For some Indigenous, COVID presents possibility of cultural extinction, says Myrna Cunningham

For Indigenous peoples, actions must be collective, not only individual.

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SOURCEMongabay
  • COVID-19 has devastated communities around the world, but for some Indigenous groups, the pandemic posed an existential threat.
  • Few people are better placed to speak to the impact COVID is having on Indigenous communities than Myrna Cunningham, a Miskitu physician from the Wangki river region of Nicaragua who has spent 50 years advocating for the rights of women and Indigenous peoples at local, regional, national, and international levels.
  • Cunningham’s many achievements and accolades include: First Miskito doctor in Nicaragua; first woman governor of the Waspam autonomous region; Chairperson of the PAWANKA Fund; President of the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC); Advisor to the President of the UN General Assembly during the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples; member of the Board of Directors of the Global Fund for Women; Deputy of the Autonomous Region of the North Atlantic Coast in Nicaragua’s National Assembly; president of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development; and the first Honoris Causa Doctorate granted by the National Autonomous University of Mexico Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to an indigenous woman, among others.
  • Cunningham spoke about a range of issues in a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

COVID-19 has devastated communities around the world, but for some Indigenous groups, the pandemic posed an existential threat.

Few people are better placed to speak to the impact COVID is having on Indigenous communities than Myrna Cunningham, a Miskitu physician from the Wangki river region of Nicaragua who has spent 50 years advocating for the rights of women and Indigenous peoples at local, regional, national, and international levels.

“For Indigenous peoples, the arrival of the virus, in addition to putting people at risk, presented the possibility that entire cultures could disappear,” Cunningham told Mongabay. “For Indigenous peoples with few members, the situation still endangers their existence as a collective, as a culture, as a people.”

“We are all in a situation of extreme vulnerability.”

Myrna Cunningham
Myrna Cunningham

Cunningham, who was hospitalized with COVID and is still recovering, says that COVID has compounded the myriad challenges many Indigenous communities face.

“For a lot of peoples and communities, on top of the inequality they face to access health care systems, they’ve also suffered, and still suffer, the impacts of measures adopted by states to tackle the health crisis,” she said. “We have seen cases of communities who live from selling their crops and losing everything if they can’t go out to sell.”

“The main problems we’ve seen are the limited access to health care services; the increase in the workload for women as they care for their families; the lack of food; the impact on crop production and trade; loss of jobs; impacts on children and young people due to schools closing and the technological gap that prevents them from studying remotely; and the increase of domestic violence. In many of our communities, COVID-19 interlocked with other diseases such as malaria and dengue. A serious problem was the increase in racist actions and in pressures on Indigenous territories for extractive activities and other uses. This increased the violence against Indigenous leaders. In countries such as Colombia and Brazil, the situation has been getting worse.”

Murders of Indigenous people in Brazil. Source: Pastoral Land Commission (CPT)

Cunningham’s approach to helping Indigenous communities confront COVID involves the same strategies that she’s taken throughout her career, whether that’s been as the first First Miskito doctor in Nicaragua or serving as the Chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues: strengthening the resilience, autonomy, and rights of Indigenous peoples. Her approach is multifaceted, ranging from securing land tenure for traditional lands to promoting legal reform to helping increase representation of women and Indigenous peoples in leadership positions at institutions that govern, determine policy, and allocate resources.

While there is still much progress to be made, Cunningham says she has seen many positive changes over the course of her career when it comes to Indigenous rights.

“It’s been 40 years of a lot of work, working like ants: Opening spaces, defending them, formulating proposals, negotiating them, monitoring compliance, reporting noncompliance. But more than anything it’s been the years in which Indigenous peoples have built global, regional and national movements in many countries,” she said. “Today we have international mechanisms and instruments in the U.N. that allow us to keep moving forward, especially the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Permanent Forum, among others. Today we are present in important global negotiations about climate change, biodiversity, food systems and climate financing.”

“The contributions of Indigenous peoples are now recognized in these processes and discussions. There’s still a lot to do to guarantee full, effective, respectful and dignified participation, but we are at the tables arguing, contributing, demanding, monitoring. And we are both women and men.”

When it comes to the conservation sector specifically, Cunningham says recognition of Indigenous peoples’ contributions toward maintaining healthy and productive ecosystems is growing, but colonial attitudes toward local peoples remain pervasive.

Satellite image of Terra Indígena Igarapé Lage. Image credit: NASA Landsat
Satellite image of Terra Indígena Igarapé Lage. The boundaries of the forested indigenous territory starkly contrast with the surrounding deforested landscape. Image credit: NASA Landsat

“There is evidence that strong land rights play a role where there are low deforestation and forest degradation rates in Indigenous territories,” she told Mongabay. “Little by little, the voices of Indigenous peoples and these studies that show evidence are placing these points in the global agenda.”

