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  • Capucine Lechartre

Young scientist in Colombia, learning and living the job of conservation


When I came to Colombia to discover the scientific work of conservation, I was far from imagining that I would dive into a completely different perception of the world.

Discovering the Kogi culture by volunteering in the foundation Nativa opened my eyes to an alarming reality: our way of life has taken from us what is most important in the world, consciousness. Behind this pretext of collaborating to protect the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from harmful “civilized” activities (such as deforestation, urbanization, pollution of water ponds, etc) the Kogi teach us that we are not the owners of anything in this world, that there is no such thing as the Cartesian dualism between nature and humans. Thanks to Franz Kaston Florez, a lifelong friend of the Kogi, and thanks to the noble purpose of the foundation Nativa, I got the opportunity to discover a world where science meets culture.

The protagonists of my experience

Franz

Franz was my direct chef. He is the one with which we planned all the work we would do. He is the main pillar of the foundation. Indeed, he earned the privilege of being friend with the Nuevita, the family of the Mama, the spiritual chef. With the Mama and his son, he plans conservation initiatives and helps them in their activities that require a contact with our civilization. He is also a snake specialist who braved the guerrilla during Colombia’s hard times to promote the conservation of these intriguing animals! He even knows Nicolas Hulot, the French reference (and minister!!) in terms of environmental ethics! Every step of my internship made me realize how committed he is to the work of conservation!

Santiago

Santiago makes the liaison between Nativa and Bogota. He is an extremely talented artist who put his creativity to the service of the Foundation. Four years ago, he met Franz while he was giving a conference about the Guaimaro, a sacred tree for the Kogi. The rest is history! They now work hand in hand for the communication part of Nativa.

Camilo

Camilo is the last son of the Mama José-Miguel Nuevita, Franz’s good friend. He is approximately 14; and we can say that he has the best of both worlds! Pure Kogi, he knows the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta by heart, and maintains the traditions alive. But he also benefits from the good parts of our civilization. He learned Spanish with Franz and now helps in the logistic of Nativa’s expeditions. His knowledge makes him a Kogi and a scientist as the same time!

Catalina

Catalina is the Mama’s granddaughter. She assists Franz’s visits by helping with the preparation of meals and seconding Camilo. I felt particularly touched by her personality as I could picture a younger me in her place. It was a particularly hard exercise to picture me assuming all the responsibilities she has within her family! Catalina’s period As a modern girl, raised in concepts of gender equality, I was particularly attentive to the role of women in the Kogi community. It seems like there’s a clear definition of the tasks born by each gender in their society. The repartition resembles ours: the women assume the tasks relating to the management of the family while the men’s field concentrates around manual and food production activities. While I was there, I witnessed a particularly important event for the Kogi: Catalina, the Mama’s granddaughter, got her first period. From this point, the 12-year-old girl (this is an approximation, the Kogi don’t keep track of their age) was no longer a child. She swapped her simple white dress to the traditional attire of women. As soon as they get their first period, Kogi women are ready to fulfill their main goal: assume the survival of their culture. They get married soon after and start their own family. Successive pregnancies are not a problem for Kogi women as they do not pay as much attention to their physical appearance, as we do. For the Kogi, women are wiser than men. The men must reflect on their inferiority before getting married and act as to be worthy of women. Camilo told me that, depending on the Mama, men can stay up to 10 days without moving or sleeping, to think about this difference they have with women.

Photo tramping

The first expedition I took part in was an expedition of Photo-tramping. The goal of photo-tramping is to catch shots of endangered species to record their presence in a given zone. This is surely a demonstration that science is mainly patience! First of all, getting to the setting zone requires you to wake up the Lara croft inside you. Then, one has to wait a month to get the cameras back. Because our result photos did not include tapirs, we could not deduce its presence in the zone. It can be frustrating as the Kogi had confirmed their presence and we even saw footprints.

The Process

We placed three of our cameras at approximately a walking day from the closest city, near a farming property owned by a family. Camilo took us to the deepest points of the surrounding forest, jumping rivers and cutting branches to get us to possible routes made by tapirs.

