Ecuador’s Highest Court Enforces Constitutional ‘Rights of Nature’ to Safeguard Los Cedros Protected Forest
QUITO, Ecuador— In an unprecedented case, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador has applied the constitutional provision on the “Rights of Nature” to safeguard the Los Cedros cloud forest from mining concessions. The court voted seven in favor, with two abstentions.
In the wake of the ruling, which was published Dec. 1, the Constitutional Court will develop a binding area of law in which the Rights of Nature, the right to a healthy environment, the right to water and environmental consultation must be respected.
The court decided that activities that threaten the rights of nature should not be carried out within the Los Cedros Protected Forest ecosystem. The ruling bans mining and all types of extractive activities in the protected area. Water and environmental permits to mining companies must also be denied.
Mining concessions have been granted to two thirds of the incredible Los Cedros reserve. The Ecuadorian state mining company ENAMI holds the rights. The new ruling means that mining concessions, environmental and water permits in the forest must be cancelled.
“This precedent-setting case is important not only for Ecuador but also for the international community,” said Alejandro Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This progressive and innovative ruling recognizes that nature can and does have rights. It protects Los Cedros’ imperiled wildlife, like the endangered brown-headed spider monkeys and spectacled bears, from mining companies.”
In September 2020 Earth Law Center, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court. The groups asked the court to protect Los Cedros and robustly enforce constitutional provisions that establish basic rights of nature, or “pachamama,” including the right to exist, the right to restoration and the rights of the rivers, especially the river Magdalena.
“This is a historic victory in favor of nature,” said Natalia Greene from the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. “The Constitutional Court states that no activity that threatens the Rights of Nature can be developed within the ecosystem of Los Cedros Protected Forest, including mining and any other extractive activity. Mining is now banned from this amazing and unique protected forest. This sets a great juridical precedent to continue with other threatened Protected Forests. Today, the endangered frogs, the spectacled bears, the spider monkey, the birds and nature as a whole have won an unprecedented battle.”
“It is undoubtedly good news but the situation of the Los Cedros Protective Forest is not an isolated event in Ecuador,” said Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin American legal lead at Earth Law Center. “This is a problem of the forests throughout the country. In recent years mining concessions that overlap with protective forests have been awarded.”
The brown-headed spider monkey, found in Los Cedros and threatened by the mining, has lost more than 80% of its original area of distribution in northwest Ecuador. In 2005 scientists estimated that there were fewer than 250 brown-headed spider monkeys globally, making the species among the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.
The case is of great significance, both for Ecuador and the world, because it establishes important and influential “Earth jurisprudence” that will help guide humanity to be a benefit rather than a destructive presence within the community of life. The proposed mining is unlawful, the groups say, because it violates the rights of the Los Cedros Protective Forest as an ecosystem as well as the rights of the many members of that living community.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
As a forestry scientist, I’m often asked how climate change is affecting fall foliage displays. What’s clearest so far is that color changes are occurring later in the season. And the persistence of very warm, wet weather in 2021 is reducing color displays in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. But climate change isn’t the only factor at work, and in some areas, human decisions about forest management are the biggest influences.
Longer growing seasons
Climate change is clearly making the Northeast warmer and wetter. Since 1980, average temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 0.66 degrees Fahrenheit (0.37 Celsius), and average annual precipitation has increased by 3.4 inches (8.6 centimeters) – about 8%. This increase in precipitation fuels tree growth and tends to offset stress on the trees from rising temperatures. In the West, which is becoming both warmer and drier, climate change is having greater physiological effects on trees.
My research in tree physiology and dendrochronology – dating and interpreting past events based on trees’ growth rings – shows that in general, trees in the eastern U.S. have fared quite well in a changing climate. That’s not surprising given the subtle variations in climate across much of the eastern U.S. Temperature often limits trees’ growth in cool and cold regions, so the trees usually benefit from slight warming.
In addition, carbon dioxide – the dominant greenhouse gas warming Earth’s climate – is also the molecule that fuels photosynthesis in plants. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase, plants carry out more photosynthesis and grow more.
