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Amazonian leader takes Indigenous pepper to the Brazilian market and teaches how to live a good life

  • André Baniwa is an Indigenous leader in the Upper Rio Negro region of the state of Amazonas, and spoke with Mongabay about school education, generation of income, Indigenous people in public life and his people’s concept of “good living” based in interculturality.
  • One of his victories is the large-scale production of the Jiquitaia Baniwa Pepper, used traditionally in his culture and which made it to supermarket shelves in São Paulo this year. It was the first Indigenous brand to be released in Brazil.
  • André Baniwa has been Vice Mayor of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, the most Indigenous city in Brazil, and helped to create a community school that was recognized in 2016 as a standard for creativity and innovation by the Brazilian Ministry of Education. “To me, schooling is a weapon for battle. A way of defending yourself.”

The spicy Baniwa pepper powder hit the shelves of one of São Paulo’s biggest supermarket chains in January 2020, bringing with it many symbols of this ethnicity’s indigenous resistance. With a population of over 6,000, the Baniwa people live in 83 villages in the Upper Rio Negro region along Brazil’s border with Venezuela and Colombia, and also in the cities of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Santa Isabel and Barcelos, in the state of Amazonas.

Behind the project is André Baniwa, one of the foremost leaders in the Upper Rio Negro region. Working with the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), he helped develop the Pimenta Jiquitaia Baniwa pepper powder for the market at the request of indigenous women who wanted their own source of income separate from the men. The experience has been documented in a book published by the ISA together with local indigenous associations.

According to André, who has been working on topics like mobilization, access to public policy and associative actions within the Baniwa territory for at least 25 years, aside from being food and a source of income, the pepper is the greatest example so far of interculturality, where a traditional indigenous culture has come together with non-indigenous knowledge to arrive at people’s tables.

In his book Good Living and Living Well According to the Baniwa People of the Northwest Brazilian Amazon, published in 2019, he explains that “interculturality is something human, something intrinsic to living beings. Learning about other cultures and traditions always happens because of the perspective that knowledge of the other can be incorporated without losing one’s own systems, one’s originality.”

André Baniwa has a strong leadership role in the Içana Basin Indigenous Organization (OIBI), one of the 90 associations making up the Federation of Rio Negro Indigenous Organizations  (FOIRN) which is the main organization incorporating 750 villages belonging to 23 indigenous peoples distributed along the Rio Negro and some of its effluents. Over his nearly 30 years of work, André Baniwa has also been Vice-Mayor of São Gabriel da Cachoeira – the most indigenous city in Brazil – an advisor to FUNAI [the Brazilian governmental protection agency for Indigenous interests and their culture] and a technical advisor for socio-environmental research and development in the ISA.

Mongabay interviewed him in Manaus, where he shared his perspective about how the indigenous peoples in this region live and their strategies for resistance.

Indigenous women were able to place their traditional pepper in supermarkets with the help of André Baniwa and the Instituto Socioambiental. Images by ISA.

Mongabay: Tell us a little about yourself, your education, and your role today in the field of indigenous leadership.

André Baniwa: The story I carry and represent begins in the 1980s. It was a time when the Baniwa people had little access to public policy but were already beginning to ask for things like access to schools, stronger identity, means for sharing their cultural heritage and generation of income. They were also defending their territory so indigenous people wouldn’t have to leave their communities. I studied technical education in Manaus and later taught in São Gabriel and Cachoeira. Back then, a commission had already been organized to create an indigenous association in the upper Rio Içana region, where many Baniwa people live.

My brother Bonifácio José and I began to get involved, and that was when I became well known for my work in mobilizing indigenous people. OIBI was created on July 12, 1992 and in 1996, I was elected president and created the Pamáali school together with some income generation projects. As a representative of the Rio Içana region on the São Gabriel Municipal Health Council, I helped implant the Special Indigenous Sanitary District (DSEI) throughout the Rio Negro region. The experiences in Rio Negro and also in Roraima led to the creation of 34 Special Indigenous Sanitary Districts in Brazil.

Who are the Baniwa people in Amazonia?

