The small indigenous girl with dark eyes, holding a bright green bird in her left hand catches my eye every day that I pass through the center of São Paulo. I always take a long glimpse at her probing, vulnerable expression. The figure of this girl is stenciled on the side of a high-rise building downtown. The stencil is the largest work of stencil art in the world. Below the figure of the girl an inscription reads: 'Achei o último Igarapé no fundo do meu coração… e nele lavei minha alma.' Even before I could decipher the inscription's meaning I sensed from the girls expression, from her grasp on the bird, from her extended hand – that this artistic creation was a cry for help.
Slowly the words of the inscription came into my vocabulary and now I understand: 'I found the last stream in the depths of my heart and in it I cleansed my soul.' The artist Simone Sapienza Siss created this stencil based on a photo of a girl from the Munduruku Tribe of the Tapajós River region in the Amazon. The Tapajós river is the largest tributary of the Amazon and one of the last living tributaries of the Amazon. Currently there is movement to create a hydroelectric dam on the Tapajós River, which would damage the ecosystem and cause enormous harm to the indigenous people living along the river.
Siss's awe-inspiring art is a call for help and awareness around the dangers of the potential dam.
Since arriving in Brasil, Marcelo and I have gradually grown our awareness of difficulties faced by the indigenous and how their fate is influenced by the actions of people and governments around the world who consume products from the Amazon. In April a man named Benedito Prezia lead a morning-long reflection for all of the members of our Maryknoll organization here in São Paulo. Benedito has dedicated his 40-year career as a writer, researcher, and human rights activist to working with the indigenous of Brasil. Benedito educated us on indigenous spirituality and culture, then described human rights abuses and exploitation suffered by the indigenous historically and into modernity.
Benedito described a belief central to indigenous spirituality: living in harmony with nature is critical- 'if you exploit nature too much, nature fights back or resists.' While businesses and governments come into the forests of Brasil and assess the value of a river based on how many kilowatts of energy can be extracted or the value of land based on how many kilos of mineral wealth can be extracted, indigenous view the land as if it is an extension of their own body, their own organs, their own bloodstream- and they sync their subsistence activities with nature in a way that preserves nature, their bodies and their spirits. Indigenous do not consider themselves 'masters or administrators of the land' but instead as entities living in harmony with the rivers, rocks, plants and animals. Indigenous carefully use products of the forest in a way that protects the forest's ability to regenerate.
A handout provided by Benedito quoted an anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro describing the relationship between indigenous people and the Earth: 'A terra é o corpo dos índios, os índios são parte do corpo da terra. A relação entre terra e corpo é crucial. A separação entre a comunidade e a terra tem como sua face paralela, sua sombra, a separação entre as pessoas e seus corpos…'. This quote translates to: 'The Earth is the body of the indigenous; the indigenous are part of the body of the Earth. The relationship between Earth and body is crucial. The separation of a community and the earth has a parallel face, a shadow, a separation between people and their bodies.'
Brasil is home to 305 different indigenous groups (comprising a population of over 900 million people) who speak 274 different languages. These different communities have diverse ways of thinking, philosophizing, feeling, performing medicine, managing economy, and relating to each other and their surroundings. In stark contrast to a capitalist society, the indigenous live in societies founded on interdependence among community members and interdependence between people and the ecosystems in which they live. Indigenous peoples' deep and vast knowledge of their natural surroundings enable indigenous to draw all of their nutrition, medicine, and well-being from nature while preserving nature's diversity and richness. Benedito noted that in indigenous traditions health is not just the absence of disease, but physically and mentally living in harmony with nature. In indigenous tradition 'virgin forests' are perceived to be where spirits live and hence must be protected.
Brasil is home to 6 biomes. Each biome contains a unique ecosystem that is home to distinct land and water organisms. Organisms within a given biome are adapted to survive in the specific climactic, geologic, and physical characteristics of their specific biome. When these conditions are altered by development, the equilibrium within a given ecosystem is interrupted and species within the ecosystem become extinct. The Amazon rainforest biome of Brasil covers 42.29% of Brasil's national territory (encompassing over 4 million square kilometers). The Amazon contains over 2,500 species of trees and 30 million species of plants. The Amazon is also home to the largest water basin in the world. One hundred and eighty different indigenous groups live within the Amazon. More 'un-contacted' people (people who have never had contact with people outside of their immediate community) live in the Amazon than anywhere else on Earth.
