In southern Colombia, Indigenous groups fish and farm with the floods

  • The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples in southern Colombia live on a two-pronged sustainable food system that involves artisanal fishing and communal planting synchronized with the different flooding seasons.
  • The food systems have allowed the 22 communities in the area to live sustainably without damaging the forest’s extremely high rates of biodiversity, according to a report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
  • The communities have faced some challenges in recent decades due to outside pressures to commercialize their activities, raising doubts about how to maintain sustainable practices.
  • This article is part of an eight-part series showcasing sustainable food systems covered in the most comprehensive report to date of the diets and food production practices of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs).

At the very southern tip of Colombia, Indigenous communities practice a sustainable food system that involves artisanal fishing and rotating crop structures within cycles of flooding periods. This has allowed them to live sustainably in an extremely biodiverse part of the Amazon that has remained largely untouched by commercial agriculture.

The Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua peoples of Puerto Nariño use handmade arrows, hooks and spurs to practice artisanal fishing in local rivers while also growing cassava, pineapple, corn, rice and chestnuts on communal land, according to a report from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The new report provides the most detailed and comprehensive account to date of the sustainable food systems of Indigenous peoples.

The report says local communities like those in Puerto Nariño should be key players in the 2030 agenda to end poverty, food insecurity and promote responsible forest management, among other things.

“Indigenous peoples’ wisdom, traditional knowledge and ability to adapt provide lessons from which other non-indigenous societies can learn,” Anne Nuorgam, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said in the report, “especially when designing more sustainable food systems that mitigate climate change and environmental degradation.”

The 22 Indigenous communities living in Puerto Nariño may have even more lessons to pass on because they have developed not one unique food system, but two.

A local man paddles along one of the area’s many rivers in search of fish. Photo by Daniel Baena/National University of Colombia

Rotating production and flood seasons

Many of the nearly 7,000 residents structure their diet around the chagra, forest plots less than a hectare (2.5 acres) in size that each family clears to grow more than 80 different kinds of fruits, vegetables and tubers, as well as 28 species of trees. Community members also depend on their chagras for hunting animals such as the black agouti (Dasyprocta fuliginosa), red howler monkey (Alouatta seniculus), yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulatus) and tapir (Tapirus terrestris).

The chagras also serve as a social gathering place, where different families in the community come to help each other with some of the more laborious aspects of maintaining the food system, such as felling trees, planting new seeds and making crafts. Known as mingas, this communal work can be seen within various Indigenous communities across Latin America.

“It is more than a place,” report author Liseth Escobar, of Fundación Omacha, a Colombian NGO, told Mongabay. “It’s also an information system that they use to teach their kids how to produce food. It’s viewed as a family project that must be maintained because this is what they survive from.”

The rainforest doesn’t have especially fertile soil for cultivation, the report points out, but because maintaining a chagra involves composting and laying organic fertilizer, the communities are able to rely on the harvest for about 50% of their diet.

The communities are also surrounded by the Loretoyacu and Amazon rivers and several lakes and lagoons, where they’ve developed fisheries that provide most of their protein. Approximately 68 different species of fish are pulled from local waters, according to the report.

Expert fishermen know the feeding and reproductive habits of every fish consumed by the community, the report says. They’re viewed as caretakers of the ecosystems and decide what and when to hunt based on a calendar that follows the rise and fall of the local waterbodies.

For example, they only catch pacu (Piaractus brachypomus) when the waters are low, high or falling, but not when they’re in the process of rising. The redeye piranha (Serrasalmus rhombeus), meanwhile, is caught exclusively while the waters are rising.

The “high” and “low” water seasons affect what the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua hunt and plant at different times of the year. Image courtesy of Yanto Wahyantono/FAO.

The report describes how the flood season begins in February, bringing fish to new areas of the flooded forest to reproduce and fertilize the soil. Come May, the waters recede and attract more land mammals that can be hunted. The shifting focus on different parts of the ecosystem allows biodiversity to rebound from what residents consume.

Forests fertilized during the high-water seasons provide the community with wild fruits and vegetables, such as cocoa (Theobroma cacao), while creating rich soil for plants for cultivation, like guava (Psidium guajava). Other foods can be grown year-round regardless of flooding. Of the 22 communities in Puerto Nariño, 15 use these practices exclusively for subsistence consumption, the report says, while the rest sell any extra that they can’t eat themselves at local markets.

“In terms of food, we don’t need to buy anything. We have more than enough food,” Juan Ramos, a fisherman, said as quoted in the report. He added, “Nor do we need to produce a lot, because then the food goes to waste, and we have to sell it at a ridiculous price.”

Outside pressures threaten traditional customs

Despite the success of their system, the Tikuna, Cocama and Yagua still feel the pressure to alter their practices to include commercial agriculture.

In the 1970s, the introduction of nylon nets and other fishing technology started pushing many people away from artisanal practices. Government programs also attempted to introduce the community to cattle ranching.

“People think that Indigenous communities in the Amazon live in peace and isolation,” Escobar said. “But it’s not true. The Amazon has also been involved in globalization.”

She added, “These communities in the ’70s and ’80s started commercial fishing and hunting, and what happened? Almost everything was destroyed.”

In 1991, with the passing of a new Constitution in Colombia, Puerto Nariño residents were recognized as citizens for the first time, having previously been considered Peruvian. The Constitution gave them communal autonomy over their territories, and they used this new power to return to the chagras and artisanal fishing — albeit with more focus on selling food products at markets.

Due in part to the effects of commercial agriculture, it would take almost 30 years for biodiversity to recover in the area, Escobar said. And in that time, the government continued to implement other policies that, although intended to improve quality of life, ultimately threatened communal traditions.

A local woman sells food products at the market in town. Photo by Daniel Baena/National University of Colombia

For example, younger generations today are struggling to learn the native language because Colombia mandates that Spanish be taught in the classroom. The arrival of processed foods from other parts of the country, especially those provided in schools, have led some younger residents to resist traditional foods, claiming that they prefer the taste of processed products.

At the same time, some aquatic species are being overfished due to rising demand from local, regional and even international markets, Escobar said, which could have long-term impacts on community traditions.

“When we lose biodiversity,” she said, “we also lose the human knowledge of that species. In the case of Indigenous peoples, if they lose certain larger fish, they also lose their practices because that fish is no longer present in the ecosystem.”

Community leaders have tried organizing programs to educate younger generations on the fishing calendar and other sustainable practices. And a newly formed association of Indigenous councils has attempted to streamline conservation efforts. However, not everyone in the community is happy with the leaders’ decisions.

According to the report, more collaborative efforts need to be made between the community, academic circles, the government and NGOs to strengthen knowledge exchange from older generations to younger ones.

“Not all of us are clear about the roles of our leaders, and not even the leaders themselves are clear,” Sergio Silva, a member of the Comunidad Ticoya council, said in the report. “The problem is that we remain silent.”

Banner image: A member of the Indigenous Tikuna nation paddling a dugout canoe on a tributary of the Amazon in Colombia by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples and the current executive director of the Tebtebba Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education. Listen here:

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