Linking Biocultural Memory Conservation and Human Well-Being in Indigenous Socio-Ecological Production Landscapes in the Colombian Pacific Region (SITR7-3)



Corporación Ambiental y Forestal del Pacífico (CORFOPAL)








Biocultural memory · Human health · Indigenous Protected Areas · SEPLS · Heritage conservation


Andrés Quintero-Angel, Andrés López-Rosada, Mauricio Quintero-Angel, David Quintero-Angel, Diana Mendoza-Salazar,
Sara Catalina Rodríguez-Díaz, and Sebastian Orjuela-Salazar



The Colombian Pacific region is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world; however, it is severely threatened by anthropogenic pressures. In addition, armed conflict and poverty are compounding factors causing the loss of biodiversity and cultural identity. In response to this situation, the Wounaan-Nonam original people of Puerto Pizario and Santa Rosa de Guayacán declared five Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) in 2008. We conducted a study to highlight the link between the conservation of biocultural memory and contributions to human well-being, particularly to human health, in indigenous socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS). Since 2013, the research-action-participation methodology has been applied to recover ecological traditional knowledge on how ancestors managed nature and elements associated with their cosmovision. Following the TNC conservation of areas methodology, eight biological and cultural conservation values were identified for the IPAs and 5-year management plans for conservation were formulated. As a result of this process, we created a tool that involves traditional knowledge to administer the total 1850 hectares covered by the five IPAs. We also found that the main challenges faced by indigenous communities in the management of IPAs as an integral part of the indigenous SEPLS are associated with weak organisational and governance processes. Additionally, we identified the main opportunities ecosystem services offer in the IPAs, which enhance the quality of life and health of the original peoples and ecosystems at a regional level. Finally, the making of handicrafts is identified as an opportunity in these SELPS, as it represents an alternative for generating income through sustainable productive chains in biotrade strategies.

1 Introduction

When considering that humans are just one species among the vast natural diversity of the planet, Toledo and Barrera (2008) state that the success of human survival lies in ecological factors such as population size, evolutionary processes, brain capacity, and, with it, memory. These elements have made it possible to achieve different cultural processes of “biological, genetic, linguistic, cognitive, agricultural, and landscape” diversification (Toledo & Barrera, 2008, p. 25), based on a necessary recognition and appropriation of nature. Thanks to human capability and as a socio-historical process, communities around the world have taken advantage of the particularities of varying landscapes in their local environments according to their material and spiritual needs (Lindholm & Ekblom, 2019; Ekblom et al., 2019; Toledo et al., 2019).

In this context, Toledo and Barrera (2008) point out that indigenous peoples maintain and/or possess at least 80% of the planet’s cultural diversity. They also posit that the presence, permanence, and resistance of these communities in ancestral territories have been fundamental for the conservation of ecosystems. These indigenous territories can be considered socio-ecological production landscapes and seascapes (SEPLS) as they allow for a socio-ecological balance in the productive use of landscapes based on biocultural memory.2 These types of SEPLS are present in the Pacific region of Western Colombia, where numerous ethnic groups live (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (DANE), 2019) in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world (Losos & Leigh, 2004; Plotkin et al., 2000; Rangel et al., 2004).

As a product of biocultural memory, the original people of the Colombian Pacific region, such as the Wounaan-Nonam,  maintain a holistic vision of their territorial heritage, whereby any environmental problem or conflict is considered as an imbalance and illness of Mother Earth (or Pachamama). In this regard, the concept of health extends to animal, plant, and human health. Hence, various sustainable practices associated with local ancestral knowledge for healthcare and well-being endure, for example, the implementation of harmonisation rites for the use of natural resources to maintain the ecosystem balance, spiritual cleansing with sacred plants, and healing rituals. For these original people, well-being is synonymous with health; for this reason, well-being (or Sumak Kawsay as it is called in other Andean indigenous communities) is sought in all aspects of life, and maintaining a communal state of well-being means enjoying harmony and health. 