More carbon dioxide is not automatically good for the planet – an idea often referred to as “global greening.” There are natural limits to how much photosynthesis plants can carry out. Plants need water and nutrients to grow, and supplies of these inputs are limited. And as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, plants’ ability to use it decreases – an effect known as carbon dioxide saturation.
For now, however, climate change has extended the growing season for trees in the Northeast by about 10-14 days. In my tree ring research, we routinely see trees putting on much more diameter growth now than in the past.
This effect is particularly evident in young trees, but we see it in old trees as well. That’s remarkable because old trees’ growth should be slowing down, not speeding up. Scientists in western states have even noted this acceleration in bristlecone pines that are over 4,000 years old – the oldest trees in the world.
Fall colors emerge when the growing season ends and trees stop photosynthesizing. The trees stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment in their leaves, which absorbs energy from sunlight. This allows carotenoid (orange) and xanthophyll (yellow) pigments in the leaves to emerge. The leaves also produce a third pigment, anthocyanin, which creates red colors. A longer growing season may mean that fall colors emerge later – and it can also make those colors duller.
A changing mix of trees
Climate isn’t the only thing that affects fall colors. The types of tree species in a forest are an even bigger factor, and forest composition in the eastern U.S. has changed dramatically over the past century.
Notably, eastern forests today have more species such as red maple, black birch, tulip poplar and blackgum than they did in the early 20th century. These trees are shade-tolerant and typically grow in conditions that are neither extremely wet nor extremely dry. They also produce intense red and yellow displays in the fall.
There is evidence that some tree species in the eastern U.S. are migrating to the north and west because of warming, increasing precipitation and fire suppression. This trend could affect fall colors as regions gain or lose particular species. In particular, studies indicate that the range of sugar maples – one of the best color-producing trees – is shifting northward into Canada.
Forests under pressure
So far it’s clear that warming has caused a delay in peak colors for much of the East, ranging from a few days in Pennsylvania to as much as two weeks in New England. It’s not yet known whether this delay is making fall colors less intense or shorter-lasting.
But I’ve observed over the past 35 years that when very warm and wet weather extends into mid- and late October, leaves typically go from green to either dull colors or directly to brown, particularly if there is a sudden frost. This year there are few intense red leaves, which suggests that warmth has interfered with anthocyanin production. Some classic red producers, such as red maple and scarlet oak, are producing yellow leaves.
Other factors could also stress eastern forests. Climate scientists project that global warming will make tropical storms and hurricanes more intense and destructive, with higher rainfall rates. These storms could knock down trees, blow leaves off those left standing and reduce fall coloration.
Forests shade the earth and absorb carbon dioxide. I am proud to see an increasing number of foresters getting involved in ecological forestry, an approach that focuses on ecosystem services that forests provide, such as storing carbon, filtering water and sheltering wildlife.
Foresters can help to slow climate change by revegetating open land, increasing forests’ biodiversity and using highly adaptable tree species that are long-lived, produce many seeds and migrate over time. Shaping eastern forests to thrive in a changing climate can help preserve their benefits – including fall color displays – well into the future.
On a cool morning in December, Johnella LaRose stands in a 2-acre field in east Oakland, overseeing a group of volunteers preparing a section of this land that the Sogorea Te Land Trust stewards for the arrival of a shipping container. LaRose is dressed to work, wearing jeans and boots that look broken in.
The container will serve as storage for farming equipment, she says, and in case of a natural disaster, as a safe shelter for people to gather, sleep, and access resources.
LaRose is co-founder of the Sogorea Te Land Trust, an intertribal women-led organization that is in the final stages of securing nonprofit status. It’s working to acquire access—and ownership—to land in the Bay Area, where Ohlone people have lived for centuries.
The goal, says LaRose, is to establish a land base for the Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone people, whose ancestral territory includes cities in the East Bay. “The land gives us everything that we need in order to survive,” says Corrina Gould, a Lisjan Ohlone leader and the other co-founder of the land trust. “That’s how people lived for thousands of years on our land and other Indigenous people’s land. … You work with the land so that it can continue to provide, but that you honor that relationship by not taking too much.”
Gould says Sogorea Te plans to steward the lands it has in a way that honors it.
