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25 Years of Pachamama Alliance: A Conversation with the Co-founders

September 30, 2021 | By The Pachamama Alliance

Pachamama Alliance Lynne TwistLynne with members of an Achuar community in the 1990s

2021 marks 25 years of Pachamama Alliance’s work with Indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest and its global work toward building a thriving, just, and sustainable world. The three Co-founders: Bill Twist, Lynne Twist, and John Perkins share a few insights from the last 25 years and their thoughts on what is to come in the next 25. 

Q: You often say that Pachamama Alliance was not found, but rather, the Pachamama Alliance found you back in 1996. Can you explain what you mean by that?

John Perkins: At the time, I was working with the Shuar. I had founded an earlier organization with Daniel Koupermann called Dream Change, specifically to change the dream of the modern world incorporating Indigenous knowledge. Members from another Indigneous nation, the Achuar, reached out to Daniel, asking to form a partnership in order to meet the threats to their communities from the outside world—oil and mining companies encroaching on and destroying their land. 

When I joined Daniel deep in Achuar Territory, they told us they had come to understand through their shamanic dreaming process that the threat was not entirely the extractive companies themselves, but rather the dream of “progress” that drove those companies. The Achuar wanted to begin a partnership with people in the world they most feared; so they truly found us—or as they say, the spirit of the Earth, of Pachamama, found us through them. 

I felt overwhelmed by that request. Until I thought of Lynne Twist. She and I had previously traveled in Guatemala together and I was very impressed with her networking ability. I contacted her when I got back to the states. She reminded me that she had seen a vision while we were working with a shaman in Guatemala; that vision totally resonated with the request from the Achuar.

So again, it's like Pachamama found Lynne in Guatemala, two years before we first went to the Amazon together. Lynne assembled a group of amazing people including Bill. We traveled together back to Achuar Territory. By the time the trip was over, Bill was deeply impacted. He too had had a shamanic experience and Pachamama found him. He volunteered to take the next step, and it ended up being more than just a step! He was exactly the right person to move into the leadership position. Bill, Lynne, and I were found. The whole organization was found.

Bill Twist: I always feel more comfortable saying that I was in some way founded by Pachamama and Pachamama Alliance. For me that means who I’ve grown to become—my understanding of the world, my sense of commitment and responsibility to the future—as the organization grew and flourished. That is my experience. Pachamama was very wise when it found John and Lynne. And I’m forever grateful that it founded me.

Lynne Twist: I say that all of those perspectives are true, that the spirit of life was looking for people who would respond the way that we did. And in that, the privilege and blessing of being connected to that energy, the spirit of life, the Achuar people, the Sacred Headwaters region, we became—we had been called to become—the people that we needed to become to be useful to this project, to this world, to this long term future for life. So in that definition we were founded, forged, shaped. 

The vision of changing the dream of the modern world was and is such a powerful phrase, and that vision pulls people towards being who they need to be to fulfill it. I think that vision—when it's really bold and strong—shapes the people who are at work to fulfill it to become who they need to be. We had to change ourselves, we had to transform ourselves to even be able to understand that we were living in a trance. We couldn't talk about the trance without waking up from it ourselves. And so I feel that saying Pachamama found us is accurate and also that Pachamama founded us is also accurate because it really did shape and create who we are today.

Pachamama AllianceThe founding group of travelers with Bill, Lynne, and John in 1996, holding their first donations.

Q: In the first 25 years of Pachamama Alliance what has surprised you?

LT: When we went to the rainforest for the very first time, Bill was a full on business guy. He was running a company and had started another company and he was very involved in competitive yacht racing.  He wasn't at all engaged or thinking about the Amazon rainforest or environmental issues. He came with John and me to the Amazon and then when the moment came to really take a deep step into the responsibility for what was taking place, he was the person who stepped up. I just didn't expect that. I really wanted him to come because I knew it was going to be pretty amazing, but I didn't know what would happen. And then it ended up that, in many ways, I think who the Achuar were ultimately looking for was him. Bill had the courage and the strength and bonded with them in ways that I was deeply touched by.

