Spotlight on the Amazon

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Photo by Daniel Martínez
The Amazons are a crucial region of the earth: why and how to save the forests may determine our planetary future. The area stretches twice the size of India and through Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname, as well as the overseas territory of French Guiana. It contains 10% of the world’s biodiversity, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

Last spring, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies held a conference on the Amazons. You can watch it here.

With our new Spotlight, we hope to extend the conversation to many countries and many themes, including biodiversity, indigenous rights, industrialization, religion and colonization. If you would be interested in contributing articles or photographs, please contact June Carolyn Erlick, jerlick@fas.harvard.edu

We must demystify Amazonia

Lea la versión en español aquí.

By Daniel Alejandro Martínez

Conocer es resolver.

—José Martí, Nuestra América

 

The image of the wild Amazon jungle full of snakes, monkeys and alligators, is more a Hollywood creation than anything to do with reality. Truth is, it is rare to see wildlife in the Amazon; and it’s not because animals are scarce in one of the most biodiverse places in the world. No. The reality is different. In general, animals hide from people and in Amazonia, so extensive and full of life, wherever you search in its immensity, you can find humans. For hundreds of years (or perhaps even thousands of years earlier than expected), indigenous communities, quilombos and mestizo settlers have found ways to survive and make the jungle their home. 

Estos dos hogares son ejemplos de casas construidas en medio de la selva usando palma, madera y latas de cinc, Belém, PA. // These two homes are examples of houses built in the middle of the jungle using palm, wood and zinc roofs, Belém, PA.
In the past, the Amazon was considered a forbidden paradise, a green hell, an archaeological black hole, a territory too hostile to allow large-scale human settlements. However, in recent decades, archeological findings—such as Terra Preta have questioned established notions about the Amazonian past. Likewise, the rock paintings of the Pedra Pintada and innumerable remains of ceramics that are commonly found in the whole region have called attention to how and when humans populated, modified, and cultivated the rainforest. Scholars have even raised the possibility of numerous indigenous settlements in the Xingu River area that were connected by roads in the middle of the jungle.

Thanks to the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship, a scholarship awarded to Harvard College alumni to fund a year of purposeful postgraduate travel, I had the opportunity to explore the Brazilian Amazon as a volunteer in several social projects in the fields of education, public health, and environmental conservation. During my travels, I beheld the magical—almost unreal—beauty of the region, which has borne fruit to countless legends and ideas about the area, as a mystical place (almost utopian), that is steeped in mystery, where life and reality are of a different kind. 

Pinturas rupestres de más de 11.200 años en el sitio arqueológico Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Monte Alegre, PA. // Rock paintings of more than 11,200 years old in the archaeological site Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Monte Alegre, PA.
In my wanderings, I encountered social realities and natural environments vastly different from what I was used to. There, sea-like rivers extend to the horizon. Entire communities float on the water or rest on wooden platforms along the embankments. The environment is continuously changing as the rain-water from the Andes floods the forests, plains, and entire islands for months, which then resurface during the summer. Flora and fauna are surreal. There are gigantic and prehistoric fishes such as the Pirarucu and the Tambaqui, or almost human mammals such as the Boto and the Peixe-boi, and supernatural trees such as Sumaumas. However, I also confronted a land affected by underdevelopment, overwhelmed by endogenous difficulties such as deforestation and lack of economic opportunities beyond illicit economies

Tipos de comunidades en la Amazonía: comunidades ribereñas en la várzea (o tierras bajas) de Santarém, PA (arriba), Estrecho de Breves, PA (centro), y en la costa de la Isla de Marajó, PA. // Types of communities in the Amazon: riverside communities in the Várzea (or floodplains) of Santarém, PA (above), Strait of Breves, PA (center), and on the coast of Marajó Island, PA.

Upon arriving in Brazil, at the beginning of 2018,  I began to inquire about the region and look for contacts of organizations and professionals who worked in the Amazon. In the midst of the excitement of carnival in Rio de Janeiro, I remember telling a man, well into his sixties and a retired member of the army, about my plans to visit the jungle. He answered, though almost sardonically.

—You will see! In Manaus, there are more gringos than Indians.

Puerto de Manaos durante el verano o la seca. // Manaus’s Port during summer or the dry season.
That term “gringo”—used in many parts of Latin America to refer to foreigners, often from the United States—was part of an assertion (although exaggerated and prejudiced) with a degree of truth, at least in the city of Manaus. Considered as the portal of the Brazilian Amazon, Manaus is a cosmopolitan city overflowed by non-profit organizations, tourism companies, and many foreigners looking to visit, work or volunteer in the Amazon. Not all foreigners, however, are U.S. gringos. Actually, most of them come from Europe, Latin America, and the south of Brazil—the whitest and wealthiest part of the country. Unfortunately, this idea has played into a stereotype of an “invasion” of the Amazon by foreigners and NGOs, has become a prejudice that the powers in Brazil—mainly the reactionary right that has been encouraged by the Bolsonaro government—have begun to use in an alarming manner to declare war on social organizations. And this has had disastrous consequences.

Recently, a Brazilian friend, whom I met as a volunteer in the city of Santarém (known as the “Caribbean of the Amazon”), was arrested along with three other members of the Brigada de Incêndio Florestal de Alter do Chão—a group of volunteer firefighters who have helped to combat forest fires—under hasty assumptions. Within a few days, without any clear explanation, they were released. This event raised numerous criticisms from civil society and the international community about the hostility of the authorities and the current Brazilian government against environmentalists and social organizations that defend the rainforest and its people. 

Playa al lado de río Tapajos, Santarém. Región considerada como el «Caribe de la Amazonía». // A river beach next to the Tapajos river, Santarém. A region considered to be “The Caribbean of the Amazon.”

This paranoia is not restricted to the reactionary powers on the right. Sadly, there is some widespread hostility (and one could even say xenophobia) against foreigners in the region. In my days in Brazil, while attending a private event with some politicians, I personally heard an important leader of one of the main leftist parties in the country, without noticing my origins or my work, complain about the presence of “Americans” who sought to seize the Amazon and its wealth. The man's unrestrained opinion made me understand that possessive and nationalist prejudices are on both sides of the political spectrum. This is disconcerting, considering circumstances such as the arrest of the Alter do Chão Brigade, unsubstantiated opinions can cause harm and are counterproductive to the actions of those who seek the development and well-being of a region that faces harsh setbacks and painfully avoidable inequalities. Given the problems, the urgency of acting must prevail over who acts. 

El equipo del navío hospital Abaré (arriba), cuenta con estudiantes, académicos, enfermeras, doctores, veterinarios y tripulación, entre ellos varios extranjeros. Comunitarios hacen fila para recibir atención medica (abajo). Río Tapajos, Santarém, PA. // The team of the Abaré hospital ship (above) comprised by students, academics, nurses, doctors, veterinarians and crew, including several foreigners. Community members lined up to receive medicalcare (below). Tapajos River, Santarém, PA.

After a year of traveling through the Amazon (from Belém do Pará, where the jungle meets the Atlantic coast, to the triple frontier between Brazil, Peru, and Colombia), I was fortunate to volunteer and travel with multiple social organizations that seek to improve the well-being of the region and its people: from an NGO that gifts books and builds libraries for children and youths in riverside communities, to centers that provide environmental research and technical agricultural assistance for farmers, and even a hospital ship that brings medical care and medicine for free to remote villages where electricity or mobile signal still do not reach. Through these organizations, community members, compatriots from all over Brazil, and foreigners come together to make life more bearable and fair in places where the state has no presence or resources to act. However, injustices prevail throughout the region where it is not uncommon to see symptoms of malnutrition, child exploitation, illiteracy, and preventable ailments that today should not condemn anyone to death.

In my interest to observe healthcare in practice, I managed to volunteer on the hospital ship Abaré—a model of healthcare access for riverside communities throughout Brazil. For two weeks, we sail along the Tapajós river from the towns of Boim to Vila Franca. Since the Abaré appeared at the bottom of the river to dock at the shore of the different communities, dozens of people were already lined up to receive medicines or be treated for various reasons from pregnancies follow-ups to toothaches. Other community members waited in barracks, school halls, or huts, signing up to receive social assistance (Bolsa Família) or listening to the talks of the tutelary counselors—a government body responsible for combating child abuse. Occasionally, the heavy and serious air of the meetings was interrupted by the cries of the children and the pets being vaccinated, or by the chatter of adults bragging about their ability to withstand the pain of the injections. 

The hospital ship Abaré was undoubtedly the best way to serve, but also to understand the importance of proactivity in public health—to go to the people and look for the problems directly—and the significance that the fundamental rights of citizens (particularly of the most vulnerable) are taken care of without compromising their way of life. Life in the midst of nature should still be compatible with decent well-being, with access to quality education and healthcare. 

Navío hospital Abaré anclado al lado de la Villa de Boim, río Tapajos Santarém (PA). // The hospital ship Abaré anchored next to the Vila de Boim, Tapajos river near Santarém (PA).
Months before my trip in the Abaré, I had experienced a tragedy that showed me the difficulties of living in the jungle. While traveling in a catamaran from the small town of Breves to the city of Belém, I witnessed the dying battle of a newborn and his indigenous mother to reach medical care. The baby was born with a deformity in his stomach and needed surgery in the nearest city, days by boat or several hours traveling by speedboat. After some hours of travel, the baby began to suffer complications. Desperate, everyone on the boat watched with frustration and grief as the crew tried to ask for help at several health posts in the region. However, most of the posts were closed without anyone to attend them, after Cuba had withdrawn the thousands of doctors who participated in the program Mais Médicos following a diplomatic dispute with the newly elected government of Jair Bolsonaro. After ten endless hours of anguish, we arrived in Belém. By then, it appeared to be too late. The mother´s grim look foretold a tragic end. This was a painful teaching of how the isolation and the abandonment found in the Amazon can be a deadly trap. 

