Journalism from the center of the world

Art: Elena Landinez

“The forest is alive: the animals, the trees, the rivers and even the rocks speak in their own languages,” José Gualinga, one of the leaders of the Sarayaku people of the Ecuadorian Amazon, observed. “You just have to listen to them.” He was referring to the Sarayaku notion of “living forest” (kawsak sacha), which his people have successfully advanced in an ongoing, decades-long political and legal campaign against oil drilling in their territory that led, among other achievements, to a landmark decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012.

It was a cold, bright day in early October 2023. We had gathered in Curarrehue, Chile with Gualinga and a group of over thirty scientists, lawyers, writers, Indigenous leaders, and artists from around the world to advance the cause of rights of nature. Throughout the one-week gathering, Davi Kopenawa, the well-known spiritual leader of the Yanomami people, would share similar teachings of the Yanomami people. As the week wore on, Kopenawa’s and Gualinga’s voices set the tone for a conversation that was informed on what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls “the grammar of animacy”: one based on the premise that every human and non-human being is alive and is worthy of respect and consideration.

What would our stories look like if they were written and told with the grammar of animacy? What other stories – about society, politics, law, science, art – would become possible if we shifted perspective and, instead of the lonely human author, we acknowledge that animals, plants, fungi, and other nonhuman beings are also actors and authors of life on Earth?

In this era of ecological emergencies, crafting new stories about the relationship between humans and nature has become a particularly urgent task. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story,” says one of the characters in Richard Powers’ epic ecological novel, The Overstory. Literature is just one genre of storytelling. Journalism and nonfiction narratives tell stories based on facts. Law tells authoritative stories about what is right and wrong.

In early 2023, when we (the people of New York University and SUMAÚMA) first met in Altamira, an epicenter of destruction of the forest and its human and non-human people, we quickly realized that the initiatives that each of us had recently established were ultimately animated by a desire to shift the point of view of our respective fields.

SUMAÚMA, a trilingual journalism platform based in the heart of the Amazon and launched in 2022, believes that the only sensible option in the 21st century is a democracy that embraces and stands for the rights of more-than-humans. By shifting what constitutes the center and the periphery, SUMAÚMA sustains that the centers of a planet in climate freefall are the places where life is located—not capitals of the market. In other words, these centers are the Amazon, other tropical rainforests, oceans, and all the Earth’s biomes.

This means not only recentering geopolitics, but also centering other values, like those of the peoples who persisted as nature, human and non-human alike. In order to face up to the collapse represented by global heating and the sixth mass extinction, we need a new language—that is, the stuff we’re made of, not only how we think but how we inhabit this planet and speak about what we are. Western language, which is white, European, male, patriarchal, and binary in origin—the language that ferried us to the abyss we live in today, with extreme events proliferating across the globe—will not rescue us from the abyss that humans, in the words of the Brazilian musician Cartola, dug with their own feet.

SUMAÚMA believes climate mutation can only be grasped through the intersection of race, gender, class, and species. But given our centering of the knowledge of nature-peoples, we want to do more than combat speciesism, a concept that, put simply, could be translated as a form of racism against other species. As journalists, we seek to act according to the perspectives of various Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, who view animals as humans. This belief is the foundation of the remarkable concept of “Amerindian perspectivism,” which the Brazilian anthropologists Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Tânia Stolze arrived at by listening to different first peoples. During that same meeting in Chile, José Gualinga stated: “Our people are descended from the Jaguar.”

Our journalism seeks ways of listening to people-fungi, people-plants, and people-animals—and writing through their points of view. Of course, in doing so, we we encounter various limitations that must be recognized and underscored. By nurturing and learning from forest-journalists, in our Mycelium program, we seek to forge other journalisms that can embrace the moral obligation of representing other species. We at SUMAÚMA believe that the only way to confront the gravity of our present is to become another language—one that rejects the conversion of nature-beings into commodities.

