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A fishy tale: Indigenous resource management in the Colombian Amazon


At the entrance to Lake Tarapoto in south eastern Colombia, we stepped on to a balsa -a floating house that rises and falls with the rhythms of the mighty Amazon river which feeds the lake. The balsa is a control point staffed today by three men of the Tikuna indigenous community from where they monitor the catches of fishermen leaving the lake.

Tikuna fishing village © WWF-UKTikuna fishing village © WWF-UK

They were happy to take time to tell us about the problems of over fishing on the lake and how they were going about tackling them through creating locally enforceable regulations. These were simple and included the use of nets that only trap fish above a certain size and a limit on how many fish a spear-fisherman could take in a day. Don Joel – who was acknowledged as the best of Tikuna fisherman – reported that during the three years they had been enforcing and monitoring, they had seen the return of some fish species that had previously disappeared.

However, they were struggling for the financial support needed to continue, which is one reason they might benefit from the exposure the lake and surrounding wetlands would get if included under the RAMSAR convention on wetlands. WWF Colombia is working on that process. As we stood and discussed matters, a launch sped into the lake carrying tourists hoping to catch sight of a dolphin. I couldn’t help wondering if a way could be found for tourist dollars to support the Tikuna’s work.

Later that day, in the largest town of the region – Leticia – we met another group of Tikuna, this time women, who had formed a women’s cooperative to process the fish caught by their community. The original motivation for this was to reduce losses caused by dolphins. River dolphins like taking bites out of fish trapped in nets, but local markets only accept whole fish, not ones with chunks taken out of them.

The Balsa, Amazon, Colombia © WWF-UKThe Balsa, Amazon, Colombia © WWF-UK

The Tikuna women therefore had the idea of processing their fish themselves, making good quality fillets and using any residual to make fishburgers. With the help of Fundación Omacha, a local conservation organisation supported by us, they had gone into business.

The women were paid a wage for spent time processing in the tiny cold-room where I met them, and they can expect a share of profits. It seemed to me that these indigenous women were meeting our ‘modern’ world on their own terms, adapting their villages’ traditional practices to modern conditions. There were problems- such as how to maintain continuous supplies based on a seasonal resource, and despite their best efforts, the only accountant they could find was a man- but at least he was a Tikuna man. Their biggest threat, however, was from low quality farm-produced fish from Vietnam. Yes, Vietnam.

Somehow, processed fish from SE Asia gets all the way to this Colombian outpost deep in the Amazon and still undercuts the local stuff. The benefits of globalization??

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