Niño disfruta del nuevo acervo de libros donados por la ONG Vaga Lume a su comunidad, cerca del Estrecho de Breves, una de las regiones más empobrecidas de la Amazonia brasileña. // Niño enjoys the new collection of books donated by the NGO Vaga Lume to his community, near the Strait of Breves, one of the most impoverished regions of the Brazilian Amazon.

In recent days that Amazonia has been in the front pages of world news because of the large number of forest fires, increases in the rates of deforestation and the violence against social leaders and indigenous communities, I think we could use some education about the region to consciously try to demystify it. Although magical and beautiful, the Amazonian territory of more than 7 million km² among nine countries is not a deserted place or a forbidden and intact paradise. Although it is still a remote region, covered by imposing rivers and centuries-old trees, it is a fragile place not at all exempt from the socio-economic evils and injustices that plague the rest of the continent.

If the Amazonia is demystified, we can see it as a territory comparable to the rest of the continent. An extension that needs the same level of attention as cities or agricultural areas. Also, we will see a place of priceless existential value for the entire world, which is often treated as a monolith, but it is not. It is a vast territory, which needs differentiating help according to each area. However, the problems that Amazonia faces are real and colossal, and no country can solve them alone. Multilateral commitments such as the Leticia Pact and, above all, more action are necessary. Not only because the region, as a biome, belongs to multiple nations, but also as an essential natural resource for the existence of humanity, its survival must matter to all of us. At the moment, as individuals, the best we can do for Amazonia is to learn about it; because ignoring its reality and potential not only helps to feed the myths and prejudices that hold back the region but also makes us indirect accomplices of its destruction.

Contraste de comunidades y su entorno: un caserío ribereño en Breves (arriba), Vila Franca una de las comunidades más antiguas y pobladas de Santarém (centro), y un aserradero cerca de Belém (abajo). // Contrast of communities and their surroundings: a riverside hamlet in Breves (above), Vila Franca one of the oldest and most populated communities in Santarém (center), and a lumber camp near the city of Belém (below).

Daniel Alejandro Martínez is a Colombian (sonsoneño) trained at Harvard in Social Sciences and Philosophy. Fellow of the Gates Millennium Scholarship and Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. He traveled the Brazilian Amazon working with social projects on education, health, and environmental conservation. You can follow his trip on the blog: danielmgsa.comRead his student view here. (Spanish version here).

Debemos desmitificar la Amazonía 

Read the English version here. 

Por Daniel Alejandro Martínez

Conocer es resolver.

—José Martí, Nuestra América

 

La imagen de la jungla salvaje, llena de serpientes, micos y caimanes se conforma mejor a la descripción de la selva desde Hollywood que a la realidad misma. En verdad, es raro ver fauna en el Amazonas. Y no porque escaseen los animales en uno de los lugares más biodiversos del mundo. No. La realidad es otra. Por lo general los animales se esconden de la gente, y en la Amazonía, tan extensa y llena de vida, donde se busque entre toda su inmensidad se pueden encontrar personas. Por cientos de años (o quizás miles de años antes de lo pensando), comunidades indígenas, quilombos y colonos mestizos, de una manera u otra han encontrado como sobrevivir, y han hecho de la selva su hogar.

Estos dos hogares son ejemplos de casas construidas en medio de la selva usando palma, madera y latas de cinc, Belém, PA. // These two homes are examples of houses built in the middle of the jungle using palm, wood and zinc roofs, Belém, PA.

En el pasado, la Amazonía fue considera un paraíso prohibido, un infierno verde, un agujero negro arqueológico, un territorio demasiado hostil para permitir asentamientos humanos a gran escala. Sin embargo, en las últimas décadas, hallazgos arqueológicos—como la Terra Preta han puesto en duda nociones sobre el pasado amazónico. Asimismo, las pinturas rupestres de la Pedra Pintada e innumerables restos de cerámicas que se encuentran sin mucho mirar en toda la región, llaman la atención sobre cómo y cuándo los humanos poblaron, modificaron y cultivaron la selva. Incluso, se ha considerado la posibilidad de numerosos asentamientos indígenas en el área del río Xingu conectados por carreteras en medio de la floresta. 

Gracias a la beca Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship (un fondo que patrocina a exalumnos de Harvard College para realizar un año de viaje de posgrado con propósito), tuve la oportunidad de conocer la Amazonía brasileña como voluntario en varios proyectos sociales en las áreas de educación, salud pública, y conservación ambiental. Durante este recorrido, fui testigo de la belleza mágica—casi irreal—de la región, que ha dado fruto a innumerables leyendas e ideas sobre esta como un lugar místico (tal vez utópico), empapado de misterio, donde la vida y la realidad es otra. 

Pinturas rupestres de más de 11.200 años en el sitio arqueológico Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Monte Alegre, PA. // Rock paintings of more than 11,200 years old in the archaeological site Caverna da Pedra Pintada, Monte Alegre, PA.

En mis andanzas, fui testigo de realidades sociales y entornos naturales completamente diferentes a lo que estaba acostumbrado. Allí los ríos-mares se extienden hasta el horizonte. Comunidades enteras flotan sobre los ríos o reposan en caseríos en plataformas de madera sobre el litoral. El entorno cambia constantemente mientras el agua-lluvia proveniente de los Andes inunda bosques, planicies e islas enteras por meses bajo el agua y que luego resurgen como de la nada durante el verano. La flora y la fauna son surreales. Existen peces gigantescos y prehistóricos como el Pirarucu y el Tambaqui, o mamíferos casi humanos como el Boto y el Peixe-boi, y árboles sobrenaturales como los Sumaumas. No obstante, también presencié una tierra inmersa en la realidad muy real del subdesarrollo, agobiada por dificultades endógenas como la deforestación y la falta de sustento económico más allá de las economías ilícitas

Tipos de comunidades en la Amazonía: comunidades ribereñas en la várzea (o tierras bajas) de Santarém, PA (arriba), Estrecho de Breves, PA (centro), y en la costa de la Isla de Marajó, PA. // Types of communities in the Amazon: riverside communities in the Várzea (or floodplains) of Santarém, PA (above), Strait of Breves, PA (center), and on the coast of Marajó Island, PA.

Al llegar a Brasil, a comienzos del 2018, en medio de la recocha hilarante del carnaval de Río de Janeiro, mientras indagaba sobre la región y buscaba contactos de organizaciones y profesionales que trabajaran allí, recuerdo que le comenté sobre mis planes de visitar la Amazonía a un señor trigueño de sensata y punta de años y militar retirado del ejército, el cual me respondió con un reproche disfrazado en risas:

—Verá que en Manaos hay más gringos que indios.

Puerto de Manaos durante el verano o la seca. // Manaus’s Port during summer or the dry season.

Aquel termino de «gringo»—usado en muchas partes de América Latina para referirse a extranjeros, usualmente estadounidenses—era parte de una aseveración, aunque exagerada y prejuiciosa, con un grado de verdad, por lo menos en la ciudad de Manaos. Considerada como el portal de la Amazonía brasileña, Manaos es una ciudad cosmopolita donde abundan organizaciones sin ánimo de lucro, compañías de turismo y muchos extranjeros que visitan, trabajan o llevan a cabo voluntariados e intercambios culturales. Cabe aclarar que no todos son gringos norteamericanos. En realidad, hay muchos extranjeros europeos, latinoamericanos y del sur de Brasil —la parte más blanca y próspera de todo el país. Infelizmente, este estereotipo de una Amazonía ‘invadida’ por extranjeros y por las ONG es un prejuicio que los poderes en Brasil, principalmente la derecha reaccionaria que se ha visto alentada por el gobierno Bolsonaro, han comenzado a usar de forma alarmantemente para declararle la guerra a las organizaciones sociales. Y esto ha tenido consecuencias desastrosas.

Recientemente, un amigo brasileño, a quien conocí como voluntario en el «caribe de la Amazonía,» la ciudad de Santarém, fue arrestado junto a otros tres miembros de la Brigada de Incêndio Florestal de Alter do Chão —un grupo de bomberos voluntarios que han ayudado a combatir los incendios forestales— bajo presunciones apresuradas y poco legales. A los pocos días, sin ninguna explicación clara, fueron liberados. El hecho levantó numerosas críticas de parte de la sociedad civil y la comunidad internacional sobre la hostilidad de las autoridades y el actual gobierno brasileño contra ambientalistas y las organizaciones sociales que defienden la selva y su gente. 

Playa al lado de río Tapajos, Santarém. Región considerada como el «Caribe de la Amazonía». // A river beach next to the Tapajos river, Santarém. A region considered to be “The Caribbean of the Amazon.”

