The Amazon Conservation Team has achieved success by abandoning conventional land protection practices and following the guidance of shamans.
I met Liliana Madrigal and her husband, Dr. Mark Plotkin, at an environmental grant makers’ conference in 2001. With my background in anthropology and my work with an environmental foundation, I had been interested in the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) for some time. Liliana, Mark and I became fast friends, sharing our passion for the Amazon and the traditional cultures of its people. I began supporting ACT as a consultant, experiencing firsthand the extraordinary way that their work is accomplished.
Liliana Madrigal has spent her life working in the conservation field. Serving as the Nature Conservancy’s Director in Costa Rica, her native land, she oversaw the Parks Campaign which established most of the protected areas in that country. In 1987 she helped found Conservation International, becoming its Director of Southern Central America. By 1995 Liliana, along with her husband, had become disenchanted with traditional conservation strategies. Following the lead of Mark’s mentor, the famed ethnobotanist Dr. Richard Evan Schultes, they recognized that the cultures living in the forests were disappearing even faster than the forests themselves. Mark and Liliana began finding ways to support valuable indigenous projects that expressed this innovative vision. In 1996 the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) was born.
The natives get their own back
With programs in Brazil, Suriname and Colombia, ACT works in partnership with indigenous people to foster greater autonomy and self-sufficiency as well as to preserve their traditional heritage. Using ethnographic mapping done by the indigenous communities to support their land rights, ACT has helped to protect over 40 million acres in the Amazon.
ACT’s Shamans and Apprentices program enables elder shamans to pass their healing knowledge to the next generation. Indigenous healer associations preserve the integrity and purity of traditional knowledge and strengthen respect for these ancient practices within their tribes. Traditional healing clinics, built near medical health clinics, offer an unprecedented exchange for improving the healthcare of community members. Innovative models of indigenous parks have been established that span thousands of acres and are managed and protected by tribal members themselves.
While ACT’s effectiveness has become highly recognized in conservation circles, few people know about the tribal spiritual leaders’ critical role in the evolution of projects. As ACT’s Vice President of Programs, Liliana is continuously challenged and stretched into new dimensions as she works closely with Amazonian shamans to protect their land and ancient wisdom.
An Interview with Liliana Madrigal
Cynthia Frisch: I’ve always felt fortunate to have a behind-the-scenes perspective of ACT’s phenomenal work from my own experience as well as from your incredible stories over the years, always highlighted by the profound shamanic influence in the projects and in your life. Did the relationship with the shamans get integrated into the work from the very beginning?]
Liliana Madrigal: Yes, because one of the first projects involved the Colombian shaman Taita* Laureano Becerra, a very powerful, strong visionary who was one of most amazing conservation leaders that I have known. Probably the last of the Ingano shamans (people of the Western Amazon in Columbia) to work only with uncultivated yagé or ayahuasca, their sacred healing plant, Taita Laureano held the vision for what has become our Colombia program.
This includes the shaman gatherings, the union of yagé healers and the protected areas. This first project was to build Laureano a maloca where he could practice his healing, a very symbolic structure which represents strength in the ancient tradition. Giving back just that physical structure revived a tradition that had no longer been respected, and people started coming for healing. It was a very strong starting point for us that set the direction for the future.
No amount of money can bring about what we have in our connection with the traditional healers. We actually have very limited money as an organization, but our relationship and the way that we choose to operate–what we do–works.
*”Taita” is an honorific for northwest Amazonian shamans. It is also an indigenous word for “father.”
CF: Your role with ACT has primarily focused on programs specifically related to the shamans rather than mapping of indigenous lands or other ACT signature projects. Mark’s background was extensive with indigenous healers as an ethnobotanist, but how did you first begin working so closely with the shamans in the unique way that you do?
LM: I truly never wanted to be involved with anything that had to do with ceremonies, and it’s always been that I do everything by force and then find myself in the most remarkable situations. I met Mark in 1985 and didn’t participate in a ceremony until 1998. By then we had contacts all over as we started to plant seeds to support and strengthen traditional knowledge as a base for conservation.
Ironically, my first ceremony was with a Colombian shaman in Costa Rica, the country where I was born, had spent my early childhood and had done so much conservation work in the past. I was invited to work on a Costa Rican project outside of ACT and thought it would be good for us as a couple if Mark and I worked separately. When I went to Costa Rica to sign the contract, Taita Luciano, a student of Taita Laureano, came from Colombia to support the project.
