insurance scheme — “and some more as community mothers in Family Welfare,” says Rufina Román. That alone would be a legacy to be proud of, but it is not the only one.

“Here in the Araracuara region, I mean the almost 2,000 people who inhabit it, they know Nazareth very well and the role she has played, so many trust her process,” says Jerbacio Guerrero, the head of the Uitoto de Mesay leadership.

Cabrera serves as Guerrero’s deputy, and the community’s confidence in her has been demonstrated: in Guerrero’s absence, she assumes the role of spokesperson and represents the Uitoto authority. She is the first woman to occupy this place and was chosen by her community.

There are many reasons for the trust vested in her; being a leader who found in ancestral wisdom a great defense against Western threats may be one of them. “As an Indigenous woman, she follows the traditional practices of her people: she goes to the chagra” — a traditional Amazonian farming space — “sows a diversity of plants and helps keep the forest standing,” says Fanny Kuiru from OPIAC.

Nazareth Cabrera at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Photo: Courtesy Nazareth Cabrera.

Taking root

The Amazon — the big house — speaks because it is alive, because it feels. And it also suffers, Cabrera says. It suffers when it is cut down, when its rivers are polluted and when its land is seen as a business. “And that is something very sad because, sometimes, one with these human eyes does not see the invisible: how elves cry, how elves feel,” she says.

For years, deforestation has increased in the Amazon. According to the Colombian government’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), between January and March 2020, around 64,000 hectares (158,000 acres) of forest were cleared in three departments. In Caquetá alone, more than 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) were cleared, topping the list.

In this scenario, the role of Indigenous people as caretakers of the territory is fundamental, even if Western practices have crept in among some of them.

For Carolina Gil, northwest Amazon director of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), “people have the feeling that the Amazon is a uniform jungle, a bit of a no-man’s-land, when in reality what exists is an ancestral and traditional coexistence of much weather. There is there a very important value of Indigenous peoples as real caretakers of the Amazon. And I like to give official data: in the territories of the ethnic peoples, more than 90.8% of the lands are dedicated to forest. Western logic, in some way, is what has ended up degrading and affecting the Amazon so much.”

Nazareth and a grandmother from the Andoque people. Photo: Courtesy Nazareth Cabrera.

Cabrera knows that this Western logic has been adopted by some of her Indigenous companions out of economic necessity, and she is not afraid to talk about it. She is not silent: she confronts uncomfortably. She has spoken out against illegal mining that fills rivers with mercury, even if it is practiced in her own community. She recognizes that, although this activity eases the day-to-day life of her Uitoto and Andoque brethren, in reality those who benefit are “the whites,” as she calls them.

Fellow community leader Rufina Román says Cabrera is one of those grains of sand that contributes to the collective process of caring for the Amazon and Middle Caquetá. That means it also knows it has limits, since illegal activities such as deforestation and mining continue to be controlled by remnants of the FARC.

“I’m already old, so I know how far to go, because you also want to see your grandchildren, you want to see your children finish growing,” Cabrera says. “Many grandparents gave their knowledge and died in a way that hurts one. So I ask myself, ‘Why do I keep talking if nothing is going to come true?’”

The answer comes almost instantly. It is the sense of being rooted: a love for her land, for her people, and for her farm.

Hear more via Mongabay’s podcast: “In the Amazon, women are key to forest conservation” here:

Banner image: Original illustration of Nazareth Cabrera as created by Los Angeles-based artist Marlene Solorio for Mongabay. You can find out more about the artist on Instagram at @m2rl3n3.