A bridge builder, a gift, and a conservation shift

Lessons learned by the Ofrenda Conservation Alliance while supporting land reunification and reforestation in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range.
A bridge builder, a gift, and a conservation shift

Joshua Dautoff has a true love for national parks. As a kid he saw them as jewels that needed to be preserved and protected. This love was instilled in him each year as his family gathered in Yosemite National Park to take in the beauty of this natural land. He recalls later as an adult feeling a sense of relief seeing parks like Yosemite endure against the backdrop of non-protected lands being purchased for development.

Joshua’s thesis for the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism took him to Colombia where he did a story for the Washington Post.  While there he found himself flying over the Colombian tropical forest enroute to his next interview. He looked down below and was amazed to see something unfamiliar: thick smoke rising in the air as hillsides of mature forest burned, leveled into pastures. This scene did not make sense. He wondered – why is this land worth more as a pasture than a forest?

In 2015, with a desire to help support the conservation work to preserve tropical forest in Colombia, Joshua founded the volunteer-run Ofrenda Conservation Alliance (Ofrenda).  Ofrenda supports the conservation work of the Arhuaco indigenous people to buy back and protect their ancestral land in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.  Engaging with individual and corporate funders in the United States (U.S.), Ofrenda which translates to “offering” is the intermediary between the U.S. funders and the Arhuaco to protect one of our planet’s epicenters of life.  The land that Ofrenda purchases is collectively owned and managed by the Arhuaco community.  They set aside over 70% of the area for forest regeneration and the rest for small-scale sustainable farming, which includes cash crops like cacao and coffee.

Ofrenda’s main charge is to support biodiversity, climate change reduction, and recuperate Arhuaco ancestral land. The Arhuaco have a plan to purchase 250,000 acres and have already purchased 135,000 acres so far with Ofrenda and government funded support. Over the past 5 years Joshua has come to realize his close position to their community is a gift. He is grateful, and it is an immense privilege. Working with the Arhuaco is like working on a team as they try to create more pathways to protect and steward their ancestral home.

“I will always bet on them as a conservation program”

Image 1. Joshua working with the Seykun community in an Arhuaco village. Image courtesy of Joshua Dautoff

There have been two main cultural hurdles Joshua experienced building and launching the Land Trust. Time as a concept is thought about very differently among this community. When he reaches out to communicate, he often does not hear back for several days or weeks. Sometimes a two-month long meeting transpires as the Arhuaco work together in a large group to solve issues. Joshua has felt frustrated and wondered that maybe they do not value his time. Of course, this is not true, often he feels a strong sense of working on a team.

Another cultural hurdle he had to overcome was to learn how the Arhuaco understand the concept of conservation. They believe that they are just one more form of life that exists on the forested mountains. Protecting the ecosystem is rooted in living in healthy relationship with the rest of life.  They see the health of the land intimately connected to the health of their culture, language, spirituality, economy, history, education, and food sovereignty.  They do not abide by the conservation model used at places like Yosemite National Park which was created to protect land from the very society that created the park.  Joshua has worked hard to unpack and re-learn that the national park model, he was accustomed to, did not apply here.

Image 2. The Arhuaco are experts in conservation because they view their relationship with their ancestral land as the foundation of their culture. Graphic courtesy of Joshua Dautoff

“I had to shift my thinking to a different model of conservation, one the Arhuaco have known for so long. I started to understand that the concept of conservation is all about humans’ relationship to the rest of life on earth.”

Regarding Ofrenda’s experiences with fundraising, Joshua has not found differences between what the community needs and Ofrenda’s fundraising needs.  They have been rather lucky on that front.  Where it can be challenging is to get donors to have confidence in the Arhuaco people and the service they are providing our planet.  For many potential donors there is a lack of familiarity. So, it is a big ask to get folks to become involved in a foreign culture in a foreign land with organizations they may not have heard of before.  Fortunately, the Arhuaco people and the work they are doing is rather exceptional and this makes all the challenges worthwhile.

“We most often support what we trust and where we have an emotional connection.”

A few years ago, Joshua scheduled meetings with Executive Directors (ED’s) of two impactful nonprofits for advice on building the Land Trust. The first ED advised us to identify donors among large organizations and appeal to their willingness to help Ofrenda’s reforestation goals. The second ED was more methodical and encouraged him to apply to grants through large and small foundations. Through experience, Joshua grew to see his role as fundraiser slightly differently, as that of a bridge builder and storyteller. The Arhuaco-Ofrenda connection enables Joshua to be a bridge builder between people who have economic resources in the U.S. and want to help the Arhuaco’s conservation work in the Sierra Nevada de Marta.

Image 3. An infographic of Ofrenda’s Land Trust model, process, and status. Graphic courtesy of Joshua Dautoff

Thank you, Joshua, for this interview on your family’s flower farm. It was a beautiful setting to learn about your journey and experiences with Ofrenda in Colombia. The coffee you shared was great too. The WildHub audience’s curiosity is piqued, and I hope you will garner new connections. Visit Ofrenda to explore their conservation model and to see how you can help preserve the Arhuaco’s ancestral lands and the tropical forests of the Sierra Nevada de Marta.

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Go to the profile of Ussi Abuu Mnamengi
over 2 years ago

Great job Carolyn, thanks for sharing.

Go to the profile of Carolyn Rosevelt, MSc
over 2 years ago

Thank you Ussi.

Go to the profile of Adam Barlow
over 2 years ago

love this post - thanks for sharing!

Go to the profile of Carolyn Rosevelt, MSc
over 2 years ago

You are welcome Adam, I learned so much during my conversation with Joshua. I hope others are inspired to do similar work and or reach out to Ofrenda as they support conservation work in Colombia.

Go to the profile of Beth Robinson
over 2 years ago

I enjoyed reading this, thanks for sharing.

Go to the profile of Carolyn Rosevelt, MSc
over 2 years ago

Thank you Beth, I hope you are staying safe and well.