Sogorea Te got access to the land in east Oakland in 2017 through a partnership with Planting Justice, a local grassroots organization that owns the property and uses it to house a nursery of edible tree crops for purchase by community members and others online. The land is also a place where Planting Justice’s reentry work takes place, because the nursery is staffed mostly by people who were formerly incarcerated.
Planting Justice plans to give the deed on the parcel to Sogorea Te—at no cost—in the future. And the two organizations plan to continue to work on the land together. In the future, Sogorea Te intends to purchase land by partnering with organizations who own land and are willing to transfer ownership.
LaRose hopes the lands Sogorea Te stewards will facilitate healing and build resiliency for Ohlone people. When she imagines the purpose the shipping container could serve, for example, LaRose thinks about Hurricane Katrina and its disproportionate impacts on poor and Black communities in New Orleans.
The Trust’s vision for this particular plot of land is to create an Indigenous cultural site.
As LaRose talks about her hopes, the volunteers build the foundation for the 5,000-pound shipping container. So far, volunteers have dug down 4 inches, removed the dirt, leveled it out, and started hauling gravel to fill in the hole. Once the container arrives, they’ll build it out with a kitchen, deck, and solar panels.
The 2-acre parcel where LaRose and volunteers are working is in the Sobrante Park neighborhood of east Oakland, which has little access to public transportation and grocery stores. It is surrounded by dense rows of apartments and houses. Train whistles and freeway noise can be heard from where LaRose and the volunteers are working.
Near the back fence of the plot runs San Leandro Creek—renamed with its Ohlone name, Lisjan Creek, by the trust. Previous work parties have installed a hugel (short for “Hügelkultur”) raised bed where plants native to the region are growing. A no-till mound of soil and wood chips, Sogorea Te’s hugel has sage, wild onion, and milk weed, each labeled with their Ohlone name—miriyan, ‘uuner, and šiska. The plants are used for ceremony and medicine.
The trust’s vision for this particular plot of land is to create an Indigenous cultural site with a traditional arbor 9- to 15-feet tall, built out of redwoods. The arbor will be a place for ceremony that Ohlone people can pass on to future generations.
Gould says that the Ohlone never lost their connection to the land.
“We’ve been here since the beginning of time, so there continues to be a deep connection to land and how we relate on a daily basis has changed because of colonization,” she says. “It’s really been my generation that’s been able to come out and begin to speak about these horrific issues and to talk truth to history.”
Sogorea Te comes from a history of Ohlone people working to gain recognition and access to land in the Bay Area. The name Sogorea Te is the Ohlone name of a site in Vallejo, California, where a cultural easement fight took place in 2011. LaRose and Gould’s first organization, Indian People Organizing for Change, was involved in reoccupying the territorial site for 109 days. During that time, together with the Yocha Dehe and Cortina tribes, they recreated a village site with a sacred fire and stopped development of a sacred site along the Carquinez Strait.
The occupation led to the first cultural easement agreement among a city, a park district, and a federally recognized tribe. Gould says the easement allowed the tribe to have the same rights to that land as the other entities.
LaRose and Gould say they began Indian People Organizing for Change in 1999 to address issues relevant to their community, including homelessness and protection of sacred Indigenous sites. All of these issues, they say, are rooted in the same problem: dispossession from their people’s ancestral lands.
The issue of land return is particularly important for the Ohlone people who for centuries have had no land base and have been politically and economically marginalized. Today, the Ohlone are not on the list of 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States.
The idea behind establishing a land trust was for these Indigenous women to create a land base for their community.
Ohlone life changed dramatically when Spanish military and civilians began to encroach on the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1700s.
Colonizers raped and forced Ohlone people into labor, brought diseases such as small pox and measles, and dispossessed Ohlone people of their lands.
Ohlone people survived and continued to live in that region, which today is one of the densest and most expensive metro areas in the U.S.
In 2015, LaRose and Gould established Sogorea Te Land Trust. It was another step in the work they’d already been doing to restore cultural access to ancestral lands.
Gould says they hope the land trust will allow Ohlone people for generations to come to reengage the land in the way that it was and has been done traditionally. That looks like bringing back traditional songs, dances, and ceremonies back to the land “and to try to create a balance.”
