Schooled in nature

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Jay Griffiths writes: In Mexico City, the cathedral – this stentorian thug of a cathedral – is sinking. Built to crush the indigenous temple beneath it, while its decrees pulverised indigenous thinking, Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral is sinking under the weight of its own brutal imposition.

Walking nearby late one night, I was captivated by music. Closer, now, and I came upon an indigenous, pre-Hispanic ceremony being danced on the pavement hard by the cathedral. Copal tree resin was burning, marigolds were scattered like living coins, people in feather headdresses and jaguar masks danced to flutes, drums, rattles and shell-bells. While each cathedral column was a Columbus colonising the site, the ceremony seemed to say: We’re still here.

A young man watched me awhile, as I was taking notes, and then approached me smiling.

‘Do you understand Nahuatl?’ he asked.

Head-shaking smile.

‘Do you want me to explain?’

Yes!

He spent an hour gently unfurling each word. Abjectly poor, his worn-out shoes no longer even covered his feet and his clothes were rags, but he shone with an inner wealth, a light that was his gift, to respect the connections of the world, between people, animals, plants and the elements. He spoke of the importance of not losing the part of ourselves that touches the heart of the Earth; of listening within, and also to the natural world. Two teachers. No one has ever said it better.

‘Your spirit is your maestro interno. Your spirit brought you here. You have your gift and destiny to complete in this world. You have to align yourself in the right direction and carry on.’ And he melted away, leaving me with tears in my eyes as if I had heard a lodestar singing its own quiet truthsong.

A few days earlier, I’d been invited to the Centre for Indigenous Arts in Papantla, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, 300km east of Mexico City. The centre was celebrating the anniversary of its founding (in 2006), and promoting indigenous education: decolonised schooling. Not by chance, it is 12 October, the day when, in 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the so-called New World. Here, they come not to praise Columbus but to bury his legacy because – as an act of pointed protest – this date is now widely honoured as the day of indigenous resistance. [Continue reading…]

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Lakota lead the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Jason Coppola reports: As the start of 2016 shatters last year’s record as the hottest year on record, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation) once again find themselves on the front lines of the battle against the fossil fuel industry.

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe have established a Spirit Camp at the mouth of the Cannonball River in North Dakota as a means of bringing attention and awareness to a proposed pipeline and act as an enduring symbol of resistance against its construction.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is set to cut through several US states, delivering hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil from the Bakken and Three Forks oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois.

The Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners pipeline will cross the Ogallala Aquifer — a million-year-old shallow water table spanning eight US states, which provides fresh water for drinking and agriculture — while twice crossing the Missouri River and running alongside the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

A spill could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the worlds largest, which is already in crisis and under threat of running dry in the coming decades. [Continue reading…]

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Women of the Amazon defend their homeland against new oil contract

Emily Arasim and Osprey Orielle Lake report: In late January 2016, the government of Ecuador signed a controversial contract with Chinese oil company Andes Petroleum, handing over rights to explore and drill for oil deep in the country’s pristine southeastern Amazon Rainforest, known and revered by many as “the lungs of the Earth.”

For decades, Indigenous communities of the southern Ecuadorian Amazon have successfully fought to protect their land from encroachment by oil companies, engaging in local action and international policymaking and campaigns with a powerful message of respect for the Earth’s natural laws and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

At the forefront of this ongoing struggle are courageous Indigenous Amazonian women leaders who have declared, “We are ready to protect, defend and die for our forest, families, territory and nation.”

In marches, protests, conferences and international forums, the women of the Ecuadorian Amazon are standing with fierce love and conviction for the forests and their communities, and navigating a brutal intersection of environmental devastation, cultural dislocation and violence and persecution as women human rights and land defenders.

The women have repeatedly put their bodies on the frontline in an attempt to halt oil extraction across the Amazon, often facing harsh repression by the state security. [Continue reading…]

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When languages die, we lose a part of who we are

By Anouschka Foltz, Bangor University

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) is in full gear and climate change is again on everyone’s mind. It conjures up images of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, threatened habitats, endangered species, and displaced people. We know it threatens biodiversity, but what about linguistic diversity?

Humans are the only species on the planet whose communication system exhibits enormous diversity. And linguistic diversity is crucial for understanding our capacity for language. An increase in climate-change related natural disasters may affect linguistic diversity. A good example is Vanuatu, an island state in the Pacific, with quite a dramatic recent rise in sea levels.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. These languages exhibit enormous diversity, from the number of distinctive sounds (there are languages with as few as 11 different sounds and as many as 118) to the vast range of possible word orders, structures and concepts that languages use to convey meaning. Every absolute that linguists have posited has been challenged, and linguists are busy debating if there is anything at all that is common to all languages in the world or anything at all that does not exist in the languages of the world. Sign languages show us that languages do not even need to be spoken. This diversity is evidence of the enormous flexibility and plasticity of the human brain and its capacity for communication.

