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What the Amazonian tribes can teach us

Tuesday, 2 July 2013 04:43 GMT

Mark Plotkin with Waura chief. Photo: Mark Plotkin

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can Amazon indigenous tribes protect their territory?

Editor's Note: Mark Plotkin is President of the Amazon Conservation Team.

I first met Ken Brecher over dinner at the Skoll World Forum in 2009. He was introduced to me as the head of the Sundance Institute, and we were seated directly across from each other. The conversation went approximately as follows:

MP: “So, you are a filmmaker?”

KB: “Not originally. I was trained as an anthropologist.”

MP: “What kind of anthropology?" 

KB: “Cultural anthropology.”

MP: “Really? Where did you work?”

KB: “In Brazil.” 

MP: “I know Brazil a bit. Where in Brazil?”

KB: “The Amazon!”

MP: “Really? I know the Amazon a bit. Where in the Amazon?”

KB: “With a small tribe of Indians—the Waurá. There are only a few hundred of them.”

MP: “I came back from their territory just five days ago!”

Just then, I realized whom I was sitting across from. Ken not only had edited a classic book on Waurá legends, but his adventures and experiences also had been turned into a famous and powerful play. The name of the play was “Savages”—and it wasn’t in reference to the Indians!

Ken summed up his experiences among the Waurá in one of the most moving presentations delivered at the 2013 Skoll World Forum. For me, it was not only the best speech at the meeting but one of the greatest lectures I had ever heard.

When Ken started his work with the Waurá, the Amazon rainforest stretched across Brazil in a fairly pristine form. During his stay with the Indians, however, the Brazilians embarked on the building of the Trans-Amazon Highway, which sliced the great forest into separate pieces.

We at the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) have had the great honor and pleasure of collaborating with the Waurá people since 2003, when ACT and 14 tribes of the Xingu Indigenous Reserve of Mato Grosso state began collaborative ethnographic and land use mapping of the Reserve.   Following the completion of mapping, ACT provided material support to enable the Waurá and other Xingu tribes to mobilize against the first of a series of planned hydroelectric dams in their territory, effectively (at the time) delaying its construction.  As one of the most activist groups of the region, the Waurá also requested that ACT sponsor overflights of their territory to allow them to conduct surveillance for illegal activities.    ACT provided material and supplies (including food and hammocks) to the Waurá for border fencing, signing, and general surveillance, and also provided fuel and replenishment parts for Waurá boats to permit them to travel to the border region with greater frequency and to monitor the rivers to prevent illegal incursions by outside hunters and fishermen.

Capacity building has been an essential element of our partnership: ACT has sponsored training for the Waurá in land monitoring and park ranger techniques, GPS utilization, basic computer use, forest fire control, environmental pollution control, first aid, outboard motor maintenance and repair, project proposal writing, project management, accounting, and institutional strengthening for indigenous associations.  In 2009, the Waurá were visited by a delegation from the Skoll Foundation—Jeff Skoll, Sally Osberg, and David Rothschild—who were able to observe firsthand the Waurás’ struggle to organize themselves and other Xingu tribes to decide the fate of their cultures, their rivers, and their forests.

From a cultural perspective, ACT has also sponsored multiple exchanges between the Waurá and indigenous leaders from other regions of the Amazon as well as North America, supported their expeditions through culturally significant sites outside the Reserve in order to improve their documentation, and helped them to take essential steps to preserving the integrity of their primary ancestral site outside their current territory, the Kamukuaká Cavern.

In 2010, three structures were completed for the benefit of the Waurás’ Tulukai indigenous association: an office to house administrative work and meetings; guest quarters to receive visitors, especially from the government and NGOs, and to provide a workspace for visitors; and a kitchen to provide for those visitors and associated meetings.  With this construction, the Waurá became able to conduct the majority of their association business within their primary community, bringing others to temporarily reside with them and hold meetings in context. 

In 2011, with ACT’s help, the Waurá began construction of a second village, Ulupuene, to enable them to better protect the reserve’s southwest border.  Subsequently, ACT supported the creation of a new association for the Waurá, also named Ulupuene on the Batovi River.  ACT staff made a first visit to the new village in April 2013.

Currently, ACT is partnering with a Brazilian NGO partner, SynbioBrasil, to provide technical and logistical support to the Waurá, who are determined to protect their territory and traditions while reconciling their need to adapt to an ever-changing world. Though, the outside world has closed in on several sides, as Ken Brecher saw during his fieldwork, the Waurá remain a proud and traditional people, determined to protect their forest and their culture. They need our help to make this possible.

This piece was published in partnership with the Skoll World Forum.