The idea behind establishing a land trust, which was sparked after Gould attended a meeting with existing Native-led land trusts in 2012, was for these Indigenous women to create a land base for their community.
“When you follow the rules, man, you’re not going to get anywhere,” LaRose said. “You really just have to really be brave and just put yourself out there and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen. This is what we’re going to do.’”
So far, the largest lot of land that Sogorea Te has access to is the quarter-acre in east Oakland.
The organization Planting Justice purchased that plot in the fall of 2015 as an additional location for its food justice work, with a low-interest loan from the Northern California Community Loan Fund and individual donations from community members. The nonprofit already owned land elsewhere in the East Bay.
In November 2016, its founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi drove North Dakota to join the #NODAPL protests in Standing Rock. On their way back to the Bay Area, they started thinking about their relationship to the land and their role in the Indigenous people in their own community.
Raders said both he and Zandi were aware of the history of colonization and genocide that happened to Indigenous people in California. But during their conversations with Indigenous elders, they began to ask themselves what it meant for Ohlone people to not be federally recognized and have no land base.
“I’m not really sure how this is going to look, but we want to be able to figure out how to give the land back to Indigenous people,” Raders remembers thinking.
Diane Williams, a friend of Sogorea Te’s founders who worked at Planting Justice, connected the two organizations in hopes that they’d work together in some capacity.
After numerous months, members of the groups, including LaRose, Gould, and Raders, finally met in August 2017 and officially started their partnership in fall 2017.
At that meeting, Sogorea Te learned that Planting Justice still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on the mortgage but that when it was paid off, the organization wanted to sign the title over to the land trust, “which was a real surprise to us,” LaRose says.
“We want to be able to figure out how to give the land back to Indigenous people.”
That’s the first piece of land that the land trust was given to steward, with a verbal agreement between the organizations that they’d share it and work in cooperation with one another.
“It’s clearly understood by the Planting Justice board and the Sogorea Te Land Trust that this is a partnership that’s going to continue,” says Raders, a Planting Justice co-founder, who notes that his organization is committed to transfer the land to Sogorea Te ownership no matter how long it takes to pay off the mortgage. From there, the trust will establish a lease agreement with the organization so it can still have operations on the 2-acre parcel.
Planting Justice considered putting a cultural (or conservation) easement on the site, one that the Land Trust would manage, but it couldn’t because it is still paying off the mortgage of the land. Raders said the mortgage holders did not allow Planting Justice to move forward with an easement in case the mortgage did not get paid in full.
“Conservation easements last forever, no matter who owns the property in the future so those restrictions still run with the land,” said Sylvia Bates, director of Standards & Educational Services at the Land Trust Alliance, a national land conservation organization.
In a scenario where an entity owns or is stewarding land with a conservation easement, the organization is obligated to make sure those restrictions stay in place. The mortgage holders did not want to deal with that possibility.
LaRose and Gould say that they’re figuring it out as they go along and are open to all the possibilities of acquiring land. “I don’t think that there’s one way that we’re looking at it,” Gould says. “We’re just trying to figure out, ‘how do we do that?’ and we’re bringing people along with us.”
In addition to the land in east Oakland, the trust stewards five plots of land throughout the Bay Area where they grow native plants and gather for ceremony.
Sogorea Te is also now in talks with an organization about land in Sonoma County. And in March, LaRose and Gould caught wind of a couple of vacant lots in Oakland that they might want to take into their care.
The organization doesn’t yet own any of these parcels, but they hope to soon.
In partnership, Planting Justice and Sogorea Te continue to work on the land together, as Planting Justice pays off the mortgage on the 2 acres in east Oakland and Sogorea Te raises funds to buy other parcels in the east Bay. Planting Justice plans to give the land to Sogorea Te once the mortgage is paid off. From there, Planting Justice will continue to operate on the land with a lease from the land trust.
LaRose said she’d really like someone with the resources to come in and give them the money to pay off the mortgage in full.
“Weirder things have happened,” she said.
One way Sogorea Te is raising funds is through the Shuumi Land Tax, a tax that the land trust has been implementing since 2016. It’s a voluntary tax for people who live on Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land, encompassing two dozen cities that make up most of the East Bay.
