In 2014, Global Diversity Foundation chaired a session on “Community-led initiatives for well-being in a changing world” at the 14th International Society for Ethnobiology Congress (June 1-7, 2014) in Lamai Gompa, Bumthang in Bhutan. At GDF, we recognise that the concept of ‘well-being’ has become very academically and institutionally current, and thus merits interrogation. What does it mean to be well? How does one go about it? How are others, and the environment, impacted by our well-being, or our lack of it?

This session emerged from a vision of bringing culturally and geographically diverse community representatives together to discuss community concepts of well-being. The seed for this vision was planted at the Global Environments Summer Academy (GESA), a peer-to-peer interactive learning academy for environmental changemakers. The session also marks the start of a multi-year well-being initiative at GDF, and lays the groundwork for conversations that continued throughout the following GESA and the 2015 North America Community Environmental Leadership Exchange (NACELE).


Strategies for promoting well-being in Bri Bri territory

Alí García Segura, University of Costa Rica

Alí is from the Bri Bri people of Costa Rica, and teaches Bri Bri language and culture at the University of Costa Rica. Alí also works with different Indigenous groups throughout the country in a variety of capacities, include education, health, housing, and development. Alí began his presentation by explaining that well-being for the Bri Bri was inextricably linked to their identity as indigenous people, and expressed that “I don’t want you to see me as an external expert, but rather a member of an Indigenous community talking about our way of life.”

Alí discussed the difficulties of having a conversation about ‘well-being’ in a Bri Bri context:

(14:12-15:40) In my culture and in my language, there are no ways to say ‘love’, no way to say ‘nature’, no way to say ‘life’ and no verb for ‘to love’. My community has not developed these concepts in language because they believe it’s all one concept- and it’s not something you say, it’s something you do. For this reason, when there are discussions about these things [like buen vivir, well-being], it creates confusion in our communities. Because others feel that these things are external, but for us it’s internal.

Alí García Segura presents and shares his experiences at the 14th Congress in Bhutan. (Photo courtesy of Alí García Segura)

Alí described his experience editing student dissertations at the university, which reflect the difficulties of attempting to put into words that which, for the Bri Bri, is internal. As Alí explained, these misunderstandings are not limited to relationships with researchers, but are also often a feature of state- or NGO-driven development initiatives:

From our standpoint, development seems to ask “what more can I acquire?” A good house, a good car… so that’s development. But for us, in our communities, that’s not development. Development is living well in good health together, surrounded by family and community who are all doing well as well. That is development for us.

Clearly, achieving development ‘success’ is difficult, when communities and project managers fundamentally disagree about the meaning of this concept.

Ali also discussed the importance of communities taking time to reflect on the potential implications of projects, and whether projects will contribute to, or detract from well-being.

…The community needs to reflect on whether something external is, or is not good… We have, just like all humans, that idea to always be changing things. But, at one point our community sat down and reflected on this situation. For example with health, there are all kinds of state projects that come in. Our land, since it’s forest, has venomous snakes. Obviously, they bite us, and people get sick, but the people have a traditional method for curing it. So in the past, when people were bit and got sick, they were cured with this traditional method. It’s very important when you’re in the forest to be strong, and have all your body parts in order to be well. But when the external healthcare arrived, the doctors said ‘no, you have to inject them with medicine and take them to the hospital!’ And the people who went off to the hospital would lose an arm or a foot.


…The word ‘amputation’ does not exist in our language. So when this kind of thing happens, it’s very shocking for the community and it’s very difficult to deal with. And it’s now a real difficulty for this person [missing a limb] to live in the community, so the communities reflected on whether this [external healthcare] was a good thing or a bad thing and decided no, it’s bad. Some communities have already lost a lot of people, but other smaller communities are reflecting in time to change this.


An indigenous response to conservation in Namibia

Fidi Alpers, Namibia

Fidi presented the story of a Kwe community, who lives inside what is now the Bwabwata National Park in northeastern Namibia. Fidi describes a set of circumstances which have “led away from well-being”, and his current work with the Kwe people to identify “options, approaches, opportunities to move towards well-being”.

The Bwabwata National Park is located in the Kavongo and Zambesi regions, and is sandwiched between Botswana and Angola. Bwabwata is part of a larger trans-frontier conservation area, with the largest elephant population in the world. Fidi describes the region’s past as characterized by a great deal of social and ecological disruption, as a result of colonialism, tribalism, and wars. In 2007, Bwabwata National Park was formed; however, people did, and still do, continue to live within the park. Fidi notes that this is an important step on the part of the Namibian government to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to remain on their land. However, people are generally still viewed as an impediment to conservation.