“To expand these achievements, however, we need to move from speech to action. The indispensable requirement for dismantling the colonizing approach that has been used in the conservation of biodiversity is to fully recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples. Any measure must be planned and implemented with Indigenous peoples as full partners.”

Cunningham spoke of these issues and many more during a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Note: this interview has been translated from Spanish with the assistance of Maria Angeles Salazar and was lightly edited.

Myrna Cunningham
Myrna Cunningham

AN INTERVIEW WITH MYRNA CUNNINGHAM

Mongabay: What inspired you to become an advocate for Indigenous and women’s rights?

Myrna Cunningham: Definitely living with the communities, their problems but especially their desires and potential to face them. That was my main inspiration. While I was studying medicine, when I went back to Waspam on vacation, I practiced health services with a clinic that belonged to the Catholic Church. We used to visit the communities on the Wangki [Coco] River. That allowed me to see the living conditions in the communities, the malnutrition among the children. But at the same time I was able to feel and share their joy of living, of surviving.

On those trips I learned about blakira, a Miskito illness that mainly affects young Miskito women. I learned that it could only be treated by sukias, specialists who can communicate with the protective spirits. I learned that because it had been an area of banana monocultures for many years, they needed a diet based on bananas to face childhood malnutrition; it was what kids had learned to eat at home. But I also learn to dance the Usus Mairin, the Miskitu Kukia nani, other Miskito dances. I learned they suffered, worked, danced, and I understood that I had to be with them in that fight.

When I saw the opportunity to transform the lives of these communities from other spaces, I took it. That’s the reason why I participated in the peacemaking process and the process for building autonomy between 1984 and 1987. That was another inspiring moment. Seeing how important peace was for the communities on the Caribbean coast, negotiating that peace with armed groups, with individual and collective human rights for Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendant communities, getting the state to recognize these rights and include them in the political constitution, in the statute of autonomy, it was a moment of great inspiration. Doing the consultations in the middle of the war, the multiethnic assembly with more than 2,000 participants … seeing the women from the communities organized in peace and autonomy commissions, begging their husbands, brothers, sons to disarm to build autonomy — that definitely inspired me. And it still does.

And for international work, I’ve had different inspirations. But I think one that left a deep mark on me was the Continental Campaign of 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance that finished in 1992. Thousands of organizations — Indigenous, Black, peasant, academic, and others — all over the world rallied. That allowed us to tackle topics so important that they are still current. But it especially allowed me to confirm that global coordination between sectors can help promote the necessary changes to make this planet a better place for everyone. We discussed the topic of unity in diversity a lot. Everyone was united, but respecting our differences. It was central and, as I said, still current.

My other inspiration was the Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative, a space we created with Rigoberta Menchu and other Indigenous brothers and sisters. The idea was to contribute to generate global processes that enabled the visibility of conflicts that concern Indigenous peoples. But we especially wanted to generate and build processes to find a solution to these conflicts. It is still an inspiration to see the willingness for dialogue of Indigenous Peoples, their continuous proposals to solve conflicts, their genuine interest to build plurinational and multiethnic states, their interest to build bridges that can break historic barriers of mistrust and discrimination through dialogue. I am still inspired and committed.

Mongabay: As the first Miskita woman doctor, you broke new ground for women and Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua. How do you attribute your success in overcoming the many barriers you encountered?

Myrna Cunningham: When I finished my medicine degree in 1973, I wanted to go work in the Wangki. There were only North American missionary doctors in the only small hospital that belonged to the Moravian church. Four graduates organized ourselves and negotiated with the university and Ministry of Health to go do the first year of our internship in the Bilwaskarma Hospital. The ministry and the university accepted under the condition that we wouldn’t be paid. We accepted, happy to go work with the communities. That enabled me not only to prove that when given chances, Indigenous women could attend university, but also to start working with traditional doctors and complementing health systems. That’s how my relationship with traditional medicine started, and then we named that complementary system intercultural health.

We were able to promote recognition for traditional medicine in the autonomy law, the general law, and the national health policy. There are intercultural health models that follow the principles of integrality, reciprocity, interculturality, differentiated care, equity, quality and equitable access to resources in both autonomous regions (of Nicaragua). Now, midwives, healers and sukias (shamans) are part of the community health groups together with the staff from the Ministry of Health. The result can be observed in public policies at the national level. For example, now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Health designed intercultural guidelines for the care of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.

