by Angela Easby, Global Environments Network Coordinator and GESA 2015 alumna. She writes about the North American Community Environmental Leadership Exchange 2017, held in Sonora, Mexico, and includes testimonies from those who were there. The Spanish version can be read here.
Collaborating in the Face of Change: Strategies for Biocultural Protection and Defense brought together 60 participants and facilitators in the Comcaac community of Socaaix (Punta Chueca) and the Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies from February 9-14, 2017. We came together with a shared purpose: to learn and share strategies for biocultural landscape protection, and through this work strengthen Indigenous sovereignty and well-being. For four days, we listened, learned, discussed, asked questions, dreamed, drummed, sang, and painted together. We came from Comcaac, Rarárumi, Pima, Guarijío, Mayo, and Yoeme/Yaqui communities in northwestern Mexico; Yucatec Maya, Tzeltal and Tojolabal communities in southern Mexico; and Dine/Navajo, Métis, and Anishinaabe communities in the U.S. and Canada.
"Among the Indigenous communities participating in the event, each peoples' epistemology is characterized through experiences, the stories of the elders, the interaction between Man and Nature, medicinal plants, beliefs, traditions, local forms of seeing and conceiving the world (cosmovision), rituals, art and social organization.
The connection between Comcaac and Tojol.ab'al communities is that everything is culturally integrated; Language, clothing, beliefs, art, production activities, social organizations and music... through each melody of music (Tojolk'in) we express our emotions, feelings, joys, harmonies, coexistence and sadness. Each of these forms the identity of Indigenous peoples, without the wisdom of our teachers (elders) we cannot have or use the different local knowledges that we practice today."
- Maribel Hernández López, from Las Margaritas, Chiapas. Maribel is a speaker of the Tojol-ab’al language and a student at the Intercultural University of Chiapas.
We were community leaders, researchers, land defenders, lawyers, conservationists, poets, painters, photographers, videographers, community economists, allies, mediators. Our focus was northwestern Mexico, but the topics we covered and discussions we had wandered all across Mexico and drew on the diverse insights and experiences from all participants.
Core themes of the gathering were territory defense, communication strategies, local economies, food sovereignty, biodiversity, and art and transformation.
"The event held a lot of importance because we were discussing the efforts, ideas, integral projects and actions of Indigenous communities confronting a system that asks them to give up their identity, territory and ways of making and sustaining life.
The fact that we have reflected together and shared this historical moment gives new and renewed meaning to Indigenous leadership. On that not,e we have much to learn from the history of resistance in the places that are still truly communities."
- Álvaro Salgado Ramírez, Community Organizing workshop leader and representative from the National Center for Assistance to Indigenous Missions (CENAMI; El Centro Nacional de Ayuda a las Misiones Indígenas)
"This event Collaborating in the Face of Change addressed the most important issues of the moment- for me it was a communal meeting but it was also an excellent connection of energies among people with a similar interest in defending our mother earth, rescuing our culture and protecting our natural areas.”
- Zara Monrroy, Comcaac from the NACELE 2017 host community of Socaaix. Art & Transformation sessions organizer as well as singer/poet/writer/activist.
While we covered an extraordinarily diverse range of content, there were several common threads that ran through the event and appeared in workshop presentations as well as break-out discussion groups. One of these threads was the importance of Indigenous communities connecting regionally, nationally and internationally to learn and work together to address complex issues- that Indigenous communities are stronger together, in conversation with each other. These conversations can help uncover creative responses or inspire action.
Throughout the gathering it was very clear that women have a central and active role in crafting responses to issues in their communities. Presentations from Mujeres y Maiz, Comcaac Native Teas and the University of Sonora Diabetes Prevention projects demonstrated the importance of women’s leadership in sustaining healthy native food systems in the face of increasing nutrition-related diseases in and the shift toward global, industrial food production systems. Patricia Alonso Ramirez, Olga Delia Vasquez, and Maria Piedad Aguayo Pimentel from the organization Cobanaras shared their wisdom on strengthening local economies through simple saving techniques and micro-lending among groups of local women. As they described, this is not only an economic strategy but also a way to assert collective autonomy and foster well-being.