Despite its great biological and cultural diversity, the Colombian Pacific region is threatened by a trend towards agro-industrial modernisation (Quintero-Angel et al., 2020) and pressures from illegal armed groups and drug trafficking, which have put the survival of different ethnic groups at risk (Vélez et al., 2020; Defensoría del Pueblo, 2018; Ministerio de Justicia & UNDOC, 2013). Particularly, the Wounaan-Nonam of Puerto Pizario’s reservations, located on the banks of the San Juan River, and of Santa Rosa de Guayacán on the Calima River Basin, face these tensions and are trying to conserve the biocultural memory of their territories. One of the strategies employed for the conservation of Wounaan-Nonam territories, which are traditionally managed as SEPLS, has been the declaration of Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs). In this context, the present case study aims to demonstrate the link between conservation of biocultural memory and its contributions to human well-being and health, taking as an example the Wounaan-Nonam SEPLS. In this sense, we claim that this case study is a joint construction with the indigenous authorities of these reservations. All information presented has been reviewed and endorsed by them with their prior, informed consent, and more detailed quantitative data on these SEPLS, as well as their properties and uses, remains the confidential information of the indigenous communities.

1.1 Current Situation of the Original People of Colombia and the Wounaan-Nonam Indigenous Communities

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Colombia has recognised the historical exclusion and vulnerability in which original people have lived, to the extent that today they are at risk of physical and cultural extermination (Decision T-025 of 2004). In Colombia, there are 115 original peoples with an approximate population of 1,905,617, grouped in 710 reservations in the national territory, where 65 native languages are spoken (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (DANE), 2019). Original people in Colombia live in extreme conditions of human right violations due to armed conflict, which has generated forced displacement migrations, along with the deterioration of natural resources and severe social exclusion (Mamo, 2020); these reasons explain why diverse ethnic groups are currently dispersed in areas far from their original settings. 

These difficult living conditions of original people in Colombia, and around the world, are directly related to environmental conflicts with the state, individuals, multinational corporations, and megaprojects that intervene in their territories by means of using their soil for illicit crops and subsoil for mining activities, dam construction, or agro-industrial activities (Semana Sostenible, 2019). In the Colombian context, illicit crops and drug trafficking are additional factors that come into play. Consequently, these communities have called for the joint design of strategies originated within indigenous communities (Ministerio de Cultura, 2009), to document and execute their Life Plans4 and Safeguard Plan5 and to generate studies and research to recover and strengthen the ancestral traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of each indigenous community.

The Wounaan-Nonam community is composed of approximately 14,825 people (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística (DANE), 2019). Its original territory was located next to the San Juan River, between the Chocó and Valle del Cauca departments, a forested piedmont they share with the Embera and Kuna ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the Wounaan-Nonam people are one of the 34 original peoples at risk of disappearing due to forced displacement caused by armed conflict in Colombia. A decision of the Constitutional Court, Auto 004 of 2009, recognised this reason for the dispersal across the country far from their ancestral territories (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, 2018). The fundamental individual and collective rights of the people have been taken away, affecting their cultural autonomy and identity, and putting them at risk of physical and cultural extinction.

1.2 Study Area: Indigenous Reservations of Puerto Pizario and Santa Rosa de Guayacán

The indigenous reservations of Puerto Pizario and Santa Rosa de Guayacán are located in the Pacific region of Colombia, in the basins of two large rivers, the San Juan (Valle del Cauca and Choco departments) and Calima (Valle del Cauca department), respectively (Fig. 3.1, Table 3.1).

Fig. 3.1 Location of (1) Puerto Pizario and (2) Santa Rosa de Guayacán indigenous reservations. Photo credits and map by López-Rosada

Indigenous Reservation of Puerto Pizario

The settlement was founded in 1975 and declared an Indigenous Reservation with Resolution No. 013 of 1983 from the Instituto Colombiano de Reforma Agraria (INCORA). It is located on both banks of the San Juan River and covers 2920 ha, of which the largest part is in the Chocó department. It is a terrain dominated by hills and dense humid rainforest, and home to 789 Wounaan-Nonam inhabitants, who have declared three IPAs since 2008 (Fig. 3.2a, Table 3.2).

Humanitarian and Biodiverse Indigenous Reservation of Santa Rosa de Guayacán

The settlement was established in 1979. It became a reservation through the INCORA Resolution No. 054 of 1989 a decade later. It extends for 236 ha, is inhabited by 155 Wounaan-Nonam, and contains two IPAs, declared in 2008. It acquired its humanitarian and biodiverse reservation status when the territory was returned to the original people on 14 August 2010, prior to which they had become victims of forced displacement. This should be highlighted as a form of resistance to the threats of armed conflict and the struggle to maintain their lifestyle and ancestral customs (Fig. 3.2B, Table 3.2).

Fig. 3.2 (a) Location of the Indigenous Protected Areas of Puerto Pizario and (b) Santa Rosa de Guayacán reservations. Maps by López-Rosada based on Quintero-Ángel et al., 2015

2 Methodology

The methodology was developed in five phases (Fig. 3.3) throughout 2013 by implementing specific actions in Spanish and the native language, including (1) key informant interviews (Geilfus, 2002); (2) participant observation (Kawulich, 2005); (3) focus groups of men, women, youth, and children (Geilfus, 2002); (4) social cartography (Geilfus, 2002); and (5) exchange of knowledge (PRATEC, 2012) (Fig. 3.4). These actions were developed during several meetings and workshops with the communities, where they shared their ancestral knowledge, recovering and documenting wisdom on how their ancestors managed nature, agricultural practices, and innovations to improve food security, heirloom practices of traditional medicine, health status of the community and the environment, handicraft fabrication, and elements associated with indigenous spirituality6 and cosmovision. 

Finally, through the research-action-participation methodology, exchange of knowledge (PRATEC, 2012) and analytical triangulation (Rodríguez-Sabiote et al., 2006) were carried out to establish the planning of Indigenous Protected Areas in each reservation. In order to do this, the planning for conservation of areas methodology was also followed (Granizo et al., 2006), and biological and cultural objects of conservation were identified and prioritised. A viability analysis was conducted, and management plans for conservation were formulated, which include monitoring and follow-up indicators for 5 years in each of the areas with each indigenous community.

Fig. 3.3 Visual presentation of methods and activities (prepared by authors)
Fig. 3.4 (a) A team member working with a focus group of kids on the fauna present in Santa Rosa de Guayacán
(b) original people from Puerto Pizario explaining the results of social cartography
(c) knowledge exchange exercise in Santa Rosa de Guayacán
(d) socialisation of knowledge exchange exercise in Puerto Pizario (photo credits: A. Quintero-Angel 2014)

3 Results and Discussion

3.1 Cosmovision and Relationship with Nature of Wounaan-Nonam Indigenous Communities

Inside of the Wounaan-Nonam cosmovision, natural elements such as water, movement, and earth are the principles of the Origin Law that give life to “Maach Aai” (elderly father-God) and to all the spiritual elements, gods, male and female principles, sacred sites, material goods, and natural richness. Initiation and life rituals revolve around traditional elements such as body paintings with organic dyes, fabrics made from natural materials, dances, and songs. These express the cosmovision and religion of this ethnic group and its close relation with nature (Ministerio de Cultura, 2010; Ministerio del Interior, 2012). 

In Wounaan-Nonam cosmogony, the whole ecosystem relates to the spiritual component through “Chimias” (a spirit present in all living and nonliving things) and consequently, all the territory is related to spirituality, health, and human well-being. The ancestral link between the community and natural resources makes many species an important part of the traditional knowledge of the Wounaan-Nonam biocultural diversity because the diversity of medicinal plants and animals used can strengthen the spirits of human beings. Therefore, it is important to maintain the spirits (Chimias) of all the different species who live inside the territory. Moreover, these fauna and flora are also used in cultural practices that benefit the community (e.g. natural dye is used both in textile handicrafts and in body painting).

