Eye on the Amazon

Visiting Indigenous Communities in the Amazon Rainforest with Nahko of Medicine for the People

  • Photo credit: Natalie Starr van Zelm
  • Photo credit: Natalie Starr van Zelm
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch / Atossa Soltani
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Photo credit: Natalie Starr van Zelm
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch / Atossa Soltani
  • Photo credit: Natalie Starr van Zelm
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch / Atossa Soltani
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch / Atossa Soltani
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch / Atossa Soltani
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch
  • Photo credit: Amazon Watch / Atossa Soltani

Nahko, the musician and frontman of Medicine for the People, his bandmate Patricio Zuñiga Labarca, and my best friend Natalie van Zelm just spent the past week visiting the pristine rainforests of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We met with indigenous leaders and communities to hear first hand about local efforts to protect their rights, forests, and cultures, and shared stories and empowerment in every stop. It was an inspiring whirlwind tour and a real dream come true.

Nahko has long been connecting his own indigenous roots – he is of Apache descent, as well Puerto Rican, and Filipino and Guam heritage – with indigenous peoples and social movements across North America and beyond wherever the band tours, linking struggles to defend the sacred, protect water, and life. Weaving together his life story and the teachings he has received from indigenous elders in Hawaii and North America, he has created powerful uplifting music that pays tribute to indigenous rights, environmental protection, social justice, and spiritual awakening. In the past year, he traveled three times to territory of the Standing Rock Sioux as a board member of Honor the Earth, joining efforts to block the North Dakota Access Pipeline, which became the focus of his latest music video for his "Love Letters to God".

I met Nahko in 2013 shortly after seeing his powerful music video Aloha Kea Akuah and seeing him perform live. From that first meeting we talked about him someday visiting the Amazon. In September 2014, Nahko joined me, Amazon Watch and thousands of indigenous people for the historic People's Climate March in New York City. Since then, he has become a dear friend and ally of our work.

As soon as Nahko, Patricio, and Natalia landed in Quito, we went off to meet with leaders of the Shuar Arutam Federation, who shared their intense state of tension and fear in Shuar territory. The Shuar are engaged in a high-profile dispute against a Chinese copper mine slated for land overlapping their ancestral territory in the Cordillera del Condor region.

We then traveled to the territory of the Achuar indigenous nation, staying at community-owned lodge and world-class ecotourism destination Kapawi, and performing at the Kapawi community's annual festival. The Achuar have been on the front lines of the struggle to keep out oil companies from entering their territories. The Achuar brought Nahko to an ancient Ceibo tree and shared with him the teachings of Arutam, the sacred spirit of the Amazon rainforest.

Nahko, Patricio, Natalie and I then continued on to Sarayaku, meeting with the Kichwa community that has successfully stopped the entry of oil companies for decades. The community shared with the artists their visionary Kawsak Sacha, or "living forest," proposal, which seeks permanent legal protection for the biological and spiritual integrity of their sacred territory by prohibiting entry of extractive industries.

Patricia Gualinga of Sarayaku said about the visit, "welcoming Nahko to our land has been wonderful for the members of Sarayaku. During his visit we have shared friendship and music, and our eagerness and hope for a future that respects the rights of the original peoples and of mother earth and nature. Nahko's standing with the Shuar people and with the persecuted leaders like Agustin Wachapá, weaves solidarity between peoples, friends, activists and artists and gives more strength to continue fighting with dignity."

Nahko's trip to Ecuador comes on the heels of off tour visits to New Zealand, where he and the band met with Māori indigenous peoples, and then Chile, visiting lands of Patricio's Mapuche relatives. Everywhere we went, Nahko and Patricio held acoustic sessions sharing beautiful music and powerful poetry. Patricio, who is a native Spanish speaker, would help to translate Nahko's revolutionary lyrics into Spanish for our hosts. It was a real treat to watch this authentic cultural exchange.

In Sarayaku, Kichwa filmmaker Eriberto Gualinga sat down for an interview with Nahko. Here is an excerpt of what Nahko shared as his message: "It is in our blood to be stewards and protectors and to reawaken our own people to the responsibility we have to Pachamama. We see it as our responsibility to use our influence and our music to encourage and empower other people to become more aware and to find purpose within themselves to protect and to become stewards of Pachamama.

"We stand in solidarity with Sarayaku protecting and defending the living forest and with the Achuar and Shuar people who we also met," Nahko continued. "We understand the importance of giving the same kind of rights that we as human beings have to the rest of creation. We encourage our viewers and fans to educate themselves on alternative forms of energy and to put pressure on political leaders to make it possible for all of our communities to live off of sustainable energy so that places like Sarayaku are no longer under attack and can live as they are."

Nahko's final evening in Ecuador culminated with a gathering of artists and activists of the Yasunidos collective, who are working to protect Yasuni National Park from oil extraction. Yasuni is widely considered the most biodiverse place on earth and is home to two indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. Yet there are eight oil concessions overlapping Yasuni and the government plans to open upwards of 200 new wells in the most sensitive part of the park. Yasunidos released a new video showing that the government has not only failed to comply with minimum environmental standards, but the area affected by drilling is much greater than promised.

It was such a delight to have brought Nahko and Patricio to the Amazon to see first hand the beauty of the ancient living forests of the Amazon, which are in such dire need of protection from extractive industries. It was a dream come true to see them sharing music, stories and friendships with visionary indigenous stewards in the midst of this epic rainforest. I know inspiration from the Amazon will forever infuse their music and help awaken the world about the importance of protecting this place.

Music is such a powerful medium for building bridges of solidarity and for awakening people to connect with the web of life. Nahko announced to Sarayaku that he will be working on new songs inspired by his visit to the Amazon. I had a rare opportunity to hear a bit of the song he is working on and wow, I cannot wait till it is launched! In the meantime, check out Nahko and Medicine for the People's incredible music on the band's website.

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