Mystical Beliefs and Environmental Conservation: Santo Daime

 Liana-VineSanto Daime is a syncretic religion characterized by the sacred tradition of ayahuasca drinking. The ayahuasca brew facilitates communication between the drinkers and the plant spirit found in the brew, allowing environmental knowledge and teachings to be shared. This might sound out-of-this-world to some people, but it’s truly a way to reach different realms for those who partake in these ceremonies. Religious preferences aside, the possibility for positive global environmental changes is an interesting point to consider.


For thousands of years ayahuasca has been ritually prepared and consumed by numerous indigenous Amazonian groups. Ayahuasca is created through the combination of two plants, the “…Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis, which contain, respectively, harmala alkaloids and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). These compounds, when ingested in combination, produce a unique biochemical synergy resulting in profound idiosyncratic psychoactive effects” (Shanon 2002).


Ayahuasca is an important cultural tool in understanding society, the natural environment, and healing. It is commonly referred to as a “plant teacher”, highlighting its perceived abilities to actively communicate with its drinkers and transfer wisdom. Though this phenomena isn’t typically accepted in the Western world, it’s a firm belief among those who have consumed this brew.


Santo Daime has Roman Catholic, Spiritist, and Afro-Brazilian roots. Drinking ayahuasca was borrowed from native Amazonians. Ayahuasca has become a Santo Daime sacrament, and through the mystical and encompassing power of ayahuasca, this religious group aspires to restore harmony between the social and environmental realms of the Earth and the Universe.


According to the accounts, a Brazilian rubber tapper, Mestre (Master) Irineu, discovered his destiny during an ayahuasca ceremony. He envisioned a woman who relayed the message to create the religion.  Mestre  Irineu gathered followers and formulated the structure for ceremonies and rituals. Two of the the most popular ceremonies are the Concentração (concentration sessions) and Bailados (synchronized and repetitive dancing sessions). Since the founding of Santo Daime in the early-mid 1900’s, it has diffused throughout Latin America and to places in Europe and the United States. 


Many Santo Daime members believe that the change from sustainable and beneficial extraction and modification of nature to unwarranted and unsustainable exploitation is the source of the current troubles plaguing the world. Additionally, it believes in a global entity of negative energy that cycles around the Earth, the correio de má noticia (the bad news post office).


Mestre Irineu coined the term correio de má noticia, which is described as:  “…an endless negative chain that goes around the world in all directions, a hurricane of worlds, false testimonies, and distorted opinions that carries in its belly destruction, misery, insanity, illness, and death. This gossip, which always comes before good news and truth, is the worst form of pollution on the earth. These negative vibrations feed various entities and obsessive spirits that dwell in uninstructed minds and produce doubt and fear…Where this foul breath blows through, beautiful flowers lose their shine, the air becomes contaminated and the aura darkens. Deviating from the path of truth is the first of many serious spiritual illnesses and the cause of many more” (Polari de Alverga 1999). 


The correio de má noticia allows the continuous ravaging of nature and the inconsideration of human welfare for profit, greedy, or sinful motives, without considering the plants, animals, and humans that live there, and Santo Daime desires to eradicate human negativity and environmental destruction worldwide. There is great emphasis on the necessity for coordination between interacting systems and for restoration of the world’s social and ecological harmony. Drinking ayahuasca in a religious ceremony is believed to be essential to understanding the current huge disjunction among the world and to promoting healing.


Some Santo Daime communities, like Céu de Mapiá in the Amazon Rainforest, intend to live as harmoniously with the natural environment as possible, to create a space for spiritual interaction with the forest and allow development. Additionally, it serves as a model of a sustainable community for like-minded organizations worldwide.


It appears that support for this religious movement, focused on healing the Earth, will continue to grow. Since religion is a powerful way to bind people with common interests together, the expansion of Santo Daime and environmentally-conscious lifestyles may have noticeable implications on the environmental movement at large.


