Yes, Virginia – There is Power in Non-Physical, Intangible Things

A Closer Look at Cultural Ecological Services

This is the first part of a four-part series dedicated to the different categories of ecological services portrayed in the Infinite Wild carbon-neutral NFT collection found in WILD’s 2022 annual report (starting on page 36). This specific essay explores cultural ecosystem services (starting on page 114) and how WILD’s programs help conserve and protect this life-giving support system.

For many, the notion of “cultural ecological services” feels uncomfortably nebulous. Here, after all, is a class of things that are intangible owing to the fact that they are processes and non-physical because they are cultural.

At this point you are forgiven for asking if intangible, non-physical things are even real. Yes, they are. And I am here to reassure you, dear reader, that not only are intangible, non-physical things real, they are oftentimes some of the most important concepts and processes that drive our existence. Grind up the universe in tiny atoms, and you will not find a single grain of democracy, justice, or compassion, which are all intangible, non-physical processes. But not only do we believe (or at least hope) such things exist, we structure entire modes of living around them. And within the category of intangible, non-physical things, cultural ecological services are one of the most ancient and significant forces shaping humanity.

To demonstrate the importance of culture as an intermediary between people and the rest of our living planet, let’s take a closer look at the Western Amazon, and the Yawanawá People in particular.

Today the Yawanawá People are starting to flourish once again beneath the canopy of the regenerative rainforest, but just a little over 100 years ago their elders were enslaved to the unforgiving and exploitative rubber plantations that dominated and decimated the region.

Both the people and the forest suffered under the insatiable demands of the plantation owners. Thousands upon thousands died in those plantations, and much of the knowledge about how to live well within the forest was lost with them.

Since their emancipation, the Yawanawá have been in slow recovery, but the journey to reestablishing their identity and sustainable livelihoods has proven difficult, especially when they have lacked outside help. Living in a degraded forest with only partial knowledge on how to do so well slowed their progress as a community for decades. This was reflected in both the health of the forest and the health of the people; at one point the Yawanawá’s population dwindled to under 600.

In the last two decades, however, the fortunes of the Yawanawá began to change for the better. Under the leadership of Chief Tashka Yawanawá, the people have experienced a revitalization of their traditional lifeways, cultural practices and ceremonies that help them “remember to remember” their relationship with the forest and the daily actions they must take to care for themselves and the wider community of life that supports their existence.

This cultural renaissance has coincided with a revitalization of the forest. Though many rainforest trees are slow-growing, biodiversity is on the recovery in the 200,000 hectares stewarded by the Yawanawá. This fact alone has encouraged the Yawanawá People to seek funding to recover more of their traditional homelands, including an adjacent area of forest abundant in mahogany trees and black jaguar, which they consider a site of deep sacredness.

Though cultural ecological services are not physical or tangible, their benefits are – as evidenced by the Yawanawá. A community with a strong identity derived from their interactions with the surrounding forest and a deep spiritual connection to each other and the land has helped the population triple in the last two decades. People are healthier, and the community is united by ceremony and a shared commitment to stewarding the rainforest.

In turn, we can serve the local ecology through our cultural choices, as evidenced by Chief Tashka’s leadership and the fervor of his local and international partners.

When you donate to the WILD Foundation, you help create lasting and regenerative outcomes by empowering the powerful, if intangible, life-support processes that make Earth vibrant and alive. Our work with the Yawanawá People is just one of our many programs that emphasize the role of culture, as it is derived from nature and as we reciprocate its gifts in turn, as a force multiplier for the conservation of Earth’s biosphere. Our youth leadership program, CoalitionWILD, and the World Wilderness Congress, which builds a global community of fervent wilderness advocates, are two other examples of how WILD prioritizes cultural processes in our conservation work.

I invite you now to join us in this incredible journey for 2023 as WILD continues to protect and to wield cultural processes for the benefit of life on Earth.

NOTE: WILD is one of the very few organizations actively working to build support for the protection of Half of Earth’s lands and seas, the amount of nature scientists conclude we need to successfully fight the twin existential crises of the climate and extinction emergencies. When you give to WILD you give voice to this urgently needed effort and fuel to both our on-the-ground conservation work and policy campaigns around the world. A gift of $250 pays for all of WILD’s conservation and campaign programs for one hour – making that hour yours! A gift of $2,000 pays for all of WILD’s programs for a full day. Although WILD’s team only wants you to give what you can afford, we would be thrilled to have you join this historic effort to restore and protect the infinite wild with a gift today. Thank you in advance for all you are doing to help keep Earth wild!


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