“We Are the Earth”: How Cooperation with Indigenous Communities Can Change the World

All images by Bruna Brandão, © Instituto Yube Inu

The next instalment of our ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ series takes the form of a special story from Diana Yaka Paris, indigenous activist and force behind the Vivência Mulheres Huni Kuin (Huni Kuin Women’s Journey⁣) in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Diana shares the wisdom she has learned on her journey to preserve female ancesteral knowledge from the community, and how these indigenous teachings and beliefs can bring benefit to the whole world.

Sustainability is a global concern regarding the conservation of life on Earth. And in my opinion, the deep-rooted meaning of this word itself requires the rethinking of all social, economic, cultural and environmental dynamics. We can no longer think that sustainability is just about using natural or recycled materials or reducing consumption; already, people and companies are looking for solutions to create more sustainable systems in every area of life.

People are realising that the capitalist system in which we are living is collapsing. It is no longer possible to maintain this lifestyle, consumption and production without causing irreversible damage to the planet and the lives of future generations. It is no accident that more and more young activists are becoming aware and expressing their concern for the future.  

Nonetheless, there are still only a handful of people who look at indigenous populations as a reference when it comes to sustainable solutions. Western society tends to consider itself more developed and advanced, simply because it has economic power and a monopoly on technology. But in reality it is poor, because it denies diversity while destroying and depleting the resources of the entire planet. The people considered ‘undeveloped’ and ‘unscientific,’ on the other hand, have a wealth that goes beyond material things; the wisdom of maintaining life on this planet. If there was a system breakdown, perhaps the only ones able to survive would be the indigenous peoples, as they know the environment around them and know how to extract what they need from it.

There is a view that is shared by many ethnic groups around the world that we are part of the Earth. This belief that we are not just beings that inhabit the planet we live on, but intrinsically united with it in the depths of our being, creates a unique perspective of harmony with the environment. If we are the Earth, taking care of the planet is taking care of ourselves. As we are part of nature and nature is circular, it is essential for societies to be circular too. 

When we change our mindset to see the environment that surrounds us as something made up of individual lives that each hold the same importance as our own, we begin to change a paradigm. The Huni Kuin people of the Brazilian Amazon, for example, assign a spirit to each natural element; there is a forest spirit, a rain spirit, a wind spirit, and an earth spirit. This perspective creates a respectful relationship with the environment, through a theory explained beautifully in the words of the indigenous leader and activist Ailton Krenak: “When we depersonalise the river, the mountain, when we take their senses out of them. Considering that this is the exclusive attribute of humans, we liberate these places so that they become residues of industrial and extractive activities.”

And I’m not just talking about a philosophical view about the relationship with nature. In addition to the spiritual and psychic vision of these communities, they also have systems and technologies that were naturally sustainable and circular long before these concepts existed. Unlike Western societies, it was not necessary to arrive at a global collapse for them to seek to adapt – they have always lived this way for hundreds of generations. Many native peoples across the world have farming systems, architecture and construction, as well as their own production of medicines, utensils and clothing, which are ecological, balanced and humanly ethical. Much of this knowledge is in the hands of women, as they are mainly responsible for all activities that concern life care.

Another element at the core of many native peoples’ way of living is to use only what is necessary to sustain life and social wellbeing. There is no ceaseless accumulation of material goods as there is in Western society. This also has to do with the materials available in nature, which cannot endlessly be maintained. If we look at an indigenous village in the Amazon rainforest for example, we will see that, fundamentally, everything is biodegradable. So, even goods such as a house or clothing have a duration and then they need to be renewed, but this renewal does not leave residues, as the materials degrade and become part of the nature cycle. Harvested food can only be accumulated for one season and seeds kept only until the next planting. 

The vision is not that everyone on the planet starts living in villages in the middle of the forest; this would of course be unsustainable on a global scale. Instead, it’s that we hear the voices of these peoples and understand that they can serve as good exemples for finding global solutions. By combining science and technology with ancestral knowledge, we can create a new system. 

