Rainforests are among the wettest places on our planet, getting between 8 to 14 feet of rainfall each year. For comparison, New York gets less than four feet of rain a year and London gets about 2.5 feet. Tropical rainforests are often found in the watersheds of mighty rivers such as the Amazon, the Congo and the Mekong.
Yet there often exists a striking disparity between the amount of water in rainforests and how little access indigenous people living there have to clean, potable water.
Across the world the poor face severe difficulties accessing clean water and “indigenous peoples suffer disproportionate violations of their rights to safe drinking water and sanitation,” says Ms. Catarina de Albuquerque, who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.
“Water, water, everywhere…nor any drop to drink”
There are several reasons why indigenous people living in rainforests may not have access to clean water even when they live in environments where water itself is not scarce.
For instance, often the water that is available is polluted and toxic, as is the case for the Yanomami people of the Brazilian Amazon or the Cofan people in neighboring Ecuador.
Davi Kopenawa, a respected Yanomami shaman and award-winning international activist talks about how his people were completely unprepared for the complexities of modern industry and the associated dangers of pollution and environmental degradation, in an insightful article, written by journalist Marilyn Jones in The Christian Science Monitor.
“We didn’t [even] mark times, days, or months,” explains Kopenawa, talking about the Yanomami before they had contact with the outside world. His people had “no way to defend themselves from the mercury that gold miners began using in the region to extract gold from ore. As mercury poured into the streams, it poisoned the water the Yanomami depended upon.”
Today Davi Kopenawa travels around the world to raise awareness about his people’s fight for basic human rights like healthcare to battle the diseases caused by contamination from mining wastes, and access to clean drinking water.
While the Yanomami struggle to cope with and clean up their polluted waters, the indigenous residents of the Oriente region in Ecuador are battling the effects of years of toxic waste dumping by the oil company Texaco, since bought out by Chevron.
In an article for Los Angeles Times, lawyer David Feige laments the devastation caused by years of unsafe and unregulated disposal of oil-drilling waste products: “that environmental legacy includes as many as 16 million gallons of spilled crude…hundreds of toxic waste pits…and an estimated 18 billion gallons of waste, or “produced,” water, which some tests have shown to contain possibly cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels many times higher than those permitted in the U.S. All these pollutants were discharged in one of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world — the Amazon rain forest [emphases added].”
As these toxic wastes percolated into the environment causing massive damage to the ecosystem, they also have had major health repercussions for the local indigenous people whose sources of water have been contaminated.
“Death, miscarriages and birth defects cut a swath through communities, threatening some indigenous groups with extinction” according to the Friends of the Earth organization.
Water: An economic resource or a revered entity?
Several indigenous groups are fighting back against the polluting of their ancestral homes and water sources. The Shuar are an indigenous people who live in the vast rainforests near the Peru-Ecuador border, including the Morona-Santiago province of Ecuador.
In a thought-provoking article in Salon magazine journalist Alexander Zaitchick writes about how the Shuar are prepared to die defending their lands.
Zaitchick travels with a Shuar chief, Domingo Ankuash, deep into the trackless rainforests of the Shuar lands. They reach a waterfall sacred to the Shuar, and standing by these cascades Ankuash explains his people’s frustrations and anger with ongoing and proposed gold mining on their ancestral lands.
“The government has given away land that is not theirs to give, and we have a duty to protect it. Where there is industrial mining, the rivers die and we lose our way of life. They want us to give up our traditions, work in the mines, and let them pollute our land [and waters]. But we will give our lives to defend the land, because the end is the same for us either way [emphases added].”
I bring up the Shuar people’s willingness to die for their lands not because I condone violence, and not even only to highlight how indigenous people can find themselves in desperate situations as they look to hold on to their own lands and culture.
Instead I want to point out a fundamental difference between how the majority of modern Western industrial and commercial philosophies view land and water as resources and the personal, spiritual relationship that exists between most indigenous peoples and the natural resources they depend upon and revere.
David Groenfeldt, the coordinator of the Indigenous Water Initiative explains in a beautifully written article that “The dominant value system determining how water is utilized in Western culture is basically an economic one. In indigenous societies the situation is reversed. The dominant cultural perspective places great importance on spiritual aspects of water and water bodies.”
The Shuar are willing to die for their land and water not only because these are valuable economic resources but also because – as stated in the Indigenous People’s Water Declaration – their “relationship with [their] lands, territories and water is the fundamental physical, cultural and spiritual basis for [their] existence.”
Bridging the gap
Understanding this difference in how water and land are viewed by industry and the majority of western viewpoints on one hand and indigenous peoples on the other is one crucial factor if we are to successfully face and resolve the issues surrounding clean water access for indigenous people.
I should clarify that indigenous people across the world also use water as a resource, but in general “water is not viewed as a way of making money any more than children are seen as sources of revenue” says Groenfeldt. “Money can, of course, be derived from the labor of children, and from water projects, but this is not the dominant motivation for having children, or for protecting water.”
Whether water is an ‘economic good’ or a spiritual force to be revered is an important point of conflict between industrial and commercial ventures and indigenous people. Often, well-meaning conservation and water management plans also fail to reconcile this difference in how water is viewed by different cultures.
