Sandra Domicó (center) leading a community meeting with other women
Sandra Domicó (center) leading a community meeting | Credit: Camila Solano

Indigenous Women Who Shine to Protect Forests in Colombia

By Helena Andrade, Mario González, Luis Fernando Jara

When Sandra Domicó began attending community meetings, her shyness kept her from speaking. When given the opportunity, she would laugh nervously and reflexively cover her mouth with her hands. But this young, Indigenous woman and mother always had something to say, so she wanted to learn how to overcome her fears. 

Domicó and other Indigenous women of the Embera Katio ethnic group in the Municipality of Mutatá, Antioquia, Colombia, have taken care of the children, run their households, worked in the “chagra” (garden plot), and passed on their ancestral knowledge of living in and with forests for generations. The stability of communities and their culture have depended on them.

The Indigenous groups of Colombia are no longer isolated, even if some still have limited command of the Spanish language. They now maintain economic, institutional, cultural, and political relations with the rest of the country. And the environmental challenges of climate change are making it necessary to develop new skills, participate in decision-making and negotiation processes, and learn the dynamics of the larger Colombian society to be able to protect their territories.

USAID’s Páramos and Forests Activity and the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program are helping these women and their communities manage and protect their lands. REDD+ is a voluntary carbon market mechanism that offers compensation for the protection of large tropical rainforest areas in order to avoid greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation and forest degradation. It has been good business for the Indigenous communities of Mutatá, but it requires the active participation of all community members; people must get involved, learn, make decisions, and build relationships at many levels.

The Páramos and Forests Activity focuses its efforts on encouraging alternative activities to timber harvesting, as well as the promotion of territorial governance through training and education, particularly for women. The Activity worked with the Cabildo Mayor Indígena of Mutatá Municipality, which includes three Indigenous reservations and 14 councils, to design a capacity-building plan for Embera Katio women. So far, 114 women have participated in the resulting 52 trainings, including cacao cultivation and processing, an agroecological approach to agriculture crops and silvopastoral system, socio-entrepreneurial skills, carbon monitoring, biodiversity, and communications. These trainings have strengthened their skills, improved their ability to generate income, and empowered them to participate in community management decision-making processes at different levels. 

After two years of training, Domicó has overcome her fear of public speaking. Today she is a facilitator and translator for Education for Conservation (environmental education) events for women and other members of the communities, and she is also proficient on computers, which she uses for her written reports.


Argelia Bailarín with a cacao pod.
Argelia Bailarín with a cacao pod.

Domicó is not alone in showing this improvement. Argelia Bailarín, part of a group that manages the community silvopastoral system, received entrepreneurial training and was able to travel to France to learn more about fine chocolate-making, which she brought to her community to improve the processing of the cacao they grow. María Liliana Pernía participated in the biodiversity monitoring training process and is now a REDD+ promoter and the Governor of the Cañaduzales Community. Wallyrudau Domicó, no relation to Sandra, is another REDD+ promoter who has been trained in biodiversity monitoring and represents Embera Katio women of the Consejo Mayor Indígena de Mutatá.

In all, between 2019 and 2022 USAID’s Páramos and Forests Activity has trained 12,955 people, 5,108 (39.4 percent) of which are Afro-Colombian and Indigenous women.

The protection of forests turns out to be much more complex than just stopping tree felling. It involves the active participation of communities that have lived off them for centuries and will continue to depend on them. Through Páramos and Forests and REDD+, women in these communities are gaining the skills to ensure this comes to pass.



Strategic Objective
Climate Change Integration, Conflict and Governance, Indigenous, Natural Climate Solutions, Climate Change Courses
Latin America & Caribbean
Helena Andrade Headshot

Helena Andrade

Helena Andrade is an anthropologist with a Masters in education and an emphasis on community education and development. For 16 years, she has worked with USAID projects all around Colombia, monitoring the impact levels, processes, and products of international cooperation programs. She also works on gender issues and productivity projects with the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.


Mario González

Mario González

Mario González has 28 years of experience in environmental and development issues. He is a journalist and has an MSc in environmental management. He has worked in the environmental sector in National Parks, and on special projects with United Nations (ONU REDD+), Conservation International, European Union, and USAID, as communications coordinator, video producer, photographer, writer, and editor, among others.

Luis Fernando Jara Headshot

Luis Fernando Jara

Luis Fernando Jara is Chief of Party of USAID’s Páramos and Forests activity. He is a forestry and climate change expert with 45 years of experience in project design and management, capacity building, and development of the forestry sector across the climatically diverse regions within Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Perú, Ecuador, and other parts of Latin America. He has extensive leadership experience in technical and managerial roles with the private sector, local and national governments, international donors, and Indigenous communities. 

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