By: Martin von Hildebrand
Unlike the indigenous groups of the Colombian Amazon, we -- particularly in the Western world -- see ourselves as separate from nature. We can trace this conception back to the philosophical foundations of Western thought. This idea has its origin in ancient Greece, becoming mainstream with thinkers like Descartes [Descartes, Treatise on Man, Pg.108], in the XVII century, who framed nature as a group of objects functioning like a machine.
In some contexts, this conception of humans as separate from nature has started to evolve towards a more holistic understanding of our fundamental interconnectedness with the world around us. For example, Thomas Berry [The Great Work, 1999] states that “the universe is a communion of subjects, rather than a collection of objects.” A few countries have started to acknowledge the rights of nature in their constitutions, such as Ecuador and Bolivia. Other countries, such as Colombia, Argentina, New Zealand, India, Mexico DF, and 36 municipalities in the USA, have recognized landscapes as subjects with rights at a legal level, and the IUCN has recognized it as a guiding principle. Yet as a whole, our linear, extractive, growth-minded world economy and the consumptive mindsets that dominate many of the globe’s cultures, still treat nature as a resource to be exploited.
The indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon say that we are nature. Everything is from the same source. Humans have evolved from nature; humans, nature, and all of Earth have evolved from our galaxy and the universe beyond. This is indisputable, and yet somehow, indigenous cultures are some of the few in the world that recognize this through their traditions and ways of life. In conversations with shamans in the Amazon, they have told me that the “white man” doesn’t acknowledge that there are limits in life, and doesn’t see how everything that exists has its own essence and is part of a whole, how each element depends on the other elements, how the whole is composed by the interrelatedness and diversity of its parts.
Because we are nature, the indigenous populations of the Colombian Amazon understand, everything in nature affects us -- we are not separate individuals, but a continuous web of relationships. The Tanimuka recognize this concept as “fufaka,” or the flow of vital energy. They believe that we are all part of this common energy and that we must maintain balance with our surroundings. When this balance is disrupted because of the accumulation of energy in certain areas of the system, there is an energetic shock, and this is what the Tanimuka call “nenesike,” which causes disease.
The way of life in the West generates all sorts of disorders in nature and imbalance in the energy flow. Planetary health characterizes the linkages between global environmental change and human health, finding specific cases about how things like climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and pollution can have implications for infectious disease, non-communicable disease, nutrition, and mental health. The Tanimuka simplify this understanding, pointing not to particular disruptions, but to disruption itself -- since we are one single system, they say, any disturbances in our natural world inherently bring disease and disorder, manifesting themselves physically as health impacts or socially as unrest and conflict. To recover health, they say, natural order needs to be restored. It is interdependence, unity in diversity, that maintains the flow of vital energy, or “fufaka,” for existence, health, life.
According to the myths of the indigenous populations of the Colombian Amazon, since the beginning, there have been spirits guarding each element of nature, but they always kept apart, not wanting to know about the others; they refused to share, they had no relation with each other. When approaching the others, each one wanted to dominate and impose its essence. And so, they collided. There couldn’t be any life in the sense we know, where animals and humans could live. Energy couldn’t flow, as it remained stagnant in each of the spirits.
Earth, “Ñamatu,” the essence of what is feminine, tried to bring the spirits together and create life, but it didn’t work. Energies continued to collide. Three spiritual beings, the Imarimakana, "those who have always been," tried another approach -- they decided to steal a little from each of the separate spirits, placing it on the Earth. But again, this only produced more clashes. So, they began to wonder: what is it that we are doing wrong? Is it because we are trying to do everything simultaneously? And they invented Time.
Through the creation of Time, the Imarimakana were able to give each spirit its own space or season to manifest its essence, avoiding clashes and overlaps. However, clashes still happened when passing from one season to another, in the time of transition. So, the Imarimakana went back to thinking and realized: we need to return the energy to the guardian spirit of each season before the arrival of the next one. So, they invented rituals. In these rituals, the shaman gathers all the energy of the previous season, and then, through ceremony, dance, and song spirals up the energy, bringing it back to its spiritual owner. Thus, the Imarimakana cleanse the earth so that the next spirit can manifest its energy, avoiding the collisions and overlaps.
The Imarimakana created about 16 rituals a year, some more transcendental than others. The most important are at the equinox, the transition time between the "wet" and "dry” periods; between what is masculine -- cold, wild, meditation, jaguar -- to what is feminine -- hot, domesticated, music, anaconda. The equinoxes are considered dangerous times of great changes, whereas the solstices are times of abundance, requiring only minor rituals. After establishing these sacred traditions, the Imarimakana went to live in another world, leaving their teachings to humans so that they could live in this world, respecting the natural order and guarding the flow of energy.
The rituals and cultures of the indigenous populations of the Colombian Amazon highlight the importance of recognizing our interdependence with the natural world -- that unity and balance mean health; that upsetting these relationships brings disease. What planetary health understands through science, indigenous culture understands through traditional knowledge -- myths, rituals, spirituality. We disrupt the web of interconnectedness at our own peril.
Anthropologist Martin von Hildebrand has worked for over 40 years in the Colombian Amazon studying indigenous populations. This Planetary Health Alliance guest blog post illuminates his field notes, focused on indigenous understandings of our interconnectedness with nature and the importance of maintaining balance in our natural world to protect against disease and disorder.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.