Esta paranoia no está restringida a los poderes reaccionarios de la derecha. Tristemente, existe cierta hostilidad (y se podría decir xenofobia) generalizada contra los extranjeros que actúan en la región. En mis días en Brasil, mientras atendía a un evento privado con algunos políticos escuché personalmente a un dirigente importante de uno de los principales partidos de izquierda del país reclamar, sin percatarse de mis orígenes ni mi trabajo, sobre la presencia de «americanos» que buscaban apoderarse de la Amazonía y sus riquezas. La opinión desmesurada de aquel hombre me dio a entender que los prejuicios celosos y nacionalistas se encuentra de lado y lado del espectro político. Esto resulta desconcertante, pues como ocurrió con los Brigadistas de Alter do Chão, opiniones sin fundamento causan daño y son contraproducentes al accionar de quienes buscan el desarrollo y bienestar de una región que enfrenta atrasos y desigualdades penosamente evitables. Dado a los problemas, la urgencia de actuar debe primar por encima del quién actúa. 

El equipo del navío hospital Abaré (arriba), cuenta con estudiantes, académicos, enfermeras, doctores, veterinarios y tripulación, entre ellos varios extranjeros. Comunitarios hacen fila para recibir atención medica (abajo). Río Tapajos, Santarém, PA. // The team of the Abaré hospital ship (above) comprised by students, academics, nurses, doctors, veterinarians and crew, including several foreigners. Community members lined up to receive medicalcare (below). Tapajos River, Santarém, PA.

Tras un año de viaje por la Amazonía—desde Belém do Pará, donde la selva se encuentra con la costa Atlántica, hasta la trifrontera de Brasil, Perú y Colombia—tuve la suerte de compartir con múltiples organizaciones sociales que buscan mejorar el bienestar de la región y su gente: desde una ONG que regala libros y crea bibliotecas para niños y jóvenes en comunidades ribereñas, hasta centros de investigación ambiental y de asistencia técnica para campesinos, e incluso un navío-hospital que lleva atención médica y medicina gratuita a comunidades remotas donde todavía no llega la electricidad o la señal móvil. Por medio de estas organizaciones se unen comunitarios, compatriotas de todo Brasil, y extranjeros coterráneos, para hacer de la vida más llevadera y justa en lugares donde el estado no tiene presencia ni recursos para actuar. Sin embargo, injusticias todavía perduran en toda la Amazonía, en donde no es extraño ver síntomas de desnutrición, explotación infantil, analfabetismo, y dolencias prevenibles que hoy en día no deberían condenar a nadie a la muerte.

En mi inquietud de presenciar la salud en práctica, me las arreglé para ser voluntario en el navío-hospital Abaré—un modelo referente de la salud fluvial en todo Brasil. A lo largo de dos semanas navegamos a la margen del río Tapajós desde la villa de Boim hasta Vila Franca. Desde que el Abaré asomaba al fondo del río para orillarse en las comunidades, ya decenas de comunitarios hacían fila para recibir medicinas o ser atendidos por causas varias desde seguimientos de embarazos hasta dolores de muela. A lo largo de la visita, los demás comunitarios esperaban en barracones, salas de escuelas o chozas de capim de palma, realizando sus registros para recibir asistencia social (Bolsa Família) o escuchando la charla de los consejeros tutelares—un órgano del gobierno diseñado para combatir el abuso a menores. En ocasiones, el aire pesado y serio de las pláticas era interrumpido por los alaridos de los niños y las mascotas siendo vacunados, o por la cháchara de los adultos vanagloriándose de su capacidad de soportar el pinchazo de las inyecciones. 

Navío hospital Abaré anclado al lado de la Villa de Boim, río Tapajos Santarém (PA). // The hospital ship Abaré anchored next to the Vila de Boim, Tapajos river near Santarém (PA).

El navío-hospital Abaré fue, sin duda, la mejor forma para servir de manera práctica, pero también para entender la importancia de que la salud pública sea proactiva—que vaya hasta las personas—y, de que los derechos básicos de los ciudadanos (en particular los más vulnerables) sean atendidos sin comprometer su forma de vida. La vida en medio de la naturaleza debería ser compatible con un bienestar digno, con educación y salud de calidad. 

Meses antes de mi viaje en el Abaré, fui testigo de una tragedia que me mostró las dificultades de vivir en medio de la selva. Mientras viajaba en un catamarán desde el pequeño pueblo de Breves hasta la ciudad de Belém, presencié la batalla agonizante de un recién nacido y su madre indígena por recibir atención medica. El bebé había nacido con una deformidad en el estómago y tenía que ser operado en la ciudad, a días en barco u horas navegando en lancha rápida. Después de varias horas de viaje, el bebé comenzó a sufrir complicaciones. Desesperados, todos observamos con frustración y desconsuelo mientras la tripulación de la lancha intentaba pedir ayuda en algún puesto de salud de la región. Sin embargo, la mayoría de los puestos estaban cerrados sin nadie que atendiera, luego de que Cuba retirará los miles de médicos que participaban del programa Mais Médicos tras choques diplomáticos con el recién electo gobierno Bolsonaro. Luego de diez horas interminables llenas de angustia, llegamos a Belém. Sin embargo para entonces parecía ser demasiado tarde. La mirada sombría de la madre ya anunciaba un final trágico. Esta fue una dolorosa enseñanza de la trampa mortal que puede ser el aislamiento y abandono en la Amazonía. 

Niño disfruta del nuevo acervo de libros donados por la ONG Vaga Lume a su comunidad, cerca del Estrecho de Breves, una de las regiones más empobrecidas de la Amazonia brasileña. // Niño enjoys the new collection of books donated by the NGO Vaga Lume to his community, near the Strait of Breves, one of the most impoverished regions of the Brazilian Amazon.

En estos días que la Amazonía ha estado en las primeras páginas de las noticias mundiales por el gran número de incendios forestales, alzas en las tasas de deforestación y violencia contra líderes sociales y comunidades indígenas, creo que nos vendría bien educarnos sobre la región, haciendo una tarea consciente para desmitificarla. Aunque mágico y bello, el territorio amazónico de más de 7 millones de km² entre nueve países, no es un lugar desierto de gente o un paraíso prohibido e intacto. Aunque todavía es una región remota, cubierta por ríos imponentes y árboles centenarios, es un lugar frágil y para nada exento de los males socioeconómicos e injusticias que plagan al resto del continente.

Desmitificada, podremos ver en la Amazonía un territorio comparable con el resto del continente. Una extensión que necesita igual atención que las urbes o las zonas agrícolas. También, veremos un lugar con valor existencial innumerable para el mundo entero, el cual con frecuencia se trata como un monolito pero no lo es. Es un área extensa, que necesita de ayuda diferenciada de acuerdo a cada parte del territorio. Sin embargo, los problemas que la Amazonía afrenta son reales y colosales, y ningún país puede solucionarlos solo. Compromisos multilaterales como El Pacto de Leticia y sobretodo más acción son necesarios. No solo porque la región, como bioma, le pertenece a múltiples naciones, pero también como recurso natural esencial para la existencia de la humanidad su supervivencia nos debe importar a todos. Por el momento, como individuos, lo mejor que podemos hacer por ella es conocerla, pues ignorar su realidad y potencial no solo ayuda a alimentar los mitos y prejuicios que atrasan a la región, sino también nos hace cómplices indirectos de su destrucción.

Contraste de comunidades y su entorno: un caserío ribereño en Breves (arriba), Vila Franca una de las comunidades más antiguas y pobladas de Santarém (centro), y un aserradero cerca de Belém (abajo). // Contrast of communities and their surroundings: a riverside hamlet in Breves (above), Vila Franca one of the oldest and most populated communities in Santarém (center), and a lumber camp near the city of Belém (below).

 

Daniel Alejandro Martínez, es un colombiano sonsoneño formado en Harvard en Ciencias Sociales y Filosofía. Becario del Gates Millennium Scholarship y Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Fellowship. Recorrió la Amazonia brasileña trabajando con proyectos sociales en las áreas de educación, salud y medioambiente. Pueden acompañar su viaje en el blog: danielmgsa.com. Lea su Student View aquí (en inglés).

The Catholic Church and the Souls of the Amazon

By Mary Jo McConahay

All photos by Mary Jo McConahay

From the Colombian Amazon town of Leticia, a visitor reaches Brazil or Peru in minutes by foot or canoe. Three outposts here – the towns of Leticia (pop: 48,000) and Tabatinga, Brazil (pop: 62,000), and the island of Santa Rosa, Peru (pop: 2,500) – and their surrounding territories—make up a bustling, shared zona fronteriza of Amazonia, a commercial and administrative zone. But the sense of the vast jungle is never far away.  At twilight, a conversation at the residence of Capuchin fathers next door to Leticia’s small Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Peace, must be held at shouting volume to be heard over the din of thousands of jungle parakeets descending upon trees across the street. 

Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, Leticia

A huge banner hung high outside the residence invokes the 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, with an exhortation in Spanish, “Amazonas SOS – Called to make changes in style of life, of production and consumption.” 

The Catholic Church is paying particular attention to Amazonia today, both for the sake of the souls who live here and for saving the wild nature of the world’s largest tropical rainforest. After two years of preparation and consultations with residents, 185 bishops met in Rome late last year in an ecclesiastical council of major importance. Some 87,000 people are said to have taken part in the preparatory meetings.  The Pan-Amazonian Synod was an effort to shine a light on the region and give voice to those who are resisting deforestation,  industrial mining and other ravages. Given the global importance of the Church, with 1.3 billion members worldwide, such attention is certain to have influence beyond the pews. 

