HONITON, United Kingdom — Combatting Indigenous poverty has always been a balancing act.
On the one hand, Indigenous Peoples are some of the poorest in the world. Globally, around 19% of those living in extreme poverty are Indigenous People, despite them comprising only 6% of the population. However, bringing Indigenous groups out of poverty and into the global economy is a delicate process, as they have strong attachments to their cultures and do not wish to risk losing touch with them.
For the Yawanawá of the Brazilian Amazon, this issue is of great importance.
“We had become increasingly connected to Western culture,” outlines chief Tashka Yawanawá, speaking of the early two-thousands. “Our culture and spiritual customs had become dormant.” Tashka, the son of the previous Yawanawá leader, went to the United States to gain his education. He serves now as a community leader and uses his education to empower his people. For many decades, the Yawanawá were enslaved by rubber barons. They also faced encounters with missionaries, which resulted in a dwindling sense of cultural identity. In 1993, the Yawanawá partnered with American cosmetics company Aveda, providing the community income. This partnership was the first step in a process that has begun to lead the tribe out of poverty.
In 2011, the Yawanawá first trialed ethno-tourism, which involves visits from travelers who come to experience Yawanawá life and culture for a short time. This process has been continuing ever since. One such group is Yawanawá Retreats, who travel to the Amazon yearly to spend a month living with the tribe. The group’s founder, Adam First, is averse to calling the scheme tourism. “First of all, I would say it’s an exchange,” says Adam in an interview with The Borgen Project. He also states that the generation of income for the Yawanawá is only part of the exchange. “We bring an inspiration for them to embark their tradition […] to share the stories and the songs.” Cultural empowerment is a vital part of the process. The empowerment goes both ways. For Adam, he says that experiencing Yawanawá culture brought him inspiration, creativity, and perspective. When asked if he knows anyone else who benefitted from the experience, he says, “I know hundreds. Many stories of people and how this journey has helped them live the life that they want to live.”
Changes for the Yawanawá
Thanks to the Aveda partnership and tourist funding, the Yawanawá now has a sustainable income. These projects have led to developmental changes in their lifestyle. “Even in eight years, many things changed,” says Adam. “For example, petrol.” The villages of the Yawanawá are best reached by boat, and the use of petrol engines has significantly reduced the journey time. “This trip that [now]takes us eight hours, [previously]it was three days.” On top of this, the Yawanawá have also gained internet access and a solar energy system, further connecting them to the rest of the world and bringing them into the modern age.
These developments, though welcome, came alongside an understanding that Yawanawá culture needed safeguarding.
A Plan for Life
In 2021, Tashka worked with the nonprofit organization Forest Trends to develop the Yawanawá Life Plan. It is a living document that seeks to preserve tradition and embolden the Yawanawá to stay true to their essential culture. On top of this, it develops a plan for a sustainable economy to support the community and keep them out of extreme poverty. For Tashka, a vital tool for combatting Indigenous poverty is empowerment. One of the key aspects of the Life Plan is that it reframes the Yawanawá’s position. While the community may live in poverty by standard definitions, the Life Plan highlights their cultural wealth, encouraging them and the world not to see the Yawanawá as deficient and hopeless. Adam takes this perspective with his own organization. “I don’t feel that my responsibility is to provide.” He also chooses not to use the word poverty to describe their situation, stating, “I see us as equals.”
Financially Poor, Culturally Rich
The simple reframing of the Life Plan, while subtle, has had profound results for the Yawanawá.
No longer simply the suppliers of raw materials, the community expanded their partnership with Aveda to include their art on the company’s products and packaging. They also began selling their art and clothing on their own terms, as well as distributing their music. These successes have greatly motivated the community. Indigenous poverty is an enormous problem facing many other Indigenous communities across the world, but the success of the Life Plan is spreading. Already, several other Indigenous groups have begun celebrating and drawing attention to their cultures using ideas found in the Life Plan. Going into the future, Tashka hopes that Indigenous poverty can continue to be fought by empowering Indigenous voices and strengthening cultural expression alongside development and integration.
Meanwhile, the strength and vibrancy of Yawanawá culture is evident to all who know them. “You look at them and you see, wow, they are strong,” says Adam. “On one level, they are living in poverty, and on another level, they are the richest people in the world.”
– Luke Gouldson