How Can We Relearn to Live With Nature in a Way That Allows for Abundance?

Updated: May 6

With commentary by Paula Iturralde Pólit

The Sumaco Volcano seems to emerge through the trees of the Sumaco-Galeras Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Its summit is over 3800 m.a.s.l. but to walk to the highest point, you will have to cross paths surrounded by lush vegetation from 1500 m, where it is still a tropical rain forest. You will pass through the pre-montane forest, montane forest, Andean forest, and then the paramo and the rocks. Each ecosystem seems to be separated from the previous one by a magical window because, oddly enough, the change in vegetation is radical. There will be no way that the change in vegetation will go unnoticed.
Sumaco Volcano, Ecuador

A symbiotic way of living with nature can be a reality by joining forces with indigenous communities regardless of the distance to a tropical forest. No matter how far away from it you live, most of the resources that we, humans, use daily come from the forest, one way or another.

One crucial step to becoming part of the solution is learning how indigenous communities have understood a way of living in symbiosis with the forest for over 3000 years. By learning this, we can get involved and support the development of these sustainable practices in current settlements based on what is feasible.

While intact forests are determinants for mitigating the ongoing climate, water, and biodiversity crisis, the reality is that indigenous people use the land and live from it. Therefore, it is imperative that they maintain ancestral knowledge to improve productive activities that protect nature now and for future generations.

People Belong in the Forest

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It was located far from the nearest road, and the only way to get there (or out) was by foot. There were no supermarkets, no cars or buses, no noise or pollution. Initially, I could describe the experience as a total disconnection from what we assume of the current world.

However, I am convinced that the proper word should not have the prefix dis since it denotes negation. It is more accurate to say connection because I finally had the opportunity to merge with the natural world and understand a different way of living.

In the community, the daily activities took place in symbiosis with nature. The crystal-clear river ran along almost touching the cabins built only with material obtained from the forest. They fed mainly on the vegetable products that grew in a small cultivated patch next to their homes.

This experience comes to mind as I look through maps that suggest what the Amazon may have been like in the past and reading what Esteban Matheus shares this month with Humans for Abundance.

Indigenous peoples have inhabited the entire Amazon basin for tens of thousands of years and in large numbers. This map shows the many language groups encountered and recorded by the Europeans at the time of the conquest. However, we have collectively forgotten this fact within our current worldview. We now imagine the Amazon forest as a pristine paradise, untouched by humans, that needs to be preserved.

Timing of Human Presence

Then I became curious to know how long the community I was lucky to visit had been established. It is difficult to know the exact date, but other communities had likely already inhabited these areas before the conquest. However, in the information shared by Esteban, he states that:

During the conquest, the diseases brought overseas decimated the populations of the indigenous communities in this region in the subsequent centuries. Now the exploitation of the Amazon has advanced, roads have been built, forests have been clear cut, and the Amazon is once again becoming inhabited. Both by indigenous communities and new settlers.

Currently, the inhabitants are the indigenous communities who live near natural areas. Those areas need to be conserved and reforested to mitigate a large percentage of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

Conservation with Human Presence

Through our work at Humans for Abundance, we realised that traditional conservation is a defensive act that excludes the people and culture from the ecosystems intended to be protected. Many conservation efforts fail as they are seen as an imposition by local inhabitants. To achieve sustained, long-term protection and regeneration of habitat, our actions need to be connected to social and cultural regeneration.

The challenge we now face is: can we once again learn to live within the rainforest in a symbiotic way that allows for abundance and biodiversity?

We must actively work to change systems that rationalise harm to the environment and communities as the unavoidable cost of a prosperous society. We appeal to share efforts and recognise local knowledge which might be present either because they have inherited old practices, learned new ones day-to-day, or both.

Humans and Forest in Symbiosis