When Marisela Silva Parra first started exploring the forests near her home in Calamar, Colombia, on the northernmost edge of the Colombian Amazon, it didn’t sit well with her husband. “Love, you know what you have at home,” he would say, asking her to stay.
Silva, 41, is the only female member of a WWF-supported group of local farmers and community leaders who are helping their community realize the value of its natural resources. The group calls themselves Los Exploradores—The Explorers.
Working in twos and threes, The Explorers secure permission to document the forested areas, flora, fauna, and water sources on local farms. “Some people don’t realize the value of the resources they have,” Silva says.
Like her husband, the other women in her community initially disapproved that she was spending time with a group of men and away from her family. “A lot of women said I shouldn’t be doing it, that, because I have to go to meetings and do things, I will lose my husband, I will lose my children,” she says.
But Silva was undeterred. “There is a correlation between wanting to and being able to,” she says.
Even as a schoolgirl, she says she knew her own mind: “I always said what I thought, and what I liked and didn’t like or want.”
Today that confidence serves The Explorers well. As secretary of the group, Silva often takes charge. “I say, ‘Right, guys, everyone get ready, make sure you have your pencils.’ … I get their daily plans and collect them up, mark them, make sure they have recorded everything well, the name, the place we are in, … the whole thing. So, they say I am like the mother hen!”
The farms the group explores lie on the perimeter of Chiribiquete National Park. Home to iconic species such as tapirs, giant otters, woolly monkeys, and jaguars, the park is the world’s largest tropical forest protected area.
Until 2016, which marked the end of a protracted internal armed conflict, the region served as the headquarters of the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). With peace has come the opportunity to do conservation work here for the first time in decades. But the area has also been opened to threats, notably land grabbing by outside interests, with forests being cleared for cattle ranching and illegal mining activities.
“Day after day, what has come our way is the deforestation. Because of this, we know we need to put a stop to the deforestation and, from here on, preserve what we have and reforest parts that were chopped down,” says Silva.
By recording the area’s natural resources in a systematic way, says WWF-Colombia protected areas planning specialist Carlos Mauricio Herrera, explorers like Silva are developing the skills and information that will help protect and restore their forests and help to coordinate local efforts with those of other organizations working throughout the Amazon.
The challenges of working in the area are many, but “the most difficult thing about being an Explorador is the powerlessness,” says Silva—“not being able to make people aware that the reality is bad, that we are harming not only ourselves, as individuals, but everyone else. It is difficult to make people understand that.”
But she believes change is possible, for others as it was for her: “Before, I saw the forest as just a load of trees in a piece of land, without importance … Now, being in the group, Los Exploradores, with the training we have received, you get really happy when you find in the forest these trees that are so beneficial.”
She has seen a change in her husband as well: “He understands it is something I like and that is good, and it would be good for more people to understand it. That we need to care for all this. For nature.”
She has even convinced some of the other women in Calamar to join her in community action. “I say to them, ‘If you want to, you can.’”