The Achuar had just formed their own governing federation. They needed seed funding.  We raised some significant seed money from our group to support them for three years and Bill took responsibility for making those financial transactions happen and for getting the money over those three years to the Achuar, helping them understand money and banking and the importance of accounting and keeping track etc. His work with them was at first purely stewarding the financial arrangement, but during those years, Bill became the key player for what became Pachamama Alliance—I loved that and it surprised me, I didn't expect that.

BT: In the beginning I don’t know if I was surprised or more sobered by the complexity of the task of supporting Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest to preserve their lands and their cultures in the face of the onslaught of industrialized civilization. I could see how nearly every field of human endeavour—economics, anthropology, sociology, biology, political science—held important keys to the task. It made me wish I’d paid more attention in college but also showed how important broad collaboration would be to success.

An unexpected outcome of the first 25 years is how deep our appreciation of Indigenous wisdom has become. The Indigenous communities we work with generally know and relate to the world as alive with purpose and meaning and spirits that offer guidance. That was not the world that I had grown up in. Mine was a mechanical and seemingly indifferent universe. And what we've learned—and what I think people who've gotten involved in our programs have learned—is about the abundance of aliveness and possibility in the world. That framework of a world that's full of guidance and intelligence, expands our own sense of who we are and dramatically expands the space of who we as human beings can be and what we know we can take on. It encourages people to be their best selves, to stretch, to dream, to inspire others.

JP: It started off as “how do we assist the Achuar?” One of the first things we did was help them fund their office in Puyo, Ecuador. And that was sort of the standard reaction that we in the high-income countries have: how do we save them and how do we save the forest? 

But very quickly we heard their strong message: the only way you're going to save the forest is by changing the dream of the modern world, changing “the dream of the world that you guys live in.” And I think that was a monumental moment in Pachamama Alliance’s history. We saw that we not only had to commit to saving the rainforest, but also we had to work very hard to expand programs like Awakening the Dreamer in countries around the world. 

It was a huge step because no other organizations were doing that. There were organizations  that promoted  things like self knowledge and improvement, and there were organizations like Rainforest Action Network and Conservation International that were involved in saving rainforests and protecting environments—but we were doing both. That's really what the forest was asking the Achuar to ask us to do, to change the dream of the modern world and in doing that, protect the environment. 

Because of Bill and Lynne and the work of many others, very quickly we accepted this new challenge of changing the dream of the modern world. It surprised and now gratifies me to see how quickly that happened. The forest, the Indigenous people, the plants and animals—the universe, Pachamama—conspired to help us trailblaze this path.

Q: What are you most proud of?

LT: I'm proud of the Awakening the Dreamer Symposium. I recently had a meeting with the executives of a company and they just finished going through the Symposium together. And now they're going to go through the Game Changer Intensive. They were so inspired. Since 2005, we've had many iterations of Awakening the Dreamer, but there's a DNA in the program material that's just plain accurate, authentic, and transformational—it’s magic. 

I'm very proud of the Rights of Nature breakthrough. I am proud that Ecuador was not only the place where that got enshrined in the constitution for the first time, but also that it happened in the context and partnership that Pachamama Alliance created from the Indigenous way of seeing the world. 

I'm also super proud of the Sacred Headwaters Initiative and what it's giving birth to. I am inspired by the creative and groundbreaking thinking that's going on there. It is demanding us to think through and create what will need to happen to transform the global economic system, the global legal system, Peru and Ecuador’s governance systems, our relationship with Indigenous people, our relationship with money, our relationship with ourselves and our relationship to future generations, our relationship to the community of life, and our relationship to the Earth herself.

