Lessons from the Indigenous territories in Colombia – In conversation with Carlos Rodriguez

Lessons from the Indigenous territories in Colombia – In conversation with Carlos Rodriguez

Colombia - 08 November, 2019
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

Indigenous groups control a significant portion of the land in Colombia. This is good news for the forest, as the Indigenous worldview is based on the idea that people are an integrated part of nature. But this does not necessarily mean they reject modernity. There is a need to cherish and pass on Indigenous culture, while at the same time taking local development aspirations seriously, according to Carlos Rodriguez, director of Tropenbos Colombia.


In many countries, Indigenous forest rights are a contested issue. Representatives of Indigenous groups call on governments to recognize the rights to their territories, while governments are hesitant to give up their authority over the natural resources on (and under) those lands. Colombia has been serving as a positive example for the advocates of Indigenous rights, with a constitution that explicitly recognizes the country as being multicultural and “pluri-ethnic”, and a progressive forest tenure regime. Today, about 28% of the land is designated as Indigenous territories, known as resguardos. This covers an area the size of the United Kingdom.

Carlos Rodriguez, director of Tropenbos Colombia, has been working with Indigenous communities in resguardos for more than 30 years. From the perspective of the government, the resguardos have several objectives, he explains over Skype. They serve as a recognition of the ancestral rights of Indigenous groups, increase their self-determination, and are expected to contribute to the conservation of the forest. Here Rodriguez talks about the success of the resguardos, and some of the challenges that remain.

Imagine if there were no resguardos, what would be different?

Without resguardos, a lot of land would be accumulated by a few rich land owners – they would end up owning most of the land. And this would have implications for the forest as well. If the forests in the Colombian Amazon had not been in the hands of Indigenous communities, we would have seen developments similar to those in the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon. There would have been more extractive industries, more agricultural expansion, and more fires.

Are the resguardos the reason why Colombia had fewer fires than Brazil and Bolivia?

Yes, I am absolutely sure. Most of the fires in Brazil and Bolivia happened on lands without clear ownership. When tenure is clear, and boundaries are clearly demarcated, there will be less fire.

Are the Colombian resguardos safe from outside threats?

Of course, there are problems here too. Farmers and companies are looking for land, and will sometimes encroach on Indigenous territories. But, I believe the situation would be much worse without the resguardos. Most people are aware that intrusion is illegal and will result in penalties.

SUB: Indigenous women and child washing clothes by the river near Solano, Caquetá, Colombia.


Resguardos come in different sizes and forms, and face different types of threats, explains Rodriguez. Some of them are relatively small and may involve various ethnic groups. These areas are often more populated, and this puts pressure on those resguardos. Peasants from surrounding areas may enter the territories to open up parts of the forest for cattle grazing, leading to rising tensions with Indigenous groups. Other resguardos are huge – some more than a million hectares — and located deep in the Amazon forest. These face different types of threats, such as illegal gold mining and oil extraction. In the first category we have to invest in conflict resolution and sustainable production models, he says. While in the second category, the focus should be on monitoring and law enforcement.

Tropenbos Colombia does a lot of work around the Caqueta River in the Solano landscape in the south of the country, where there are 20 relatively small resguardos, ranging between 80 and 1000 hectares. The area used to be under control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which kept deforestation in check (to maintain forest cover and protect themselves from air raids, among other reasons). However, since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016, deforestation has been increasing, as has illegal coca production and gold mining. Similar developments are recorded in other parts of Colombia. With the FARC gone, and the limited capacity and resources of local governments, a governance gap emerged. Tropenbos Colombia tries to help fill the gap, by assisting government agencies with landscape planning, offering information about forest management, organizing trainings in conflict resolution and restoration, and promoting intercultural exchanges between Indigenous groups and settlers.

What is the main challenge for the Indigenous groups living in resguardos in Solano?

There are very few sources of income, and this pushes people to engage in illegal activities, such as gold mining, coca production and narco trafficking. The state hasn’t been able to provide people with decent livelihood opportunities. This is a problem, both outside and inside the resguardos.

How can livelihood opportunities be improved?

I believe that this is best done by adding value to the forests. We have to make sure that people can earn money with forest management, for example by marketing timber, non-timber forest products, and environmental services, such as carbon sequestration. But this requires a lot of changes. For example, many communities in the resguardos do not have permits to sell timber. This means we have to change the legal agreement between the State and the Indigenous groups, to create possibilities for marketing timber, which also requires the development of detailed sustainable forest management plans.

Is there a tension between traditional subsistence-based livelihoods on the one hand and commercialization and market integration on the other?

There are NGOs who are against commercialization — this discourse is common. And in some cases valid. Some isolated groups may prefer to minimize interactions with outsiders. But there are many other cases, like here in Solano, where communities are already participating in the economy of the country. They are often at the losing end. So we need to find ways to help them, by harnessing the value of the forest, without destroying it.

SUB: Obeimar, Indigenous man in the forest of Guayabal, Solano, Colombia


Efforts to add value to the forest do not have to be at odds with Indigenous culture. They may even reinforce each other, says Rodriguez. Indigenous communities have been managing the forest for millennia, so their knowledge is enormous. Next to that, he stresses that the Indigenous worldview has an engrained conservation ethic, based on the fundamental idea that rivers, trees, plants, animals and people are all part of one integrated system — they are all connected, and thus depend on each other. Rodriguez: “There is a strong notion of the intrinsic value of nature’s diversity. It means that indigenous communities do not think exclusively in commercial terms, but also in terms of the ethical treatment of the environment.”

Has working with Indigenous groups changed your own worldview?

Yes it has, in many ways. First, working with Indigenous groups I learned more about ecology than I did in university. Second, and more profoundly, they introduced me to new ideas and concepts. Consider, for example, the idea that you can see a tree as a person. When you start seeing trees and plants as people, it completely shifts your way of thinking. A fundamental element of the Indigenous worldview is that we are all part of nature, and this means that our interactions with the environment have a clear ethical dimension.

Is the Indigenous worldview threatened?

There are many threats. Sometimes the culture is very weak, and within the community there may be a loss of traditional cultural values. Young generations are not always interested in cultural issues. Many of them are more interested in mobile phones and social media and rap music. They leave the territories, looking for new opportunities in urban areas.

Is that a problem?

Not necessarily. Indigenous youth may go to the city and carry their culture with them, in a dignified manner. They can use their traditional knowledge and worldview to contribute to societal and academic debates about the forest. They can play a role in devising new ways to add value to the forest, and link urban areas to resguardos. They can share their culture with self-esteem. Alternatively, they go to the city and forget about their tradition, their culture and their knowledge. In my view, that would be a pity. That’s why we are working with Indigenous communities to help maintain and revive their culture and knowledge. It is an important foundation for empowerment.

Tropenbos Colombia is a member of the Tropenbos International network, aiming to improve the governance and management of forested landscapes in the tropics. The network just launched a thematic page on community forest rights, with links to interviews, reviews, articles and videos, documenting experiences with forest tenure reforms around the world.