Cinthya Ammerman

Beneath the daily sensationalist headlines of the political spectacle there are also news of communities struggling against environmental degradation, inequality and oppression. Occasionally, trending articles pop up on our newsfeeds: “Teens Sue U.S. Government Over Climate Change,” “Indigenous Leaders Are Being Killed Because They Want the Right to Live.” Before we allow the information to sink in, we move on to the next article in our feed.

My work as a graduate student in Native American Studies, centers on the defense of mother earth and indigenous land rights in Central and South America. When I tell people what I do, the follow up question often is: “so why is this important—why is it relevant?” Understandably, for many people who are inundated with the minute details of our country’s political-economic contest, things that don’t figure prominently in the mass media are, well, unimportant.

Our privilege often affords us the ability to conduct ourselves in ways that don’t take our environment and others into account. Homes, closets and pantries filled with products made available to us through resource extraction and exploitation. Mining, damming, land grabs, monoculture plantations, often at the expense of the genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples who have found themselves in the way of ‘development’.

It is a well-known fact that much of the earth’s biodiversity is located on indigenous territory, and that indigenous knowledge is a key contribution to how we can live harmoniously with our environment. Many indigenous peoples are at the front lines of an intensifying battle against environmental degradation. A battle we are all part of, because if they lose, we all lose. Let me pause here to say that I’m not advocating for a return to an idyllic, “uncontaminated” past, I’m simply suggesting that we become alert to the struggles of indigenous peoples.

The Mellon Public Scholars Program has given me the opportunity to work in Guatemala with a Q’eqchi’ Maya community organization for land defense and integrated development. The organization has asked for support in visibilizing their efforts to reclaim land and sacred sites, revitalize their ways of knowing, and their ongoing struggle to hold corporations accountable for ecocide. This work entails creating a website and informational videos for them to share with the world, and identifying additional resources to support them in their mission.

I carry myself as a public scholar because I understand that my well-being is tied to the well-being of others. My research is not my own, it is not my property nor the property of an institution. This research is part of a collective struggle for survivance that begins with our ancestors and expands beyond us to the future generations. To be a public scholar is to acknowledge that scholarship can and should be used for the benefit of all, human and other-than-human.