2008 Bioneers Conference Focuses on Indigenous Culture in Sustainable Development

by Kimberly N. Chase
- USA -

It's not everyday that thousands of like-minded people from diverse fields come together to discuss ecological topics from biomimicry to eco-tourism, but the 2008 Bioneers conference, held October 17-19 in San Rafael, California (just north of San Francisco), provided such an opportunity. In its 19th year, Bioneers allows environmental organizers, journalists, indigenous leaders, and eco-entrepreneurs to meet and share ideas about how to create a more sustainable society.

Indigenous culture was an important part of this year's conference, with collaboration between the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Cultural Conservancy. At the Youth Panel on native culture, speakers discussed linking native identity and environmentalism. "How do we integrate culture into the work we do?" asked UC Berkeley graduate and Native American activist Dallas Goldtooth.

Ben Powless, a Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario and member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, delved into the history of native peoples in Canada, going over the loss of language and culture that occurred after colonization. Similar to the US boarding school program, native children were taken from their homes by the age of six and enrolled in schools hundreds of miles away, where they were forced to speak only English or French and were often physically mistreated. When they returned home as teenagers, they had little or no knowledge of their birth languages. "Because of that, they'd lost the ability to integrate within the native cultures," Powless explains, encouraging a renewed sense of cultural pride.

In a nearby conference tent, the focus was on using technology to motivate and organize people for environmental protection. At the Google Earth Outreach plenary session, the tone was hopeful, with speakers eager to share successful examples of environmental campaigns utilizing the mapping tool. Members of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging (NAIL), spoke about the organization's successful effort in 2005-2007 to stop the cutting of 1,000 acres of redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The NAIL team used Google Earth to clearly show the proposed logging area and its potential effects on a nearby a daycare center, active landslide areas and mountain roads.

Kevin Flynn, a senior manager at Cisco Systems and an active member of NAIL, encourages aspiring organizers to be consistent and thorough as they combine this new technology with traditional organizing.

"Make it easy for people to do something, and they'll do it," he says. He urges people to send out regular updates on group activities, and to look to church halls, schools or community centers for inexpensive venues. And in case of conflict, he adds, "Always be excruciatingly polite."

In addition to seminars, Bioneers offers a place for eco-friendly organizers and vendors to present their programs and products to the public.

"It's very inspiring to see how many positive efforts are going on regarding sustainability and social justice,” says Varsha Mathrani of Project Green Hands. With the help of 1 million volunteers, the organization has helped plant 6 million trees to date.

Visitors to the conference enjoyed perfect weather, along with exposure to new ways of embracing an environmental worldview.

Insurance executive Rich Kirste of Novato, California says, "I've come a number of times and I'm always impressed by the work going on elsewhere. It's a way for me to find out about things that I really wouldn't hear about any other way."

Linda Delair, a volunteer facilitator for the Pachamama Alliance, attended Bioneers in 2006 and was moved by the values the conference represents.

"It's inspiring to see so many people who are actually being a part of a solution," she says, highlighting the feeling of solidarity at the conference. "It's unnecessary to feel alone when there's so many organizations here that represent so many people." Pachamama offers "Rainforest Journeys" to Ecuador with the Achuar people, including community-based training for young leaders.

For Delair, who treasures her time in Ecuador, our culture is at the cusp of a major readjustment. "The throwaway society is coming to an end," she says.

This view couldn't be more relevant for Kevin Shea, sales director for Chico Bag reusable shopping bags. He says the company saw a market opening and moved to fill it with the colorful bundles that open into durable synthetic totes.

"It seems like people always had explanations for not using reusable shopping bags even though canvas has been around forever," he says. "They're handing out thousands and thousands of bags per day, and no one seems to think twice about it," he adds, referring to the typical supermarket. This was the company's third year at the conference, and Shea found it a good opportunity to network with other eco-conscious people. "I'm here to watch and listen and talk to people."

To illustrate the problem, Chico Bag inventor Andrew Keller and pal Adin Buchanan, 11, wore giant costumes made of hundreds of plastic bags. Buchanan, a young and astute environmentalist, says he enjoyed some of the panel discussions, and is interested in biomimicry, the practice of innovation using nature's existing designs. And at this early age, he's already a proponent of eating locally grown food: "My mom and I have a garden and we eat almost all of our veggies out of that," he says.

Outside, other Bioneers participants took their activism into the creative realm, working on a many-sided collaborative painting.

"It's a landscape of the future. We're inviting people to paint on the mural what they're going to create in the world," explains muralist Kevin Buckland. The young painter's perspective meshed perfectly with the conference's forward-looking focus.

"I think it should have been called Bioneers 2014, because I think it's really ahead of its time. It's looking out instead of looking in, and by looking out we can see everything together."

About the Author
Kimberly N. Chase is a freelance journalist specializing in environmental features for print and television. She graduated in 2005 from Stanford's MA program in journalism and worked as a crime reporter in California before spending two years in Mexico City. She is now enjoying working on some of the same issues stateside.

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