Hope in the Eye of the Storm
Hurricane Dean, the third most powerful tropical storm to transverse the Gulf of Mexico, raced across the Caribbean last week, taking aim at the Yucatan Peninsula. Mexican officials pulled carefully crafted plans from their desks and evacuated 50,000 tourists and 20,000 residents from Cancun and neighboring resorts.
In the hours before landfall, the powerful storm zigged southward hitting Cancun with little more than a glancing blow. News media around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief - Dean's ripping winds and flooding waters were unleashed on the sparsely inhabited southern coast. Sparsely inhabited, unless of course you are a Mayan, whose ancestors have called the southern Yucatan and beyond home for tens of thousands of years. These descendents of the earliest human inhabitants of the western hemisphere live in small, remote villages.
To their credit, while many in the Mexican Government worked hard to evacuate people from the resorts, others were dispatched to evacuate the Mayans from their villages. Several of these teams were met by machete-wielding villagers, determined to ride out the storm in the caves that had protected the Mayan people for thousands of years.
This conflict holds in it several important lessons. First, that villagers would resist help reveals a deep distrust, perhaps that the well-meaning visitors real motives were nefarious - to evict the people from their land. Second, there was a conflict between the dominant culture's response to the storm "you better get out of here" and the Indigenous Peoples response, "you are the ones that are leaving, this is our home and we are staying." Like many people whose instinct is to remain at home during storms, the Mayan share this instinct, only their home exists outside the confines of four walls, and extends to the caves that have sheltered their ancestors from storms for thousands of years. While Dean may have been the third Category 5 storm in the sliver of history known to scientists of the dominant culture, the Mayan response to strong storms is based on a far-longer history of countless storms that has afforded them the tools to adapt.
Finally, the concluding hurricane coverage from the mainstream media, express joyful surprise that despite Dean's intensity, no one in Mexico was killed. Left unanswered is an analysis of why this was so. Was it because as earlier reports suggest, the storm hit a largely uninhabited area, or was it perhaps because the Indigenous Peoples who lived in the region hardest hit had evolved highly effective strategies to protect themselves from the storm?
Our day-to-day lives are often like a hurricane that obscures our view much past the immediate world around us. We live in dangerous times. Our gluttony for fossil fuels imperils our climate, feeding the fury of storms like Dean and Katrina. Our industrial systems, from farming to fishing, from forestry to mining, have overtaxed nature's ability to replenish. With species extinction rising at unprecedented rates, and our planet's rich and protective biodiversity plummeting, we might instead allow storms like Dean and the far more deadly storm of climate change, the clouds of complacency that cover our eyes imperil us.
But at the eye of every storm, there is the defining calm of the blue-skied respite, a moment that offers clarity amid the threats that loom all around. Such a moment came during Hurricane Dean when we saw a glimpse into the lives of how Mayan People, using different means than our culture might choose, protect themselves from the storms around them.
It is not simply the fierce blowing of the wind that renders Indigenous People into invisible obscurity, but the nasty winds of globalization as well. Squeezed by corporations with an unquenchable thirst for more and more natural resources, governments seeking new revenue streams from the sale of those resources, or conservationists coveting more wilderness for new parklands, Indigenous Peoples are being evicted from their homes, stripped of their assets and cut off from their cultures at staggering levels that threaten to extinguish whole peoples. Tens of millions of Indigenous People have been displaced over the last fifty years, cleansed from areas that their ancestors tended for thousands of years to make room for pristine national parks and nature preserves, free of humanity, save those with large travel budgets who can afford a safari or to pay to go on a trophy hunt. Rather than embracing and empowering Indigenous Peoples to continue taking the lead in conserving biodiversity in their territories, they are instead rendered invisible, arrested - or even shot - as trespassers if they dare return.
These evictions - which render Indigenous Peoples invisible in their own homelands-are paid for by us as taxpayers, and philanthropists. US government foreign aid, and the largesse of large science-based international conservation organizations, finance the purchase of large blocks of protected land, offering quiet - and in many cases not so quiet-assent to the evictions of those for whom the land is not just their home, but their identity.
Like the rescuers who approached the Mayan villages seeking to impose their solution to a shared threat, the conservation community continues to live in the violent cloud-enveloped part of the storm, convinced that their science-based approach to conservation is superior to the approach taken by those who have cared for the land and conserved biodiversity for thousands of years. As the eye of the storm opens a new moment for clarity, it is time that we recognize that the accumulated wisdom of Indigenous Peoples is of great value both in preserving particular spots of threatened land, but also the greater storms of climate change and biosystems collapse from which we cannot evacuate.
Rebecca Adamson, Founder and President, and Scott Klinger, Director of Corporate Engagement, serve First Peoples Worldwide, an Indigenous-controlled development intermediary working to stop or mitigate the outside exploitation of Indigenous territory or assets. They may be contacted at email@example.com.