528 years ago today, Columbus and his fleet set foot on the Americas, on what is today known as the Bahamas. More than five centuries later, this event continues to generate discussion about how such a significant date should be commemorated. Currently, anti-racial discrimination movements are emerging in many parts of the world, questioning the historical role of colonizers, slavers and European explorers. It is necessary to reflect on what we remember today. The “discovery” of America, the arrival of Columbus, or International Day of the Race is what has generally been celebrated on this day. More progressive circles, however, have started decades ago to commemorate the date as the day of the original peoples and intercultural dialogue, day of the struggle of native Americans against the Spanish conquistadores, or simply as Indigenous Resistance Day.
In 2020, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, this reflection gains new importance. It is not the first time that indigenous communities in the Amazon are affected by an imported disease. Since the time of European conquest of the Americas, various waves of diseases introduced by the colonizers have had devastating effects on the indigenous populations, dramatically reducing their numbers in the Amazon region. Some of these traumatic encounters still survive in these peoples’ collective memory in the form of stories. The Kukama-Kukamiria people remember that smallpox, personified in white-hooded ghost-like creatures, came down the river in long canoes. When people saw them, they escaped into the jungle, leaving their houses and animals behind.
Today, in the 21st century, when humanity believes that we have reached unprecedented control over nature, thanks to technology and science, the Corona pandemic reminds us of our limits and fragility. The so-called “invisible enemy” has spread around the world at extraordinary velocity, taking advantage of the great mobility of a globalized world. Beyond its seductive promises of development and progress, the deep gaps, inequalities and contradictions of the socio-economic model that we have built are being exposed by the pandemic in all their magnitude. “The injustices have been revealed.”
Once again, indigenous peoples face an epidemic in a situation of extreme vulnerability. Basic health and other public services are almost non-existent in their communities. The pandemic hits them as health conditions are already precarious, due to the prevalence of childhood anaemia and widespread tropical diseases such as dengue or malaria. protección social.
The impact of Covid-19 on Amazonian communities is potentially disastrous and, at the same time, difficult to assess. Taking into account that the disease seems to be most harmful to the elderly, there is a high risk of losing invaluable ancestral knowledge preserved and passed on by them. From the economic perspective, the increasing dependence on external products and trade means that many communities face serious difficulties in obtaining certain foods, fuel or essential tools. Another consequence is that families struggle to economically support the studies of their children.
Against this backdrop, without ceasing to claim their basic rights and demand support from the authorities, indigenous peoples have organized themselves to face the disease: they have closed access to their territories and have isolated themselves in their houses or on their farms (often some distance away from their homes), and have resorted to traditional medicine whose power resides in the “mothers” or protective spirits of the plants. Remedies based on the matico tree (Piper aduncum), ginger, a local variety of garlic, huito, lemongrass, lime, or onion, among others, are helping many people to cope with Covid-19, reduce symptoms and avoid worse conditions.
In indigenous worldviews, disease and healing processes take place in the spiritual world. The well-being and health of a person, or of a community, are not only matters of the physical body, but depend on the relationships between humans and other beings of nature, personified in what indigenous peoples may call “mothers” or “dueños” (translated as “owners”). For this reason, shamans and healers ask permission or help from these spirits, invoke their power, dialogue and negotiate with them to restore balance.
Modern science also generates more and more information about the deep interrelationships of natural processes and how the health of ecosystems effects our own well-being. The destruction of natural habitats, the confinement and indiscriminate consumption of animals, the use and abuse of nature without asking permission, without negotiation, without respecting life in its many forms, may be identified by many – in particular indigenous peoples – as the true origin of this pandemic and other global problems that threaten our existence.
The Covid-19 pandemic will pass, but others will follow. It is necessary to learn the lesson, to listen to the voices of elders, wisdom keepers and researchers, to indigenous cosmovisions and science. There are no excuses. It is not merely a question of medicines or vaccines; we have to rethink our relationship with the other beings that we share this planet with. Let us use this traumatic experience of the pandemic in our favour. Today we celebrate interculturality. We honour and value ancestral indigenous knowledge, which makes us remember our origin. An origin in symbiosis with the natural world that surrounds us, that we are a part of, and which provides what we need to live a good life.
By Daniel López, pictures by Alienor de Sas (Instituto Chaikuni)
The Amazon basin is the world’s most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem; in 2 hectares of land, we find more plant and animal species than we find in the entire continent of North America. Hydrological cycles modulated by the trees and rivers of the Amazon also play a key role in regulating weather globally.
Nonetheless, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, where we find widespread deforestation and landscape degradation from commercial resource extraction, Amazonian communities rapidly integrating into the market-economy opt for an unsustainable agricultural method called slash-and-burn or swidden farming, where a piece of pristine forest is razed to the ground, burnt, and replaced by one or two crops.
“A ‘chacra integral’ creates healthy food forests, produces abundance for local communities, counteracts deforestation and soil degradation, and thus helps to combat and mitigate climate change.”
At the Chaikuni Institute, we bridge traditional indigenous land-management techniques with modern permaculture methods in order to develop sustainable, integrated alternatives to land-use. Working together with communities in the Loreto department of the Peruvian Amazon, we are seeking to resuscitate an ancient practice called the “charca integral” – the ‘holistic’ garden. As an alternative to slash-and-burn, the chacra integral offers a method of land-use that does not burn the cut vegetation. In this system, communities plant a great variety of different edible fruit trees, hardwood trees, and other useful plants in highly biodiverse plots of land. A chacra integral creates healthy food forests, produces abundance for local communities, counteracts deforestation and soil degradation, and thus helps to combat and mitigate climate change.
“At our permaculture centre, situated on the lands of our sister organization the Temple of the Way of Light, in the lower Nanay River basin in the Peruvian Amazon, we offered a ten-day capacity building workshop to a diverse group of over 30 people; women, men, and youth from 3 neighbouring communities.”
Over the course of the last year or so, we have been able to sustain continued training and implementation of permaculture workshops, including the participation of indigenous leaders and local farmers from surrounding communities. At the beginning of March, our latest ten-day training offered a deeper look into the chacra integral system, and more specifically a method called “agrofloresta” -or syntrophic farming– under the masterful guidance of Tierra Martinez, founder of the Ná Lu’um permaculture Institute and one of the leading permaculture experts in Latin America. At our permaculture centre, situated on the lands of our sister organization the Temple of the Way of Light, in the lower Nanay River basin in the Peruvian Amazon, we offered a ten-day capacity building workshop to a diverse group of over 30 people; women, men, and youth from 3 neighbouring communities.
The agrofloresta method, also known as syntropic agriculture, it is an extremely diverse and productive system of climate- and biodiversity-friendly sustainable farming. Just like a multi-layered rainforest ecosystem. It works with plants that thrive on different levels and in different conditions (high, low, medium-altitude, shade, sun, etc..), each producing food, timber or medicines at different time intervals, assuring a year-round production. Perfectly aligned with our local chacra integral system, we promote the agrofloresta as a part of it.
Finishing the ten days, our team of eighty-plus hands of villagers and Chaikuni staff had left growing three such rich agrofloresta plots. Installed in areas previously degraded by local farming practices, they are bound to grow back to thriving and productive forests. At the Chaikuni Institute, we will continue to spread the knowledge on chacras integrales and the agrofloresta within our neighbouring communities and beyond, to keep creating a movement to regenerate the Amazon.
Text by Sophia Rokhlin and Stefan Kistler, pictures by Alienor de Sas (Chaikuni Institute all rights reserved)