Panther Personalities

In the Amazon, indigenous peoples share their goals with Professor Simone Athayde

Episode Summary

Athayde is a lead author for the Science Panel for the Amazon, an initiative that assembles the knowledge of indigenous peoples, scientists and others in the Amazon region to inform conservation and sustainable development efforts.

Episode Transcription

Valdes: This is Panther Personalities presented by Florida International University.


Drucker: Hello FIU family and friends, and welcome to Panther Personalities where students are stars, research is relatable, and FIU tells its own stories. I’m your host David Drucker. On today’s show, we have Simone Athayde on the show. Simone is an Associate Professor at the Green School and the Latin American and Caribbean Center, and she came on the show to talk about her work and research around supporting indigenous peoples in the Amazon region. Simone is a lead author on the Science Panel for the Amazon, an initiative that assembles the knowledge of people all across the Amazon region in order to inform sustainable development efforts. On the podcast today, Simone gives us a perspective-expanding view of how indigenous peoples in the Amazon live, how they’ve adapted to modern technology, and the actions they are taking to preserve their culture and their environment. I thought this was a fascinating interview, because it highlights some really interesting research and shows a variety of ways that you, me, and others can live in the world together. So, let’s go ahead and get to our interview, and I hope you enjoy.


Drucker: We have another special Panther guest, like I mentioned in the intro. We have Simone on the show to talk about her research. Simone, welcome to the show.


Athayde: Thank you so much, David, for the invitation. It’s great to be here.


Drucker: Awesome to have you. So, talking about what you do on the ground in South America, working with indigenous groups, helping them. How did you get into this, and can you describe generally what you do?


Athayde: Thank you. Yes. So, I have been working with indigenous peoples in the various aspects related to indigenous peoples: territorial rights, um, you know, sustainable development, community empowerment, highlighting the biocultural connections between indigenous peoples and biodiversity for over two decades, now in the Amazon. Um, I’m Brazilian, but I’m from the southern region of Brazil. And I was, uh, initially trained as a biologist, but, um, always interested in, you know, working more, uh, closely with peoples that live, uh, in the forest and have their livelihoods really connected to biodiversity and to nature. In 1997, I had this opportunity to go work with indigenous peoples in the Amazon, in between two indigenous territories, this huge area, two areas in the heart of Brazil, in the heart of the Amazon. I was there initially for an NGO, but I was always interested in asking questions and conducting research along with the work I was doing, so I was very much engaged in participatory research. I put everything I had in, like, some boxes and a suitcase [laughter], and I left my, my apartment in the south of Brazil to go and embrace this challenge and this adventure to work in the Amazon, where, for example, in the beginning we didn’t have water, we had to go to the river for everything, like uh, pick up water every day and wash, uh, clothes, wash our dishes in the river. So I had this very close connection with nature, and I really felt how it is to really depend, you know, on nature for everything, and we just got the things through airplanes that brought things like boxes with food from the supermarket, but I pretty much, uh, ate fish every day. And when I worked, when I arrived there, I, I kind of noticed that I was really tall, and that people were not,

like, tall. I felt so tall when I arrived. I felt so different. And I thought, like, what, uh, does a Bachelor in Biology, how can I use my Bachelor in Biology here? How can I be useful with this training? And then, it took me, like, probably 10 years to figure out, really, how could I be useful and how to work together, and how to use, you know, academic research to the benefit of indigenous peoples’ resilience and sovereignty?


Drucker: Wow, so what were your first few interactions like when you started working with these indigenous people?