One of the areas in which I worked the most was creating conditions for the young people in our communities to study and become professionals. Therefore, I participated in the creation of what we call our own education program, the Regional Autonomous Education System (SEAR), and the establishment of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN), from which around 9,000 students have already graduated, and 60% of them are women. And in the medicine degree, 80% of the students are women!

Wangky river
Wangki river. Photo credit: Centre for the Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development / El Centro para la Autonomía y Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CADPI)

Some of the factors that helped me overcome the hurdles I found on my way were, first, having a family that always supported me. I had a mother who agreed to send me away to study, leaving a boarding school, before I was 10 years old, because there were no secondary schools in my region, and helped me to take care of my children when I became a professional. They helped me face all types of prejudice and discrimination. That support has been essential.

Second was education, being able to study. It changes life in the communities. Next was living the revolution in the 1980s and the recognition of women rights, Indigenous rights. That contributed to overcome barriers and enabled the creation of institutions that have made it easier for people to keep exercising these rights. It was a time of deep changes that influenced how Indigenous women live today in my country. Finally, having support networks, solidarity groups, supportive people throughout my life has been fundamental when facing difficult moments and situations.

Mongabay: Through various roles, you’ve been advocating for Indigenous rights for more than 40 years. What are the biggest differences between when you got your start and now?

Myrna Cunningham: When I started we were just entering the United Nations, this multilateral space that works as a sounding board for the claims and proposals of Indigenous peoples. In my country, the legal reference there was that we were “savages” and we weren’t even known in the rest of the country. There was no communication with the Caribbean coast and the rest of the country. Some people thought they needed a passport to travel to our region!

It’s been 40 years of a lot of work, working like ants: Opening spaces, defending them, formulating proposals, negotiating them, monitoring compliance, reporting noncompliance. But more than anything it’s been the years in which Indigenous peoples have built global, regional and national movements in many countries. Today we have international mechanisms and instruments in the U.N. that allow us to keep moving forward, especially the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Permanent Forum, among others. Today we are present in important global negotiations about climate change, biodiversity, food systems and climate financing. The contributions of Indigenous peoples are now recognized in these processes and discussions. There’s still a lot to do to guarantee full, effective, respectful and dignified participation, but we are at the tables arguing, contributing, demanding, monitoring. And we are both women and men.

That’s another important change. While women have always participated, we are now doing it in more articulated ways, specifying our proposals clearly as women and our peoples’ collective proposals. For example, we were able to widen the concept of violence that we face as Indigenous women and girls, incorporating new sorts of violence to the debate such as ecological, economical and spiritual violence, but we have also brought a wider concept of feminism and we have strengthened the discussion about an intersectionality approach by showing all the types of oppression we face as Indigenous women. Today we have a strong network of Indigenous women.

Sumu Mayangna
Mayangna territory in Nicaragua. Photo credit: the government of the Sumu Mayangna nation

At the regional level, we have built important spaces and institutions, for example, the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), an intergovernmental organization that is unique in its governance model with parity between Indigenous peoples and member governments. Several countries have reformed their constitutions and laws to recognize Indigenous peoples and their rights. In Latin America, at least 17 countries incorporate ethnic disaggregation in their national censuses and some in their statistical systems, like education and health, to better the impact of public policies and specific programs.

We have been able to advance the process of autonomy in our regions in Nicaragua. In addition to the political constitution there are dozens of national laws that reaffirm the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and their autonomy. The legal framework has been strengthened with the international standards for the rights of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples.

It hasn’t been easy and these aren’t progressive processes. There have been setbacks and stagnation, but having these frameworks and advances provides us with the tools to face the current onslaught in several countries in the region.

Mongabay: The pandemic has been especially difficult for many Indigenous communities. How has COVID-19 affected you, Miskita communities, and Indigenous peoples with whom you work?

Myrna Cunningham: For Indigenous peoples, the arrival of the virus, in addition to putting people at risk, presented the possibility that entire cultures could disappear. That’s why since the start of the pandemic we in Latin America and the Caribbean organized ourselves and created a regional Indigenous platform to tackle COVID-19 with the aim of saving lives and protecting communities. We pointed out that, while numbers are important to monitor the situation, for Indigenous peoples it was more than a statistical matter. For Indigenous peoples with few members, the situation still endangers their existence as a collective, as a culture, as a people. In our region, more than 400 peoples have fewer than 3,000 inhabitants, around 200 peoples are in voluntary isolation, and 100 are cross-border. Not to mention the ones who have been displaced to towns and live in bad conditions. We are all in a situation of extreme vulnerability.

For a lot of peoples and communities, on top of the inequality they face to access health care systems, they’ve also suffered, and still suffer, the impacts of measures adopted by states to tackle the health crisis as, often, they don’t answer the realities of their communities. We have seen cases of communities who live from selling their crops and losing everything if they can’t go out to sell.

