31/12/2004

Acceptance speech – Raúl Montenegro

If we destroy their environments and communities, we will lose the answers they have to solving our problems, and to the protection of our common futures.

Honorable guests, dear friends, according to the Mbya indigenous people I met in the Kuña Piru rainforests, problems and solutions live in different countries.

Our challenge is how to bring them together. From my personal point of view, human species has been discarding obvious solutions and increasing obvious problems. Why? A possible answer is our poor capacity for reading nature and society. We can read a book, but we cannot read nature or ourselves. We are illiterate, even having diplomas, postgraduate courses, and Internet.

Humans began as a species 160,000 years ago. Our main innovations were dependent on the capacity of our brains.

The human neocortex permitted the receiving, storage and processing of incredible amounts of information. Before us, most living species had only inherited patterns of behavior, with scarce capacity for processing flows of external information. Within living organisms such a lack of cultural variation was highly convenient for the survival of ecosystems.

Cloned behavioral patterns resulted in each species becoming more ecologically predictable. Homo sapiens, to the contrary, stored unprecedented amounts of information, and transmitted such information through several generations. With a flexible ecological niche, our behavior became more unpredictable – unfortunately for the ecosystems. How to combine our non-predictable species with predictable ones?

For at least 150,000 years our lack of predictability was not a problem. Small populations of hunter-gatherers and weak access to sources of energy diminished our impact on the environment.

Nevertheless something changed 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. In 9 different cultures and places, we invented the short food chain and called it “agriculture”. For the first time in human history small amount of energy used for planting and collecting produced enormous quantities of chemical energy and nutrients. As a consequence of surplus products, the first green revolution was followed by first urban revolution. Meanwhile hundreds of indigenous groups from all over the world continued to live using long food chains. During the last 5,000 to 10,000 years the two strategies collided. Such silent battle nowadays grows, unseen and unheard by most people.

The short chain strategy needs deforested areas and extremely low biodiversity, in fact only one species. The long food chain demands the conservation of natural ecosystems and high biodiversity. Unfortunately, short chain strategies are the current winners. Agriculture, even organic, functions in a similar way to mining. Outputs are not balanced with inputs. Since the last century we know that only natural ecosystems can produce soil, manage freshwater and protect existing climates. Without natural ecosystems and their natural factories, environmental stability cannot exist. The tragedy of this collision is that most of our societies, from capitalist to socialist, ignore it. We are silently killing indigenous communities and unborn future generations by using only short food chain strategies. Long food chain practitioners face their own crisis in the short term but in contrast, short food chain nations transfer their current environmental disturbances (and suffering) to next generations.

The only way to survive is by being aware of this collision, and reacting to it as citizens, researchers or presidents. There is only one solution for each natural ecosystem of the world – by maintaining the balance between the surface covered by natural ecosystems and that used for agriculture, at least 50% of each. Unfortunately, in most of natural biogeographic regions such provision has not been accomplished. There are entire regions whose natural ecosystems have been replaced with crops or cattle grazing. By far, this is one of the main problems facing humanity. We are destroying invaluable resources, and ruling out the possibility of survival for future generations. The rich can migrate when times are hard but the poor have no option but to stay when the land is spent. When the land no longer bears fruit, it is the poor that die.

Which are the main causes?

  • 1) Cultural drift. Small groups make decisions for large populations and their decisions have a great statistical probability of being wrong, or even lethal. The more power is used in a dictatorial manner, the more risks exist for the whole society and the environment. The Manhattan Project, which produced the first three nuclear detonations on Earth, and the current Iraq war, are good examples.
  • 2) Militarism. The armed wing of governments and private Mafiosi unnecessary deviate funds to sustain any decision their leaders make, whether wrong or illegal.
  • 3) Corruption. Governmental and private corruption supports and enables illegal decision-making, non-democratic empowerment, and money accumulation.
  • 4) Incompetent leaders. The lack of capabilities among irresponsible dictators, presidents and governors often damage millions of human lives. Augusto Pinochet and George Bush are good examples of this.
  • 5) Corporate selfishness. There are corporations like those producing oil, tobacco and nuclear electricity that cheat and deceive in order to increase their financial margins.
  • 6) Lack of justice. High consumption lifestyles, unequal access to health and bad distribution of goods and services increases poverty, illness and mortality. While a poor farmer consumes 2,500 kilocalories per day in the South, citizens in industrialized countries spent over 300,000 kilocalories per day, per person.
  • 7) Lack of sustainable information. Millions of people consume products whose cultivation and manufacture destroy both the environment and human lives simply because they are uninformed. The consumption of Soya in China and Netherlands, for example, promotes and enables the deforestation of unique ecosystems in Argentina and Brazil, and
  • 8) Bad science and technology. Research and technical development often ignore sustainability, human dignity, and the rights of future generations to be born.

What to do? There are a lot of counsels and recipes.

The simplest one is to know what is happening, and to decide where and how to act. Any journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. The collision of short and long food chains strategies are at the basis of our current crisis. Indigenous peoples living on their ancestral lands can help industrialized countries by living in a sustainable manner (not the contrary). If we destroy their environments and communities, we will lose the answers they have to solving our problems, and to the protection of our common futures. The most complex nuclear power station is less important than a tropical tree, and the most simple and sustainable answer more useful than any National Library.

I receive this award as a new window for transmitting old doubts, old practices and old knowledge. The Right Livelihood Award transforms our small words into great headlines. It’s a wind from the North that empowers the South, its peoples, its forests, our truth. According Martin Luther King the great tragedy of contemporary peoples is not only the roar of dictatorship, but also the silence of good people. Since its creation, the Right Livelihood Award has contributed to breaking that silence.

There are now 25 years of broken silences.

Many thanks.




RaÏl Montenegro, President
FUNAM (Fundacion para la defensa del ambiente)
Casilla de Correo 83, Correo Central
5000 Cordoba
ARGENTINA