The Dalai Lama of The Amazon
On a dark and rather ominous day, Benki Piyako, chief of the Ashaninka tribe in Western Brazil, sat with my family and I in the kitchen of his home, and told us dramatic, almost unbelievable stories of his life. The rain was relentless and coming down in sheets, only punctuated by lightning and heavy thunder that at times almost drowned out his voice. Benki radiated absolute calm as he recounted different times men set out to kill him.
While his tone was soft that day, he has a powerful voice that can be mesmerizing—capable of enchanting and engaging anyone within earshot. There are things about him that are not so unlike Barack Obama: He is a natural leader, a gifted orator, and while he is very serious about his responsibilities, he is also charming and humorous. Benki stands tall, inches above most Indians, and exudes a sense of certainty, security, and leadership that is increasingly rare amongst our so-called “leaders”. Around the world, faith in appointed officials has declined; the approval ratings of the Presidents of the U.S. and Brazil show there is much to be desired.
When he speaks, whether it is a riveting story of an assassination attempt, otherworldly visions attained during ayahuasca journeys, or a heart-warming tale of a magnificent healing, you’re instantly inclined to believe him. Most of his experiences are far outside even our loosest definition of “normal” and make you want to question their veracity, but then you take a look around and remember you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore…
This corner of the Amazon, in the Brazilian state of Acre, is home to some of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the entire forest. Acre, and the surrounding region of the Upper Amazon, is home to a majority of the estimated 100 uncontacted tribes left in the world. To get there we flew from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, to Rio Branco, to Cruzeiro do Sul and finally to the small jungle city of Marechal Thaumaturgo. You can reach as far as Cruzeiro do Sul on commercial airlines but then you must either charter a flight (bush plane) or, depending on the season, a multiple day boat trip.
Numerous misconceptions surround these indigenous tribes, namely that they do not know the outside world exists. While the notion that these people live in peace and plentitude, without any fear for their survival—is charming, it is also incredibly naive. The reality is that they actively resist and avoid all contact, even with other tribes. They remain uncontacted for they are led by elders, or by stories passed on by elders, who remember what happened to their people when they first met the white man. Ever since the early 1500’s, whenever an Amazonian tribe made contact with European settlers, there were only two outcomes: death or enslavement. While a majority of all tribes that made contact died of disease, those that survived suffered absolutely brutal living conditions under cruel slave masters. It is bizarre that, in 2018 with our modern and hyperconnected society, there are still some isolated pockets of the world where one can exist in almost the same way as one’s ancestors did hundreds of years ago. But isolation breeds lawlessness, and the main threats to these tribes come from the same types of people who have tried, time and again, to kill Benki.
I call him the Dalai Lama of the Amazon for he is a peaceful man, who keeps no enemies, but he is also a man of principle, and his principles happen to be at odds with the power players in the region. Drug traffickers, loggers, poachers, miners, and politicians have all wanted to end his life for no other reason than his being a protector of his people and a steward of the land.
Benki, like the Dalai Llama, he is a highly spiritual person who is carried away with a cause much larger than himself, neither of them seek petty goals, they seek planetary ones. They aim to help, heal, and save the world by sharing their ancient traditions. Whether through Tibetan Buddhism, or Amazonian Shamanism, the key to a fulfilled life is attained by acknowledging the unity of the natural and spiritual worlds while also practicing detachment from material possessions and desires. Leaders with such spirit and devotion, are often revered by their people. Yet, to some, that energy and conviction can be threatening.
Unlike the Dalai Lama, Benki is not in exile. But if certain people had their way, he would be; Or worse yet, he would be dead.
As if on cue, thunder clapped and lightning rolled through the sky as Benki began telling us, “One time two men came up behind me with a revolver as I was going to the bank. They asked me if I was Moisés, who is my brother, and I told them no, that I was Benki. They said that was just fine because they had come to kill both of us.”
We sat huddled around the wooden table in his kitchen, gripping the edge of our seats, as the wind and rain blew in the large windowless openings. Chickens and roosters rustled noisily about, scurrying around the outside of the house each time the storm roared. The rain continued to hammer loudly against the metal roof as he proceeded calmly with his story. He said he turned around to face the men and spoke from his heart, telling them that he had never done anything against them and if they really wanted him dead, he would not try to fight them. The men were caught off-guard by his tranquility and seemed to hesitate: a man like Benki can have that effect, being with him you can see how anyone, except for perhaps a trained assassin, would think twice about trying to harm him. Regardless of his calm and charm, one of the men found his resolve and pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. The shooter was shocked and examined his pistol. He pointed it off to the side of Benki and again pulled the trigger—this time it worked just fine and a loud bang rung their ears. More determined now, he fixed the weapon on Benki and once again pulled the trigger. Again, the gun jammed. Benki told the men, “I think it’s best you leave my brother and I alone.”
