International Day of Indigenous Peoples

In many of our camps and communities we are working with indigenous people.  The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples gives us a chance to stop and think about what that means, how we are working and what the future of these relationships should be.

It is important to say that working with indigenous peoples is not a singular concept – each indigenous group, of course, has its own identity and to try and summarise “working with indigenous peoples” is a dangerous exercise.  Below is a small example of the sort of experiences that we have, but the beauty of this sort of thing is that there just is no normal.

The Brörán - Indigenous community in Costa RicaWe have been working with the Brörán indigenous community since first establishing Camps in Costa Rica.  They are a group of people with a very clear sense of their own identity and they are active both in protecting their rights – particularly to their land – and in working with other indigenous groups across the country and the world.

The strength of their own sense of self informs our work with the community.  In meetings with the community authorities we have conversations in which they are questioning western education, whether or not the Pan-American highway should have been built and the arrival from outside of the Christian church.  These are fundamental, base concepts of what life is about and how they want to live, and our conversations return to them frequently.  Yes, we talk about the practicalities of reforestation as well, but only once we have got beyond the more profound questions of life.

Paulino Najero, an indigenous leader

Paulino Najero, an indigenous leader, said to us, “The other society says put one thing in the ground and produce, produce, produce so you get money.  Our indigenous society says no, we say the opposite, put in a small amount of everything so that when a situation arises, an illness or a problem, you have something additional. Everything is complimentary.”  He is a man who reforested his own family’s land in the 1980s, decades ahead of the current conservation awareness of the “other society” – that being you and me of course.  Paulino, and the other community leaders, perceive themselves as having to take a stance against the “other” dominant culture.

The other society says put one thing in the ground and produce, produce, produce so you get money.  Our indigenous society says no, we say the opposite, put in a small amount of everything so that when a situation arises, an illness or a problem, you have something additional. Everything is complimentary.

Paulino Najero, an indigenous leader

The most important aspect of this is that they also think that the rest of us should be listening – and within the context of COVID, the climate crisis and economic inequalities, it is worth re-reading that quote from Paulino.  When working with indigenous peoples, you become very aware that there are those in the world with other ideas of how life should be lived, ideas that have the right to be aired  The Brörán want to communicate their ideas and, as they have lived according to their own traditions for many generations, in their land, with a relationship with that land which is sustainable and positive, we perhaps have a lot to learn from them.

So, while recognising the beauty of the differences in each community, perhaps one thing that is common across our experience of working with indigenous peoples is the process of learning.  We are, after all, establishing relationships that are long-term and reciprocal in their nature, and in which we never forget that we are on their turf.  The lessons might be different, but there is always learning to be done.

We have something to offer in being able to support indigenous communities in achieving the goals that they have identified for themselves, and they have something to offer us, in showing to our groups of young people that there are alternative, valuable ways of looking at the world that the students should recognise as a part of their own growth.      

DAMIAN SCOTT-MASSON, REGIONAL DIRECTOR LATIN AMERICA

Lesson plans and resource material on ‘Indigenous Rights: The importance of the world’s native people, with focus on Costa Rica’ is now available in the Real World Studies resource library.

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