Having met Luciano only once before, I was terrified of him because of the stories I had heard about yagé. In Costa Rica I got to know him better and somehow ended up participating in a ceremony he was leading. During the ceremony, I saw things, not like you see with your eyes, but in a way that you see and feel and are guided in your thinking process that was very powerful for me.
CF: Can you describe those insights and experiences from that ceremony?
LM: You hear about people transforming themselves into jaguars or eagles or other animals, and that happened with someone there. A filmmaker in our group didn’t want to participate in the ceremony and was rather arrogant about it when he heard of the physical purging that can happen with yagé medicine. We were in the middle of nowhere where there are snakes and jaguars. Taita Luciano gave us yagé and this man took it, which really surprised me. Nothing was happening to me from the yagé–no purging, no dizziness, no visions.
All of a sudden I heard the roar of a jaguar, a sound that is humanly impossible as far as I’m concerned, and realized this man had totally become possessed by the spirit of a jaguar, moving with cat gestures and making the whole house shake when he roared. He then took off barefoot into the jungle. I was terrified that he might get bitten by a snake, but Taita Luciano reassured me that he was under the control of the jaguar spirit and nothing would happen to him.
He finally returned, and, as he started moving back and forth from being himself and being a jaguar, he got upset thinking no one would ever believe him. I have this image of Taita Luciano reassuring him, this man sitting on a fence like a cat. It was a metamorphosis before my eyes. As it turned out, he had been in the closet for many years, and this experience helped him to fully accept himself. It was definitely the most exotic way of coming out.
Watching his incredible healing experience and how these animal spirits take form, I was stunned and never quite the same. What I saw was so profound that I realized there that I was totally bound to the kind of work happening through the Amazon Conservation Team, that this is what I wanted to do and couldn’t see myself taking the job in Costa Rica. And I didn’t. It was huge turning point for me.
CF: I recall my first ceremony with you and Taita Luciano in 2002. It was the first time that I had a glimpse of how ACT really worked. Rather than just being in a healthy partnership with indigenous people, the work was actually being guided by the spiritual leaders of these communities, and they were listening to higher spiritual sources. So what I thought was going to be a yagé ceremony with Taita Luciano was actually like a planning meeting of the most extraordinary kind.
LM: They are always like that.
CF: Tell me about your experience of the first meeting like this, when it became it clear to you that this was the process.
LM: It was about a month after the experience in Costa Rica. I went to where Taita Luciano lives in Colombia for an entire week of ceremonies. This was pretty naïve on my part because I just didn’t realize the strength of this man’s capacity.
The first ceremony was very powerful, a cleaning out inside as you have to do. The second time I thought, “I came here to work. I am not interested in all these ceremonies. I have to figure out what the plan is going to be.”
I discovered then that they don’t even talk about the work. The only way they approach it is through and in ceremony. That week it became clear that my relationship was going to be with Taita Luciano through Laureano, because he and Laureano were one. There was never any division or a different thought process between them. That week of ceremonies also showed me just how the work got done–the ethics and core values required to work with Laureano and the shamans.
CF: So it was less about the actual logistics of the work and more about the context and the orientation of the way that you worked.
LM: Exactly. And I want to be very clear that yagé is only a part of this, that it’s the Colombian healers themselves whose work is so important. They are behind the shaman gatherings and connections not only in Colombia but also in Brazil, Suriname, and North America. I watch how Taita Luciano is trying to establish this strong spiritual union among a small group who are very quiet, do not get paid, do not travel but are absolutely essential to their community. Those are the people who I’m interested in working with, those very quiet women and men whose knowledge is at the brink of disappearing and yet so vital to the wellbeing and health to not only their community but to the world.
From the gatherings that we’ve organized at their request, I see this like a recipe with very different components, and each of these traditional healers has one ingredient. When some day we bring them all together, we might have the whole thing. If one disappears, then it won’t be complete.
Bringing the shamans together
CF: Let’s talk more about the shaman gatherings that ACT has organized, starting with the first one in Colombia in 1999 and how that came about.
LM: This was again Luciano’s leadership through Taita Laureano. The Colombian shamans were isolated and didn’t trust each other. Their medicine was also being misrepresented, abused and in some cases considered a hallucinogen and thereby might potentially become illegal at some point. We’ve seen that happen in other places.
