For too long, indigenous knowledge has been underestimated and actively oppressed by the modern world. These communities have historically nurtured a sacred relationship with the Earth, and so their ancestral wisdom is integral to the fight against the climate crisis. 

This Earth Day, What Design Can Do partnered with If Not Us Then Who?, and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests to present ‘Urgent Conversations on Earth Day’, an online event supported by the Ford Foundation. The first session was entitled Building It Up: Designing A Better Future with Ancestral Knowledge. Moderated by activist and journalist Plaqueta, the event brought together textile artist Porfirio Gutiérrez; Paulina Garrido, president of Tosepan; and social entrepreneur Margarita Lool Sutuj, president of Tikonel.


The conversation was opened by María Pedro do Pedro of AMEDIPK and Utz Che’, who greeted audiences with a cosmovision message. María described how Mayan philosophy involves understanding the harmony between Mother Nature and human beings. The bedrock of these principles is gratitude and forgiveness—we must remember to give thanks for every sunrise and sunset, as well as ask Mother Earth’s forgiveness when exploiting nature for food. 

As the discussion unfolds, Porfirio explains that it’s key to realise that human life is an extension of Mother Nature—the Earth feels and lives just like us. From a young age, his family passed on an understanding of traditional medicine, agriculture and textiles. In this community, clothes are art. “My life as a designer exists because I was born into a family of artisans, where I discovered my passion for weaving,” he observes. Now, Porfirio’s practice is a series of aesthetic decisions which define his spirit, creating a dialogue between modern and ancestral America. He bemoans the fact that the modern world sees indigenous design as just arts and crafts—this structural disdain for indigenous knowledge is emblematic of art world snobbery. Porfirio explains that rediscovering his Zapoteca roots gave him the strength to promote his culture, because ancestral knowledge is activating by living these values, rather than just talking about theory. 

“Mayan philosophy involves understanding the harmony between Mother Nature and human beings. The bedrock of these principles is gratitude and forgiveness.”

Paulina represents the Consejo de Administración de la Unión de Cooperativas Tosepan. Made up of 410 local cooperatives who have been working together for 33 years, the organisation aims to improve its members’ quality of life, while maintaining their cultural identity and preserving their resources. This is achieved through the development of different work programmes related to food, health, housing and education. Often, the main challenge of the organisation is to help small farmers and producers diversify their incomes, in a way that benefits the entire ecosystem. “The engine that moves us is the central concept of ‘Good Living,’ which is to have harmony and balance with ourselves and nature,” she explains. “We aim to be happy with what we have but, above all, in harmony with our Mother Earth.” Margarita does similar work as the president of Tikonel, an organisation that develops activities in nurseries to establish forest plantations that contribute to the protection of the environment through adaptation to climate change. In particular, they generate income through commercialising textile products and facilitating the access to market for women. 


At one point in the conversation, Plaqueta puts forward an especially impactful question to the panellists. We have been taught that humans are the centre of everything—if you work hard you deserve to exploit everything. How do we explain to someone who has grown up within this system that this is wrong? Paulina responds: much of indigenous knowledge doesn’t fit within capitalism, where everyone is taught that accumulation of power and economic resources is worth the damage to society and the environment. However, now is the time to speak out and shed a light on alternative economic models of resistance. She suggests that if you want to learn about this knowledge, it’s worth approaching communities to undertake an internship, so these practices can begin to be replicated. Alliances between social organisations that are looking for a sustainable approach is important in terms of making indigenous design more visible, and to build solidarity with communities.

“Now is the time to speak out and shed a light on alternative economic models of resistance.”

As the conversation comes to a close, Margarita suggests that this knowledge should be taught within the home, within education. “A very specific strategy from our home is to instil young people with knowledge obtained from our ancestors,” she says. “It is essential that our ancestral knowledge is taught in schools and colleges, so that children and young people do not lose sight of it.” As a final remark, Porfirio stresses that in all of these processes, building a sense of understanding is vital. “Having respect for indigenous communities is extremely important. We need to nurture each other with mutual respect.” Without this, the exploitation of indigenous knowledge will only continue.


Top image: A still from Being Emberá, one of three documentaries presented by If Not Us Then Who? in their short films programme at the same event. Learn more about Urgent Conversations on Earth Day here.

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