While the story sounds outlandish, it is only one of many assassination attempts Benki has survived. This makes perfect sense when you consider the work that Benki does. His reforestation efforts have planted over 2 million trees in 30 years. Brazil consistently ranks as the most dangerous country on Earth for environmental activists: 50 people were murdered there for environmental activism in 2015 alone, along with another 49 in 2016, and current numbers show at least 63 murdered in 2017. With the current political turmoil and reduced budgets for environmental groups, a majority of those murders are left “unsolved”, and even more are never reported. Billy Kyte, the campaign leader on this issue at Global Campaign, says, “These are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of a systematic assault on remote and indigenous communities by state and corporate actors.”
Benki’s first death threat was when he was only 10 years old—after he confronted two non-indigenous men who stole from his father. At first, they were in disbelief that this Indian child would dare step to them—but the disbelief quickly transformed into violence and they threatened to kill him if he didn’t run away. Instead of fleeing, young Benki stood his ground and told them to return what was taken and never steal from his people again. As the man closest to him raised his machete to strike him down, Benki says he felt a spirit come to him and make him appear as a fearsome giant to the men. He says he grew 5 meters tall and stood his ground. The men’s knees buckled with fear and they begged to be spared before running off.
We sat there in silence for a few moments, until someone called for Benki’s help and our conversation, at least for the moment, was over. I quickly learned to cherish any moment with Benki because he was (and is) in constant demand: always something to tend to, or fix, on the property, always someone needing to be healed, always someone calling from near or far for advice. During our stay, not one day passed without a new person seeking him out to be cured, one day it was an alcoholic on the verge of death, the next it was someone dying from a venomous snakebite, and on another it was his wife’s sister who was suffering from migraines suspected to be from a tumor. For the latter instance, Benki recommended she travel to the city for an examination because her illness was “not from his world” and he could not guarantee a cure. A trip like that isn’t cheap for someone who lives in a rural jungle community, the brain scan alone cost around R$900 (US$300)—which Benki provided.
While “shaman” isn’t a word they use to describe themselves, Benki is what one could call a shaman’s shaman, in that he is recognized and respected by other chiefs and curanderos, far and wide. A more appropriate word is “pajé”, which is the Portuguese word for tribal leader. He had his international debut in 1992 at the UN climate conference in Rio where he was selected as one of a delegation of indigenous leaders to present their views on the Amazon. At 19 years old, he impressed the crowd with his eloquence and maturity. The resulting attention led to the beginning of his life on the international stage. Throughout the years this journey has led him all around the Amazon and the world to Europe, the US, and Asia. He has even traveled to Bhutan where he shared Ayahuasca with Buddhist monks. His work has granted him meetings with all sorts of other global leaders, both spiritual and political, notably former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Pope Francis and, yes, even the Dalai Lama himself.
In November, 2017, Benki and his brother Moisés traveled to New York to receive the Equator Prize, an award organized by the Equator Initiative from within the United Nations Development Program. They were among the 15 winners selected from around the globe in recognition for their work in, “outstanding community efforts to reduce poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. As sustainable community initiatives take root throughout the tropics, they are laying the foundation for a global movement of local successes that are collectively making a contribution to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
While my family and I traveled to see Benki for more than one reason, my main goal was to photograph and interview him about his ongoing projects, specifically, the Yorenka center which is being developed alongside his home.
The Yorenka center, and corresponding reforestation initiative, “Yorenka Forest”, directly challenge the false belief that deforested land is more valuable than native forest. He works in conjunction with the Belgium-based “House Of Indians”, a group that, “aims to defend the people of the Amazon rainforest, its culture, art and spirituality, which opens the way for cooperation between the European nations and our brothers in the forest.”
In addition to reforestation initiatives, they help sponsor Benki’s projects located on his property in Marechal Thaumaturgo and in his village of Apiwtxa. They include, but are not limited to: a new recycling plant and supermarket where people can trade plastic waste for food, a healing and informational center focused on the regional plant medicines (of which, there are tens of thousands), and a juicing factory to harness the area’s many fruits while providing employment to local residents who are both indigenous and non-indigenous.
CD: What is the story behind Yorenka, how did it start and how has it evolved?
BP: It was a privately-owned land by the people who lived there, and after 2004, when I came to Thaumaturgo as secretary of the regional government, we made a project to buy this land from the residents, and today it is the center of Yorenka Atame.
CD: Did you know from the beginning what it would be? Or did it evolve over time into what it is today?
BP: It was our intention to transform this into a center for the exchange of knowledge between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples of the region, with principles valuing reforestation, biodiversity management, and land recovery. We also wanted to create a center of fusion of environmental practices that honor and benefit the culture of the region.
CD: So what is it that you have learned along the way, and what is still to come?
BP: I believe that all the work we have done has been to achieve the goal of creating sustainability and have that sustainability geared towards innovating regional production. Now we have the agro-center and juice factory, which is a space where we can work with fruit juice and pulp production. It will also enable us to produce and donate food to the local schools and have a presence here in the regional markets, a production of the people that also works towards the recovery of biodiversity. That is the intention driving the project that is Yorenka Atame. There is also Yorenka Tassori (center of traditional plant medicine), which means the knowledge of universal creation. The idea here is being able to work the spiritual consciousness, to work even the human consciousness within our evolution; essentially, the integration of man and nature.
