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Indigenous women in Colombia protect rich Amazonian wetland from overfishing

Lilia Java at Lake Tarapoto.

Lilia Java at Lake Tarapoto. Photo: Conservation International Colombia.

  • Dozens of Indigenous women in Colombia’s Amazon are monitoring, managing, raising awareness and restoring a wetland ecosystem impacted by overfishing.
  • After partnering with environmental organizations to establish a fishing agreement in the area, they have witnessed the increase and recovery of fish species such as sardines, catfish and the pirarucu (Arapaima gigas).
  • The wetland area of Lake Tarapoto, located in the department of Amazonas in southern Colombia, provides a habitat for numerous aquatic animals and supports the livelihoods of 22 Indigenous communities.

For Indigenous women in the Amazon, the wetland of Lake Tarapoto is a living classroom. The women consider it not just a home for the fish they rely on to feed their families, but also a repository of Indigenous history and culture. It is the place that fertilizes all life in their territory, says Lilia Isolina Java, a leader of the Cocama people in the southern Amazon region of Colombia.

These spaces are where “one unlearns in order to learn,” she tells Monagaby.

And in a impactful case, local fishers have been part of this “unlearning” process. They went from using large nets that caught almost every aquatic animal in their path, to creating fishing agreements designed to respect life in the wetland system — a process that took more than 20 years.

Along with traditional authorities, institutions, and organizations, Java is leading a process to identify issues harming the lake’s ecosystem. But she has focused on one in particular: the overexploitation of fishery resources. Overfishing is destroying not only fish species and the food sovereignty of the communities of the Tikuna, Cocama, and Yagua (Ticoya) Indigenous people, but also the lives of other aquatic animals that have been victims of incidental catch such as dolphins, manatees, otters, and turtles.

Lake Tarapoto. Image curtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

“We focus, above all, on harmful fishing,” Java said. “Not only for those of us living in the communities, but also because our lakes, rivers and streams have already been degraded because we are on the country’s border close to Peru and Brazil.”

Java has worked on monitoring and fisheries management together with the women of the 22 Indigenous communities in the Ticoya Indigenous reserve, with one woman participating from each community. Their actions have focused on contributing to the restoration and conservation of these Amazonian ecosystems while preserving the ancestral knowledge of their peoples.

“For us, Lake Tarapoto has an invaluable cultural, environmental, social, and economic importance—it’s priceless. There lies all the ancestral knowledge of our grandparents, not only in mythology but also in medicine,” Java said.

Lilia Isolina Java Tapayuri during her work at Lak Tarapoto. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

‘Our business is the forest’

Lake Tarapoto is located in the municipality of Puerto Nariño in the Department of Amazonas in southern Colombia. It is a system of several freshwater lakes connected by rivers and streams. Because the site is highly biodiverse and supports important plant and animal species, it was declared a Ramsar Site in 2018. The lake system provides functions such as flood and erosion control, in addition to providing fish resources to the 22 communities of the Ticoya Indigenous reserve.

“We’re talking about fish that are very important in our food sovereignty,” Java tells Mongabay. “But not everything has to do with food; there are also aquatic mammals such as dolphins and manatees that are part of our mythology, our stories.”

Lilia Java feeding a baby manatee that will be released by Fundación Omacha, an organization she works with. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

In June 2021, Java and her colleagues obtained support from the NGO Conservation International, through the program Amazonía Verde (Green Amazon), to train and strengthen fishing agreements among women with whom they seek to recognize their fishing work, but also to educate them on how to control their aquatic resources.

To preserve the ecosystem, they monitor and manage minimum fishing sizes, closed fishing seasons and the species for which fishing is permitted.

“We hold capacity-building workshops based on the territorial context and with a gender focus,” Java said. “We do fisheries monitoring and the records come from our own households from what we consume on a daily basis. [It’s] for two purposes: to identify what species of fish are in our communities and part of our daily diet, and also to identify what these fish eat, their size, what stage they are in, and whether they are reproducing or not. This way, we know which species of fish are being consumed and if they are recovering.”

Training for women environmental defenders of Tarapoto Lake. Image by Lilia Java.

Her motivation is based on a sense of personal responsibility, Java says, because she cannot imagine a future in which there are no more fish.

