Two men stand holding vegetables, backdropped by green mountains
Dailer Montoya, a young farmer and activist from the department of Caquetá, the gateway to the Colombian Amazon. | Photo Credit: ACDI/VOCA

Young Activists Protect Colombia’s Natural Treasures

By Emily Chambard, Jennifer Melin, Alma Gutierrez Bancroft

Colombia’s Constitution of 1991 established the fundamental right to a healthy environment, mandating the Government take actions to protect it. However, despite the reforms prioritizing conservation, some of the most important voices were left out of the country’s conservation efforts: those of the Indigenous people who have historically inhabited and cared for Colombia’s biodiversity. 

Indigenous communities live in some of Colombia’s most remote regions, which gives them a deep understanding of nature’s importance for sustaining life. In fact, Indigenous people protect more than 80 percent of the world's biodiversity. As the need for climate action becomes more pressing with every passing day, young Indigenous people in Colombia have taken up the mantle of advocates for the health and security of their communities and planet. 

Meet Ati 

Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña is a young Arhuaco leader and activist from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia’s highest mountain range and the tallest coastal range in the world. Ati is a proud ally of the USAID Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombian Empowerment Activity implemented by ACDI/VOCA, working at the forefront of the movement for Indigenous rights and responsible environmental management in Colombia.

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A girl in a white dress reads a piece of paper in front of a group of people wearing white outfits and white hats, backdropped by green forest
Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña, a young activist from Colombia, addresses fellow members of the Arhuaco Indigenous community.

Ati's activism is driven by a deep sense of collective responsibility, as she strives to contribute to autonomous, sustainable, and environmentally conscious practices locally and globally. 

Ati credits both her traditional upbringing and university education for getting her to where she is today. On the one hand, the Arhuaco mamos (spiritual leaders) imparted to her a deep understanding of the beauty and laws of nature that guide the governance of their territories. On the other hand, her studies helped her recognize the importance of defending the legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge in mainstream Colombian society and politics.

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Nine women sit on a stage for a panel interview
Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña speaks on a panel at the United Nations’ annual Climate Action Conference with Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Emma Watson, and other youth leaders.

Ati’s work involves analyzing climate change adaptation plans through an ethnic, gender, and peace lens. She has participated in the United Nations’ annual Climate Action Conference, joining youth such as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg in transcending language and cultural barriers to make a unified, resounding call for climate action.

Ati’s words resonate with the wisdom of her people.

It is up to us [the new generations of leaders] to continue creating space so that these struggles and teachings become visible. [Conservation] is not about an individual hugging trees and taking care of nature, but a community process that requires a much broader and more complex approach."

Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña, young Arhuaco leader and activist
Meet Dailer

To the far south of Colombia lies the department of Caquetá, the gateway to the Colombian Amazon. This is where Dailer Montoya Diaz, a participant in the USAID-funded and ACDI/VOCA-led Youth Resilience Activity, calls home.

As a young farmer, agro-industrial engineer, and environmental leader, Dailer’s dream is to expand education and knowledge networks of the Amazon region and transcend national borders.

Like Ati, Dailer believes in the importance of passing down knowledge from the older to newer generations to protect the environment. He seeks dialogue between youth and their elders to foster a culture of conservation.

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on the left, a man holding straw wears a baseball cap speaks with a woman on the right who is wearing a flower headband and blue and white shirt
Dailer Montoya is a young farmer, agro-industrial engineer, and environmental leader who helps share environmental knowledge between generations living in the Amazon region.

Leveraging his platforms and network of youth leaders, Dailer shares stories of Amazonian people who fight to preserve their environment and culture. Through his work with environmental organizations, he brings people together to protect precious natural resources as well as the region’s collective memory. As a youth counselor, he has promoted Colombia’s Laboratory of Innovation for Peace, created in 2024, supporting 30 youth entrepreneurs in Florencia to support conflict resolution.

Ati and Dailer lead extraordinarily different lives, as is fitting for their unique environments. Yet they share the common goal of protecting their lands, peoples, and ways of life.

Their stories are a call to action for all of us to not only live more responsibly but also engage with different generations to build a collective vision of a healthier, sustainable future.


A previous version of this blog was originally published on Exposure.

Country
Colombia
Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration, Mitigation
Topics
Agriculture, Biodiversity Conservation, Climate, Climate/Environmental Justice, Education, Gender and Social Inclusion, Indigenous, Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Youth
Region
Latin America & Caribbean

Emily Chambard

Emily Chambard is ACDI/VOCA Colombia’s Manager of Reporting and Communications, bringing nearly a decade of research, writing, and leadership experience to her role developing reports, work plans, translations, and success stories for programs funded by USAID. Prior to joining ACDI/VOCA, Emily served as a Community Economic Development Volunteer with the Peace Corps on Colombia's Caribbean coast and worked as a Health and Social Impact Associate with the global communications agency Weber Shandwick. She holds a dual degree in International Relations and Spanish from Claremont McKenna College.

Jennifer Melin

Jennifer Melin is a Reporting Specialist for the USAID-funded Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombian Empowerment Activity implemented by ACDI/VOCA in Colombia.

Alma Gutierrez Bancroft

Alma Gutierrez Bancroft is a Reporting Specialist for the USAID-funded Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombian Empowerment Activity implemented by ACDI/VOCA in Colombia.

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