We believe that everything bad that is happening today is because people are disconnecting themselves from nature, they are leaving aside a large part that I believe to be the most important in our life. To work to return this part of life will be the root, the beginning of everything. We are also working on building a spiritual center, to host and share with people and professionals from around the world. At the same time it will also serve as a place to heal people with traditional medicines such as Ayahuasca, that’s the idea for Yorenka Tassori.
CD: Have you already broke ground on the healing center (Yorenka Tassori)?
BP: Today I have everything, and host everyone, here in my house and I do a majority of these things right here or in my village but, yes, we have already started the process. We have 14 hectares of land that we have purchased, and, with support from people like yourselves, we are building the first step. It is an example and affirmation for many people who want to work and support—because this is a project for a more humane world in which we can better exchange aid. Today I am here helping people, and that, in turn, fosters their ability of being able to help others and the planet itself.
CD: Do you believe that Ayahuasca can help in this process to save the world?
BP: I believe so. Ayahuasca today is a very open world, a world of spiritual evolution, and also a world that works the human psyche. Ayahuasca shows humanity, it shows me, you, us. It shows what is already within us and our connections to one another. She has an evolution that treats and speaks to us directly, giving us the sensitivity to look inside ourselves, and we regain our sensibility of being able to live, and reopens channels that we can not live properly without—the sacred union between man and nature. I believe that Ayahuasca can give guidance to the world, as long as people know how to respect and use it in a conscious way, because Ayahuasca is not a joke, it is a very serious thing and one that requires a commitment from people to be able to integrate its teachings.
Someone then arrived by boat and was in need of Benki’s help and our interview ended there. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to get to discuss the finer details of the waste-for-food supermarket, but it will soon be up and running. I find the idea to be incredible, innovative, and could potentially spread worldwide. The basic premise is that the local people, many of whom live on less than a few dollars a day, can collect plastic waste and deliver it to the supermarket in exchange for locally sourced foods. The more plastic they collect (based on weight), the more food they receive. The project is being supported by the House of Indians foundation, and will be called “Casa dos Indios”. It would be, “The first supermarket in the world that would exchange plastic bottles and aluminum containers for basic foods (fruits, rice, beans, noodles, etc). The concept was born of the idea of Marcelo Valladão and developed by Isaac and Benki Piyãko to better the quality of life of the people of Marecehal Thaumaturgo.”
The Amazon, like many other rural regions, has little to no infrastructure for waste removal. Everyday countless plastic items are used and then tossed on the ground, to rot and never fully breakdown, or burned in a toxin-releasing trash fire. During my Amazon travels, it tore me apart to see plastic waste lining the riverbanks, knowing that they would never leave the precious ecosystem. It is unacceptable for old growth forests and the ecosystems that they support, that have been around for thousands and thousands of years, to be choking on single-use plastic waste.
Yet, one doesn’t need to travel to the Amazon to see the detrimental effects of our fossil-fueled consumer economy. Take a walk in any park, or on any trail, or any beach, and look down at your feet and you will see plastic waste littered about. While the scale is dependent on location—there is much more noticeable trash on Venice Beach than there is in Big Sur—the end result is the same in that micro-plastics infiltrate our environment and, therefore, our bodies. As a wise man once said, “micro trash, MACRO problem.” The UN estimates that, “More than eight million tons of plastic goes into the oceans every year. With an estimated 300 million tons of it now littering our seas, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish by 2050.” The oceans, like the rainforests, are the very lifeblood of our planet—responsible for generating oxygen and sequestering carbon.
Imagine if, all around the world, we had programs like Benki’s: cities like New York and Los Angeles, Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro, could be transformed into pristine metropolises by the very denizens that typically experience the worst aspects of pollution and poverty. Funding could come from a coalition of sources: new taxes could be created, ranging from consumer-based point-of-sale (like a plastic bag/bottle tax), to manufacturing taxes based on output and production (companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle paying the lion’s share), and also independent foundations, benefactors and philanthropists in each city or region.
While capitalism has indeed caused tremendous growth, innovation, and wealth, it has been lopsided and, in it’s present state, is incredibly unsustainable. We don’t need to disavow capitalism, but we do need to immediately correct our course because we are in the midst of an environmental collapse
While neither Benki, nor the Dalai Llama, can solve our problems on their own—they can help us come to terms with our need to renew our link to nature. It is time to listen and learn from what our natural surroundings are telling us and, ultimately, put aside our differences and come together as a global society to ensure our own future. The time is now and, as Benki would say, “estamos juntos” (we are in this together).
Chris Dodds was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and studied photojournalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In addition to travels and projects with the Ashaninka and Huni Kuin tribes, he works with Plastic Pollution Coalition and lives in Los Angeles, CA.