History Hasn’t Been Written
Wade Davis is Copenhagen in partnership with Nissan’s A Journey to Zero project
In 1986, newly elected Colombian President Virgilio Barco appointed my old friend Martin Von Hildebrand as Head of Indigenous Affairs and told him to do something for the Indian peoples of Colombia. Martin, who as an anthropologist had lived for years among the Tanimukas and first paddled the length of the Río Piraparana as a young graduate student, did more than something. In five extraordinary years he secured for the Indians of the Colombian Amazon legal land rights to an area of some 25 million hectares, roughly the size of the United Kingdom, establishing 162 Resguardos altogether, titled lands, which were encoded by law in the 1991 Political Constitution of the country. Nothing like it had ever been done by a Nation State. In the years that followed, as Colombia endured the ravages of war throughout the 1990s and early days of a new century, a veil of isolation fell upon the Northwest Amazon. And behind this veil, as Martin explained when he invited me a year ago to return with him to the Rio Piraparaná, an old dream of the earth was reborn.
I had first visited the region in 1975, and at the time it seemed that the extraordinary cultures were destined to be lost. This was the familiar lament of anthropologists of the day. Wherever we went we encountered what we assumed to be disappearing worlds. But returning with Martin just last winter, I encountered another world. We landed on a dirt airstrip at San Miguel, an abandoned Catholic mission. I recognized the fields, the setting of the great longhouse, or maloca, and the white sands along the river where children and women bathed in the black waters of the Piraparaná. But otherwise things seemed very different. A mission I recalled as a rather sad place of desuetude was gone. On our first night a hundred or more people gathered in the maloca, men in feather regalia, to dance, chant and take sacred medicines, coca and tobacco, chicha and yagé. Shaman huddled over calabashes of spirit food, whispering and softly singing spells. For the first time I heard the haunting sound of the sacred yurupari trumpets, created by the ancestors at the dawn of time. Long condemned by Catholic priests as symbols of the devil, these mythic instruments had been crushed and burned during the years of the mission. That their sound was still here, inspiring new generations of Barasana, Makuna, Tatuyos and others peoples of the river suggested powerfully that the culture was very much alive. In the thirty years or more since my first visit, the only thing that had disappeared on the Río Piraparaná, as Martin said, were the missionaries.
Had you asked me in 1975 whether such a cultural revitalization could ever occur, if the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon might ever find a way to reclaim their heritage, secure their land and protect their forests, I would have said no. Martin by contrast is one of those rare and extraordinary visionaries who can only say yes. His entire being recoils at the thought of the impossible. Despair for him is an insult to the imagination. When he first went to the Amazon he saw not what was, but what could be. Then, against all odds, working always in collaboration with elders and indigenous leaders, he set out and quite literally changed the trajectory of history.
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