The Baniwa people are an ethnicity from the Aruak linguistic family, who carry a history connected to the creation of humanity that is very different from other peoples. It is said that the Baniwa people originally came from Apuí-Cachoeira [in the state of Amazonas] and that we, the Baniwa, are living in our own land of origin. We were born there, out of that rock that is shaped like a vagina. Today the Baniwa are over 6,000 people in Brazil. We are nearly 20,000 in three different countries: Brazil, Columbia and Venezuela. One part from the source of the Rio Içana lies on the Colombia/Brazil border. But this is merely a political border, because everyone circulates throughout the region and 80% speak the Baniwa tongue.

Tell us a little bit about how the organization of the indigenous groups in the Upper Rio Negro region began

FOIRN came into being in 1987 to defend indigenous rights and bring benefits to our communities: access to healthcare, education and generation of income. There was much discourse about how we were far away, how we were poor and that the government needed to help us. But this was non-indigenous discourse, because, from our point of view, we weren’t lacking anything. Indigenous people build their own houses, their own canoes, and have their own way of caring for their health.

But the discourse helped people rethink indigenous organization, because without organization there is no way to access public policy. Associations were created to dialogue with the government and fight the garimpeiros [gold prospectors] that were invading the Içana region at the time. After indigenous rights were guaranteed in the Constitution in 1988, each section of the river in the Upper and Mid Rio Negro region began organizing its own actions and today there are over 90 associations grouped in five regional coordinating sectors.

Some people came to know the Baniwa because of their products, like the Jiquitaia Baniwa pepper, which is already being sold in one of São Paulo’s largest supermarket chains. Tell us a little about the generation of income among the Baniwa.

We began selling manioc flour and then crafts, the cane basketry. With the support of ISA, we analyzed the scenario and made a business plan to create the Baniwa brand, the first indigenous brand in Brazil, which was launched in the year 2000. In 2004 a group of women decided they wanted work that would bring them autonomy and decision-making power over the money they earned, which led to the production of the pepper, which women already traded and sold amongst themselves.

In an assembly, we identified some challenges to commercialization such as identification of the pepper species. With the support of the Amazonas State Research Foundation (FAPEAM) coordinated by ISA, we did a study of the species that involved students in our local schools.

What is the pepper’s significance for the Baniwa people?

For us, pepper has existed since the birth of humanity. In the Baniwa tongue, we call it midzaka, meaning that which no one planted, no one brought, which was already there and was left by someone who created humanity so it can protect us. To the Baniwa, the animals, the forest and nature have spirits that can cause problems for humans if they disrespect nature. The pepper blocks the possible effects of “revenge” during fishing, hunting or any other situation. Because of this, anywhere a Baniwa person goes, he or she carries the pepper as protection.

The pepper is also used as body decoration, to paint the skin for beauty, for parties and for war. It is also used ceremonially, during Kalidzamai, when the pepper is used to bless and protect children and young people. It makes the person more awake and ready to work. And we also eat it from the time we are children in our fish soup.

How does the pepper production work?

Today 84 Baniwa women plant pepper in traditional gardens in their villages, care for the plants, collect the peppers and take them to one of the four Baniwa Pepper Houses where the product is processed and packaged. We produce an average of 4,000 jars of pepper per year, each one with 15 grams. We have already exported to the United States.

Pepper is a generic name, and jiquitaia is the word in nheengatu [the common language for Amazonians, spoken by indigenous peoples in many locations] to identify the powder, which is the way it’s been preserved for thousands of years. There are 78 different types of pepper in Baniwa territory, and there are always 5-8 different types mixed in each jar, all spicy. We want to add value to the pepper plants’ diversity through this farming.

Your book Good Living and Living Well According to the Baniwa People of the Northwest Brazilian Amazon shares a view of your culture. What does the concept of “Good Living” mean?

The book shares the collective reflection that came out of the 1st Baniwa Conference on Education and Social Organization, which focused on why we are organized in communities. We discovered that good living is a part of Baniwa life every day. Our way of living is matsiakaro weemaka. We must make our home well so we can live well. We must make baskets because it is our soul. We make the pepper because it’s good for us. We have to go to school to improve the life of the Baniwa. It’s not an excessive focus on money, but rather the intent of bringing this spirit of being well.