It was modeled after the Honor Tax that the Wiyot people started in Humboldt County, California. And there are other groups running similar taxes, like Real Rent, which encourages Seattleites to make rent payment to the Duwamish Tribe.
The Shuumi Tax is based on how many rooms people have in their home and whether they rent or own. As the value of a person’s home—or of rental costs—increase, so does the tax.
“But a lot of people give a lot more money. A lot more money but it’s this idea that you’re really paying for the privilege of living on Ohlone land, occupied land,” LaRose said. “It’s like reparations of some sort.”
In 2018, KALW reported that the land trust received $80,000 from 800 contributions in the previous year.
The tax funds have been used for staff, office costs, and supplies. And in the future, they will be used to buy and maintain lands that are under the land trust’s stewardship.
Back at the Planting Justice site, two hours have gone by and the volunteers’ work is almost done for the day. Their last big task begins when the contractor brings another truckful of gravel. Volunteers spread out this new load until it’s level.
LaRose says volunteers and other community members are always thanking her and the Sogorea Te team for doing this work.
“But I’m like, ‘we have to do it.’ It’s not like we want to do it,” she said. “We have to do it.”
DEONNA ANDERSONis a freelance digital and radio reporter and a former Surdna reporting fellow for YES!
“Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive? That question is absurd: Life itself will not survive, except what is funneled through the mechanical collective.”1 LEWIS MUMFORD
There is so little time and even less hope here, in the midst of ruin, at the end of the world. Every biome is in shreds. The green flesh of forests has been stripped to grim sand. The word water has been drained of meaning; the Athabascan River is essentially a planned toxic spill now, oozing from the open wound of the Alberta tar sands. When birds fly over it, they drop dead from the poison. No one believes us when we say that, but it’s true. The Appalachian Mountains are being blown to bits, their dense life of deciduous forests, including their human communities, reduced to a disposal problem called “overburden,” a word that should be considered hate speech: Living creatures—mountain laurels, wood thrush fledglings, somebody’s grandchildren—are not objects to be tossed into gullies. If there is no poetry after Auschwitz, there is no grammar after mountaintop removal. As above, so below. Coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. And the world’s grasslands have been sliced to ribbons, literally, with steel blades fed by fossil fuel. The hunger of those blades would be endless but for the fact that the planet is a bounded sphere: There are no continents left to eat. Every year the average American farm uses the energy equivalent of three to four tons of TNT per acre. And oil burns so easily, once every possibility for self-sustaining cultures has been destroyed. Even the memory of nature is gone, metaphrastic now, something between prehistory and a fairy tale. All that’s left is carbon, accruing into a nightmare from which dawn will not save us. Climate change slipped into climate chaos, which has become a whispered climate holocaust. At least the humans whisper. And the animals? During the 2011 Texas drought, deer abandoned their fawns for lack of milk. That is not a grief that whispers. For living beings like Labrador ducks, Javan rhinos, and Xerces blue butterflies, there is the long silence of extinction.
We have a lot of numbers. They keep us sane, providing a kind of gallows’ comfort against the intransigent sadism of power: We know the world is being murdered, despite the mass denial. The numbers are real. The numbers don’t lie. The species shrink, their extinctions swell, and all their names are other words for kin: bison, wolves, black-footed ferrets. Before me (Lierre) is the text of a talk I’ve given. The original version contains this sentence: “Another 120 species went extinct today.” The 120 is crossed clean through, with 150 written above it. But the 150 is also struck out, with 180 written above. The 180 in its turn has given way to 200. I stare at this progression with a sick sort of awe. How does my small, neat handwriting hold this horror? The numbers keep stacking up, I’m out of space in the margin, and life is running out of time.
