This is the second of three mini-profiles of inspired leadership to protect biodiversity during the brutal conflict in Colombia.
Awá indigenous leader Jaime Caicedo Guanga was born and raised in the Pialapi-Pueblo Viejo indigenous territory in the south of Colombia. This indigenous territory is located nearby a small but ecologically unique nature reserve, La Planada: this encompasses 3500 hectares of ‘cloud forest’ and was founded by a Colombian NGO in the 1980s. Since he was a child, Jaime, now 35, has been involved in the different community programs implemented by the reserve: orchid-keeper, ecological guide, research assistant for scientific expeditions, etc.
This territory has been at the heart of Colombia’s armed conflict and illicit drug economy. Local communities have been targeted by all stake-holders involved in the Colombian armed conflict (e.g. paramilitaries, guerrillas, government armed forces). In 2005 the armed conflict in the region was so acute that the NGO in charge of La Planada nature reserve was forced to leave the area. The research station and other infrastructure were sacked by different armed groups. Local communities were displaced, and the area became the site of illicit drug production and military contest between illegal armed groups and government armed forces.
In 2007, Jaime was a law student in Pasto (the city closest to the nature reserve). He initiated a movement to recover the indigenous territory and the nature reserve. This involved the return of the local communities to the area in order to reclaim their land from armed groups. Together with a group of indigenous elders and leaders, Jaime convinced his community to come back to their land. At the same time, they realised that it was equally important to take care of the nature reserve. Its territory had belonged to indigenous communities for a long time, and therefore, now that nobody was taken care of it, the indigenous people could take the lead.
Jaime and his community continued with the conservation activities in the reserve. They worked collectively to rebuild the research station, the trails, and other important infrastructure; this stopped the armed groups sacking the nature reserve. Also Jaime and his group restarted the community programs in order to reach out to different local communities in the area.
After a while running the reserve, Jaime decided that it was time to work together with the NGO that founded the reserve in order to officially transfer the management of the reserve to the indigenous community. This was a long process. It required many community meetings in order to achieve consensus about this decision, and integrate the management of the reserve within the management of the indigenous territory.
Jaime led this initiative working together not only with his community but also with different partners such as universities, NGOs and governmental institutions. In 2010, the NGO that founded the nature reserve recognized the effort of Jaime and his community, and handed over the title of the nature reserve to the indigenous community. The objective was for this area to be managed by the indigenous community as a conservation area within the Awa indigenous territory.
One of the first actions that the indigenous Awa had to perform after receiving the nature reserve was to identify and remove the mines within the protected area, as well as to exercise their authority over this territory in front of armed groups still present in the area. Jaime became the first indigenous director of the reserve.
In 2012 Jaimie went to Pasto to finish his law studies and another young indigenous leader replaced him. Today, Jaime is a lawyer working for the defence of the collective and territorial rights of the Awa indigenous group but he remains a spokesperson and ambassador for La Planada nature reserve. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre.