The stories of a war-scarred Colombian rainforest

Through her research, Kristina Lyons, associate professor of anthropology, is relaying the tales of the land’s suffering, as well as its enduring practical and spiritual importance to its residents.

When Kristina Lyons, associate professor of anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences, visited the Colombian Amazon for the first time in 2004, she felt the ache of environmental pain in her surroundings. She began her quest to relay the story of the land’s suffering, as well as its enduring practical and spiritual importance to its residents.

Kristina Lyons in the Colombian rainforest at left, with Colombians looking at maps at right.
(Left) Kristina Lyons, guardian of La Yegua Stream in La Hojarasca Reserve in Mocoa, Putumayo, March 2023. A guardian is a representative who helps organize protective efforts. (Right) Community mapping of the Mandur River watershed in Galilea, Puerto Guzmán, October 2018. (Images: Kristina Lyons)

This initial visit saw Lyons in the role of a human rights activist, surveying the policy consequences of the U.S. war on drugs. Lyons witnessed firsthand the effects of aerial chemical spraying—geopolitical techniques intended to eradicate illicit crops, but which also greatly affected human and environmental health. She also saw the aftereffects of the detonation of oil pipelines and oil tanker trucks by armed actors.

“Violence—whether acts of brute force, epistemic forms of violence, or through development and infrastructural projects—is never only a human experience. The soils, watersheds, rivers, forests, and more than human beings are also casualties of war, injustice, and dispossession,” says Lyons.

After almost 10 years of research accompanying the life-worlds of small farmers that formed the basis of her book, emerging situations in the territory led Lyons down a new path of research, one that focuses on another vital component of Andean-Amazonian ecosystems: watersheds.“I was on a trip with the National Center for Historical Memory where they were interviewing and filming people about territorial land-based appropriations and dispossession and displacement in regions controlled by FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia],” Lyons says. “I had the chance to speak to a woman who was the president of a rural settlement, and she stepped aside and in a kind of whispered voice pointed out to me how the river that we were standing next to was converting into a sand bank.”

This woman explained to Lyons that the water, which was not only the main source for human and animal consumption but also for transportation, washing, bathing, swimming, and recreation, was being filled with sediment by illegal mining happening at the upper part of the watershed. “She was very clear to me that in any moment, armed actors could come in and annihilate the community and no one would know about it. Hence, why she was so apprehensive about being public about the situation of the river’s degradation and potentially starting conflicts with her neighbors upriver,” says Lyons. This conversation and situation motivated Lyons to find a way to work with the communities of the watershed “with the hope that no community leaders or communities would be alone, vulnerable, and isolated in trying to deal with socio-environmental conflicts that require integral solutions at a watershed scale.”

This goal led to a participatory action-research project called Rivers and Reconciliation, which Lyons launched in collaboration with a local NGO called Fundación ItarKa; an artist, Marco Pinto, artists that founded the organization Mundos de Papel; and the rural communities of the Mandur River watershed, which forms part of the Caquetá River watershed and the macro watershed of the Amazon River.

Read more at OMNIA.