As TIME reported in its recent special climate issue, the fires from the Amazon seen across the skies of Brazil in August “helped illuminate something the world can no longer ignore.” On the front lines of the fight to protect the land is 46-year-old Benki Pyãnko, who has experienced these significant — and devastating—changes to the environment firsthand. An ambassador of the Ashaninka people, Pyãnko has led environmental and reforesting projects in his community of Apiwtxa, inhabiting the indigenous territory of Terra Kampa do Rio Amônia in the Brazilian state of Acre, located close to the border with Peru and covered by the Amazon rainforest. There are around 3,000 Ashaninka people living across four indigenous land areas in Brazil, and over 120,000 Ashaninka living over the frontier in Peru. Pyãnko’s Apiwtxa community won the United Nations Equator Prize in 2017, a prize honoring indigenous communities, for its reforesting initiatives and defense of Ashaninka rights and culture. As part of the Flourishing Diversity Series at University College London, Pyãnko was one of several indigenous leaders invited from around the world to gather and share their experiences of protecting their environments. TIME spoke with Pyãnko about the solutions that indigenous people can offer to tackle climate change, and what lessons the rest of the world can learn from them.
Where we live, there is still a great deal of richness as far as forests, animals, plants. These species still exist because of the way we guarded and tended the forest since around 1986 when we began this work of preservation. Our people still maintain our culture very protectively and very well, but with all that we have protected, we also carry great worry, because of all that surrounds us where we live. People who use the forest hunt animals to a great extent, take part in logging activities, and deforest the forest to make way for pastures. Our rivers cannot exist without the forest, our animals cannot live without the forest, and we ourselves depend on these plants and animals for our consumption, for our existence.
Deforesting was one of the greatest catastrophes that happened in our territory. People felled our forests, and that made our rivers very dry. There were many species of fish that disappeared, as the forest has been cut down, many kinds of animals also disappeared, or disappeared from that region at least. We have experienced a lot more heatwaves now, almost unbearable heatwaves. There would be rains during the summer time as if it were winter time, and also dryness during the rainy season. There’s been growing lightning storms and hurricane storms that would come and uproot many trees. We had great floods that caused many animals to die, and even people. Because of climatic changes, there are many species of trees whose fruits are borne before the correct time of the year. All the people who live in the forest realize that over the last 30 years, the changes have been very significant.
It is man who has been perpetrating all this disaster. We see mining and oil business coming into our area and invading our rivers. There were gold mines, with many areas of the forest burned or logged, and we have seen many industries moving into the area that pollute the air, significantly. We see all the rubbish created by these industries, not only plastic but also cans and all the waste being thrown in our rivers.
All our worry about the destruction that is happening makes us take our message as indigenous peoples to the whole world, speaking about these problems. Our environment, our natural fruits, animals and plants are the security of our lives. And if we don’t take care of all these species, of this richness of nature, we are heading towards a great catastrophe that may affect us in a very deep way. That’s why my work as a leader is to try to show people how we can change this attitude, and we can change all of this. That’s why I have come out of my village to go outside and show to other people with my projects what can be done to protect our environment.
One of our projects is how to maintain the balance of the environment, reforesting the areas that have been cut down and degraded, both with native species and with fruit trees, in order to create an environment that will bring the forest back and provide food to people. We have planted over 2 million trees already for this project, which is called Yorenka Ãtame, and by doing so, we have recovered many water sources and brought life back to our rivers. My project is to plant another 10 million trees, and I want to show young people in particular how they can tend the forest in order to guarantee their futures, to create a sustainable situation consciously, without harming the environment in such a violent way as man does. The idea is to put people in connection with nature again. We intend to cure the world through curing people’s minds.
I see today a big confrontation between people and nature. That comes from our industrial-scale economy, and a society that lives only for consuming. Our governments are creating projects that actually harm people’s lives, perhaps slowly, but in a very pervasive way. People are just trying to get rich, and they are killing one another, sometimes without even knowing it. Our governments today, in my view as an indigenous leader, need to respect nature more. They also need to respect everyone’s lives, the lives of all human beings, who depend on the land to survive. It is our very governments who are killing the earth.
Brazil shows the catastrophe that happens when nature and indigenous peoples are not respected. We know Amazonia sustains other environments in other regions of the planet, and it needs to be respected. The international community needs to call to attention the behavior of our president in Brazil as a child who hasn’t yet learnt how to deal with all this, because what our president is doing is a great betrayal for all humanity, not only for us Brazilians. I call upon all the youth of the world, all those concerned with our future, to unite. We are the ones who should be taking care of the environment so as to protect our lives and our future.
In order to heal the world, we have to first heal ourselves and heal our minds, and then heal our own homes. So the moment we heal our own homes and realize that all the rubbish we produce is part of that destruction, we are already doing a great deal. If we plant even a single tree on earth, we are already on the way to depolluting the air. If we plant trees on water sources, we are already protecting those water sources. If we take the rubbish and contamination from the rivers, we are already doing our part too. That’s the consciousness we must bring to all of us, to bring our minds back in equilibrium. We have to assume this responsibility for what we have done to the earth. If we do this, we are going to change the world.
As told to Suyin Haynes. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.