‘Sustainable production’ is no longer enough. We need to invest in regenerative solutions that reverse the environmental damage that we have caused in recent decades. Many indigenous communities are also becoming aware of this fact and working not only in order to preserve their own lands, but for the wellbeing of the planet as a whole. The Ashaninka people of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, for example, created a reforestation project that has already planted more than one million trees and trained thousands of young people. Meanwhile, the women of the Ikpeng people, from the Xingu Indigenous Land in Brazil, are the protagonists of a project that collect native seeds and aims to reforest farms in the region that is dominated by agribusiness. 

Another important initiative is community-based ethnourism, with which I have been working in the last years in partnership with the Yube Inu Indigenous Institute, of the Huni Kuin people in the Amazon rainforest. Unfortunately, most countries do not recognise the importance of traditional communities and have adopted ethnocidal policies, destroying their autonomy and food sovereignty through the seed monopoly and exploiting plant and mineral resources on their land. Instead of creating fair partnerships that benefit all, the majority of companies only appropriate their knowledge and their lands, reproducing the colonial and imperialist system. But this negative news should not paralyse us; it must be the fuel for us to remember the importance of native peoples and each one of us in global change.

Our proposal is to create a positive bridge between people, which in addition to meeting the demands of local communities related to health and infrastructure also promotes the valorisation of indigenous knowledge and the education of Western visitors. Much of my own work also centres around supporting the dreams and initiatives of Huni Kuin women, as I believe that their empowerment is essential in building a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.  As environmental activist Vandana Shiva says, we need to “treat the knowledge systems [of local and tribal communities] as futuristic, not as primitive.” The key word is cooperation; when there is collaboration with these communities, we can, through cultural exchange, create global solutions to the problems we are facing. 

There are many more examples we can learn from, showing how local communities from around the world have created partnerships in the most diverse business areas in favor of a new, more balanced and fair global system. But when it comes to our own lives and businesses, how can each of us begin to establish long-standing, respectful collaborations with traditional communities and indigenous peoples? 

If you have a company that works with clothing, decoration, accessories or design you can look for local communities for partnerships. All native peoples have artisanal techniques with natural materials, and it is possible to join their production in a fair trade network and produce pieces through cultural exchange. There are several brands that act in this way such as Zazi Vintage, Mulheres do Jequitinhonha, ARTESOL, Vibrasohm Ecofashion, and Threads of Peru.

If you work in the food market, on the other hand, you can create partnerships that incorporate the diversity of native products and recognise the importance of local produce. Examples of success in this area are the Baniwa art and pepper projects, the Sanöma Yanomami mushroom, Nusoken’s use of the Sateré Mawé Guarana, and Açaí Tribal force’s partnership with the Ashaninka leader Benki Pianko.

For those in the cosmetics area, you can create partnerships that value traditional knowledge and native plants. There are many sustainable projects for the extraction of vegetable oils and butters. In Brazil, for example, some examples of ethnic groups that work with these products are the Kisêdjê Indians with pequi oil and the Wai Wai, with Brazil nut oil. 

In the case of all of these partnerships, it is important that they not only benefit some individuals, in addition to paying the workers involved. Part of the profit must be invested in collective benefits and needs of the communities, and it is essential that there is transparency and monitoring at all stages of the project. 

Even as individuals, we can help these collaborations to flourish just by changing the ways we live and shop. As a consumer, you can research the origin of your products, and give preference to those who work in partnership with local communities. As a traveler, you can choose itineraries other than conventional tourism and participate in community-based tourism and ethnourism projects. Alongside visiting unusual places and having incredible experiences, you support important initiatives such as The Huni Kuin Gathering and the Huni Kuin Women’s Journey.

Last but not least, as a human being, you can also donate or collaborate in different ways with projects that exist for the benefit of these communities and the preservation of their lands, which are fundamental to maintaining the climatic balance and biodiversity on the planet. And most importantly of all, you can research and meet the people of the world and hear what they have to say, sharing that knowledge with those close to you too.