The exuberance of life in the upper Amazon, on Colombia's triple border with Peru and Brazil, has many challenges. It exudes an apparent harmony, although there are tensions hidden behind the tranquility. The pink dolphin of the Amazon can be found here, among the meanders of the river’s abundant tributaries that flow rich with organic life, surrounded by the exceptional biodiversity that flourishes where the waters overflow. Since ancient times, this aquatic mammal has occupied a sacred place in indigenous spirituality, as it does in many corners of the vast Amazon basin.
Lilia Isolina Java Tapayuri, community leader of the Cocama ethnic group, in the Tikuna-Cocama-Yagua Reserve, regards the pink dolphin as sacred. They play a key role in her life and career, as Lilia is now responsible for the conservation of the river fauna of this corner of the Amazon rainforest.
Lilia was born 35 years ago in the community of San Francisco, a few miles northwest of Puerto Nariño, on the Loretoyacu River, a tributary of the Amazon. Since she was a child she has been attracted to the river's fauna, and this has shaped both her spirituality and her livelihood.
According to the indigenous view of the Amazon rainforest, in a world dominated by water, the pink dolphin reigns supreme: an elusive, yet enigmatic, intelligent, and coveted creature, it has recently become an icon of several initiatives to preserve the ecosystem, and this is the case in this remote Amazon region.
Indigenous communities were resettled far from their land of origin in the interior of the jungle due to the establishment of lucrative rubber plantations in the 19th century and remained by the river even when rubber prices collapsed, and practices of slavery were abandoned. With the arrival of missionaries in the mid-20th century, they abandoned their communal homes, which were considered promiscuous by church ministers, and began to live in rectangular single-family houses with separate rooms, wooden walls, and zinc roofs.
Despite evangelization, many preserved fragments of their ancestral mystical universe, where the world is divided into three layers, water, air, and land, but where the aquatic fauna plays a central role. And it is in this context that, for Lilia, the conservation and defense of the river fauna, such as the manatee, the dolphin, the otter or the alligator, signifies not only defending the forest and the ecosystem, but also the ways of life of the indigenous peoples and their spirituality.
Off all the rich Amazonian aquatic fauna, it is the pink dolphin that occupies the central place in the indigenous imagination. Lilia says it appears in ritual celebrations such as the "pelazón," a painful rite of passage that consists of pulling out all the hair of girls as they enter puberty. The dolphin then materializes to the community as a person, sporting identifying attributes such as a hat, a wristwatch, a belt, or shoes. "In these meetings," Lilia continues, "the only one capable of determining which of the people present is a dolphin is the shaman. The mysterious person, who attends these festive rites undercover, disappears in the early hours of the morning, leaving hardly a trace.
"Until one day, the shaman says to the organizers of the celebration," Lilia recounts, "‘If you don’t believe that this is an animal, not a person, that it is Yakuruna, the mother of the water, take note: We will get him drunk with chicha (a ritual fermented drink).' So, the party started, and all the girls danced. The visitor was given chicha and got drunk. He then went to the river and fell asleep on the riverbank. When the sun came up, he was transformed into a dolphin. And the shaman said: 'Look, the hat of this person is a ray, the watch is a crab and the belt is a boa snake. The shoes are fish.' And that is how Yakuruna is.”
"And from then on they also discovered that the women who lived on the banks of the rivers were beginning to disappear," continues Lilia with a tear in her eye and a voice broken by the emotion that the story rouses in her. "They were enchanted, they went into the water, and Yakuruna took them away. They had fallen in love with the dolphin. Some became pregnant, and the babies were born in the shape of dolphins."
Lilia felt a powerful connection with Yakuruna, and today dedicates her life to the daily defense of an ecosystem exposed to multiple and continuous stresses. Fortunately, the threats of illegal fishing, which were very considerable some years ago due to inroads of refrigerated boats coming mostly from Peru and lying on the other side of the river, and the use of non-traditional fishing gear, which had decimated the fish population very quickly, have now been brought under control.
The Tikuna land has been subject to tourist exploitation, which has led to the proliferation of illicit activities of all kinds.
The installation of a raft at the entrance to Lake Tarapoto a few years ago as a canoe traffic control station, from where entry can be authorized and exit monitored, has been a critical factor in conserving this environment. Dozens of protected species are now monitored, and Lilia directs the raft's operations courageously and with unquestionable authority. From the raft, a population count of different species of fish and aquatic mammals such as otters, manatees, and dolphins can now be carried out.
A woman in a world of men
Lilia's life, like that of so many other indigenous women, has been one of permanent struggle and determination. In the midst of a dominant patriarchal world where ancestral worldviews place men in the water and women in the land, male control tends to be absolute. Women have to be bold and courageous to slip through the cracks in this social order if they are to work one-to-one with men.