The indigenous of the Amazon are especially important in the eyes of the Church. Of some 400 tribes, some are nearing extinction (fewer than 500 people), and the ranks of others number in the thousands. They make up only about 12 percent of Amazonia’s estimated population of 30 million, but they weigh heavy on the fate of the basin that stretches across eight countries. Indigenous people have the deepest roots with the longest presence in the rainforest, arguably know it best, and legally control demarcated land or live within protected land far out of proportion to their numbers. Pope Francis, who emphasizes above all the pastoral aspect of the Church—accompaniment of God’s people—is also deeply concerned about disappearance of the rainforest; native peoples, he believes, are most capable of preserving it.

“They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed,” says the Laudato Sí encyclical, which is studied in parishes all over the world. For the indigenous, the pope wrote, “Land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identify and values.  When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best.” 

The Church’s new and notable Amazon outreach is an influence of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, an Argentine elected in 2013. For Francis, environmental protection is one of the key moral issues of our day—global warming and destruction of the natural world affect the poor and marginalized first. Strengthening the Church in the Amazon is seen as a way of supporting residents against those who would come in to pilfer or destroy its riches. 

"How to attend to the people without priests?" asked Rev. Rodolfo Piñero, a member of the Capuchin Missionaries in Leticia.  Clergy are so widely dispersed throughout the Amazon region that some Catholics see a priest only once a year. Piñero says a local solution emerged "from necessity;" he calls it 'integration of forces,” service not according to religious order or country but joint regional work by teams. In the fronterizo zone, that means teams composed of Jesuits, the vicariate, the Capuchins, the Hermanas Lauras (the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and St. Catherine of Siena, founded by Colombian St. Laura Montoya) and many, many lay people.

"For the indigenous, there are no borders," Piñero said. Ticuna Indians, for instance, live in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, visiting family or traveling for other reasons without care for national lines. "For them these are not separate places, and we are the same way, a zone of family."

Piñero said the regional “integration of forces” idea was placed on the synod agenda as an example for discussion for other parts of the Amazon. Also on the Rome agenda was a controversial proposal to reach more Amazonian Catholics by ordaining mature married men, preferably indigenous, who are already serving as deacons; conservatives consider the proposal a challenge to the 900-year-old tradition of Roman Catholic clerical celibacy. Traditionalists also bridled at the synod idea of ordaining women as deacons, believing it could lead to more calls for female priests. Pope Francis will judge which proposals from the bishops’ meeting will be applied to the Amazon.

Whatever the future of the Roman Catholic Church in Amazonia, it faces mistrust for sins of the past. Priests and nuns historically protected the indigenous from egregious authorities and greedy private businesses, interceding for them. But they did so paternalistically, not in partnership with the indigenous as equals, according to educator Marco Fidel Vargas, sub-director of the Jesuit research institute CINEP in Bogotá. The church was part of "colonization and a patriarchal past," he said, but now "must enter into a cultural dialogue" with the indigenous.

Bathing water is collected from rain.

Missionaries often brought the brightest young people from the jungle to internados, boarding schools where the students satisfied a thirst for knowledge, but were also separated from their traditions. Some evangelizers branded customs such as honoring the elements, or honoring animals with whom the indigenous shared the forest, as diabolical. Many youngsters lost facility in their native tongues. 

The Church was more present than the state in the rainforest, and also ran schools under contract from the state. The 1991 Colombian constitution recognized the right of indigenous to mandate how their children are educated, including in bilingual classes. Since then the number of schools "contracted" to Catholic religious groups has dropped; schools where the indigenous live have risen in number, although Colombian Amazon students remain among the lowest achieving (and worst funded) of the country. In some places, historically, had there been no church, there would have been no formal education.  Nevertheless, said Vargas. "The church must reflect on this period of its past." 

The voice of fundamentalist protestant evangelical churches, representing some 22 percent of Brazilians, is largely absent from the concern over rainforest destruction that comes from Catholics. Evangelical churches are growing in the Amazon, where newcomers looking for work often join in their search for community and Christian worship; because Catholic Masses require an ordained priest, Catholic churches are rarer. On the two-block-long main street of the Peruvian Amazon island of Santa Rosa, for instance, a 15-minute boat ride from Leticia, there are three evangelical churches, but no Catholic Church.  

Evangelical Church in Santa Rosa, Peru.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, which has the largest extent of Amazonia within its borders, was elected in 2018 with massive evangelical support; he has said he wants to transform the Brazilian Amazon into an economic engine for the country, erasing indigenous reserves and opening the rainforest to farming, mining and timber industries, and he impugns the veracity of government scientists who report the fast rate at which that the rainforest is disappearing.  During the record-breaking Amazonian conflagration of August, 2019, when more than 40,000 fires blackened the skies and toxic smoke reached São Paulo, 2,000 miles away, Catholic bishops demanded urgent action “crucial for the ecological balance of the planet.” While small groups of evangelicals reportedly joined street demonstrations against the destruction, no word or witness came from the major evangelical bodies, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom and Assembly of God. In the municipality of Cocoal (pop: 85,000), located in Rondônia, the Brazilian Amazon’s most deforested state, Assembly of God pastor Leonardo Cortez told the ecumenical Religion News Service that the environmental crisis was manufactured by people with political motives. Activists, said Cortez, “don’t understand that we take from the Earth a great part of our livelihood and of the commodities Brazil exports.” 

 

Catholicism and Indigenous Cosmovision: “No Contradiction”

Three hours hike from the nearest road out of Leticia, I trekked with a native guide through a corner of the Colombian jungle still soaked from hard rain. The mud sucked at my boots, and once, I fell flat on my back, chagrinned but protected from noteworthy injury by a patch of leafy jungle floor. As gray light broke, the forest opened upon a chacra, a plot of planted land that signaled someone lived nearby. There were mint, basil, yucca, coca plants, a yellow bloom called flower of the dead (for skin infections), a spray of palm-like leaves low to the ground called limonata (for colds and flu), and a big-leafed plant sprouting a giant pineapple.

Soon we came upon a thatched house three stories high at its peak, its magnificent conical roof made of palm leaves. Inside, the chief of this maloca, as the traditional house is called, rose from a packed dirt floor, lined with palm leaves that he was weaving into long, green strips for roof repair.

Bianca, Axel and Isabel making a basket.

He was slim, dressed in cotton pants and shirt, wearing sandals, with a smiling face but authoritative air. "Welcome. Go change those wet clothes," said the Huitoto tribe elder, Warrior of the Jungle, baptized William (“just William”), age 74. 

Two hearths burned on opposite sides of the house, which measured sixty paces wide. At one fire, William's wife, Isabel, of the Mura tribe, was smoking fresh-caught fish; at the other, their daughter Bianca stirred a pot of chocolate for her 7-year old son, Axel. Light slanted through thin spaces in the walls of sticks and wooden boards. There was no electricity.

This was a contemporary Catholic indigenous Amazonian family that nevertheless keeps to traditional customs — just the kind of family, along with economically poor non-natives — that the Amazonian synod aimed to serve. Among its traditions: four sturdy columns that squared the center of the house and honored the jungle, animals, water and the universe.

"We are indigenous people, but we are of a new generation," William said later. "The world has changed a lot. The new indigenous have technology. Children are born with a more forward-looking mentality. Why? Because the world is turning very fast."

Brand new school in Santa Rosa, Peru

A wooden trough and a heavy angular beater stood ready to smash yucca. Strainers and graters braided of fiber made from forest plants, used to prepare food, hung from a rafter. A tube of gleaming wood and a pole stuck in the top was there to pound roasted coca leaves into powder. William has a permit to grow the plants I saw in the chakra, for traditional use.

Unlike many families in the region, William’s family lived within a few hours walk from Leticia, so they have access to Mass and the sacraments. 

That night William sat in a chair carved from a single piece of a tree trunk and spoke before a thin flame in a raised bowl that rested on a wooden stand. Around us the maloca was dark, but shadows thrown by the flame flickered across the elder’s face. He spoke of the living forest, the connections among men, animals, the elements.

"Materialism," he said, is destroying the Amazon, “violating the work of the Creator." He added, "The trees are living beings. That is why they were created. God maintains life. Our lives. God maintains the trees."

Newly installed electricity meter house built with elevation above flood line in the Peruvian Amazon.

He dipped a finger into a carefully prepared mix of the coca powder, ash, and dry yarumo leaves, and rubbed it inside his mouth. Along with tobacco, kept before him in another small container, these are substances that the Huitoto believe inspire speech and give strength. I asked whether William’s Catholic faith was at odds with his indigenous beliefs.

“No contradiction,” he said.

"When one is baptized in the Catholic religion, one is Catholic," he said. "We do speak of the Earth, of nature—but we don't have any problem [with being Catholic], because everything is the same universe. All is complete. The jungle, the trees, all are created by God. And our Lord Jesus Christ came down to Earth to save us from our sins. That's the way it is."

Later, as I lay in my hammock in the darkness, I felt the way in which the big house is what the indigenous say it is, a recreation of the world, with contemplation of the sacred at its center, where William spoke. Despite the occasional croaking of nearby frogs, the maloca was at this moment a world of total silence, a gift that might be possible only in such a place, a standing rainforest. 

 

Mary Jo McConahay is an Alicia Patterson Fellow.  Her latest book is The Tango War, the Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II.

 

Read about Peru, Brasil, and Colombia. To read more pieces by Mary Jo McConahay, click here.

Archaeology in Amazonia

An Anthropogenic Landscape

By Sadie L. Weber

In June of 2017, when I should have been writing my dissertation in Andean archaeology, I joined an archaeological project led by Helena Lima, researcher and curator at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém, Pará. I am an archaeologist who, until recently, worked exclusively in the Peruvian Andes, which is to say, I wasn’t very familiar with archaeology in the lowlands. 