Studying diverse languages gives us invaluable insights into human cognition. But language diversity is at risk. Languages are dying every year. Often a language’s death is recorded when the last known speaker dies, and about 35% of languages in the world are currently losing speakers or are more seriously endangered. Most of these have never been recorded and so would be lost forever. Linguists estimate that about 50% of the languages spoken today will disappear in the next 100 years. Some even argue that up to 90% of today’s languages will have disappeared by 2115.

[Read more…]

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Peru’s untold stories of forced sterilisation are being heard at last

By Matthew Brown, University of Bristol and Karen Tucker, University of Bristol

During the 1990s, thousands of Peru’s citzens were sterilised without their consent as part of a National Population Programme. Brought in by President Alberto Fujimori, this programme was supposed to offer all Peruvians access to a range of contraception options. But it also extended to mass forcible sterilisations. At least 17 people subjected to sterilisation died as a result of botched operations carried out with indifference or without adequate care.

For the last 15 years these abuses have been known only to a small group of people, even as Peru has taken pains to face up to the violence of its recent history.

The Peruvian state spent the 1990s waging a merciless war against guerrilla groups that sought to destroy it – among them the radical Marxist group Shining Path – and hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted.

[Read more…]

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Indigenous Canadians take leading role in battle against tar sands pipeline

The Guardian reports: Chief Na’Moks stood in the dark of a small smokehouse nestled in the Coast range of British Columbia. Hanging above him were nearly a thousand fish which glinted over the fire below.

“For us, it’s one of the most highly prized commodities that we have,” he said, pulling one of the glistening candlefish off the rack. “People don’t get why we want to keep what we have. We don’t want anything from anyone. We just want to keep what we have.”

Not so long ago, the chief’s ancestors traded fish oil along the grease trails up and down the coast of British Columbia. Today, however, Chief Na’Moks and many other First Nations leaders are at the forefront of a struggle against a very different kind of oil business: Canada’s largest proposed tar sands pipeline, the Northern Gateway.

It is the country’s environmental battle of the decade, uniting a wide variety of citizens’ groups against the billions of dollars of investment by oil companies and millions in secret funding from the government. First proposed in 2004, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was planned for a 731-mile (1,177km) stretch from the center of Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. [Continue reading…]

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The Amazon tribe protecting the forest with bows, arrows, GPS and camera traps

The Guardian reports: With bows, arrows, GPS trackers and camera traps, an indigenous community in northern Brazil is fighting to achieve what the government has long failed to do: halt illegal logging in their corner of the Amazon.

The Ka’apor – a tribe of about 2,200 people in Maranhão state – have organised a militia of “forest guardians” who follow a strategy of nature conservation through aggressive confrontation.

Logging trucks and tractors that encroach upon their territory – the 530,000-hectare Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land – are intercepted and burned. Drivers and chainsaw operators are warned never to return. Those that fail to heed the advice are stripped and beaten.

It is dangerous work. Since the tribe decided to manage their own protection in 2011, they say the theft of timber has been reduced, but four Ka’apor have been murdered and more than a dozen others have received death threats. [Continue reading…]

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After centuries of colonial violence, a resurgence of indigenous language learning

Jason Coppola reports: It’s a crisis point in history for Native American languages. Without a concerted effort to revitalize them, many will soon go extinct, succumbing to the generations-long effort to destroy them.

“You could reasonably say every single Native American language, including the large ones, are endangered,” said linguist K. David Harrison, a National Geographic fellow teaching at Swarthmore College. “There’s no room for complacency whatsoever.”

The Maori people of New Zealand are one of many groups that have struggled against the violent effects of colonization on their languages. In 1840, the Maori came under the rule of the British Crown as more and more European settlers arrived and more land was needed to accommodate them. Land conflicts eventually broke out into all-out war, ending with huge tracts of Maori land being confiscated by the government. Displacement, poverty and racism became commonplace. Their struggle now reflects that of other Indigenous peoples and nations across the globe fighting to preserve their knowledge, culture and traditional way of life. [Continue reading…]

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Alaskan villages imperiled by global warming need resources to relocate

Victoria Herrmann writes: The Arctic is warming at a rate almost twice the global average, making climate change’s effects there far more intense and rapid than any other ecosystem in the world. While nature photographs of polar bears and melting ice dominate media narratives, the top of the world is home to 4m people who face an uncertain future.

