11/22/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Empowering the Amazon's Ultimate Guardians: An Interview with Liliana Madrigal, Rainforest Conservationist

While Liliana Madrigal's deep fascination with the natural world came quickly and easily during travels in her native Costa Rica, the conservationist did not develop her deep reverence for indigenous peoples until well into her career.

"My passion for working with local communities initially came reluctantly," she said.

After serving as the Director of the Costa Rica Program for The Nature Conservancy and helping found Conservation International, Madrigal partnered with her husband--renowned ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin--to create the Amazon Conservation Team in 1996.

With 25 percent of the Amazon in the hands of indigenous groups, the two knew that partnering with these people was essential if enormous tracts of rainforest were to escape the increasingly ubiquitous chainsaw. Without support and participation from the ultimate stewards of the rainforest--those who make it their home--Madrigal and Plotkin believed conservation efforts would not last over the long term.

At ACT, Madrigal has continually navigated complex cultural systems, as well as distance and politics in Colombia, Suriname and Brazil--all while she and Plotkin raised two daughters (who accompanied them on trips to the rainforest from the time they were in diapers) and ran headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

Today, Madrigal travels regularly to South America to work with ACT's indigenous partners including shamans, women healers and other tribal representatives in more than 30 communities.

The work is paying off, big time. After 17 years, ACT has garnered awards from the Jane Goodall Institute, the Skoll Foundation and the Yale School of Forestry for its myriad accomplishments and innovative conservation methods.

MTM: What makes ACT's approach unique?
LM: Two things: Our partnerships with indigenous peoples and long-term commitment to communities. Every project we do is a collaboration with local people--especially the elders. Elders understand the traditions and have a deeply rooted vision for natural resource management. They know and understand things that we do not and their knowledge is critical for the future. We have worked with many communities for a combined total of 40 years and we understand that these long-term relationships are key to sustaining conservation efforts. We can turn on a dime, implement projects quickly and be fairly certain they respond to identified community needs or aspirations

MTM: Can you share more about your hesitation to become involved with indigenous communities and how your passion for your job evolved?
LM: I am the most reluctant participant in this work because I am so respectful of the complexity of indigenous traditions. The magnitude of our projects often makes you feel you're not up to the task.

The turning point for me came in 1998 when I traveled to Costa Rica with one of our shamans from Colombia. I was able to see him interact in the rainforest and saw firsthand his extensive knowledge of medicinal plants and ecology. The experience turned my concept of indigenous wisdom and its importance in conservation from a mysterious idea into a concrete reality.

There is a codependency between indigenous communities and the rainforest. Without the rainforest, these people cannot practice their traditions and lose their sense of identity. Without these people, there would be no traditional stewards to watch over the land and the forest.

Ironically, I had made the trip to Costa Rica to sign a contract for another job. What I saw changed my mind. I returned to Arlington and haven't looked back since. To this day, we continue to work with that same Shaman and many, many others.

MTM: You helped pioneer ACT's women's programs. Can you tell us more about them?
LM: I've been passionate about these projects since 2004 when we organized the first union of women healers from six different indigenous groups. You hear a lot about preserving male shaman's practices, but women's traditions are in even greater danger. The witch hunt was real and women were forced to hide their knowledge and customs from missionaries for many years. Even today, women have to wait until they are postmenopausal to actively apply their knowledge. They must be very discreet and receive their validation from their communities. No advertising is allowed!

These meetings jumpstarted the transmission of indigenous knowledge to the next generation, restored oral history, recuperated practices in ancestral agriculture and brought back the nurturing role of grandmothers--particularly in schools. Traditionally, women were the strong leaders in shamanic societies, but that role was taken from them. We are helping them reclaim it.

MTM: What has been your most heartbreaking experience in the field?
LM: In 2003, I saw firsthand what petrol exploration can do to the natural environment and local communities. I was in Colombia to visit the Kofan territory and we had to cross rivers that were literally pulsating with different colors from oil spills. The people who lived in these areas didn't have access to clean water or fish and were literally dying of hunger.

Much of the country was off limits for a very long time, so now concessions granted to companies are in full implementation. Many of these extractive industries enter quickly without a plan for minimizing impact. In many areas, the roads are a mess and there is contamination of the land and waterways. We are working hard with communities on food security projects and efforts to gain legal rights to protect the land, but the situation is still dire.

MTM: What have been your most inspiring experiences in the field?
LM: I love visiting students at the Yachaikury School in Colombia. This is a place that combines ancestral knowledge, new technology and Western education. Seeing the kids regaining pride in their identity as indigenous people is really rewarding. Self-esteem is one of the keys to success, so if you love who you are and accept yourself ethnically, that is a huge step in the right direction. The school is now a model in the region for integrating western and indigenous education. This is an approach that resonates with communities and is being adopted in many other local schools.

My other favorite memories are about the exchanges of shamanic knowledge between drastically different indigenous groups in Suriname, Colombia, Brazil, Canada and the USA. This started with the first gathering of shamans in 1999 in Caquetá, Colombia. The participants who formed the union of healers (UMIYAC) have met every year since and, when funding is available, they invite healers from other groups to participate and share their knowledge.

Likewise, the women healers who met in 2004 now gather annually at the same time as UMIYAC to both save money and enhance the co-dependence between the women and men. The results of these gatherings--strengthening of medicinal knowledge, decisions to halt projects that would be detrimental to communities' well-being, food security, the creation of protected areas, and changes to local laws and regulations--are measurable and respond to long-range plans.

MTM: What is the greatest obstacle for conservationists today?
LM: The biggest challenge is the accelerating global consumption of resources. Until we stop the excessive demand and the consumption of cheap goods manufactured under slave labor, it's going to be very hard to sustain large swaths of forest since they and the resources found in the subsoil are some of the fuel for global economies.

MTM: What is the most exciting development for Amazon conservation in the last year?
LM: Colombia's decision to protect its isolated indigenous groups--communities that choose to live deep in the rainforest and avoid contact with the outside world. Through a partnership with the Colombian government, ACT helped prove the existence of isolated tribes, foster the legislation that protects their right to living in isolation and we are currently expanding a contingency plan should there be contact. We are working to confirm the existence of 14 additional tribes that we believe are in the region. These are truly the most vulnerable people of all and the forests they inhabit, should we collectively succeed in warding off destructive development, offers the best hope for the protection of the Amazon.


About the Author: Megan Taylor Morrison is a freelance multimedia journalist committed to environmental and cultural conservation efforts--particularly in the fields of dance and indigenous peoples. She has authored stories on conservation, health and the outdoors for publications including Yahoo!, NBC and The Huffington Post. To learn more, visit her website.