Changing the System by Changing the Goals


“This current reality is a logical outcome of the mindset and the system goals that we've set for ourselves as humanity. So we've got to change those goals.” Atossa Soltani

In December 2021, Intelligent Life founder Jeddah Mali sat down with the Director of Global Strategy for the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative. Atossa has worked tirelessly for decades to protect the Amazonian rainforest, and continues to campaign for indigenous wisdom at the forefront of our responses to the most pressing issues of our time.

This article features extracts of that conversation. Links to the video recording of the conversation as well as the full transcript can be found at the bottom of this page.

Jeddah Mali

At Intelligent Life, we look at and explore how life works - from the subatomic level up to large systems and how that spectrum is coordinated by natural intelligence. We see natural intelligence as the governing intelligence of all life, whether that's manifest or not manifest. In your work with indigenous nations, what have you learned about their worldview of the intelligence of life as it works on earth?

Atossa Soltani

Indigenous peoples have this incredible way of coexisting with nature, to the point where in many of the indigenous languages, there isn't even a word for "nature". You are so much a part of nature that it's not outside of us. And so, what I've experienced working with indigenous peoples, for the last 30 years, is that there is this kinship with all life. Life is all my relations. There is this strong connection between me, my ancestors and future generations. The time cycle is rather integrated in their consciousness, as is this idea of their identity as kin, and all things are related. In fact, all things are alive. People see the forest, the mountains, the rivers, the rain, the clouds - it's all alive, nature is alive.

Pachamama, which is this force of all creation, is vibrating, it's there all around us. Pachamama is the divine, creative force of the universe that exists all around us - and so that is just in their consciousness, everything's about living in harmony with all that life.

So basically, the concept of harmony is a concept that shows up differently in different indigenous cultures, but within many of the other cultures is really about the idea that life happens in collective harmony - in fractal, from the very small community, you know, within your family, within your circle of friends within your forest village within the forest village and the surrounding forest, and then within that watershed and within the entire world. So that at a level that, you know, indigenous peoples talk about Summa cause is key to a word that means when we read our well being it's a concept that's truly best translated into "collective harmony".

Jeddah Mali

So when we say natural intelligence, they might say, collective harmony.

Atossa Soltani

That's correct. I think that the proof is in the pudding. They say that your worldview determines your reality, right? You live as if everything is relative, and if you live as if the Earth is alive. It is no wonder that 80% of all biodiversity that currently still exists on planet Earth is on indigenous territories and indigenous lands. 80% of all species that have survived to this point, are founded on indigenous lands. That is to me proof that the worldview with which indigenous peoples approach their connection and their relationship to the natural world, is ultimately defining that, and coming out in this in this in this indicator. It's working.

If you're immersed in nature, and if everything's about harmony with nature, then you're going to find a proliferation and flourishing of life. Also, 50% of all intact forests that we still have today on planet Earth are indigenous lands. If we think about how we're in this predicament of global climate and biodiversity crises, ultimately, there's no way out of these crises without working with and recognising that the solutions are within and can only come from supporting indigenous stewardship. Further, we must learn from that stewardship for the rest of the planet to be able to practice that harmonious coexistence where everything is actually win-win. When nature wins, we flourish - our human systems flourish and we have a future to leave to future generations.

Jeddah Mali

Is that why the Sacred Headwaters Initiative is so unique and unlike any other initiative thus far? You’ve pulled together 30 indigenous nations to start the largest and most ambitious project of its kind thus far. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how this initiative is different from others and how it addresses some of the challenges that you've outlined for us?

Atossa Soltani

So within the Amazon Basin are nine countries. All of it is urgent, it's urgent that we get to zero deforestation everywhere. In the Sacred Headwaters, there's actually been modelling that shows even when the tipping point of collapse happens, there are pockets of the Amazon that will still maintain their ecological resilience and integrity. This part of the Amazon is one of those and is registered the highest species diversity in any place in the Amazon. So it's the most biodiverse part of Amazon, which means it's the most biodiverse part place in the world. And that in this place, Indigenous peoples have already been fighting and winning some battles. They've been fighting to protect their territories, from oil and mining companies, from roads and dams, and agriculture and cattle ranching. They're already, you know, on the frontline saying, “no, we want to protect this forest”. And this is true all over the Amazon actually, there are people who are saying that it's not unique to this area.

But this area has enormous biodiversity, river basins are clearly marked, this incredible cultural diversity, incredibly powerful indigenous nations who have already been winning battles, and who are committed to protecting their territories at all costs. And so, we basically have been supporting a process of the unification of 30 nations, and together they have wanted to include these, their territories and these watersheds, an area that's now the size of the state of Oregon. We could say the size of the UK, in the headwaters, where indigenous peoples are united and determined to stop the onslaught of industrial expansion.

They are saying that this idea of harmony should prevail as the organising principle around which economy and governance decisions are made. This must include the permanent protection of the forests and the restoration and regeneration of the vital cycles of nature in these two watersheds. This landscape should be governed with a principle of life, harmony with life, as its core principle. And so Indigenous peoples have united and created an alliance. I'm honored to be the global strategist for the Alliance. We have been developing a bioregional plan, we spent the last three years dreaming, what would it look like if indigenous principles of Buen Vivir were at the heart of everything.

The plan has its DNA, the indigenous ancestral wisdom, and then it has a lot of experts helping think about renewable energy and alternative transportation and best practices for restoration, and agroforestry and food sovereignty and food production. Looking at things like solar canoes and medicinal plants, and ecotourism and non-destructive forest product, like harvesting vanilla, and cacao and things that are in line with forests flourishing, and supporting leadership training and education. Also supporting ecological vitality metrics, not only for those forests, but for the countries of Ecuador and Peru, where it's not just the GDP and the drumbeat for more investments and more economic growth, but the drum bit beat is for you know, Buen Vivir and the Buen Vivir index - the idea that, that we can actually have a wellbeing genuine health and happiness index that drives our decision making and helps us to redesign our economic system.

So we've been dreaming. The plan came out in August, it's been well received. Of course, it's very ambitious, it’s a 10 year and 20 year plan to transform the economies of these countries to also put in permanent protection, the rest of the forests that are standing, in addition to recognise all the land rights for the indigenous territories that still need to be recognized. And ultimately to restore 20 million acres of rainforest, and to basically protect and restore this incredibly biodiverse region - as a model for the world, as the first place in the world where an ecological civilization can be dawning, and helping lead.

You know, the amount of wisdom and knowledge, everything from plant medicine to the way nature works to the plethora of species that exists here, you could develop an economy just based on the scientific inquiry of amazing biodiversity and incredible knowledge that exists among the indigenous nations here. You could have the number one export of this area instead of being oil and mining, which is currently what's happening, it could be biological knowledge and indigenous wisdom. So that's the vision and we are very excited about it. It's a multi billion dollar effort over 10 years. It's, but it's worth it. It's where we need to go.