Indigenous cultures hold secret to shaping post-COVID-19 world
A Teduray child. Photo: Christine Biokong
By Maya Quirino
26 August 2020
Reducing nature as a commodity is a gamble that allows homo sapiens to make a killing. Almost every big check from human activity—a palm oil plantation, a gold mine, or a coal plant—has cleared. After all, the ecological and social costs of the industrial exploitation of nature are borne mostly by invisible people: farmers, fisherfolk, peasants, indigenous peoples, the poor. A few months after a disaster, public outrage descends into a whisper. Collective anger over flash floods because of a denuded forest, a mine spill that kills a river forever, or respiratory illnesses care of dirty energy, dies down. Until COVID-19.
The check has bounced.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease, may have likely originated in animals. There is strong evidence that it originated in bats, but this has not been categorically established, much less what mediator species, if any, was involved from which it crossed to humans. The first cluster of cases was recorded in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. However, a new paper suggests that the virus may have jumped into humans as early as August 2019, or even earlier, in 2012, when a group of miners showed symptoms similar to COVID-19 in Yunnan, China.
But viruses don’t spread on their own. Epidemics are increasingly being born from the destruction of nature by the agro-industrial complex. The verdict is in: investments in industrial-scale encroachment into wild refugia project huge returns in catastrophe.
For example, Lyme disease, which is prevalent in the United States, is the result of the “reduction and fragmentation of large contiguous forests. Development chased off predators—wolves, foxes, owls and hawks. That has resulted in a fivefold increase in white-footed mice, which are great ‘reservoirs’ for the Lyme bacteria, probably because they have poor immune systems,” according to Richard Ostfeld.
In Malaysia, the Nipah virus originated in bats and crossed over into pigs, and abbatoir workers in turn contracted the virus from them. But what caused the transmission was this: “The habitats of bats were destroyed by deforestation for pulpwood and industrial plantation. An El Niño event further exacerbated this…This loss of foraging habitat for fruitbats, coupled with increasing deforestation, propagated their migration into cultivated orchards.”
The Ebola virus, from west Africa, was no different. According to a study, “the real genesis of this preventable outbreak is the combined effect of the legacies of slavery (ie, Maafa7), exploitative colonialism, purposeful underdevelopment, structural adjustment, resource extraction, illicit financial flows, poverty, gender violence, and enabled civil war.”
So, while it’s easy to blame bats, mice, and pigs for epidemics, the reason for the spread of viruses goes deeper – right into the very heart of the structural exploitation of nature.
One study finds that “global and regional changes in the form of urbanizations, agricultural intensification, and natural habitat degradation are seen as drivers of increased epidemic activity, virulence, and/or geographic range of zoonotic pathogen origin.”
Still another study finds that “[l]and-use change for the purpose of economic development (e.g. expansion of road networks, dams and agricultural land conversion) can further affect environmentally transmitted parasites and pathogens.”
And all of this is expected to continue. “Human activities such as deforestation, intensive agriculture, bushmeat consumption, waste production, and greenhouse gas emissions will only intensify as growing populations demand more food, water, clothing, shelter, and energy.” It is important to note, however, that wealthy nations consume 10 times more resources than “developing countries”.
Many solutions have cropped up to arrest the spread of epidemics. The most obvious one is to develop vaccines that will fight these viruses. But scarcely will we find a vaccine for one virus than when another virus comes out of the woodwork.
One study shows that, “extrapolation to all terrestrial mammals and water birds indicates that around 1.6 million unknown viruses exist within viral families known to contain zoonoses in these host groups. This implies that there may be between 650,000 and 840,000 unknown zoonoses waiting to emerge.”
Solutions then must go hand in hand with, and even beyond, epidemiology. For at the root of epidemics are not viruses per se, but an economic order that treats nature as a surplus commodity that can be exploited.