The main problems we’ve seen are the limited access to health care services; the increase in the workload for women as they care for their families; the lack of food; the impact on crop production and trade; loss of jobs; impacts on children and young people due to schools closing and the technological gap that prevents them from studying remotely; and the increase of domestic violence. In many of our communities, COVID-19 interlocked with other diseases such as malaria and dengue. A serious problem was the increase in racist actions and in pressures on Indigenous territories for extractive activities and other uses. This increased the violence against Indigenous leaders. In countries such as Colombia and Brazil, the situation has been getting worse.

Indigenous Guajajara leader and prominent member of his community’s “Guardians of the Forest” program, Paulo Paulino Guajajara was shot dead in an ambush by loggers in the Amazon on November 1. Photo credit: Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

That’s why, despite the lack of official disaggregated statistical data, we haven’t been able to know the real situation. There’s no doubt that the serious impact of COVID-19 on Indigenous peoples has been increasingly visible every day. It exacerbated problems and crises that already existed. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) talked about 600,000 Indigenous people infected and 15,000 dead in 17 countries in Latin America.

I think the most remarkable thing is that in this scenario, Indigenous communities showed their capacity to offer adequate, efficient and strong responses to the crisis. This was possible thanks to our own structures of social organization in the exercise of our right to self-determination. The regional Indigenous platform that FILAC coordinated with the Abya Yala Indigenous Forum has documented hundreds of examples of Indigenous peoples exercising their collective rights to defend their territories from the pandemic. Among other actions, they’ve been able to isolate their communities; organize internally according to biosecurity actions compatible with their ancestral traditions and practices; apply traditional health systems; revitalize the use of their traditional knowledge in different fields; boost the use of their languages to promote cultural messages appropriate to prevent and treat the virus; develop production and exchange systems that care for the environment; and other things. They’ve proved their remarkable capacity to be proactive and resilient in the fight against the virus.

In these experiences it’s essential to recognize the central role of Indigenous women as life, culture and identity creators and economic agents. Indigenous peoples enhanced the role of traditional medicine in the stimulation of the immune system and the promotion of agriculture programs and exchange of medicinal plants.

We’ve also tried to guarantee access to the vaccine against COVID-19 for Indigenous peoples by adopting intercultural strategies and considering the geographic situation, distance and other factors. We’ve pointed out that vaccination should be carried out in a culturally appropriate way that considers and respects Indigenous languages, Indigenous and community visions and perceptions around health, and incorporates authorities, organizations and Indigenous leadership in the design of intercultural immunization systems.

Sumu Mayangna
Indigenous Mayangna in Nicaragua. Photo credit: the government of the Sumu Mayangna nation

In the case of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, the pandemic arrived when many Indigenous communities were fighting malaria. What they did was apply the measures of community assistance established in the autonomous intercultural health care model.

At the beginning of 2020, health teams started visiting the communities, schools and homes to offer guidelines on how to get ready to prevent and tackle the pandemic. They updated the census of elderly people and those with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and with that information they updated the health map in the communities.

Once the pandemic got to the Autonomous Region, some communities had transport ready for infected people who needed to be hospitalized. At the national level, 19 hospitals got ready to treat COVID-19. Two of them are in the Autonomous Region. In Nicaragua, there’s universal access to health care, which means treatment is free.

The Ministry of Health elaborated intercultural guidelines to tackle COVID-19 that Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples adapted. The communities defined some of the protection measures, like outsider access and, especially, updated traditional medicine recipes that were shared among healers, sukias and other traditional health agents who met to talk with the regional authorities, the ministry, the Institute of Traditional Medicine, URACCAN medicine students, and the government of the Mayangna Nation. All in all, it’s been an opportunity to keep building the autonomous and intercultural health model established by their autonomy. They also carried out research activities and constant monitoring of the health team when there were cases of infection. The response varies depending on the distance between the communities and the centers equipped to treat COVID-19.

The vaccination campaign against COVID-19 has started in municipal capitals, and the government has guaranteed transport, food and assistance to elders who want to get vaccinated. In Nicaragua, the government hasn’t applied any restrictive measures against COVID-19 so the communities and institutions have acted according to the situation.

I got infected and had to be hospitalized. I’m still recovering. I’ve lost important and beloved members of my family. Across Latin America, as Indigenous Peoples, we’ve lost brothers and sisters. We cry every day for their transition to a new dimension and we seek comfort in the acceptance that their lives pay the debt we have to Mother Earth for the damages we’ve caused to her. I totally agree with Indigenous youngsters that the impact on mental health is one of the most serious.