However, discussing territory defense and the protection of biocultural landscapes either within or across several communities is not always easy, as Javier Castillo Palafox discussed in a workshop on Conflict Resolution. Javier presented at NACELE 2017 as a representative of Services and Advice for Peace (Spanish acronym SERAPAZ), a Mexican non-profit organization that works to transform social conflicts through research, training, counselling and advocacy. As Javier explained, the majority of conflicts he sees are caused or exacerbated by a lack of communication. In this light, creating healthy networks that facilitate communication among Indigenous communities is crucial, and has real implications for biocultural landscapes and wellbeing.
As Thor Morales Vera explained, participatory video is one way for Indigenous communities to take communications into their own hands and document violence, territory infringement, or abuse of Indigenous rights. In a participatory video workshop on the fourth day, the group discussed the power of an image or a short video as a tool for territory defense with the capacity to draw regional, national or international attention to an issue. Thor explained basic rules of thumb for taking a quality video in a tense or dynamic situation, and participants formed small groups to practice recording interviews of each other.
Across the four days, we also had the opportunity to truly witness the transformational capacity of art. Each day, participants and Comcaac elders shared songs, poems and dances that gave us insight into each of our connections to our territories and the ways that our territories sustain us as people. While the rest of the group was participating in workshops, Navajo artist Julius Badoni worked with a group of Comcaac youth to design and paint a mural on the side of the palapa (thatched roof meeting area) where the event was held.
"It was more of a collaboration with the community. Towards the end of the mural, elders walked up and asked if we could include/paint constellations and symbols that are sacred to their community."
- Julius Badoni, Navajo artist
The gathering ended with a celebration of the finished mural, including a detailed narration of its meaning from a Comcaac elder in Cmiique Iitom, the Comcaac language.
"It was a wonderful experience to be part of this important gathering. One often doesn't realize or see the perspective of others, and here I realized that the opinions of others are very useful... I was fascinated by the commitment and dedication of each participant to explain their work. All of them were very clear. These meetings motivate us and in some way impel us to be more united as indigenous communities.”
- Mayra Astorga, Comcaac participant from Desemboque. Co-founder and coordinator of the Grupo Tortuguero (Turtle Group) of Desemboque
"...it is necessary and very important to preserve the great cultural diversity that our grandparents possess, but for that we need participation, unity, commitment, respect for our own cultures, communication, good organization and alliances, that is, formation of Networks in other dependencies so that together we will defend the knowledge and local knowledge of our native peoples."
- Maribel Hernández López
Many people mentioned how they felt motivated and inspired by their participation in NACELE 2017, which facilitated in-depth conversation and relationship-building. Participants also discussed how we have all attended many gatherings with lofty rhetoric and exciting discussions, but which ultimately don't contribute to struggles for Indigenous sovereignty and territory defense in a meaningful, long-term way.
To address this, the last day included a session on Forming and Strengthening Networks. The goal was to make a commitment to each other to continue the momentum we generated, reflect on the necessary ingredients for a healthy network, and start to imagine how to be relevant and useful to each others' respective projects and struggles. Standing in a circle, we tossed around a ball of yarn, slowly forming a web in the center. When it was their turn to hold the ball, each person shared something they needed from the network and something they could offer. In this way we all became witnesses to the threads that hold us together, and became responsible for maintaining those threads and living up to our commitments.
Several potential future collaborations were seeded at the gathering, including:
In the GDF North America program we look forward into entering into fuller relationship with NACELE 2017 participants, as they become part of the Global Environments Network. We look forward to ongoing conversations with GEN members around our role in northwestern Mexico.
We would like to echo our heartfelt gratitude for the Comcaac community of Socaaix, for being gracious hosts and wonderful exemplars of a strong Indigenous community engaged in biocultural landscape protection. Thank you to all participants and facilitators, for infusing this gathering with their knowledge and willingness to share it. We were honoured and inspired to be in the presence of this vital energy and creative resistance. Thank you to the Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies, for co-hosting and housing us. Thank you to co-organizers Conservación y Manejo Cmiique (Cmiique Conservation and Management). Finally, thank you to the Christensen Fund for providing the funding for this event.
Read about the purpose, objectives and expected outcomes of NACELE 2017 on the events page, and learn about a collaborative initiative on Developing Learning Materials to Strengthen the Tojol-Ab’al Language by a NACELE 2017 participant.