Qui est Benki Piyãko ?
© Peuple Ashaninka et Thomas Pizer

Benki Piyãko is an indigenous Ashaninka leader and shaman who works for the rights of indigenous peoples and the preservation of nature.

The Ashaninka are a thousands-years-old people, ancestors and precursors of the Incas. They live in the state of Acre, Brazil and also in Peru. With a population of around 120,000, they are the largest indigenous group in South America and one of the few tribes to have managed to preserve their autonomy and traditions. To this end, they have fought against all invaders throughout history. Deeply connected to nature, they have managed to preserve their ancestral knowledge.

Benki was born in 1974. He is the son of the cacique of the Ashaninka tribe of Brazil and of a white mother, a descendant of rubber farmers. Very early on he was appointed and trained by his grandfather to assume the role of “pajé” (shaman) of the community, that is to say the one who possesses and transmits the ancestral knowledge of the people, their traditions and their medicine. From an early age, together with his father and brothers, he was involved in the peaceful resistance to the advance of the Amazonian pioneer front. The Ashaninka territories, victims among others of attacks by illegal loggers and drug traffickers, obtained their official demarcation in 1992 thanks to the actions of Benki’s father.

Benki Piyãko is the ambassador of a paradigm shift in cultural, environmental and pacifist activism and his interventions have brought with them the potential for great transformation of the world. As a cultural and environmental activist as well as a pacifist spiritual leader from the depths of the Amazon, Benki has been one of the protagonists of unprecedented cultural projects emanating from the Amazon rainforest and extending far beyond the region. It aims to show the cultural involvement of his actions and projects in the promotion of peace and how they fit into a continuum, each of which can be reproduced or reiterated in other parts of the world, each drawing on his experience from other projects. The Amazon is once again under threat from the uncontrolled economic development of the current Brazilian government. Benki’s work is a strategy to revive our concern for a region that needs our attention today by showing some of the values and wisdom that an Amazon shaman activist can share with the world.

© Peuple Ashaninka et Alessandro Melo
Qui est Benki Piyãko ?

In 1993 Benki created the Apiwtxa association, named after his village, which enables him to act to defend the culture of his people, the integrity of his territories and to preserve the richness of the local ecosystem. He develops actions of reforestation, accompanied by the creation of agro-forestry systems in order to achieve both food and economic autonomy for the Ashaninka.

This sustainable development plan was then transmitted and imitated by other indigenous tribes, and is also being extended to the non-indigenous populations of the region. It is notably based on the creation of the position of Agro-Forestry Agent (AAF) of Acre, developed by Benki and trained by Apiwtxa. This new model of territorial and environmental management is proving to be particularly effective.

Under Benki’s leadership, the Brazilian Ashaninka have succeeded in completely reversing the unfavourable customary social relations, marked by prejudice and violence, between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in the Amazon border area. With the help of other Ashaninka, Benki has sought to address inter-ethnic conflicts arising from different power relations by engaging in projects designed by Benki to put the knowledge and wisdom of the Ashaninka into practice.

The results and practical effects of these projects have been impressive: extension of sustainable environments and reduction of deforestation, reduction of violence and improvement of the social conditions that can induce it, creation of an integrated social network for the guardianship of the forest.

The Ashaninka have already been very successful in their Amazon region. Instead of seeking advice from the outside world to carry out their projects (thus creating dependence on the Brazilian authorities, NGOs, etc.), the Ashaninka have become protagonists of their own destiny (and perhaps ours). In the beginning, Benki and his brother Moisés led the Brazilian Ashaninka to replant a million trees in the areas invaded and destroyed by cattle ranching in their traditional territories. This project began immediately after their successful struggle to demarcate their territory in the late 1980s.

But what was more astute and courageous on Benki’s part was the fact that he had decided to replicate his initial project elsewhere. After the Ashaninka had finished planting a million trees, the brothers decided to split up in order to strengthen their position. Moisés remained the chief of their village, Apiwtxa, and continued to expand their reforestation projects with a wide variety of fruit, medicinal and other trees that had been uprooted by deforestation, recreating a healthy environment for the future of the Ashaninka. Benki began his career as a cultural and environmental activist at the same time. He left his home village and first went to Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, where he received formal training in agroforestry. Then something happened that changed the brothers’ lives forever. They were invited to participate in the 1992 Environment Summit in Rio de Janeiro. They had to travel by bus from Acre to Rio, a journey that took up to five days at that point. They were still young, Benki was only eighteen and his brother twenty-two. They had never been so far from their village, so this trip left a deep impression on them.

During this first foray out of the forest, the brothers witnessed destruction along the way: fires to clear land, the expansion of cash crops, widespread use of pesticides. When they arrived in the big city, they breathed in the pollution and saw that water could not be drunk without a filter. They also discovered what was called “waste” (a concept they did not have in their language, as they lived in a culture where everything was biodegradable). They found that this “rubbish” had killed many rivers in the city, which were now completely dead, without fish or plants. They also learned that all the other natural resources they knew about had disappeared with the cutting down of trees. They had heard about the wonders of the city, but they were now surprised to see that many people were living in the streets in extreme poverty, without anyone caring about them.