I’ve also understood that while health, as one of the economic, social and cultural human rights, anticipates that states will take economic and technical measures, it requires that these are coordinated and integral. The right to health is not just talk or a wish that can be applied in two or three months. What this situation has confirmed is that the right to health is part of a package of human rights that require political decisions, investment, training, building and long-term participation. I think the pandemic gave us the chance to continue delving in the autonomous and intercultural health model and, therefore, enrich the national model of family and community health by combining the national normative political framework with old health practices and the exercise of individual and collective rights acquired through autonomy. It has helped us to have health professionals who come from the Indigenous communities. Having our own intercultural medicine school in the community university, having agreements with guaranteed quotas for different specializations in national universities, really helped during the pandemic.

Mongabay: Beyond COVID, what are currently the biggest challenges for Miskita communities?

Myrna Cunningham: First, consolidating the autonomous institutions at each of the levels: regional, municipal, territorial and community level. There’s already a normative framework and they’ve gained self-government experience. However, they need to consolidate, especially community and territorial governments. Community governments face many challenges, in particular in communities located on the Wangki riverside, on the border with Honduras. They are exposed to pressure on their territories, periodic flooding, and narcotrafficking. There must be consolidation mechanisms to coordinate actions between the different levels of government.

In some communities there’s a lot of violence. Women are pressing to declare safe communities — they call them shelters without walls — to become communities where the authorities can guarantee the safety of everyone in the community, especially girls and women, by applying the traditional justice and conflict resolution system, Tala Mana. The communities must be violence-free.

Third, we must work hard to define and apply the territorial planning rules; use resources so that each community and territory has a sustainable production plan, and revitalize their own economic institutions, like reciprocity, Pana Pana, and adjust the relationships with the market, especially for products such as seafood, wood and gold. There are experiences in progress, like the resin extraction in some communities in pine forest areas, or communities in the coastal area with rules about fishing gear, mangrove protection, access to fishing, etc. These experiences need to be extended to other communities.

There are some territories and communities that are suffering from the invasion of settlers, especially mestizos from other areas of Nicaragua and the Autonomous Region itself. These territories are Wangki li Aubri, Wangki-Tasba Raya, Prinzu Awala and Mayangna Sauni As. The idea was, on the one hand, to strengthen their self-governance capacities, to negotiate and apply the defined and agreed regulations on land planning, and strengthen their own land protection mechanisms. And on the other hand, to ensure the functioning of the Mother Earth Commission, a cross-sectional authority created by the government to accompany the land planning and remediation process.

Mongabay: In terms of examples where Indigenous communities have successfully secured rights and self-determination, are there common factors that are more likely to make such efforts successful?

Myrna Cunningham: The trend toward autonomy or self-governance follows two paths. On the one hand, the negotiation of these processes with the state and “forcing” it to recognize the multinational or multiethnic character. The other path has been for Indigenous peoples to declare their own autonomy. In both cases, they demand the right to free self-determination, to decide how they want to coordinate with the state, and to be part of that state according to the terms agreed through their proposal.

That means that in most cases there are “agreements” with the state. There are different experiences. In Panama, Nicaragua and Bolivia, they adopt the figure of regions, districts or autonomous regions supported by national regulatory frameworks. In Mexico, there are cases where they are ruled by customs and traditions. In Colombia, there are Indigenous shelters with transferred public service powers. The Wampi people, in Peru, Chéran and areas under Zapatista control in Mexico, have declared themselves autonomous territories.

Arhuaco leader in Colombia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

We can observe that they are adopting organizational structures that we can call “hybrid.” While they revitalize traditional organizations, they combine them with new organizational methods. For example, in Panama, they have general congresses but they also work with the national coordinator for Indigenous peoples, adopting new spaces for impact. In other places, they take the figure of a town hall meeting. Each experience revitalizes the traditional organizations but they are complemented, their functions are recreated, among other things.

Another similarity is that each case has defined an area or territory for their autonomous jurisdiction. That’s the area where they exercise their powers. They define it, in general, as their ancestral territory, although sometimes that right isn’t “legally” recognized by the state.

In general, I consider that opting for free self-determination through autonomy is a strategy that we promote to transform states from the ground up. Legal reforms are fundamental. In our case, it was important to have constitutional precepts and the statute of autonomy. But we’ve also promoted the incorporation of this right in as many laws as possible to build a strong regulatory framework with specific laws and incorporate aspects about the rights of Indigenous peoples and self-government in general laws.

Then there’s the adoption of a multiethnic and intercultural approach in public management. That can be achieved by coordinating public management with community authorities, applying Indigenous knowledge, practices and experiences in State procedures, instruments and programs, and assigning specific budgets.

