Helping the Planet Breathe

Martín von Hildebrand, Founder and General Director, Fundación Gaia Amazonas in Bogota, Colombia. Martín von Hildebrand has pioneered a new paradigm for Amazon conservation in Colombia, embracing indigenous peoples rights and traditional knowledge, and he seeks to create the world’s largest eco-cultural, sustainable development corridor, spanning the Andes-Amazon-Atlantic. Fundación Gaia Amazonas works at the intersection of forest conservation, climate change and indigenous rights, building capacity for local indigenous governance and alliances for inter-institutional collaboration.Martín von Hildebrand is part of the 2015 class of Tällberg Global Leaders and winner of the Tällberg Foundation Global Leadership Prize

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Martín von Hildebrand has a vision, not the kind conjured up by an Amazon shaman (although he has spent many hours with indigenous shamans and others, deep in the Amazon), but the kind that a global leader, with deep practical experience, can imagine. He wants to create — “facilitate” is a better word for the way he actually works — the world’s largest eco-cultural, sustainable development corridor, spanning the Andes and the Amazon to the Atlantic.

“The Amazon has often been described as the world’s lungs, but it is more like a heart pumping humidity,” he explains. “This 135 million hectare corridor, half of which belongs to indigenous communities, is the best preserved area of the Amazon basin. Taking care of it would be a major contribution to the resilience of a planet confronted by climate change”.

The proposed eco-cultural, sustainable development corridor, spanning the Andes to the Amazon to the Atlantic.

Obviously, in a world where day-to-day politics favour tactics and pandering over strategy and concepts, such a vision is impossible.

“Not at all!” insists von Hildebrand.

“First, 80% of the 135 million hectares are already under some type of protection, particularly in Brazil and Colombia. Second, the countries of the Amazon basin have similar legal frameworks, and have ratified international agreements on indigenous peoples’ rights, biodiversity, forest protection, human rights and climate. Third, there is great support from local and regional indigenous organisations, civil society and the private sector.”

So what is missing? Martìn argues that the existing protected areas were aimed at local biodiversity needs and the legal and constitutional rights of indigenous people. The concept was never holistic, never about the big picture of planetary collaboration.

“They never thought about the need to connect the Andean, Amazonian and Atlantic ecosystems and to maintain environmental services such as the water cycle,” he continues. “Without knowing it, they were building this corridor, but they lacked the vision of what is needed for the wellbeing of people, the environment, nation states, and the planet. Now it is mostly a question of weaving all the elements together.”

Martín has spent much of his life on these issues. Reared in Colombia and educated in Ireland and France, von Hildebrand first went into the Amazon in 1972 and lived for 6 years with the indigenous people. In the 1980s he joined the Colombian government and, as Director of Indigenous Affairs, was instrumental in securing indigenous territorial rights to more than 20 million hectares of the Amazon. Then he helped secure indigenous rights in the country’s constitution.

In 1991 Hildebrand left government and went back to the Amazon to work at the grassroots level. His idea was to accompany the indigenous people on their path of establishing governance, social structures, and economic systems — always with the knowledge that his role was to support, not to lead. In this spirit, he created the Gaia Amazonas Foundation, built a team, and attracted funding, largely from Europe. Twenty-five years later Colombia now has 20 indigenous local governments, and more than 200 schools with intercultural programs and indigenous teachers, as well as health programs led by the shamans that are based on traditional knowledge and practice.

However, Martín is the first to recognize that the battle is far from won. Unsustainable development is still a reality in parts of the Amazon. There is opposition from some sectors that indigenous territories and protected areas are unfairly taking land off the market. And the internal politics of Brazil and Venezuela are very complicated, making regional agreements difficult.

Nonetheless, Colombia, under the leadership of President Santos, has publicly committed itself to the vision of a trans continental, eco-cultural and sustainable development corridor. von Hildebrand is confident that other stakeholders — governments, ranchers, indigenous people, other citizens, businesses, and NGOs — will eventually make the corridor a reality, if only because it makes sense for everyone.

“The corridor is not just about the land. It’s a dynamic process: the exchange of knowledge and experience among indigenous peoples, researchers, NGOs and others, and networking to create new opportunities for innovation and dealing with climate change. This is a laboratory for the 21st century,” he concludes.

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