After a month, Camilo, who knows this forest as if it was a city, went to recover the cameras and brought them to us to analyze the results. Fun fact: the tapir used to be a diurnal animal, but because of its fear of being hunted by humans, it developed nocturnal habits! I hence set the cameras to be active between 6pm and 6am, to save battery and to focus on the waking time of tapirs! To know more about this fantastic animal, check out this video made by Nativa! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3Rc0E08Nnc

This expedition was also my first contact with the Kogi people. As expected, it was totally different from what I had ever seen. What caught my attention was the attitude of the children. When most of our generation is made of spoiled kids, the Kogi children take their own initiatives and bear responsibilities in the family life. When Catalina decides to wash her little brother, the others directly come to assist her without being asked to do so. The polemic of the mental load on our society’s women could never apply here!Here’s a link about mental load, a common problem that could be resolved by educating our children the same way the Kogi do so! https://www.mother.ly/life/the-mental-load-falls-squarely-on-mothers-shouldersand-its-making-us-very-tired

Franz also asked me if I thought that the Kogi were poor. I think the Kogi don’t lack anything. Of course, they don’t have comfortable beds, cell phones, expensive clothes… but you will never see Kogis dying of hunger or fighting for their lives as we can see happen with Venezuelan immigrants that had to flee their country to survive. Main values I noticed in this first trip: Sense of community and mutual assistance. Getting into Kogi territory is also a privilege! You cannot decide to go there out of nowhere, you have to be invited by them. Here is an extract of my journal the day I received my « aseguranzas »

« J’ai reçu de la part du Mama, le chef de la tribu, deux bracelets de fil de coton qui constituent mon droit d’entrée en territoire natif. Le Mama est une personnalité assez intrigante. C’est un petit homme que je dois dépasser d’une tête malgré mon mètre soixante-trois. Il ne laisse paraitre aucune émotion, ce qui est totalement normal pour un Kogi. Pour eux, les extrêmes émotionnels sont ce que pousse notre société à consommer à outrance, comme pour purger nos excès dans les achats. Ils apprennent donc dès leur plus jeune âge à se contrôler et à discuter calmement de leurs ressentis. C’est aussi un moyen pour eux de réguler leur société pour ne pas diverger des lois ou commettre un méfait, qui entrainerait pour eux des conséquences sur leur santé ou celle de leur descendance. C’est une philosophie nouvelle pour moi, car je suis une personne qui vit dans les extrêmes, je suis en général soit très heureuse, soit très triste. J’ai hâte de ce voyage, C’est la première fois que je vais vraiment découvrir une culture aux antipodes de la mienne. A côté, le Canada, déjà très diffèrent des mœurs françaises, est une copie conforme de ce que j’ai toujours connu. »

« I received from the Mama, the tribe chef, two cotton bracelets that are my “visa” in native territory. The Mama is an intriguing character. He’s a small person, I’m probably 10cm taller than him although I’m only 163 (5’3). He does not show much his emotions, which is totally normal for a Kogi. I’ve learned that for them, the emotional extremes are what pushes our society to overconsume, as way to purge ourselves in buying. Hence, they learn very early to control themselves and calmly discuss their feelings. It is also a way to regulate their society, so they won’t diverge from the law or commit crimes, which would lead to paybacks on their health or one the wellbeing of their offspring. It’s a new philosophy for me, I generally live in the extremes, being either super happy or intensely sad. I cannot wait for this trip, it will be the first time I will discover a culture pole apart from mine. In comparison, Canada, which is already quite different to France, is a perfect copy of what I’ve always known.

When the Mama was bitten by a snake

Even though the Kogi try to avoid as much as possible getting in contact with our civilization, they sometimes don’t have the choice to rely on our technology. Although they have an extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, they are not capable of curing all ills. This fact was illustrated to me by a special event that occurred soon after our first visit to the Kogi camp. One day, while cleaning the road that gets to the river, the Mama got bit by a venomous snake. Without the help of Franz, he we would surely have died. The Kogi don’t know how to prepare antidotes to such bites. The Mama hence ran directly to Franz (even though the property he was in is 4 hours of walking away from Palomino) who took him to the nearest hospital to be cured. Being friend with a snake specialist surely saved many Kogi lives! They usually don’t know how to react in front of this type of accident, and the support they receive from Franz to guide them is essential!!

Bogota

I also got the chance to travel to Bogota in June. We were initially there to bring some juveniles to the university professor who works with Franz on Yiyu. Beside this and visiting, I also got to meet with Santiago. He is an amazing painter and he is also of a great help for the foundation. Since he lives in Bogota, Santiago can easily coordinate Nativa’s project and meet with possible sponsorship. The most stimulating experience I had in Bogota was to meet with Jean-Marc Moro, a French deep-sea diver who specializes in Virtual Reality. He showed me the movie he realized for the TARA expedition, a marine study on microplastics. As he is currently working on a project with Nativa, we met with him and I discovered the pre-production of films and the exhausting work of designing a scenario. Overall, the week in Bogota opened my eyes to the multi-dimensionality of the work of conservation. As Franz told me, conservation is 50% investigation and 50% communication. I believe Nativa has promising projects. Franz and Santiago use all the resources available to them and invest in all the possibilities!

