Two members of the Huni Kuin people, elder Txana Ixã, Sabino, and his nephew, Isaka Mateus, today visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to share their ancestral stories, spiritual rituals, medicines, chants, art and their views on the current political situation in Brazil.
They have come to London from one of the most isolated villages by the Jordão River in the Brazilian Amazon where Txana Ixã is one of the most respected elders of the Huni Kuin people, master of singing and a great connoisseur of the traditional medicines.
William Milliken, Research Leader in Sustainable Use, Seeds and Solutions at Kew, says “Welcoming the elders of the Huni Kuin people to Kew has been a wonderful opportunity to hear their stories and to learn more about the experiences of indigenous people who today are on the frontline of the fight to protect Brazil’s biodiversity. It highlights the importance of keeping indigenous people and their knowledge at the heart of all conservation efforts, but it also sheds light on the dangers and threats faced by the Amazon, as well as other vital ecosystems globally. Having worked in these amazing forests myself, and having experienced the damage they suffer through deforestation and illegal mining, I’m hopeful that in Kew sharing an international platform the Huni Kuin, we can strengthen our response to this crisis.”
At 3pm they made a speech in which they discussed the threats to the way of life of indigenous people in the Amazon and the loss of rights and land. After they conducted a traditional healing ceremony inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory.
Isaka Mateus says “I feel really sorry for what’s going on in the Amazon. People are not aware of the value of the forest and the work of the forest with the medicines and the plants. In the past, there were more rights we could rely on. Now, there are no rights and no protection.”
Milliken adds “I think this message is all the more pertinent now that we are on the brink of losing the Cristalino II State Park, an incredible habitat in the Amazon that is home to many unique and endemic species of plants and animals, that for years has been the target of illegal logging and destruction. Kew scientists have played a key role in studying and cataloguing Cristalino’s biodiversity so it’s all the more disappointing to see the Brazilian authorities fail to protect this vital ecosystem. We have already lost more than half of this forest to illegal activity and wildfires – it would be a great injustice to see it disappear completely.”
In the words of the Huni Kuin themselves, Txana Ixã is a “living library”, a guardian of the culture and knowledge of his people. He has never left his village to travel so far and this will be a unique opportunity both for him and for the people who will support and host him.
Isaka Mateus is a teacher and singer, who has been dedicated to researching medicinal plants for many years. Accompanying his father the great Pajé (shaman) Îka Muru, he helped in the creation of a rare book called UNA ISI KAYAWA (Book of Healing of the Huni Kuin People of the Jordan River), which catalogued and described dozens of medicinal plants from the forest in partnership with the Botanical Gardens in Rio de Janeiro. The book was the inspiration for Ernesto Neto’s exhibition Aru Kuxipa, Sacred Secret, which happened in different European countries. Isaka is also a pioneer within his people in the distillation of rare essential oils and the preparation of precious aromatic medicinals. He also works with multimedia projects and participated in the creation of the Huni Kuin game.
Kew specimens and research
During the visit to Kew Gardens, they are given a tour of Kew’s Herbarium and Economic Botany Collection with the Kew Science team who lead this work and see specimens on Spruce (with notes on their uses), some more recent ethnobotanical collections (with uses), and Acre specimens.
Kew has worked in this region for most of its history including now on work to support biodiversity restoration in the southern Amazon ‘arc of deforestation’. Initially supporting conservation planning and decision-making in new and emerging protected areas, this programme focused on local capacity building, vegetation mapping and floristic research. Then, with better botanical baseline information available, the team worked more recently to support local organisations restoring biodiversity and ecosystems in a degraded landscape.
Digital Amazon is another project led by Kew focused on increasing access to Richard Spruce’s ethnobotanical collections as a resource for environmental change and indigenous knowledge. Richard Spruce spent the years 1849–1864 travelling and collecting plants, mainly in the Brazilian Amazon region. Alongside about 14,000 herbarium specimens he also collected 350 ethnobotanical artefacts, wrote detailed reports on plant uses, and created drawings of the people and landscape. These collections embody a wide range of information about the 19th century environment and people of the Amazon not recorded elsewhere.
Image credit ©RBG Kew