Athayde: Well, pretty much, it was like, um, I went with my ex-husband and I didn’t have my own identity, so I was like my ex-husband’s wife at that point, at the beginning, and it really took time for me to conquer my identity, to conquer who I am. And then I started to work for an indigenous community, and specifically an indigenous leader that came to me. I started to work on supporting the development of income generation activities that are sustainable, uh, like, the economic opportunities, the bioeconomy that really respects the environment and also adds value to the cultural connections and relationships that people have with biodiversity. So I started to work with using handicrafts and creating connections and trainings that, you know, provided, like, promoting that as a, um, sustainable income generational activity. And with that, I started to work also in this aspect of indigenous art, because I started to work with, uh, the crafts that they had, like, uh, very intricate, beautiful designs that they weave in the baskets that are woven by men, and the women do textiles that also use, like, motifs, but with, uh, different symbolic meanings of these, you know, patterns and designs that they weave in the baskets, and I started to get really fascinated by that art and by that artistic knowledge. And then I started to take photos of every basket I would see in the villages and just out of curiosity document those baskets and document the people making them. And so a leader came to my shack, I was, like, in a shack that I lived in at the main post, and then used to go to the village by boat and do the work for the NGO. So the leader came to me and said, “I would like to ask your help to write this project, because we wanted to get funding to promote workshops for people to learn to weave our, you know, very valued baskets and basketry so the, the younger generations don’t forget.” And I remember that I said, “Of course. This sounds really interesting.” And that really ended up in a ten-year engagement with them in which I completed my PhD research and we had several publications, videos, and they also won an award from the Ministry of Culture for that community-based project for Indigenous Arts and Artistic Knowledge. Also, I did, uh, research in museums and all of the photo documentation that I did is now being organized in a book, a book under contract, uh, with Spring of Nature, probably coming out later this year, in which all the documentation, not only from the village but from the museums, national and international museums, were in this book in a catalogue of the designs and through those photos, they can now weave the designs they were, they were losing the knowledge. They can weave them again.


Drucker: Throughout the years, how do you communicate with the indigenous people?


Athayde: Oh, okay. Yeah, so, a lot of, um, so indigenous peoples in Brazil, like you can say indigenous people, there are so many groups. There is a diversity of more than 300 groups and more than 200 languages that are spoken. And it’s pretty amazing, and then sometimes people that live close by, they don’t understand each other, like, uh, Greek and English, [laughter] just totally different linguistic groups. But a lot of the leaders, mainly the leaders that are, you know,

negotiating their rights, and you know, working, liaising between the federal institutions and government institutions can speak Portuguese, and a lot of the children also are learning Portuguese in school so they are bilingual. Sometimes they are trilingual because depending on the mothers and fathers, you know, languages they learn, all of those, so we can communicate in Portuguese, but also I used to, whenever I am talking to an elder, or women also, they know Portuguese, but they don’t love to speak in Portuguese. They like to speak to you in their own language and use their own language, which I think is very important. I used translators, teachers, like we have an exchange with a Swiss museum in which we took five representatives to play flutes. We had a nice also project for flute knowledge and flute playing. Among them, they know fifteen types of flutes. And the other people I was referring to are the people I have been working with since 1997. We took also a teacher from Switzerland so, so they could translate to Portuguese, and then I would translate into English, so we’ll get along like that.


Drucker: You mentioned that when you had that encounter with the leader of one of the groups, they brought to you, “Hey, we want to preserve this knowledge about how to create these crafts.” What else have these indigenous peoples wanted to communicate to you over the years?


Athayde: Well, also, first, uh, first when I arrived and I told you that I was wondering, “How can my science be useful here? How can I use what I learn and enhance and bring it back to academia and bring it back, to make that participatory effort?” People were really worried about we going there and just using that knowledge and not leaving anything behind and not reciprocating, so, like, just, like, this idea of extracting knowledge and extracting what they know, and then publishing and then not giving things back. So I really like to work in a more participatory approach in which the work that I’m doing is constructed with them, so they participate in making the research questions, like formulating research questions, what is important to know, and how this knowledge is then to be generated in this participatory approach and this participatory engagement, how this knowledge can be useful and can be important for all academia and also for their own efforts in revitalizing their culture and strengthening their rights and strengthening their institutions. Did I respond to your question?


Drucker: I was wondering, also, what are the impacts of the environment on these people? I mean, I imagine that, you know, as, you know, countries have grown and that this impacts some of them. What, what are the ways where these indigenous peoples are coping with these changes? And, I mean, are they coping well with the changes? I imagine it’s very difficult.