That is what Lilia has achieved, thanks to her emotional and spiritual relationship with the pink dolphins. Her fascination as a child with them led her to help care for some of them, encouraged by her father. And through her exceptional sensibility with the dolphins, she found the key to open the door to a world that has always been ruled, both materially and spiritually, by men.
It is remarkable the affection with which Lilia welcomes and pampers a stressed and disconsolate little manatee in her arms, which has been found lost by some fishermen and handed over for safekeeping. Lilia tells how, for some time now, due to the change in climatic conditions and the decrease in the flow of the rivers, the tributaries dry up and baby manatees appear, stranded far from the reach of their mothers.
Lilia hugs and feeds the baby manatee with dedication and love. The scene reveals to what extent the relationship with nature and living beings, not so different from humans, is a matter of empathy and sensitivity, two qualities too unknown until recently by the male universe.
Like the manatee, the dolphin is an intelligent and powerful animal in the water. Once out of it, however, it is extremely vulnerable. Dolphins require continuous hydration, caresses to soothe its stress, and care for its small powerful eyes.
This is where Lilia came in. Her grandfather, who was already engaged in cataloging and protecting the dolphin population, valued the devotion Lilia had for them while she kept its tail immobilized. This is not a task needing strength so much as tenderness. And that power to calm the dolphins is what made Lilia’s career in the Omacha Foundation, as she went on to become the coordinator of the Puerto Nariño border area.
Lilia shares with Aldo Curico, her husband, that vocation for care. Lilia and Aldo have been living together for 13 years, and together they pass on their knowledge to their three children while sharing the conservation project. Lilia has added Aldo as a partner in the environmental fight and protection of the territory. He knows about the reproduction areas of aquatic fauna and also accompanies her on the long days dedicated to caring for the animals.
This allows both of them to carry their family forward, and Lila can reconcile her role as a mother of a family and her professional performance as an environmental leader while encouraging other indigenous women to do the same, and join the fight to conserve wildlife and prevent climate change, which is already affecting the territory.
The struggle of the indigenous women here is long and tough. An area of fabulous natural beauty, this Tikuna land has recently been subjected to tourist exploitation, which has brought a degree of prosperity and has led to a proliferation of illegal activities of all kinds. The most painful and perverse of these have to do with the trafficking of children, child prostitution, and indigenous adolescent youth, who can find themselves assaulted by devious tourists and other unscrupulous people.
Only last year, several individuals involved in the sexual exploitation of Colombian, Peruvian and Brazilian girls and adolescents were arrested in Puerto Nariño. The porosity of the border, and the ease with which national jurisdiction can change crossing the river, which is 15 minutes by canoe, enables criminal impunity.
The same is true for the illegal trafficking of wood. It does not seem to be a large-scale activity, but boat after boat loaded with wood goes down the Amazon, crossing borders and breaking regulations. Pirarucu fishing, an Amazon fish, is another example: Banned at times in Colombia but not in Brazil or Peru, its tasty flesh is consumed on all sides of the border as well, making it virtually impossible to determine its nationality.
Covid-19 and its uncontrollable strength
But the Covid-19 disease, which has arrived in all its uncontrollable might in the Amazon, has added even more uncertainty to these already overly complex dynamics. More than 350 deaths and almost 15,000 infected (data as of July 30) are the preludes to what may end up happening in the border territory where Lilia and her family live.
In addition, the restriction of mobility has caused the environmental controls on the tributaries to decrease notably. Now, the challenge as a community has been to protect ourselves in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
"At first it was a nightmare for us, especially to hear that it was a disease that had no cure. But we are treating ourselves with leaves and bark of plants," says Lilia, clinging to her faith in ancestral knowledge and belligerent spirit of these indigenous communities for whom, since the times of the conquest, resisting is existing.
Despite all the insecurities lying on this remote territory, Lilia is determined to defend, day after day, the forest and the water world within it. A few days later, she handles the small manatee to be taken to Letizia, the busy capital of this cross-border region, where they have better facilities to take care of it.
Shamans say that entering the water is like raising a curtain and coming out on the other side. It's like going through the door to another world, as one would do with yagé (ayahuasca). And Lilia knows that this world is moving away from these territories at an already unreachable speed.
But she also knows that there is still an opportunity for water, wildlife, and the rainforest to preserve a universal harmony that was, in the past, their only nature. That is why she stands up. That is her struggle.
This article, originally published in El País, belongs to a series about defenders of the forests that can be visited following this link. The series started in Brazil and Ecuador and now continues in Colombia. It is a project of openDemocracy / democraciaAbierta, and has been carried out with the support of the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Journalism Fund.