This Brazilian project in the Floresta Nacional de Caxiuanã and surrounding areas demonstrates that it was not only the fluvial regions of Amazonia that were densely populated, but rather settlements extended into the interfluvial spaces—in this case, the land between the settled areas of the Xingú and Tocantins Rivers. Traveling down the Amazon River itself and the smaller igarapés – tributary streams – it is impossible not to see the mark of humans, even if this mark is not apparent at first. Looking out the side of the boat, you see a kaleidoscope of green, sprinkled with açaí and burití palms. Eventually, palms dominate your view, and this is when you know that you're about to see a settlement.

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Helena Lima places a scale bar for the photo of the profile in the archaeological excavation in Caxiuanã. The top, dark layer is terra preta, the white layer is crushed shell that was used as construction fill, and the rust-colored clay is the (more or less) original land surface.

Eventually our boat stopped at a cluster of houses on the banks of an igarapé. We unloaded our supplies and walked into the jungle on a dirt road, and the village of Gurupá-Mirim came into view. This would be home for the next two weeks while we carried out rescue archaeology so the village could install a more permanent electrical grid. To no one’s surprise, we found substantial evidence of ancient human occupation. This area had, and still has everything: animals for hunting, açaí, shrimp, manioc and fish. 

Amazonia holds a position as a hotspot of biodiversity in our modern world. This vast space, under threat of human overuse, fires, and illegal mining and deforestation, sits at the center of many battles—both political and physical—over how Amazonia should be used and by whom. However, this highly extractive, damaging human presence only came into play in the last 500 years. Before the arrival of Europeans to South America, Indigenous populations established settlements—some very large—across this landscape. This landscape merits the qualifier "anthropogenic," that is, created by humans. 

The debate over human use of Amazonia has vacillated between two concepts: the idea of Amazonia as a superficially rich environment that was so sparse that it could not sustain large populations and the cultural parkland that could have supported up to eight million people. On the two sides of this debate were Betty Meggers and Donald Lathrap, two archaeologists from the United States who were captivated early on by the past and contemporary cultures in Amazonia. But, these two disagreed profoundly on Amazonia's capacity to support complex, extensive settlement. For Meggers, the beautiful polychrome ceramics of Marajó Island at the mouth of the Amazon River looked similar to Japanese ceramics. They, therefore, came to South America with ancient Japanese settlers of the area, but for Lathrap, precocious settlement in Amazonia gave rise to the monumental societies of the Peruvian Andes. While both Meggers and Lathrap have since passed away, the legacy of their work lives on in contemporary Amazonian archeology. The question of the intensity of human use of Amazonia remains. However, if we examine the archaeological evidence that has emerged in the last 50 years, we can see that not only was Amazonia ideal for human settlement but that it is also not an untouched wilderness without a cultural history of its own. 

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The ribeirinha community of Carrazedo, located on the banks of the Amazon River near the city of Gurupá.

Initial settlement of Amazonia 

While the questions of when and how humans arrived in the Americas remain contentious, we know that by at least 15,000 years ago, humans already lived in South America, in particular, on the coast of Chile at a site called Monte Verde. In the grand scheme of time, settlement of Amazonia occurred shortly after that, or at least archaeological evidence reflects as much. In what is today the state of Pará near the modern city of Santarém lies the site Caverna da Pedra Pintada, a rock shelter with paintings adorning its walls. First excavated by Anna Roosevelt and Edithe Pereira in the 1990s and early 2000s and more recently by Pereira and Cristiana Barreto, the site was inhabited more than 11,000 years ago. When these dates were initially published, Roosevelt received pushback from scholars working in the United States. At the time, it was generally accepted that the initial settlement of the Americas occurred only 10,000 years ago when nomadic hunter-gatherers (e.g., the Clovis culture) followed big game in the harsh post-glacial areas of western North America. Caverna da Pedra Pintada, and other sites like it, provided refuge for people during climatically unpredictable seasons. And, the people who occupied Caverna da Pedra Pintada did not fit the typical image of early settlers of the Americas chasing megafauna across the continent. These people had a close relationship with their landscape that included the use of aquatic animals and plants that remain culturally important even today, including Brazil nuts and Astrocaryum aculeatum (a palm species known as tucumã or cumare), among other tree and palm species.

While sites like Caverna da Pedra Pintada are relatively rare, early occupation marks a crucial establishment of human presence in Amazonia beyond general ideas of Paleoindians chasing big game. Settlements like this spurred the consistent, permanent occupation of Amazonia and a deeply rooted indigenous relationship with the landscape, which took the form of management of plants and animals as well as the physical modification of earth. From this initial settlement came separate innovations in plant cultivation, landscape modification, and technologies like ceramics. Indigenous peoples modified the landscape so much so that their mark is still left today in the form of terras pretas, earthworks, and the biological diversity of Amazonia itself. 

Terras Pretas

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A bag of farofa – toasted manioc flour – surrounded by our excavation equipment and terra preta samples. Even today, manioc remains a staple in Brazil and worldwide.

The natural iron-rich clay sediments of Amazonia are nutritionally deficient, acidic and quickly depleted. However, the cultivation of plants was possible, even early on. While there is fierce competition for soil nutrients among plants in Amazonia, certain plant species are better suited to these acidic, nutrient-scarce environments than others; these include manioc, papaya, and açaí palm, among others. However, over time as humans increasingly cultivated plants, people began living in more permanent settlements; they formed terras pretas de índio or anthropogenic dark earths (ADEs). When these terras pretas were first recognized by the academic world, they were thought to be the result of wind-carried ash brought east from the Andes following volcanic eruptions. This purely environmental explanation for such an essential element of Amazonia highlights the ongoing expectation of Amazonian biological and cultural poverty as well as the fact that indigenous populations of Amazonia are continually discredited for their work in creating the landscape that we know today. Instead, it is now recognized that these anthropogenic soils were created by humans, both intentionally and unintentionally. 

The proof is contained in the soils themselves. They are often rich in stone tools, fragments of pottery, animal bone and burned plant remains. More bluntly stated, they were ancient trash or compost heaps. At the confluence of the Negro and Solimões Rivers near the modern city of Manaus, Brazil, Eduardo Neves, professor of archaeology at the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia at the University of São Paulo, identified deep deposits of terra preta, some of which date to nearly 2,000 years ago. While estimates vary, it is thought that terra preta accounts for 3-10% of the land across Amazonia. In some areas, terras pretas are the result of swidden, or slash-and-burn, agriculture. While the phrase "slash-and-burn" might set off an alarm for those accustomed to ecological conservation discourse, swidden agriculture is a traditional practice that can increase the biodiversity in an area over time by opening space for easily out-competed species of plants and animals. 

Today, terras pretas are sought-after resources for farmers and horticulturists, despite the fact that sites where ADEs are found are archaeological sites. People mine ADEs for use as fertilizer, or gardens are planted immediately on top of the archaeological sites. While this leads to the destruction of archaeological contexts and culturally significant places, not everyone who mines or uses these soils necessarily knows that they are sites. 

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The tiny ceramic fragment in the center of the photo is about to be overrun by squash vines. The workers at the IBAMA station mined the terra preta for their gardens to supplement their food supply.

The workers at the IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) station near where we stayed in Caxiuanã had dug out terra preta to plant their garden. Next to their squash and onion plants lay pottery and stone tools. This small garden highlighted a more significant problem in conservation: the false dichotomy between biological and cultural preservation. 

Amazonian Monumentality

Often overlooked by the popular imagery and imaginaries of the Amazon, ancient Amazonian societies built monumental settlements extending from the Madre de Díos department of Peru into the Llanos de Mojos in Bolivia, and further east into Mato Grosso, Brazil. These earthworks, geoglyphs, and roads were only relatively recently noticed by farmers clearing their land in the 1960s and 1970s, who initially assumed that these were trenches left behind from the Acre War. It was thought that these trenches were too perfect and too massive to have been constructed by local indigenous peoples. However, later in 1977, when Alceu Ranzi, a geographer from Acre flew over, he observed massive rectangular and circular shapes on the landscape, some with roads connecting them, confirming that these structures were not natural geological formations. 

However, their discovery is bittersweet; they only become visible due to rampant deforestation aimed to clear land for cattle husbandry. In the state of Acre alone, there are over 500 known earthworks, with at least another 300 in the surrounding areas. However, many remain hidden due to different land-use policies in Peru and Bolivia. 

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Square and circular geoglyphs are visible in Acre´s deforested landscape. Photo by Sanna Saunaluoma.

Pioneering work by the late Denise Schaan revealed the extent and complexity of these geoglyph networks. Recently, scholars have determined that the areas in which today earthworks are present, were not covered with the dense tropical forest that many people have in mind when they think of Amazonia. When many of the earliest geoglyphs were first constructed around 3,000 years ago, the area that today encompasses Acre and Rondônia in Brazil and northeastern Bolivia was a transitional zone between forest and savanna that was much drier than today.

In June and July of 2018, I worked with Harvard University Professor of Anthropology Gary Urton at Neves at Sol de Campinas, a geoglyph site just 60 kilometers east of the city of Rio Branco in the state of Acre in northern Brazil. Sol de Campinas is a ring of mounds surrounding a central plaza that roughly covers the 25,000 square meters, or about the size of a city block. This does not even include the three extant roads radiating from the ring. This type of settlement still exists today in indigenous reserves across the Brazil; it is still an important way to spatially organize a community.  

