Indigenous people have a special place in the environmental movement. As defenders of their land and protectors of some of the world’s last pristine ecosystems, they are readily identified with the places like the Amazon that so much of this movement fights to protect. Moreover, in the Americas in particular, where indigenous people have been fighting for 500 years against colonization and imperialist encroachment on their land, indigenous people represent the strength and perseverance which we all will need to face the challenges that are coming. It’s for this reason that the Earth Charter explicitly calls for affirming, “the right of indigenous peoples to their spirituality, knowledge, lands and resources and to their related practice of sustainable livelihoods.”
When we were in Ecuador, we had the chance to see the fight of indigenous people, and their success, up close. A family that comes from a line of shamans and traditional healers and midwives, the Santis were at one time responsible for the maintenance of large tracks of land in the rain forest which they used as “Purina” – a sort of forest school where shamans would teach their children and community about useful plants and their natural environment. A Purina was just the kind of place the world could use more of today – a huge space of pristine forest to help us all learn just what our natural worlds are like.
With the arrival of colonization, and in particular the search for oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon (still going on today), the Santis lost their land though. An uncle was paid off by the oil companies and soon all access to the Purina was denied and the Santis were in a legal battle along with other communities to regain their rights over their traditional land. They lost the case. But this is where the perseverance that 500 years of struggle had taught them came in. Instead of giving over to despair or giving up, the Santis went to work. The family pooled its resources, and by hosting tour groups and showing the forest which remained, they managed to earn enough money to buy back the rights to part of their ancestral land.
Today, that work continues. Non-indgenous farmers now control the land surrounding the Santis, cutting the forest to raise beef cattle. The Santis save every penny they earn to buy those farms, and then to reforest them, trying to bring the forest back to what it once was.
Most exciting though is that everyone can be a part of it – the Purina has gone global. Recently, the Santis launched the “School of Guayusa,” an initiative funded with donations from Americans and Europeans with the goal of teaching traditional medicine, shamanism, and midwifery to a wider audience. The school is located in the heart of the sacred forest that the Santis have saved, and that was once the land of their ancestors. And of course, all the money earned from the school goes back to supporting the family, and buying more land.
Our time with the Santis was one of the most inspiring and touching experiences of our entire Latin American voyage. Not only do they show an exceptional dedication, strength, and love of the forest they are working to protect, but their courage, facing down soldiers, international oil corporations, and their own government to keep their land and their way of life, was truly moving. We all could learn a lot from indigenous communities like that of Amazanga. We all could use a Purina.