The way forward has to involve at least two important steps. First, indigenous groups need to be involved in all stages of planning and implementing water management plans.
A recent UNESCO document on water and indigenous people emphasizes that “there is a real need to involve indigenous peoples directly in development processes, whether at local, national or global levels.”
Researchers from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia stress in an article in the Journal of Hydrology that “an important prerequisite to meeting Indigenous water needs is a greater general awareness of Indigenous concepts…the nature and extent of Indigenous interests in water and their relationship to other Indigenous values.”
Moving from consent to involvement
Currently there is an emphasis on garnering free, informed and prior consent from indigenous peoples before an environmental management plan is introduced. That’s commendable, but I think we need to progress beyond presenting local indigenous people with almost-finalized projects and working in a few modifications into those plans.
When indigenous people are involved in the planning stages of ecological management plan it can lead to a greater sense of ownership, and it allows all the stakeholders to meet and communicate their hopes and concerns about the project.
In fact it has been argued that “improved outcomes for indigenous people [and their water rights] will at minimum require their direct participation in water planning as well their contribution to water policy debates.”
Drawing upon the knowledge and ideas of indigenous people will allow management plans to respect not only the spiritual values of indigenous people but take into account how they are economically and socially affected by various projects.
Going back to the case of the Shuar people in Ecuador, Domingo Ankuash explains that it’s not that his people are against all extractive developments. They have formulated a plan of their own that involves sustainable agriculture, ranching and even mining on (a) small-scale (or small-scale mining); it’s just that no one in a position of power has asked them.
“Industrial mining is not sustainable,” said Ankuash while talking to the Salon magazine. “The gold and the copper will be gone in a few years, leaving behind nothing but poisoned earth for our people. We can have an economy here without destroying nature and the culture. We are open to the world. Let the people come here and see the native way — the bears, the monkeys, the trees, the cascades.”
Involving local indigenous peoples from the early stages of project planning can also provide valuable ecological information. For example, endangered or rare species are often considered to have the highest conservation value and management plans often ignore more common species that may have cultural and economic significance to local indigenous populations.
In the Daly River in northern Australia black bream fish are most commonly harvested and eaten by the local indigenous people, but conservation efforts have centered on the barramundi, as it has greater value to commercial and recreational fishermen. Only recently have researchers started to try and understand the ecology of the black bream and how they affect other members of their environment.
Here I must also be careful to point out that it would be counter-productive to lump all members of an indigenous group into a single group, or several indigenous groups from one area into a homogenous super-group. As with all communities, individual members are bound to have different, and possibly conflicting, values and beliefs.
Therefore, it becomes important to include the plurality of indigenous voices and opinions while formulating management plans. Very often indigenous people have leadership structures that differ significantly from popular western ones. For example “The Yanomami believe strongly in equality among people. Each community is independent from others and they do not recognize ‘chiefs’. Decisions are made by consensus, frequently after long debates where everybody has a say” according to Survival International.
Respect is a two-way street
In addition to involving indigenous peoples from the nascent stages of planning water management projects, governments, industries and conservationists need to move forward from a position of ‘appreciating’ or ‘understanding’ cultural values to ‘respecting’ and ‘incorporating’ these values into water and resource management strategies.
What’s the difference between ‘appreciating’ and ‘respecting’ indigenous culture? Groenfeldt sums it up succinctly when he writes “appreciation of [a] river spirit means that the dam can still be built, while respect for the spirit implies that the dam might not be built.”
The Shuar revere a Holy Spirit called Arutam, “who lives in the rivers, the trees, the fish and the flowers”. Their legends speak of foreigners who invaded their lands to find food and search for Arutam’s golden throne. But Arutam “hid the throne deep inside the mountains. He told the Shuar to stay vigilant, that the strangers would return but that they must be kept out.”
Today there is no hiding the gold, the oil, the forests or the waters of indigenous peoples. Of course this is an issue that transcends rainforests and even indigenous people; planned mining ventures threaten rivers and lakes with pollution where I live as well. Our lifestyles in today’s industrialized world demands these resources and I am not sure that it is possible to completely turn back this tide.
But that doesn’t mean indigenous communities need to suffer loss of their lands or their access to safe, clean water is not compromised. It is up to us to push ourselves, the corporations we support (and the ones we don’t) and our governments to understand, respect and embrace a sense of reverence for the natural world and its bounty.
One important way to do that is to ensure indigenous people have a real and strong voice in planning the extractive or environmental policies that affect their way of life.
I don’t know if valuable resources like gold and oil will be left alone when they are found in the homelands of indigenous people or in environmentally sensitive areas. I rather think not, and so it becomes critical that we develop ways to extract these resources following an age-old adage of the First Nations by which “Everything is taken and used with the understanding that we take only what we need, and we must use great care and be aware of how we take and how much of it so that future generations will not be put in peril.”
To help the indigenous peoples defend their human rights and lands, please visit www.rainforestfund.org/donate and consider making a contribution. 100% OF YOUR DONATION GOES TO THE FIELD.
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