Translation of the Bush Dog report

Another task I had to realize during my internship was more of an academic nature. I translated to English a report about Nunamé, the bush dog. This exercise, apart from improving my academic writing capabilities, introduced me to the Kogi legends. For the Kogi, each natural entity has its signification in the world. As the universe is balanced by the commensality of all its parts, each of them has its own history.

Fish expedition

The expedition to collect Yiyú, the singing fish, was probably the most important part of those months in Colombia. Indeed, Yiyú is a special catfish… Characteristics of Yiyú :

  • Yiyú spawns down the river but lives upstream.

  • Yiyú climbs the rocks of waterfalls. Yiyú has a strong capacity to attach the river walls by suction (this capacity would explain why the adults can live upstream of the juveniles).

  • There are different patterns of a seemingly.

  • same fish. The Kogi collected for us stripped Yiyú but also spotted ones.

  • According to the Kogi, fish with distinct patterns are not all Yiyú.

  • Indeed, the fish with the same patterns live in the same basins but all types spawn in the same spot.

We hence wonder, how do the juveniles know where to go when they reach their adult form? Do they have special features that only allow them to get to one basin and not in the others? Further research would have to determine this point! The size of Yiyú depends on the size of the basin it lives in. It appears that there is a correlation between the size of the individual fish and the size of its environment. As no research has been led on this point, we cannot draw any conclusion nor establish any causation effect. The most flabbergasting feature of Yiyú is that it SINGS! We asked different families of Kogi from different parts of the Sierra and they unanimously described us the sounds it produces. Unfortunately, we were not able to hear Yiyú as it only does so during special moon phases. Yiyú cannot be fried when cooked. This fish is a source of animal protein that is extremely valuable for the Kogi. However, the way it is prepared can influence future catch. If the fish is cooked fried, the Kogi believe that no more Yiyú will be seen in the basin from where it was taken.

All fish were collected usinh the conventional fishing method of the Kogi people, the Yema.

The Yema is a fishing apparatus which consists of a pole made out of bamboo that opens to a ring to which a mochila is attached. The mochila is a traditional bag made from the thread of the fique tree, sewn by the Kogi women as a mean for meditation. In the opening of the mochila, the bait consists of either avocado or worms. Once the fish approaches the bait, the fisherman rises the pole and the prey falls in the mochila. Hence, this technique does not require a hook. The specimens were fished by members of the Kogi community so as to respect their beliefs and customs toward Yiyu.

Even though we tried as hard as possible to catch a fish with a shirt, we did not succeed in getting one. However, Camilo got one right away with his hands and was then able to collect many by using the Yema. It is amazing, the Kogi really connect with the animal and can sense its reactions!

The expedition to fish Yiyú

It took us two days to get to the site of Wakalakha, the farming property of the Mama José Miguel Nuevita, where we would catch the catfish. The site is situated at 2,500m of altitude and is only accessible by foot. You feel like an ant in the immense network of small roads that weaves between houses and cultivations. A great way to recall that we are not above anything in nature! As a civilized girl, I felt like I did not belong, like I did not deserve to be there. The beauty of this preserved landscape made me feel guilty of my culture, that has destroyed the world for its own benefits and that keeps on exploiting its resources. Moreover, even though I had all the hiking equipment, I struggled to trek up the mountain and always ended up full of sweat. Even though the peacefulness of the site was worth every drop of perspiration, it was frustrating to see that the Kogi, with their plastic boots and heavy bags, looked like they were flying over the pathway. Finally, the people themselves were not used to receive strangers on their territories. After taking a bath with Helena, Franz’s daughter, we crossed a Kogi property and truly scared them. All went running inside the house and watched us from inside, frightened and intrigued. As you can tell, all of this prove that such expedition is not common to take part in and I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity of participating in it.

What this volunteering experience brought me in comparison to what happens in Canada, to my formation or other things they teach us in class.

The formation we get at my University is very broad in terms of environmental knowledge. In my minor in Environment, we discussed topics from environmental ethics to earth patterns such as El Niño. But without any “real-life” experimentation of conservation, it was difficult for me to realize of the threat to biodiversity. The Kogi see those threats. They have to fight every day to preserve their lands and customs.

Even though they resemble us in many ways, in the universality of the human race, they are free from what alienates us. Through contact with them, I discovered a vision of the Earth freed from materialism. What Colombia really taught me is that our intrinsically planet, it does not have to be useful to us to be worthy of consideration.

Blinded by our possessions, we lost our ethics and the big brothers are here to make us regain our consciousness.


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