Episode 1: People First

Over 20 years ago, the conservation world was changing. Split between the environmentalism of the past and increasingly market-based approaches, Liliana Madrigal and her colleagues felt there were other opportunities to pursue. This episode features the story of why they chose to invest in a strategy that puts people first. 

Episode 1 gives the backstory of why Liliana Madrigal left big conservation and the one moment when she realized that working with indigenous groups was her life's work. It also explores the impacts of putting people first through the eyes of Raquel Gomez, who remembers how one community in Caqueta, Colombia changed after 15 years.

Listen to the story and view interactive transcript below!

Liliana Madrigal and Santos Sauna of the Kogi peoples (Source: Crisbellt Alvarado Rezola)

Liliana Madrigal and Santos Sauna of the Kogi peoples (Source: Crisbellt Alvarado Rezola)

Close to 20 years ago, a new strategy tried to reimagine the relationship between indigenous groups and conservation organizations. It focused on building long-term relationships with indigenous groups and tried to incorporate completely different ways of understanding the world into a larger vision to protect the environment. Many of the stories on this podcast feature people and projects associated with the Amazon Conservation Team—like Liliana Madrigal who has worked in conservation and with indigenous groups for over two decades. 

Liliana Madrigal: "It’s not nature that needs management… it’s people"

Through these stories, the program addresses common concerns across Amazonian communities: to obtain land rights, to strengthen cultural identity, and to live without having to give up what it means to be indigenous. Taita Luciano—an Ingano shaman from the Colombian Amazon describes the tensions about development projects and aid in the Amazon. The tension about what prosperity looks like and what knowledge is valued:

Taita Luciano: "The threats that come into the territory like roads say they're going to bring progress. They usually say they're going to bring benefits to the community. But nobody is looking at and nobody is measuring the impacts on the spiritual level. The spirits are not easy to see and much less easy to measure."  

On this episode of Maps, Magic and Medicine: People First

In the 1970s and 1980s, conservation was in transition a new movement. A new movement of what's called "new conservationists" sought to change the environmentalism of the past (Hance, 2016). Think: John Muir, national parks, and modern American environmentalism. This former way to do conservation created protected areas like pristine national parks to preserve endangered species. The new conservationists wanted to change this approach to make the drivers of ecological destruction more environmentally friendly. They did so through market-based solutions and certification schemes as well as sometimes partnered with corporations. As is often the case, there's a third possibility: to create something entirely different. And this is where Liliana Madrigal fits in because she was frustrated with both options. 

(Source: Andes-Amazon Fund)

(Source: Andes-Amazon Fund)

Liliana Madrigal: “Well I left conservation because I was totally disenchanted with the way it was being done. I didn't feel that it was effective at all"

Adrian Forsyth: "You know, we had all been involved in big conservation organizations where it's very hard for a dollar to escape the beltway. That's Adrian Forsyth


Adrian Forsyth: "I'm executive director of the Andes-Amazon Fund."

Liliana, Adrian Forsyth, and a group of other colleagues from the big brand name organizations in conservation decided to try something new:

We looked at the map of the Amazon and saw that 25% of the forests we in the hands of indigenous people. That indigenous people did not have the support systems that they needed to continue to play the fundamental role that they play in sustaining these incredibly vast forests that are critical to mitigate the effects of climate change. So we saw a huge opportunity there
— Liliana Madrigal

Historically government and conservation organizations have had problematic relationships with indigenous groups—sometimes using the protection of wildlife and nature as a justification to remove indigenous groups from their territory (Chapin, 2004).
Liliana Madrigal: “But the way that we approached it was in their terms. Understanding what it is that they wanted, how they wanted it, and really to be patient to put aside the rush to try to have immediate results at any costs."

The new approach—called biocultural conservation—seeks to protect the environment by working on the ground with communities. It integrates culture and indigenous values into conservation planning. And prioritizes long-term relationships where the survival of local communities and cultures has global implications (Rozzi et al., 2006, Gavin et al., 2015).

Adrian Forsyth: "You know the real test whether something is working is if the habitat is still there, the culture is still there. And if you can't get down to that level where you can actually see it, then it's not really real. So I think that was sort of the impetus of going through the hell of creating new non-profits." 

