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The Amazon's keepers reach out to the world
Indigenous groups have begun to 'partner' with technology giants to protect endangered cultural customs and ecologies.
Last Modified: 16 Jul 2012 17:19
Chief Biraci Yawanawa spoke at the Kari Oca indigenous meet, which ran parallel to Rio+20 [Zack Embree/Al Jazeera]


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -
The songs of the Yawanawa tribe have an honesty that seems to penetrate the soul. Adorned in impressive head dresses, the tribal leaders who arrived from Acre, in the Amazon rainforest, home to the world's richest ecosystems, ushered in the spirits to commence the tribe's annual festival.

It is a rare occurrence to witness Yawanawa rituals in the modern metropolis of Rio, thousands of miles away from the home of the tribe - a parallel universe to the burgeoning metropolis. But over the final days of June, a few members of the remote community led the celebration in the outskirts of Rio on a piece of open land with rich foliage, which came close to resembling their ancestral home.

Choosing to commemorate this unique gathering in an urban setting was thought to be one way of reviving cultural pride among the tribe's younger generations, in a bid to restore faith in a way of life that has faced repeated threats of extinction over the past 200 years.


Scenes from the Yawanawa festival
[Zack Embree/Al Jazeera]

Like the Yawanawa, hundreds of Amazonian communities were encouraged by European settlers to exploit the rubber, forestry and mineral resources of their land - turning a great profit for the settlers, while fostering a dependency on continued trade.

The economic interests of those first European settlers, and those who followed, inevitably damaged the environmentally conscious practices that had remained unhindered for thousands of years.

The impact went as far as to make many cultural traditions, languages and methods of preserving the equilibrium of the Amazon extinct.

Before the 19th century, 1000 indigenous languages were spoken in the Amazon basin. Today, only 160 have survived. An estimated 40 million indigenous people lived in Brazil when European settlers arrived. Their numbers have now dwindled to fewer than one million. But those who remain stand strong.

This strength was evident at the indigenous summit that took place alongside the Rio+20 sustainability conference, where 500 tribes from across the globe, gathered at Kari Oca, a native Indian site, to sign a new pact that proposed pragmatic solutions to preserve biodiversity and counter climate change. It was the largest gathering since 1992, when the first Earth Summit took place in Rio.

Chief Biraci Yawanawa, who led the ceremony, is a man who seems to have a warm glow about him. His pragmatism is evident in the initiatives that he and his community have undertaken in terms of creating sustainable methods of using their natural resources and regaling their rich heritage to the wider community.

"We have much to learn from the Western world and they can learn from us," he told Al Jazeera. "Our youth has benefited from the education present in cities, but we also want Brazilians to know more about our ancient culture and the importance of preservation through mutual respect."

Situated deep in the Amazon, where electricity is largely only a possibility through harnessing solar energy, the Yawanawa have eagerly espoused the advent of technology, especially the internet, in gaining access to the world. They have been joined by several other tribes who have teamed up with technological giants such as Google.

Technology for preservation

Due to the remoteness of the regions that the Yawanawa and other tribes have called home for thousands of years, very little is known, even within Brazil, about their cultural heritage, their role as the "keepers of the Amazon" and how their existence is inextricably bound to the preservation of the forests and waterways of their land.

In order to rectify this communication gap, leaders of some of these communities decided that a "written" record of their history, location and geography would imbibe strong cultural values among current and future generations, help them better preserve their habitat and aid in tracking illegal logging and other environmentally hazardous activity. Google has been a prime collaborator in such "cultural mapping and institutional strengthening" programmes.

At Rio+20, Google's outreach team unveiled the outcome of their project with the Surui indigenous people, a 1,200 strong tribe living in the northwestern Brazilian state of Rondonia. The result of this collaboration is a three-dimensional map of the tribe's location, including photos, video and satellite images. The five-year process entailed extensive training for the younger members of the tribe, from research to data collection and use of the technology.

"The community members did all the work and also determined the type of data collected and how it would be visualised. The first map was then produced by them on paper, together with professional cartographers and GIS experts, who then transformed the map into a GIS database," Vasco van Roosmalen, Director of Equipe de Conservacao da Amazonia (ECAM) explained.

Chief Almir, who pioneered the project for the Surui, is confident that using technology to communicate with the world is his tribe's best chance of ensuring their own long term survival and that of their ancestral territory.

"With technology, we have been able to combine science and our traditional knowledge to gain a better understanding of our forests and the challenges we face, and to attract partners and support to find and implement solutions," he told Al Jazeera. "Technology like the internet and handheld Android phones - which can collect and send data instantly - allow us to communicate directly what is happening in our forests to our partners, the government and to the global public."

Emboldened by this success, Google has formulated a wide ranging program to help other tribes of the Amazon, including the Yawanawa, and others across the world. So far, their conservation program has managed to implement partnerships with 20 distinct groups. The eventual goal is to make the technology and skills accessible and affordable to communities worldwide, allowing them to independently implement mapping systems.