This is a symptom of neoliberal fundamentalism, which valorizes nature ostensibly for profit. Economic growth is touted as a solution to poverty, while corporations bat for less, if not zero, government regulation in exchange for the promise of progress. But this “corporate ideology has failed, leading to untold environmental destruction and soaring inequality.” (It is thus not just population growth and the corresponding overconsumption of natural resources, but a development model based on pure accumulation that is a driver of epidemics.)
Many will take exception to this indictment. The World Bank contends that economic growth is responsible for reducing extreme poverty rates, especially in developing countries. As of April 2020, the World Bank cites recent estimates which find that 10% of the global population lived at or below $1.90 a day in 2015, a significant drop from 36% in 1990.
A paper the Bank commissioned finds that a 10% increase in growth, using median income as a measurement, results in a poverty reduction rate of 21.2%. Meanwhile, Credit Suisse says that, in 2019, while the world’s wealthiest did see their fortunes rise, albeit in a vertigo-inducing rate, so did the world’s poor see their situation improve: “the share of the bottom 90% of global wealth holders…rose from 11.5% in the year 2000 to 18.3% in 2019.”
But all this misses the forest for the trees: these figures belie the price we’ve paid for economic growth.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus has shown that abusing nature for economic growth has a huge cost. The Asian Development Bank estimates economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic between $5.8 trillion and $8.8 trillion globally, depending on containment scenarios. Climate change, a product of rapid industrialization, has also exacted its toll on the global economy. According to a UN report, “between 1998 and 2017, affected countries reported direct losses of $2.908 trillion.”
To be fair, economic growth is no longer blind to the environment, as it was in its early days. “Environmental policymaking today is informed by policy and institutional choices that often deviate from original notions of neoliberalism,” according to a 2018 Brookings report. This covers an entire gamut of practices, from renewable energy to biodiversity protection, which tethers growth in environmental considerations. This is also apparent in the formulations of new indicators such as OECD’s Better Life Index, Green GDP, Genuine Progress Indicator, among others.
What all this nevertheless demands is systemic transformation, to survive epidemics, as well as the even more comprehensive impacts of climate change.
Indigenous peoples’ way of life provides some clues to this reshaping of the world.
In Mindanao, the Teduray and Lambangian people live by sulagad, an indigenous system of knowledge and practices of food sovereignty and agroecology. At the heart of sulagad is the idea that nature is a sacred source of nourishment and thus cannot be degraded or destroyed. The Teduray and Lambangian only get from nature what they need, allowing it to regenerate and feed generations.
For the Ifugao, the muyong, or woodlot, is not just a plot of earth in which trees are planted and harvested; it “underpins an intricate web of relationships [that] exists between the human and non-human resources of the system, which move to a higher sphere in the spirit world.”
In the concept of buen vivir, or well-lived life, from Latin America, “the good of the community is placed above that of the individual. Furthermore, this is community in an expanded sense; it includes Nature, plants, animals, and the Earth. Nature itself must be cared for and respected as a valuable part of the community. The land cannot be owned; it should be honored and protected.”
These are the kinds of social imaginaries which do not commodify nature ostensibly for profit— and which teach us how we can reorient civilizational evolution.
These beliefs do not exalt economic growth, but a culture of enough-ness. These invite us, in the words of writer Wendell Berry, to “re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places.”
Economic justice is one of our maps towards a more sustainable and equitable future.
According to a report by Friends of the Earth International, “new economic strategies need to be distributive and regenerative by design and focused on the primary goal of achieving sustainable societies. Such societies are in harmony with nature and are based on environmental, social, economic and gender justice, and peoples’ sovereignty.”
The report says that solutions based on economic justice include providing public services for all through tax justice; scaling up economies based on social ownership and cooperativism; supporting local markets and fair trade; valuing and measuring the wellbeing of people and planet; and ensuring binding rules to regulate big business. On the individual level, we can move away from a consumerist culture, downshifting to simpler lifestyles thereby relaxing the pressure on natural resources.