Our project aimed at identifying how the mounds were constructed as well as the settlement and land use patterns employed. While the students enjoyed their time, many felt disillusioned about the lack of forest around us. The site was in the middle of modern cattle pasture, and despite our warnings, the students expected that they would be digging in dense jungle. However, even when Sol de Campinas was built some 1,500 years ago, the landscape looked very different than even the popular imaginary of Amazonia. 

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The Sol de Campinas not only incudes the ring of mounds but also the roads radiating out from the central plaza. Our excavation units (the white tents) are dwarfed by the sheer size of the site. Photo by Sanna Saunaluoma.

Work by Jennifer Watling from the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnologia in the Universidade de São Paulo has confirmed that the area was covered by bamboo and palm forests that were managed by the people who lived there. When an earthwork was constructed, a small area of the bamboo forest was temporarily cleared and then allowed to regrow. It was only around 1,700 years ago that the humid evergreen forest that we think of classically as classically Amazonian began to expand farther south. 

Further, the maximum extent of the Amazonian forest seen today is only due to rapid, dramatic post-1492 depopulation of the region. A cultural forest turned into a seemingly natural one. However, the effects of ancient human action can still be seen on the biodiversity of Amazonia today. Biological inventories of tree species across Amazonia demonstrated that of all the trees present in Amazonia, just 227 of the estimated 4,970 species are hyper-dominant; that is, they account for half of all trees in the area. Moreover, many of these hyper-dominant trees are useful to humans and are focused around archaeological sites, including açaí palms and cacao, to name some of the most recognizable. As such, it is thought that much of the Amazon forest that we know today was created by indigenous populations.

This apparent ephemerality of forested Amazonia is problematic. On the one hand, archaeological evidence proves that indigenous people have been integral to the formation of Amazonia as it is today; on the other, this research normalizes human use of the landscape. However, this human use that we saw in the past was nowhere near as destructive as modern soybean farming, cattle ranching, logging or mining. Instead, traditional uses of the land by indigenous and eventually quilombo populations increased the overall health and biodiversity of Amazonia. 

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Cattle from ranch near Sol de Campinas visit the excavations; the trees dotting the horizon are almost exclusively Brazil nut and Astrocaryum palms.

The human effect 

In 1541, Francisco de Orellana traveled down the Amazon River, starting near what is today Quito, Ecuador, and likely ending near Marajó island. He reported seeing extensive, densely populated settlements on the banks of the river with roads connecting them. The people in the fortified cities produced art and ceramics that "rivaled those of Málaga."  These fortified settlements surprised Orellana, but years later, the cities had all but disappeared. Orellana's account was discredited not only for his fantastical accounts of Amazon warriors, yes, the warriors from Greek Mythology, but also because these populations had disappeared. However, archaeological evidence now confirms Orellana’s observations. Amazonia supported complex societies in the past.

This rapid depopulation of Amazonia, particularly around the major rivers, is what some scholars have argued that lead to the range at which the forested area of the Amazon Basin exists today—removing humans from the environmental equation allowed for the expansion of these forests. However, areas with particularly high biodiversity and "healthy" forests are those where humans remain practicing traditional lifeways. Rather than repeating depressing facts about how much forest is lost in the Brazilian Amazon, a forward-looking perspective is necessary. Indigenous management, and thus, the demarcation of indigenous and traditional community lands, are essential for the survival of this resource. The pattern of ecological conservation that excludes humans from the equation does not work for this part of the world. Here, cultural preservation is biological preservation.

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A modern manioc and banana plot is planted over a terra preta archaeological site near Carrazedo.

 

Sadie L. Weber is a post-doctoral fellow in the Harvard Department of Anthropology and works in the Peru and Brazil. She is interested in traditional lifeways, food, and environmental archaeology. Sadie can be reached at sweber@fas.harvard.edu.

Arqueología en Amazonia

Un paisaje antropogénico

Por Sadie L. Weber

En junio de 2017, cuando yo debería haber estado escribiendo mi tesis doctoral en arqueología andina, decidí unirme al proyecto arqueológico dirigido por Helena Lima, investigadora y curadora en el Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi en Belém, Pará. Soy una arqueóloga que, hasta hace poco, trabajaba exclusivamente en los Andes peruanos, es decir, no estaba muy familiarizada con la arqueología en las tierras bajas.

Este proyecto brasileño, ubicado en la Floresta Nacional de Caxiuanã y sus áreas circundantes, demuestra que no solo las regiones fluviales de la Amazonía estaban densamente pobladas, también los asentamientos extendidos a los espacios interfluviales, en este caso, los territorios ubicados entre las áreas asentadas de los ríos Xingú y Tocantins. Yo, era una arqueóloga Andinista que trabajaba exclusivamente en los Andes del Perú, es decir, no estaba muy familiarizada con la arqueología en las tierras bajas. 

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Una casa ribeirinha (un pueblo tradicional que vive en las márgenes de ríos) rodeado por palmeras de açaí.

Cuando uno navega por el río Amazonas y los arroyos tributarios más pequeños, denominados igarapés, es imposible no ver la marca de los humanos, a pesar de que esta marca puede no ser aparente al principio. Lo primero que veíamos al costado del barco fue un caleidoscopio verde, salpicado de palmeras de açaí y aguaje. Eventualmente, las palmeras dominaron nuestra vista, anunciando la cercanía a un asentamiento humano que se fue abriendo en medio de la selva. Eventualmente nuestro barco paró en un grupo de casas asentadas a las orillas de un igarapé. Descargamos nuestros equipamientos y entramos en la selva por un camino de tierra, que nos condujo al pueblito de Gurupá-Mirim. Este lugar sería nuestro hogar durante las próximas dos semanas mientras llevamos a cabo una excavación arqueológica de rescate. Nuestro trabajo tenía como finalidad liberar la zona donde se instalaría una red eléctrica más permanente. Para la sorpresa de todos, encontramos evidencia sustancial de la antigua ocupación humana, especialmente, asociada al consumo de animales que también están presentes en las mesas de los pobladores actuales: animales de caza, açaí, camarones, yuca y pescado.

La Amazonía ocupa una posición de punto de acceso a la biodiversidad en nuestro mundo moderno. Este gran territorio – bajo la amenaza de uso excesivo humano, incendios, minería y deforestación ilegal-es en el centro de las batallas políticas y físicas generadas por controlar el cómo y por quién debe ser utilizada.  Esta presencia humana altamente extractiva y dañina comenzó solo hace 500 años. Antes de la llegada de los europeos a Sudamérica, los pueblos indígenas también utilizaron este territorio, pero de manera sostenible, establecieron asentamientos, algunos incluso de gran tamaño, afectando su entorno. Esta modificación del territorio por el hombre es lo que denominamos "antropogénico,” es decir, creado por la acción humana.

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Un fragmento de ceramica koriabo encontrado por los pobladores de Gurupá-Mirim.

El debate sobre el uso humano de la Amazonía ha oscilado entre dos conceptos: la idea de la Amazonía como un entorno superficialmente rico pero muy disperso que no permitía sostener grandes poblaciones, y, por otro lado, el parque cultural que podría haber sostenido una población de hasta ocho millones. En ambos lados de este debate estuvieron Betty Meggers y Donald Lathrap, dos arqueólogos estadounidenses que fueron cautivados desde el principio por el pasado y las culturas contemporáneas en la Amazonía. Sin embargo, discreparon profundamente sobre la capacidad de la Amazonía para sostener asentamientos extensos y complejos. Para Meggers, la hermosa cerámica policroma de la isla de Marajó en la desembocadura del río Amazonas se parecía a la cerámica japonesa. Estas cerámicas, por tanto, habría llegado a América del Sur con antiguos colonos japoneses de la región. Por su parte, para Lathrap, las complejas y monumentales sociedades de los Andes peruanos hubieran sido el producto de los primeros asentamientos amazónicos. Aunque ambos investigadores ya fallecieron, el legado de sus trabajos perdura en la arqueología contemporánea amazónica y andina La pregunta sobre qué tan intenso la Amazonía fue utilizada por el hombre perdura, y estas teorías han sido reevaluadas debido a la evidencia arqueológica que ha surgido en los últimos 50 años. Ahora sabemos que la Amazonía no solo era un ambiente ideal para el asentamiento humano, sino también, lejos de ser un bosque virgen, cuenta con su propia historia cultural

Asentamientos Iniciales en la Amazonía

Aunque las preguntas sobre cuándo y cómo llegaron los humanos a las Américas siguen siendo polémicas, sabemos que al menos hace aproximadamente 15,000 años los humanos ya vivían en América del Sur, en particular, en la costa de Chile en el sitio denominado Monte Verde. En el gran esquema de la historia humana en América del Sur, la colonización de la Amazonía ocurrió poco después, o al menos la evidencia arqueológica así la refleja.  En lo que hoy es el estado de Pará, cerca de la moderna ciudad de Santarém, se encuentra el sitio Caverna da Pedra Pintada, un refugio rocoso con pinturas que adornan sus paredes. Primero excavado por Anna Roosevelt y Edithe Pereira en la década de 1990 y principios de 2000 y, más recientemente, por Pereira y Cristiana Barreto, los cuales determinaron que el sitio fue habitado hace más de 11,000 años. Cuando se publicaron estas fechas, desato una gran controversia en el mundo, Roosevelt recibió una fuerte reacción de los académicos que trabajan en los Estados Unidos. En ese momento, existía un consenso general que el asentamiento inicial de todas las Américas habría ocurrido hace solo 10.000 años, cuando los cazadores-recolectores nómadas (por ejemplo, la cultura Clovis) siguieron a las megafaunas en las duras áreas pos-glaciales del oeste de América del Norte. 

