[Interview] Nicolas Salazar Sutil: placing trees and indigenous knowledge at the centre of future healing

A view of Thiruvannamalai, an ancient hill in southern India.

A view of Thiruvannamalai, an ancient hill in southern India.

  • Seeking to create a counter-narrative to the climate change discourse, Nicolas Salazar Sutil talks about perceiving the crisis as a planetary disease instead and curing it by re-establishing ties with forests.
  • In an interview with Mongabay-India, Sutil talks about his influences from India, specifically noting that the current ecological struggle is, just like a message from the Bhagavad Gita, that it is an internal process that requires healing.
  • Sutil is a professor of transformational practices and the founder and director of Forest Guardians, an independent organisation that places the knowledge of indigenous peoples at the center of our future healing.

If trees on our earth could mobilise, fighting for life would be the way forward, says Nicolas Salazar Sutil, the founder and director of Forest Guardians, an independent organisation that places the knowledge of indigenous peoples at the center of our future healing. As Professor in Transformational Practices at the University of Leeds, UK, his lived experience with trees has given birth to regenerating interest in the importance of trees and humans.

Sutil is influenced by the many indigenous communities he has spent time and worked with, especially the Fulkaxo and Kariri-Xoco in Brazil, the Pewenche in Southern Chile and the Harakbut in the Peruvian Amazon. A Chilean by birth, he is ”devoted to transformational practices for social and environmental change.”

In an interview with Mongabay-India, he discusses his influences and solutions to creating a counter narrative to the helplessness that humans often feel when confronted with a threatened planet, with some inspiration from India and the Bhagwad Gita.

Nicolas Salazar Sutil. Photo from Sutil.

You gave a talk recently where you said trees and humans were one? Could you explain what you mean?

There is a name for the society of humans and trees – it is called forests. Trees and humans were one and the same in evolutionary terms till we parted ways. We have a common ancestor in a creature called the protist, which is neither human nor tree but both. My childhood was an entanglement with trees. I grew up with trees and they grew inside me and so it’s a lived experience of living and growing with trees.

Read more: The barefoot ecologist who brought forests to life

Is that what led you to founding Forest Guardians?

I founded Forest Guardians with five other friends whom I consider to be frontliners in the cause and defense of forest life in the world. We created a group and started doing seminars and round tables. Around a year ago we held something called the “Tree Moot” curated by Elizabeth Oriel from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, UK), along with myself, on the lines of the “Entmoot” in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien’s epic, trees decide to intervene in the affairs of humans and mobilise themselves to defend forests from ecological devastation caused by war on Middle Earth.

And so, if trees could mobilise in Our Earth what would they do? Ruby and Christabel Reed from Advaya Initiative came up with the idea for an online course, which the three of us are now co-curating (starting in May). It is a transformational course, which teaches participants how to change the way we live with trees.

What is it that trees can teach us and how have we as humans forgotten that past relationship?

Part of what we have lost as a result of living so removed from trees is an understanding of their knowledge. Revelation is a very important aspect of bringing about this communion between human and tree. Revelation offers us knowledge of trees through a humble acceptance of the fact that all life forms produce knowledge, not only humans. Tree wisdom can be transmitted between life forms so long as we are prepared to accept revelatory knowledge.

Once we open ourselves to revelation, we open ourselves to the huge wealth of knowledge and wisdom that trees have – we open ourselves to their values of reciprocity, collectivity, values of collective intelligence and sharing. I’ve always sought those moments of revelation in trees. I once dreamt that roots were coming out of my feet and I was turning into a tree. Trees have shown me amazing things.

A banyan tree in Bangladesh. Photo by Balaram Mahalder/Wikimedia Commons.

Is there anything from India that has influenced you? Or is there something the world can learn from India?

Three distinguished Indians are among the 30 teachers on our course: Vandana Shiva, the world-renowned environmentalist, author and activist; award-winning journalist and environmentalist Swati Thiyagarajan, and Boro Baski, community leader from West Bengal. Baski was the first in his village to obtain a master’s and doctoral degree. He works with an NGO called Ghosaldanga Adibasi Seva Sangha (GASS) that helps preserve traditional culture and forests among Adivasi communities in West Bengal.

India has given the world powerful traditions of spiritual teaching and learning. Take the Bhagavad Gita. Personally, what the Gita has taught me is that spirituality has to do with a struggle. That struggle sometimes involves having to confront people or things we thought we loved. Sacrificing what we thought was most dear to us. That is spirituality, to my eyes. Spirituality is not a chart, a badge, or a horoscope. It is not a club, a Facebook page, a label or a tag in your profile. Spirituality is also a craft. It requires the acquisition of daily techniques and practices. Spiritual action and activism is what releases and emancipates us from pain despite life’s struggles.

