Early in life, French anthropologist Emilie Barrucand, 38, found out why she’d come into the world. Inspired by her grandmother, who dedicated herself to caring for needy children, young delinquents, and the elderly, she realized that she, too, could give herself to those in need. At the age 21, with a one-way ticket, she headed for the Amazon.

On her first visit to a Kayapó village, coordinated by indigenous leader Raoni Metuktire, she spent four months in the forest, in intense interaction with its inhabitants. This experience would define her way of seeing the world, her career, and her life.

Barrucand graduated in Anthropology from École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, in Paris. For almost two decades, she has spent three to six months a year in the Pareci and Kayapó people’s villages, in the Brazilian Amazon, where she feels at home. As part of her work, in 2002, she founded the NGO Wayanga with the mission of protecting the environment and supporting indigenous peoples’ efforts to preserve their languages and cultures.

Among her projects is a collection of audio CDs called Kukradja 1, in which she has recorded much of the Kayapó’s knowledge it won’t be forgotten. Kukradja 1 is the product of years of interviews with elders, gathering information about the cultural heritage of these peoples, with the purpose of preserving and protecting it for future generations. Wayanga also organizes a meeting of indigenous leaders, donates equipment to help them supervise their lands, and even funds informatics, accounting and Spanish courses to young people chosen as future intermediaries between their people and non-indigenous society.

With the Pareci, Barrucand, among other projects, supported the completion of a textbook written in their native language, so that it, too, wouldn’t be forgotten. The NGO has also donated photo, audio and video equipment so that the Pareci could document and protect their culture and traditions themselves.

When she is not in the villages, Emilie often shares her knowledge and stories with children elsewhere. “I try to awaken their self-confidence, so they can become actors in creating a more sustainable world,” she says. “I like to say that it all started when I was their age.” Her dedication earned her the recognition of the Prêmio Consciência (Conscience Award) in 2008, for her commitment to indigenous peoples. They are, she points out, the guardians of the forest and deserve our respect.

Because of her experience collecting information and connecting people with such different realities, Emilie will be Believe.Earth’s ambassador in France. She celebrates not only the fact that the future may be unbelievable, but that our movement was born in Brazil, her second, and, soon-to-be first home. In this conversation, she tells us more about her work, and the beauties and challenges ahead.

A thin, white woman with long blond hair and light eyes is sat on a wooden bench. Her elbows are resting on a wooden table. In front of her, there is an Indian girl with long, straight, black hair is sitting with a pencil in her hand, she seems to write in a piece of paper. Both are smiling and looking at the camera. We can see other people at the table too. In the background, they're writing and drawing on pieces of papers.

With Pareci children, who are illustrating a book about the mythologies of their people (Emilie Barrucand’s Personal Archive)

Believe.Earth (BE) – Why did you choose to work in the Amazon Rainforest?
Emilie Barrucand (EB) –
When I was a child, I admired the relationship these people had with nature, that combination of strength and serenity they express, their body paintings. I was moved by the problems they encountered, the deforestation that threatened them. Everything I could learn about them fueled my dream of meeting them. My commitment to them is a commitment to life itself. They became my friends. They are admirable people, of great wisdom whom I love deeply

BE – How are indigenous peoples important to our efforts to care for the planet? What can we learn from them?
EB –
The traditional territories of indigenous peoples occupy 24 percent of the Earth’s surface and protect 80 percent of the richest biodiversity in the world. In Brazil, indigenous peoples, such as the Pareci and Kayapó, protect the Amazon Rainforest, the world’s largest rainforest, on which the climate and our livelihood depend.

Traditionally, indigenous peoples use the forest’s resources without destroying it. They take only what they need, with all respect. Their sustainable resource management and wisdom can inspire us and help us reinvent our own relationship with nature and find solutions to the problems the world faces. Their language and culture express the principles of this harmonious relationship and help protect the Amazon. It is important to support them so that they can continue protecting the forest and our planet as well as remaining happy within their culture.

They also live in solidarity: They share, exchange, and help one another. Among them, nobody dies of hunger or is abandoned. The elders are considered wise and are respected. These are values and wisdom that we should follow in order to build a better world, with more peace and equality.

BE – In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges facing the indigenous in Brazil at present?
EB –
They are now facing a number of difficulties. Many amendments proposed by the current government would reduce their rights and take their lands back [like PEC 215, which proposes that land demarcation be the responsibility of the National Congress, and Marco Temporal (Land Act), an unconstitutional piece of legislation which would entitle indigenous peoples only to lands that were in their possession on October 5, 1988, the date that Brazil’s constitution was rewritten after the end of a long military dictatorship]. Indigenous peoples should be seen as important contributors to so-called “development”, to agriculture and to the economy. Too often, they are shut out.

The indigenous should be considered partners in building a healthier and more sustainable agriculture. They developed, for example, natural fertilizers, agroforestry techniques, and advanced and complex pedology [soil science] that could help farmers. They know more than anyone about plants, trees, the times of production of fruits and seeds. They could participate in reforestation projects or other initiatives that would have positive effects on farms, the forest, and indigenous communities themselves.