There are other proposals. The United Nations argues for “a partnership with financial markets to balance and achieve the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals],” and that a global transformation must “break the inequality and environmental enchantment that darken our future… [and be] based on sustainable consumption and production, on sustainable infrastructure that gives access to all to the opportunities of the future.” Joseph Stiglitz calls for a green economy, while Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics has recently attracted a lot of attention.
The task to recast the world may seem overwhelming. But the extraordinary acts of solidarity amid the pandemic tells us that transformation is within reach.
Under community quarantine, many residents in Metro Manila have been buying produce straight from farmers, including indigenous people from the Cordillera and the Sierra Madre, which used to be a fringe activity. This has the makings of community supported agriculture (CSA), a concrete way to help small-scale farmers producing food sustainably.
Traders disproportionately earn more than farmers, who have no access to market information, nor have the means to bring their produce to cities. CSA connects consumers and food producers directly. It also puts a face to small-scale food producers, and has the potential to connect urban consumers to issues around land and labor. In its pure form, CSA facilitates long-term investment by consumers in partner farming communities. CSA is the kind of solidarity action which disperses seeds for changing how we treat each other and nature.
Smallholder agriculture, on which CSA is pinned, diverges from industrial agriculture, an environmentally destructive land use regime that we’ve learned has been implicated in the spread of viruses. Smallholder agriculture can help meet food requirements without damaging the environment irreversibly. This is not, however, without its share of difficulty: Smallholder agriculture provides only 30-34% of the world’s food requirement on 24% gross agricultural area. A dramatic shift that balances economies of scale and sustainability is crucial.
COVID-19 has laid bare the fact that we are wedded to each other, for better or for worse, in sickness as in health. If viruses from one part of the globe can go on to infect the rest of the world, so can ideas for systemic transformation built on an economy that works for all, on solidarity with people from the margins, and on a sense of having enough. But we must set a fundamental fracture right.
In a monograph published recently, Timuay Alim Bandara speaks of dulet, a communicable disease that hounded the Teduray and Lambangian people decades ago. For them, the occurrence of dulet is a symptom of buneg, or when the relationship between human beings and nature is broken. Mining, logging, industrial farming—these are “human activities that disrupt this sacred relationship,” Timuay Alim says.
The domination of nature by industrial encroachment proceeds from anthropocentrism, which is rooted in Western culture.
Ecofeminists would go one step further and place the blame at the feet of patriarchy, of which unfettered accumulation is its modern face. Maria Mies says that the “taboos against mining, digging holes in the womb of Mother Earth, were broken by force, because the new patriarchs wanted to get at the precious metals and other ‘raw-materials’ hidden in the ‘womb of the earth’. The rise of modern science, a mechanistic and physical world-view, was based on the killing of nature as a living organism and its transformation into a huge reservoir of ‘natural resources’ or ‘matter’, which could be analysed and synthesized by Man into his new machines by which he could make himself independent of Mother Nature.”
Meanwhile, indigenous cultures like the Teduray and Lambangian’s abide by a more benign ecological cosmology: biocentric egalitarianism, where “humanity is no more, but also no less, important than all other things on earth.” This, as well as other paradigms, calls for us to heal our fractured relationship with nature.
Tabi, apo, we were told in the village of my vestigial animist childhood to whisper when passing a dark place. Spirits, let us pass. Or, another meaning: Elder, with your permission, to ask encantos to allow you to pick a flower or clear grass in an unfamiliar area. Will it be business as usual? Decimate virgin forests for GDP? Dig up more coal and set the earth on fire? Nature is now saying in the elemental language of checks and balances of the dulet, which only those who truly wish to listen can hear: No.
Maya Quirino is the advocacy coordinator of LRC. She tends—and is tended by—a fledgling pocket-sized garden of bamboo, bougainvillea, and herbs. She traces her roots to the Higaonon indigenous people in Bukidnon, Mindanao.
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Rice harvest from a small-scale farm. Photo: Erwin Managantang.
A sulagad farm in Maguindanao, Mindanao. Photo: Ellaine Joyce Suenan.