The challenge is, the Namibian government, a lot of scientists, a lot of ecologists are trained in ecology, wildlife, plants- so the people are the ‘problem’. We argue, I say… ‘a ha, this is actually the solution’. People are the solution.

Fidi describes how the park has limited the well-being and livelihood of the Kwe people – “They are hunters, but they are not allowed to hunt.” Fidi is working on a project with the Kwe to rebuild well-being is called Teaching Each Other Knowledge of All (TEKOA), and consists of organizing opportunities for elder-youth knowledge transmission in a wide variety of contexts.

Teaching Each Other Knowledge Of All. And this is a solution to the well-being problem. TEKOA. It’s about livelihood, it’s about knowledge, it’s about being, it’s about freedom. It’s about walking and talking and sharing. And people are the solution. Not the elephants, not governments, not policy, not IUCN. It’s people, people are the solution.

Fidi explains how TEKOA promotes the restoration of dignity and self-worth. In one particular project, Kwe youth and elders were brought together to identify animal tracks. Initially the youth were preoccupied with their phones, as they believed they knew everything they needed to know. However Fidi describes what happened when the elders began to ask questions they did not have answers to:

They [the phones] were quickly put away, and then the smile dropped from the youngster, the smile increased from the elder… and I witnessed this, and to me that is the well-being event, where the dignity was restored. Where suddenly the youngsters said ‘I must be quiet, and I must pay attention to our elders. They have something I don’t have.’

One of the most important outcomes of TEKOA is that it validates the traditional knowledge of the participants:

The western, linear approach is there- what we are doing is turning it upside-down: emptying a cup, a very familiar cup full of knowledge, and starting to fill a new cup with traditional knowledge, traditional wisdom, what is important for well-being. What is important for self-determination and self-development.

Fidi ended with a comment on the project’s advocacy efforts to restore the right to hunt for Kwe communities, and the ongoing conversations with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.


A re-envisioning of Indigenous self-concept, health and well-being

Linda McDonald, Liard First Nation, Kaska Dena territory

Linda’s presentation began with the recent history of the Kaska Dena people, because in her words: “ I just have to explain a little bit about who I am and who my people are, so that you understand why we aren’t well today and some of the things we’re doing to make us well”. Linda is Kaska Dena from Watson Lake, Yukon Territory, Canada. The Kaska Dena are a part of the Athabascan language group, and Linda explains that “the Athabascan peoples traditional territory comprises of 240 000 square miles, in British Columbia and a little bit into Northwest Territories”.

The Yukon Territory is a harsh environment. As Linda states,

To live in the subarctic where you have approximately 8 months of winter and the temperatures drop to 50, 52 below celsius, my ancestors had to have extremely good skills… everything about Kaska life was about the land. It had to be. The spirituality, the food, everything was connected to the land. You just could not live if you did not have knowledge of the land, and the spirituality was very much connected to that. So everything you did from the moment you woke up to the time you went to bed, if you did not treat the land with respect, well then you would die. Because the conditions were so harsh.

On her field trip to Tiger’s Nest after the Congress. (Photo shared by Linda McDonald)

On her field trip to Tiger’s Nest after the Congress. (Photo courtesy of Linda McDonald)

However, the relatively recent period of contact with settler colonialism has damaged these important ways of living on the land. While first contact between the Kaska Dena and settlers occurred in the 1800s, it was not until the construction of the Alaska highway that changes began to accelerate: “the Alaska highway was the first big event to open up the area to new ideas, and actually to people coming in and telling us what to do. Because the highway was built in 1942, that’s a relatively short period of time… So it brought in diseases, alcohol… So since 1942, things have literally gone downhill.”

Contact also brought residential schools. Linda explains the impact of these schools on the Kaska Dena:

But as some as you know, residential schools had a huge huge impact. And some people might say ‘Well boarding schools, we have boarding schools everywhere in the world, it didn’t bother us’. But I believe it was such a huge impact because it meant you couldn’t speak your language, you were separated from your family, and there were villages where it was silent. Can you imagine this town [in Bhutan], if you took out the children 5 to 16 years old, how quiet it would be? All those lovely little children that we saw walking to school this morning? If you took them all out of this community, how it would be? So to hurt a community, to hurt a people, you hurt them through the children.