A Purko elder collecting medicinal plants in the Loita Hills Forest, Kenya. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.
A Purko elder collecting medicinal plants in the Loita Hills Forest, Kenya. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

We have to have mechanisms and spaces for real participation of Indigenous peoples in public management. Recognizing collective rights requires transformation in the way justice is applied: the jurisdictional separation between the community and state systems for justice administration; moving to legal plurality; applying measures for conflict resolution and the fight against different types of violence, especially against women; and respecting the procedures developed by community authorities, among other things.

There must be firm action from Indigenous peoples to strengthen their own institutions, like training programs, for example.

Mongabay: On a percentage basis, Nicaragua has had one of the highest rates of primary forest loss in the world during the past five years. What has been the impact of this forest loss on communities?

Myrna Cunningham: There was a point when Nicaragua was losing up to 120,000 hectares (297,000 acres) yearly. To that we have to add the deforestation caused by hurricanes. In 2007, with Hurricane Felix, we lost around 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres). We’ve been able to cut yearly deforestation by half (to 60,000 hectares, or 148,000 acres), but in November 2020, we suffered two hurricanes that affected the forests again. Most of the deforestation happens in the humid tropics of the Caribbean, located between the two Autonomous Regions, and south of the Bosawas forest reserve in the north Caribbean. These have traditionally been areas of subsistence agriculture, and Indigenous communities have lived from hunting, harvesting and small-scale mining in specific areas. The problem is that deforestation has come together with the incursion of settlers who have a different relationship with the forest and natural resources in general.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss in Nicaragua on an annual basis since 2000, according to data from Global Forest Watch and Hansen et al (2021).

The first impact from deforestation is the change in the livelihood activities of the affected Indigenous communities. Most of the Indigenous population subsists on migratory agriculture, harvesting, hunting and fishing. Agriculture activity has been occasional and not very developed.

With the changes, we can see they are participating in more agricultural activity. Families have two to five head of cattle on average, and they complement this activity with extensive farming of basic grains, tubers, pigs and increasingly cattle ranching. Small-scale mining, which used to be a traditional activity in some Sumu-Mayangna communities, has spread to other communities and has attracted mestizo settlers to the area. In some areas, selling wood is the most important business, and that too has spread.

The communities of the Wangki River have also suffered from the spread of farming on the Honduran riverside, where there’s extensive farming of basic grains, bananas and yuccas. The increase of mestizo settlers in the Honduran Moskitia, which is a traditional farming area for almost 100 Indigenous communities along the Wnagki River, affected their farmland completely and impacted their basic food security. It has also put Indigenous peoples in a situation of higher vulnerability to prevailing narcotrafficking in the country, which increases violence.

In addition to the changes in livelihoods, the biggest impact caused by deforestation has been cultural. The change of perception about the land and the natural resources that families and authorities have experienced in some communities and Indigenous territories has generated land use change and put a money value on the land. This is expressed through the sale of land in some communities, even though it’s illegal, which has affected social cohesion in the communities and territorial governance. While land leasing has been practiced in some territories for almost 100 years, like in Karata, in many cases, it has multiplied as a source of income for families and community and land authorities.

All these changes have generated tensions and conflicts in several communities and an increase in different types of violence, from violence against girls and women in the household to interethnic conflicts.

Mongabay: The conservation sector has traditionally been colonial in how it approached its objectives, often ignoring or undermining Indigenous peoples’ rights. But over the past decade, there’s been a rising emphasis on the role Indigenous peoples, and local communities, play in stewarding ecosystems and wildlife. What do you think was the impetus for this shift? And how can these gains be extended and ingrained where Indigenous peoples have traditionally not had a voice?

Myrna Cunningham: We Indigenous peoples are convinced that our cosmovisions and ancestral knowledge can contribute to ecosystem and wildlife management. Several studies, including the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, show that biodiversity decreases at a much slower pace on Indigenous lands and that Indigenous practices are clearly able to restore lives.

In our region alone, Indigenous peoples occupy 404 million hectares (988 million acres) of forests, almost 60% of which are in the Amazon Basin. There is evidence that strong land rights play a role where there are low deforestation and forest degradation rates in Indigenous territories. Little by little, the voices of Indigenous peoples and these studies that show evidence are placing these points in the global agenda. But I think that what has really made them part of the global agenda is the impact that the loss of these resources has on the rest of the population: the floods in Europe, the increase of forest fires in the United States. They are increasingly worried that these impacts are getting closer to their houses and families.

