At this time in history more people have more instant access to more information than ever before. In relative terms, but a thousand years ago, the same was true of the Maya. Yet, access to all that information did not prevent their sudden and rapid decline. We will likely never know the exact causes of that decline, but environmental degradation was certainly one of them. Out of the ashes of the declining Maya Empire rose a number of post-classic Maya peoples including the ancestors of this woman — the Kaqchikel people.
Today we are able to predict better from our information than the Maya were able to. It is hard to imagine environmental activists among them. Our environmental activists could be said to be the soothsayers of the modern age. Many of them are indigenous people. It is likely that some among the educated Maya saw the signs of decline. It is also likely that Maya rulers considered warmongering and the continued accumulation of wealth to be the highest priority.
Last month Global Witness released its 2016 annual report on environmental activism: a record number of activists were murdered and indigenous people were massively overrepresented at over 40% of them. Most of the killing took place at the hands of those considering the continued accumulation of wealth to be the highest priority. As with the Maya before, rulers are facilitating the prioritization of wealth: Brazil, one of the worst offenders, is making it harder to defend the environment. 2017 is looking at least as bad with 98 activists killed so far
There are some environmental activism success stories, of course. Last month two European banks withdrew financial support for the controversial Agua Zarca dam project in Honduras. That country now has more murders of environmental activists per capita than any other country in the world. One of the highest-profile murders in 2016 was that of Berta Cáceres, who opposed the dam.
It may seem to us that a woman collecting firewood is hardly a sign of progress based on thousands of years of the accumulation of knowledge. But it is precisely that Indigenous Knowledge (IK) that enabled the Kaqchikel to avoid the mistakes of their ancestors and survive into the present day. It probably seems even less likely to us that much of the world still relies on IK. But at a time when the world's richest country cannot get healthcare right, the World Health Organization says that most people worldwide rely on IK for their healthcare needs. In Ethiopia — where we recently started working — 80% of the population uses IK in everyday life from family planning to animal husbandry. That country will host the 2017 Arba Minch Conference in a few days with a focus on preserving traditional medicine.
Of all the information we have access to, IK is underrepresented. But it is unlikely we will survive without it.
The Kaqchikel Maya are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: The Maya.