Parecer ser, que Caverna da Pedra Pintada, y otros sitios semejantes, sirvieron como refugio para las personas durante las estaciones climáticamente impredecibles. Las personas que ocuparon la Cueva de Pedra Pintada no encajaban en la imagen típica de los primeros pobladores de las Américas que perseguían la megafauna por todo el continente. Estas personas produjeron arte rupestre y desarrollaron una relación profunda con el paisaje, que incluía el uso de animales acuáticos y plantas que hasta el día de hoy son culturalmente importantes como la castaña del Brasil y el Astrocaryum aculeatum (conocido como cumare, alcoyure, o acaguru en países hispanohablantes), entre otras especies de árboles y palmeras.

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Una mujer de Gurupá-Mirim demuestra un fragmento de cerâmica koriabo que ella encontró en su huerta. Es muy como que los pobladores de la aldea guaran las cosas que encuentren para mostrarlos a los arqueólogos.

Si bien los sitios como Caverna da Pedra Pintada son relativamente raros, la ocupación temprana marca un establecimiento crucial y diferente de la presencia humana en la Amazonía que va más allá de las ideas generales de los paleoindios persiguiendo megafaunas. Asentamientos como este estimularon la ocupación constante y permanente de la Amazonía fomentando a una relación indígena profundamente arraigada con el paisaje, manejando los recursos locales de plantas y animales, así como transformando físicamente la tierra. De este asentamiento inicial surgieron innovaciones distintas como el cultivo de plantas, y tecnologías como la cerámica. La población indígena alteró el paisaje de tal manera que su huella todavía permanece en este territorio en forma de terras pretas o tierras negras, geoglifos de tierra o montículos que respetan diversas formas geométricas en el suelo, y, sobre todo, en la diversidad biológica de la Amazonía.

Terras Pretas o Tierras Negras

Los sedimentos naturales de arcilla ferruginosa de la Amazonía son nutricionalmente deficientes, ácidos y se agotan rápidamente. Sin embargo, el cultivo de plantas era posible, incluso desde el principio. Aunque existe una feroz competencia por los nutrientes del suelo entre las plantas en la Amazonía, ciertas especies de plantas están más adaptadas a estos ambientes ácidos y con escasez de nutrientes que otras. Estos incluyen la yuca, la papaya y el açaí, entre otros. Sin embargo, con el tiempo, a medida que los humanos cultivaron más y más plantas, la gente comenzó a vivir en asentamientos más permanentes; formaron tierras negras, también conocidas como tierras antropogénicas oscuras. 

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Archaeology students sift through the soils at Sol de Campinas looking for ceramics, stone tools, and carbonized seeds.

Cuando estas tierras negras fueron registradas por la primera vez por el mundo académico, se consideraron el resultado de las cenizas transportadas por el viento desde los Andes hacia el este, producto de las erupciones volcánicas. Para un elemento tan esencial y presente en la Amazonía, esta explicación exógena puramente ambiental muestra cómo se percibe hasta ahora la Amazonía, un espacio de pobreza biológica y cultural. A este punto se suma la discriminación hacia la población indígena que es constantemente desacreditada por ser la responsable del rostro que tiene la Amazonía actualmente. Afortunadamente, gracias a los estudios que se vienen realizando, se reconoce que estos suelos antropogénicos, las tierras negras, fueron creados por la acción humana, tanto intencional como involuntariamente.

La prueba está contenida en los suelos mismos. Estos suelos suelen contener material cultural como herramientas de piedra, fragmentos de cerámica, huesos de animales y restos de plantas quemadas. Estos materiales parecieron ser utilizados como abonos y, probablemente, fueron vertederos de basura. En la confluencia de los ríos Negro y Solimões, cerca de la ciudad de Manaos, Brasil, Eduardo Neves, profesor de arqueología en el Museo de Arqueología y Etnología de la Universidad de São Paulo, identificó depósitos profundos de tierra negra, algunos de los cuales datan de hace casi 2.000 años. Aunque las estimaciones varían, se cree que la tierra negra representa del 3 al 10% del suelo en la Amazonía. En algunas áreas, las tierras negras son el resultado del proceso de la agricultura de tala y quema. Aunque la frase "tala y quema" puede ser una señal de alerta para quienes están acostumbrados al discurso de conservación ecológica, esta forma de agricultura es una práctica tradicional que puede aumentar la biodiversidad en un área con el tiempo, dejando espacio para especies de plantas y animales que no compiten entre ellas. 

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Los perfiles de esta unidad de excavación presentan varias capas de quema y reocupación y reutilización. Los objectos en las paredes de la unidad son fragmentos de cerámica que quedan allá hasta el fin de la excavación y hasta que se termina el dibujo de los perfiles.

Hoy, las tierras negras son recursos deseados para los granjeros y los horticultores, a pesar de que los sitios donde se encuentran las tierras negras son sitios arqueológicos. Las personas extraen la tierra negra para utilizarlas como fertilizante, o los jardines o huertos se plantan inmediatamente encima de los sitios arqueológicos. Si bien esto lleva a cabo la destrucción de contextos arqueológicos y lugares culturalmente significativos, no todos los que extraen o usan estos suelos necesariamente saben que son arqueológicos.

Los trabajadores de la estación de IBAMA (Instituto Brasileño del Medio Ambiente y de los Recursos Naturales Renovables), cerca de donde nos alojamos en Caxiuanã, habían excavado tierra negra para plantar sus huertas. Junto a las plantas de calabaza y cebolla se hallaban herramientas antiguas de cerámica y piedra. Esta pequeña huerta es un ejemplo del problema que existe de la falsa dicotomía entre la preservación biológica y cultural.

Monumentalidad Arquitectónica en la Amazonía

A menudo ignoradas por las ideas e imaginarios populares de la Amazonía, las antiguas sociedades amazónicas construyeron asentamientos monumentales que se extienden desde el departamento de Madre de Díos en Perú hasta los Llanos de Mojos en Bolivia, y más al este hasta Mato Grosso, Brasil. Estas obras de tierra, geoglifos, zanjas y caminos fueron notados relativamente recientemente por los agricultores que limpiaron sus propiedades en los años sesenta y setenta, quienes inicialmente asumieron que se trataba de trincheras dejadas por las Guerras del Acre. Se pensaba que estas trincheras eran demasiado perfectas y masivas para haber sido construidas por la gente indígena local. Sin embargo, poco después en 1977, cuando Alceu Ranzi, un geógrafo de Acre sobrevoló el área, observó enormes formas rectangulares y circulares en el paisaje, algunas con caminos que las conectaban, confirmando que estas estructuras no eran formaciones geológicas naturales.

Sin embargo, este descubrimiento tiene un sabor agridulce; estas construcciones solo se hacen visibles debido a la deforestación desenfrenada que actualmente sigue en la Amazonía destinada a liberar tierra para la cría de ganado. Solo en el estado de Acre, hay más de 500 geoglífos conocidos, con al menos otros 300 en las áreas circundantes. Sin embargo, muchos permanecen ocultos debido a las diferentes políticas de uso de la tierra en Perú y Bolivia.

El trabajo pionero de la fallecida Denise Schaan reveló el alcance y la complejidad de estas redes de geoglifos. Recientemente, los académicos determinaron que las áreas en las que existen los geoglifos actuales no estaban cubiertas por la densa selva tropical que muchas personas tienen en mente al pensar en la Amazonía. Cuando se construyeron muchos de los primeros geoglifos hace unos 3.000 años, el área que ahora cubre Acre y Rondônia en Brasil y en el noreste de Bolivia era una zona de transición entre bosques y sabanas que era mucho más secas que hoy.  

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Una alumna doctoral en arqueología coloca unos hilos en los perfiles para definir las capas de una unidad de excavación. La capa superior y oscura es terra preta, la próxima capa está hecha de conchas rotas que se usaron como relleno de construcción y la arcilla de color óxido es la superficie (más o menos) original.

En junio y julio de 2018, trabajé con el profesor Gary Urton del Departamento de Antropología de la Universidad de Harvard y Neves en el sitio de Sol de Campinas, un sitio arqueológico de geoglifos a solo 60 kilómetros al este de la ciudad de Rio Branco, en el estado de Acre en el norte de Brasil. Sol de Campinas es un anillo de pequeños montículos alrededor de una plaza central que cubre aproximadamente 25,000 metros cuadrados, o aproximadamente el tamaño de una cuadra de la ciudad. Esto ni siquiera incluye los tres caminos existentes que irradian desde el centro. Este tipo de asentamiento todavía existe hoy en las reservas indígenas en todo el Brasil; y sigue siendo una forma importante de organizar espacialmente una comunidad.

Nuestro proyecto tenía como objetivo identificar cómo se construyeron los montículos, y cuál fue el patrón de asentamiento y uso del área. Mientras los estudiantes disfrutaban de su tiempo en el campo, también se sintieron decepcionados por la falta de bosque a nuestro alrededor. Sol de Campinas está en medio de pastos modernos y, a pesar de nuestras advertencias previas, los estudiantes esperaron poder excavar rodeados de bosques. Sin embargo, incluso hace 1.500 años cuando se construyó el Sol de Campinas el paisaje se veía muy diferente a al imaginario popular de la Amazonía. 