Athayde: Yeah, it, uh, really varies, so I would say that I cannot give just one answer to the question, but I can give the answer from the region that I have been working and the reality that I know and I’m familiar with, but you know, there are several, it’s very nuanced. There are several types of, um, impacts, and, um, people have been responding in different ways. There are areas that are more isolated, so the impacts are maybe less strong, but nevertheless, they are really affecting indigenous peoples, at least in the area that I have been working with in the past 20 years. The conditions—like the deforestation, the climate change, temperature change, the heavy rains, the droughts, the prolonged droughts have really been impacting them more and more and being felt by them, um, in a stronger way, especially, I would say, especially in the last five years have been especially strong. Like, um, for example, some crops that they grow are very sensitive to changes in the climate or changes in soil or even the period of burning the fruits

and reburning the fruits have been changing because of the seasons, the seasons are also changing. There is, like I said, the longer our prolonged drought, which is affecting their own food security and food sovereignty, because then they are not able to produce the crops, all the variety of crops they were producing before because of the changes that are happening, so they have to cope with that, adapt to that—use different crops, breed different varieties, use different sources of food. You know, just, um, adapt, really, to the changes. That’s not something easy. You really depend on a lot of, like, uh, resources, knowledge, it takes time for that, and sometimes, you end up losing, for example, crop varieties, and things like that that’s really hard to recover.


Drucker: I’ve heard this story, and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard this story of airplanes flying over, like, Brazil and then, you know, indigenous people who haven’t interacted much with technology shooting arrows at the planes. Now I don’t know if this is true, but . . .


Athayde: Yeah.


Drucker: . . . I’m wondering, from your experience, like, what kind of access do the indigenous peoples have to technology and technological resources?


Athayde: Like I said, David, it, uh, it depends on the land, it depends on the people. Normally people, uh, the villages, and the indigenous people that live closer to the big urban centers or live closer to town, you would think, like, they have easier access to technology tools. Nowadays, I would imagine, almost in every village, there is somebody who has a cellphone, you know? Somebody is connected somehow to the outside. It wasn’t like that, uh, 20 years ago. It really wasn’t. It was only through radio. And I had access to radio, so when I wanted to talk to my family, it was through radio. Of course, there were no cellphones some years ago. I mean, some people had it, but it was like the satellite was pretty heavy. I remember my first cellphone was like something heavy to carry in my purse. But nowadays, um, it’s getting really closer, and I don’t know if that, you know, that is good on one side but on the other side, you know, technology, like, you know, can be used for the good and for the bad. So the people that are living closer to the cities, they have access to drones, to Internet, um, they are on social media, but they are also using social media to protect their rights, and claim their rights, and also to communicate, to teach the indigenous people about who they are, and, you know, the beauty of the cultures and the languages and the arts and the lives of the peoples, you know, sometimes ignored by the greater majority of society, I would say, in Brazil, that live close by and don’t even know the richness that we have in terms of knowledge, in terms of languages, in terms of connections with nature. So, they have the access to, to technology. I know that indigenous peoples, for example, are already using drones to monitor their own territory and to photo, to take photos, and to make videos and to make their own videos about their territories using drones and using, you know, cutting-edge technology. Also, to commercialize products and to access markets, they’re using more and more and more technology. So, you know, in a way, it’s something that can help them, and I think it’s important that if they want to have access, that they are able to have access to technology, and also, for example, online education, online information, especially now in times of the pandemic. It’s very important. It’s almost like a right nowadays, the right to have access to things-- access to water, access to technology, access to things that will really help you to thrive in these rapidly changing times.


Drucker: Yeah, I mean, the fact that they have, uh, I’m sure that, do they have, like, i-phones, uh, down there?


Athayde: Yeah.


Drucker: Yeah? Okay.


Athayde: Well, I, I, I remember, a couple, well, maybe 10 years ago I was in one of the villages, I’ve been working more now across different areas and other watersheds also with the Amazon Dams International Network, so I was working with a couple of the leaders on the impacts of dams in their livelihoods learning what are kinds of some actions and how they have resisted to these dams, you know, that have come very close to their territories and really affect their livelihoods. And I had a kind of an old model phone, and he had a much better, [laughter], the leader had a much better phone and said, “Oh, Wainwee,” (They call me Wainwee, which is like a kind of affectionate nickname). “Wainwee, you’re using such an old phone. You don’t have access to a better phone?” “Well, you know, just, like, when the phone is still working, I still keep it, uh, you know?” So, yeah, so they are not less indigenous because they are using these tools. Sometimes people think, oh, they’re using these tools, they’re dressing, you know, like, Western, uh, clothes. Yeah, everybody changes, we also come from a society that changes all the time. We change, and they’re also changing. Nevertheless, they keep their identity, they keep their symbolic ties, and the physical, spiritual ties with their territories many times. Even for people that go to the city, they still keep, like, kinship ties. They are recognized as indigenous by the groups they belong to. And when they self-identify as indigenous already, you know, a reason to, to be indigenous when you self-identify yourself. So, you’re not less indigenous because you’re using a cellphone. You’re just using a cellphone because you’re part of this changing world like everybody else.


