What many call “wild,” often pejoratively, indigenous peoples understand as deep integration with the environment. “We have had this knowledge throughout our history,” says Sonia Guajajara, who is, today, one of the most relevant indigenous leaders. “For us, life is inseparable from nature.”

Known as Soninha and born in Maranhão, Guajajara is the coordinator of Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Association of Indigenous People of Brazil) (APIB). She’s been in the public eye more and more. Who has not seen her dominating Rock in Rio 2017’s stage, invited by the American singer Alicia Keys to send a message urging the protection of the Amazon Rainforest?

She believes we’re able to save the planet now. “We do not have to wait for the apocalypse to come back, and we can count on the help of Indians,” she says. Guajajara tells Believe.Earth why indigenous peoples are a barrier against chaos and how they act to preserve their own lives, the rest of humanity and the planet.

Believe.Earth (BE) – Why do people find it difficult to connect with nature?
Sonia Guajajara (SG) – It’s never good to generalize, but society, as it is shaped at the present time, has created this disassociation. The essence of indigenous peoples is collectivity, and a respectful relationship with nature and with ancestry.

Even after 500 years of contact with the white man, we continue with huge resistance: Enjoy without destroying is one of our greatest brands. We want nature alive, so we can live our life, too.

In general, those who do not descend from Indians cannot see nature as part of themselves. People want to create and change landscapes and develop a very close relationship with consumption. They need to have more cars, lots of trendy clothes, a good job and status. Individual identity is everything. The lack of a collective identity leaves a void in their lives.

This need for consumption drives people away from themselves. They must always please someone and follow external standards; this  results in values with no principles. In the city, even if residents complain about pollution, they continue polluting. They complain about the traffic, but they do not stop buying cars. They work all the time to satisfy the individual, to the detriment of the collective. In contrast, for the indigenous, it is the collective spirit that prevails. We fight for land, but no one struggles to have a piece of land for himself.

BE – What is the impact of the devastation of the environment on Indians’ lives?
SG – When you destroy nature and foreclose the indigenous peoples’ way of life, preventing them from exercising their culture, you are killing them. If we do not follow our culture, our tradition, we are no longer people.

A black-haired woman, wearing an earring with a red bead, is looking happy, touching a bunch of flowers.

Guajajara and her connection with nature: “Money is no use if there is no water” (Alan Azevedo/Believe.Earth)

BE – How can indigenous peoples help us to save the planet?
SG – By making people realize that we do not have to wait for the apocalypse to be able to embrace life. Do you know that story about the Indian fisherman? An Indian was fishing at the river’s edge when all of a sudden a white man came and said: “Man, you get too many fishes. We must sell them. Make a lot of money, and, with the money, buy a boat, earn even more, buy more boats to rent for others to fish for us. Then, we’ll be able to relax just fishing.” So, the Indian answered: “But, why should I do that? I’m already fishing and relaxing here.” I love it [laughs]. This story says everything.

Indians also want to change our lives, but what does this mean for us? It means having demarcated land and clean water in the river, being able to produce food to eat, without worrying about surpluses. Out of here [in the city], you do not think about the present time. It seems there is no present time.

At least seven Indians, some adults and some children are walking in a row, in the street, arms linked. Some are wearing headdress, their faces painted. There are trees in the background, and a couple people pass by on the sidewalk.

Sonia Guajajara was part of of the first march for the indigenous rights of the Acampanhanto Terra Livre 2016 (Alan Azevedo/Believe.Earth)

BE – How is your work at APIB reflected in society?
SG – My mission is to make the larger society see the huge potential of indigenous people to help preserve life. And how our way of life naturally acts as a barrier against chaos. The world needs us badly, because the way we live and act can help avert this wave of disaster and destruction that is approaching.

We want to be recognized as people who are facing the bullets and pepper spray from the police officers on the streets as well as when we  have the problems with the farms. It is a continuous struggle for all, for nature and for life.

When you compare the indigenous lands with the other [protected areas], you see that the indigenous ones are the best-preserved. Does this happen because there is a protection policy? No. It’s because the Indians are there protecting them. If we were not there, they would destroy everything. We are a barrier against chaos.

BE – What do we need to understand about indigenous people?
SG –  When Indians speak to nature, people think it is a primitive and wild thing. They think that the Indian must be there in the forest all the time, that if he leaves, he is no longer an Indian. But this way of thinking about indigenous people is primitive. What many consider wild, is a way to preserve life for us. Few people understand, or, want to understand, that everything is connected and, nature provides everything. Money is no use if there’s no water.

Civilization is the behavior we have in relation to Earth. For the white man, it is development and progress. That is an inversion of values and understanding. To me, we are the most civilized people.

My concern is that many persist in the ignorant assumption that an Indian is an isolated person who lives without contact [with the rest of society]. There are isolated indigenous people, who we call “autonomous people” and we fight for them. But, there are people who have been in contact for 400 years, like my people, the Guajajara. Even so, we live in the same situation as the others: Full invisibility. There are still indigenous people in an urban context, who are overlooked, because people think they should not be in the city.

Being an originally indigenous country, Brazil has taken time to overcome the ignorance of not realizing the indigenous existence, not respecting their presence and seeing us without paying attention. You can no longer think about Indians in that romantic and wild way. We exist.