They are not, as some still believe, stagnant peoples. They are just different from us and our western societies. Any society undergoes changes and makes new choices, just like theirs. While our culture and development are based on materialism, theirs has a totally different approach. Their material culture is traditionally simple. For them, material accumulation has little importance. Their immaterial heritage and their knowledge are immensely vast.

Materialism breeds selfishness, which is now one of the principles that govern our capitalist society. Man must protect his space, his possessions, from others. And the more he possesses, the more he is afraid: Of losing his possessions, that others will damage or seize them. His possessions end up imprisoning him.

This way, we move away from other people, nature, the divine, and even from ourselves, to be enclosed in so-called “comfort.” Surrounded by inert objects, technologies upon which we become dependent, we are increasingly alone. More and more, we resemble machines.

In the Amazon, for indigenous peoples, consumer goods in themselves have no value: They are a means to consolidate friendship and solidarity among individuals or groups. Constant donations and exchanges are made among community members.

We are part of nature. We depend on it: We breathe its air, drink its water, our food comes from it. By destroying it, we have destroyed ourselves. Indigenous peoples have this understanding, this consciousness, so they take care of nature.

A friend of mine, who is a Pareci chief, asked me one day in a very serious tone, and with a certain concern in his voice: “Did the ‘whites’ go crazy and sick because of the money?” He continued: “They want to possess more and more. Due to wealth, they even kill other people, destroy the natural world that cares for them and gives them everything they need, they pollute the water they drink, as well as the water their children drink. They abandon their own children, because they can’t stop working because they want more money. They come back home late, without having time to take care of their children and wives, and give them love. When they have a car, they want a brand new one. They are never satisfied. Does this bring them happiness? They seem to have a mental illness. We are worried because it contaminates our children.”

Isn’t all this true? Within these communities, you notice the harmony that unites and connects everybody with nature. So, who are the most advanced? It is really us, the “whites”? Following the logic of so-called “development”, we are becoming machines, with less and less control over our emotions, over what we do, or, over the purpose of our lives. Perhaps our societies are technologically advanced, but on many other levels we are regressing without reaching the understanding and wisdom that these peoples have.

An elderly, indigenous woman with black and straight hair and bangs, she is wearing a colorful dress and looking at the camera. On her lap, there is indigenous boy without shirt. On the left side of the picture, an old man, with white hair and no shirt. Both are sat, their backs are against the white wall, and they're looking at the camera. On the right side of the image, there is a white woman, with long blond and wavy hair, she is sitting sideways to the camera and looking at the couple of natives. She holds a microphone with her right hand.

Barrucand, recording the interviews with Kayapó chief Jobaw and his wife, which would later become part of the collection Kukradja 1 (Emilie Barrucand’s Personal Archive)

BE – How can nonindigenous people develop more empathy and respect for indigenous peoples to support and protect them?
EB –
I think there needs to be more positive reporting about these people in the media, especially in the mainstream media, presenting their beautiful values, wisdoms and traditions in a fair way, to reduce the prejudices many people have due to a lack of knowledge. This lack of knowledge about indigenous peoples comes, first, from the lack of correct and positive information about them.

More events should be organized in the cities, presenting the wisdom, the values that these peoples have, and that can inspire Brazilians and all of us to create a more humane, supportive and sustainable world. Indigenous leaders and elders should be invited to these events, in schools and in companies, to give lectures.

In school, children should read textbooks about these people, learn from their teachers who they are, and about their lives, origins, and particularities. Those children will grow up to be adults who lack the prejudices of the past. This way, a relationship of respect and peace could be established.

BE – Have you ever suffered prejudice, in Brazil or abroad, as a foreigner working with Brazilian natives?
EB –
I have had some not very pleasant encounters during these 17 years of work. It’s normal! We can face jealousy, criticism or negative judgments anywhere in the world, regardless of our gender, origin and work. I recently had a meeting with a wise friend from Cambodia. He told me, “The more good and important projects you have, the more criticisms you will receive. The important thing is to be focused on your goals. If criticism comes, ask if you can use it to improve your work. If not, do not worry and forget what you’ve heard.”

I have met several people who had prejudices, not about me, but about indigenous peoples. I do not see these false ideas as evil, but as a result of the lack of information about these peoples, and, consequently, a lack of understanding of them.

BE – Why did you want to join this movement to become Believe.Earth‘s ambassador in France?
EB –
Believe.Earth is in full agreement with the values I follow. When I heard about the project, I felt myself as a believer! I accepted the invitation to be its ambassador in France with conviction and enthusiasm.

I guess it’s very important to promote good deeds by people in different parts of the world to encourage others to act. Believe also talks about “dreaming to think and then to act”. This is what I have been doing since my childhood: I dreamed, I thought and now I act. The dream and the thought are the roots of the actions I accomplished.

BE – What makes you believe?
EB –
I feel that my path is to act for the good of indigenous peoples and nature. When I am on this path, everything flows, and I feel much happiness and love. It is not just a temporary engagement, but a lifelong one. Every road has its obstacles, challenges overcome, and disappointments. So, if you want to act, take care of your own engagement, of yourself. The necessary ingredients within you are enthusiasm, optimism, trust and love. In order not to get lost, you must take care of those ingredients. Be alert and keep checking to make sure they’re still there. If some are gone, we must recreate them. Other very important qualities are steadfastness and detachment, if you are to get results from your actions.