An Irishwoman’s Diary on Martin von Hildebrand, a hero of the Amazon

Championing an environmental corridor from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean

Martin von Hildebrand graduated from University College Dublin, in that restless year of 1968, and in the early 1970s he took paddle and kayak to the Amazon. Photograph: Gaia Foundation

Martin von Hildebrand graduated from University College Dublin, in that restless year of 1968, and in the early 1970s he took paddle and kayak to the Amazon. Photograph: Gaia Foundation


When Roger Casement exposed the torture, whipping and brandings exercised by British rubber traders in the Putamayo region of Peru in 1910, he forecast that if it took one Irishman to denounce colonial exploitation there, it would take another to come and defend the people of Amazonia.

Séamas Ó Siocháin recorded the quote in his 2008 Lilliput Press biography: “Thank God that I am an Irishman . . . and if these unhappy, these enormously outraged Indians of the Putamayo, find relief at last from their cruel burden, it shall be through the Irishmen of the earth,” Casement wrote.

Dr Martin von Hildebrand has often been described as one of that crew – though a Colombian national with an Austrian father, but with west of Ireland links and a brother-in-law of the late Breandán Ó hÉithir of this parish. His German grandfather, philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, was a critic of Hitler and spent many years fighting the Nazis. Franz von Hildebrand, his only son, moved to Colombia in 1949 with Deirdre Mulcahy, his Sligo-born wife.

Reared in what is now a law faculty – his parents had been invited to set up the University de los Andes in Bogotá – Martin came to Ireland to study sociology.

He graduated from University College Dublin, in that restless year of 1968, and in the early 1970s, he took paddle and kayak to the Amazon.

There, he heard stories from the Tanimuka and Letuama indigenous communities – about the 20 different seasons in the year, each named after a harvested fruit, and about the rituals associated with the mountains and riverscape. When asked about his world, he would relate Greek myths. He detected real fears about loss of culture, due to the twin influences of the rubber trade and missionary schools.

Martin returned home and came back with a plan – one which involved establishing community co-ops to fetch a better price for rubber down-river in Brazil. He also believed that the communities required land title if they were to protect themselves from the impact of colonisation, deforestation and exploitation.

In his mind’s eye, he could see a map along the Amazon forest , equivalent to the size of Britain. That was back in 1978. Sure enough, from 1986 to 1990, when he served as director of the Colombian office of indigenous affairs, some 20 million hectares of rain forest was returned to the Amazonian peoples. He recalls that “they were very puzzled by this concept when I tried to explain it, telling me that the land belonged to the animals and the birds”.

In 1994, he established the Gaia Amazonas foundation, nurturing locally-governed systems of education, justice and health. Some 65,000 people speaking 55 different languages are now guardians of 55 per cent of the Colombian Amazon. For his work, he has received many awards, including the Right Livelihood Awards Foundation’s “alternative Nobel” for the environment in 1999.

The project hasn’t been without opposition. Catholic missionaries were among the early critics. Much of the forest was occupied by Farc guerrillas. With indigenous leaders he engaged in direct negotiations, taking advantage of a government peace dialogue in 1999.

There are still challenges – the subsoil belongs to the state, which allows for mineral exploitation of lucrative resources such as coltan, used for microchip processors in weapons and mobile phones. A moratorium on mining has since been declared, while the government researches potential minerals, and communities research their environment and their culture.

Martin has passed over management of the foundation to his son, and plans to write. However, about three months ago, he began thinking about another map – this time one far more extensive than in 1978. He has now enlisted the support of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos for an “environmental corridor” from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Amazon has often been described as the world’s lung, but it is like a heart pumping humidity,” he explains . “This 135 million hectare corridor, half of which belongs to indigenous communities, could be the world’s most important ecosystem right along the Equator. Santos wants to offer it as a joint proposal at the climate summit in Paris later this year.”

The success of this “new paradigm”, as he describes it, will depend on neighbours’ support, as 62 per cent runs through Brazilian territory, with 34 per cent through Colombia and 4 per cent through Venezuela. “The mosaic of protected areas we have established already means that for Colombia there is no economic loss,” he says.

Martin firmly believes that tackling climate change “cannot be left to the white man”. There are “4,000 different cultures on the planet”, he says, and it is “time we all begin to listen . . .”