Mike McColm, Ethnology

Letter of support from Michael McCombs, Ethnologist

Michael McColm, PhD Development Director, Yakom Foundation 2 Barker Close, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4ET, UK Casa 6, Calle Terere, Tena, Napo, Ecuador

Andrea (Drea) Burbank, MD CEO, Savimbo Inc. Carrera 6 - Numero #3-21 Villagarzon, Putumayo, Colombia

Dear Dr. Burbank,

I am writing in support of the Savimbo methodology, which directly values Indigenous knowledge in general, and which in particular can recognize, how Siekopai routines, and beliefs can be integrated into a program which provides economic incentives for protecting forest and culture. There are various Savimbo activities consonant with their culture of forest excursions, such as camera trapping and video which could be effective at replacing hunting, if these present a comparable or better economic incentive. In addition, the use of Chaos theory provides the best theoretical framework I have seen for developing a culture-based credits program, being able to describe the complex Siekopai culture.

The Siekopai in Ecuador, numbering about 750 people, maintain 48,000 hectares of some of the most species rich forests in the Amazon. There is a complete suite of Amazon wildlife, including Jaguars and Harpy Eagles, and botanists on average find 200 tree species, 10 cm. in diameter or greater on one hectare permanent plots. Mahogany (Sweitenia macrophylla) a Cites List 2 species is one of the enormous trees found in this important forest. Moreover, there are over 6000 hectares of Morete Palm swamps, and individual Morete trees provide habitat and food for over 800 species of animals.

I am also writing this letter in support of the Siekopai people to receive financial support for biodiversity credits. From my point of view, the world owes the Siekopai a debt of gratitude. The Siekopai tell us that without their forest they cannot be Siekopai. From Yakum time-series maps we made in 2022, we found that the Siekopai have effectively, and without help, halted a tidal wave of industrial driven deforestation. In other words without the Siekopai, the 48,000 hectares of forest they protect with their cultural routines, intellectual tradition, and with organized patrols, would have disappeared long ago. Their history, legends, their well-being as Siekopai, deeply depends upon their forest. The Siekopai and their forest due to numerous threats now depend upon the world taking action in an effective manner.

The 175 Remolino, Siekopai people, who consider themselves in danger of cultural extinction. Their intellectual tradition, their interpretation of the world in general and their daily routines are directly linked to maintaining their forest. In their daily lives, there are many intrusive influences which work to erode their culture and cut their forests, coming from government institutions, petroleum companies, and market forces.

The Siekopai do have ways to renew and refresh their culture. One way is spending time in the forest. Routine family, individual, or territorial defense group forays into the forests offer good opportunities for photographing and making videos of their forests and the most vital species to generate revenues. The Siekopai also hold an annual cultural renewal event each year in August, during the dry season, when their protective spirits are watching over them from nearby tree tops.

The Siekopai consider traveling with their family and sometimes with two families their favorite way to spend time. They will travel for 5-7 days at a time on canoes up through the labyrinth of streams which meander across their lands once and sometime twice each month. These trips cross the entire territory and provide for very effective “cultural ecosystem monitoring.”

While fishing, collecting honey, mushrooms, and medicines in their forests, the Siekopai can “really be” Siekopai, and they refresh and recharge as people, by speaking their language, wearing their traditional tunics and face make-up, and eating Siekopai food. Families also travel with Casabe bread flour which they reconstitute with water to make Casabe bread, to eat with fish and other forest products. There is a constant and lively communication network between families in the community about the status and conservation of the forest and all the life within as a result of these family trips.

Individuals also enter the forests for one day of hunting of deer and wild peccary. Switching hunting for photography of sentinel species, for income could alter this routine. The Siekopai also maintain extensive fishing nets along their waterways, so while collecting fish on a daily basis, they are also monitoring their forest.

The Siekopai maintain organized forest patrols and on two occasions over the last five years they have responded as a large group, to expel two groups of armed and violent Colombian invaders. Additionally, the Yakum Foundation has installed internet in the community on which the Siekopai can access Global Forest Watch alerts to also contribute to their monitoring.

Four years ago Yakum carried out a social mapping project. During the earliest activities we found that young people were quick to master the use of new technology but did not know their forests. In contrast, the community elders knew the forest like the “back of their hand.” Noting both trends, we set up a method of “two way knowledge exchange” throughout this monthly mapping project. The elders would direct the younger field groups one where to go in the forest to photograph and map hundreds of places of cultural importance, and in turn the younger people helped teach the elders how to use GPS units and computer applications for mapping.

The Siekopai are constantly harassed by oil and African Palm growing companies and miners, which grossly pollute their main river, the Aguarico. Resulting from all the Siekopai cultural and forest protection mechanisms, the tree felling rate inside Siekopai territory is one tenth of the rate outside.

The Yakum Foundation has been collaborating with the the Siekopai to develop “food forests” based on the ancestral Siekopai home garden models for five years. During 2022 I dedicated time and resources to interviewing the vast majority of the Siekopai in Remolino, verified information with focus groups, and full community assemblies, to construct a detailed understanding of their empirical and interpretive culture, and to develop a Siekopai proposal for cultural and forest conservation.

I have been an advocate for Indigenous cultural and forest conservation since 1993, and have carried out ethnographic research since the late 1980s, and employed a participant observation method for my PhD dissertation at the University of California for developing a process theory on time in organizations finished in 1992.

This ethnographic methodology provides us with the knowledge to integrate biodiversity monitoring of key species with Siekopai routines, pacing, beliefs, and culture to guarantee a solid credit initiative. Our Yakum monitoring team is able to set up quantitative and map monitoring to compliment qualitative data.

In late 2022, Siekopai focus groups and the Remolino community assembly, wrote the language for a forest-culture conservation proposal, for forming a legal association, for receiving potential “credit payments” and an signed agreement to protect their forest and culture. We are also developing community monitoring and reliable community accounting, harmonious with the Savimbo method for credit payments. Yakum has also obtained temporary funding for 18 months, to provide useful “universal” payments 135 adults in Remolino, which has helped us move forward on community accounting reliability.

Based on Ecuadorian law we think that the Siekopai have rights to receive funds for their protection and their right to enjoy their forests. Yakum will carryout a land tendency study to determine legal-jurisdiction boundaries between Siekopai communities to provide further legal backing for a future proposal.

The Siekopai will defend their forests with their lives, because without their forests they cannot be Siekopai. We need to act.


Dr. Michael McColm Development Director-Yakum Foundation

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