Drucker: And that’s a special intersection of being super connected to nature and to spirituality, and then also having an i-phone in your pocket, right?


Athayde: Yes.


Drucker: Could you describe, uh, what is the intensity of these spiritual connections to nature, like, what are some of the things that the indigenous peoples will do to connect?


Athayde: Yeah, there are so many interesting publications, including by indigenous scholars on that aspect. That is a fascinating question and a fascinating topic. In the areas that I used to work, what, what I kind of, what I noticed was a very strong connection, a spiritual connection to nature in a very different way, because I was trained in Western science, to look at the outside world as something out there and not inside myself and not like, okay, I am, I have a kinship with that tree outside. That tree outside is my relative. In a, in a ritualistic way, depending on what lens I use to look at the natural world, we can really see the natural world completely different than, for example Western science sees it, in a very objective, material way, right, but in a very spiritual way. But I think that even Western people can have those connections, you know, when they are open to it, but anyhow, the respect to, uh, you know, the spirits of nature,

for example, believing that in the river there are spirits and you should be really respectful when you go. Like, for example, you don’t go to bathe or swim in the river at night, because there are very strong and dangerous spirits, um, that can harm you. The spirits can harm you in different ways. When you walk in the forest, out of nothing, if there is a spirit there, and he knows that there is no beneficial, he can harm you, he can make you sick. And then you need to go see the shaman, and you need to be treated by the shaman, so the Western medicine won’t be effective against it, some spiritual harm that is done to the spiritual link. There is a lot of reciprocity with nature and respect for nature, in that way, but it’s a different type of respect. It’s like, it’s really like a religious way of looking at nature in a way that you respect, because it’s in you. And you learn that living through the rituals, you know, being in that community, just having that different world view about nature. You are nature, first of all, so it’s not something out there. It’s like you’re part of that, and you respect that and the different rules to respect and also to, to have a reciprocal relationship with nature in a way that you give back whatever you take, and you don’t take more than you need, and things like that. So there are all sorts of connections that are very fascinating to learn about, on the spiritual connection between people with nature.


Drucker: Simone, you were telling me a story before we recording about an exchange between an indigenous congresswoman and the Seminoles who live here in south Florida. Could you, uh, tell us that story now that we’re recording the podcast?


Athayde: Yeah, sure, uh, thanks for reminding me. Yeah, I used to work at the University of Florida before I came to FIU in 2020. I was at UF and we were in a conference, and I invited my friend who is now a congresswoman in Brazil. She works to defend indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil. She has a whole group that, uh, supports her. She’s amazing. Her name is Joenia Wapichana. And so I invited her to come here and participate in that event and to give a talk and participate in this, in this, uh, conference. And I used to, I had a project also with the Seminoles, but the group that is based in Tampa, not the group here based in Hollywood, the other group of Seminoles, you know there are different groups across Florida that they are connected but they have their own sovereignty, their own sovereign governments and governance. The Tampa group, I did a research project with them, a collaborative research project on indigenous knowledge and disaster risk reduction. It was about the knowledge they have and how they apply that knowledge to face and cope and adapt to disasters such as hurricanes and floods, and all these things that are so, so much more frequent nowadays. But anyhow, so I brought her, and I told my friend, Marcus Grigstalt, he’s a great indigenous spiritual leader, he’s a language revitalizer, he has an Eco Village, he’s one of the founders of the Eco Village, this area they got in Alabama and they are building a beautiful Eco Village and community there. And I really wanted to connect them and promote that exchange. So I took her to Lake Placid where they had the community, the Seminole community, and they received us with, uh, it was so beautiful with all the traditional food that they cook with sage. And, uh, she shared her experience. She was the first indigenous woman to become a lawyer in Brazil, the first to become a congresswoman, a part of the congress, and also the first to defend the rights to the indigenous territory presented to the Supreme Court in Brazil, in which that lawsuit was won by the indigenous people, so it’s very iconic, very symbolic. And so she was having this exchange with them at Marcus’ house and the community gathering there, it was super beautiful, and Marcus was playing, uh, piano for her. And also they exchanged some gifts, and they gave her a beautiful Seminole skirt. And that was beautiful and was very meaningful, because we know the value of a Seminole skirt. You

don’t get a Seminole skirt if they don’t really love you, and they really appreciate it. And everybody was very emotional thinking about the work that they are doing and how even living in different worlds and facing different challenges, they can connect, you know, by being indigenous and having this deep connection with the land and nature, you know that they have and they share. So, it was a beautiful moment.