Indigenous territories, like the Surui-Paiter territory in Rondonia and Acre, are easily visible by satellite in parts of the Amazon because of the sharp contrast with deforested areas that surround them. Photo credit: NASA
Indigenous territories, like the Surui-Paiter territory in Rondonia and Acre, are easily visible by satellite in parts of the Amazon because of the sharp contrast with deforested areas that surround them. Photo credit: NASA

To expand these achievements, however, we need to move from speech to action. The indispensable requirement for dismantling the colonizing approach that has been used in the conservation of biodiversity is to fully recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples. Any measure must be planned and implemented with Indigenous peoples as full partners. It’s essential to guarantee collective ownership of territories that allows responsible governance through solutions based on reciprocity.

Many of us are worried about the numbers that are being debated for the establishment of protected areas or conservation areas globally. Because measures can’t continue with the eviction of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, arbitrary arrests and murders. It’s urgent to apply legal frameworks and policies that recognize the important role of Indigenous communities in conservation and restoration. There are encouraging practices than can be replicated and from which we can learn. Some communities are developing conservation and forest management plans with a focus on land use planning. There’s definitely a need to change the colonial agenda paradigm and this must be the moment to do it.

We know that successful management of our territories and waters happens when the right to free self-determination is fully respected. We’ve learned that collaborative approaches among Indigenous peoples for protected area management is more effective than unilateral conservation from States. It’s important to consider that the right to Indigenous territories is a crucial factor for responsible governance of natural resources, including the protection of biodiversity and the people who protect it. Indigenous peoples who wish to declare their territories as Indigenous conservation areas must have political, technical, legal and economic support. The establishment of new protected areas with the aim of reaching a new paradigm with new ambitious objectives can only happen if there is free, prior and informed consent and full and effective participation of Indigenous peoples.

The Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework must contemplate measures for recognizing Indigenous ownership of the richly biodiverse territories of Indigenous peoples and support their traditional practices so that they can exercise their governance system and contribute effectively to biodiversity conservation outside of any formal recognition or reporting requirements. Policymakers and decision-makers must recognize and accept that interventions based on culture and Indigenous Peoples management are important practices that allow nature to thrive.

Mongabay: What does inclusion really look like when it comes to leadership and engagement in civil society spaces?

Myrna Cunningham: It’s still a complex issue because colonial relationships also appear in these spaces. Although there are many elements and similar demands between civil society groups and Indigenous peoples, they have different decision-making and representation methods.

River in Bosawas, Nicaragua. Photo credit: Eileen Mairena
River in Bosawas, Nicaragua. Photo credit: Eileen Mairena

In the last few years, we’ve observed the creation of coalitions and platforms between Indigenous peoples’ bodies of representation and other organizations to press for certain demands or to bring attention to specific issues. For example, we formed coalitions with Afro-descendant organizations to talk about equity, racial justice and intercultural policies; with campesinos to talk about rights to land and food security; with women to talk about violence; with urban populist sectors about economic policies. The environmental field is experiencing increasing coordination, especially in regards to topics linked to environmental justice, climate change, climate funding, among others. We still need to work on alliances as part of the decolonization agenda.

Mongabay: Philanthropy has been criticized for lack of inclusivity in leadership positions. You have served as the chair of the Pawanka Fund, an Indigenous-led grant-making effort that supports Indigenous initiatives. Are there lessons from Pawanka on this front that are applicable to the broader philanthropic sector?

Myrna Cunningham: Yes, there are important lessons. The Pawanka Fund is a global organization led by Indigenous people from the seven sociocultural regions of the world. It supports free self-determined development, buen vivir, of Indigenous peoples by providing economic support and investment and promoting intercultural philanthropy that boosts ancestral and spiritual values and the relationships between all living beings. The Pawanka Fund has proved it has the ability to innovate, be flexible and reach communities that didn’t have access to resources.

The support cycle starts with an accompaniment process, important to generate and develop capacities. We call it a mentorship and it supports the whole process through joint learning. Flexibility is one of the most appreciated characteristics by local counterparts. We need time to build long-term relationships so it’s good to think about long-term relationships. Changes happen in the long term and they require long-term investments.

Indigenous organizations and communities have knowledge, capacity, tangible and intangible resources. Support must be directed to encouraging their processes and facilitating the use of their full potential.

Sumu Mayangna
Mayangna territory on the “Mosquito Coast” of Nicaragua. Photo credit: the government of the Sumu Mayangna nation

It’s important that funds reach Indigenous communities and organizations directly. When necessary, offering technical assistance so that the communities and organizations can comply with legal and administrative requirements to report on the cooperation received. Projects and initiatives must be designed and implemented by local organizations and based on their needs and priorities with a holistic approach that tackles different elements of self-determined free development (Indigenous buen vivir), including economic, social, spiritual, environmental, gender and intergenerational aspects.

