Sanctuary for medicinal plants.
FOR THE KOFAN people, who live in the Ecuador/Colombia border region, native plants provide life: they are the Kofans' traditional medicines.
During recent decades, however, outsiders have illegally settled on and deforested much of the Koran land, plant-Lug soy and coca crops in the newly cleared areas. Petroleum production has damaged other areas, driving many medicinal plant species into near extinction.
"Since the medicinal plants are no longer found in our territory, we have to buy them from the whites," says Luis Octavio Criollo, 39, who is studying to become a traditional healer. "We're losing our cultural identity. When the elders perform ceremonies, the young people no longer participate.... It's another ideology, from outside."
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Kofan numbered in the tens of thousands. They lived by hunting, gathering, and cultivating crops like corn, yucca, and a variety of fruit. But conflicts with Europeans, western diseases, and loss of territory devastated the Koran, and now there are only a few thousand members of the tribe on both sides of the border between Ecuador and Colombia.
Today, the Kofan are hoping that a new national park created specifically to preserve their traditional medicinal plants will also help them recover their culture.
The 25,205 acre Orito Ingi-Ande Medicinal Plants Sanctuary was created in June 2008 in the Colombian departments of Narino and Putumayo, a two-hour drive from Kofan territory. Colombian environmentalists and national parks officials believe it is the first national park in the world designed specifically to protect an indigenous people's medicinal plants.
Among the important medicinal and spiritual plants found in the new park are the yoco and yawhe vines which act as a stimulant and a hallucinogenic. Unfortunately, yawhe has also become popular among non-indigenous recreational drug users, who harvest the plant unsustainably.
In the process of planning the park, the National Parks Service and traditional healers spent several years looking for a region that had a variety of medicinal plants and the presence of "invisible forces," which the Koran believe protect them. Luciano Mutumbajoy, a member of the nearby Inga indigenous people and a leader of Colombia's traditional medical practitioners, participated in the creation of the new park. "With colonization and the planting of illicit crops, there's been a great deal of deforestation," he said. "[With the park] we think that we can preserve the forest and our medicinal plants. These plants are important for the indigenous people and for the whole world."
National Parks Director Julia Miranda Londono said that in contrast to other parks' hands-off policy for flora and fauna, the new park is designed for the medicinal plants to be used sustainably. "This is not like any of the other parks," she said. "In most parks, conservation is done by not using the natural resources. Here, they are going to carry out a sustainable use which will help us to preserve natural resources."
Liliana Madrigal, Vice President for Programs with the Virginia-based Amazon Conservation Team, which helped with the new park's planning, said she hopes it will lead to the creation of similar parks in other countries. "I think we're going to be seeing a tot of other sanctuaries or biological reserves for the same purpose," she said. "This is just the beginning of a trend."
Meanwhile, Camilo Yoge, 21, who is studying to become a traditional healer, says the Orito-Ingi Ande Medicinal Plants Sanctuary will protect more than flora and fauna. "Our territory has been invaded and we only have pieces of it left. We're working for the recovery of our territories," he said. "If we lose our territory, we'll be on the way to extinction. Medicinal plants ... are the people's strength."