The question is that living well is something we always strive for; evil constantly interferes in community life, so it’s a struggle. What do we have to do to live well? Why do I have to work? In what ways do I need to collaborate with those around me? Living well is broad, it’s not a subject, a topic; it’s the meaning of life. You only manage to achieve living well if you follow a set of rules.

In the book, you speak often of the interculturality concept as part of living well.

Indigenous cultures have always been intercultural. In other words, they are also composed of contact with non-indigenous people. Interculturality is acceptance and adaptation to reality. For example, we have our own Baniwa way of eating pepper, but we are taking our history to other people who will consume it. Those who buy the pepper will consume it in their own way. This person will in some way relate to the Baniwa culture.

When we created the pepper packaging with the help of non-indigenous people, intercultural elements came into the label so it could be launched; scientific knowledge working together with traditional knowledge to identify the peppers in nature came into the labeling. Many inventions come from indigenous culture, knowledge about plants, so interculturality is present in many situations. I would say that everything that exists in non-indigenous society exists within our Baniwa culture, but in a different way.

About mining: have you been following the changes the president wants to make in legislation to allow ore exploration inside protected indigenous lands? How is this reverberating on the Upper Rio Negro?

This is an old topic, but we have to wait for this law to be created in order to know what to do. We have an idea what it will be, but without a doubt, the way it’s being presented, it will be unconstitutional because if it has not consulted with the indigenous people, the government will not be respecting the international rights ratified by Brazil. What is the position of indigenous groups regarding mining? There are some groups working to have mining inside indigenous lands who believe in and support the Bolsonaro administration. But they don’t know exactly what they want. In truth, they would like for it to be extracted by indigenous people themselves, this is clear when there are debates.

Other indigenous groups say no to mining because of negative experiences. To me, “no” is because there is no dialogue, and it will always be no if it’s going to be this way. Saying “no” is very important in negotiations. This negation states there is need for dialogue and construction of proposals, agreements or contracts. But it’s evident that there are people who say no because it’s really “no”. In my opinion, the result of consulting indigenous people should be to create connections. What’s the sense of asking someone about something if you’re just going to do it anyway in spite of what you hear?

You value the role of school education for indigenous people as a form of resistance. Tell us a little about this and the experience of the Pamáali school, which was recognized in 2016 as a standard for creativity and innovation by the Ministry of Education (MEC).

To me, schooling is a weapon for battle. A way of defending yourself. Since 1984, the Baniwa decided to fight for schooling for their children because they realized they didn’t have mastery of the Portuguese language, that they didn’t understand things that were happening. They saw other indigenous groups managing to dialogue, to express their ideas. Back then, there were many gold prospectors invading indigenous territory and you have to understand non-indigenous society in order to defend yourself and your land. Schooling can help identify this dialogue.

For example, once in São Paulo they asked me, “Why don’t Indians like it when people enter their land?” I responded with another question: “Would you let someone come into your house without authorization?” What is indigenous land? It’s our space, our home, where we manage our resources, everything we need, so schooling helps us to be able to dialogue about this.

We created the indigenous school in the year 2000. Pamáali is the name of a tree that attracts fish. It also pays tribute to a warrior who fought for our territory. The school was built because of these questions: why do we need school? How will it help us? My grandfather used to say that school had to be useful, to teach us to do things, to learn how to build houses, household utensils, hunting tools, etc.

The school was created to create a solid relationship with the community. The students would spend two months at the school and then would return to their communities for a month to research, to discuss a problem and bring it back. This is how we managed to build intercultural knowledge. Today the school doesn’t function like this all the time, but we are trying to get state funding so we can rebuild the space and have it run as a technical training school.

Lastly, you have profiles on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and are active on social media. What is your objective there?

It’s to spread information about our work and also to express critical opinion! To seek out respect and recognition for the Baniwa people. We have many indigenous and non-indigenous people on social media. I believe they are instruments that can bring respect to our people.

Banner image by Carol Quintanilha/ISA.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on March 23, 2020.