BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — His vast accomplishments make it seem like he has more time in the day than other people — and perhaps he does — because for Brazilian indigenous leader Marcos Terena, time is not dictated by the numeric clock but by the relationship between sun and Earth.
“The first time I went to New York, I had a meeting at the Rockefeller Foundation,” he says. “There, I saw a phrase that read, ‘Time is money.’ During the meeting, without any criticism for that thought, I asked what our time is – the sun or the clock? This is the argument I use in debates about our common future.”
Terena, who most prominently founded Brazil’s first indigenous political movement, the Union of Indigenous Nations (UNIND), offers many wise proclamations on the environment, which guide his work as a spokesperson for indigenous people both in Brazil and worldwide. From Terena’s perspective, the environment is intrinsically linked to identity and wellbeing, and thus finding ways to protect it is paramount, a subject he will address as a speaker at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany on Dec. 20.
Using the Force
The scope of Terena’s work is enormous, including a number of firsts: first indigenous person to become a Brazilian commercial aircraft pilot; first indigenous person to assume management of Oscar Niemeyer’s Memorial of Indigenous Peoples of Brasilia; founder of culture and games festivals for indigenous people both in Brazil as well as the Indigenous Peoples’ World Games. Currently, he is a representative for indigenous rights in the United Nations, coordinator the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, and professor of indigenous traditional and spiritual knowledge – and that only scratches the surface.
In short, there’s little Terena doesn’t do improve the future for indigenous peoples, yet all of his work is rooted in the traditional knowledge passed down to him from his community’s past.
“There were many snakes, jaguars, waters, and birds,” he says of his home, a village of the ethnic Xané group in western Brazil’s Aguas do Pantanal region near the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay. “I learned to be what I am through the teachings of my grandparents and looking at the skies, the stars, the changes of time creating courage for every moment of life. I believe that the Great Spirit led me to take a long walk in the midst of the modern world and to speak of all this, and about the importance of the earth as a habitat of dignity.”
Terena was only 23 when he left his early career as a commercial pilot and founded UNIND. Brazil has more than 200 different ethnic tribes, and Terena saw the importance of both preserving their unique identities while uniting them in order to advocate for their shared needs on a national and global platform.
“My indigenous colleagues and I were almost expelled by the government,” he says. “They thought our style of an indigenous movement would be the same as a trade union or student movement, but we never thought that way. Each traditional Indigenous Authority is autonomous and self-determined, but common objectives like land demarcation brought us together.”
Brazil’s indigenous communities quickly came to view Terena as their spokesperson, and he was integral to including indigenous rights in the Brazilian constitution of 1988. So too did groups around the world, and more than 700 indigenous leaders worldwide elected him to speak to world leaders on their behalf at the U.N. Earth Summit in 1992.
To Terena, though, these accomplishments were simply things that he was compelled to do to protect indigenous communities and their environments. “I have often acted politically because it is the language of the ‘white man,’ but I have also acted with the indigenous spiritual force,” he said.
Now, Terena reflects on the problems that he has seen arise in Brazil’s ethnic communities during his lifetime. While communities still aim to pass down their traditions and knowledge to future generations, he has seen a new host of epidemics arise, putting not just their cultures but all people in jeopardy.
“Lately, the diseases that our pajés [shamans] have not cured like diabetes, stroke, cancer, etc…. We believe these are brought by the wind, odor, and vegetation and plants with poisons that are justified for food production, but perhaps not for life.”
He also notes the increasing scarcity of food and water resources in remote communities, and while he recalls raising this issue 25 years ago at the Earth Summit, he has yet to see any substantial changes in mitigating these risks of basic needs. In fact, he sees these issues growing and is still seeking to do what he can to invoke change.
In Bonn, he plans to call for a new sort of ecological awareness that will address environmental crises as well as humanity’s existential crises, as he sees both as equal causes of the negative effects of climate change.
“Money can not always speak louder than common goals, after all. Climate change, droughts, desertification, water shortages will affect our human behavior and the behavior of powerful countries. For example, we have to anticipate the possibility of a war for water.”
Perhaps the greatest part of Terena’s wisdom is that it’s only through forward thinking that the past can be saved.