“It is my responsibility, as Lilia, as a leader, to address this problem. Because the day fish disappear, what are we going to eat? If the indigenous peoples live off of fishing, bush meat, gathering wild fruits… how are we going to survive if we don’t have big companies? Our business is the forest.”

Women weighing fish during the trainings. Image by Lilia Java.

Eyes on the lake

The monitoring work is all about paying attention to details. From the moment a fish arrives at the house, it is measured and weighed and its characteristics are noted on spreadsheets.

“If it has eggs inside it, and if I identify the species, I write down the local name we know it by and then we look for the scientific name,” Java explains.

Next, they look into the social dimension, including how many people are going to eat the fish and at what time – breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If the fish was not obtained by a member of the family, they take note of who the fisherman was and how long it took them to catch it.

“Because it can be hours or days, we identify the time it takes to get the fish because there are changes there, too. Before, 10 or 15 years ago, fishing was much faster and in two or three hours you were done, [but] now it can take days because you have to travel to other places,” she says.

A fisherman handing over his fish for monitoring. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

Throughout the process, the women meet periodically to review and analyze the information they have collected alongside the grandmothers and knowledge keepers of the communities.

“They are our libraries,” Java says. “They have the most knowledge about what fishing was like before and what it’s like now, so that we can identify the changes. We also work on identifying the role of women in fishing and what they do in this process.”

For example, Java explains that there are women, including herself, who also fish. “Not like the men, but rather we seek out smaller artisanal fishing in areas that are nearby,” she said. Women are also the ones who manage products for household consumption and for sale, so they know the market prices and what makes sense for their economy.

“We are providing a valuable contribution that comes from us ourselves that is for our authorities, where we the women identify problems and work on solutions. And we want that to be reflected in the Life Plan (Plan de Vida) of our territory,” Java tells Mongabay.

Women measuring fish. Image by Lilia Java.

Juan Pablo López, a biologist and coordinator of biodiversity monitoring and knowledge generation at Conservation International Colombia, explains that the Amazon has been one of the world’s most important areas in terms of biodiversity, however, there has never been consolidated information and it was not until recently that institutions and organizations – such as the Humboldt Institute, the Omacha Foundation and National Parks – began to inventory the local fauna.

“The first ichthyologists [those who study fish] who arrived in this region said that there were around 700 species reported for the Amazon basin. But this figure has been increasing with recent research and there is already talk of more than 1,000 freshwater species in the region,” López said.

“Sampling continues to be done and species continue to be discovered, not only from the morphological perspective, but also genetically, where there’s improved description and taxonomy of those species that were highly cryptic or almost unknown because they were very similar, so the numbers tend to increase.”

Lake Tarapoto. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

López explains that the Amazon region in general faces latent threats such as mining with dredges, which contaminates the fish people eat with heavy metals, and illegal fishing which, among other problems, uses dolphin meat as bait for fishing iridescent shark catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus).

However, the expert said that the community began to notice the overexploitation of fishing resources in the Lake Tarapoto wetlands, which were being used irresponsibly, to the point that fish populations began to seriously decrease.

“That means that they were no longer being caught in nets or that fishing went down,” López said. “That’s when a community monitoring system began to take shape, so that they would know – based on a very simple and standardized methodology – the size of the fish they were catching and choose the size of the fish suitable for consumption. They can then go back to consuming others because they were not in season for use or prohibit certain species that were not allowed to be fished because they are in spawning season.”

Women weighing fish during wetlands monitoring. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

The value of collaboration agreements

According to Fundación Omacha, the NGO created to research and conserve Colombia’s fauna and land and water ecosystems, a fishing agreement was established in the Tarapoto wetlands and endorsed by the Ticoya Indigenous reserve in 2008. It was created in a participatory process with fishers and elders in the region, who participated in a WONE congress, the highest decision-making body in the reserve. Later, the agreement was endorsed by the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Authority (AUNAP) in 2017.

The organization says the fishing agreement has proved useful in the Ramsar Site, as they are witnessing the recovery of fish species such as the pirarucu (Arapaima gigas), gamitana (Colossoma macropomum) and arawana (Osteoglossum bicirrhosum). Meanwhile, the catch size of other species, such as bocachicos, sardines and catfish, has increased.