Cerrado is the second largest biome in Brasil (and in South America)- consisting of over 2 million square kilometers. Cerrado is home to 80 groups of indigenous people. Cerrado has been devastated by the growth of monoculture farming- specifically of soy and corn. Mata Atlântica is the biome that borders São Paulo and is the most threatened biome in the world. Due to mining and clear-cutting in order to grow coffee, sugar-cane and other products- Mata Atlântica has been reduced to 22% of it's original size. Mata Atlântica still is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world and because of how it's location helps to regulate the flow of water between surrounding biomes and stability of soil fertility of surrounding biomes.
Over the last 70 years, government and agribusiness have executed many projects in indigenous territories causing the relocation and abandonment of millions of indigenous in confined, inadequate living conditions. Hydroelectric industries have done some of the worst damage- engulfing millions of acres of forrest including people's homes under water. Confronted with money, power and privilege of capitalist entities, indigenous people have had great difficulty defending their land. Development continues to devastate forests, rivers, lakes and plants. Among indigenous who have been relocated to 'Aldeias' or encampments there is an extremely high rate of suicide.
Marcelo recently attended a meeting of CIMI (Conselho Indigenista Missionário)- a group lead by Benedito Prezia of individuals who work to advocate for indigenous rights, especially protection of indigenous land. During the recent meeting the high rate of suicides in indigenous re-location communities was discussed. People in São Paulo's CIMI group offer support to indigenous living in 'aldeias'- re-location communities around São Paulo.
During Benedito's discussion of the history of destruction of indigenous lands in Brasil, he made a point that FUNAI (Brasil's national foundation for protection of indigenous rights) was severely manipulated by the US-backed military regime and this period marked the beginning of significant destruction in the Amazon and other biomes of Brasil. Since then United States multi-national corporations, such as Monsanto and Cargill have continued to devastate land within Brasil's biomes. Benedito encouraged us to raise awareness among our American friends of environmental devastation being caused by American companies. When people improve their individual awareness of where food comes from, they can choose to buy from companies that source their products in an ethical way. If you want to know more about Monsanto's subsidiaries, they have a list on their website (https://monsanto.com/products/brands/). If you want a more extensive list of what food companies contain Monsanto products – the list is extensive but consistent across various websites including: http://realfarmacy.com/printable-list-of-monsanto-owned-food-producers/. Any effort to purchase food from companies that source their ingredients fairly makes a difference- even if it is a portion or certain categories of a grocery list rather than the entire grocery list. Choices such as only buying fair-trade coffee or only buying produce grown within the US or only buying corn and soy products grown in the US are day-to-day choices that contribute to preserving our planet.
Another important way individuals can contribute to preservation of the rainforest and all biomes on our planet, is by teaching our children about nature and experiencing nature with our children. Children learn to value nature through positive experiences in nature. When children value and enjoy nature, they grow up with an interest in protecting the natural world. The Natural Learning Initiative out of North Carolina State University in the US put out an excellent summary of benefits found in research done on children's relationship with nature. Among the benefits are: improved creativity, improved physical activity, improved eyesight (due to the development of distance-vision used outdoors), and reduced stress. For more on children and nature: https://naturalearning.org/sites/default/files/Benefits%20of%20Connecting%20Children%20with%20Nature_InfoSheet.pdf.
Besides experiencing nature with children, just reading about animals, plants and other elements of the natural world helps children to develop curiosity and care for living things. Recently little Maëlle has been having a hard time falling asleep at night… she asks for 'one more book… one more book… one more book.' Lately after reading several short children's stories, we've been pulling out our handy 'Tropical Rain Forest' scholastic science reader (a hand me down from another Maryknoll family who recently ended their contract in Brasil). Maëlle loves pointing at the butterflies, monkeys and flowers as we make our way through the book. On several occasions we've made it all the way to the glossary before she's dropped off into a sound sleep!
Here are a few photos from our recent hiking adventure with fellow Maryknoll lay missioners (Claire and Becca) in a state park just north of São Paulo (the park is on the edge of the Mata Atlântica).
If you would like to learn more about the struggle to maintain indigenous rights in the face of agribusiness, the film 'Material' was recommended by Benedito.