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Story Publication logo October 20, 2020

José Gregorio: Either We Preserve the Amazon Rainforest, or the Planet Will Take Revenge


José Gregorio, leader of the Guardia Indígena Ambiental (Indigenous Environmental Guard), poses for a portrait. The photo shows a logo on the front of his shirt representing his organization, which protects the Amazon forest surrounding the Amacuyaco River. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

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On the right, José Gregorio poses for an aerial portrait showing the front of his organization's shirt. On the left, an aerial view of the Amazon rainforest that surrounds the Amacuyacu river in Colombia.
José Gregorio, the experienced leader of his indigenous guard, poses for a portrait showing the front of his organization's shirt in the Amazon rainforest that surrounds the Amacuyacu river in Colombia. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

Led by José Gregorio, an indigenous environmental guard patrol goes up the Amacayacu River in the Colombian Amazon. Except for José Gregorio, who is now in his 40s, all of the environmental guard members are young indigenous people, although they show great composure and poise when they reach and intercept a suspicious canoe that is traveling stealthily upriver.

This is a routine inspection, but is not stress-free. Although the two people on the boat -powered by a small Honda engine that looks like it has just come out of the factory- have the answers to the check-up well-rehearsed, they are short, succinct. You can tell they don't want to engage in conversation. They're nervous, in a hurry to get the guards off their backs.

Half-hidden behind their hats and not revealing their faces, the boys say they are going upriver to fish. They explain that, in their community, a minga is being held the next day (according to indigenous tradition, a minga is a meeting to carry out community work that culminates in a celebratory meal).

After several careful entries in the control notebook, the indigenous environmental guard authorizes them to continue their journey, after warning them that the territory is under their control and that next time they must obtain prior permission to enter the river, which flows through Amacayacu National Natural Park, overlapping with the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua Indigenous Reserve.

Bebeto, a member of the G.I.A., carries a cluster of açaí through the jungle.
Bebeto, a member of the G.I.A., carries a cluster of açaí through the jungle. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

The pressure on the environment is constant and dents the immense biodiversity and natural resources within the Amazon rainforest. There are many threats to the environment here, from overfishing to illegal mining, logging, or the return of coca processing laboratories, of the sort that existed in the past, although these have recently moved to the other side of the Amazon River, to the Peruvian side. This combination of richness and threat has made the creation of the indigenous environmental guard key to the defence and conservation of these vulnerable territories.

These territories and the people who inhabit them have suffered from damage and fragmentation since ancient times. One of the forgotten contributions of the extinct League of Nations in the turbulent 1930s was the resolution of the conflict with Peru, when Colombia wanted to secure access to the great Amazon River. That is the origin of the area known today as the Amazon Trapeze, mapped out by diplomats with a compass on a negotiation table, similar to so many borders that we see on the African map, for example, as a result of colonization agreements.

Decisions about where to draw the frontier arbitrarily split complex ecosystems, creating borders that divide cultural universes and entire ethnic groups, coining artificial political environments, which are continuously challenged by reality and the forest.

Six members of the G.I.A. sit on a motor boat traveling along the Amacayacu River. The water is slightly murky and there is dense forest vegetation on the banks of the river.
Members of the G.I.A. during a routine tour of the Amacayacu River, near the community of San Martín. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.
Four members of the G.I.A. sit in a boat during a routine tour of the Amacayacu River. A woman in the foreground takes notes on a yellow notepad.
Members of the G.I.A. during a routine tour of the Amacayacu River, near the community of San Martín. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

For this reason, the border that lies between Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, along the scarce 120 kilometres of Colombian sovereignty over the 6,575 km-long Amazon River, has become a continuous source of traffic for all kinds of high-value goods, extracted legally or illegally.

Today, it requires a careful balancing act. As a territory that is crisscrossed by three different jurisdictions, the State's presence is very weak and there is always room for impunity: there is a vast region that neither the authorities nor the indigenous peoples themselves have the capacity to control.

José Gregorio Vázquez, the experienced leader of the indigenous guard, understands this very well. Of Tikuna ethnicity and belonging to the Cascabel tribe, Jose Gregorio left the community to study and work in Leticia, the capital of this disremembered region. He then entered the military school in Bogotá. But an untimely knee injury and powerful family reasons obliged him to return to his community of San Martín, on the Amacayacu River. At that point, he was 25 years old.

José explains that, on his return to San Martín, he spoke with his grandparents, the cultural and spiritual backbone of the community, and also engaged in political dialogue with the authorities. He dreamed of asserting the values of the Colombian Constitution of 1991, which includes the rights of indigenous communities to politically organize their territory and community. These conversations took place at the time of the formation of the Tikuna-Cocama-Yagua indigenous reserve, and José Gregorio quickly realised that he should work to help the reserve to become a reality.

Human rights, José realized, are of no use if they cannot be exercised or exist only on paper. The government recognizes the rights of the indigenous communities; but there are many obstacles and difficulties in terms of administrative and financial management. But for José the important thing was to recognize that the territorial system forms an integrated whole and that, as he himself says, "there is a union between the spiritual, the human, and the natural."