Children fishing at Lake Tarapoto. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

The fishing agreements allow for the capture of species that are not in a closed period, as long as minimum catch sizes and spawning seasons are respected (usually November to January). Among the species that can be fished are shad (Brycon melanopterus), tower fish (Phractocephalus hemioliopterus), acarawazú (Astronotus ocellatus), tucunaré (Cichla ocellaris), pintadillo (Pseudoplatyoma tigrinum), pacú (Piaractus brachypomus) and mullet (Schizodon fasciatus).

All of this has been achieved with the collaboration of the whole community, says Java, because in addition to complying with the fishing agreements, locals have been involved in key tasks like performing active surveillance work in the territory.

“In the territory, we have a program of lookouts,” she said. “Young people and adults from the communities are in charge of monitoring and surveillance every day from a raft, and they are the ones who detect possible problems in the lakes; they keep records of all the boats that enter the area.”

Lookouts at Lake Tarapoto. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

Alfonso Suárez Zapata, a chief in the Ticoya community, explained that the results of the wetlands monitoring have been palpable and that he hopes the project will be made permanent in the long term, for the good of future generations.

“That’s the source of our life and the future of our children,” Suárez Zapata said. “It’s very important because our lakes are like a natural pantry, and we all depend on them. It’s clear to us that we must take care and preserve [them], because one can see many differences between then and now. Before, you could get a lot of good fish, and fast, while nowadays you get smaller fish, and that happened because we did not have the knowledge about how to preserve and care for them.”

Aerial view of the Lake Tarapoto wetlands. Image courtesy of Conservation Interational Colombia.

Carlos Iván Alvear, a leader from the community of San Francisco, agrees, remembering that in his childhood he could throw the hook and, without rowing very far, get fish up to 50 centimeters (about 20 inches). Today, that is no longer the case.

“The women are raising awareness and their work is spectacular. We now see more fish, but we must always maintain control over it,” he tells Mongabay. “Now, fishing nets have adequate dimensions. Before, four, five and even seven meshes were woven together but it’s been controlled to a single mesh.”

Java specifies that the fishing agreements establish two meshes per fisherman, with measures of 75 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. Previously, nets of up to 300 meters were used.

Lilia Java and her daughter Ainara have been involved in the lake’s conservation efforts. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

Pepeaderos” for life

Java and her colleagues are also working on the management of flooded forests, known as pepeaderos. These areas are made up of trees that grow on the banks of wetlands and rivers, and produce fruit – known as pepas – which become food for fish when they fall.

The second phase of the project with Conservation International – which began with a reforestation campaign in 2019 with the Omacha Foundation and Whitley Fund for Nature – consists of researching these sites to extend with their recovery.

“It’s a restoration process called ‘Pepeaderos for life.’ That’s where the food for the fish is located, and that’s why we work on the recovery of the banks of the rivers and lakes, to avoid deforestation. Because most of our homes are located on the banks of the rivers and many of those trees are used for the construction of homes and traditional native boats,” Java said.

Biodiversity of the Lake Tarapoto wetlands. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

In this way, Java explains, everything is part of the same cycle. When talking about fish, she reminds us that we are not talking about just one thing, but instead about the broader relationship between fish and the health of the water, or how important they are for feeding aquatic mammals and Indigenous peoples.

Biodiversity of the Lake Tarapoto wetlands. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

Women’s active participation has become essential and should be taken into account by Colombian governments and reflected in public policies that guarantee the development of indigenous territories, she adds.

“For us, words are powerful,” Java said. “Because it’s one thing to sit and listen and not be able to give my opinion, and another for us to change that and participate in an active way, asking to speak based on what I have seen or what I think as a woman. That way, I can contribute to strengthening my territory and changing it for the better. That’s why this project aims to raise awareness among the population to conserve and about the sustainable use of our natural resources; because conserving and caring for our territory means conserving our own lives.”

Lilia Java during the Summit of Indigenous Women of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador in 2022. Image by César David Martínez.


This article was first published here on Mongabay Latam on August 3, 2022.

Banner image: Lilia Java at Lake Tarapoto. Image courtesy of Conservation International Colombia.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We speak with National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan to talk about the value of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in protecting the world’s biodiversity and examples of TEK from Indigenous communities he’s visited. Listen here:

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