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TEDx Amazonia: Culture, Ecology, Amazonia, Part 2

Antonio Nobrega opens the event with a beautiful performance.

Nelida Silva dances to open day two of the conference.

Part 1: intro to TED, my speech at the conference

Part 2: Highlights of other TEDx Amazonia Talks, especially from Amazonians

Part 3: Critical look at the Entrepreneurially Minded TED speakers

Each day began with a beautiful dance, Saturday’s a wild modern piece by Brazilian dancer Antonio Nóbrega and Sunday’s a traditional village dance from the Peruvian highlands by Nelida Silva. A baroque orchestra serenaded us at the start of the sixth and final bloc on Sunday afternoon, while Saturday’s four blocs ended with Bahian musician Lucas Santtana, who never called himself an anthropophagist, but the way he cannibalized musics from the rich treasure of Brazil as well as elsewhere certainly made him one.

Andre Abujamra

My favorite musical presenter was André Abujamra, a funny thoughtful musician who has made his name more outside of Brazil than inside, even though he’s played behind Tom Zé and other iconic stars. He gave me a copy of his latest CD called “Mafaro” and it’s fantastic! He came up wearing a shoulder-covering sequined garment and waited for his cue that didn’t come. He finally said “fuck it” and launched into his bit a capella. The slides played and eventually the music came on too. It was a charming, funny piece. The very last speaker at the end was the American “Sound Chaser” Gordon Hempton who played bird songs from all over, including a one-minute trip around a 24-hour soundscape of the world’s natural areas. He’s a big noise pollution activist too, much to my happiness, and helped shift our thinking by calling the Earth a huge solar-powered jukebox. He even used maps to show how the more sun falls on an area, the louder it is in terms of birds and bugs.

It wasn’t all lecture, but a lot of it was. I went early, number six in the first bloc (the event was divided into six blocs of 8-10 presenters each, four blocs on Saturday from 10 a.m to 10:30 pm with 15-20 minute breaks as well as lunch and dinner, and two blocs on Sunday, ending much later than planned, around 4:30). I was given 10 minutes, which was the average length, though some folks got 15-18 minutes and others only 5-8 minutes. And we were expected to stick to it, though a lot of people, especially the Amazonians who spoke, took all the time they wanted and went way over their allocations (I only blew my limit by about 90 seconds).

Escola da Amazona: We only know what we're taught.

There was a cluster of really inspiring Amazon-based projects presented by at least a dozen different speakers. Leinad Carbogim is a typical northeasterner, short and stocky, and she described a remarkable years-long effort to create a web of sustainability along the Ceará coast. Centered in her town of Icapuí, she described how they pursued a “systemic vision of territory, inspired by the famous community self-education model of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire as well as the paradigm-shifting thinking of physicist Fritjof Capra. Silvio Marchini works with the Escola da Amazonia, where he tries to shift our epistemological framework. He presented three basic assumptions that underly his efforts: “We only know what we’re taught; we only love what we know; we will only conserve what we love.” He showed how efforts to teach local farmers to coexist with jaguars had already showed some success, demystifying the common fears people have of large predators while also teaching them the importance of those keystone species in the wider health of their forest environment.

Deise (pronounced "Daisy") Nishimura with an image of herself cruising the river.

Biologist Deise Nishimura told us an incredible story. She was working in the Amazon on the river dolphins, her true love. One day while cleaning a fish on the side of her boat, a huge alligator leaped out and grabbed her by the leg, pulling her into the river. She was tossed and twisted by the massive reptile, snapping her leg off, but by luck her artery was twisted shut in the process. Somehow she surfaced and made her way to the side of her boat and called for help. Eventually she was taken to a hospital and after ten months of rehab with a new prosthetic leg, she was standing before us in her first public appearance since the attack, fully intending to return to her riverside life to study her dolphins!

Deise Nishimura's drawing of what the scene was just before she was attacked by a large alligator.

José Roberto Fonseca is an engineer who came to the perpetually drought-stricken sertâo of northeastern Brazil in the early 2000s to install solar panels. After a while he launched a new foundation, the Eco Egenho Institute, which helped develop a whole pepper farming boom in the area with hydroponics using deep wells he helped construct after seeing that the entire hydrological economy of the area was still dependent on buckets, carts, and donkeys. He called his Talk, “Water, Sun and Pimiento” and billed it as “a spicy solution to chronic poverty” in the arid northeast. Using his H2SOL solar pump system, plus extensive rain harvesting, they are now producing 3000 jars of peppers a month. The deep poverty is not entirely relieved, but thanks to placing jars in local hotels, the local project in self-sufficiency is relatively successful. “We measure success in smiles, not income,” was his final word to us.