In the present moment, Linda says, the Kaska Dena are unwell as a result of this colonial legacy. But they are on a journey toward wellness, as Linda explains:

…What we are doing to be well, is that the women are organizing, and we’re getting people back on the land. Because now everybody works at jobs, or tries to. And we believe that going back to ‘a-e’ [term for Kaska law and the principle of respect], learning our language again, learning the cultural skills and living by ‘a-e’- where every day of your life you’re respectful of the land, of your ancestors- that is what is going to bring us wellness.

In particular, Linda is working toward implementing alternative teaching models out on the land with elders and youth. She shared a photo of Myda, an elder who she works with in the local elementary school.

She [Myda] works in the school, but really we need to take her out of the school. In Kaska we can’t name most of the things in the room. We can’t say Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. We can’t say a lot of things about feelings. We can certainly say a lot of things about actions. But we’re under-utilizing this beautiful woman by leaving her in the classroom.

Spending time out on the land and reviving the Kaska language are key ways to reclaim a Kaska identity. In a Kaska community, Linda believes these efforts are essential to achieve any real well-being: “You cannot be well if you don’t know who you are.”


Well-being in the Buganda Kingdom

Ssekimpi Mahmoud Ssemambo, Njovu Clan, Bunganda Kingdom, Kampala, Uganda

Ssekimpi’s presentation focused on understandings to well-being in the Buganda Kingdom, challenges to well-being, and current initiatives to restore it. Ssekimpi explains:

…we were asked by the organizers of this congress, what is wellbeing? Now in our case, I’ll put it there, health is one of them, peace with each other is another, to live our responsibilities and obligations within the community. Because for us in Africa we live in communities. You never live alone. You are always a family, a community, a village. So you must know your limits, you must know your obligations. And once you are at peace with those, you have no problems. And then you must be responsible for each other…

In Uganda, whether or not someone has land is a key determinant of whether or not they are well.

In Uganda, like many places we’ve discussed here, land is critical. Because everybody must be anchored in a certain piece of land in Uganda. If we have no land, then you are homeless, you have no home. You are destitute in other words, no matter how much money you may have. For as long as you have no land. So land is one major item. You must have land for growing food, and make sure your food is sufficient.

Ssekimpi named various challenges to well-being, including commercialization and Westernization which have gone hand in hand with an increase in self-centredness:

Then the self-centredness which has crept in. Because of this Westernization, people have been cut into pieces. They have become self-centred. Each family wants to be on it’s own. If a family has a doctor, it looks at another family as if it is… out of the normal… They want, they just think of themselves and not the old communal ways. Because the doctor would have been a doctor for the whole village, but now he becomes a doctor just for that family. If you want to go and be assisted, they want you to pay something.

He also noted the alienation and familial breakdown that occurs when younger generations sell their land and move to the city:

Ugandan delegates from Makerere University & Buganda with the Bhutanese Guide. (Photo courtesy of Ssekimpi M. Ssemambo)

That one is very rampant of late because land in Uganda is very… it is hot stuff. Everybody is coming from other regions to Uganda to settle there, so everybody wants to buy a plot. And the land is so expensive now, and people have owned land from their ancestors- because ours has been kind of ownership from the ancestors, your ancestors lived there, you keep on settling the same land. And maybe I should add here there are pieces of land that are reserved for the next generations… Before people would have kept that land for the generations, for the newer generations, but it’s now sold off. They get the quick money, and run to towns. Now when they go to towns, they don’t make it. Often they fail. And they can’t come back to the land. And they end up being distanced in town….and the son who went to the city to make money didn’t make the money so he didn’t send money home, and out of fear or shame or whatever, he doesn’t come back to the village. So these parents die off. And the son only comes back to sell whatever was remaining. So that’s the biggest problem.

Despite these challenges, the Buganda Kingdom is working to restore the well-being of its subjects. As Ssekimpi explained, this means working to “provide territorial sovereignty and integrity”. When Uganda was colonized by Britain, land reserved for future generations was mistakenly identified as ‘abandoned land’ and became crown land. When the country gained independence, this land was not returned to families but instead became government land. In 1993, the monarch of Buganda was crowned again and the governance systems of the Kingdom were revived. Ssekimpi stated that:

The first thing we tackled was to get back the land that was confiscated. So a revival of territorial sovereignty and integrity… So, we have struggled now to get back that land and I’m happy to report that just three weeks back, we got over 200 land titles which originally were with the government. So we have that land back. So now, that land we can give back to our subjects. Not that this land has been empty, but we want its management to come back to the Buganda kingdom because then we can say that this is land for the forest, this is land for the wetland, this is going to be there, this is land for whatever. Which was not the case with the government.

Ssekimpi demonstrated that in Uganda, good, culturally-appropriate governance of the land is one of the most effective ways to foster well-being.