BT: I think the creation of the Awakening the Dreamer symposium was a great accomplishment. We took on the task of designing a half-day process that would transform people’s worldview and change the dream of the modern world to one of harmony and a world that works for all life. We had a great group of people working on the research and the design of the program but it was confronting to think of publicly presenting a program that you say is intended to change the dream of the modern world. Would we look naïve, stupid, arrogant? I remember going through this process about deciding to go public. Then we came across an article by modern  philosopher and writer Ken Wilber about the responsibility you have when you see something, when you learn something you think might be of value, you have a responsibility to speak, to share it, even if it makes you look like a fool, even if it's scary, even if it could be wrong. You have a responsibility to step out and share it. And so we jumped in with both feet. I'm really proud of that.

JP: When I first lived with the Shuar in the late 1960s, the shamans were respected as spiritual leaders, tradition holders, and healers. Women had a lot of power within their own homes. And the home was the fulcrum of local societies. By the time I returned and then started going into  Achuar territory, and taking people to those cultures in the 1990s, that had all changed. The missionaries had arrived, the schools had come in, and the men's role had become preeminent. The women's roles had diminished significantly because the household wasn't as important anymore. The outside world had taken over. The school teachers and the missionaries were mostly men and they disrespected  the shamans, referring to them as outdated—even dangerous or evil—“witch doctors.” 

Our trips and programs supported the changes needed to turn all that around. Lynne was deeply involved with Narcisa Machienta from a Shuar community in organizing programs to empower the women. People in our groups listened to the shamans, participated in their traditional ceremonies, and we paid them for administering healings on us. All of this helped the young people move more and more toward being acculturated into their traditions, their old dream. They too were learning to discard the destructive male-oriented hierarchical dream that doesn't respect spirituality. I'm proud that Pachamama Alliance has taken such an active role in honoring, supporting, and empowering women and the spiritual side of life. 

As just one example, many people in many countries today listen to Manari Ushigua of the Sápara Nation . Many of them wouldn't have paid attention to him back in the 1980s or 90s when the missionaries and teachers were criticizing shamans like Manari.   

There's been this major swing. Up into the 1970s the Indigenous shamans for centuries had been very important, and then that came to an abrupt end. The Pachamama Alliance partnered with communities to bring these extremely important traditions and philosophies back to the Indigenous people, as well as to the world outside the rainforests. That's incredibly important.

LT: Another thing I'm proud of is Ikiama Nukuri, which was originally called “Jungle Mamas”. In my life, a personal commitment of mine has been to empower women. For more than 20 years I was a key leader for The Hunger Project. In the 70s and 80s, the Hunger Project was the first organization to discover and state publically that the most powerful intervention for ending world hunger was empowering women and girls—that was more powerful than anything. And that became the central kind of tenet of the work of the Hunger Project.

When we first came to the rainforest, I saw the way the women were treated and the roles that women had, and I was distressed by it, but I had to just hold back. The Achuar were primarily a warrior culture run by men. Many of the girls didn't go to school. We really were not allowed to have any interactions with the women. The women’s role seemed so much in the background and they had no power over their own lives. It took 10 years until we could actually communicate with the women, and I had to really realize that what I thought was right for them was irrelevant, unless they asked for it. 

And then about 10 years into our work, an American woman, nurse, and midwife, Margaret Love, came on a Pachamama Journey. Margaret partnered with a Shuar woman, Narcisa Mashienta, and the two of them started the conversation with women about what they really needed and wanted. It became clear that we could really be useful to them in transforming the way the women were giving birth. They created a program called Jungle Mamas, now called Ikiama Nukuri, which was the beginning of our spectacular and moving engagement with the Indigenous women in the Sacred Headwaters region of the Amazon.  

For that I'm really grateful. I'm grateful that we waited so long, that we waited until it was their idea. And then, when it was their idea, we were able to respond so beautifully and now it's a robust and beautiful program and the women have a voice, give birth safely, and are playing leadership roles in all the affairs of the communities and the Achuar nation. 

Q: What has Pachamama Alliance Meant to you personally these last 25 years?

LT: What Pachamama Alliance has meant to me is what we've learned from Indigenous people, what we've learned from each other, what I've learned from Bill, and what I've learned from John. Before I met John I really had no relationship with Indigenous people and John made this whole world open to me, and now to thousands of people.

