Who is Martín von Hildebrand?

A brief interview with the Tällberg Foundation Global Leader and anthropologist leading the charge for indigenous rights and environmental protection in the Amazon


Martín von Hildebrand, Founder and General Director of Fundación Gaia Amazonas in Bogota, Colombia. Dr. von Hildebrand has pioneered a new paradigm for Amazon conservation in Colombia, embracing indigenous peoples rights and traditional knowledge, and he seeks to create the world’s largest eco-cultural, sustainable development corridor, spanning the Andes-Amazon-Atlantic. Fundación Gaia Amazonas works at the intersection of forest conservation, climate change and indigenous rights, building capacity for local indigenous governance and alliances for inter-institutional collaboration.

Dr. von Hildebrand is a winner of the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize and part of the 2015 class of Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders, along with Jamila Afghani, Antonella Battaglini, Jason Glaser, and M.S. Swaminathan.

Working towards an agreement for the Andes-Amazon-Atlantic corridor has been a complex process involving many different parties. Who are the different players? And, what is your role? How do you manage to keep everybody working toward one goal?

Okay, I will say the three main [groups] right now. Governments, indigenous people and NGOs. Those are the most political, and it’s a political process we’re discussing.

Now, I know the indigenous people, and I know the ones involved. And, I know what they are looking for, and have already held meetings around this and they want to participate with the government. They said, ‘We want to be there in the decision taking. If something is set up we want to participate.’

And, of course, we already have the ILO convention. We already have the United Nations declaration. We have all the basic legal and international agreements. We have similar laws. We have similar constitutions. So we already have a basic legal framework. Second, we already have the corridor uniting us. And we have the business people who have agreed to it. And the NGOs, which I’m visiting, I talk with. And I know them, most all of them because we’ve worked together over the years. So, we can agree to it. Now we’ve got the government. We’ve got one government saying yes. We’ve got Guyana saying ‘Yes, we have to find our way through it.’ And, I’ve talked to the governments. The governments obviously have their own ways — a lot of bilateral agreements. So we’ve got all the pieces there.

The pieces are there. We just have to show them look, it’s a win-win because it won’t be put aside, this [land] is out of the market. It’s Indian territories, it’s protected areas, you can’t go do mining there. It’s out of the market. Why don’t you make the most of it? Why don’t you make it an international — not only corridor — but a laboratory. Let’s look into the future. Let’s use it to find, to work on positive solutions toward the impact of climate change. Let’s look for new paradigms by combining indigenous knowledge and Western knowledge. Let’s see the NGOs working all together. It’s a win-win for all of us.

What is your political strategy?

The way I’ve succeeded with government and political work is telling stories. Basically, going, describing, telling a story, spending time, and people become enthusiastic and it has worked. It’s been very important, storytelling. And, I think also because I’ve lived so long with the Indians, it gives a feeling that this is what is happening. This is the way the forest is, this is the way the people are.

Now at this stage there are three main levels in pushing this corridor. Governments must come to agreement. It’s not that easy. Brazil is in a crisis and they’re thinking of going more economically than environmentally. It’s not easy. Dilma has 8% popularity, so she’s got other things on her mind.

Santos took up the idea. The President of Colombia has said ‘I want this to happen. I can see it. It looks logical.’ So, we have a law. So, we’ve won already. What do I mean by a law? That we have a connectivity between the Amazon ecosystem and the Andean ecosystem that was interrupted by deforestation, and we’re pulling that together again. So we have 55% of the Amazon in Colombia is indigenous territory, 17% is parks. And now we’re pulling together the rest because the President is committed because he wants to see the first stage of the corridor. He’s gong to reduce deforestation to 0 in the next 5 years. We see if he can manage. It’s already in Colombia. The Guyanas are basically in agreement. The point of Brazil is a little more complicated.

As I said we have three levels. Governments. We have indigenous people. If the indigenous people don’t agree, we have no corridor. And, we have NGOs.

The corridor is not just the land and mosaic coming together, it’s the dynamics — the experiences, exchange of experience. We’re talking about connectivity of ecosystems to keep the environmental services going, particularly the water. We have to have also the indigenous process connectivity, we have to have the NGOs and their experience connecting, we have to have research and science connecting, we have to have universities connecting. It is bringing into this area, exchanging, focusing, connecting, coordinating, because this will give life to the corridor. The land it itself is not a corridor, the connection itself is not a corridor — that would be a network, it’s the two coming together.

What are new challenges and threats?

The first point I’d like to mention is the complexity. That is, I don’t believe that if you go in from just go from one angle and say I’m going to support them from an economic point of view, I’m going in there to support education, or we’re going there to support health — it doesn’t work like that.

It’s all interrelated. And one has to understand that it’s governance, it’s health, it’s education, it’s environment. It’s all interrelated. So you end up doing a very complex approach, but you cannot just approach one. You cannot be linear, you have to see it from a complex angel.

Now as they become more independent, as the government supports them and decentralizes more, new problems come in.t becomes more complicated. As long as we were trying to fall back the encroachment of the Western world and open a space for them to be themselves and to be different and to decide for themselves, we were collaborating

Once this pressure is not that big anymore and they have their own governments, then the problem is within the communities and there we have less to say — obviously. Because it’s their problem. And with that they do call us in because they have new problems with administration, running government funds, making decisions, relating with the outside world. And that is complex. It’s complex because the outside world is complex. And so they have these new challenges.

An interview with Martín von Hildebrand in Stockholm on November 11, when he was in town as one of the Tällberg Foundation Global Leaders and winner of the Global Leadership Prize 2015.

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