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The Rights of Earth-beings: An Environmental Anthropology Perspective

Amazon-CanopyThe field of environmental anthropology is in a unique position to advocate for conservation, research initiatives, and environmental justice causes worldwide. By possessing both professional recognition and insider knowledge, their voices can  be powerful in environmental campaigns and movements. 


Anthropology, most broadly defined, is the study of humans. A common anthropological practice is ethnographic research: The anthropologists immerse themselves in the lifestyle of the people they are studying and carry out fieldwork. They work to form bonds with members of the community. By observing the details of daily life, participating in regular activities and special cultural events, and having conversations and full-length interviews with people, anthropologists form a deep understanding of the research community. The extensive and detailed fieldnotes they compile form the basis for written accounts and lectures of what they have learned. 


Historically, anthropology has revolved around the outsider anthropologist visiting a far-away, unknown land and revealing the secrets and inner workings of societies. The greatest purpose was to purely gain academic knowledge regarding the possibilities of the human condition. In contemporary times, however, anthropologists are more commonly applying their knowledge to solve real-world, practical problems, like the conservation of planet Earth.


The multiplicity of global environmental issues of current concern are entangled with cultural, political, and economic dynamics. Environmental anthropologists can help unravel the actors and voices involved in these complex relationships. A particularly interesting case is Marisol de la Cadena’s research on indigenous cosmology and politics in Peru, focusing on the rights of “Earth-beings”. Her insight into this phenomenon opens up the possibility of a novel conservation tactic, and it’s implication will be discussed below.


Since indigenous politics have begun to play a more important role in Peru, Earth-beings have been introduced to the political arena. Earth-beings are entities in nature such as mountains, trees, and rivers that have characteristics that are often thought of as belonging to only humanity, such as the ability to have relationships with the surrounding landscape and inhabitants that can be strengthened or weakened. This article focuses on mountain Earth-beings, particularly the mountain Ausangate.


The indigenous people mine Ausungate, but they use tunnel mining, which is less destructive and allows for slower removal of resources. Non-indigenous people want to exploit the resources rapidly through open-sky mining, which would destroy the mountain. Indigenous actors protest this proposal on the terms that Ausangate is an Earth-being that has rights and needs to be respected. This protest situation has complicated political ideas and has brought those ideas into a global context.


Politics and economics are intertwined with the stances of the actors; economic activities fuel the political disagreements between opposing groups, and political decisions influence how economic activities are allowed to operate. Politics and economics in Peru are increasingly complicated because indigenous and non-indigenous people have different cultural worldviews and invoke nature into their worlds in different modes. For indigenous people, nature is a part of them and cannot be separated from their sense of identity, but for non-indigenous people, nature and humanity are two different concepts that can be divided using science. The inclusion of nature and humanity in politics is thus defined by the different worldviews. 


The modern constitution is the set of ideas established by science with which most Westerners agree; science produces the ultimate and privileged knowledge. The modern constitution has created the idea that the representation on nature belongs to science and cannot be involved in politics and that representation of humanity belongs to politics and cannot be involved with nature. Indigenous people understand the position of being in between one and two worlds – the worlds between indigenous worldview and the non-indigenous worldview, and they are challenging the modern constitution to incorporate representation of nature into politics. In order for this incorporation to be successful, non-indigenous people must also place themselves in a place in between one and two worlds.


If indigenous efforts to treat the Earth and all her resources with due respect becomes a serious contender in international politics, the resulting environmental benefits could be huge. By granting official rights to the Earth, an infrastructure that promotes sustainability can be put in place, conserving the environment and mitigating global climate changes. Ecuador, a country neighboring Peru, has taken another steps in this movement. Ecuador’s Constitution was revised in 2007 to include Nature, or Pachamama, as an entity having rights. If Peru – and countries worldwide – follow suit, the global perspective on the relationship between humans and nature might change in a way that benefits all life on Earth.