And Liliana explains how the conservation organizations sometimes fail to recognize what it takes to work effectively in these areas

Liliana Madrigal: "they leave behind things that take a long time to mature. There are two schools of thoughts, you either make it happen within a few years and demonstrate that it's successful or you stay the course."

So, Liliana and her colleagues reacted to the way big organizations conducted projects in the field, but they also tried to solve the disparities of who gets to participate and whose voice is silent.

The national parks in Latin America and even the United States have never been consulted with Indians… they never took part in this
— Raquel Gomez

Liliana Madrigal: "You can have protected areas, but if you don't have communities that are healthy and that understand the importance of those areas because they're hungry because they have to go out and do something else. That's not going to work. So it's really important to integrate the cultural identity, which is a huge threat."

Raquel Gomez, worked with Liliana at the time and she help puts it in context: Raquel Gomez: “These indigenous people need their territory in order to change their destiny. This had never happened before. The national parks in Latin America and even the United States have never been consulted with Indians… they never took part in this."

A huge part of this work involves listening to and learning from indigenous groups about what’s important to them for their communities. For Liliana, the end result is radical: "Well the end result should really be for all of us, all the organizations to work ourselves out of a job. Absolutely It’s not nature that needs management it’s people… and the voracious appetite that they have for consuming and developing and acquiring, it's about greed!"

So there was one specific moment that convinced Liliana to pursue this new approach to conservation. We’ll hear about it when we come back. [Sponsor message]

Welcome back—so far we’ve heard about the conventional way of doing things: investing in large scale policy from the top down. And the way biocultural conservation seeks to connect with people on the ground to find solutions that fit their needs. We've heard about the absence of indigenous groups in conservation, historically, and how this new approach seeks to remedy that by listening. So, let's talk about the results and impacts. For Liliana the first impact is personal because she never anticipated doing this work.   

Liliana Madrigal: "Well you know it's been very difficult for me personally because I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist and I certainly didn't want to be an ethnobotanist or necessarily want to work with indigenous people- in fact, I didn't want to. I was very clear about that." 

Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula (Souce:  Osa Conservation )

Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula (Souce: Osa Conservation)

But an unexpected event made Liliana realize that this was her life's work. It happened at her height of her frustration with conservation right when she was about to quit entirely. She was in Costa Rica at Osa Conservation. Taita Luciano, who you heard at the beginning of the program, encouraged her to take part in a ceremony and drink yagé, a hallucinogenic potion made from the ayahuasca vine, but she was skeptical. 

Liliana Madrigal: "I had heard a lot of ayahuasca and yagé and other hallucinogens- even though that is absolutely the wrong word to use-I really didn't want to have anything to do with it."

In these areas, cultural tourism and the commercialization of ayahuasca are huge threats to building awareness about the importance of traditional medicine for indigenous cultures. Liliana explained how she didn't want to do yagé out of respect for indigenous communities because she wasn't indigenous, but Taita Luciano insisted.

"And so I do yagé and then it's like this reaction. This negative reaction. Of all these guys over there laughing... and all the women are cramped here. And they start doing the nettling, the ortiga, and I just remember I got welts all over my body. And I'm like this just doesn't make any sense. And then they send Taita Luciano and he's like 40 feet high."

So the next day it's like "okay, I'm not doing this anymore, I came here to work. Let's look at the maps and figure out if we can establish a reserve!"

So she turned to what she knew best: her metrics and the conservation strategy to buy up valuable land, but doubling down on the traditional way of doing things didn’t work out. Until she made another attempt to listen to the importance of the spiritual world to the people she was trying to work with.

[Interlude: A recording of Taita Luciano performing a healing at Osa Conservation]

Liliana Madrigal: "the second ceremony comes around and I was so tired, I was so tired. I really didn't want to do this. And they said you have to. Then all the sudden I found myself in this gigantic sort of succulent, pillowy plant that was getting me like this. To this day it was the most relaxing, most beautiful sleep in my life. It was great. And I said, 'oh that was really nice, I think I'll do the second one." So I do the second one and then it starts to talk to me, it's like 'you're going to do this work.'" 