José Gregorio, wearing camo pants, a long sleeve shirt, and a bucket hat, holds several markers as he shows his team the plan written on a whiteboard with the route to be carried out in the routine inspection of his territory before leaving.
José Gregorio shows his team the route to be carried out in the routine inspection of his territory before leaving. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

For José Gregorio, the most important thing is to pay attention to the handling and governance of the environment, because this is the future of the indigenous communities. To do so, he also manages the incipient tourism into the region (he himself runs a small lodge for European travellers in San Martín). And he also knows that it is crucial to exercise self-governance in order to preserve what he calls "the ownership of our knowledge", well aware that "every time humanity changes its model, we lose a lot of knowledge".

"I believe" - José Gregorio continues - "that everything we are doing is to benefit the world. It is not for me. And this gives me a lot of hope". These reflections are in the origin of his main project: the indigenous guard.

By training and coaching young people, he has built up over time a small but versatile group to work on conservation and protection: "we do it for future generations," he says, "but also for the ancestors who have already died.”

Gloria, one of the women who is part of the San Martín de Amacayacu Indigenous Environmental Guard, sits at a table and takes handwritten notes in pencil during the talk prior to a routine inspection of the Ticuna territory.
Gloria, one of the women who is part of the San Martín de Amacayacu Indigenous Environmental Guard, takes notes during the talk prior to a routine inspection of the Ticuna territory. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

Consequently, the conservation and monitoring of the environment are Jose's main occupation. While his wife ensures that the lodge business generates enough income to keep the indigenous guards in working order, José is in charge of planning the guard's work, day by day.

It is a huge job, the environmental problems are massive, and the consequences of the climate crisis on the ecosystem have increased the scale of problems since at least 2000. Communities have seen dramatic changes in the flowering cycle and the water cycle, and both harvesting and fishing are being seriously affected.

According to José Gregorio, the big change occurred between 2000 and 2010: "The small rivers are now dry, the little fish cannot survive, and we are not ready to cope. Things are changing from one moment to the next, and the annual flooding pattern of the river, which had been stable, has now disappeared".

This is why today José Gregorio worries about consolidating the indigenous guard he founded, acquiring autonomy and, if possible, extending to other communities. The young people see it is an opportunity to learn and commit to defending their territory and remaining in San Martín instead of emigrating to Leticia or beyond, to all-consuming cities.

Gregorio stands in a field of macacauba trees in the Colombian rainforest, looking upward. He is wearing a black t-shirt, blue jeans, and rain boots.
Gregorio shows the macacauba trees planted by his father. Macacauba wood is one of the most sought after in the Colombian Amazon. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

For the Tikunas, as for most indigenous Amazonian peoples, the forest contains everything they require. "There is everything we need, and it is ours. Our life comes from the forest, our gods, the Yakuruna, the water. Without the forest, everything will be lost, our life will cease," says José Gregorio. "Everything in San Martín and in the Amazon rainforest exists and lives because we have taken care of it for millennia because it is a legacy from our ancestors.”

José Gregorio looks deep at the Amacayacu River and sees a world where the equilibrium is fragile, where he wants to preserve at all costs and employ as many young people as he can in its conservation. With his dreamy eyes and gazing out beyond the thundering curtain of water in the rainforest, José Gregorio has a message for the outside world, the one he decided to leave when he was young to come back to San Martín: "To those living in the outside world I would say: worry about your way of life. Reduce mass consumption. Remember that what we have left is already very little. That we are running out of air, of clean water. We have to think about the future.”

Close up of José Gregorio's arm as he points his finger at the trunk of a rubber tree, indicating the sap.
José Gregorio shows the sap of a rubber tree in the jungle that the G.I.A. stewards. In the past, rubber was one of the most profitable resources in the Amazon and one that had the most social consequences for communities. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.
Close up of two men. Bebeto, one of the young men of the G.I.A. is on the right. He is using a cylindrical object to blows a traditional medicine called rapé into the nose of Christian, one of his companions, pictured on the left.
Bebeto, one of the young men of the G.I.A. He blows rapé into the nose of Christian, one of his companions, during a routine walk. Rapé is a powder made from a mixture of tobacco and other medicinal plants, considered a traditional medicine. Image by Pablo Albarenga. Colombia, 2020.

Late in the afternoon, the rain stops, and José Gregorio goes for a walk. He walks along the trail, together with some members of the indigenous guard, dressed in his green camouflage T-shirt, his swamp boots, and his matching hat. Suddenly, on the banks of the Amacayacu River, which is almost overflowing, he stops in front of an immense, monumental tree.

Like an ancient spirit, aware that what he is about to say is a prediction, full of commitment he fixes his eyes on the water and with a voice both mysterious and wise, he says: "At some point, nature will make decisions for us. And when it does, for us no one will have the power to control it. The sun will take revenge, and there will be no stopping it”.

A few weeks after he uttered these words, the whole world entered the Covid-19 crisis. Most probably, José Gregorio is now pondering: “I warned you guys that nature was going to take its revenge.”

Mobility restrictions due to the pandemic have caused the indigenous environmental guard to significantly reduce their tours of the area. In addition, disposable income for canoe engine fuel fell dramatically.

Contacted at the beginning of August, José Gregorio said that they have restarted the operations of environmental control of the territory and that, in relation to the disease, there are cared for with jungle plants that protect and contribute to the resilience of these battered Amazonian communities, determined to survive all evils since the ancient times of colonization.

This article, originally published in El País, belongs to a series about defenders of the forests that can be visited following this link. The series started in Brasil and Ecuador and now continues in Colombia. It is a project of openDemocracy / democraciaAbierta, and has been carried out with the support of Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Journalism Fund.