"An Education Based on Strengthening Dignity and Respect for Others Has Become Indispensable"


Tarcila Rivera Zea from the Quechua-Chanka Nation of Peru has been an important indigenous activist and recognized defender of the rights of indigenous girls, women, youth and peoples for more than 40 years. She provides wisdom on how to educate young people to value Mother Earth.

Portrait of Tarcila Rivera Zea

This interview is part of our Living Within Our Means Series.

Overshoot Day, the day on which we as a whole global community have used more resources than the earth can regenerate in a year, moves forward every year, highlighting the acceleration and convergence of multiple crises, including in particular the climate and biodiversity emergency. This year it is on July 28, 2022. Please tell us about 1-2 topics/processes/initiatives that you are currently supporting in your professional context and which you feel are absolutely critical in the context of reaching more sustainable growth paths.

As a defender of the collective and individual rights of women, young people, and indigenous peoples, I am greatly concerned about the excessive eagerness to generate economic gains to the detriment of natural resources, of Mother Nature’s health, in particular, since its vast food and medicinal biodiversity is being plundered and killed. It is our priority, the indigenous women’s priority, that seeds be preserved to ensure the production of food that is both wholesome and adequate for one’s health.  After each production cycle, the seeds are selected and stored for the next farming season. But the impact of climate change and over-exploitation of the earth’s soil and subsoil pose a major threat to production. It is crucial that the world understands that, if we do not protect the seeds and look after our water supply, this will cause our extinction. We, women and indigenous peoples, prioritize access to territorial rights because they protect our life and nature, providing for our daily sustenance in the remotest communities and in the cities. The right to food sovereignty is closely related to our collective and individual rights; therefore, we must both prevent the plundering of these resources and look after them for the future generations.

What role do equity, human rights and gender equality play in these processes/initiatives? What role should they play?

Fundamental human rights are the umbrella under which all our rights are protected while relying on the territory and on access to natural resources ensures life to us as peoples. The human beings’ holistic concept of showing consideration for other human beings gives us the advantage of being able to act on the basis of reciprocity and complementarity to promote life. Our starting point is the concept that we, human beings, interact and serve each other respectfully. This holistic concept has been disrupted by mercantile and predatory actions that have ultimately unbalanced every relation. This has brought about competition and profound inequalities whether regarding the possession of goods or relations across differences. Postponing women’s access to equal opportunities [for them] to grow spiritually, physically, emotionally, and professionally has steadily deepened discrimination – in the case of indigenous women, structural and institutionalized racism prevents access to opportunities in equality of conditions with other sectors, much less in relation to males.

In this day and age, no one can really claim ignorance about what actions are sustainable or harmful in terms of the preservation of life on Earth. So, it seems we really don't have a knowledge problem but an action problem. If you could implement 1-3 key reforms to drive more action for sustainability in your sphere of influence, which ones would you focus on and which alliances would be important to achieve them?

To me, what is most important nowadays is education and skills building rather than learning how to read, write, or read books. We need to review the foundations of education with a view to valuing the contributions of collectives and of every living being providing for our sustenance. An education based on strengthening dignity and respect for others has become indispensable. Respecting other people’s life and their right to self-determination and valuing intercultural coexistence and mutual respect oriented toward peace-building and harmonious relations would be ideal. Over the last 30 years we, indigenous women, have learned to understand the non-indigenous women’s movement and to respect the Western feminist movement. Today, we can say that we have contributed to the visibility of Mother Nature’s values with our ways of thinking and collective being. We have learned to understand that individual rights and the struggle for gender equality are part of our vision of once again achieving balanced multidimensional relations with all living creatures. The alliances we must build should be guided towards identifying common goals shared by the social movements fighting for justice and peace. The feminist movement is important to us as long as they understand that defending clean water and a healthy environment and eradicating all forms of discrimination strengthens the achievement of common goals. Eradicating by means of decolonial, anti-racist, nonhegemonic educational content and by fostering respect will allow us to educate the new generations who will share the conviction that sustainable social peace is accomplished by eradicating exploitation and oppression. We must recover the meaning of human rights in their broader sense as the basis for our coexistence and with other beings toward full and sustainable life on the planet.

Without individual resilience, it is difficult to advocate effectively and sustainably for greater global resilience. Many sustainability advocates put their service for the collective good over their own well-being, among them a disproportionate number of women who are still facing the primary care-burden in both their personal as well as professional lives. What helps you to maintain and strengthen your mental and physical power?

Many of us, indigenous women, who have been born in conditions of extreme exclusion and discrimination of all kinds, ask ourselves where we get the energy and the strength to stay committed to this struggle for the rights of others, as they are not ours alone. The answer is that we refuse to see our peoples in the same conditions we were born in, with our rights, opportunities, and respect for our bodies and lives denied. The very experiences of having been through unacceptable situations give us the strength to go on shouldering a very heavy burden. We, mothers, who have opted for this road are questioned by sons and daughters as they feel neglected in terms of attention and care; we, the wives, are viewed as those who enjoy the streets more than our homes; and indigenous women, including young women, who exercise their rights are demonized, stereotyped, or judged as bad examples. However, there is increasing acknowledgment of our contributions and achievements, which are the result of years and years of dedication and effort, a long-term process. In my particular case, it took me about fifty years, learning to listen to and watch others, first in my family, communal, and social environment, and then those outside; first, by learning their language, getting to know their culture, observing how they relate to each other. To experience in my own body and life the worst experiences, but also the good experiences. Having acquired confidence in ourselves, we speak up and raise our heads in dignity. I started speaking up in order to turn my thoughts and feelings into collective action that leads to contributions and initiatives for girls, boys, young people, women, and also for men – in other words, for the greater collective.

If you had to tell a first grader today why it is important to continue working for an ecologically, socially and gender-just transformation in the face of all the enormous challenges, what would you say and what skills would you recommend?

Boys and girls have to live and receive an education that is based on reality, learning to discover their own potentialities and those of their environments. We have to talk to them about the life of corn, not merely by taking it out of a can, but by walking with them from the seedling that is growing on fertile soil where living beings make it germinate, grow, and bear fruit. Then, to talk about its use and transformation and of how it ensures health and nourishment. The present crisis forces us to listen to each other, generating respect for that which is different, and today we, with our indigenous backgrounds, are convinced that our philosophy of life is what guarantees life for societies. Come, boy, let’s get to know each other and how the corn we eat grows and why the earth needs water, seeds, and little earthworms.

Please tell us about one book or idea that has recently inspired you.

I am sorry to say I haven’t got much time to read. Coming from an oral culture, I really enjoy talking and listening to older people from other cultures as they talk about their ideals and commitment to keep on seeking alternatives for a harmonious life, they really inspire me. A critical setting of discrimination, material poverty, any form of abuse – that is what encourages me to draw the strength and take the initiative to look for solutions. Talking with older people and getting to know their experience and wisdom inspire me to think how much better the settings of the new generation may be. Thirty-five years ago, I saw a monolingual child, an orphan in the context of an internal armed conflict, who received a bowl of soup provided by the local church upon being discovered. He was hiding in a corner, eating his soup hurriedly, not looking at anyone as if ashamed of receiving charity.  He was my greatest inspiration. He reflected my own image, and that was when the culture-affirming workshops occurred to me, to live through art. After all these years, we now have living examples of highly positive leaders who have asserted cultural identity, strengthened self-esteem, who show positive leadership and are living examples of that initiative. I dream that this proposal will become a public policy adopted by municipalities for the full development of a new generation of boys and girls who will live life freely and to the fullest without being ashamed of being poor, a Quechua speaker, an indigenous person, a refugee, or a migrant.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.