Creating a next generation of Amazon Indigenous leaders is key to preserving fast-vanishing tropical forests. Here's how remote communities are trying:
MIRITI-PARANA, Colombia — Scurrying nimbly through thick Colombian Amazon rainforest, teenager Pablo Galindo Tanimuca abruptly slows his pace and puts a finger to his lips, asking for silence as he approaches a small salt-water pond regarded as sacred by his Indigenous community.
"This is a special place for me. Shamans come here to think," the 17-year-old whispered, as a flock of screeching parrots swooshed above the high jungle canopy.
Galindo, a member of the small Tanimuca ethnic group of about 300 people living in this remote Indigenous reserve in Colombia's southeastern Amazonas province, feels a strong sense of belonging to his community and culture.
"The forest is my home," he said, explaining that he aims to remain in Puerto Guayabo, his community of about 35 families nestled in near-pristine rainforest.
Not all Indigenous youth feel the same way, however — a worrying reality for many Indigenous Amazon communities as they try to hold onto their culture and territory in the face of looming threats from expanding agriculture, mining, and logging.
But nascent efforts to build a new generation of Indigenous leaders — as capable of filing financial reports as performing traditional rituals — could both better prepare communities for the future and help keep young people in their rainforest homes.
Even in this isolated tropical wilderness — which has no roads and little or no cell phone service, internet coverage, or electricity — the modern world creeps in.
Some young Indigenous men have mobile phones, listen to reggaeton music, drink beer, and feel increasingly reluctant to learn about ancient traditions and take part in ceremonial dances.
Others are not interested in learning from shamans, who pass on oral ancestral knowledge, or undergoing the years of study and strict diet required to become a shaman themselves.
Indigenous youth also are being lured away by the prospect of earning low wages as construction workers or street vendors in Leticia, the capital of Colombia's Amazonas province, reached by a two-week-long boat ride.
As well, some young men leave their Indigenous reserves in the hope of continuing their education or securing a place on a free government training scheme. A share never return.
"Not all of the youth of today want to be here and some leave," admitted Alfredo Yucuna, who heads the Indigenous Council of the Miriti-Parana Amazonas Territory (CITMA), which represents about 1,150 people from nine ethnic groups, including his own.
"Our culture isn't practiced as it once was by all of the young people," he said. That is a problem because "if we lose our culture, we lose our balance and harmony with nature."
Indigenous cultures that regard nature as sacred have helped preserve forests for millennia.
That is one reason Indigenous communities in Colombia's Amazon, and in many other parts of the world, are regarded by academics, environmentalists, and many officials as the best guardians of tropical forests.
A 2021 U.N. report found that in nearly every Latin American country, Indigenous lands showed lower deforestation rates than other forest areas.
Across Colombia, deforestation increased by 8% in 2020, fueled by illegal logging and gold mining, and land being cleared for coca and farming.
Huge forest fires in February also destroyed swathes of the country's Amazon rainforest. Colombia's rainforest provinces of Amazonas, Vaupes, and Guainia have largely been spared the onslaught of forest losses — for now.
But as outside pressures loom, Indigenous communities are fighting an internal battle as well: How to keep young people in the forest so knowledge is passed on to future generations and a new era of leaders emerges.
Up and down the Miriti-Parana river, a jungle waterway that serves as the region's highway for dugout canoes, dozens of ethnic groups live, each with their own language and culture preserved through a historian, singer, storyteller, and shaman.
A shared language and culture bind each group, strengthened through rituals and ceremonial dances guided by a shaman who acts as a spiritual leader and healer.
But in communities now better connected to an outside world that offers different options for their young people, maintaining traditions is growing more challenging.
"We've lost some parts of our culture. The Matapi language has almost disappeared," said 29-year-old Nery Ernesto Matapi, who lives several hours downriver at the Puerto Nuevo community.
Now many Matapi speak Spanish, a legacy of past incursions by Catholic missionaries. But "an ethnic group without a language isn't an ethnic group," he warned.
To address such challenges, some Indigenous forest communities are working to create a new generation of leaders who can not only protect old ways but learn crucial new ones.
Nery belongs to a small group of young men and women being trained as environmental and community leaders as part of a pilot project to preserve their culture and nurture future Indigenous spokespeople who can hold their own with government officials and miners.
Mayer Matapi, 25, one of those being trained, left his community for a year to join the police force in the city of Leticia but has since returned.
"Some youth leave. When they don't return, a little bit of our culture is lost," said the youth, one of eight participating in the project run by Gaia Amazonas, a Colombian non-profit that works with Indigenous people to protect the Amazon.
"I need to be here to help keep our culture alive, to protect nature and our territory. We can't lose our culture," he said, sitting on a wooden stool inside a dark maloka, a traditional thatched communal dwelling and meeting place.
Neider Farekade Yucuna, 24, wants to help his community by learning about the "white world" in order to defend ancestral lands from the illegal gold mining and logging he says are the main threats facing the forest.
"The white world is always interested in doing something in the forest. I want to serve my community and be useful. I want to take responsibility," he said.
Since the project began in 2020, Colombian academics from two Bogota-based universities have visited the riverside communities to teach youth basic accounting, computer and report-writing skills, and about laws protecting Indigenous rights.
At first, Neider said he was confused by the unfamiliar words his teachers used such as "prioritize", "criteria" and "synthesize" — terms that do not exist in the Yucuna language.
But he has since learned how to conduct censuses and record and present community data in graphs outsiders can grasp.
"We have to understand white man concepts and words ... enrich our vocabulary and find synonyms," said Neider, who is now keen to learn how to write financial reports.
Training youth to become community leaders is all the more important as groups in this part of Colombia's Amazon seek to become 'Indigenous territorial entities', or state-recognized local governments with greater power over their land, as part of an $7.4 million initiative across three rainforest provinces.
If approved by Colombia's justice ministry, the new 'Indigenous territorial entities' will need people from their own communities to effectively become civil servants capable of managing state funds and pursuing international donor money allocated for forest conservation.
"We're training our young men and women so they are best equipped and ready to defend our territory to the outside world, and so that we're respected," said Indigenous leader Ciro Matapi.
Indigenous women, who do most of the farming and ensure families have enough to eat, also play an important role in preserving culture and teaching children native languages but until recently were "invisible", said Emith Yucuna Matapi.
But young women are now among those being trained for future leadership positions — in part to ensure any new "Indigenous territorial entities" approved meet criteria set by the Colombian government for women's participation in decision-making.
"We're working hard to make ourselves visible. We contribute to food, the dances and we take care of the forest," said Emith, who heads an indigenous women's committee, though she is not one of the trainees.
"The fight is to not lose our culture, because it's our strength ... but not all young people are interested in the dances and farming," she admitted, sitting on a grassy riverbank dotted with thatched-roof wooden homes and classrooms.
Neider said he is determined to become the kind of skilled ambassador his community will need in the likely difficult years ahead.
"As a future leader, I'll have to converse and negotiate with the white world and represent my community to defend our territory from future dangers. I want to be prepared," he said.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Laurie Goering. This was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org.