Living Well Is Living Harmoniously With Nature

Learning Indigenous values and ways of being

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science & Insight, a newsletter on what we all Need-to-Know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with an often funny personal story and some useful ideas. All in a 5 to 10 minute read in your inbox once or twice a week. It’s free. No ads. No spam.

Hello Friends:

This issue has a pretty good ‘fish’ story to start. It’s the first of a two part look at how Indigenous values and ways of living with nature can help guide us out of the mess we’ve created. First let’s go to Panama.


A visit to an island of rainforest guardians

When it comes to adventure, I’m a fish out of water. A fish that doesn’t swim very well even when it’s in the water. And so the rolling six to eight foot waves scared the hell out of me when I found myself in a thin pencil of a boat pointed into the middle of a darkly blue ocean. It wasn’t long before I was wet as fish too, and desperately wrapping a torn piece of plastic around my backpack containing my laptop, phone, camera and recorder. Vital tools of my trade that would soon be useless. 

How did I get myself into this? Only two days before I’d been in the lovely old university city of Montpellier in the south of France with its charming cafes and modern art. After a complicated journey that included a stomach-churning ride in a small plane that ended with a bouncing landing on a dirt airstrip in the jungle, I found myself in a tiny wooden boat headed for a tiny island. 

It was a roller coaster ride, sliding up and down the waves — my first experience in a small boat in a big ocean. With an iron grip on the plastic sheet and a heaving stomach, I bravely pretended to enjoy the ride as wave after wave of warm saltwater washed over my face. When we finally pulled up to a rickety wooden jetty my legs were too wobbly to climb out. Fortunately an albino teenager dragged me out of the boat and onto the island community of Ustupo.  

Ustupo is a very small, low-lying island in the south Caribbean Sea about one kilometer (km) off the coast of Panama. It’s a surprisingly crowded warren of thatched-roof buildings that’s home to 2,500 indigenous peoeple called the Kuna.

The Kuna Indians inhabit the 'Comarca de San Blas or ‘Guna Yala'. This is an autonomous region that includes 365 tiny islands and a 225 km long strip of rainforest along the coast of eastern Panama. The Kuna are the first indigenous group in Latin America to gain autonomy over their 2360 square km territory. This self-rule was formalized in 1938 thanks to the Kuna albinos. (A fascinating quirk of history and science that I’ll tell you about the next time.) 

Somehow I’d forgotten Ustupo had no electricity or cell service. Luckily the drinking water was pretty safe since I was stuck there for eight hot and humid days. 

Why did this delicate northern flower (me) decide to go a tiny tropical island on the equator? Forests! I wanted to learn how the Kuna managed to protect more than 90 percent of the original rainforest in their territory, one of the best preserved in Central America. And, I was desperate to learn how indigenous values and ways of being could help us get out of the mess we’re in.  

No healthy people on a sick planet

It’s great the Kuna will be able to grow food and obtain medicines and building materials from their forest for another 100 years or longer. But why does it matter to us who live thousands of kilometers away? Aside from being an example of good guardianship, the Kuna are helping to keep nature, our life support system functioning.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala explains it this way:

“Every morsel of food, every sip of water, the air we breathe is the result of work done by other species. Nature gives us everything we need to survive.” 

“Without them, there is no us,” Enric told me during an interview last year. That might be the most important need-to-know I’ve shared. “Unfortunately we are losing ‘them’ at an accelerating rate and are close to a tipping point,” he said.

Indigenous territory is where Nature is richest

Luckily the Kuna aren’t unique in protecting their forests. When Indigenous communities have control or can manage their forests unhindered, deforestation levels are low. Even in the beleaguered Brazilian Amazon, which has seen record deforestation this year, the territories managed by Indigenous peoples have experienced far lower levels of deforestation. That Indigenous communities are generally doing a far better job protecting nature than the rest of us is another need-to-know.

“The forest is a supermarket for us, it is not just about timber,” Estebancio Castro Diaz, a Kuna member explained. Land is owned by the community not individuals. How the land is used is a community decision and any potential impacts on the well-being of future generations of Kuna are given serious consideration. 

The regions where nature is richest and least degraded are the lands that indigenous people control, said Vickie Tauli-Corpuz, who is a member of the indigenous Kankana-ey Igorot community in the Philippines and the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The current market-based economic system was designed to dominate and extract resources from nature, Vickie told me some years ago at a climate workshop in Cairns, Australia. 

“Modern education and knowledge is mainly about how to better dominate nature. It is never about how to live harmoniously with nature. 

Living well is all about keeping good relations with Mother Earth and not living by domination or extraction.” 

In addition to helping sustain humanity’s life support system, forests under control by local people such as the Kuna, hold 38 billion tonnes of carbon. Another need-to-know is that a much larger area is held by communities under customary rights but these are not legally recognized by governments. At least 25 percent of our planet’s land area is traditionally managed, owned, used or occupied by an estimated 476 million Indigenous peoples. Indigenous territory is where around 80 percent of the Earth’s land-dwelling species are found according to the World Resources Institute.

Communities and values we can learn from 

There is no private property in Mexican Zapotec indigenous communities located in the Sierra Norte Mountains of central Mexico. Instead of operating their community-owned forest industry to maximize profits, Zapotec communities focus on job creation, reducing emigration to cities and enhancing the overall well-being of the community. They still make a substantial profit but 30 percent goes back to the business, another 30 percent into forest preservation and the final 40 percent to the workers and community services. 

Protecting and managing Zapotec forest lands for their children and future descendants is considered part of the community obligation. Members take turns being part of community administration, on school and church committees as well as performing the actual roles of community policeman to municipal president. 

What makes this all work is communal trust, deeply shared values that arise from long experience and knowledge, said David Barton Bray, a professor at Florida International University in Miami.

“These kinds of communities will be more important in the years to come because they can address vital issues that the state and the market cannot,” said Bray, an expert on community forests in Mexico and Central America.

However, Indigenous cultures and values continue to be eroded and displaced by the dominant, unsustainable production and consumption systems that are destroying the planet’s biodiversity concludes a new report released ahead of the UN Biodiversity Summit that takes place on 30 September 2020.

What will it take to slow and reverse the decline of nature? Helping Indigenous communities secure rights to land is one thing. More broadly, is the need to transform our unsustainable economic system that is based on extraction and domination of nature. A place to begin that transformation is to incorporate the values of the world’s indigenous peoples such as reciprocity, seven generation decision-making and the commons.

Part Two will look at how we can incorporate those Indigenous values which reflect our ecological reality. And it will have a story about how the Children of Moon saved a forest. 

Until next time, stay safe.


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