Skoll Foundation


Gaia Amazonas

Skoll Awardee(s): Martin von Hildebrand
Award Year: 2009
Issue Area(s) Addressed: Environmental Sustainability

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“Local indigenous peoples are the best stewards of their lands and need to be at the center of environmental sustainability. The cultural and biological diversity of the northwest Amazon rainforest can only be conserved if we empower indigenous peoples to manage their territories sustainably.”

Sub-Issue: Arresting Deforestation Climate change and deforestation threaten to convert 30 to 60 percent of the Amazon forest into savannah, with massive impacts on biodiversity.

The Skoll Awardee: In 1971, Martín von Hildebrand traveled to the Amazon for the first time and found a people entirely dominated and exploited by rubber traders and Catholic missionaries. He established an anthropological field center in the heart of the Colombian Amazon, and lived for a decade with indigenous communities, listening to the shamans and elders, men and women, and learning about their relationship with nature, rituals, and ways of healing. After completing a doctorate abroad, he worked with Colombia’s Ministry of Education and was later appointed Head of Indian Affairs. He guided the unprecedented of handing back of 20 million hectares of Amazon rainforest to indigenous inhabitants in 1987. In 1990 he founded Gaia Amazonas to encourage the Amazon’s indigenous population to exercise their newfound rights and self-management of their territories. Gaia Amazonas encourages policy makers to develop alternative natural resource management systems based on indigenous knowledge. Indigenous people regain their rights and lands, manage their own education and health programs and design and implement environmental management plans. At the time of the Award, more than 24.7 million hectares of Amazon forest were in the hands of indigenous peoples, as legal custodians of its biological, cultural and spiritual values, much due to Martín’s efforts.

Impact since joining the portfolio in 2009:

  • More than 80 percent of the Amazon is now protected in indigenous reserves, national parks, and forest reserves.
  • In 2013, Gaia Amazonas and other NGOs were instrumental in getting Colombia’s Chiribiquete National Park expanded from 1.5 million hectares to 3 million hectares (roughly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park).
  • In 2011, 2012 and 2013 Gaia Amazonas’ work led to about a million hectares of new reserves or expansion of existing reserves.
  • Many Gaia indigenous partners are becoming more independent, with indigenous organizations having stronger institutions and better able to negotiate directly with the government.



© 2015 Skoll Foundation.