Deep in the interior of Brazilian Amazon, a logger illegally crosses
the border from Peru and invades Ashaninka tribal land, felling another
ancient mahogany and dragging it toward the river to be floated down to
a truck and headed for international markets.
"For us, if the forest doesn't exist, if the jungle doesn't exist, then
culture doesn't exist," said Moises Piyanko, an Ashaninka leader and
activist. "We realize that we can't take care of the forest and protect
it without help from the outside world, because the invasions are
coming from outside."
Location of Ashaninka Territory in Brazil. Source: Igapura.org.
The Brazilian Ashaninka live on a reservation of 85,700 ha (1 hectare = 2.5 acres), in the state of Acre in western Brazil. The Ashaninka tribal leaders live in Apiwtxa, a community that could be called the capital of the Brazilian Ashaninka nation. The remote location of the tribe has played a part in its sporadic contact with devastating forces of colonization, and the land to this day is only accessible by air or by a journey of several days by canoe from the nearest road. At a recent Bay Area conference on biodiversity, organized by Harvard University, this specific region of the Amazon was recognized by top scientists and activists as a “biodiversity hot spot.” A biodiversity hot spot is an unusually species-rich, ecologically unique region which is under threat of destruction by human activity. Mahogany, which is native to this region, is in danger of being commercially extinct within the next twenty years if the illegal market is not shut down.
Compared to their ancestral territory, the Brazilian Ashaninka reserve represents a rather small piece of land, which the tribe has managed to hold on to after hundreds of years of struggle and resistance. It was officially recognized as their territory in 1992, 250 years after the first major uprising of the Ashaninka expelled the Spanish soldiers and Franciscan missionaries who had arrived with the wave of colonization. After warding off invasion for over a century, many of the tribe were enslaved in the brutal regime of coffee and rubber plantations. It is estimated that a staggering 80 percent of the tribe was decimated from disease and extreme exploitation during the rubber boom of 1839- 1913. In the face of this incomprehensible loss, the Ashaninka have battled to maintain their cultural identity, protect their forest home, and preserve their language and livelihood.
Ashaninka leaders and IBAMA officals discuss illegal logging. Source: IBAMA
Ashaninka Demonstrate Future of Indigenous-led Rainforest Conservation
The Ashaninka cultural resurgence includes reforestation initiatives to replant land destroyed by outsiders and develop small-scale agricultural projects, such as the creation of a botanical garden of medicinal plants. So far, the tribe has replanted 25 percent of the deforested land, and started several small fruit plantations whose products are sold to benefit community schools. The Ashaninka have also started projects to restock local waterways with fish and turtles whose numbers had been dwindling due to overexploitation - with excellent results. Much of the work is done by children as a form of experiential learning and leadership training.
The next stage of this completely indigenous-led movement is the spread the knowledge gained by this one group to other tribes in the region. The Ashaninka have developed a proposal for a sustainable forest management training program called the Escola Aiyoreka Antame, a school for educating local groups about practices for forest conservation and the preservation of regional plant and animal species. The school aims to spread knowledge and practical skills gained by the Ashaninka regarding rainforest conservation, and to help train leaders on how to tackle major problems such as the illegal logging of mahogany. In fact, 80% of illegally extracted mahogany ends up in the United States as border officials turn a
blind eye to its continued import.
Creating a botanical garden. Photo courtesy of Benki Piyanko.
In addition, other educational programs at Escola Aiyoreka Antame are designed to build interest among indigenous youth about traditional plant knowledge and locally-based, sustainable economic activities. By consciously cultivating a presence in both national and international governmental and environmental activist circles, the Ashaninka have written grants and secured the funds to purchase the land upon which Escola Aiyoreka Antame is built.
"People tell me that we are demonstrating the future of Brazil, a future in which indigenous people work in alliance with the government to preserve the Amazon," says Ashaninka leader Benki Piyanko, brother of Moises. "But I think that the future is already here, the way is clear - we just need people who are going to act, who are going to do what needs to be done for the forest, who are going to work. That's what is lacking."
Escola Aiyoreka Antame. Photo courtesy of Benki Piyanko
The tribe has gained some amount of media attention in the past decade, owing in part to the charisma, strength and initiative of their young pajé, Benki. Thirty-two years old and the son of the "chief," or cacique, Benki's intense shamanic training included a year of spiritual practices in isolation in the jungle as an adolescent. He is a healer, working with a variety of powerful Amazonian plant medicines including ayahuasca, the entheogenic tea detailed by anthropologist Jeremy Narby in his best-selling book The Cosmic Serpent. Benki was among the leaders of a project to bring the Internet to the Ashaninka, using small village kiosks to facilitate communications between remote areas and create a website to publicize news about the tribe.
"Some people ask, 'why are Indians messing with the Internet?'" Benki remarked. "But I think it is really important that we have this net of communication, to let the world know what is going on with us. Our people want to work with Brazil to create an alternative development, to show the world an example of sustainability…Eight years after we started this project, we were able to feed people, and hope to continue forever."
"The Ashaninka story is different in that they are showing us the way," commented Romulo Mello, Director of Hunting and Fishing Resources at IBAMA, the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment's enforcement agency. "They don't just talk, they do, and they are inviting us to participate with them, to share lessons from indigenous culture."
I had the privilege of meeting Benki in 2004 in Brazil’s capital, where tribal leaders were meeting with government officials for round-table discussions centering around the illegal logging of mahogany. One afternoon, we wound our way through the bustle of the enormous Conjunto Nacional, the shopping mall at the center of Brasilia. We were heading for the music store with philanthropist Ali Zeitoun, who has worked to fund projects and record music with the tribes of Acre for more than 10 years, to buy Benki a new guitar. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt that day, but on his head rested the traditional woven-reed crown topped with three dancing feathers. Feeling a little overwhelmed at the crowds, noise and lights myself, I wondered at the culture shock that Benki must feel at times. He told me that the first time he left the village was around age 13, speaking minimal Portuguese.
A few years before that time, Benki's name had become nationally recognized as a result of a popular song written by musician Milton Nascimento. The song was named after the ten-year-old after they met during the star's visit to the tribe, and remarkably, the lyrics to the song seem to foretell the moment at hand, a moment where the people of the forest go out into the world to struggle for change. One of the main images is that of the beija-flor, literally "flower-kisser" or hummingbird, a symbol of the mysterious and magical power of the forest: The hummingbird sends me away/To work and open people's eyes.
About two weeks earlier, when I had first met Benki, we exchanged songs, playing the guitar together. Among the songs I knew in Portuguese was one which I found particularly beautiful, about the beija-flor, and so I played it, singing about the forces of renewal in the jungle, a full moon rising. Amazingly, it was only later that I learned the title of the song, and its connection with Benki. At the time, he just listened, nodded, and smiled.
Voices In Solidarity
Juliana Birnbaum Fox founded Voices In Solidarity, a nonprofit organization which aims to link the Ashaninka project with grant funding from international conservation groups. Voices in Solidarity aims to promote:
- legal recognition of indigenous ancestral land
- the development of local economic projects
- community education and organization
- resistance to destructive practices such as logging and petroleum extraction
Ritual is the pilot CD of the Voices in Solidarity project.
It was recorded live during a completely improvisatory session on
September 10, 2004 at Kaliandra sound temple in the state of Goias, the
high savannah region at the center of Brazil. Funds raised through the sale of CDs will directly support Voices in Solidarity programs and research that connects indigenous movements to supporting organizations in North America and Europe.
To find out more or to donate to the project, visit Voices In Solidarity or contact julianapeartree [ a t ] gmail.com