Twelve thousand years ago, the war against the earth began. In nine places,2 people started to destroy the world by taking up agriculture. Understand what agriculture is: In blunt terms, you take a piece of land, clear every living thing off it—ultimately, down to the bacteria—and then plant it for human use. Make no mistake: Agriculture is biotic cleansing. That’s not agriculture on a bad day, or agriculture done poorly. That’s what agriculture actually is: the extirpation of living communities for a monocrop for and of humans. There were perhaps five million humans living on earth on the day this started—from this day to the ending of the world, indeed—and there are now well over seven billion. The end is written into the beginning. As earth and space sciences scholar David R. Montgomery points out, agricultural societies “last 800 to 2,000 years … until the soil gives out.”3 Fossil fuel has been a vast accelerant to both the extirpation and the monocrop—the human population has quadrupled under the swell of surplus created by the Green Revolution—but it can only be temporary. Finite quantities have a nasty habit of running out. The name for this diminishment is drawdown, and agriculture is in essence a slow bleed-out of soil, species, biomes, and ultimately the process of life itself. Vertebrate evolution has come to a halt for lack of habitat, with habitat taken by force and kept by force: Iowa alone uses the energy equivalent of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year. Agriculture is the original scorched-earth policy, which is why both author and permaculturist Toby Hemenway and environmental writer Richard Manning have written the same sentence: “Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.” To quote Manning at length: “No biologist, or anyone else for that matter, could design a system of regulations that would make agriculture sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. It mostly relies on an unnatural system of annual grasses grown in a mono- culture, a system that nature does not sustain or even recognize as a natural system. We sustain it with plows, petrochemicals, fences, and subsidies, because there is no other way to sustain it.”4
Agriculture is what creates the human pattern called civilization. Civilization is not the same as culture—all humans create culture, which can be defined as the customs, beliefs, arts, cuisine, social organization, and ways of knowing and relating to each other, the land, and the divine within a specific group of people. Civilization is a specific way of life: people living in cities, with cities defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. What that means is that they need more than the land can give. Food, water, and energy have to come from somewhere else. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter what lovely, peaceful values people hold in their hearts. The society is dependent on imperialism and genocide because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their trees. But since the city has used up its own, it has to go out and get those from somewhere else. That’s the last 10,000 years in a few sentences. Over and over and over, the pattern is the same. There’s a bloated power center surrounded by conquered colonies, from which the center extracts what it wants, until eventually it collapses. The conjoined horrors of militarism and slavery begin with agriculture.
Agricultural societies end up militarized—and they always do—for three reasons. First, agriculture creates a surplus, and if it can be stored, it can be stolen, so, the surplus needs to be protected. The people who do that are called soldiers. Second, the drawdown inherent in this activity means that agriculturalists will always need more land, more soil, and more resources. They need an entire class of people whose job is war, whose job is taking land and resources by force—agriculture makes that possible as well as inevitable. Third, agriculture is backbreaking labor. For anyone to have leisure, they need slaves. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, three-quarters of the people on this planet were living in conditions of slavery, indenture, or serfdom.5 Force is the only way to get and keep that many people enslaved. We’ve largely forgotten this is because we’ve been using machines—which in turn use fossil fuel—to do that work for us instead of slaves. The symbiosis of technology and culture is what historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) called a technic. A social milieu creates specific technologies which in turn shape the culture. Mumford writes, “[A] new configuration of technical invention, scientific observation, and centralized political control … gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify, without eulogy, as civilization… The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented. This centralized technics … created complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts—the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable.”6
Technology is anything but neutral or passive in its effects: Ploughshares require armies of slaves to operate them and soldiers to protect them. The technic that is civilization has required weapons of conquest from the beginning. “Farming spread by genocide,” Richard Manning writes.7 The destruction of Cro-Magnon Europe—the culture that bequeathed us Lascaux, a collection of cave paintings in southwestern France—took farmer-soldiers from the Near East perhaps 300 years to accomplish. The only thing exchanged between the two cultures was violence. “All these artifacts are weapons,” writes archaeologist T. Douglas Price, with his colleagues, “and there is no reason to believe that they were exchanged in a nonviolent manner.”8
Weapons are tools that civilizations will make because civilization itself is a war. Its most basic material activity is a war against the living world, and as life is destroyed, the war must spread. The spread is not just geographic, though that is both inevitable and catastrophic, turning biotic communities into gutted colonies and sovereign people into slaves. Civilization penetrates the culture as well, because the weapons are not just a technology: no tool ever is. Technologies contain the transmutational force of a technic, creating a seamless suite of social institutions and corresponding ideologies. Those ideologies will either be authoritarian or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Technics are never neutral. Or, as ecopsychology pioneer Chellis Glendinning writes with spare eloquence, “All technologies are political.”9
There exists some debate as to how many places developed agriculture and civilizations. The best current guess seems to be nine: the Fertile Crescent; the Indian sub- continent; the Yangtze and Yellow River basins; the New Guinea Highlands; Central Mexico; Northern South America; sub-Saharan Africa; and eastern North America.
T. Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer, and Lawrence H. Keeley, “The Spread of Farming into Europe North of the Alps,” in Douglas T. Price and Anne Brigitte Gebauer, Last Hunters, First Farmers (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1995).
Southwest Harbor, Maine (Special to Informed Comment) – While mainstream media celebrate the remarkable development in record time of vaccines spectacularly effective against the Covid virus, knowledge that might contribute to other medical breakthroughs is being steadily undermined. This decline is not the result of some dramatic lawsuit or corporate takeover. It is one of the effects of the industrial modernization that is supposed to have brought increasing comfort, health and advanced knowledge into our lives. Economic growth has produced not only a climate emergency but a less publicized decline in the many efficacious forms of traditional knowledge and the biodiversity they sustain and are sustained by. In an email exchange I had with ethnobotanist Kirsten Tripplett, Ph.D., she pointed out:
“the generally accepted understanding is that 12-25% of “Western” medicine is derived or based on plant molecules/chemical backbones…It depends who’s talking and what their agenda is. And that is JUST in Western medicine. There are other, much older and empirically-based medicinal systems out there that are incredibly effective, but most U.S. citizens are unaware or only dimly, of them. Not only is the loss of language directly linked to knowledge loss and potential medical/economic loss, but think of all of the practical and useful things that get lost, too.”
When Brazil President Bolsanaro encouraged more forestry development in the Amazon, global climate advocates worried about the lungs of the planet and the contribution to global warming. They might equally have been concerned with the indigenous knowledge going up in smoke.
“A study at the University of Zurich in Switzerland shows that a large proportion of existing medicinal plant knowledge is linked to threatened Indigenous languages. In a regional study on the Amazon, New Guinea and North America, researchers concluded that 75% of medicinal plant uses are known in only one language.” She reports that 91% of medicinal knowledge exists in a single language, so the loss of linguistic diversity diminished the former as well.
Nor are medicines all that is lost. She adds,
“Every time a language disappears, a speaking voice also disappears, a way to make sense of reality disappears, a way to interact with nature disappears, a way to describe and name animals and plants disappears,” says Jordi Bascompte, researcher in the Department of Evolutional Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich.”
As indigenous peoples rely on the spoken word for intergenerational knowledge transfer, the disappearance of these languages will take with them a universe of information. The possible losses include fundamental neurological facts about the human brain. Jairus Grove, author of Savage Ecology, cites work by neurologists showing that each language contains a different cognitive map of the human brain. Sometimes the differences are very significant and open up important research potential. Grove cites work by linguist David Harrison on the Uririna people of Peru showing that some, though very few, languages place the object of the sentence at the beginning. Were it not for the continued existence of this people, neuroscientists would not even suspect or know that the human brain could be wired in such a way to make O-V-S sentences possible.
Grove points out that most Indo European languages have an active subject, verb, passive object form, but there are minority cultures that do not express that format. In a world beset by the dangerous exploitation of the natural world these minority cultures may teach us more about how to survive and thrive in this world. In this context Tripplett points out that agency is not confined to the human world. The unwillingness to recognize and accept this fact could have increasingly dire consequences.
Dr. Kirsten Tripplett writes, “It’s a long leap conceptually to make, but if one accepts a premise that “language” isn’t just spoken, and that knowledge is transmitted through actions and lifeways, then loss of biological species and their exploitation to serve human interests, is a critical loss, too, for the same reasons as those cited above . . .”
