The sentients of nature

The Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda (1925-2008) picked up a simple and profound concept while investigating a fishing community in the northern rivers of his country. According to what he narrated shortly before he died, there, on the banks of the San Jorge River, a fisherman told him that -in his community- “we act with our hearts, but we also use our heads. And when we combine the two things like this, we are sentient.” From then on, Fals Borda spread it as the language that tells the truth, because he is capable of thinking by feeling and feeling by thinking. That is to say, it combines reason with emotion in a harmony unknown to falsehood.

This way of expressing and making decisions is common to many rural peoples and, in particular, aborigines.

Without falling into silly idealism, the reality is that there are very different views, emotions and rational assessments between people who live in urban areas and those who live in rural areas. Among the latter, the difference is greater if we talk about indigenous communities.

While the former (the urbanites) live in an artificial ecosystem (the city), the original communities live in natural ecosystems. But not only the ecosystem that hosts us is different. Also, what they feel about nature. Wilderness ecosystems are considered by most urban dwellers to be “wastelands” and that the creation of national parks only protects idle land. For this reason, outside the protected areas they are destroyed, modified or replaced by agricultural or livestock fields, when not, by urbanizations. For native peoples, those same ecosystems contain everything they need to live. In them they see their food market, their pharmacy, their school, their temple, their recreation…

Unlike the vast majority of people who live in cities, they feel part of nature. And something more important: they know they depend on it (and not the other way around). Therefore, in the vast majority of cases, they use it carefully and keep it. They practice what we call sustainable use. That is, they take advantage of natural resources while respecting their recovery capacity. In addition, they have supernatural beings that protect animals and plants that condemn those who harm them. They do not need, then, a police power or judges. They need to live together, taking what is necessary and not more. That carries a feeling of gratitude and affection. To such an extent that when they see their landscape on fire they cry, as if our house were set on fire. It is precisely that nature is their home, our home, although we do not all see it that way.

We, in the cities, believe that we can do without forests and jungles, mountains and rivers, grasslands and seas, because we have become accustomed to providing ourselves with resources by buying them in shops or markets, far from those scenarios that produce them. It is a pathological and dangerous fantasy, because it takes us away from an awareness of interdependence anchored in reality.

When a river is polluted, a jungle burns down or a forest is destroyed, not only productive environmental units are destroyed, but also the “home” of all forms of life, including that of people. But there is something else: the scene where the spiritual beings of these people live, their deities and protectors of the fauna and flora, vanishes.

When a river is polluted, a jungle catches fire or a forest is destroyed, not only productive environmental units are destroyed, but also the “home” of all forms of life, and the setting where the spiritual beings of these people live vanishes.

Only in Argentina there are more than half a thousand supernatural beings from popular culture. About 10% are protectors of nature. In the hills, valleys and foothill plains, we find Coquena or Llastay (Calchaquí) protecting the herds of vicuñas in the foothills plains. In the Andes mountains, the Apu Wamani (Quechua) and the Huarpe god Hunuc Huar. In the Chaco forests, the mischievous Tokjuaj of the Wichi and the heroic Nowet of the Qom, while there is the Pilagá owner of the rivers, Wédayk, and his partner from the estuaries, Lek. In the coastal jungles, the popular Pombero and the feared Caá Porá of the Mbyá Guarani. In the Patagonian forests, the mighty Ngenemapun (Mapuche) and the small Kohlah of the Selk’nam in Tierra del Fuego. This to mention just a few of the many examples that exist.

To a large extent, these spiritual beings are more vulnerable than others who have temples that protect their memory and spaces to gather their believers or devotees. The existence of the vast majority of the former depends exclusively on the conservation of the wild landscapes that contain them. And it is there where the blowing up of the hills with dynamite, the burning of the jungles, the deforestation of the forests, the drainage of an estuary or the contamination of the waters bleed and vanish that pantheon of divinities that not only inhabit those ecosystems: they also protect them.

Consequently, the destruction of nature has a double impact on indigenous or rural peoples. On the one hand, it abandons them in their spiritual universe and, from the material point of view, strips them of their source of food, medicines, wood, fruits, seeds, leather, feathers, vegetable fibers and numerous other resources.

From a cultural point of view, the replacement of wilderness areas by urbanizations, crops, or intensive grazing fields constitutes epistemicide. That is to say, the murder of the possibilities of learning, generating knowledge and transmitting community and ancestral knowledge about its historical environment. Long ago, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009) explained it clearly: “the smaller the possibilities of human cultures to communicate with each other (…) the less capable were their respective emissaries of perceiving the richness and significance of that diversity”. Of course, epistemicide has its natural correlate: ecocide. When both are integrated, the result could be called cosmocide, that is, the destruction of a landscape that combines nature with its associated culture.

Of course, epistemicide has its natural correlate: ecocide. When both are integrated, the result could be called cosmocide, that is, the destruction of a landscape that combines nature with its associated culture.

We live in a time where many people are aware of the loss of biodiversity, the extinction of species and, in particular, the suffering of animals. But most do not imagine or lament with equal intensity the complex plot of ecological, material and spiritual losses that the destruction of nature implies. It is not about a competition of empathy, but about seeing the magnitude of each scale so that the most serious cases are faced in a sentimental way.

The author is a naturalist, museologist and teacher. He is a professor of the UNESCO Chair of Heritage and Sustainable Tourism, doctor honoris causa of the Maimonides University and scientific adviser of the Azara Foundation.

The sentients of nature