Young members of the Yawanawa dance at the festival
[Zack Embree/Al Jazeera]

"Like the Surui, the Yawanawa are an amazing community who have been at the forefront in developing innovative partnerships," remarked Roosmalen. "Their partnership with the cosmetics company Aveda was years ahead of its time. They will certainly take this process to another level."

Partnering with 'civil society'

Although Rio+20 brought little consolation to ecologists, in terms of governments' pledges to counter climate change and depleting biodiversity, the collaborative efforts of hundreds of civil society organisations that convened in the capital were, to many activists, the most redeeming features of the event.

Groups ranging from global movements such as Greenpeace to local organisations from rural communities showcased their ongoing efforts on the ground, their perspectives of what sustainable development should entail, and long term solutions for issues that directly impact their communities and livelihoods. Some 200 such organisations gathered in Rio to observe the UN-led proceedings.

In the civil society-led events at Rio+20, "indigenous rights" - as related to preserving biodiversity and ecosystems - featured heavily, especially given 1.4 billion acres of rich rainforest that occupies the host nation's Amazon basin. The hundreds of indigenous tribes that have been its protectors for thousands of years were a central focus of these discussions.

Over recent years, ties between local environmental organisations and indigenous communities have strengthened, with the aim of re-connecting the severed bonds between urban centres and faraway, traditional settlements.

The Brazil-based Instituto Guardioes de Floresta (IGF) aims to bridge this communication gap by relaying the tribes' ancient knowledge of sustainable living through documentary films, books and cultural exchanges.

"Due to the 'un-sustainability' of our current way of life on the Earth, it is time we re-think our actions as part of a global transition towards a new consciousness," said Mauro Lacombe, programme coordinator at IGF. "It is time to establish alternative ways of living and relating to each other and the planet."

Along with aiding indigenous groups to record their ancestral knowledge in traditional medicine for posterity, IGF facilitates training in new methods of sustainable development for the communities, and cultural exchanges and exhibitions that convey the history and importance of ancient tribal practices to the outside world.

The week-long festival was one such effort, organised by IGF, to coincide with the Rio+20 that brought together government delegates, NGO workers and corporations.

"Corporations are all too often viewed as opponents of indigenous people - but this can be changed by entering into a new relationship and showing a new model of relationship between indigenous people and corporations, one that is based on mutual respect, reciprocity and trust."

- Pearl Gottschalk, Lush Cosmetics

Allying with the private sphere

Many civil society organisations attending Rio+20 explicitly rejected the idea of corporations as innovators of sustainable development. And many NGOs treat the idea of commodifying nature as items of environmental "capital" to create "green economies" with scepticism because it does not, in their eyes, address long term solutions independent of a profit-driven agenda. However, corporations do have the resources and capacity to become important allies in aiding marginalised communities.

Socially minded initiatives led by the private sector have existed years before the idea of a "green economy" became the focus of the UN in Rio.

In addition to non-profit organisations, "ethical corporations" are increasingly collaborating with indigenous communities. The Charitypot campaign of UK-based Lush Cosmetics, for example, donates all profits from sales of specific products towards sustainable development projects for Amazonian tribes.

Pearl Gottschalk, Lush's ambassador for charitable giving has travelled to many of these hard-to-reach communities. Based on her observation of proceedings at the Rio conference, she said that governments are sorely lagging in their commitments towards the rights of indigenous people as guaranteed under international conventions - the primary ones being ILO Convention 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"Partnering with these communities aligns with our values of environmental preservation by supporting those who are the original caretakers of the planet and most affected by development on their traditional territory," commented Gottschalk.

The company has collaborated with tribal members in successfully implementing sustainable production systems in agro-forestry, reforestation of natural springs and biocultural protection programmes - efforts that governments could easily emulate on a much larger scale, provided the political will exists.

Give these cases of success, the general concept of corporations as "leading partners" in creating sustainable and environmentally friendly economies, as propagated by the UN, is not an entirely hollow concept.

As explained by Gottschalk: "Corporations are all too often viewed as opponents of indigenous people but this can be changed by entering into a new relationship and showing a new model of relationship between indigenous people and corporations, one that is based on mutual respect, reciprocity and trust."

Roosmalen, meanwhile, pointed out that the greatest strength of private enterprises is that they are able to move at a pace that overly bureaucratic UN mechanisms and government initiatives cannot achieve.

"The private sphere brings a tremendous suite of tools, knowledge and resources to the table," he said. "When properly deployed and in partnership with groups who understand community processes, they can make all the difference."

Grassroots organisations such as IGF say they have benefited from teaming up with both the private sector and governmental organisations in implementing their programmes.

A constellation of governmental, non-governmental and private enterprises working collaboratively and in conjunction with each other, while - most importantly - heeding the needs of the afflicted communities appears to be the only "sustainable" solution to many of the challenges faced by indigenous groups - regardless of the myriad resolutions passed at international gatherings.

Follow Preethi Nallu on Twitter: @preethinallu

Correction: An earlier published version of this article erroneously identified Pearl Gottschalk, of Lush Cosmetics, and incorrectly stated that only ten per cent of profits from sales of products within the Charitypot campaign range were donated to sustainable development projects. We apologise for the errors.

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