Grove has similar worries: “Irreversible catastrophic changes are certain but extinction is unlikely. What we stand to lose as a species in this current apocalypse of homogenization is unimaginable, not because of the loss of life but because of the loss of difference. Who and what will be left on Earth to inspire and ally with us in our creative advance is uncertain. If the future is dominated by those who seek to establish the survival of the human species at all costs through technological mastery then whatever “we” manages to persist will likely live on or near a mean and lonely planet.” (Savage Ecology, p. 209)
Why this loss of cultural diversity? There is first the reductionist tendency to treat cultural diversity and biodiversity as separate issues rather than as continuously interacting. Zanon further quotes Jordi Bascompte: “We can’t ignore this network now and think only about the plants or only about the culture . . . We humans are very good at homogenizing culture and nature so that nature seems to be more or less the same everywhere.”
This homogenization process includes reduction of human labor to cogs in a corporate machine, to cookie cutter development to the planned obsolescence and corporate-dominated consumer culture. Most important is a neoliberal financial system fostering increasing wealth gaps within and among nations. In this context it is especially important to preserve alternative ways of being in the world and their origins and history. Despite efforts to homogenize many indigenous cultures some retain their vitality. But their survival will depend on bottom-up activism and rules, laws, and practices negotiated across race, ethnicity, religion, and class.
As Subhankar Banerjee argues, saving elephants in different states presents complex problems. More broadly biodiversity conservation is contextual. What works for one place and in a particular culture may not work for another place and in another culture. This is not, however, cultural relativism. Biodiversity advocates value most those cultures that seek space for difference and for a politics that celebrates that end.
Banerjee again: “What makes biodiversity conservation so beautiful is that it is a pluriverse—so many ideas, so many practices, so many forms of human-nonhuman kinship that exist around the world, which in a different context, a quarter-century ago, Indian historian Ramachandra Guha and Spanish ecological-economist Juan Martinez-Alier called Varieties of Environmentalism.”
To help indigenous peoples worldwide preserve, revitalize and promote their languages, UNESCO has launched its Decade of Action for Indigenous Languages from 2022 to 203. This is a principle worthy of much more attention than it receives. For that situation to change more than proclamations of rights will be necessary, including political movements celebrating and willing to fight for economic justice and biological and cultural diversity.
The survival of the last uncontacted tribe in South America outside the Amazon is at stake.
Indigenous people living in a South American forest with one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation have appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to save it from total destruction. Their uncontacted relatives are fleeing from one corner of the remaining forest to another, seeking refuge from ever-present bulldozers.
The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode of Paraguay’s Chaco forest have been trying since 1993 – when they submitted a formal land claim – to protect their forest in the face of a rapidly expanding agricultural frontier.
In 2013, given a total lack of political will in Paraguay to uphold the law and stop the destruction of their lands, they requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights intervene.
In 2016, at the government’s request, they agreed to enter formal negotiations with the government for their land titles, but for 5 years, and despite 42 meetings, the destruction of their forest has continued unabated. Satellite photos reveal that the Ayoreo now live in an island of forest surrounded by monocultures and beef production.
The Ayoreo have now announced they are pulling out of the negotiations, and have written again to the Inter-American Commission, asking it to order the Paraguayan authorities to finally return their land to them, and expel the agribusiness corporations that have taken it over.
Although most Ayoreo-Totobiegosode were forcibly contacted by American evangelical missionaries some years ago, an unknown number remain uncontacted in the last island of their forest, which is now being cut down around them.
Earlier this year one uncontacted group made contact with a settled community of their relatives, to express their fear at the destruction of their forest refuge, before returning to the forest.
The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode leader Porai Picanerai, who was forcibly contacted by the American New Tribes Mission in 1986, said: “My uncontacted relatives are suffering and in danger because they barely have any space now to live in. There are many outsiders occupying our land and burning the forest for beef production.”
Porai also said: “After having participated in most of the 42 meetings, I can confirm that the government doesn’t keep its word, that it lies and doesn’t want to protect my people or return the lands that we’ve always lived in and cared for. We’ll only get the government to act by going to outside bodies like the Commission.”
Survival Researcher Teresa Mayo said today: “The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode have called a halt to the negotiation process as the government was just dragging it out while allowing the rampant destruction of the Ayoreo’s forest to continue. The state knows that it simply has to do nothing to effectively condemn the uncontacted Ayoreo to death – and if a government sees the solution to its “problem” as the extermination of a people, we’re talking about genocide.”