Wounaan-Nonam original people have maintained a harmonious relationship with nature due to their small population size and level of understanding of their natural surroundings, including the forest (e.g. meat, fruits, materials), river (e.g. fishing, transport, water), and small swidden agriculture. Although these communities live off a subsistence economy based on crops and small-scale production, unlike other ethnic groups, handicrafts with “werregue” Mocora palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum) (Fig. 3.5) and use of natural dyes such as “achiote” (Bixa orellana) have developed more at the productive level due to high commercial acceptance, which could become an alternative to generate income (Reyes-Ardila, 2019). However, the production and commercialisation of such goods must be done through sustainable production chains based on fair biotrade strategies. In addition to being a potential income source, these practices contribute to the conservation of biocultural memory, given that stories of mythical characters, animals, and situations of daily life are captured in them.

Fig. 3.5 Wounaan-Nonam handicraft sample made from Mocora palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum) and natural dyes (photo credits: López-Rosada, 2016)

The use of a broad list of species implies an ancestral knowledge of land use that ranges from crop rotation to leaving land fallow, and land-clearing practices that leave a good number of trees standing, where the planting of banana (Musaacuminata), maize (Zea mays), manioc (Manihot esculenta), and sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) stands out. Hunting is restricted to what is necessary, without overexploiting resources; however, population growth within the reservations and foreign intrusion threaten the permanence of some species used by the communities in the reservations. In general, the records of fauna and flora species provided by the communities are biased towards the species that are used or have a direct relationship with the communities. For example, the species recorded, such as Baudo guan (Penelope ortoni), yellow-throated toucan (Ramphastos swainsonii), collared aracari (Pteroglossus sanguineus), and great curassow (Crax rubra) for birds, and white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), red brocket deer (Mazama americana), paca (Cuniculus paca), and white-collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) for mammals, correspond to those that could be used as food sources or that are common in settlements, along the riverbanks, or in crop areas. Species that are either less often seen or very small, such as amphibians and reptiles, are not given special names, which makes identification difficult. 

In these original people communities, the health of inhabitants has customarily been the result of harmonious relationships established in the use of natural resources by their medical authorities to provide solutions for deficiencies of body and spirit. For example, there are diseases caused by imbalance in the spiritual world due to the absence or presence of bad or good Chimias, which must be treated through spiritual practices such as prayers, songs, and rituals. Likewise, physical diseases caused by the environment, such as stomach problems caused by parasites, are treated with medicinal plants. Therefore, the Wounaan-Nonam people contemplate environmental health under the principle of harmony of individuals and communities with Mother Earth (Pachamama). Certain unbalances with regard to this harmony are treated by doctors or wise persons possessing the knowledge of traditional medicines that heal both soul and body. Biodiversity and well-being interconnect with the multiple dimensions of health (e.g. physical, mental, and spiritual) through wisdom, knowledge, ancestral memory, spirituality, and relationship with Mother Earth. These elements represent the use of interculturality as a tool for the management of indigenous SEPLS and converge in indigenous thinking through the concepts of Origin Law, self-government, and Greater Right (Walsh, 2008). This is evidenced in the particularities of the different roles of each of the traditional spiritual authorities (Table 3.3), which transcend the established Western rationality and blur gender lines, but are fundamental for the better understanding of their world view and cosmogony.

In this context, the territory is the space where culture, traditions, beliefs, feasts, and language can develop. Consequently, the environmental equilibrium of their territories is directly related to physical and mental health and to the development of
their life plans. However, it is necessary to generate a correct articulation of the ancestral forms of traditional authority and the state, represented in the territorial entities (municipalities and governorate) and institutions, to consolidate a co-management strategy for the territory that eliminates or restricts the threats related to the presence of illegal armed groups and illicit activities.

