Sustainable Paradise

March 10, 2016

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Yanomami indian, 1976. Photo by Edgardo González Niño
Yanomami indian, 1976. Photo by Edgardo González Niño

The immense Amazon rainforest occupies more than 30% of the territory of Brazil and extends to its bordering countries, including the 175,000 km2 that make up Venezuela’s Amazonas State.

In her work Amazonia: Man and Culture in Counterfeit Paradise (Harlan Davidson, 1971; published in Spanish by Editorial siglo XXI as Amazonia, un paraíso ilusorio, 1976) anthropologist Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution expounds upon the surprising results of her twenty years of research in the jungles of Brazil, which reveal that its exuberant vegetation is the product of a prodigious process through which nature protects itself, making use of the scarce nutrients of the Amazonian soil, subjected to permanent erosion caused by extreme heat and humidity along with constant torrential rains.

Seen from the air, the flora of the Amazon appears as a dense green carpet interrupted only by its crisscrossing rivers. The thick foliage attempts to retain a portion of the rain, allowing it to evaporate in the heat of the sun, while at the same time the trees’ height enables the further evaporation of a portion of remaining water during its slow descent to the jungle floor. As for the different nutritional needs of the diverse plant species (nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, etc.), these are separated and dispersed throughout the sterile terrain in order to evenly distribute scarce and essential nutrients.

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*In the foreground we can see the canopy of a “Puy”, in the background the north face of the famous Auyantepui mountain. Bolívar State, Venezuela, 1999. Photo by Charles Brewer-Carías
*In the foreground we can see the canopy of a “Puy”, in the background the north face of the famous Auyantepui mountain. Bolívar State, Venezuela, 1999. Photo by Charles Brewer-Carías

Indigenous people have lived among this world of unique vegetation since the pre-Hispanic era. By 1957, there remained 143 ethnic groups in the jungles of Brazil. In Venezuela, the Cisneros Foundation’s Orinoco Collection includes 1,627 artisanal pieces of traditional material culture from the present-day indigenous ethnicities of Amazonas State: the Makiritare (Ye´kuana), Piaroa (De´aruwa), Yanomami (Yanomami), Guahibo (Hiwi), Panare (E´ñepa), Hoti (Hoti), Baniva (Baniwa), Bare (Bare), Puinave (Puinave), Piapoco (Tsase), Curripaco (Wakuenai) and Guarequena (Warekena).

These communities maintain a traditional way of life with intuitive ecological sense, which they uphold in all aspects of their relationship to the plant, animal, and mineral resources of the jungles, rivers, and mountains of their environment, taking from nature strictly that which is necessary, at the cost of nothing more than their own effort and creative capacity, they convert those goods into the base of their diet as well as objects for daily use including clothing, bodily adornments, hunting weapons, varied basketry and ceramics, hammocks, ritual attire, musical instruments, medications, canoes, and dwellings, all of which are manufactured from textiles, weavings, the use of natural adhesives, and assemblies of large pieces of wood “without using a single nail,” in the words of explorer, collector and documentary photographer Edgardo González Niño.

When nature clearly provides for the needs of the community, it creates a sense that the natural surroundings belong to all, discouraging envy, selfishness, dishonesty, greed, and competition, while at the same time building the integrity of the ethnic group, where truth governs collective behavior.

Their spiritual world is supported by ancestral traditions and the beliefs they embrace and acknowledge as their reason for being, as well as their absolute obedience to the Shaman, the highest source of wisdom and authority, who is chosen through a series of difficult tests.

Being born, growing up and living in an indigenous community where friendship, brotherhood, and loyalty prevail, with a clear awareness of the way individual responsibilities contribute to the common good, combined with a regard for the ancestral beliefs that define and provide the foundation for group identity, reinforced in a unique language, amidst a natural environment dominated by the soothing sounds of birdsongs and running water, is enough to make one believe that Paradise still exists.

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*White feathers from an egret (Casmerodius albus) adorn the earlobes of a Yanomamö girl. Ashidowa-teri shabono in the Siapa river basin. Amazonas State, Venezuela, 1991. Photo by Charles Brewer-Carías
*White feathers from an egret (Casmerodius albus) adorn the earlobes of a Yanomamö girl. Ashidowa-teri shabono in the Siapa river basin. Amazonas State, Venezuela, 1991. Photo by Charles Brewer-Carías

Extended Captions

*In the foreground we can see the canopy of a “Puy” (Eperua purpurea), a majestic tree with very hard wood from the Cesalpinaceae family, which flowers in the month of February. In the background is the north face (Kerepacupai) of the famous Auyantepui mountain, site of the Angel falls, the highest waterfall in the world. Bolívar State, Venezuela, 1999. Photo by Charles Brewer-Carías 

*White feathers from an egret (Casmerodius albus) adorn the earlobes of a Yanomamö girl. A stick pierces her nose septum, and her red makeup is made using lashá seeds (Bixa orellana). Ashidowa-teri shabono in the Siapa river basin. Amazonas State, Venezuela, 1991. Photo by Charles Brewer-Carías


Translated by Phillip Penix-Tadsen