Amazon rainforest: recognizing the rights of nature

Norkoro Spirit Mask.| Photo by Kyla Baily.

Amazonia – The Rights of Nature, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC’s (MOA) upcoming exhibition digs into the relationship between humans and forest, the latter playing an important role in indigenous South American cultures.

Several objects from Yanomami land as well as other Amazonian collections will be exhibited from March 10, 2017 to Jan. 28, 2018.

Yanomami land extends between the borders of Brazil and Venezuela and the Yanomami are the largest group, relatively isolated, of people in South America. For the past 30 years their land has been invaded by thousands of gold miners who work illegally there. They have transmitted diseases such as malaria, and contaminated rivers and the rainforests with mercury.

Yanomami resistance

According to Nuno Porto, curator for Africa and Latin America at the MOA, the few Yanomami objects are among his favourite pieces in this collection because he believes that these objects could represent the Yanomami opposition to mining operation and the resistance to the genocide associated with it.

“We have few Yanomami objects, which for me are very interesting in the sense that the Yanomami have been resisting the genocide caused by mining operations in Yanomami land…” says Porto.

Their land has also been taken away from them.

“Things might become much worse in the future. So I think the Yanomami objects that we have can speak out against this situation,” says Porto.

Porto hopes that this exhibition might remind visitors that the Amazon is an inhabited place: there are more than 385 groups living there and more than 270 languages spoken in that area. People might also realize that indigenous knowledge effectively contributes to solutions for contemporary problems that the forest faces, by learning and engaging with the issues that the exhibition raises.

“So the idea is that ancestral indigenous knowledge is of great value in solving the contemporary problems. The exhibition associates the objects with the notions of the Rights of Nature, which, in turn articulate with the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” says Porto.

The Amazon-Vancouver connection

Bird Necklace.| Photo by Jessica Bushey.

The MOA was founded with the donation of a collection gathered by a Vancouver resident, Frank Burnett. As he became wealthy, Burnett decided to spend his life travelling to the South Pacific via South American routes. Later in 1927, he gave all of his collection of ethnographic artifacts to the University of British Columbia. This donation formed the nucleus of the MOA.

“Frank Burnett collected objects from the Amazon. This donation is from 1927, so all these objects were acquired before 1927, and are probably 100 years old,” says Porto.

Under current circumstances, Porto thinks the theme of this exhibition is urgent. There are currently a lot of conversations surrounding pipelines in British Columbia. Listening to the indigenous group in South America could help people recognize solutions to global problems. In South America some countries have already inscribed the rights of nature in their constitutions, and they envisage the ideals of a Good Life. The good life isn’t about having more things but about reaching the balance between nature and humans.

“The idea of a good life isn’t about wealth, actually it’s about having balance in your life, a balance which connects to your nature and also to your community,” Porto says. “From the perspective of this philosophy, distribution is more important than accumulation. Therefore, you can’t be happy if someone in your community isn’t being happy at all.”

Putting the collection together has been a long-term process, says Porto. It began two years ago in terms of classifications for the collection. And it’s not over yet because there will always be some new information.

Nowadays, many indigenous groups in the South American Amazon still stick to the traditional way of life, but that’s how nature actually works.

“Many of the indigenous groups still have a traditional way of life, which they relate to present days. They are well-organized, they have their own websites and political organizations. I hope visitors learn more about these organizations and engage and help them, if they feel it’s a way to go,” says Porto.


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