Colombian ethnologist emphasises wide diversity of cultures

Climate change is not just ‘a white man’s project’, Martin von Hildebrand tells Galway gathering

 Martin von Hildebrand: spearheading what may be the world’s largest protected area extending across the Amazon basin from the Andes to the Atlantic. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Martin von Hildebrand: spearheading what may be the world’s largest protected area extending across the Amazon basin from the Andes to the Atlantic. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Climate change can only be tackled if it is “not just a white man’s project”, leading Colombian ethnologist and Irish graduate Dr Martin von Hildebrand has said.

Speaking in Galway in advance of a talk in Dublin this weekend, von Hildebrand notes that there are more than 4,000 cultures on the planet and says it would be wise to consult them on the issue.

“We cannot just hope to find a solution within the culture that precipitated the problems in the first place,” he observes.

A Colombian national with a Sligo-born mother, von Hildebrand is spearheading the creation of what may well be the world’s largest protected area, extending across the Amazon basin from the Andes to the Atlantic.

“Already, nearly 50 per cent of the entire Amazon basin is protected,” von Hildebrand says, describing the work of the Gaia Amazonas foundation, which he initiated 25 years ago to protect the Amazon rainforest. “If this project comes to fruition, it will be a first step towards collective protection of biodiversity and reduction of emissions,”he says.

Underpinning it is his conviction that respect for indigenous language and culture is directly linked to protection of the environment.

Since he lived with Amazonian Indians in the 1970s, Von Hildebrand has dedicated his life to working for the rights of ethnic minorities. As director of Colombia’s office of indigenous affairs from 1986, he negotiated the return of some 26 million hectares of rainforest.

This “mosaic” of protected areas, comprising about 12 per cent of Colombian Amazon territory, has its own system of devolved government. It involves some 65,000 indigenous people, speaking 55 languages.

Even as Colombia has been synonymous with violence and political instability, the project has been recognised internationally as creating a “new paradigm”.

Von Hildebrand was conferred in 1999 with the “alternative Nobel prize”, donated by the Right Livelihood Awards Foundation (RLAF) in Sweden.

He studied sociology at University College, Dublin and ethnology at the Sorbonne in Paris.

His older sister, Catherine, married the late Irish Times journalist and writer Breandán Ó hÉithir.

Von Hildebrand will speak, along with Maria Eugenia Florez from Bolivia, at Latin American Solidarity Week’s conference today at EcoUnesco, the Greenhouse, 17 St Andrew Street, Dublin (10am to 1pm). www.lasc.ie