Taita Luciano and Taita Laureano wanted to invite yagé healers from the Colombian Amazon Piedmont for a meeting to support each other and share that which was most sacred to them. Luciano traveled for over six months through the jungle–sometimes on foot–from village to village doing ceremonies to figure out who should be invited, who was real and who wasn’t. He was also challenged by shamans who initially were not open to sharing their knowledge. He had to convince them that for the survival of all their sacred traditions they had to put aside their distrust and come to the gathering. That was not easy, and they tested him intensely with their ceremonies and medicine. Luciano’s work was incredible.
Funding the event was also challenging because who in their right mind would underwrite a gathering in one of the most politically conflictive areas in Colombia. The first gathering of shamans, the “Encuentro de Taitas,” was ultimately made possible because of the strong intention of everyone involved.
What’s amazing is that the agenda the shamans established at that meeting has been accomplished and continues on at even greater levels. The meeting was also very important and an inspiration to other indigenous healers, particularly to Native Americans in Ontario, Canada from the Six Nations. The Canadians have reprinted several times The Code of Ethics, a book for shamans created at the Colombian gathering, because their elders feel that it is exemplary. They also developed their own Shaman’s Apprentice Program modeled after the Colombian program as well as a youth and elders council.
Along with the code of ethics and the Union of Yagé Healers (UMIYAC), there are other palpable outcomes from that first gathering, such as two major protected areas in Colombia. I first went down to Colombia wanting to make sure that we created something concrete conservation-wise, because everybody thinks that we’re only about ceremony. I wrote a proposal focusing on this tiny territory. Not long after, Taita Luciano joined us to meet a potential funder in Florida, and the strangest thing happened.
We waited and waited for this man at a hotel, and he never came. Finally, four hours later we saw him only to discover that he had been looking for us the whole time in the exact place where we had agreed to meet. Unfortunately, he had to leave right away to catch a plane to London. I was so crestfallen, losing our big chance to get that tiny, indigenous reserve.
We had a ceremony that night near the Everglades where Luciano told me, “You have to go at our pace; you cannot go at your pace. If you go at our pace, things will turn out, and they will be much better. You want to do this reserve, but this is not the way to go about it.” Eight months later, it wasn’t a one thousand acre reserve that we were creating; it was a one hundred and ninety-one thousand acre indigenous national park! It was like looking at a little slide and then watching an IMAX movie. This is the Alto Fragua Indi Wasi National Park, a protected area jointly managed by indigenous communities and the Colombian National Park Service.
Later, the Kofán tribal elders kept insisting on protecting another area. They were so persistent that we finally bought it. In 2008 we created with the Park Service the Orito Ingi-Ande Plant Sanctuary, which establishes a new category of reserve that protects plants of high cultural value to indigenous communities. The sanctuary is a first in Latin America, where the National Academy of Sciences recognizes the immaterial value or the invisible nature of an area for indigenous people. It’s a huge precedent.
These are the types of conservation that have come out of their leadership and vision–and our being able to trust it and collectively work together. But it’s not just about vision or about ceremony and feeling really good. There’s a lot of hard work, and the results are very concrete things that you can see, feel and measure. That’s what matters most to me–that people who are not Indians and people who are here have come together and now there is an important indigenous site that is part of a system of official protected areas.
Waurá shamans put ACT through their paces
CF: What were some of the shaman gatherings after that first Colombian gathering in 1999?
LM: A very interesting relationship developed with the Waurá from central Brazil in 2004. They wanted to know more about what ACT had done with other indigenous people and to hear from them directly. I went with Taita Luciano and Vasco van Roosmalen, our Brazil director, to visit the Waurá, and all of their shamans were waiting for us. The Waurá shamans are inordinately powerful beyond what you could ever imagine, and they raked Luciano through the coals to really find out about him and ACT. Then, although they had never traveled before, the Waurá wanted to visit the Colombian shamans, so we brought them to Colombia.
The Waurá were astounded to see the difficult circumstances under which the Colombians live. Colombia has enormous indigenous reserves in the lowlands, but in the Piedmont where we work they are very small and scattered. We went to Taita Luciano’s place, and the children were at school. The Waurá wanted to know where were the children, where was the community? For them it was seeing their own lives thirty years down the road if they didn’t adhere to the land, protect it, and really fight for it. They were also able to see that despite the poverty and challenges, the Colombian yagé healers are still very powerful.
A strong alliance was established between the Waurá and Colombian shamans during that trip, and we had a gathering in 2006 in Brazil with all of them there as well as Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse and Amasina Uremaru, the paramount shaman of the Trio people in Suriname. There have been other gatherings since which have been incredibly powerful, but that one was just earth-shattering. They all took turns doing different ceremonies, explaining how they healed and sharing their knowledge with each other. They’ve had other exchanges since that time in Suriname and visits by the Colombians to North America.
You were with Taita Luciano and me the first time we went for the ceremony and meeting in Green Grass, South Dakota a few years back. Luciano and I went back there this past summer for a Bundle ceremony. Before the ceremony Arvol Looking Horse wanted Taita Luciano to join him at a meeting of all the Lakota chiefs to discuss negotiating the lands in the Black Hills as President Obama wanted to meet with them. It was very moving to see the support by Luciano’s presence.
Gifted healers bring the wisdom
CF: Another important gathering that you were involved with was the Gathering of Indigenous Women Healers in Colombia in August of 2003. I remember from our conversations back then how challenging it was for you to put on that event.
LM: An elderly and highly respected Siona shaman, Taita Pacho, came from Colombia to visit me in D.C., and I really didn’t understand why. He told me that he had come to “plant some seeds”. He asked me to organize a gathering just for the women healers saying, “Without their strength, without their knowledge, and without them none of our work is possible.” He told me that it was very important for the balance of power, and I knew that he didn’t mean just in Colombia. We started to organize ,which was a very painful process right up until the gathering. It really divided a lot of people–not so much the Indians but the white people involved within Colombia.
The gathering itself was absolutely beautiful and very successful, and one of the most remarkable weeks of my life. All of the women were very poor. One elderly woman was so emaciated when she arrived that she passed out. Others–their underwear was in tatters. Of course, later we set up a fund through ACT for people to support these women. We had done extensive interviews to find the most gifted women, and here were twenty-five of the most powerful women healers in Colombia, women who held ancient and sacred knowledge of women’s healing and medicine, and some of them–particularly those who were widows or whose children had moved away–had been essentially living at the edge of their communities in total poverty quietly taking care of women their whole lives.
For the first time they were able to meet other women like themselves, to share their knowledge, their crafts, their plants, their food and to know that by our holding this gathering for them that their knowledge and gifts were valued. I have never in my life laughed and felt so much joy as I did that week.
A friend, a Colombian architect from Bogotá, built this wonderful structure for the meeting in the shape of a uterus, which continues to serve as their gathering place. An association of women healers called ASOMI was established with a network of collective and individual gardens, because the garden is emblematic of indigenous women.
A big focus has been ancestral agricultural production, seeking the knowledge of the grandmothers to bring back some of the crops that are disappearing. And with the growing cadre of apprentices as herbalists, midwives and a few yagé healers, we are sustaining these traditions. We also seek out young and promising indigenous women who want to study law or pursue careers that enhance their professional representation in the community.
Although it was one of the most difficult projects I have ever worked on and many times I wanted to give up, I’m so glad that I didn’t and really trusted Taita Pacho’s vision. He’s gone now, and I feel that the seed he planted in that visit to D.C. is now flourishing.
Hope for a union of healers
CF: Where do you see the future of ACT in terms of your particular area of work? Where do you sense that the shamans see it, because that is really the question?
LM: I have no way of knowing where they see it. Sometimes I feel like they’ve totally forgotten things they had discussed; time passes and then something extraordinary happens. Of course, the gatherings are very important to them and to forwarding our work together.
We have had smaller ceremonies the past few years as they are very expensive to organize. However, we are hoping to have another larger gathering again if possible this year. I do think that an international union of healers of some kind–a connection between all of these powerful indigenous healers–is the underlying intention of a very big and profound vision. How that will fully manifest remains to be seen.
CF: How do you feel personally changed from working with the shamans in this way?
LM: I don’t necessarily feel changed. I feel that I’m just a good friend, that I respect them and feel very grateful and privileged to work with them. I trust that they know things that we do not. They have guided our work in ways that no one else is able to and have inspired so much with their humility and their joy and their love of life. It’s such a gift for me to be able to do this work. I just know that the most important part of my work,–and the work of ACT–is just to listen to the wisdom of these great shamans and to respond as best as possible. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.
By Cynthia Frisch
Cynthia cultivates connections between Earth and people in businesses, organizations and communities through her company Gaia Global Consulting. Her seminar “Ancient Wisdom for Environmental Corporate Leadership” interjects traditional worldviews and values into the modern dialogue about sustainable environmental practices. A facilitator of Pachamama Alliance’s Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium and her own workshop The Power of Earth, she also serves as an Ambassador for Change with the Green Energy Council, where she integrates traditional earth wisdom into their Green Jobs Corp training.