We are inspired at Guardians of the Forest by that deep spiritual tradition and the joy it brings. We believe that our current ecological struggle is, just like the Gita shows us, an internal process that requires healing. Here is the challenge: we must transform the way we live with trees. It doesn’t matter if you live in the city or in the forest. It is all the more vital to take a course like this if you feel disconnected and trapped in a concrete jungle. What can you do about threatened forests if you live in a city? A lot. It starts with personal change. That is what we are trying to transmit in this course. We are teaching people how to become a forest guardian. And being a guardian has a direct and real-world impact on legal, cultural, and political change. I hope many people from this wonderful country may join us.

You had quoted a World Bank report, that says indigenous people who form only four percent of the world’s population, are protecting over 80 percent of world biodiversity. And also that indigenous people look at climate change differently.

I think it is important to contest climate change narratives because they play into the hands of nation-states and political organisations with deeply entrenched and self-serving interests. In my understanding, and generally speaking, indigenous people don’t always describe what’s going on in terms of climate change. I have spent time with the Kariri-Xoco and what I have heard is the characterisation of this crisis as a  disease – the planet is sick. The Kariri-Xoco maintain that disease is a state of unknowing, not a clinical or medical problem. Sickness is a failure to know and it has to be cured by knowledge.

Among the cures for this ‘disease’ is re-establishing ties with forests. That is the solution to the climate crisis as proposed by indigenous peoples. I think it’s important to understand the crisis as an internal problem. If climate change is a disease caused by human greed, we are the problem. The planet is diseased because of human greed. We are complicit in the demand and consumption of so-called resources. We are all greedily exacerbating consumption and depredation of the world’s forests and therefore we are contributors to that economy of greed. The healing and the cure have to happen through an internal process that requires self-sacrifice, which is why I think the climate change discourse needs to be countered. We need to speak of climate and planetary disease instead.

Are you in danger of being called a climate change denier?

I am not a climate change denier, in fact, I think by naming this differently, the solutions could also be different. I am not denying there is a crisis or an emergency. It is actually a climate catastrophe. I prefer to speak of a planetary sickness, so that we may approach this challenge with a positive outlook, and concrete solutions, in order to be healed. Crisis and catastrophe is an entrenched and protracted process that often leaves us powerless, impotent, and removed.

When you speak of climate change you advance a narrative against which I personally can’t do anything, since the cause of climate change is large-scale industrial action. If we continue with that argument, the disenchantment will grow, the feeling of impotence will grow – whereas if we call it a disease, it will give us agency to heal and change things. Even small actions like planting trees, sourcing food, not consuming palm oil or soya – everybody can chip in to address the planetary disease.

You are critical of tree planting exercises to save the planet.

No, I encourage everyone to plant. To dig. To get to know the living soil, and the amazing miracle that is plant and tree growth. What I am saying, however, is that you should prepare and learn before you start planting. Remember: the healing has to do with knowledge. You should know how to plant. You should be knowledgeable about the species, the specimen and the soil where each particular tree flourishes. There’s more to tree planting than putting a tree in the ground – if you’ve planted the wrong tree in the wrong place – the tree could be more damaging to the environment. There is a motto here: The right tree, in the right place, with the right people. That is how you build a society of humans and trees. Planting trees is sometimes a disaster. An example of this is monoculture. Monoculture is not beneficial to communities or biodiversity, it is very damaging. Think of oil palm plantations in Indonesia and West Africa, Papaya plantations in Peru, soya plantations in Brazil and Paraguay, avocado plantations in Chile, industrial timber in Ireland, Scandinavia, and the list goes on.

You seem to be greatly influenced by Overstory by Richard Powers?

Yes, when I was 22, I wrote a novel called Story of Trees and Children in Spanish – which was like a very modest version of The Overstory – it’s not a story about children nor is it a story about trees, it’s a story of the interweaving of life between humans and trees and their common struggles and joys.

However, when I read The Overstory much later, I realised I was writing an overstory with my own life and that my own biography was like the Powers’ novel. Overstory was written by someone with much more skill and ability than I. I always felt I wasn’t a very good writer but that didn’t stop me from writing my own life. I gave up on being a novelist but I didn’t give up on my story. So I am like the character (Nicholas Hoel) in Richard Powers’ book. In fact, I wrote to Richard and told him that. He was very grateful for my message.

Banner image: A view of Thiruvannamalai, an ancient hill in southern India. Photo by Vinoth Chandar/Flickr.

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