The Other Extinction Rebellion: Countering the Loss of Biocultural Diversity
Langscape Magazine, Volume 9, Double Issue, Summer/Winter 2020
Changing Our Lives, Sowing New Seeds
With the climate emergency threatening life as we know it, an Extinction Rebellion movement has been afoot. We at Terralingua, however, believe there is another crisis against which the world should rebel too: the “biocultural diversity extinction crisis,” the ongoing loss of diversity in both nature and culture. That’s what we had in mind when launching the theme for the 2020 issue of Langscape Magazine: calling attention to the need for that other extinction rebellion.
That was in February. Little did we know that only a month later the COVID-19 pandemic would begin to spread across the planet, making our theme all the more poignant and urgent! Indigenous Peoples and local communities—who account for most of the world’s biocultural diversity—were among the most vulnerable to the effects of this scourge, which posed an existential threat to their lives, livelihoods, and ways of life. That added a whole new dimension to our theme: How were they responding to the pandemic? How were they building resilience by calling upon their cultural and spiritual traditions?
Then, with the world already in the throes of the global health crisis, came a wave of political and social turmoil, provoked by the long-festering ills of systemic racism, discrimination, and social injustice. It swept the globe like a second pandemic, exacerbating and exacerbated by the first one—and again Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities were hit hard. That brought into closer focus the tangle of social, economic, and environmental injustices and inequities that has long stood in the way of a bioculturally just and sustainable world. And it posed a new question for our theme: What challenges and opportunities does the current historical moment present for achieving “unity in biocultural diversity” for all?
The cornucopia of stories, poems, photos, videos, and artwork we present in the following pages is the fruit of this wide-ranging exploration of our theme. Such a bounty of contributions from all corners of the world, offered at a time of unprecedented global hardship, is proof that our writers and artists—many of them young participants in our Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle project—were determined to share their thoughts and feelings against all odds. We’re all the richer and wiser for their caring, generosity, and insights.
First we delve into the challenges that communities in North and South America, Asia, and Africa face in confronting and coping with the pandemic. We start in New York, where researchers Maya Daurio, Sienna Craig, Daniel Kaufman, Ross Perlin, and Mark Turin were in the midst of producing cutting-edge digital mappings of the spatial distribution of New York’s astounding linguistic diversity—about 650 different languages spoken there!—when the pandemic hit. Suddenly, they realized that their language maps could be repurposed to help address health problems and other urgent societal needs the pandemic brought about in the city.
Cities under pandemic lockdown inspire Page Lambert’s prose poem “Reclamation.” With the urban bustle at a standstill, wildlife was seen returning within city boundaries, reclaiming their ground. What would happen, muses Page, if cities remained off-limits to human activities long enough for them to crumble and turn back to the earth?
Leaving cities behind, we drop in on several local communities around the world, each dealing with pandemic challenges (and opportunities) in its own creative way. Severn Cullis-Suzuki transports us to Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the west coast of Canada that’s home to the Haida people. During a period of pandemic self-isolation, she and her family discover a silver lining: finding the inner calm and stillness needed for full-immersion Haida language practice.
Radhika Borde and Siman Hansdak then take us to rural eastern India, where pandemic restrictions threaten the food security of an Indigenous Santhal community. Going back into the forest for once traditional hunting and gathering activities gives people “food and fun” and a renewed sense of cultural identity—while also posing issues of long-term sustainability.
In their photo essay, Manju Maharjan and co-authors Yuvash Vaidya, Prakash Khadgi, and Sheetal Vaidya introduce us to the Indigenous Pahari community of Nepal. Paharis have long specialized in highly popular woven bamboo crafts, but the pandemic has crimped their ability to bring their products to market. Undeterred, villagers find ingenious ways to build resilience.
Off to East Africa, where we follow Simon Mitambo into the farming community of Taraka in Kenya. The pandemic has disrupted their way of life and ability to grow food, but people help one another cope, and Elders remind community members that they have survived pandemics before. Ancient rituals are revived to strengthen cohesion and stave off the threat.
On to South America. Listening to Indigenous Elders and leaders in Colombia, Daniel Henryk Rasolt reflects on the links of the pandemic to other global emergencies: climate change and biodiversity loss. Securing Indigenous land rights, he argues, is crucial to address these interlocking crises. His story is hauntingly illustrated with artwork by Vannessa Circe.
The next group of stories, poetry, and interviews turns the spotlight on edgy issues of Indigenous sovereignty, racism, and discrimination. In Hawai‘i, we trek with Harvy King up the slopes of Mauna Kea, a mountain sacred to Native Hawaiians, where ever bigger and more powerful telescopes are being built. Asserting their self-determination, Native Hawaiians are staging a peaceful but firm resistance against what to them is the continued desecration of the mountain.
Marie-Émilie Lacroix, an Innu woman from eastern Canada, is on a gently rebellious mission of her own: decolonizing language. In an intimate interview with Italian researcher Marco Romagnoli, she explores how language—and the meanings and attitudes it conveys—can be used either as an instrument of oppression or as a tool for resistance and liberation.
In a similar vein, Chloe Dragon Smith, a young Métis woman from northern Canada, focuses on the power of language to root people in the land. “Language needs Land needs Language,” exclaims her poem. Connecting to the land through language (and vice versa) offers the strength and resilience needed to live as an Indigenous person in a world of imposed Western values.
In Australia, Mark Lock from the Ngiyampaa people works to decolonize the country’s health system, which alienates and discriminates against Aboriginal Peoples, as it was never designed to reflect their values and norms. In a probing interview with Stephen Houston, Mark explores the concept of cultural safety and the links between cultural life and health.
The strength of women as defenders of biocultural diversity is the thread that runs through several more stories, photo and video essays, and artwork. Chonon Bensho, a young Shipibo-Konibo artist and healer, writes from Peru with husband Pedro Favaron. Both her words and her artwork, which illustrates the story, resound with the ancestral wisdom that comes from the depths of time—wisdom that, she suggests, we must learn to live by “despite the confusion and uneasiness of this century.”
In Canada, Sylvia Pozeg, also an artist, follows the trail of her ancestry back to Croatia, where she reconnects to and reclaims her family’s heritage. Her striking painting, “Hvala—Thank You,” is a loving tribute to that heritage. In the words that accompany her artwork, Sylvia invites us to “look back to our ancestors and homelands to find more harmony with nature.”
More artwork that powerfully connects with the ancestors comes to us from Barbara Derrick, a Tsilhqot’in artist and storyteller from Canada. Weaving paintings and words together, Barbara takes us along on her life’s journey—one of rebellion against cultural genocide and of affirmation of her cultural roots, always guided by the healing wisdom of her maternal lineage.
Iawá, the Kuruaya woman Elder from the Brazilian Amazon who is the heroine of Miguel Pinheiro’s photo essay and video, exudes the wisdom of millennia. One of the last fluent speakers of her language, Iawá has seen it all—including the rapacious invasion of her lands by outsiders. In her eighties, she continues to be a pillar for her family and her community.
Eusebia Flores and Anabela Carlon Flores are two intrepid Yaqui women from northern Mexico who are members of a community participatory video group. Defying cultural taboos against women leaving home, they head for Brazil to share this empowering storytelling tool with the Guajajara people. Thor Morales is there to photograph and film the process.
Indigenous youth from all over the world take center stage in the next set of stories, poems, photo essays, and videos, sharing with us their passion for affirming their biocultural heritage and creating a more just and sustainable future. Lina Karolin, a young Uut Danum Dayak from Borneo, has seen the forest around her community devastated by commercial logging and palm oil plantations. She chooses the path of education to help her people overcome the destructive effects of change. We couldn’t resist pairing her story with “Mist on the Mountain,” an evocative poem by non-Indigenous author David Rapport, as it uncannily echoes the sights and sounds of the forest that Lina recalls from childhood in her village.
Jasmine Gruben, Brian Kikoak, Carmen Kuptana, Nathan Kuptana, Eriel Lugt, Gabrielle Nogasak, and Darryl Tedjuk are Inuvialuit youth from the Northwest Territories, Canada, who took up filming to tell their stories about the effects of climate change in their community. Maéva Gauthier, one of their trainers, introduces us to their project.
A photo essay by Yolanda López Maldonado, a Mayan researcher from southern Mexico, chronicles a gathering of young Indigenous Latin American leaders who meet in Peru to learn from one another about building resilience into their traditional food systems.
