Special Gathering of Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Organizations in Antigua, Guatemala

Reflections by Kevin Chang, Executive Director of Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA)

A version of this article was first published on the IUCN blog in May 2016 under the title “People in nature: building bridges between indigenous communities” (Source: PiN Blog IUCN)

There is a Hawaiian proverb that says: “(t)he land is the chief; man is its servant.” [1] It is often cited among Native Hawaiian and grassroots community stewardship networks my organization is privileged to serve. Feeling it might resonate with new friends, I used it in my talk at an inaugural gathering of Indigenous peoples and local community International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Members in Antigua, Guatemala. The thoughtful reflections in the room affirmed for me that my home – an isolated community over 2,000 miles of ocean away from others – is connected to a larger global family. We can build bridges.

We met to explore the role of the indigenous communities our organizations represent in caring for nature as a context to discuss IUCN’s Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy’s People in Nature (PiN) Knowledge Basket. This was the foreground for an opening dialogue on common issues, successes and struggles.

We explored common themes deeply embedded in a cultural perspective of nature based on reciprocity and the inclusiveness and well-being of people as a part of it. The concept of kuleana, a Hawaiian word that recognizes that rights and obligations are inseparable, came to mind.

Other themes included but were not limited to:

  • A history of Western colonial social-cultural, economic and spiritual oppression, appropriation and the plunder of nature;

For example, few outside of the United States of America (USA), and indeed within the USA know that Hawaiʻi was once an internationally recognized multi-ethnic democratic nation-state. That the overthrow of the Hawaiian nation by corporate agricultural interests with support of the US military left a wake of similar social and environmental impacts throughout the world. Today places like Hawaiʻi and Guatemala continue to deal with the aftermath of this impact to their people, culture and natural resources.

  • A contemporary narrative of empowerment, de-colonization” and recovery – a generally shared experience that was and continues to be deeply nuanced on the ground – captured in terms like de-centralization, self-governance, co-governance and co-management;

Another commonality was the adverse impact centralized and remote decision making has on indigenous communities and the natural resources and eco-systems they are most interdependent and intimately familiar with. For example, many rural Hawaiian fishing communities retain the traditional ecological knowledge of their elder fisher-folk, including traditional fishing areas and practices as well as an understanding of spawning seasons and geographical fish habitats, habits and cycles. It is increasingly evident that spawning seasons differ by species and region around nearshore environments.

Issues like this along with often under-resourced government partners have compelled communities to partner up and build a movement to co-manage natural resources with our state.

  • The preservation and protection of cultural practice and knowledge for revitalization, perpetuation and cultural identity as a part of natural resource management.

The Hawaiian word for wealth is waiwai. Wai means water, which in traditional times was indeed the source of life. Words like this embody values and ways of seeing the world that we have largely lost touch with.

Hawaiian language is an official language of Hawaiʻi, although it was once suppressed by the government, a similar experience of indigenous people worldwide. At the time of the overthrow the Hawaiian nation was one of the most literate in the world. With this suppression came the loss of a vernacular that was more intimate to the Hawaiian environment and identity. Today there is a growing fluent generation and the community in general has increased familiarity with certain terms and the traditional ecological knowledge and concepts they embody.

Language revival has opened up pathways. Upon the land people are finding the deeper nuanced meanings and purpose for traditional place names. Many of our political boundaries are still shaped by the land management divisions of the past. Even in the ocean, traditional names of fishing grounds, stories of long lost harvesting and management practices are also being revived.

With this has also come an effort to translate the over 100 Hawaiian language newspapers published between 1834 and 1948. In these narratives our community is finding the memory of their ancestors and in many cases seek to manifest the values and practices of the past in contemporary ways, including the practice of how to manage our resources.

  • A strong acknowledgment of the need to increase equity for women and their leadership across the board and in all of the above.

Equity for all women opens up pathways of human potential. I feel uncomfortable saying what should be self-evident. This was amazingly evident in the leadership that convened us in Guatemala.

The role many indigenous women currently hold is often one of not just nurturing the family but the environment which makes them a largely untapped resource of leadership and knowledge concerning natural resources and traditional ecological knowledge.

Further it is evident in the faces of the people I work with in Hawaiʻi where women have largely paddled the canoe on native Hawaiian and environmental issues.


The development of Knowledge Baskets contrasts with the development of products. It considers relationship dynamics and systems and processes that are adaptable to the context to inform better conservation. As a metaphor, the Maori narrative about the deity Tāne and his three baskets of knowledge was cited as a way to think about knowledge development. Generally, these baskets contain what we know, what we don’t know and the spirit that drives us to seek knowledge. Ideally we would try to weave all three. This weaving firstly, starts with relationship building.

In some cases, especially with indigenous communities, baskets have lost some of their content or context, were pillaged or are in the process of being re-filled. We agreed that a PiN Knowledge Basket to develop understanding of how nature contributes to sustainable well-being was worthy of pursuing and agreed to re-engage after our convening.

Lastly, the depth of the basket metaphor was exemplified in the work of our hosts Sot’zil and Ak Tenamit who work on community and cultural revitalization with a sense of well-being tied to the environment. A highlight was a visit to Chimaltenango where we met Mayan women who generate organic fertilizer to increase and encourage organic agriculture and a community owned orchid in-vitro lab to train science interns and community members to grow threatened orchids of the forest for out-planting and income to fund re-forestation. This program was also part of a partnership Sotz’il had with the government to develop new job skills and increased educational opportunity in the community.

The name of my organization – Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA) – means “grassroots growing through shared responsibility.” KUA means backbone. It is our first year as an IUCN member. Meeting a global peer network was an exciting opportunity, especially with the World Conservation Congress (WCC) coming to Hawaiʻi this year. KUA facilitates grassroots peer networks. It was nice to be a participant for once and also meet others who could convene with KUA’s networks during our pre-congress gathering.

Though many of our member peers from Europe, Oceania, Asia, North America and Africa were not able to make it, I was blessed to learn from our peers in South America. We were hosted by Guatemala-based Mayan organizations Sotz’il (Ramiro Batzin and team) and Ak Tenamit (Lola Cabnal).

I was inspired by all the people I met, their character and world view, their passion and perseverance in the hard and essential work they all do. In our meeting one colleague reflected on the simplicity of most creation stories, recalling the phrase “from humble beginnings come great things.” I was humbled by the people in the room and I look forward to continued dialogue. I hope that they, our colleagues who couldn’t make it and indigenous peers around the globe might join Hawaiʻi’s grassroots leaders for our pre-congress gathering in the days before the WCC begins.

“Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina I ka pono.”

May the life/governance of the land be perpetuated in righteousness.

Participants of the IPO Meeting in GuatemalaPhoto: Julian Idrobo

Additional attendees included CEESP Chair Aroha Mead, other members of Sotz’il (Martin, Carlos, and Tata felix), representatives from the Guna community of Panama (Elmer Gonzalez of Fundacion para el Conocimiento Indigena FPCI) the Miskito community of Honduras (Osvaldo Munguia- Mopawi), and members of the IUCN CEESP (Ianin, Davidson-Hunt, Kristen Painemilla, Julian Idrobo. Nathalie Olsen, Gonzalo Oviedo, Adalberto Padilla {ORMAC} and Ursula Parilla {ORMAC}). As a new member KUA was not alone, we were joined by CEDIA Peru (Dani Rivera Gonzalez).

[1] “He ali‘i ka ‘āina; he kauwa ke kanaka.”


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