Working with indigenous communities

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Working with indigenous communities is a wonderful experience. Whether you go as an NGO or a Social Enterprise, you are called to blend in a totally different culture and contribute with your own knowledge and with your own view of the world.

Although it is a life changing experience, it’s full of challenges driven by the clash of cultures, the amount of interconnected problems that these communities face and the inherited poor social and environmental work done by others.

Working in Amazon Rainforest

In this article I want to share an inspiring project, I had the opportunity to film, with Shipibo people, in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. It’s a project developed by the NGO Alianza Arkana in Santa Clara, a Shipibo village near Pucallpa.

 

What I have learned?

It’s overwhelming the amount of challenges these communities are facing… Here’s an idea of some of the problems:

  • Chronic scarcity of basic goods – water, food, raw materials for shelter and other, medicinal plants, … This results from the excessive exploitation of natural resources – they are easily mislead by influential people and organizations that deal with land trafficking, wood cutting, extensive monoculture plantations, contamination of soil and rivers from oil and ore extracting industries, … You can check on this map forests evolution all over the world.
  • New ‘expensive’ necessities, opportunities and dependencies that result of the blend with the Western Culture and that clash with their indigenous way of life. You can include here a number of examples as the university education, access electricity, oil powered motors, …
  • A culture of dependency. Although in the same line as the previous point, this one deserves an highlight since it usually comes from well intended sources and ends up creating a dependency cycle in these communities. Originally brought by missionaries and now with the ongoing subsidies from the state and the help of private organizations (NGOs for example).
  • Cultural disorientation that results from the blending with Western Culture. You can also feel a superficial intent to rescue their indigenous culture, forced by the short term opportunities that touristic development offers them.
  • Lack of long-term design mindset. A characteristic that comes from their one-day-at-a-time indigenous mindset.

 

How to tackle so many problems?

As Alianza Arkana did, it’s imperative to understand the overall picture of what an indigenous community is facing and carefully balance the efforts in tackling the different challenges. Even though it is done with a lot of iteration and adaptation, it really helps to engage the community and embed the project into it’s core.

Tips on how to approach some of these problems

  • A holistic approach that tackles the different problems we saw above: economic, educational, environmental and social. Although very difficult to accomplish, in my opinion is the only way, since all problems are connected and need to be attended at the same time. It’s a slowly but effective way to make a positive impact.
  • Create economic self-sufficiency solutions, that will foster accountability and empower indigenous people and their communities (making them more independent of external funding and more resilient to external events).
  • Acknowledgement of the rights to their lands and the importance of their role in its conservation. It’s important to be aware of short-term solutions that might perpetuate the dependency of indigenous communities to external players, that might be at the service of other economic interests (for example REDD+ ).
  • Focus on intercultural education and the healthy revival of their costumes and cosmovision. While giving them the tools to engage in the ‘Western’ 21st century.
  • Regeneration of ecosystems that will have into account all habitats of the Rainforest and all its biodiversity. Since the land, plants and animals are so important in the indigenous life and cosmovision, the idea is to avoid monoculture solutions that will only serve a particular solution. Again, we need a holistic mindset in order to tackle environmental, social and economic problems at the same time. A keyword that might help you identify this type of approach might be “Permaculture” .
  • Include the community in the project development. If you don’t want to spend your time in a project that will start slowly dying the moment the NGO or the business steps out, than this point should be Top-priority for you. Whether it’s since the beginning or later on, through capacity building, it’s fundamental that the community is included in all areas of the project development. So they will feel that the project is theirs and they will keep nurturing it long after the organization/business leaves. Ideally the project should be born from the community itself (with the help of an external organization). A good solution could be the integration of the project in the creation of a Life Plan for the indigenous community.

 

This is definitely a slow process that changes from community to community. I like to think that there are already tools available to help anyone in this process. But before moving there, I’d like to ask you:

  • Do you know of any project alike? Do you think it manages to engage in a profound and holistic way the target community? How?

I would love to hear your opinion! Thanks!  🙂

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