The insights and needs of women, young people, the elderly and disabled people must be incorporated. All of this increases ownership and sustainability, and contributes to strengthen empowerment.  Monitoring and evaluation must be designed as mutual learning processes.

Exchange activities between local counterparts allow them to get to know each other, exchange lessons and learnings, strengthen solidarity networks and get mutual support. They inspire each other. The base of communication among all the organizations participating in the process is the adequate use of understandable language, including respect to the usage of their mother tongues. Interpreting is an important aspect of accompaniment.

Each Indigenous community has a concept of philanthropy, of sharing, interacting and complementing each other. Due diligence based on cultural indicators is an adequate source to build trusting relationships.

Mongabay: What advice would you give someone who wants to be an ally in supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights?

Myrna Cunningham: Support them directly. We’ve proved that the introduction of middlemen conditions the processes. They handle budgets and don’t allow for real leadership from the organizations. Currently, we have extensive experience in these processes and qualified Indigenous staff. Even if you want to support inexperienced organizations, you can promote support processes, mentorships and learning between peers.

Get to know them, accompany, listen. Dialogue is the foundation to create trusting relationships. Visiting the communities, understanding how they live, how their cultures work and their concerns, that’s a good working strategy. In most cases, communities have a life plan, projections for the future, and they face complex problems. Because of that, solutions and plans that come from the outside aren’t very effective and they don’t collaborate in the sustainability of support.

Be flexible. Learning about the contexts and establishing trusting relationships allows flexibility with the requirements. Reducing the technical and administrative criteria external to the dynamics of Indigenous organizations and using cultural and social criteria favors organizational strengthening and encourages better results.

CADPI
Photo credit: Centre for the Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development / El Centro para la Autonomía y Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas (CADPI)

Funds are often linked to a specific problem, but the reality is more complex and it is necessary to allow for adjustments to get more effective impacts. These predetermined recipes aren’t very useful.

Understand the communities that empower themselves. The empowerment of Indigenous communities must be understood as a process and not the result of an activity or project. It includes an individual dimension but it’s mostly collective and it’s based on recognizing the power that Indigenous peoples possess. External actors can enable economic, material, information and human resources; connections; alliances; opportunities for participation in power spaces, etc. But it is Indigenous peoples, as active agents of their buen vivir, who drive their collective processes of empowerment.

Support their governance processes. Allies must understand the characteristics of Indigenous organizations and recognize their potential and value their characteristics justly. There are many opportunities because they are the ones who know the problems the best and they have proposals to solve them. Donors or external actors mustn’t create new organizations according to their interests or impose their technical staff without supporting what already exists.

It’s necessary to respect internal governance processes, to recognize them and value them. While this often needs a long time, decisions are made collectively, and that takes time. When it’s only two or three people making fast decisions, the collective dimension and representation are lost.

Bet on their philanthropy models. In the last few years, several funds led by Indigenous peoples have been institutionalized. These have been created to change the way in which philanthropy usually happens. In the long term, they’re aiming for a change of paradigm in the power relationships between donors and beneficiaries.

Support organizational strengthening in the long term. The leaders of Indigenous organizations are saying there is little funding to work on institutional strengthening. Collective decision-making processes imply new resources such as establishing communications, economic and administrative systems. These processes take time and that’s why it is necessary to have long-term support. The uncertainty that happens every year in organizations doesn’t allow for the continuity of their projections and life plans.

Select organizations using social and cultural criteria. Traditionally, organizations were selected according to financial and technical criteria that don’t consider Indigenous social recognition or their contribution in terms of culture. As I said before, the basis of Indigenous organizations is their representation and networking. Social recognition among peers is a fundamental criterion to initiate dialogue and understanding each other’s reality.

Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest
Indigenous Tikuna man in the Amazon rainforest. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler / mongabay

Support participation in global governance processes. Indigenous peoples are making, and can make, very significant contributions to global governance processes. It’s necessary to understand the value of these processes and to support them with economic resources, but also manage and promote contacts and build alliances to strengthen the influence role and the option of driving changes for Indigenous peoples in global agendas.

Self-question. There’s a need to guide debates around topics such as the decolonization of wealth and historic debt to the communities by focusing on sustainability and the future of the planet, because development as conceived by the West isn’t viable.

Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?

Myrna Cunningham: We are now living the consequences of the decisions made by young people in determined moments of history. Don’t believe the tale that you are the future. What you do or don’t do determines your life, so you must act now. For Indigenous peoples, actions must be collective, not only individual. Therefore it’s necessary to join processes for action. They must take life seriously, that’s the meaning of living integrally, with determination, inspired by their potential to achieve deep changes, living with happiness, assuming full responsibility as citizens of the world. What they do at home, in their community and their country, determines what happens everywhere.

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