Opening Remark by Gam A. Shimray at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN Webinar Series
Indigenous Peoples and voluntary isolation: when forests food systems become a stronghold against COVID 19
My deepest respect and thanks to:
Thanawat Tiensin, Permanent Representative of Thailand to the UN agencies in Rome and Chairperson of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS);
Mette Wilkie, Director, FAO Forestry and Resources Division;
Yon Fernández de Larrinoa, Head of the FAO Indigenous Peoples Unit; and
Indigenous brothers and sisters.
As the pandemic broke lose and began to spread fear in different corners of the world, debate on the issue of the cause and system lockdown grew like wildfire. It caused a global chaos, but several Indigenous communities initiated village lockdowns and observed self-isolations in their homes and ecosystems. In many instances, success in levelling the curve or preventing contact with the virus is highly commendable in different regions. Our response came naturally because deadly epidemics from inside or outside is not new to us.
Village lockdowns and restrictions to activities in the community are age-old practices of Indigenous Peoples for different purposes. For example, when our land and forest need to rest and self-rejuvenate, we stop working.
I believe this is almost a universal practice among Indigenous Peoples, but time has changed. Most Indigenous Peoples are not in the same fortunate condition and have become extremely vulnerable. Fewer and fewer Indigenous communities can respond to deadly epidemics with confidence through their traditional practices. Many of our territories are under attack from extractive and logging industries, agri-businesses and military occupation. As a result, many Indigenous communities have lost their homes, lands and forests, and some are defending their territories at the cost of their lives. It is these communities who are suffering the most from the pandemic like our Yanomani brothers and sisters in the Amazon.
Indigenous communities who are not able to protect themselves are those with high level of reverse migration, presence of miners, loggers and military personnel (in large numbers) who brought the virus into our territories. Those who have managed to protect themselves are those who have secured land rights to some degree and are able to manage their natural resources through their Indigenous systems. In some cases, successes were bolstered by the significant support provided by governments e.g. by the government of Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.
We do not know if the origin of the virus is from a science lab or due to habitat destruction and unsustainable commercialization of wild animals.But the important thing to note is that in today’s hyperconnected industrial world, ecological imbalances or disease vectors in one corner of the planet can threaten us all.
During this pandemic, we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly side of humanity. The question is, “what lessons have we learned?” “Are we ready to take transformative pathways?” I would like to dwell on a few points that should be emphasized.
Resiliency of Indigenous communities depend on our spirituality and healthy relationship to land, water and forest. And it has been proven to be true again during this pandemic.
Our knowledge and understanding of any known scientific facts and laws is always beyond the established phenomenon. For example, we thought we knew everything about particles that made up our body and the universe until quantum fields and dark matter and energy were discovered.
Knowledge does not have boundaries and the search for truth continues. The greatest awareness that we need is spiritual awareness because the crisis of humanity is not the dead of our politics but obscured spiritual vision. The crisis relates to the roots of our identity and values.
I am not saying that Indigenous Knowledge alone is the solution. It is the Kaleidoscope of knowledge in seamless harmony that will provide the solution. However, what is eternally true is that all ecosystem flourishes on symbiosis and the whole universe seems to be connected at multiple levels through an umbilical cord that supports life. It is a complex system beyond our full comprehension, but we know that it works if the principle is followed. It is for this reason that some communities bury their dead infants in a tree because tree is seen as healing; some tie umbilical cord of the new born on a tree to symbolize their spiritual connection; and some make existential vow with the creator to live in symbiosis with their land at the establishment of their village.
Our life is governed by this principle of reciprocity between humans and with the environment. Therefore, we see the environment as part of our food and life support system. The water, forest and land that provides us food also provide food to other creatures; and the food system is maintained through a reciprocal relationship within an ecosystem and between ecosystems.
We need to make sacrifices today if we are to step into the future without fear and with grace. It is about how we take on our responsibilities today so that we may realize the meaning and purpose of our own life. We should not make futile effort in saving the world without changing ourselves. Our greatest attachment starts with the family and that is where we begin to teach and learn the values of spirituality and reciprocity.
I end here with a quote from the Bribri people of Costa Rica. They say, “Instead of aiming to leave a good world for our children, we should leave behind good children!”. This is where the hope for humanity is.
Thursday, 16 of July – 15.00-16.30
Gam A. Shimray is working as the Secretary General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) Views are personal