The Language of Potatoes: Understanding Nature from Indigenous Perspectives

The first seminar of Indigenous Terra Madre sought to articulate the relationship between people and nature from indigenous perspectives. The first speaker from Ethiopia began by asking how we define indigenous peoples and suggested that define indigenous peoples by their own self-identification and self-definition
With respect to indigenous peoples’ relationship to nature, it can be understood as recognizing oneself as one among a number of species and upholding a commitment to the priority of everything next to you.
As a non-indigenous person, understanding indigenous perspectives is a challenged and takes work. I do not speak the language. I do not understand the culture. Yes, I understand it on an intellectual level but as a lived reality, as a world view, I am a foreigner.  I do not speak the “language of the potato” and perhaps worse, I still translate this fact into metaphor and have to stop and reconsider and expand my thinking so that the language of potato becomes a given, and not a lovely idea to be references at various conferences.
This is something I have been struggling with lately, especially when tasked with the job of note taking. I am increasingly aware that when I take notes, what is recorded and what makes it into the reports is what can be quickly noted and what can be translated into the objectives of the report which are inherently western in style, planning, writing and objectives (as well as distribution, I guess). When people from more oratory cultures (as indigenous cultures are) use stories to make their point and I have difficulty recording the entire story when I am taking notes and my brain is not attuned to pulling out the “key information” from those stories (is it a problem that I am even looking for key information? In doing that am I missing the point again?). The result is that the information that ends up being shared is not being recorded and is thus less likely to be transferred. Yet when someone stands up to speak and can present 3 succinct points with a clear introduction and conclusion, in a western style of thinking, and thus a non-indigenous approach, I can record these and they are more than likely to be included in the report.
So there are several issues here.
1)      The first is recording and the recorder. We need different cultures and perspectives recording and reporting.
2)      We need alternative forms of reporting that allow for the inclusion of different ways of translating information (podcasts, stories, pictures?).
3)      We need to find ways to go beyond a simple understanding of perspectives that are different from our own admittedly restricted, linear approaches but to learn to listen, speak and think in indigenous ways and really value, on part with other types of knowledge, not just indigenous knowledge but ways of communicating and sharing. This extends to language.
I have a lot more thinking to do on how to ensure stronger and more meaningful communication with indigenous peoples and find better ways to transmit and share what I learn.
There is also the question of how to address or deal with contradictory knowledge: what happens when my “facts” contradict the “facts” of indigenous peoples? How do you reconcile this? How do we accept diversity in “truth”?
Now, back to the seminar:
The session sought to address three questions: What is the relationship between people and nature?; What can be learned from indigenous peoples?; and, How do we move Indigenous Terra Madre forward?
The key themes that were addressed were:
1)      We must accept that we are one amongst many. We have a role of coexistence.
2)      Land has as much a stake in nature as we do.
3)      Subsistence and sustenance are key issues to address.
4)      The language of nature and of food contain the principles or living with nature and the tools to ensure that we can start to listen to nature.
Some points that stood out for me in this seminar include a quote from a professor from Ethiopia that “with subsistence, you have sustainability – when you seek out more, that is when destruction starts”. He also quoted an article from the Guardian stating that the only way to save fish and the world’s fisheries, is for everyone to go fishing. This is in part what is meant by food sovereignty.
A speaker from Argentina deconstructed the idea that staying home and retaining culture is antithetical to a good life or to advancement. She highlighted that everything has its own language: potatoes speak a different language, a language which contains the history of the land and of the territory but also the culture and tastes of the local peoples.
She explained how through preserving our food ways and cuisines, you can conserve biodiversity. It is fundamental to maintain culinary traditions in the face of the homogenization of taste.
A speaker from Cameroon explained how the chief of his village smells the wind every morning and in doing so, he assesses the weather.
There was a presentation from Indonesia on the development of a UNESCO Heritage Site to protect the water temples that regulate water and irrigation in the rice fields. The new proposal includes a community governance structure which the coordinators hope will maintain power and control in the hands of local peoples. The presenter suggested that this could be a model for other communities but some people who have  UNESCO Heritage designation warned that the story is not as sunny as the presenter suggested. For example, in one community UNESCO is threatening to delist the heritage site since the community started to make improvements (which they were able to make in part because of the influx of capital from tourism brought about through the Heritage Site designation). In Argentina, the plan was to build 5 hotels at the heritage site in 5 years.  However there were 180 hotels developed in a short time period and they are not owned by local peoples and most of the resources and the money are not being directed to the local community.  It should be asked then if UNESCO heritage sites really provide support to these communities or perhaps, in legitimizing and valorizing specific geographies, they provide the opportunity, impetus and infrastructure for colonization and capitalist exploitation to which famers and indigenous peoples, regardless of governance systems are vulnerable.
There was emphasis on the need to de-colonize our thinking and our minds and to colonize institutions to expand perspectives and understandings and languages.
Could the potato hold a diplomatic position?

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  • Amanda Green
    Posted at 20:07h, 24 June Reply

    It was so nice to meet you in Jokkmokk. Fantastic photos from ITM. Thank you for sharing them and your notes and remarks from the conference. They are a great reference point.

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