Similarly, the More Than Human (MOTH) Project at New York University School of Law had been launched in 2022 in order to question the anthropocentrism of law and human rights and offer new ideas and practices that extend the protection of rights to non-humans. Drawing on the work of ecophilosopher David Abram, one of us (César) proposed the notion of “more-than-human rights” to highlight the embeddedness of humans in the more-than-human world constituted by all other earthly beings. Abram came up with the concept of more-than-humans in the 1990s in an attempt to articulate the vast commonwealth of life on Earth as a realm that “manifestly includes human culture. . . but which also . . . exceeds human culture.” The idea should “remind us of our embedment in an earthly cosmos that we humans did not create, that we do not control, and that necessarily exceeds all of our knowing.”

Instead of the separation of humans and nature that is implicit in the rights of nature language, MOTH rights see human rights as deeply entangled with – and, indeed, derived from – the moral concern and legal protection of the biosphere as a whole. In addition to convening an annual course and an annual gathering like the one that brought us together in Chile, the MOTH Project pursues concrete initiatives that advance the rights and well-being of non-humans, from litigating cases on the rights of nature to collaborating with the Sarayaku people and biologists in research and advocacy in support of the Living Forest initiative.

Crucially, the MOTH Project promotes global collaborations that nurture new stories not only about rights and justice, but also about the more-than-human world more generally. Some of its core members are consummate storytellers, including writers David Abram, Merlin Sheldrake, and Robert Macfarlane, as well as prominent Indigenous leaders and storytellers like Patricia Gualinga.

Just like natural ecosystems, the MOTH project is radically diverse and experimental. Over the course of its first two years, it has brought together nearly 100 scientists, lawyers, artists, Indigenous leaders, judges, activists, journalists and other thinkers and doers from around the world who pursue creative initiatives to reconnect the human and the more-than-human worlds. Its English name (MOTH, which means mariposa) was deliberately chosen to highlight the project’s aspiration to serve as a global pollinator of ideas and actions.

Given the deep affinities and complicities between SUMAÚMA and MOTH, we decided to launch a collaborative effort to tell stories about the Amazon and elsewhere from the more-than-human perspective. We are thus thrilled to launch a new series of monthly reports and op-eds that will do just that. While SUMAÚMA’s reporters will publish reports, MOTH project members from around the world will write essays and opinion pieces.

The first article to come out of this collaboration, which will be published this week, tells a visual story of the life of H.s., a yellow ipe tree who lived in the Amazon for 53 years before being wrenched from her home by the commodity-man and turned into a table in a luxury apartment in New York City. Grounding ourselves in science, we show how she—because more-than-humans have human pronouns—a tree-person, formed relationships throughout her existence with fungi, bacteria, and other trees. How her body sheltered bromeliads and howler monkeys. How her leaves nourished ants and her splashy flowers satiated hummingbirds and parakeets. Throughout her life, H.s. was important to birds like the restless Short-billed honeycreeper and countless other living things – until she was reaped as a commodity.

Between 2007 and 2019, the deforestation of ipe trees in the Amazon rainforest increased by 120%. And yet these trees are not numbers, they are not a jumble of logged wood within hectares of land that traditional outlets equate to soccer pitches. They are lives. They shelter and interact with other lives. In the following issues, we will tell stories from the perspectives of rivers, birds, insects, and other living things who share with human beings a planet-house on the brink of collapse.

MOTH and SUMAÚMA invite readers to feel and think of themselves as living beings who are interlinked with and interdependent on a more-than-human world – a world that is us and transcends us.

Eliane Brum is a writer, journalist, and documentarist, based in the Amazon, and author of Banzeiro Òkòtó – The Amazon as the Center of the World (Graywolf/US and Indigo/UK), The Collector of Leftover Souls (Graywolf/US and Granta/UK) and One Two (Amazon Crossing). She is co-creator, co-founder, and director of SUMAÚMA – Journalism from the Center of the World

César Rodríguez-Garavito is Professor of Clinical Law and Chair of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law. He is the founding director of the Earth Rights Advocacy Clinic, the Future of Rights and Governance Program, the Climate Litigation Accelerator, and the More Than Human Rights (MOTH) project at NYU Law

Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
English translation: Julia Sanches
Art by: Elena Landinez
Editorial workflow and copy editing: Viviane Zandonadi
Chief-editor: Talita Bedinelli
Director: Eliane Brum

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