Chief Benki Piyako Ashaninka is the political and spiritual leader of the Ashaninka people from the Brazilian Amazon region. He’s on a global mission, establishing partnerships with universities and organisations. He wants to show the identity of his people and to invite travellers to his village, Apiwtxa, where visitors can develop their sense of ’Piucha’: the awareness that everything is dependent on everything else.
Impressive titles, which caught our attention. His dark eyes look at us with intensity. We are very eager to hear the words of this native tribal leader at the World Conference of ISTO, the International Social Tourism Organization. Who is this intriguing man and what brings him to Lyon? And what is Piucha?
The Ashaninka receive travellers in their land and community. Chief Benki Piyako Ashaninka speaks about sharing in order to protect. Sharing and protecting at the same time may sound contradictory, but not if you look at it from Benki’s point of view. “We want to show who we are, where and how we live and what we consider to be important. We do that in order to protect ourselves, our environment and, ultimately, the Earth. I want us to inspire people by sharing our traditional knowledge and wisdom with the world so that earth can still exist. We have to heal the earth for mankind to continue existing.”
The earth needs our care now
Chief Benki Piyako Ashaninka has witnessed how the earth is suffocating under pollution. “Rivers, trees and animals need our attention. Everything is intertwined. Not one species can disappear, because that has an effect on everything and everyone.”
“Each disappearing species is a loss for our lives. It is like losing one of our fingers or toes.”
“We are healers of the forest and guardians of the earth,” he says when speaking about his people. “The rainforest gave us everything and provides us with indescribable diversity: fish, birds, countless fruits, medicinal plants, drinking water, the list goes on and on. When we respect the earth, she provides us with plenty.” For Benki and the Ashaninka, the meaning of nature goes beyond natural resources or even the environment. Nature, in essence, is about the mutual dependence of everything that is living on earth.
The Ashaninka have a word for this interdependency: Piucha, the unity of everything. Being aware of Piucha allows us to dream of the world of tomorrow and to start with ourselves today, explains the spiritual leader. In order to share their experiences and their spirituality, Benki and the Ashaninka tribe let visitors stay in their village Apiwtxa and in their local community. “We want to show our visitors how we pass on life and knowledge. At the same time it is important to preserve our authenticity.”
Receiving visitors while preserving authenticity. How do you keep that balance?
Chief Benki Piyako Ashaninka: “By preserving our knowledge and identity, by protecting our culture, we can ultimately guarantee our existence and independence. For us, tourism is simply a means to an end. We want to keep living our lives in peace and unity. We don’t accept tourists all year round; instead we open our community at certain times. Those who wish to learn are welcome then.”
First, the tourists get an extended introduction at the Yorenka Atamé Visitors’ Centre. Only then do they take the four-hour boat trip deep into the Amazon rainforest for their stay with the local community. “Our guests have to know that no alcohol or drugs are allowed on the tour. We tell them about our most important customs and how nature plays a role in everything. We also explain how we protect, use and value ecosystems through the use of traditional methods.”
“For us, tourism is not primarily a source of income. It is our contribution to creating conscious communities.”
Visitors are invited to take part in the major traditional festival that all Ashaninka families are looking forward to. This trip involves total immersion in the wisdom, simplicity and beauty of the land. It is a profound encounter with a people that shapes its life in harmony with nature. “We tell them stories they can learn from. Our community cultivates more than a hundred species of fruit. We know the healing power of nature. We collect seeds from the trees to preserve biodiversity and we protect certain species of animals from extinction, such as turtles. We also play an active role in reforestation programs,” says Benki.
The Ashaninka do not consider this form of tourism as a way to exploit a new source of income. “We are primarily looking to send a message,” says Benki. “That’s why members of neighbouring indigenous peoples came to us for training. We’ve created a network of conscious communities, allowing us to influence public authorities. We want them to respect the autonomy of indigenous populations.”
What do you want people to take with them from their visit at Apiwtxa?
Benki: “The knowledge that prejudices and assumptions do not help. Each and every person has their roots and their dignity. We have to respect that. Our community wants to change people’s minds by acting as an example. In our community council, every decision is made collectively. Elders and 10-year-old children contribute equally. Everything we produce also belongs to the community. We live together from what we sow and gather.”
“Healing the world won’t happen with money, but with consciousness. People need to realise that everything is linked.”
“My purpose is to show how everything is linked and how we need to care for Mother Earth. Passing on our consciousness of what we receive from the earth is paramount. Healing the world won’t happen with money, but with awareness. We often see that people don’t come any further than trade exchanges. But what about the exchange in our awareness of the earth, the place where we live? For me the value of earth is larger than the value of my own life. We can’t buy what the earth gives us; we can only take care of it. All the projects we do are based on spreading this awareness.”
Brief encounter, lasting impression
Benki’s voice takes us to Brazil, within the heart of nature and the rich tradition of his people. The conversation keeps us interested long after we’ve parted ways with this extraordinary man. Our divided Western consciousness already seems to be converging just a little bit more. Indeed, hearing the words of Chief Benki Piyako Ashaninka connects us to the earth of yesterday, today and tomorrow. It binds us to the plants that grow on it, to the trees that create oxygen, to the fish and to the water, to the animals and to the people.
We are all allowed to swim, run, fly, grow, flourish and live. Just like that! At least for as long as we allow each other to. Water for the fish, trees for the people and the birds and animals for the trees.
We want to share this encounter. Because every human needs to be aware that their individual actions have an impact on the larger whole. Piucha!