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Big Cat Initiative: Save These Majestic Beings

Tiger-Staring-Into-The-DistanceThe threat of big cat extinction is looming, so it’s crucial that people act now to prevent this tragedy from occurring. National Geographic has created the Big Cat Initiative (BCI), partially headed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, in an endeavor to save these fiercely elegant animals. To put the seriousness of the big cat extinction crisis in perspective, here are some quick population facts: 


“There were 450,000 lions when we were born and now there are only 20,000 worldwide,” says legendary big cat conservationist Dereck Joubert. “Leopards have declined from 700,000 to 50,000, cheetahs from 45,000 to 12,000 and tigers are down from 50,000 to just 3,000,” adds Dereck’s wife, Beverly.”


These decreases are severe, and now is the time to take definitive actions to halt this downhill trend.


Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been studying big cats for 30 years, engaging the public with campaigns and films. Through the production of interesting educational  materials, they have raised awareness and encouraged organizations and communities to take part in conservation efforts. Recently, from December 11-17, 2011, National Geographic released a special series of documentaries called Big Cat Week. Episodes covered topics such as the competition between lions and cheetahs in the Serengeti of Africa; the attempts to film to jaguar, a notoriously mysterious cat; and the celebratory news that tiger populations are growing, featuring the birth of cubs.


Hopefully, these films will help inspire people to take part in the campaign to save big cats; the danger of losing these species, at least in the wild, is quite real. Along with environmental destruction, purposeful killing is a serious problem contributing to the big cat decline. Lives may be taken for entertainment through safari hunts, by poachers for the prized coat, or to protect livestock. The problem with various big cats killing cattle, horses, or water buffalo stems from the lack of natural prey left for them to pursue. This proves to be a vicious cycle: Human-induced changes to natural habitat threaten the cats’ abilities to sustain themselves, leaving them to seek alternative sources of food and compete with humans for resources. This ultimately leads to one of the greatest threats to big cat survival.


The case of the lion highlights this problem. Historically, lions prowled the lands of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of India. Since the 1960’s, the population of these species has dramatically declined by a stunning 90%, and some scientists believe that all wild lions could be gone within the next 10-15 years. People commonly shoot or poison lions, due to the fact that they threaten livestock.


To address this problem, BCI researchers Anne Kent Taylor and Laly Lichtenfeld, carrying out conservation projects among the Masai cattle herders of eastern African countries like Tanzania and Kenya, have embarked on projects to provide ecological animal husbandry workshops to the people and to build enclosures that protect livestock from lion predation. J. Weldon McNutt, working in northern Botswana in the Santawani region, has also directed educational initiatives and the installation of protective spaces; additionally, an insurance program has been developed to compensate farmers if their livestock are killed. Projects are also taking place in Mozambique, Zambia, and Cameroon.


Cheetahs are primarily found in the vast grasslands of Africa, in the southwest and east regions. Like the lion, this incredibly fast animal is at risk of death from pastoralists who need to protect the family’s prime economic asset – livestock. The population of jaguars, the only big cat native to the Americas, isn’t fully known. Due to their elusive nature and natural habitat in the dense jungle, tracking them is challenging. Indigenous ethnic groups throughout Latin America revere the jaguar, and efforts to locate and study these sacred animals are underway. Like the jaguar, the population level of snow leopards, who make their home in Asia, isn’t fully understood and must be further researched. Tigers are one of the best known animals in the global campaign for species conservation, and for a rightful reason: The population has declined a shocking 97% in the past century. The tiger has traditionally been a symbol representing positive values in China and India. 


Imagine what the world would be like if no big cats were left. An important cultural symbol to many would remain only in memories, pictures, and videos. Big cats are known to regulate ecosystems through hunting prey, so other species population changes would occur. The characterization of life on Earth would be far different. Please get involved in this conservation effort to preserve these stunningly powerful and beautiful beings.


For current updates on the project, you can visit National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative page. To view excerpts from the Big Cat Week episodes, click here. If you’re able to to make a monetary donation, you’ll help support ongoing research and conservation initiatives as well as fund new ones, and you’ll make sure that the mighty big cats continue to roam free and rule the wild lands.


