By Courtney Cavaliere
The Colombian government established a protected area of the Amazon rainforest in June 2008 for the primary purpose of preserving medicinal plants.1,2 This new protected area, the Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Flora Sanctuary, was created largely at the request of local indigenous communities, who utilize the area’s medicinal plants for their cultural and healing traditions.
The 10,626-hectare sanctuary (1 hectare = 2.5 acres) is located in the municipality of Orito, in the department (or state) of Putumayo. The term “Ingi-Ande” in the sanctuary’s name means “our territory” in the language of Colombia’s indigenous Kofan people, and this reflects the participation of the Kofan people in creating the sanctuary and acknowledges that Kofan ancestral land comprises part of the sanctuary.
The indigenous communities and traditional healers of the Putumayo region first proposed the creation of the sanctuary in December of 2003.1 According to ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, PhD, president of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), the indigenous communities expressed concerns about peasants moving into the area and of deforestation of their sacred lands (oral communication, July 1, 2008). They insisted that the area was a key ancestral site in need of protection.
The process of designing and declaring the sanctuary became a collaborative effort of the Ministry of the Environment, Housing and Territorial Development of Colombia, the Special Administrative Unit of the Colombian National Park System, ACT, Rosario University, and the Union of Traditional Yagé Healers of the Colombian Amazon.1
“The site will be used by the Kofan and those members of the Union of Yagé Healers of the Colombian Amazon as a place where apprentices, both men and women, will be able to go and learn about the plants, collect seeds to grow them in their medicinal plant gardens, and simply be a sacred place for them to conduct ceremonies and continue the transmission of knowledge,” said Liliana Madrigal, ACT’s vice president of programs (e-mail, July 3, 2008).
According to Dr. Plotkin, the new Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Flora Sanctuary is distinguished from other protected sites in that it involves conservation of both the rainforest and the culture of local indigenous people—an approach known as “biocultural conservation.” Dr. Plotkin explained that the idea of protecting a peoples’ sacred space can stir human emotions in a way that protecting biodiversity alone is sometimes incapable of doing. “We’re hoping that this biocultural aspect provides an added incentive for protection,” said Dr. Plotkin.
Madrigal added that there have been other efforts to protect lands for the preservation of medicinal plants, but this particular site is unique in that it features co-management of the land by indigenous peoples and that the medicinal plants are acknowledged for their spiritual significance and properties beyond material value. “For the first time, certainly in Latin American protected sites, an area is created by and for indigenous people and with the explicit acknowledgement of the importance of the ‘non-material’ or invisible aspects of plants for indigenous people,” she said.
“This is a most profound advance in the protected areas movement,” said Kenton Miller, senior advisor for the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas (e-mail to L. Madrigal, June 14, 2008). “Clearly, it is only through the direct leadership of indigenous medicinal workers that such sites can be identified and defined for protection. And given Colombia’s long track record of creative approaches to protecting nature, we can be assured that these unique resources will be conserved. Critical in this Colombian approach, of course, is the central role of the resident indigenous communities. Once again, Colombia demonstrates its innovatory capacity to conserve nature and culture.”
Of the many medicinal plants available within the sanctuary and used by the area’s traditional healers, the yoco (Paullinia yoco, Sapindaceae) plant has been identified as one of the region’s most highly regarded medicinal plants. It is being considered a keystone conservation species of the area (meaning that it will serve as a symbol of the area’s biodiversity, and efforts to protect that particular plant should ensure the preservation of the surrounding ecosystem as well).1
“Yoco is a sister plant to yagé, which they use primarily for fuerza or strength,” said Madrigal. “This, of course, can be interpreted as strength given with the purging/cleansing it produces, the energy it gives, the clarity, and it also guards against disease.”
According to Dr. Plotkin, the yoco was first introduced into Western medicinal knowledge by famous ethnobotanist Richard Schultes. Dr. Plotkin noted that yoco is second in importance in the region only to yagé (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae; aka ayahuasca in Peru and other areas of Amazonia), a plant with hallucinogenic properties that has been used in spiritual ceremonies.
Madrigal attended the inauguration of the sanctuary on June 12, 2008, which she described as a beautiful event featuring a ceremony performed by shamans and leaders of the Kofan. “They are very proud because they know that their wisdom is providing indigenous people around the world with another important reference for the protection of their territories,” she said. “It was a lovely celebration with a lot of wonderful speeches and happiness. Now it is time to get to work on the management plan, which is really critical to ensure that the precedent and challenge it represents is viable.”
- Colombian government to create new rainforest preserve dedicated to protection of medicinal plants—based on an initiative launched by local Indians! [press release]. Bogota, Colombia: Amazon Conservation Team; June 12, 2008.
- The Sanctuary of Flora ‘Medicinal Plants Oito Ingi Ande’ is born [press release]. Bogota, Colombia; June 12, 2008. International Union for Conservation of Nature Web site. Available at: http://cms.iucn.org/what/issues/index.cfm?uNewsID=1143. Accessed June 30, 2008.