Benki saw that those who had lost their land and culture would probably end up in poverty, on the streets, like the homeless he had seen in the big cities. But this was as true for indigenous as it was for non-indigenous people. It included everyone, all human beings. The so-called “developed” countries seemed to have created a world that led to poverty. Benki had never seen this in his traditional culture.

© Peuple Ashaninka et Alessandro Melo

A big brother or a father

In urban areas, however, Benki needed a labour force to help him with the arduous task of replanting the Amazon rainforest. So he began to hire the abandoned young people who were living on the streets and who began to appear in the city as soon as the so-called “development” had arrived in the area. This contingent was almost exclusively composed of boys, some of whom had been abandoned by their families. The mayor of the region considered that these young people were “lost to drugs and petty crime”. Benki gave them shelter, food, money for clothes, work tools and a goal in life: to replant a million more trees with the same agroforestry techniques he and the Ashaninka had used and perfected during his apprenticeship in Rio Branco.

The effects were immediately felt by Marshal Thaumaturgo, with a noticeable reduction in theft and violence. The mayor invited Benki to become local secretary for the environment. Benki seized the opportunity and saw the extent of his responsibility towards the young people he had taken in. Getting them off the streets, off drugs and off crime could not just be a temporary solution. Getting them out of this social condition, giving them work, a task to do, but once the reforestation work was finished, letting them go would make their future uncertain. So Benki was fully committed, he gave these young people “a family” and became their big brother or father. He began to set up communities where they lived together, under his guidance. The first one was called “Sítio Beija Flor” (the hummingbird’s house). Some of the young people eventually returned to school, while others continued to live on the property they had acquired in town, while taking part in the agroforestry courses of the Ashaninka association. Then other young people from the region came to join them and work at the centre.

Created in 2007, the Yorenka Ãtamê centre, located in the municipality of Marechal Thaumaturgo, is a training and knowledge exchange centre. It provides training on traditional methods of natural resource management, educates and empowers the indigenous populations of the region. It operates according to a mixed system of land management based on a return to ancestral indigenous practices, which knew how to preserve and enhance ecosystems, combined with modern techniques. An eco-systemic logic makes it possible to respect the necessary steps, from the identification and collection of seeds to their planting, according to criteria that include the study of more than 160 different species. Each species is apprehended and taught according to its nutritional, medicinal, cultural and spiritual aspects and is part of a programme to protect land and water. The result is a regional economy developed in a sustainable and nature-friendly way, for the benefit of all.

The Ashaninka teachers who train the agroforestry agents teach strategies that are culturally and ecologically appropriate for each community. In this way, a community network is created that can influence public policy on the management of indigenous lands.

Since its creation, Yorenka Ãtamê has trained nearly forty communities in agroforestry systems, benefiting more than 4,000 people. Around 500 young people have taken part in this major reforestation project, which is still under way, and the aim is to involve non-indigenous communities as well.

This other project, “Sonho do Beija-Flor no Raio do Sol” (Dream of the hummingbird in a ray of sunshine), has been training non-indigenous communities since the end of 2011. The Centre focuses on training and empowering young community leaders to become self-sufficient in natural resource management and sustainable development associated with ancestral indigenous traditions of nature conservation.

The centre, built on a wastewater and waste treatment system, covers about 100 hectares and prepares for the practice of traditional medicine, rituals and cultural activities. It includes production of cassava and other local vegetables, poultry farming, beekeeping, turtle and fish farming. Current development needs include access to running water, electricity, furniture, telecommunications and agricultural equipment.

The project is to replant fruit, medicinal and emerging tree species (those that eventually rise above the forest canopy) as they favour rainfall and restore the balance of the ecosystem, allowing the return of animals and other plant species (which provides food while promoting the spread of forests).

Benki then made his young partners, now numbering a few dozen, members of the association, and donated the land to the association, later renamed “Guardians of the Forest”. The young people became small organic agroforestry farmers and landowners.

Human reconciliation and revitalisation of the environment

Part of the funds for the creation of the “Wisdom of the Forest” centre (Yorenka Ãtame) was allocated by Danielle Mitterand, whom Benki met on one of his first international trips after the Rio summit. Benki began travelling the world to talk about his work already at that time. Benki’s work then, as head of the Yorenka Ãtame centre, played a fundamental role in promoting cultural revitalisation and environmental awareness throughout the region, not only with regard to indigenous peoples, but also with regard to other non-indigenous populations living on the land and outside the forest. At the Yorenka centre, agroforestry courses were offered free of charge to anyone interested. Both indigenous and non-indigenous people were present. Many small farmers joined the courses and befriended the Ashaninka, who made themselves known as local experts. This sharing and participation between formerly separate social groups dispelled much of the prejudice (not to mention racism) on the part of non-indigenous peoples towards the indigenous peoples of the region. It turned formerly disagreeing people into allies who now shared the same point of view for a more conscious and sustainable use of their environment.

