Storytelling for change

Storytelling on the frontlines of social change: the question is not what you look at, but what you see.

By: Lucy,   4 minutes


Once upon a time in the Amazon: The power of storytelling for change

Picture the scene: a shareholder meeting in the headquarters of a multinational petro-oil company in Los Angeles. The room is filled with suits. Screens blink with graphs, profit margins and dollar signs. In walks a man in a feathered headdress, holding a shaker, accompanied by a woman. He’s there because the company wants to drill for oil in the cloud forest of Colombia, his homeland. He’s there to speak on behalf of his people. And he’s been allocated two minutes. Under the glare of the strip lights, wry glances are exchanged and eyebrows are raised. He steps forward, opens his mouth and sings. He sings his people’s song of creation. Afterwards there’s a lingering silence. Papers are shuffled. Eyes are averted. The man and the woman leave arm in arm.

Storytelling in action

The woman was Atossa Soltani, founder of the international NGO Amazon Watch; set up to protect the rainforest and advance the human rights of the indigenous people of the Amazon.

Recently I was lucky enough to attend a talk she gave at Dartington Hall: The Earth Talks: Defending the Heart of the World, where I took the opportunity to Feed on storytelling at the frontlines of social change.

The scene above is my interpretation of one of the stories Atossa told. Those are my words, not hers. Like all good stories, it demands to be shared. And in each telling, a little may be added or changed. But the essence remains; a snapshot of two worldviews coming face to face. Two different ways of telling stories and the divide between them.

Atossa is a firm believer in the role of storytelling, of discovering a new way to tackle some of the big issues facing the world today.

As a social and environmental entrepreneur and media strategist, she is skilled in the art of using a story to capture imaginations, shift mindsets, and bring about positive change. I took away lessons about the impact of images. The importance of metaphor. And how a shift in our choice of words can alter the way we see ourselves, and the world.

The impact of images: flying rivers and the face of the moon

On a chilly, wet night in south Devon, powerful descriptions bring the Amazon to life.

The Amazon Basin covers an area ‘larger than the face of the moon’. Every day each of the 400 billion trees lifts 1,000 litres of water into the atmosphere, creating vapour clouds and flying rivers that nourish the earth with fertile rain. Many of the indigenous people who live there call it ‘the heart of the world’. The Amazon River’s source is the ‘headwaters’. They see themselves as the guardians of these sacred places.

But now, due to deforestation and oil drilling, the flying rivers are off course, resulting in catastrophic droughts. And people who don’t physically live in the Amazon are finally beginning to experience the consequences of what happens when this heart cannot function properly.

These concrete, evocative descriptions paint pictures in the mind; afterimages that remain long after facts and statistics have evaporated from memory (if you asked me now how many square miles the Amazon Basin covers, I couldn’t tell you. But lingering in my mind’s eye is a shrinking, forested face of the moon.)

Subtle verbiage: shifting paradigms


“We are not fighting for nature. We are nature defending itself.” (

This slogan, which has been adopted by the Climate Justice movement, is an example of how a subtle reframing of an issue can have a profound effect. It’s fascinating, in fact, how this slight shift moves us from outside to within the frame. It changes where we as humans position ourselves in relation to nature, and the implications of that.

This context gives credence to the hearts and headwaters imagery. The Amazon people being seen as the natural ‘guardians’ of the heart of the world; an idea so out of place in the petro-oil shareholders meeting, fits perfectly here. And by extension, we’re all invited to join in this role.

This rephrasing and reframing brings about a powerful shift in perspective. And a call to action. It shows how our choice of words can impact the way we see ourselves, and our relationship with the world.

Ways of seeing: the lens of metaphor

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see,” said Henry David Thoreau. And what you see depends on the lens you look through.

Metaphor is one of these lenses. It helps us make sense of issues and connect with them, says award-winning filmmaker Louis Fox (The Meatrix, The Story of Stuff series), who is co-teaching a short course with Atossa at Schumacher College; Our Indigenous Story: Mapping and Re-telling World Narratives.

In today’s world, so many stories are competing to be heard that it can be difficult to determine just what it is we’re looking at, let alone what we see. Landscapes, people and events change shape through a kaleidoscope of lenses.

Depending on the lens you look through, language becomes freighted with different meaning. ‘Nature’ becomes either a stock of resources to be tapped, or a living entity with a heart and headwaters.

The metaphors in our stories show how our language shapes our view of the world and the actions we take.

There may be a long way to go before big business and indigenous wisdom are viewing the world through the same lens.

But shining a light on the different stories being told helps to formulate the questions we need to ask in order to navigate a way of out the current impasse and work towards creating a new story that combines the best of the wisdom and knowledge alive in the world today.

As for our man and the petro-oil company – did they listen to his song, to his story? Not at first. However, through a combination of efforts from global campaigners and local indigenous people lasting more than 10 years, eventually the oil company pulled out.

The story of the Uw’a people has become an inspiration for grassroots Davids going up against corporate Goliaths the world over. And a symbol of the power of storytelling to capture imaginations, shift mindsets and over time – with courage, conviction, determination and optimism – bring about positive change.

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