We spoke with Irma Pineda Santiago, a Zapotec from Juchitán, Mexico, who speaks Diidxazá and is the Latin American representative for the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She talks about the effects of the pandemic on Indigenous populations, the recovery of ancestral knowledge—and its practice, in the midst of the pandemic—and the resilience of the Original Nations. The transcript below summarizes the conversation; please watch the video for the full interview.
Brutal extractivism has its consequences
We began by asking Irma about her thoughts on the pandemic, the causes behind it, and how communities of color and indigenous people are most affected by it:
“I believe we lost sight of the fact that human beings are linked to nature, and we began to damage it … we began to over-exploit the land and nature. We see that in our territories where we have full-fledged extractive projects, projects that just come to destroy the earth. They pluck from it what they can pluck, be it minerals, precious wood, be it animals or plants. Everything they can take away from our territories, they are doing so, but with violence towards nature and violence against other human beings.”
This is what our ancestors are saying: this [the pandemic] is the result of what people ourselves have brought about by not knowing how to care for the earth, by having violated it, by seeing it only as a source of wealth for some instead of the Mother who feeds us.
Irma mentioned that in the past, when the Original Peoples needed to provide for themselves and protect their families, they would ask Mother Earth for permission to take part in its fruits, to pluck its roots in the search of a cure to a disease, to take a flower to eat or heal their body or soul. When it was necessary to take a brother’s life―the animals of the earth are our brothers―to feed our people, we asked for permission and forgiveness to the brother whose meat helped us to survive. There were limits, there was the understanding that everything on earth is part of a balance, that it should be maintained, and the limit was simple, you could only take what you could eat. There was no greed, there was no profit because that made no sense.
For almost 5,000 years, Irma tells us, indigenous peoples were custodians of the planet, and they did it well. The brutal advance of global westernization broke that balance, because in order to build wealth it is only possible to so with greed and profit, without equilibrium, without limits. Colonization with blood and fire, with the cross—and a God who seemed like a real estate agent, distributing land in his name, without respect for Mother Nature, without ethics, without human sense—walked over the original peoples, decimating them until almost extinction. If that was destined for people, what could be expected for the mountains, the water, the wildlife, the animals?
Looking for solutions in community
Irma says that communities are finding local solutions to help remedy and protect themselves from the pandemic, such as closing borders or access roads, sealing communities to protect them from contagion, promoting a process of social distancing with other communities, but maintaining their community life active. Although this measure may seem extreme, many towns lack access to hospitals and doctors, limited access to roads, so isolation has been the response they have found to COVID-19.
The indigenous peoples of Oaxaca’s mountainous region have organized themselves in commissions and assigned those responsible for dealing with emergencies, transfers, acting as one and thus protecting everyone.
“There is a process of economic, social, and community organization to reactivate the traditional systems of bartering, solidarity, and mutual aid. In the end what we are demonstrating is that there are other ways of life, alternative ways to the world of capitalism, because what we are seeing is that money is not circulating.”
“Nevertheless, people have been able to find food through bartering and mutual aid. We have seen how ladies in the market exchange fruits for vegetables, those who bring corn take eggs with them. That is what communities had done for centuries, and suddenly a system with money, with currency, interrupted us and apparently taught us to depend on it. They wanted to teach us that we could not live unless it was not through capital.”
What this pandemic is teaching us that Indigenous peoples are much stronger. They are being able to resist from their own community systems, with their own alternative economy to a system that they’ve told us we had to use.”
Recovering ancestral knowledge
The recovery of ancestral cultural initiatives is also proving an important initiave during the emergency, since indigenous peoples, in the absence of the state and access to the health care system, have promoted the use of traditional medicine to strengthen prevention processes and strengthen their immune system.
In regards to education, indigenous peoples have once again been left out of official efforts to provide online education, “… because many communities have no electricity, no access to the media, no internet, or the signal is very bad. Not all children and young people have the possibility of accessing the ‘study at home’ or digital education system as the authorities claim. So, moms, dads, and grandparents are organizing to teach … the knowledge of the community is being recovered, and now new generations are learning [in the midst of the pandemic].”
At some point they separated us from our elders by disparaging the knowledge of our grandparents and grandmothers, by telling us that formal education was the only thing of value, and that this ancestral knowledge was a thing of beliefs, of knowledge invalidated by the system.”
Unfortunately, globalization and free trade agreements caused a setback in the processes of food sovereignty, since local production was discouraged and the importation of grains was privileged to a few big corporations.
“Due to the emergency, many brothers and sisters have had to return to the community, because they have been losing jobs in the city. This has allowed for the recovery of organizational processes, one of the main ones being the process of planting grains, which had been forgotten. There is an important movement to defend native corn. ”
“One of the most relevant facts of this pandemic is that the peoples themselves are rediscovering their capacity for organization … We are taking many lessons learned from this crisis, how do we organize ourselves? That is the first lesson learned. We organize ourselves. We take care of ourselves. We protect and we return to bartering, we re-sow what we sowed before. We teach again as before … that is, we organize ourselves and understand that those knowledge systems that have been passed on by word of mouth from our grandmothers and grandfathers, are now showing their effectiveness. Now we are understanding that they are real, that we can use them. ”
“It is important not to forget, human beings are one with nature. When we recognize that we are one with the earth, in that sense, we are going to worry about taking care of Mother Earth, taking care of our environment. As a community, we should not allow the exploitation of the environment, we should not allow extractivism made from our natural wealth.”
For us this is not wealth in the material sense, they are riches in the sense that it allow us to live well. We have rivers, we have seas, we have water, because that allows us to live well. But when those rivers begin to be used for mining, or the textile industries, then we have super polluted rivers, lakes and seas, so they no longer serve us, perhaps it generates money for some, but it leaves us in more misery. It not only condemns us to live in poverty, it condemns us to death.”
“If we don’t have clean water, clean air, and healthy land to plant food, we are condemning ourselves to death. This is the great lesson.”