The success of the Yorenka Ãtame centre under Benki’s leadership and the dissipation of inter-ethnic tensions at Marshal Thaumaturgo meant that Jorge Viana, then governor of the state of Acre, offered Benki a new opportunity. He was invited to visit all the indigenous groups in Acre (some of whom were in conflict at the time) to make the Ashaninka example a precedent. Benki was asked to join the Forest Peoples’ Alliance, a political forum set up at the time of Chico Mendes, a great activist against rubber producers, to promote the inclusion of all those concerned with forest conservation. The Apiwtxa Association then participated significantly in two projects led by Benki and other Ashaninka: helping to create RESEX Alto Juruá, the first extractivist reserve created in the Amazon (to observe indigenous and non-indigenous peoples who lived by bleeding rubber or small farmers in the area), and helping to revive all the indigenous cultures of Acre by giving them powerful cultural tools to deal with their own conflict situations.

After these projects came to fruition, Benki had a turning point in his life. The local population of Marshal Thaumaturgo was constantly asking him to run for mayor and the main development interests in the area were beginning to perceive him as a threat. Marechal Thaumaturgo is a border town and the presence of drug trafficking and illegal logging is a constant in the region. At this point, Benki escaped an initial assassination attempt with severe cuts and bruises to his face and body. Nevertheless, he refused to react violently, claiming that only a peaceful response to these outright forms of aggression would represent a change that could ultimately bring an end to a full-fledged ethnic conflict. Indeed, some of the subsequent threats that Benki suffered were dealt with only through peaceful discourse in which he tried to show that he was not an enemy of those who had been recruited to intimidate him. However, the threats never completely stopped. Another strategy of intimidation consisted of legal proceedings against Benki, which were eventually dismissed for lack of any legal coherence.

Benki refused to apply to the town hall when asked. He explained to the local population that his role was different: to be the messenger of a new way of life in the world and to continue the work he had already started. Benki was also eager to develop his shaman’s training. So he decided to return to his village. Nevertheless, before doing so, Benki recommended that one of his older brothers go to the town hall. Isaac Piyãko was elected mayor of Marshal Thaumaturgo in 2016.

The world’s first ecological supermarket

A few years after the reforestation at Marechal Thaumaturgo, the trees began to yield a large harvest of tropical fruits. Thus, Benki and Marcelo Valadão of the NGO House of Indians created a market in town, called “Troc Troc”, to exchange any recyclable waste for fruit. Benki therefore invited the local population to bring their non-biodegradable waste to the supermarket, to eat organically grown fruit, which prevents pollution of local rivers while preventing people from going hungry in the city, and which helps the most disadvantaged local populations to stay below the poverty line. Benki has also negotiated with recycling factories in Cruzeiro do Sul, a more distant town but located in the same region, in Acre, in order to recycle the waste collected in this eco-market.

Mediator and conciliator

Benki’s interventions in cultural revitalisation go beyond reducing ethnic conflicts in Acre and the Western Amazon. In 2014, when four Ashaninka on the Peruvian side of the border were killed by illegal timber prospectors, Benki played an important role in preventing further ethnic conflicts in the region. The previous year, Benki had begun one of its first interventions aimed at collectively “healing” an entire village by restoring a conflictual social situation that was destabilising the indigenous Puyanawa community. He resided among the Puyanawa for several months and mediated for the group, bringing them back to their indigenous language and traditions, their roots, rituals and cultural history.

It should be noted that Benki is an extremely spiritual person and is currently recognised as a true spiritual leader. However, when religion becomes fanatical and demands the abandonment of culture, he perceives evangelisation as a disease that can disrupt or destroy local culture and ultimately lead to social imbalance in the community. In line with his people’s indigenous theory of health, which sees bad relationships as the cause of illness, Benki’s interventions in these communities attempt to restore people’s contact with their culture in order to restore their health.

Benki has presented her “collective remedies” to many other ethnic groups in Brazil that are experiencing internal or inter-ethnic conflicts. He has been invited by such groups, who have always asked him to be present to resolve local conflicts as well as social problems and physical ailments. To date, Benki has carried out these “collective remedies” among the Kuntanawa, Shanenawa, Puyanawa, and Apurinã people in the state of Amazonas, Brazil, covering a radius of over 1,000 kilometres from his region. Its aim is now to carry out these cultural interventions in the Kaiowá of Mato Grosso do Sul, in south-central Brazil, an area of great inter-ethnic conflict, as well as in areas where suicide among indigenous people has reached epidemic proportions.