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Amazon Rainforest or Oil Wealth? Ecuador’s Unique Approach to Solve this Dilemma


Amazon-CanopyThe outcry for protection and conservation of biodiverse environments and the battle against corporate greed is highlighted uniquely in the case of Yasuni National Park. This forest region, located in the Ecuadorian Amazon, thrives above liquid wealth in the form of oil. However, the country is taking bold moves to preserve this valuable ecosystem: Instead of earning money and further developing the economy through the sale of oil, Ecuador proposes that Yasuni is left undisturbed and intact. Furthermore, the funding for environmental projects that would make this possible are to come from donors worldwide who would like to contribute to the responsible treatment of the planet. 

Ecuador is a haven of incredible floral and faunal variation, with particularly large numbers of birds, spiders, and orchids. Along with its cloud forest regions, the revered Amazon Rainforest is teeming with life. The Yasuni area is assumed to have the highest concentration of tree species in the entire world.


The Amazon jungle, also home to indigenous groups, is not a stranger to the oil industry and its negative implications on the environment. The case between Ecuador and Chevron (formerly Texaco) has been an ongoing struggle since 1998. After drilling, the oil fields were not properly treated, resulting in severe contamination of the waterways and land. Reports of sickness and cancer have risen since these operations, and the cultural traditions of native communities, like the Waorani, are threatened.


Ecuador has demanded cleanup and compensation in accordance to the damages left behind, but Chevron denies responsibility. This legal entanglement has highlighted the pros and cons of fossil fuel extraction. Although the sale of oil has been important to the growth of the economy, Ecuador has also recognized the degradation and toxic effects that result from this crude practice. The country has realized that guarding the natural ecological wonder  of the Amazon from harms outweighs the financial benefit that oil exports can bring.


Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputinin (ITT) is the name of the plentiful oil field below below this pristine environment; estimates report that there are nearly 900 millions barrels of oil worth billions in this well. If industrial development was permitted to occur here, up to 410 million tons of carbon dioxide could be released into the atmosphere. Coupled with loss of habitat and likely extinctions in addition to destruction of indigenous homeland, this could be disastrous to the well being of the Earth. Development in Yasuni wouldn’t just directly impact Ecuador; it would affect the entire globe.


And so the campaign to save Yasuni was created. In 2007, president Rafael Correa announced the decision to leave the oil untouched in exchange for sustainable enterprise. In order to fund this ambitious and ecologically minded effort, Ecuador is requesting donations, which would be sent to the United Nations Development Fund and accordingly distributed to bring this project into existence. In exchange, carbon credits would be granted, reducing the donors’ ecological footprints.


By the end of 2011, $100 million was required to fulfill the terms of agreement, and the beginning of 2012 marked a milestone in the Yasuni National Park initiative. Through donations, $116 million has been collected, allowing to project to go on. Other South American countries – Chile and Columbia – as well as Australia, Belgium, and Turkey, have pledged for this cause. Italy has even made an agreement to allow Ecuador’s $51 million debt to remain in the country and go toward the Yasuni-ITT initiative. Celebrities and political figures are also lending to this cause; President Correa has even donated a personal sum of $40 million.


You can do your part in the preservation of this environment important to all life on Earth. Personal donations, no matter how small, can go toward this collective endeavor. By disseminating this novel idea through word-of-mouth or social media, you can help to spread environmental education and to recruit supporters and donors. Monetary contributions can be sent to the Ecuador Yasuni ITT Trust Fund.


Team up with the non-governmental organization Finding Species. Learn more about the Yasuni situation and send a message to President Correa, showing your support for this initiative and encouraging Ecuador to continue its acts of environmental leadership and solidarity with a worldwide environmental movement.


If you belong to an environment-oriented organization, fundraising for this cause could be a worthy project for the new year. It is imperative that the world works together to enable projects such as this to go on; please help protect one of Earth’s most vibrant and lively communities. 


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