Bill and I worked together somewhat in the Hunger Project, but he was in business and this work was kind of my thing. But now to work alongside Bill and to watch him lead and create and bring his wisdom and vision and commitment to this—it has been super incredible for us as a couple. Our relationship has never really been about our relationship, it's always been about making a difference. And now to have our relationship be in service of something as grand and glorious and inspiring as Pachamama Alliance has been really a gift to us, and I'm very grateful for that.

BT: What Pachamama Alliance has meant to me is that it is a space and a community for expanding my own sense of what I understand my life is about and what I can accomplish and be responsible for. That's my experience and my sense is that that's generally what it does for people who get involved. The people who make the most of that are the ones that get most involved, but even people who just do a program and then go away, there's something about the conversation that we're engaging people in that allows them to expand their sense of what's possible with their lives.

JP: The Pachamama Alliance has inspired me—Bill, Lynne, and everybody that's worked or volunteered for the organization. Also, the Indigenous people themselves—the way they  stepped up to the plate. All of this has had a huge impact on me. During the time that the Pachamama Alliance has been around, I've written quite a few books, and every one of those books has been deeply inspired by the example of what's been going on at the Pachamama Alliance. It's been just an incredibly inspirational experience. I am grateful to be a part of this journey, this story, this dream. 

What do you see for the next 25 years?

BT: I think the next 25 years are about a collective human awakening and transformation. We’ve done the individual work these past 25 years. And now the scale of the problems that we have identified but not solved are requiring a response that has to be collective and universal and planet-wide. We humans are now at a point where we have the ability and responsibility to take our understanding of our place in this living universe and address the issues of the climate crisis, species extinction, toxins in the environment, growing inequality. We are being called to be agents of building the new world that the universe is trying to birth. Our job now as humans is “to get it right,” not just as individuals but as a whole species.

JP: It seems that the next step is to come together as a human species. Whether we're from China, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Ecuador, or the United States, we must learn to join hands, to unite  in the same way that the Indigenous people in the Sacred Headwaters of the Amazon region have come together to form federations and alliances to save their precious rainforests. We simply must join forces to save life as we know it on this planet. If we are to survive on a Living Earth any of us would recognize, this alliance must be global and embrace a new view of economics, governance, spirituality, environmental and social justice, and the very essence of what being human means. 

LT: It is a privilege being a founder of something that has its own life. At the beginning, when something comes into existence you breathe life into it to keep it alive, like you’re breathing life into it until it has its own life. And now the Pachamama Alliance absolutely has its own life. And as a founder, along with John and Bill, 25 years later to see the breadth and scope, and how much all the people working on staff, how much everyone owns this—this is theirs. It's not ours and they’re helping out. And how gratifying it is to let it go into the hands of the next generation of leaders, how challenging it is in many ways, but how gratifying, how fulfilling, how beautiful to know that it will survive us, it will go well beyond our lifetime, and it will flourish without us. It's a privilege to let it go into the hands of the people who are stepping into the leadership of Pachamama Alliance. I bow to the spirit of Pachamama Alliance. The spirit and sacred space from which it comes, and that we've kept that flame alive. That's something I'm proud of. 

I can feel the next 25 years being born. I can feel them being born in the Pachamama Alliance staff, I can feel the next 25 years being born in some of the young new donors that I have the privilege of meeting. And this year we took another trip to the Amazon after not being there for nearly two years because of the pandemic. I was so excited to be back and re-experience it anew. We took some really extraordinary people with us, some of whom are a generation younger than the three of us. 

I'm looking forward to what happens to them and how the Pachamama Alliance gets born in their lives the way it got born in mine. 

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

LT: I'd like to acknowledge our beloved Pachamama Alliance colleague, the late David Tucker, who worked with us almost from the very beginning. He became our kind of in-house shaman and dedicated his beautiful life to keeping the spiritual flame of the Pachamama Alliance alive and constantly shining light on this world.