Coastal erosion, forest fires and storm surges are threatening the physical and economic safety of settlements across the Arctic Ocean shoreline. Further inland, thawing permafrost is compromising the stability of transportation, sanitation and public service infrastructure built upon once-sturdy foundations. In Alaska alone, 31 villages face imminent threat of destruction from erosion and flooding. Many of these villages have 10 to 20 years of livability before their streets, schools and homes become uninhabitable. At least 12 have decided to relocate – in part or entirely – to safer ground to avoid total collapse.

This week, the United States approaches the First Hundred Days mark of its leadership of the Arctic Council, a high-level governmental forum for the world’s eight Arctic nations to act on circumpolar challenges. Leadership gives the US a two-year opportunity to lead the international community in confronting climate change there. Though the US, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, has seen some successful polar initiatives implemented in the past few months, there is much more work to be done. [Continue reading…]

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Tribes in peril

Heather Pringle writes: In a spacious, art-filled apartment in Brasília, 75-year-old Sydney Possuelo takes a seat near a large portrait of his younger self. On the canvas, Possuelo stares with calm assurance from the stern of an Amazon riverboat, every bit the famous sertanista, or Amazon frontiersman, that he once was. But on this late February morning, that confidence is nowhere to be seen. Possuelo, now sporting a beard neatly trimmed for city life, seethes with anger over the dangers now threatening the Amazon’s isolated tribespeople. “These are the last few groups of humans who are really free,” he says. “But we will kill them.”

For decades, Possuelo worked for Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the federal agency responsible for the country’s indigenous peoples. In the 1970s and 1980s, he and other sertanistas made contact with isolated tribespeople so they could be moved off their land and into settlements. But Possuelo and others grew alarmed by the human toll. The newly contacted had no immunity to diseases carried by outsiders, and the flu virus, he recalls, “was like a suicide bomber,” stealing into a village unnoticed. Among some groups, 50% to 90% died (see sidebar, p. 1084). In 1987, Possuelo and fellow sertanistas met to try to stop this devastation.

In Brasília, a futuristic city whose central urban footprint evokes the shape of an airplane, the frontiersmen agreed that contact was inherently damaging to isolated tribespeople. They drew up a new action plan for FUNAI, based solidly on the principle of no contact unless groups faced extinction. They recommended mapping and legally recognizing the territories of isolated groups, and keeping out loggers, miners, and settlers. If contact proved unavoidable, protecting tribespeople’s health should be top priority.

The recommendations became FUNAI policy, and a model for other countries where isolated populations are emerging, such as neighboring Peru (see companion story, p. 1072). In remote regions, FUNAI has designated a dozen “protection fronts” — official front lines in the battle to defend isolated groups, each dotted with one or more frontier bases to track tribes and sound the alarm when outsiders invade. In an interview in February, FUNAI’s interim president, Flávio Chiarelli, told Science that his agency is “doing great” at protecting the country’s isolated tribes.

But some experts say that as the pace of economic activity in the Amazon accelerates, the protection system that was once the envy of South America is falling apart. [Continue reading…]

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Fort McKay: The Canadian town that sold itself to tar sands

The Guardian reports: Amid the strip mines and steam plants sprawled across the northern Alberta wilderness, Fort McKay is just a tiny dot on the map.

It is also one of the single biggest source sites of the carbon pollution that is choking the planet.

This tiny First Nations community grew rich on oil, and was wrecked by oil. Local Cece Fitzpatrick grabbed what she saw as a last chance for Fort McKay and decided to run for chief, promising to stand up to the industry which came here 50 years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Village of Bedouins faces eviction as Israel envisions a village of Jews

The New York Times reports: Salim al-Qian settled back on his white faux leather couch strewn with pink cushions and took a sip of tea, clearly comfortable in his tiny home in this ramshackle hamlet in the dusty hills of southern Israel. The sense of permanence suggested by his comfort, however, looks to be short-lived.

Mr. Qian and the other members of some 70 Bedouin families are likely to be evicted soon from their homes in the hamlet of Umm al-Hiran, where they have been living since the 1950s. In their place, the Israeli government plans to build a community with nearly the same name, Hiran — but its expected residents will be religious, Zionist Jews.

The government says Umm al-Hiran is on state-owned land that it would like to develop, and it has fought a long legal battle to have the Bedouin families, about 1,000 people, relocated. This month, the Supreme Court ruled in a 2-1 decision that the families would have to leave. The court gave no date for when evictions could begin, and residents intend to appeal the decision.

The Bedouins say they do not want to leave land on which they have been living for more than half a century after being resettled there by the Israeli military. The government has promised compensation in the form of cash and land elsewhere, but the Bedouins say the decision to move them reflects discriminatory policies.

“It is not possible to order one home demolished because it belongs to an Arab and build another for a Jew,” said Mr. Qian, 57, a trader and community leader. [Continue reading…]

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