Fig. 3.6 Examples of the biological and cultural values of conservation objects selected for the IPAs. (a) Large frugivorous birds: great curassow (Crax rubra)
(b) large mammals: jaguar (Panthera onca)
(c) fine timber: Chanul (Humiriastrum procerum)
(d) raw material for handicrafts (Mocora palm (Astrocaryum standleyanum)
(e) spiritual elements: Dichardi seen from the inside in a meeting with the community of Puerto Pizario
(f) artistic elements: Mocora palm handicrafts. (Photo credits: a, b, d by A. Quintero-Angel, 2016; c by A. Giraldo, 2017; and e, f by A. LópezRosada, 2016)

It is also important that the communities and the state ensure the implementation of ethno-development models in the Wounaan-Nonam territories, which would contribute to the survival of the people and, with them, the ancestral management and heirloom conservation practices. These practices have positive impacts on the health of the populations, from their intimate spiritual relationship with their environment to the use of biodiversity for the making of medicines, rituals, foodstuffs, and handicrafts, among others.

The ancestral link between the community and natural resources makes many species an important part of the traditional knowledge of the Wounaan-Nonam culture. Examples include medicinal plants and animal species used to strengthen human energy and maintain the spirits (Chimias) within the territory. Other examples are cultural practices such as handicrafts and body painting, which use natural inks. These communities recognise a decrease in the number of these species used in health and cultural practices. This favours the establishment of joint actions between the environmental authorities and the indigenous communities for biodiversity conservation. Consequently, it is essential to encourage the sustainable use of elements and raw materials associated with biodiversity, complemented by the implementation of enrichment programmes for species under greater pressure in the communities.

For the Wounaan-Nonam culture, all plants in nature are medicinal. The specific use of each plant and its information is handled exclusively by the traditional authority (i.e. spiritual medics or shamans). For this reason, this information could not be documented. Nonetheless, these communities recognise and use with frequency about 146 species of plants belonging to 47 families. Some examples of plants used to cure minor spiritual ailments, ward off evil Chimias, and attract good luck are palo de agua o nacedero (Trichanthera gigantea), Canilla de Venado (Piper tricuspe), Venezuelan pokeweed (Phytolacca rivinoides), neotropical snakefern (Microgramma reptans), and mouse tail (Peperomia sp.). Even though the number of species used by the indigenous people is ample, it leaves out numerous species present in the region, catalogued as one of the richest and most diverse areas on the planet in terms of flora (Rangel et al., 2004). In addition, it is important to highlight that this knowledge of traditional plants is being lost due to the fact that new generations suffer from a loss of cultural identity, making it more difficult to pass on ancestral traditions. It is crucial to recover this ancestral medicinal knowledge as it has sociocultural implications and impacts the health of these communities, which in most cases only have traditional doctors for healthcare. Conventional health centres (i.e. Western medicine) are usually located several hours away by boat in towns or cities far away from the communities, and are too expensive to turn to.

The foodscape of the original people is also linked to the environment, and strengthened management of the territory, such as IPAs, contributes directly to the enhancement of their food hubs and nutritional security, along with improvement in health indicators. Although the dynamics of armed conflict hamper the free movement of community members through the environment, limiting food diversity, the sustainable use of the territory can be promoted so that internal regulations are established for use and exploitation of species associated with food security. Nevertheless, it is necessary to implement programmes to reinforce ancestral crops and cultural practices that contribute to the food sovereignty of these populations and to control the invasiveness of exotic species.

A key element for the conservation of the biocultural memory of the WounaanNonam people is the conservation of the native language and ancestral cultural practices, which are also at risk of disappearing. Many of the words and names that the Wounaan-Nonam language uses to refer to elements associated with biodiversity could be at risk of disappearing or falling into disuse, due to factors such as isolation and state neglect that have undermined their cultural identity (Agencia de Noticias U. Nacional, 2014). Elements of their language are also used in practices associated with spiritual health in healing rituals. Likewise, these communities in recent years have experienced an accelerated process of acculturation, given the permanent interaction with other populations such as Afro-descendants and mestizos. Therefore, as stated in Sect. 3.2, the survival of ancestral cultural practices such as dance, handicrafts, or body painting is increasingly at risk. This highlights the urgent need for support of the indigenous education model so that the new generations perpetuate the use of the language in their daily life and appreciate and maintain cultural practices. In addition, the use of these artistic elements in spiritual and healing rituals contributes to the mental and spiritual well-being of these communities.