Liliana’s experiences show that doing this conservation work requires the input and participation of local communities—but it also requires that conservationists themselves learn, listen, and stay open to different ways of understanding the world. 

Liliana Madrigal: "What I learned and continue to learn because you never stop is that there are different knowledge systems and and to work with these people that have so much to offer and understand so much is that you have to be patient, you can't rush. Nature goes at its own pace and it’s largely slow."

Alto Fragua Indi Wasi, Caqueta, Colombia (Source: Amazon Conservation Team)

Alto Fragua Indi Wasi, Caqueta, Colombia (Source: Amazon Conservation Team)

As Liliana says, this work takes a long time. Raquel Gomez has seen this first hand. Close to 15 years ago in one community in the Caqueta state of Colombia, Raquel remembers there was nothing.

Raquel Gomez: "There was nothing. They were totally undermined by all the influences: oil, the war, by the guerrillas, by the paramilitaries, by the missionaries, by everyone. They were completely traumatized"

Then, the shaman Taita Laureano came and told the community his dream:

Raquel Gomez: "I remember very well Taita telling them, to the young that day: 'Please don't go into the towns into those places that is going to bring to you only bad health and death. Come, learn from us. We will teach you what we know. Here we are and we're going to die soon. Learn from us. We will teach you about our sacred plants and our medicinal plants. We will teach you how to gain your health, your dignity. At the end that's what it's all about. "He was not talking to me, the American or the representative of the American organization."

and he says, ‘that’s where we come from, that’s our origin, our source, that’s where our elders are, where our wisdom comes from. We need to save that. We need to look at that and gather from there.’

Raquel Gomez: "He was not talking to me, the American or the representative of the American organization. He was talking to his children, to his young people who were there at the moment, and to the other shamans. He looked up at the mountain because from that position that we were in Yurayaco you look up the mountain and you saw Indi Wassi. You saw that mountain over there that the Andes rose from the Amazonia...

At the time Taita Laureano’s vision seemed impossible. But after 15 years the shamans vision came to life and the mountain became the Indi Wassi National Park. It's no coincidence that this area is now the center of a massive conservation corridor that would protect plants, wildlife, and ensure clean water and biodiversity for generations to come. It's taken almost two decades to get to this point and it’s still going. But the measurable successes, the biodiversity and clean water, these things don’t capture the way the park has changed the lives of the people who live in these environment.

The Andes-Amazon Transition Region and Fragua Indi Wasi National Park, Colombia (Source: Amazon Conservation Team)

The Andes-Amazon Transition Region and Fragua Indi Wasi National Park, Colombia (Source: Amazon Conservation Team)

Raquel Gomez: "Today, they have a community that’s completely re-shapen, their culture, their livelihood, their knowledge, their identity."

In talking about her career, Liliana Madrigal uses the word coincidence to talk about her work and its successes. But is it coincidence that the town Raquel visited changed on its own terms into a place that fosters local culture? is it coincidence that the mountain Taita Laureano visited became the center of a massively important biodiversity corridor?

Is it coincidence? Or is it something else? Something simpler. Humility to accept that we just don’t know everything. Respect for thing that we cant see, understand, or measure. 

Maybe it’s the ability to listen, adapt, and change the way we interact with people, places, and ways of knowing that are different from what we know because that's how it all started.



Chapin, Mac. "A Challenge to Conservationists." World Watch Magazine. November/December 2004: 17-31.

Gavin, Michael C.; McCarter, Joe; Mead, Aroha; Berkes, Fikret; Stepp, John Richard; Debora, Peterson; Tang, Ruifei. "Defining biocultural approaches to conservation." Trends in Ecology & Evolution,  30(3) Issue: 140 - 145, 2015. <http://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/abstract/S0169-5347(15)00002-6>

Hance, Jeremy. "Has Big Conservation Gone Astray?" Mongabay. April, 2016. <https://news.mongabay.com/2016/04/big-conservation-gone-astray/>

Rozzi, R., F. Massardo, C. Anderson, K. Heidinger, and J. A. Silander, Jr. "Ten principles for biocultural conservation at the southern tip of the Americas: the approach of the Omora Ethnobotanical Park". Ecology and Society 11(1): 43 2006. <http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol11/iss1/art43/>