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  • Rich D'Amaru

Belém+30, an encounter of peoples in the Amazon

Thiago Cardoso

All senses are sharpened: Multiple and vibrant colours, bewildering smells, flavours of local and traditional foods, lots of music, people from diverse ethnicities and countries circulating and interacting. A true intercultural and socio-bio-diverse encounter where indigenous peoples, quilombolas[1], local communities and researchers in the fields of anthropology, geography and biology intertwined to exchange knowledge about ecosystems, landscapes and biodiversity. This took place in August in the city of Belém, one of the most important cities of the Amazon, where the Belém+30, the XVI International Congress of Ethnobiology (ISE) was held with the hashtag #vempramazonia #ise2018.

The theme of the event was "Belém+30. The rights of indigenous peoples and traditional populations and the conservation of biodiversity three decades after the Declaration of Belém". Its main objective was to reflect on the Declaration of Belém and the field of Ethnobiology (the scientific study of the knowledge and practices of these peoples and communities) over the last thirty years, focusing on the scientific, ethical, legal and political advances and challenges related to indigenous peoples and traditional populations and the sustainable use of biodiversity.

More than a scientific market in the traditional way, where scientists meet to present their works and finds, Belém+30 counted on spaces for indigenous and traditional peoples to meet and talk about their political and cultural issues, in an attempt to create a dialogue of knowledge without hierarchies. Besides these spaces, we could walk through the various stands of the Sociobiodiversity Fair, where books, publications, art, nuts, flours, food, traditional drinks and music were exposed to the public.

Between conference rooms and corridors, various topics were debated, such as the identity and territorial rights of indigenous peoples and local communities. As we know these rights conquered by the peoples and consecrated in national constitutions, international treaties and ethical precepts are still disrespected and threatened in many places in the world by activities such as mining, predatory fishing, agribusiness, deforestation, hydroelectric construction and infrastructure works. In the Amazon this has been denounced exhaustively by numerous nongovernmental entities and local and transnational indigenous movements, which call attention to national states and private corporations that promote development models that are incompatible with diversity of life on the planet.

The theme of territorial rights was intertwined with another important theme, the ways of life of these peoples and communities and daily confrontation of prejudice and intolerance in their countries, which is reflected in systematic violence on their bodies, imaginary and environments in the cities, on their lands and institutions. Terms such as environmental racism, slow violence and ethnocide are evoked to deal with such relationships.

At Belém+30, we constantly heard that we have much to learn from indigenous peoples, quilombolas and traditional communities. Something that seems obvious at first, becomes surprising when we know that in the history of scientific knowledge there were few moments when these knowledges were raised to the level of science. In general, indigenous knowledge was left out, invisible, diminished, or only used by scientists in their expeditions and discoveries. We certainly have, a lot to learn about the diversity of ways of life and living. For example, in how they organize themselves socially, how they conceive the notion of humanity and animality without the separation and hierarchy between nature and culture, how they manage biocultural landscapes, how they use techniques and practices that seek the resurgence of environments and the amplification of biological diversity or contribute to knowledge and mitigation of climate change.

This was one of the hot spots of the congress. There were numerous conferences, film showings, meetings and talks among archaeologists, ethnobiologists and indigenous people on the subject of cultural forests. Or how indigenous peoples and other local communities throughout history have been managing the landscape and modifying its structure of plants, animals and soils without destroying the ecological bases. Terms such as 'species domestication' and 'anthropogenic landscapes' bring to the fore the discussion about the human role in the construction of Amazonian ecosystems, formerly considered as pristine forest. This vision, according to Nurit Bensusan, "honors the role of indigenous peoples in what is now the Amazon forest, as managers and even creators of the landscapes. It is an important recognition that opens the door to changes in public policies and our understanding of the vastness and sophistication of indigenous knowledge".

But if we take seriously what these peoples say, it would not make sense to speak about a natural or cultural forest, because this dualism does not exists for them. It's our thing. For these peoples, ecosystems emerge as a result of the action of multiple lives of humans, plants, animals, winds, spirits and minerals that, thought of as people, shape the world and renew it constantly. Following Nurit's words, only by taking all these issues seriously, and not as a mythology or a metaphor, it is possible to learn something from these experts from "other possible worlds"!

30 years ago ISE launched the Belém Charter, which has created a possible space for recognition of the interconnection between indigenous peoples and local communities and biodiversity, the value of knowledge and rights over the territory, and their role in conservation of biodiversity and landscapes. This letter influenced the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in Rio-92, as well as other legislative agendas, policies and research. At Belém+30, this role of indigenous peoples and local communities was widely recognized by its more than 1500 participants. In Belém, the moment was festive, but with harsh criticism of environmental setbacks throughout the planet.

[1] A quilombo (Portuguese pronunciation: ; from the Kimbundu word kilombo, "campsite, slave hut") is a Brazilian hinterland settlement founded by people of African origin and their descendants including the Quilombolas, or Maroons. However, the documentation uses the term mocambo, an Ambundu word meaning "hideout", to describe the settlements.

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