Through his poignant poetry and dance, Fauzi Bin Abdul Majid, a young Palu’e from Indonesia, reclaims his “oxygen”—love, joy, and connectedness to others and to nature, which a materialistic way of thinking has taken away—and shares that breath of life with the world.
Two brave Indigenous young women from East Africa tackle critical environmental and social issues of our time. Laissa Malih, a Laikipian Maasai filmmaker from Kenya, documents in her video the predicament of a river in her region that is being dramatically affected by climate change, with dire consequences for both people and biodiversity. Edna Kilusu, a Maasai from Tanzania, reflects philosophically on her brush with systemic racism while in the USA as a student, and finds strength in her mother’s wise teachings.
This section ends with a heartfelt poem by Darryl Whetung, an Ojibway film editor and producer. Dedicated to his daughters, “This World Is Made for You” is an ode to the spiritual teachings we are given as gifts that we must learn to use to balance our lives and heal the world.
The last group of stories, poetry, and videos zeroes in on communities in different parts of the world that are fighting to protect their biocultural heritage. Felipe Montoya-Greenheck recounts the epic struggle of a peasant community in Costa Rica that seeks to stop the building of a dam on a river with which people’s lives are intertwined—and wins, with a little help from a toad!
Teja Jonnalagadda’s prose poem “The Dam Departed” makes for a striking segue to Felipe’s story. An engineer by training, Teja minces no words about the dominant way of thinking that seeks to dominate, instead of harmonizing with, the forces of nature. That metaphorical “dam” must come down along with physical dams, so that water and life may flow again.
Two young Indigenous women from Borneo tell stories of local communities’ resistance to encroachment onto their lands. Filmmaker Pinarsita Juliana, a Bataknese and Dayak Ngaju, visits a village that is “fighting deforestation with tradition” by affirming their relationship to the land through the revival of a traditional festival. Activist Meta Septalisa, also a Dayak Ngaju, meets women farmers in another village who are tenaciously sticking to their farming traditions in their battle against unjust government regulations and land privatization.
In the lowlands of southern Mexico, the Lacandón Maya combine tradition with innovation in efforts to protect their threatened forest home. James Nations, who has worked with them for decades, brings us their story. We complement that story with a video by Steve Bartz, a friend of both Jim’s and Terralingua’s, who passed away in 2020. Working with Jim in the 1990s, Steve filmed a historic encounter between the Lacandón and their Mayan neighbors, the Itza, with whom they share a common past and a common struggle to protect their forests and ways of life.
Jacquelyn Ross, a Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok woman from northern California, shares the predicament of the endangered abalone sea snail, a wondrous creature that is culturally and spiritually central to coastal Indigenous Peoples there, who are now seeking to reclaim the treasured snail’s marine home.
A similar attachment to a culturally important species and an equally strong determination to protect it transpire from two stories from India. Kanna Siripurapu, who works closely with the Goramaati Banjara tribe of Telangana State, relates their valiant efforts to protect both their beloved Poda Thurpu cattle and their nomadic way of life. Prafulla Kalokar, a young economist hailing from the Indigenous Nanda-Gaoli people of Maharashtra State, attends a festival in his community that celebrates their Gaolao cattle and the sacred grass the cattle feed on. And in his cultural traditions he finds an answer to his enduring dissatisfaction with the economic dogma of endless economic growth regardless of the cost to nature.
We close with a powerful piece by Guillermo Rodríguez Navarro about people and nature in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Long isolated because of its unique geography, the Sierra is now under assault from logging, mining, and other relentless development. Seeing their earthly home being destroyed, the Sierra’s Indigenous Peoples have decided to speak out. Their spiritual leaders, or Mamos, warn that protecting the Sierra means safeguarding the health of the planet as a whole.
Our Web Extras takes us full circle to the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a series of “Pandemic Perspectives” posts on Terralingua’s blog, Indigenous youth worldwide contributed timely dispatches from the field, reporting on what they witnessed in their countries and communities during the pandemic.
What lesson can we draw from this rich tapestry of stories? Says one of the wise Mamos of Colombia: “Why do we want to damage the earth and water? . . . Let’s change our lives, sow new seeds.” When we emerge from the pandemic, we’ll still have to confront, and rebel against, the climate crisis, biocultural diversity loss, and social injustice. Changing our lives, sowing new seeds—that’s what we’ll need to do.
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