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Colombia Debuts an Amazon Park
By María Isabel García

The indigenous Inga community requested the creation of a nature reserve, which covers 68,000 hectares in a coca production zone.

BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- The need to protect the indigenous Inga peoples and the discovery of previously unknown species of birds, insects and plants, prompted the creation in Colombia of the Alto Fragua-Indiwasi National Nature Park. Indiwasi is an Inca word that means "house of the sun".

The new park, created by government decree in February, covers 68,000 hectares in the southern department of Caquetá, in the Colombian Amazon, the country's most biologically rich areas. Colombia is among the world's top 13 countries in biodiversity.

The Inga requested the creation of the park in 1999 in order to protect the area from the migrant farmers who were being displaced from other regions, from the pollutants that accompany the illegal cultivation of coca (used to make cocaine) and poppy (opium and heroin), and from the government policy of eradicating those crops by aerial spraying of highly toxic herbicides.

The Indiwasi will operate under an administration involving indigenous authorities, and is the newest of the country's 47 nature parks in a system that grants special protection to 9.8 million hectares, or nine percent of Colombian territory.

The Inga live on five refuges in 17 communities and settlements throughout the Bota Caucana, an area in which they maintain cultural ties with their ancestors, who made that site the meeting place of their priests and 'curacas' (traditional doctors).

That was the reference the first Europeans followed when they reached the area in 1542, in an expedition headed by Hernán Pérez de Quesada, in search of the legendary El Dorado.

President Andrés Pastrana, upon signing the decree founding the national park, recognized the efforts of the Inga, Siona, Kamentsá and Cofane peoples, united in the Union of Yageceros Indigenous Doctors of the Colombian Amazon.

These are "learned people who with their ancestral knowledge are contributing new tools for the progress of science and the culture of living in harmony," said Pastrana.

It is essential to protect the traditional lands and medicine, "because if the mountains disappear, we lose autonomy and culture," Azael Delgado, governor of the Urallaca refuge, told Tierramérica.

"The migrant farmers like to tear down the mountain, and with their illicit crops they pollute the water. There is also the problem of the fumigations (the army's aerial spraying of glyphosate), which cause diarrhea and fever," said indigenous doctor Luis Criollo.

Criollo, 50, lives in Santa Rosa de Guamuez and was trained as a traditional doctor 20 years ago. Of his deep knowledge of plants, he said that "with just a glance, I know all that are in the forest."

The healer played a part in the evaluation of the species in the park, organized by local communities, the governmental Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, and the non-governmental Amazon Conservation Team.

"So far the most important lesson has been to distinguish the good from the bad, and the good is always what turns out to be best for the community," said Criollo, who traveled to Bogotá to attend the official ceremony to found the park.

"Our medical knowledge lies in curing spiritual illnesses. With injections and pills one cannot cure the bad air or bad wind, nor the most serious of all diseases: the death of the spirit," he said.

Also making the journey to the capital were other indigenous leaders, such as Natividad Mutumbajoy, who is in charge of ethnic education programs, which include teaching young Inga students their native language. "They have lost most of it in the white schools," she said.

"They have Spanish ingrained in their heads. They have to make an effort to once again speak like their elders. To help us we turn to the 'andiguasca', the plant that illuminates and transmits knowledge," said Mutumbajoy.

And local knowledge sometimes turns into poetry, like that of Francelina Muchavisoy, an Inga woman who sings: "The drum will be my home/ the cradle my canoe/ the river my road/ the jungle my science/ the land my base/ the sun my reach/ the air my lungs/ the blood my sap."

* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent.

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