World Rainforest Movement

Colombia: An example of a community-managed forest

The Uitoto peoples in the Araracuara region, in the mid course of the Caqueta River show some common socio-cultural characteristics, among which a production system based on the sustainable use of three spaces: the forest, the river and the “chagra” (a clearing in the forest used for poli-culture plantation).

This system is established on the basis of an organization of knowledge handed down from generation to generation, over thousands of years, on the structure of the forest, alternating with the use of different landscape units, the sowing of a large diversity of species and the indigenous people’s own land-use techniques.

The establishment of the “chagra” culminates after a five-stage process, demonstrating all the knowledge of the indigenous farmers regarding the forest around them. These stages in order are as follows:

1. Election of the soil according to what will be sown
2. Elimination of lianas, small plants, etc.
3. Felling of large trees
4. Burning of the remains of vegetation
5. Sowing of the various traditional species

The forest production and use system is composed of areas with transitory crops, usually for periods of less than 2 or 3 years, known as “chagras,” and areas of stubble in a stage of regeneration.

The community has a production for subsistence and self-consumption, mainly based on traditional crops, hunting, fishing and gathering fruit from the forest. The system is characterised by the presence of a great diversity of species and varieties that they establish in the ecosystem in a staggered way. The result is permanent availability of food and material for other uses.

Iris Andoque describes the process: “One plants cassava over all the ‘chagra’ (sweet cassava, wild cassava and manicuera); manicuera (this is a type of cassava used to prepare a slightly sweet beverage of the same name) in the lower part, the sweet cassava in the middle because of the animals, and the one to grate on the river banks to be picked quickly. Then we have vegetables: sweet potatoes, beans, old cocoyams (taro), new cocoyams (yautia) and dale dale. These are planted where the land was most burnt and there are ashes. Coca has to be planted in furrows in the high part and transplanted after 3 years. Pineapple is also planted apart. One always organizes work; you have to start at the bottom and work up, never from the hill towards here, at the bottom there is canangucho (a type of palm, Mauritia flexuosa) that does not dry up the sources of water, then tobacco in the damp part and also manicuera, in the middle, grapes, guacure and other fruit trees, up on the banks there is no problem, on the hill go and plant chontaduro (a palm with edible fruit)”.

Forest management is regulated by their own ecological calendar, adjusted to annual cycles, the phases of the moon and environmental changes – climatic and hydrological changes – showing the capacity for observation possessed by all the indigenous peoples.

The forest is a space that may culturally be defined as the centre for settlement, experimentation, learning, transformation and adaptation of the ethnic peoples who live in the region.

Hernando Castro says: “From the beginning, all things were created and ordered by a father creator, reproduced and harmonized by mother nature and administrated by human people. The creator handed us the word of how to look after and manage it to avoid imbalance”.

According to the indigenous vision, the forest originates from the air, the clouds, water and tree-grass, which leads to the traditional knowledge of the Uitoto world, an east, a west, a down (south), an up (north); dimensions that require spaces such as the forest and the river for their definition.

Aurelio Suárez adds that “According to the principles of each ethnic group comes reality; the origin has a single beginning, but the tradition depends on each ethnic group, the clans, it is different; tradition brings management most of all of the soil, the ecological part depends on the tradition of the ethnic group; the origin is one, both for animals and for humans; naturally mother nature guides, administrates and cares for the knowledge part, the human part is what is guided here”.

For indigenous peoples, all is interrelated, all has an origin, a history and a management that must be known and practiced. The animals and plants are intimately related as one comes from the other, making them complementary, and a relationship that is impossible to break because it would attack the vital balance that enables the environment to operate adequately and to prevent diseases from coming.

The capacity of the indigenous groups in the region to obtain their food support from a strip of transformed forest, where they have learnt to manipulate and benefit from seeds, soils and environmental conditions, is yet more evidence of their millenary knowledge, very rich and useful in the context of sustainable forest use.

The indigenous vision of temporal land use makes it possible for species of fruit trees or other species to be found long after the chagra has been installed, even in mature forests, showing the inhabitants’ phased management of their surroundings. Diversity is conditioned to the species with most significance and advantages, but even so, there are numerous varieties of fruit-trees to be found in the stubble lands of an indigenous family. This makes them farmers with wide knowledge and very considerable agricultural experience.

The different species are sown year after year in order to obtain a range of plants at different stages of growth; they also intervene on regeneration processes, making them farmers that enrich the forest.

The presence of fruit-trees in the forest in the stage of regeneration is not by chance; the replacement of their wild equivalent is a typical characteristic, responding to the need for reciprocity with nature in the hope of a good yield.

Hernán Moreno says that “When one is going to make a “chagra”, one asks for permission, it is like an agreement. In the forest, there are wild grapes, forest calmo, guamo, chontaduro de monte, which is a thorny coconut palm; these fruit-trees belong to the animals. One says I am going to fell and then replace the trees I felled by domesticated fruit-trees, if I cut a wild laurel tree, I plant laurel, if I cut down palm trees I plant canagucho or chontaduro. So, when these trees grow in the stubble, they are shared with the animals”.

The selection of seeds, the techniques for sowing and distributing the trees in the plantation are the contribution of indigenous farmers to enable these species to be useful resources to the family and the means for the forest to be enriched after it has been restored.

In words of Hernando Castro, “Within the indigenous cosmo-vision, the relationship between human beings and nature is fully appreciated; the territory is our mother, we are her children and therefore we take care of it with the word, the inheritance of our forefathers and food for knowledge, growth and development of life in harmony with nature. The recovery of the traditional knowledge of our elders as to the use of natural resources, taking them to different designs, it is what the elders say: make the word dawn”.

Extracted and adapted from: “Conocimiento y manejo del bosque a través de las chagras y los rastrojos. Visión desde los Uitotos, Medio río Caquetá (Amazonia colombiana)”, Hernando Castro Suárez, Uitoto indigenous inhabitant of the “El Guacamayo” community in Aracuara, and Sandra Giovanna Galán Rodríguez, Ecology student, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, published in the Journal “Semillas,” August 2003, e-mail: ,

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