Indigenous Partners in Conservation
Isidoro Hazbun is a conservationist whose career focuses on preserving biodiversity, and empowering communities of the Amazon rainforest that have protected some of the wildest places on earth for centuries.
Many people enter careers in conservation as they want to work with wildlife and are driven by their love for animals or natural habitats. These passions too drove Isidoro, who realized early in his life that cultural and social landscapes are intertwined with wildlife conservation.
He is currently based in Washington D.C where he works as the Manager of Public Affairs and Programs Support at The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), but his work often takes him to South America. Founded by Dr. Mark Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal, ACT is a non-profit that was one of the first to partner with Indigenous communities to protect their land rights in Brazil, Colombia and Suriname. For Isidoro, and for ACT, working with local communities is inseparable from conservation.
ACT has three strategy areas they focus on. Their land focus involves traditional conservation tasks such as biodiversity monitoring and ecosystem mapping, as well as land titling. Their livelihoods focus involves helping communities develop sustainable income, such as creating value chains or installing solar panels for clean and independent energy sources. Finally, their governance focus develops strong and inclusive decision-making processes within the community, improving their resilience to third parties that would encroach.
His path to ACT
Isidoro grew up in Colombia. With family ties in rural areas, he always felt connected to nature. This is where he developed an interest in zoology and biology. In this landscape, Colombia’s inequity was hard to ignore and he came to realise that biodiversity was not just a scientific issue, but a social one as well.
He explains, “Indigenous people hold 80% of biodiversity, but just 5% of the territories in absolute terms. These are the most intact landscapes, and they have a fundamental role in conservation.”
After studying environmental policy at Virginia Tech, where he was inspired by the late John O. Browder’s research on land use change in South America, he returned to Colombia where he worked in natural parks and a local museum in his hometown. This work further highlighted the role of local communities in conservation. His graduate studies took him to the United States again, where he studied political ecology at Harvard under Theodore Macdonald.
While at Harvard, he began working for a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Cultural Survival, deepening his experience in the global Indigenous rights movement. From there, he went on to work with the UN, where emphasis was increasingly put on the role that land and forest rights had in conservation. His role at ACT would become his next, where he has been ever since.
As the Program Liaison for the Northwest Amazon region at ACT, Isidoro’s daily activities include monitoring, gathering data, and data analysis. He also points out two skill areas that conservationists may overlook, but are critical in the field:
Although these skills may be seen as less important by aspiring conservationists, fundraising skills are essential as many conservation organizations are dependent on outside funds. This is especially true in Colombia, where NGOs rely a lot on international donors. Communication and storytelling are also key skills that bring conversationists’ work to life for the public.
Isidoro does a lot of desk work from his office in D.C., but when he is in the field, he focuses on activities that empower local communities. This includes facilitating workshops, training, and helping Indigenous organisations with the administrative and financial aspects of capacity building.
An important element of this capacity building effort is developing “Life Plans” or “Planes de Vida” in Spanish. It is an Andean term that refers to a long-term community development and envisioning plan. The process gets members to think about where they want the territory to be in 5 or 10 years.
These communities are often thinking in terms of short-term survival needs, so engaging in long-term strategic planning is especially important. This process helps them to think through and develop consensus around what their needs are and what they want, preparing them to engage more productively with NGOs and governments. The process is essential for building empowerment, which is especially challenging for remote communities.
This process is also susceptible to the pitfalls of power dynamics, which needs to be managed productively and inclusively in a culturally sensitive way. This is just one of the reasons that knowing how to effectively work with people across cultures is essential for effective conservation.
The highlights and the challenges
Isidoro loves the continuous learning curves this position brings through working with cultures very different from his own.
“We’ll never really know their experiences…it’s a whole different dynamic!”
Likewise, the world of conservation is full of mysteries and a wealth of things to learn. That is especially true of the rainforest, which has been under studied.
Isidoro also loves being a facilitator and translator between cultures. Coming from a Colombian background, but having lived in multiple parts of the United States too, he is frequently in a role of assisting inter-cultural dialogue.
The challenging aspect of this work for him is the immense scale of the problem. It is easy to feel ineffective in the face of it.
“We’re a small NGO. We’re not going to solve everything,”
Among the most painful of these challenges has been the community members lost to Covid. In remote areas where misinformation floated widely, the scars from the pandemic have been deeply felt.
As he says, “[Covid] took a lot of friends from us”.
These scars extend to the economic upheaval that Covid caused, which has led to an increase in violence leveraged against environmental defenders. Isidoro explains that the Amazon Rainforest is a major trafficking thoroughfare for smugglers of illegal products, such as Cocaine. This leaves Indigenous peoples and environmental defenders vulnerable to violence from Brazilian gangs, Colombian Guerrillas, or other organized crime groups. It is important for aspiring conservationists to recognize that this work is not for the faint of heart.
Yet, Isidoro points out that seeing these challenges also highlights the resilience of these communities. They have witnessed everything from colonisation, to organized violence, to Covid; yet, they are still there and practicing traditional ways of knowing. Groups like ACT, and people like Isidoro, intend to ensure that they can continue when there are no shortages of challenges that threaten their way of life.
Isidoro is most proud of the land rights work at ACT. The organisation has been able to place one million hectares of Indigenous lands back within Indigenous ownership. This has not only connected a lot of biologically diverse landscapes, but has also been a victory for human rights.
ACT has begun focusing on this issue in Suriname, where no Indigenous land rights exist. ACT is working on demonstrating, from their success in Colombia, why Indigenous and community land rights matter for everyone.
In fact, when I spoke with him, Isidoro had recently returned from Suriname as part of this endeavour. He is also especially proud of their ability to bring solar panels to communities in Colombia and Suriname and other tribes of the Amazon.
In contrast to the very long-time horizons most their work entails, bringing solar panels to communities has led to tangible and immediate results in the form of energy security. For those that have always had energy available, it is easy to overlook the significance of being able to turn the lights on at night. This also has improved health outcomes as burning wood generates poor air quality, which has compounded the health impacts of Covid.
Advice for beginning conservationists
While education can be helpful in some respects, he emphasized the importance of getting hands-on experience, especially for those early in their career. Education can teach theory, but experience will expose you to the realities and complexities that arise in real life and uncover skills that you may not realise you need until you are in the field.
Isidoro’s work at ACT illustrates how complex interconnected issues of conservation can be. Solutions to them are unlikely to be found in a text book.
Discover the top conservation skills employers want – including the Fundraising and Communication skills Isidoro recommends – in an analysis of nearly 30,000 conservation jobs, from over 100 countries.
Author Profile | Kate Leftin
Kate Leftin is currently getting her Masters of Natural Resources in Virginia Tech’s Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability and is based in Fairfax, Virginia. In addition to her role as a blogger for Conservation Careers, she is a volunteer research assistant with The Nature Conservancy. She also coordinates the onboarding team for her local chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, after initiating this team in the fall of 2021.