WASHINGTON (Landscape News) — Tashka Yanawana, chief of the Yanawana people in western Brazil, is as at home in a conference auditorium and on social media as he is in his village in the Amazon rainforest. For that, he largely credits his father, Raimundo. “He had that vision,” he said. “It is because of my father that I am able to live in two worlds, to navigate in two worlds, without losing myself in either.”
As a child, he saw how the Yanawana were considered second-class citizens of Brazil, their labor exploited by rubber barons, and their spiritual beliefs denigrated by missionaries. Young people had no choice but to leave if they wanted to go to school or earn more than a barebones living.
When the Brazilian government demarcated their land along the San Gregorio River in the state of Acre in the early 1990s, they were given less than half the territory they claimed.
That situation began to change in 1993, when the community embarked on a business relationship with Blaine, Minnesota-based Aveda Corporation. Community members started to supply the company with urucum, or annatto (Bixa orellana), a natural pigment they had used for centuries. Aveda uses the rich red color in its cosmetics, shampoos, conditioners and hair style products.
By the time he was a young man,Yanawana said, he won a scholarship at the Federal Fluminense University in Rio de Janeiro to study computer sciences. After that, he studied philosophy and cinema. “Of all of them, I liked philosophy best,” he added.
In 1998, Aveda gave him a grant to study at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I was supposed to go there for six months, but I ended up staying for five years,” he said. During that time he travelled throughout the U.S. and Mexico, becoming involved in indigenous rights movements in both countries.
As Tashka points out, the money from the sales to Aveda do not go to just one family or group, but is shared among the eight Yanawana communities. Part of it goes to activities that celebrate Yanawana history, culture and values, including annual, week-long festivals featuring their traditions and artisanal skills. The goal of these activities, he said, is to promote an alternative vision of wealth and assets, so that community members can identify ways of using their cultural resources to fuel business deals on their own terms.
“With the income we receive from Aveda, we also invest in the protection and surveillance of Yanawana territory, first of all, in health, education, and supporting women artisans,” he said. “We invest in all kinds of common goods that could be used to benefit all the Yanawana.”
Most importantly, earnings from Aveda allowed the 1,200-hundred member tribe to legally challenge the earlier demarcation of their territory. As a result, their reserve in Acre was increased from 92,000 hectares to 200,000.
At the recent Global Landscapes Forum Investment Case Symposium in Washington,Yanawana drew on the Yanawana experience to illustrate how innovative business partnerships can benefit indigenous peoples – without destroying their land and their future.
Speaking at the plenary session, he said, “Taking care of Mother Earth is not just the responsibility of indigenous people. It’s the responsibility of business people. Because how are you going to have a safe environment to do business otherwise?”
Augusta Dwyer interviews Tashka Yanawana