H2SOL solar pump system

A pepper orchard blooms where it was once desert.

Apparently they're producing 3000 jars of peppers per month. Local hotels have agreed to put them in each room, in addition to supermarket distribution.

Fonseca with a local family of 8 children, "before."

The same family, after the new prosperity brought by the solar hydroponic pepper business.

Ze Ribeiro is apparently a marked man. He is a long-time extractivist, gathering Brazil nuts from the castanheiras around his town Marabá in Pará. His public campaigning against deforestation has put him in the sites of the local fazendeiros, the large cattle ranchers who have not hesitated to have working-class forest activists assassinated in the past (Chico Mendes, Sister Dorothy Stang, to name but two famous ones). He offered simple wisdom in his talk: “In the place of a tree that falls down, I plant another one. If you cut down a tree you only have it once. If you leave it standing, others who come later can benefit from it too.” Another extractive worker, Manoel Cunha, a rubber tapper, spent years mired in debt peonage. Thanks to organizing among the rubbertappers they were able to establish the first extractive forest reserve in 1997 in Jururâo. He reiterated a common admonition of all the forest folks at the conference: “There is no water or air without forest!” His co-op cut out the debt peddling middlemen by establishing a direct relationship to the Brazilian cosmetic company Natura. They sell most of their output to Natura, and seem satisfied that it is a fair and dignified relationship.

The Indigo Blue Macaw.

Pedro Lima is an ornithologist who gave a presentation on his project to protect the Indigo Macaw (Arara Azul de Lear in Portuguese). He convinced local businesses to adopt the bird, and a number of other charismatic forest species, as logos for their companies. Apparently an effort to drum up support for a local cancer patient also used the Macaw as a symbol. Lima claimed, “Animals are saving human beings! This is not conservation”¦ in any case there can be no conservation without human communities.” He also used some of his time to emphasize the role of bird scat in spreading seeds around the forest, ensuring its biodiversity and health. Shit was a refreshingly common topic here!

A look at what shit actually is, from permaculturist Andres Soares presentation.

Larissa Rosa de Oliveira is a Brazilian biologist who helped discover a new species of walrus off the coast of Peru, and she described an interesting campaign that altered the eating habits of Peruvians. Apparently the industrial exploitation of sardines and anchovies off the Peruvian coast, mostly to serve as fish meal for animal consumption, was destroying the habitat and food sources of the newly discovered walrus population. Going to the media and many of the best restaurants in the country, she and her colleagues launched a campaign to encourage eating sardines among Peruvians. It led to a 46% increase in domestic consumption, and along with it, a new respect for the fishery as well as the walrus.

One of the most impressive presentations came from Vincent Cavelli, who helped establish a School of indigenous cinema. When I visited the Amazon in 1989 I attended a big gathering of indigenous on the Xingu River to protest a dam-building plan (that dam has recently been approved but relocated somewhat further north than its original location). Already then there were Kayapo Indians walking around with video cameras, recording their own lives and history. Cavelli quickly dispatched a common reaction by modern urban dwellers, objecting to the idea that the technology is somehow being imposed on otherwise innocent indigenous. “We are not polluting Indian communities with technology. There is an intense process of change underway. Biculturalism is a fact of life. For the Indians memory is a fundamental question. The emergence of native media is a global process, also happening among the Maori, the Inuit, the Sami, and others.” Felipe Milanez is a Brazilian journalist who has visited hundreds of indigenous villages throughout the Amazon and he came with a blunt message: “Progress and development is producing the worst crimes against humanity,” describing in some detail the genocidal persecution unleashed against the Kawahira, who have been reduced to less than a dozen members.

The Baniwa are a particularly industrious and economically successful tribe from the northwest of Brazil.

A less bleak portrait of Indian life was presented by Andrés Baniwa, a member of the Baniwa tribe of the far northwestern corner of Brazil (they also exist across the borders in Peru and Colombia), whose many thousand members are thriving, in part thanks to their having developed a range of products that are sold all over Brazil, from woven baskets to lotions. He also defended their use of video technology in their self-run school where they mostly teach traditional values. He argued that they learn technology “so it can be known that the Baniwa should be respected.” Self-representation, after all, is the only way to have a hope of shaping one’s image in the world.

Randy Borman, chief of the Cofan Indians of Ecuador.