Given the increasing presence of illegal armed groups and forced interactions with the dominant society that accelerates the acculturation processes, a major effort to maintain the culture of the Wounaan-Nonam people is imperative. The fading of their biocultural memory has implications not only for the health and well-being of the indigenous population, but also for the degradation of ecosystems, which are in a good state of conservation within the IPAs, including the presence of highly threatened species of fauna and flora in the biogeographic Chocó region. The survival of beliefs such as the Chimias has benefited conservation efforts as original people see nature as part of their spiritual world. This is evident in the case of timber species, which are conserved in indigenous territories because of their importance in spiritual terms, but are overexploited outside their territories because other communities (non-believers) only consider their commercial value (e.g. Toxicodendron striatum, or “aluvillo”, and Ceiba pentandra, or “balsa”). The cosmovision of original peoples has, therefore, important and visible benefits for environmental health. However, a more decisive role on the part of the state and Colombian society is imperative, so that the processes of self-education and the conservation of biocultural memory may be favoured.

5 Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Historically, indigenous communities have had a mythological and spiritual relationship with natural resources, interacting with them not only as living beings, but also as spiritual entities, important for their survival and physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Therefore, well-being is an integral part of the health of these original people. Accordingly, in situ conservation strategies, such as the IPAs, directly contribute to the livelihoods of these communities, improve management in their SEPLS, and promote conservation of their biocultural memory. IPAs have become a strategy to enrich the supply of indigenous families, because its biodiversity is directly related to the diets and eating habits, ancestral practices of traditional medicine, fashioning of handicrafts, and elements associated with spirituality and indigenous cosmogony.

The benefits of the efforts associated with biocultural memory conservation and the management of indigenous SEPLS that are shown in this case study have the potential to be replicated in the 115 original people communities in Colombia and in other ethnic communities around the world. The implemented actions of sustainable use of biodiversity and natural resources are reflected in the improvement of the fauna and flora populations (quality and quantity) inhabiting these areas, thus contributing to the nearby communities’ quality of life (not only indigenous but also peasants, Afro-descendants, and recent mestizo settlers).

Consequently, IPAs serve as a conservation and resistance strategy, especially in ensuring the autonomy of the food hubs of the communities and a decrease in dependence on external inputs (i.e. food, supplies, goods), whose circulation is not allowed on many occasions due to the dynamics of the armed conflict. Likewise, by developing participatory inventories and exchanging knowledge on fauna and flora, traditional knowledge on foodstuff diversity is maintained. In biocultural diversity conservation processes with indigenous communities, it is essential to assimilate the concepts of memory, symbolism, and myth, as they facilitate our understanding of their own knowledge by decoding their way of relating to natural resources. Only through the understanding of the relationship that indigenous women and men (i.e. gender perspective) have with their environment is any proposal for joint action for conservation of biocultural memory viable. These issues, identified through this experience, are only the visible environmental phenomenon; they are the product of a nuanced matrix, or a set of interconnected cycling social problems such as forced displacement, cultural fragmentation, armed conflict, and poverty, among others. Only by reading the complexity of the context in the indigenous communities, or historicity, would it be possible to build effective participatory strategies to mitigate and/or solve specific conflicts associated with environmental health. Although there is a legal framework recognising Colombia as a multiethnic and multicultural country, it is necessary to promote public practices of multiculturality, especially when they relate to indigenous SEPLS. Similarly, joint efforts for understanding state functioning and the logic of original people are needed in order to potentiate conservation strategies of biocultural memory and community governance. 


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