The Human Wealth of the Amazon
On March 23, I was on a panel at the UBC Museum of Anthropology with the five remarkable people in the photo. We were discussing a stimulating and moving exhibition called The Rights of Nature, focussed on artifacts from the Amazon basin — and on the recognition by some regional governments of the legal rights of Pachamama, the complex and sophisticated Andean conception of Mother Nature. I was there because some of our Green Interview videos were incorporated into the exhibition; Chris Beckett and I had interviewed some major figures from the region about these very themes.
For me, however, the exhibition underscored how little I know about the incredible richness and diversity of the region, both in human and biological terms – the incredible array of plants and animals, but also the vast range of human experience. The region has 385 Aboriginal groups, some of which have never been contacted. They have lived there for 11,000 years, and their relationships with their forest world are as therapeutic for the spirit as some forest plants are for the body.
To start with, for them the forest is not merely physical – a “resource” or a set of resources. It is their habitat, their fundamental reality, the home of their spirits. Without it, they would be lost, which is why Indigenous cultures in the region have been going extinct as mining, logging and oil exploration have ravaged their terrain. That’s also why Indigenous people everywhere will fight to the death for the well-being of their territory; they are responsible for and to their land in a mutual relationship that largely defines who they are.
As a result, Amazonian ways of seeing the world can be totally surprising to the Western mind. Here’s one example, from a group called the Ashaninka, a nation of perhaps 40,000 people whose territory straddles the boundary between Peru and Brazil. The Ashaninka see the world as several superimposed levels, some visible and some not. Some of the levels can be seen only by the animals, notably the birds. Reality is complex, fluid, multi-layered and inclusive. All else aside, it is much more interesting, much more human, than the one-dimensional world of commerce and industry.
Now look at Bolivia and Ecuador, which call themselves “plurinational states” — states that contain many different nations. So do Canada and the US, which do not call themselves “plurinational,” though I believe they should. We tend to think of “nations” as synonymous with nation-states, a notion that crumbles on analysis. A nation is a group of people who share a culture, a language, a system of governance and so on; a state is defined by a boundary that can be drawn by anyone with sufficient power. “National” boundaries in the Middle East and Africa were largely drawn by European colonial powers, for instance, and commonly ignore the traditional boundaries recognized by the inhabitants.
What if we thought of nationhood the way the Ashaninka think of the world itself, as superimposed interactive levels? The territory where I live is the province of Canada known as Nova Scotia – but it’s also part of the traditional French-speaking territory known as Acadia, and of Mi’kma’ki, the large Mi’kmaq territory that includes most of the Maritime provinces, a bit of Maine and a large swath of Quebec. What if we recognized different governments as having jurisdiction over the same territories – and negotiated the issues where all three groups had shared interests, while respecting their independence in other matters?
It sounds radical, but in fact we do something like it now; I am simultaneously a citizen of Richmond County, Nova Scotia and Canada, and each of those jurisdictions governs different aspects of my life. We also recognize Mi’kmaq jurisdiction in some matters, and accept that Acadians have certain specific rights. If we are truly interested in truth and reconciliation – and increasing numbers of us are – we will have to negotiate our way forward in accordance with the treaties we have signed, just as the provinces now negotiate with Canada on the basis of the agreements which make up the Canadian constitution. Perhaps the Ashaninka concept of reality provides us with a visualization that can help us find the path that leads us forward together.
The peoples of the Amazon – Indigenous people generally — strike me as wealthy in ways that industrial culture simply doesn’t understand. These cultures seem to see both the forest and the trees – the trees as individual beings, the forest as a community that parallels and includes and enriches the human community. Interestingly enough, Western science increasingly understands this, as witness the complicated relationships within the forest described in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. We know that the Amazon includes innumerable species that we do not begin to understand, species that the local people use in a bewildering variety of ways. Compared with this, seeing the forest community only as potential chopsticks or newsprint or lumber is a pathetically impoverished way of understanding the world to which we actually belong.
What I had not understood is the existence of a social ecology in the region that parallels the profundity and intricacy of the forest itself. The forest, it seems, is as fecund in ideas as it is in biology. That’s why people like the Ashaninka have persisted for 11,000 years. If I had to make a bet about which nations will still be here in another 11,000 years, I wouldn’t bet on the member states of the United Nations. I’d bet on the Mi’kmaq, the Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, the Ashaninka. And I would say to my own descendants, respect these people, bring them close, and seek to learn what they can teach you. These are the people who know.