Drucker: That’s a beautiful story. Connecting that with also, you’ve made some progress in terms of documenting a lot of the history and craftmanship of these indigenous peoples. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the other results from the efforts that you’ve taken over the years and some of your projects, some of the things that have come out of all of this?


Athayde: Yes. So, I mentioned already the book on the basket weaving and textile weaving. Apart from that, I could mention some of the outcomes from the Amazon Dams International Research Network, this, um, network that recognizes the importance of indigenous and local knowledge to understand and to cope and to manage the impacts of large infrastructure such as these hydropower dams in, uh, across the Amazon and across Amazonian watersheds. So, it really, uh, promoted a lot of exchanges and, uh, co-production of knowledge between scientists and indigenous peoples to understand, for example, how these dams are affecting the rivers, how these dams are affecting fish migration. And indigenous knowledge is super relevant for that to provide clues for that understanding, that sometimes science is really limited, because science is mostly kind of a snapshot in time, but it’s really difficult to have a longitudinal study. It’s difficult to understand people that live in the place, they really are the ones that have the knowledge, and how we can also fight these dams in terms of, like, recognizing, you know, aspects of social environmental justice. And also, one of the projects that was an outcome of this initial Amazon Dams Network, transdisciplinary network in which indigenous peoples have, you know, at least, in theory, the same voice as scientists to share their stories and to share how they are perceiving this impact. It was also a network for training indigenous defenders, indigenous defenders of social environmental rights, uh, in one of the regions I’ve been working in. We have been training, and really working, because it’s not only training one way, but working together with indigenous peoples in this larger network for the defense of indigenous peoples’ rights that has several projects and outcomes, like, uh, several booklets, publications we have done together, so the publications can include journal articles that are more for the academic public, but also publications for indigenous peoples that were bringing, uh, for example, the International Labour Organization Convention 169 that says that indigenous peoples need to be consulted about any project or any activity that can impact their lands. A lot of countries in the world are signatory of that policy, but not all indigenous peoples really understand that policy, so really translating the policies and translating what is known, and the scientific information also to them in a way that can empower them so they can make their own decisions and they can understand better, you know, what is at stake when some projects like that knock on their doors.


Drucker: Simone, thank you so much for spending this time with us. I have one last question for you. So, you may teach your students about this already, but what can you share with us about what you’ve learned about human nature through all of this work?


Athayde: Yes, David, I think I already hinted on that when I was talking about the fascinating connection that indigenous peoples have with nature and biodiversity. For me, it really changed

my life, you know? To be able, I consider myself privileged to be able to really spend all the time, 10 years of my life, before I had my kids, before I, you know, had to go back to just a Western [laughter] way of living and academia and embrace, you know, my work as a professor, that I also love. It really changed my perspective of the world. It changed, uh, it provided, like, a different connection with nature. Just that learning from that really made me look at nature with different eyes, like appreciate diversity. Look at nature as really like kin, kinship, being more respectful and reciprocating, and I am, like, obsessed with recycling. So, it really opened my eyes to a dimension that I did not even think it was possible, and a much more colorful way to look at the world through different lenses, and also to be able to learn from a culture of diversity, I think it’s amazing. And I try to bring those experiences to my classroom as well and exchange with my students.

Drucker: Well, Simone, thank you for bringing those experiences to us today. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.

Athayde: Thank you so much, David. Thanks for the invitation. It was a pleasure.

Drucker: Alright, that’s gonna do it for today’s show. Thanks so much to all of you for listening. And now, let’s give a big thanks to all of our FIU contributors who make Panther Personalities possible. Our theme music is the FIU Samba given to us by Director of FIU Bands Barry Bernhardt. Our artwork is done by FIU designers David Roberts, Oscar Negret, and Barbie Ramos. Our intro is voiced by alumna Alexandra Valdes. And this show has been edited by FIU’s Strategic Communications, Government and External Affairs. We’ll be back in a couple weeks. In the meantime, you can check out more stories and podcasts by FIU Talk with you soon Panther friends and family. Paws up.