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"The exchange of knowledge is something that favors tolerance and builds peace"

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Today we interview Maria Pabon, consultant of socio-environmental studies, to talk about indigenous and rural communities. Maria came to the rural world under the paradigm based on the production and exploitation of resources, until a chain of events led her to discover the indigenous world. Thanks to her work as a consultant in socio-environmental studies, she works in projects with rural and indigenous communities.

Pabón discovered the world of Agroecology, and that led her to consciously study the many possibilities she saw for restoring devastated ecosystems as, through simple agricultural techniques, these ecosystems could thrive again: "I was an intern of the German government and it was with them that I discovered these truths that I carry with me until now. I totally forgot the chemical formulas I learned when I was an agronomy student."

You have dedicated much of your life to the protection of minorities in Latin America, especially indigenous and rural communities. What have you learned in that quest?

More than protection, I would speak of working together, it is the first thing you learn when you go to an indigenous or rural community, you will not teach anything, you will discover and rather learn from them. What I have done in the rural world, is to enjoy... sometimes I find photos and I say, well, but they pay you to do this.... I have been happy in that world, despite having been in remote and wild places in difficult conditions for a person from the city, especially when working with national state institutions that did not have enough budget and the work was an odyssey.

But if the question is what I learned in that search that is still going on, it is that we owe them a lot of respect, because we never finish getting to know these indigenous communities. I learned that although we are different and that among them the diversity is also immense, we already share many spaces, we have amalgamated more for better and for worse...that is to say, the rural world is flesh and blood, the people who inhabit the rural world are not pure. They make a living, as we do, and they also make the same mistakes and we should not fall into paternalisms or idealizations, rural communities are strong, they reinvent themselves and they even protect us more than we protect them.....

More than protection, I would talk about working together, it is the first thing you learn when you go to an indigenous or peasant community, you will not teach anything, you will discover and rather learn from them, what they share with you.

What can we learn from these cultures?

There are many things to learn from the culture of indigenous peoples, but the greatest lesson they can teach is to enjoy simplicity, humility, learning from nature, and their relationship with the cycles of life and death.

What are the main problems facing indigenous communities?

I think that currently, like other population groups in rural areas, these communities face violence in their own territory due to drug trafficking. Illicit crops compete with jobs for young indigenous people, who are attracted by these jobs and thus abandon their own crops. Indigenous communities do not have access to credit for their agricultural enterprises, which makes them more vulnerable to doing business in their territories. In addition, there is the inefficiency in processing licenses to sell their medicinal products, and other problems common to all farmers in our country, such as the poor state of the access roads to their lands.

How has globalization changed indigenous peoples? Has it opened a door to development or to the destruction of their habitat?

I think nothing is good or bad. Technology and access to information, are tools that have helped communities in remote places to connect with the world, for example, to sell their products. Globalization is a multi-headed monster, depending on how it touches us. I believe that markets, especially free trade agreements, can harm indigenous peoples. On the other hand, technology in terms of modern agricultural machinery can be a tool to help crops and planting, but it can bring other social impacts on these groups, such as, for example, envy and conflict from those who do not get the same.

Are you optimistic about the future of the planet and the future of these communities?

Actually, not so much. I'm a bit pessimistic and I'm ashamed to say it in public, but I'm a fatalist. When I go to the countryside and I see so much courage of the rural people, so much grace, so much beauty, I feel that everything is possible. But then, I land in the reality of what we are living with climate change, the corruption of the leaders who are at different levels of power and I feel that humanity is going badly.

In this profession, you don't live so much, rather you survive. Because if I tally up the places I've been to meet a work objective, it's lucky to be alive.

If tomorrow you were given control of the Ministry of Development of Colombia, what would be the first thing you would do?

The first thing I would do would be to disseminate and make people understand the fact of the abysmal difference between public spending on what has to do with indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in different Latin American countries. It is estimated that there are 476 million indigenous people worldwide. Although they constitute only 6% of the world's population, they represent about 19% of the extremely poor. These figures of investment, conditional transfers, are challenging to study, however the conclusions of these studies are simple, and reveal the huge gaps between public spending for indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

Regarding the peoples of the Amazon, the situation is more complex, they are immersed in the growing crisis of deforestation of their habitats, I do not think there is anything more serious than this rampant situation. Facing this problem is something that exceeds the national effort. In those places there is no State, there are mafias and groups of people who have a vision contrary to that of preserving life. Deforesting the Amazon is a crime without any justification, it is a sign of the human degradation in which we are. It is the result of a region in crisis, because it is a problem of all the countries that border it and those that do not, too.

Who should we ask for responsibility?

I think there are diverse responsibilities. There are collective, of interests of economic groups in what they call legality, such as the extractive industry sector, and responsibilities as old as going back to the period of the Conquest and the Colony of our countries. During that period, we were badly done with the example of the devastation suffered by the indigenous people in the period of the Caucherías. To name something very graphic, how much time is needed to overcome that tragedy that left not only the trauma, but also a message of domination that is difficult to overcome?

Among the indigenous groups themselves, anomalous behaviors and vices have crept in, at no time have I had a romantic vision of the native peoples. They themselves are in charge of leading their protection and fighting for the preservation of their blood. Nor am I a purist in the sense of thinking that indigenous peoples are only themselves if they preserve their cultural identity. That is a line that has already been surpassed and that they themselves define, the indigenous "whitening" is an ancient fact, cultures, peoples are transformed, everything is in continuous movement.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career similar to yours?

In this career, you don't live so much, rather you survive. Because if I tally up the places I've been to meet a work goal, it's lucky to be alive. Without exaggeration. It is not an office job, it is a job of experiences, of experiences with people, people are often far away, in deep jungles, in remote mountains, in inhospitable climates, where you have to face the situations of public order or disorder that our national territory has.

In Putumayo, for example, facing various guerrillas, timber traffickers, traveling in boats that are not sufficiently maintained. But being in each place you don't think about any of that, only about establishing a relationship with people, achieving a dialogue and an exchange to then build context descriptions, analysis, social safeguards for projects and programs, social impact analysis of infrastructure works, among other objectives.

Thank you very much Maria

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