Lessons from the Yawanawa

What we can learn from this indigenous Amazonian community in the face of adversity.
Three Yawanawa tribe members, a grandmother and her granddaughter and grandson, are smiling and embracing.

Located deep within the Amazon, in the Brazilian state of Acre, the Yawanawá are an indigenous community that serves an invaluable role as stewards of the rainforest. Throughout their history, the Yawanawá, a group of about 1500 people spread across nearly half a million acres, have struggled to preserve their livelihood, battling numerous outside threats. And time and again, they have proved successful. Led since 2001 by Chief Tashka Yawanawá and his wife Laura, the Yawanawá have increased their territory, reinvigorated their culture, and established economically empowering relationships all through innovative and sustainable methods. 

Yawanawa mother and son.
So what can we learn from the Yawanawá as we battle global crises, both environmental and disease-related? We spoke with Laura Yawanawá, who serves as president of the Sociocultural Association of Yawanawá, a group that works to improve the socioeconomic status and wellbeing of the community.  Her answer is simple: Love. 

You hold a very important leadership role, overseeing many things including increased empowerment of women. Can you tell me about their changing role in the community? 
Traditionally, up until 20 years ago, the Yawanawá women didn’t have much voice. They worked at home with their children. But it’s changing, little by little. Now we have women who are teachers, leaders of their own communities, chiefs. We created the Yawanawá leadership council, which is composed of 14 people—seven women and seven men. That has been very powerful because now women have the same voice as men do in the politics and economy of the Yawanawá, and they participate very actively in all the decision makings. We also have the first women shamans. They are my sisters-in-law, and they were able to break a taboo. In the Yawanawá tradition, women were not allowed to be shamans, they were not allowed to go through the whole ritual to become one.

Shamans are very important to your community. Tell me about the process to become one.
It’s a very hard process. You have to isolate yourself from everyone, in the forest, for a whole year. You don’t eat much, very little just to survive. You cannot have meat or sweets. And you just drink ayahuasca and tobacco and learn from nature, the spirits of nature. But Putani and Hushahu were the first women who were able to do that, and they demonstrated that, yes, women can do that—even better than men! Some men try to do this ritual and they aren’t able to finish it. But they were victorious. After that many of other women were able to do it and that taboo was broken.

What is the Yawanawá’s relationship with nature?
Without nature, we would be extinct. We would be nothing. Nature is our teacher. Nature is our pharmacy. Nature is our supermarket. Nature is our religion. It’s where our spiritual knowledge comes from. We learn from the animals, the plants, the sky, the river, the insects. Everything has knowledge and a teaching for us. That’s the reason we respect nature so much. That’s why we don’t destroy it. We know a tree is not just a piece of wood, it’s a spirit, a spirit that teaches us about life. That’s why we maintain the forest, and keep it in tact. 

The Yawanawá have persevered through a lot. How are you dealing with the crises currently affecting the world?
My hope for this crisis—this environmental crisis and this new disease that appeared—is that we learn from it, that we become more human with each other. Life is not all about money or power; it’s really about love. It’s now time to learn what that word really means. Love—everybody says it, but we don’t really practice it. Love is about loving our friends, our neighbors, and loving nature. If we really practice it, we won’t hurt anybody, we won’t hurt nature, the animals, the forest. It’s a matter of respect. Now it’s time to help each other to protect Mother Earth.
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