Martin Hildebrand

Gaia Amazonas
Year founded: 

Gaia Amazonas has safeguarded 24 million hectares of the Amazon rainforest in Colombia through the establishment of protected areas managed by indigenous communities.

Focus: Biodiversity, Environment
Geographic Area of Impact: Colombia
Model: Leveraged Non-Profit
Number of Direct Beneficiaries: 18,000 (2009)
Annual Budget: US$ 1,042,605 (2009)
Percentage Earned Revenue: 0%
Recognition: Regional Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Latin America, 2009

The Amazon region is known for its environmental importance. It accounts for 45% of the world’s rainforest cover and is the third largest freshwater source on the planet. But uncontrolled and illegal deforestation is occurring at a rapid pace and contributing to global carbon dioxide emissions. In the Brazilian Amazon alone, approximately 600,000 km2 have been deforested, an area about equal to Spain and Portugal combined. National park systems only cover 9% of the Amazon rainforest, mainly areas rich in biodiversity. It is largely acknowledged that a much larger region must be preserved to stabilize the global ecosystem.

Innovation and Activities
Many different models of rainforest conservation programmes have been carried out in the last few decades. International funding has poured into the region, but often with little effect. Martin von Hildebrand was one of the first to recognize the key role of indigenous communities in preserving their own environment. The Gaia Amazonas Foundation helps these communities gain control of their territories, livelihoods and development based on their traditional knowledge and cultural values.

Under von Hildebrand’s leadership, the foundation has secured 24.5 million hectares of Amazon rainforest from the Colombian government for the 60,000 indigenous inhabitants that live there. In addition, it has helped set up: 16 local indigenous organizations, with legal status and exercising local governance; 84 indigenous community schools; nine indigenous health programmes based on traditional medicine; and official spaces for negotiations between indigenous organizations and government, which has led to the decentralization of state programmes and joint policy decisions.

Gaia Amazonas is also active in a number of networks, including the Consolidation of the Colombian Amazon (COAMA). Leading the Cooperation and Alliance in the North and West Amazon (CANOA) initiative, Gaia Amazonas has improved transboundary coordination between Brazilian and Venezuelan NGOs and indigenous organizations for the conservation of 62 million hectares of Amazon rainforest. The foundation is also a driving member of the Amazon Regional Articulation (ARA) initiative, which develops joint regional strategies to preserve the ecosystem and mitigate climate change.

Gaia Amazonas has transferred its experience to several countries in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana, Ghana and South Africa) through the Gaia Foundation UK and the African Biodiversity Network.

The Entrepreneur
Martin von Hildebrand has dedicated the last 38 years to strengthening the indigenous communities and conservation of the Amazon. In the 1970s he moved from Bogota to the Colombian Amazon to live with and learn from indigenous groups as part of his PhD studies in ethnology. In the 1980s he focused on shaping laws in the Colombian Interior Ministry to grant land rights to indigenous groups, and in 1991, as the coordinator for the Amazon in the president’s office, he secured constitutional support for granting land rights to Colombian indigenous people. In the early 1990s he set up COAMA and Gaia Amazonas to help indigenous groups access and defend their constitutional rights. He is currently working on shaping international frameworks and garnering support to ensure indigenous populations receive a steady income for the environmental services they deliver in the fight against climate change by protecting the rainforest. Martin von Hildebrand is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel Prize”), Operation Hope's Man of the Year 2006, and the 2009 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship.