“All things are interrelated. Everything in the universe is part of a single whole. Everything is connected in some way to everything else. It is therefore possible to understand something only if we can understand how it is connected to everything else.”
These words, the first of the Twelve Teachings of the Sacred Tree, quoted by Rupert Ross in his extraordinary book, Returning to the Teachings, begin to open the biggest truth of all about the burning rainforests of Planet Earth.
The “indigenous rights” being violated by the exploitation of the Amazon belong to all of us. We are all indigenous. We are all native to this planet — connected to its depth and life and mystery, even as we choose the path of ignorance and avoidance and, in the process, violate our own right to survive.
As the Amazon burns, the face of global ignorance is that of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who earlier this year said, during a visit to the Amazon: “Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the wellbeing of our population.”
By that, of course, he meant, dismantle the protected status of part of the rainforest and give it over to the mining interests to exploit. This is worship of the seductive god of profit and wealth.
Exuding faux-humanity, Bolsonaro also said, according to CNN, “We want to integrate the indigenous into our society. The indigenous are human beings like you and I. They want television, they want Internet, they want soccer, they want to go to the movies. They want to do what we do. They want to go to doctor, to a dentist. That’s what we want for the indigenous people, to integrate them into the society — as human beings, just like us.”
Bolsonaro, of course, was referring not to all of us but to the inconvenient, tribal peoples of the Amazon who are still connected to — and stewards of — the rainforest’s richness and diversity. Declaring them to be “human beings, just like us,” he can push them out of the way and open the land to the interests of miners and loggers, cattle ranchers and soybean growers. This is already happening, of course. Under Bolsonaro, funding for Brazil’s environmental protection agency have been cut by 95 percent, and slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation have long been eating away at the Amazon, increasing the region’s susceptibility to fire.
And “recurrent wildfires are more likely to hasten the Amazon’s transition to a low diversity and low carbon ecosystem with a fraction of its current social and ecological value,” Jos Barlow and Alexander Lees write at The Conversation. They call the process “savannization” — drying out the rainforest and turning it into a tinderbox.
The interconnectedness at stake here for all humanity boggles the imagination. “If destroyed or degraded, the Amazon, as a system, is simply beyond humanity’s ability to get back: Even if people were to replant half a continent’s worth of trees, the diversity of creatures across Amazonia, once lost, will not be replenished for roughly 10 million year,” Robinson Meyer writes at The Atlantic. “And that is 33 times longer than Homo sapiens, as a species, has existed.”
The issue here is both global and intensely local, but the world is currently divided into national and corporate interests that have the power to ignore and dismiss not only the rights of the tribal peoples who live in the rainforest, but also the rights of the planet at large, to breathe, to survive in eco-diversity.
“The violation of indigenous rights,” writes Naomi Klein, “. . . is central to the violation of our collective right to a livable planet. The flip side of this is that a revolution in respect for indigenous rights and knowledge could be the key to ushering in a new age of ecological equilibrium. Not only would it mean that huge amounts of dangerous carbon would be kept in the ground, it would also vastly increase our chances of drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in well cared-for forests, wetlands, and other dense vegetation.”
How do we get to this place? How can indigenous wisdom — the understanding that everything is connected — transcend the power to exploit this planet and continue to shrug off the consequences of doing so, pushing them off on future generations? Have we reached a point where the future is now?
And if that is the case, where do we turn for guidance and wisdom? How do we learn, or relearn, how to care for our forests and wetlands, our oceans, our eco-diversity? The “riches that God gave us” are life itself.
Can we flip the faux-humanity of Bolsonaro on its head and declare: We want to integrate ourselves into an indigenous global understanding. Doing so involves more than just scientific expertise; it involves transforming our way of life — beyond television, beyond the Internet, beyond domination and exploitation — to an ever-present awareness of the planet we inhabit. Can we set aside our technology and start learning to listen to it?
Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.