Randy Borman grew up in the Ecuadorian forest, arriving at 2 months with his missionary parents. As a result he is fully identified with the Cofan Indian culture in which he came of age and is now the chief. But he sounds and looks like a guy from the Midwest of the U.S. too! So he gave us a strangely hybridized talk in plain U.S. English about the arrival of roads and oil companies in destroying the idyllic, self-sufficient culture and economy in which he matured, and how the Cofan have managed to survive.

Portraits by Alexandre Sequeira, transferred to traditional cloth used as doors and room separators.

I had the pleasure of meeting Alexandre Sequeira, a photographer from Belém. He has spent several years integrating himself into a small village in Pará  called Macajuba, where after a while he started taking photographs. Before he knew it, the locals were all clamoring to have their pictures taken, and he happily complied, giving them copies while developing a uniquely deep look at one small village. Photos become repositories of our memories, and the villagers were soon bringing out old photos too, while sharing stories among each other. Sequeira took his work to another level, though, when he hit upon the idea of blowing up the images and silkscreening them onto the old, sometimes tattered fabrics that serve as dividers, doors, and wall coverings in the town’s homes. Rubens Gomes is a maker of wooden stringed instruments and he had two pupils from his school of instrument manufacture and repair play his guitar made of local tropical woods.

Marko Brajuvic, architect from Croatia by way of Spain and  Brazil, showed his design for floating architecture, which during the parched drought seemed a bit unneeded. But catastrophic floods ravaged the Amazon just six months earlier, and the south of Brazil just a couple of years ago, not to mention the likelihood of rising oceans due to global warming, so planning for a floating future seemed quite prescient! Paulo Chang, publishes Etiqueta Negra in Peru, and he gave an overview of some of the interesting articles they’ve run in the past year or so, much of it covering edgy looks at culture and politics. I wish I’d had a chance to look at an actual copy of the magazine!

Thiago Vinicius described the Uniao Sampaio, a multi-generational effort to create a new urban neighborhood in the periphery of Sao Paulo. It started, like most of those areas, with a mass squatting of open lands, and over time has evolved into a tightly knit community association, now well embedded in the sprawling urban territory. Interesting that they’d developed their own local currency, paralleling efforts in many other parts of the world.

Local currency from an outer neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Thiago de Mello. I hope I look this good when I'm 96!

Thiago de Mello, 96 years old, exiled by the Brazilian military in the 1960s, and then again by Pinochet in Chile after 1973, was clearly a much-loved figure for the Brazilian attendees. I was not aware of him before, but he held the audience in rapturous attention while he spoke a bit about his life, ultimately taking the time to read a Pablo Neruda poem and another of his own, “It’s a Matter of Love.” Bernardo Toro, an elderly Colombian philosopher, urged us to simply care for one another. And the Brazilian Buddhist Lama Padma Samten opened the speaking on Saturday morning by reminding us to be open, to listen, and to see what we’re looking for.

A quick shout out to Zach Lieberman who did a hugely popular presentation on his programming work for a graffiti artist known as TEMPT1, now bedridden with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). He has invented, for very low cost, an eye-tracking software/hardware combo that gives TEMPT the ability to write graffiti from his bed. Then they go out and in real time project the graffiti he’s writing on the computer with his eyes onto the sides of buildings around Los Angeles, and then beam that back to his bedside computer so he can see his own work out in the world. Quite impressive! Diana Whitten presented a rough excerpt of her forthcoming documentary on the organization Women on Waves who are bringing a mobile birth control clinic to international waters offshore of countries where abortion is banned. Some amazing footage and an inspiring story, which was juxtaposed to the previous speaker, Suely Carvalho, a Brazilian midwife who has helped create a network of midwives around northeastern Brazil, taking the ancient practice to new levels of coordination and modernization, while maintaining the hands-on, low-tech, traditional skills that are the backbone of human reproduction.

There was an impressive range of presentations. So many practical projects in the Amazon that were improving lives in the here and now, using solar and other new technologies. But these projects, whether extractive collection of rubber or Brazil nuts or fruits, or producing peppers, or making baskets, all face the dilemma of markets and money. How to use the creative efforts of local communities combined with their usually limited (but often unique) resources to connect to the larger world? Does it always have to be through markets and money and exchange? Or might we start to think of new ways to organize the sharing of life (along with the talents, resources, and finished goods we can make)? Difficult problems, not fully addressed by these folks, but given the short time available to each speaker, it was heartening to see such a breadth of ingenuity! More critical thoughts in Part 3.

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