The words spoken at the opening night of the Amazonia exhibit were moving and powerful, bringing attention to a truth many of us have forgotten or chosen to ignore. 

“People are not separate from nature, but part of it. The relationship is one of interdependence and the survival of both is intimately connected,” said Anthony Shelton, director of the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MoA).

That is the core ideology that the entire exhibition rotates around — an ideology that, while often forgotten in Canada, has not been forgotten by the Indigenous people of the Amazon. They reject the concept of nature as a commodity and instead recognize the Rights of Nature, something British Columbia, and Canada as a whole, has failed to acknowledge. 

In South America, the countries of Ecuador and Bolivia have listened to the Indigenous people’s knowledge of nature and incorporated the Rights of Nature into their national constitutions. This decision sets a powerful example for the rest of the world and poses a question to other governments: When will you do the same? 

The opening night was full of people who crowded around the chairs and podium to listen to what Shelton and the exhibit curator, Nuno Porto, had to say. Prior to the opening words, people were busy admiring the exhibit and all the voices became a babble of excitement and somewhat pretentious conversation. The moment the MoA director stood up to speak, the audience went silent, eager to hear what he had to say. He introduced the exhibit as the fourth in a series that has examined the relationships between Indigenous cultures and their knowledge of the environment and land. 

“Indigenous knowledge about the environment is taken very seriously, rejecting the idea that nature is a commodity to be exploited, given monetary value and traded,” said Shelton, going on to describe how the South American governments of Ecuador and Bolivia have adopted the Indigenous perspectives of nature. The Amazonia exhibit explores these perspectives as well as how South American countries have incorporated them into their governments to protect the Amazon rainforest.  

Porto then gave a few comments on the exhibition which took two years to complete. He described the relations between humans and nature, reinforcing the Indigenous concept that humans are a part of nature as opposed to being superior to it.

“The forest became what it is — not in spite of, but rather because of the many peoples that live there. Being one with nature has been central to these Indigenous people’s knowledge from the earliest times to present days,” said Porto.

Porto went on to discuss the importance of preserving the forest and promoting its ability to flourish and grow.

“Living well is not about having more things. It’s about living a well-adjusted life [and] continually building relations with other people and with natural elements … doing so in such a way that prosperity and wealth are here not just for now, but for many generations to come.”

The implementation of the Rights of Nature into these countries’ constitutions is “a promising prospect for our future,” said Porto. The governments of these countries are not just ensuring the Amazon’s protection for our own sake, but for the sake of generations to come. 

“In BC and in Canada, we do not recognize that nature has rights,” said Porto. “That is what this exhibition is about.”

Porto closed his speech with a quote from Miguel de Cervantes’ work, Don Quixote — “To change the world, my friend Sancho, is not madness or utopia. It is justice.”

From here, there was enthusiastic applause from the audience who were now all the more fascinated by the exhibit. People flooded to the exhibit entrance, wanting to get the first and best look at all the exhibition had to offer. 

At the beginning hung a quote from the Constitution of the Plurinational State of Ecuador that read, “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and unfolds, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes. All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature.” 

As we walked into the exhibit, there was a large sign wrapping around the right wall which began with geographic facts about the Amazon, then moved into the countries that it consumes. From there, it continued on into information about the Indigenous peoples that live there, concluding with information about what threatens the forests’ safety and the primary causes of deforestation. The curved design elegantly led us further inward. 

On the left wall was the “Amazon Cosmos,” where two films from Diego Samper were being projected: The Serpent and The Sky and Amazon Genesis. The sign next to the projections described the significance of these two films, as well as how the Amazonian people understand the “connections in time and space between places, beings and spirits, and are conscious of the role of humanity in the intricate fabric of nature, not as a conqueror, but as the custodian of its sacred balance.” 

As we moved further in, there was a display case that took up a great amount of space in the middle of the exhibit. It contained artifacts from the Indigenous people of the Amazon such as armbands, flutes, headdresses, necklaces, tools, baskets, sieves and more beautifully crafted objects. 

Around the corner on the right wall was a black and white slideshow with photos of Indigenous people. All the photos had been captured as candidly as possible to give an objective portrayal of the Amazonian people. Continuing down the right side of the gallery hung a multitude tapestries, each with a different South American country and the different laws regarding the Amazonian rainforest and the Indigenous people that live within it. 

On the opening night, a crowd of people were lined up along that side to read, deeply focused on comparing all the different laws and doctrines. On the far left side, beyond the large display in the middle, hung an assortment of masks and other garments from different Indigenous cultures. A placard before it described the Makuna Peach Palm Festival and the significance of this dress-wear to it. 

At the far back, there were a number of hammocks that visitors were allowed to lie in with their shoes off. While watching this, I saw a woman and her child lying in a hammock, with the child smiling with delight. A couple of hammocks over from them, two older women were rocking back and forth, giggling with one another. 

Overlayed throughout the entire exhibit, there was a soundscape playing from Diego Samper's Amazon Chant, which featured the voices of Indigenous singers and storytellers. It created an atmosphere that transported me from the exhibit, almost making me forget that I was in a museum in Vancouver. As I made my way through, the abundance of items from Amazonian cultures and information about the forest, had me completely lost amongst the displays. 

Everything from the visuals, to the soundscape, to each individual display and placard was deeply entrenched in the messages that Nuno Porto and Anthony Shelton spoke of earlier. This is a unique exhibit that I would recommend everyone go to. The richness of information that effectively supports the concept of giving nature rights is unlike anything I’ve seen before.