El trabajo de Jennifer Watling, del Museo de Arqueología y Etnología de la Universidad de São Paulo, confirmó que el área estaba cubierta por bosques de bambú y palmeras, y estos bosques eran manejados por las personas que vivían allí. Cuando se construyó el geoglifo, se abrió temporalmente una pequeña área del bosque de bambú, y luego se permitió la regeneración. Hace solo 1.700 años, el bosque de hoja perenne y húmedo, que consideramos como amazónico, comenzó a expandirse más al sur. 

Además, la extensión máxima de la selva amazónica observada hoy se debe a la despoblación rápida y dramática de la región después el año 1492. Un bosque cultural se ha convertido en uno que aparentemente es natural. De hecho, los efectos de la antigua acción humana todavía se pueden ver en la biodiversidad de la Amazonía actual. Los inventarios biológicos de especies arbóreas en el Amazonas han demostrado que, de todos los árboles presentes en el Amazonas, solo 227 de las 4,970 especies estimadas presentes allí son hiperdominantes; es decir, representan la mitad de todos los árboles en el área. Además, muchos de estos árboles hiperdominantes son útiles para los humanos y se concentran en sitios arqueológicos, como el açaí y el cacao, para mencionar algunos de los más reconocidos. Por lo tanto, se cree que una gran parte de la selva amazónica que hoy conocemos fue creada por poblaciones indígenas.

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Costales de semillas de açaí descartados después del proceso de extraer la pulpa de las frutas.

Esta aparente fugacidad de la Amazonía boscosa es problemática. Por un lado, la evidencia arqueológica demuestra que las populaciones indígenas han sido una parte integral de la formación de la Amazonía como lo es hoy; por otro lado, esta investigación normaliza el uso humano del paisaje. Sin embargo, este uso humano que hemos visto en el pasado no fue tan destructivo como el cultivo moderno de soja, el ganado, la tala o la minería. En cambio, los usos tradicionales de la tierra por parte de las poblaciones indígenas y eventualmente quilombolas o palenques han aumentado la salud y la biodiversidad de la Amazonía.

El efecto humano

En 1541, Francisco de Orellana navegó a lo largo del río Amazonas, comenzando cerca de lo que ahora es Quito, Ecuador, y probablemente terminó cerca de la isla de Marajó. Informó haber visto asentamientos extensos y densamente poblados en las orillas del río, con una red de carreteras conectándolos. La gente en las ciudades fortificadas producía arte y cerámica que "rivalizaban con los de Málaga". Estos asentamientos fortificados sorprendieron a Orellana, pero años después las ciudades casi desaparecieron. El relato de Orellana fue desacreditado no solo por sus fantásticas historias de las Guerreras Amazónicas, sí, las guerreras de la mitología griega, sino también porque estas poblaciones habían desaparecido. Sin embargo, la evidencia arqueológica ahora confirma las observaciones de Orellana. La Amazonía, como sabemos ahora, apoyo el surgimiento de sociedades complejas en el pasado.

Esta rápida despoblación de la Amazonía, particularmente alrededor de los ríos principales, es lo que algunos estudiosos han argumentado que conducen al aumento de los bosques de la cuenca del Amazonas actualmente: la eliminación de los pueblos de la ecuación ambiental permitió la expansión de estos bosques. Sin embargo, las áreas con una biodiversidad particularmente alta y bosques "saludables" son aquellas donde los humanos continúan practicando formas de vida tradicionales. En lugar de repetir hechos deprimentes sobre la cantidad de bosque perdido en la Amazonía diariamente, en particular en Brasil, se necesita una perspectiva a futuro. El manejo indígena y, por lo tanto, la demarcación de las tierras indígenas y de las comunidades tradicionales, son esenciales para la supervivencia de este recurso. El estándar de conservación ecológica que excluye a los humanos de la ecuación no funciona para esta parte del mundo. Aquí, la preservación cultural es la preservación biológica.

 

Sadie Louise Weber es becaria postdoctoral en el Departamento de Antropología de Harvard y trabaja en Perú y Brasil. Está interesada en la vida tradicional, la alimentación y la arqueología ambiental. Sadie puede ser contactado en sweber@fas.harvard.edu.

Bolivia’s Amazon

Power and Politics Stoking the Flames

By Bret Gustafson

The fires that raged across the Amazon basin last fall hit Bolivia particularly hard. From September to November, the fires swept through more than 3,000 square miles—twice the area of Rhode Island—, much of it in the pristine dry forests of the Chiquitanía area. Yearly burning by farmers clearing land is nothing new in the region. Yet 2019 was particularly intense. Fires spreading worldwide sparked newfound concerns about drought, global warming and the fate of the planet.

The fires in Bolivia became a political battleground that went beyond more familiar environmental debates. In the heated election season, Bolivia’s then president, the left-leaning Indigenous leader Evo Morales, blamed the big agro-business of the Bolivian east. His detractors blamed him. The opposition was already hoping to topple him in the October elections because they saw his bid for an unprecedented fourth term as unconstitutional. Although the environmental bonafides of the Bolivian right are a bit doubtful, the fires became a useful means for all those opposed to Evo to declare themselves green and attack his relative popularity, both nationally and internationally.

Conspiracy theories about the disastrous fires abound. For those on the left, it is not hard to believe that a concerted effort by landowners—perhaps even tied to President Jair Bolsonaro in neighboring Brazil—wanted to use the fires to wage an all out assault on the land. In Brazil, Bolsonaro’s overt assault on Indigenous rights and his dismissal of environmentalists’ concerns find an echo in eastern Bolivia, where big agro-business interests have long been closely aligned with the Brazilian agrarian lobby, the ruralistas. (In fact, huge swathes of soy land in Bolivia are owned directly by Brazilian investors and farmers). By extension, it is not hard to imagine that following Bolsonaro, Bolivia’s right-wing would use the fires to advance its economic interests and hurt Evo Morales on the eve of elections.

Indeed, the right had generated a story of scandal just prior to the 2016 referendum that Evo lost in a bid to extend term limits. The scandal turned out to be largely fake news, yet his loss forced Evo to go to the courts to make a fourth run on the presidency. The interests at stake are immense. Cattle-ranching and large-scale farming of soy and sugar-cane, as well as timber and gold mining have long been the base of power for elites across Bolivia’s Amazonian lowlands. Landgrabs of state-owned land—and that of Indigenous peoples—have been the right’s most common method for expanding their economic and political base there. As such, starting fires for political gain is well within the scope of rationality for these elites. Whether intentional or not, the massive fires in 2019 did play to the interests of these landed elites, both for clearing land and for undermining the leader they hoped to topple.

Yet Evo Morales and the MAS bear some responsibility as well. By 2013, Morales’ allegedly leftist government, locked in mortal combat with the landed elite since 2006, made a pragmatic deténte with big agro-business. Natural gas prices had fallen and the government hoped to shore up the books by increasing agricultural production. This meant abandoning its progressive land reform plans and removing restrictions on the expansion of the agrarian frontier: in other words, deforestation. Activists critical of Evo Morales have pointed to legislative measures since then. In 2013 the government passed a general pardon for those who had carried out illegal deforestation between 1996 and 2011. In 2015, another law allowed deforestation by small landholders by reducing restrictions on legal burning (since smaller farmers generally do not have heavy machinery to clear land). The measure, according to critics, gave way to uncontrolled burning while larger landowners took advantage of the opening to do burning of their own.

In 2018 another law reversed Evo Morales’ longstanding opposition to biofuels (biodiesel from soy and ethanol from sugar). Confronting a fuel shortage and intense pressure from the soy and sugar industry, the government moved to promote plant-based fuel production and promised to buy ethanol. This incentivized more deforestation. Finally in 2019, the state passed measures that further encouraged agrarian expansion. One law sought to regulate controlled burning as a “productive activity” but made it easier to burn down trees. In August of 2019, a month before the uncontrolled fires erupted and just two months before the elections, a presidential decree authorized new deforestation in areas of Santa Cruz and Beni departments. The combined interest in expanding soy and sugar frontiers for biofuels and expanding cattle production for exports to China both implicated government policy in the fires. Even if he did not light the match, Evo’s policies certainly helped shape conditions for the inferno.

Yet Evo Morales is too much of an easy target for detractors, whether armchair environmentalists of the Global North or arch-conservative elites who dominate Bolivia’s agroindustrial east. We must think more deeply about the relations of political power and the pressures of capitalist markets that have threatened the Amazon in ways that go beyond Evo and the fires last year. With Evo no longer in the presidency and the country riven by inequalities, whichever new political forces emerge—and especially if they are on the right side of the political spectrum—the pressures on the Amazon will certainly intensify.

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Chiquitania landscape, where agriculture and dry rainforest meet. Photo by Marco Ambrosi

Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, long a backwater—except for the times it was gripped by booms like rubber or wars for territory in the early 20th century—, experienced new pressures after the 1950s. The U.S. government helped Bolivia build new roads, encouraged the resettlement of poor Andean peasants (to diffuse revolutionary pressure) and financed cattle, farming, and oil across the lowlands. During the U.S.-backed Banzer dictatorship (1971-78), the old general handed out land right and left to cronies, laying the base for those who now hold power and establishing a relationship between state largesse and socio-environmental destruction.

This changed little with the return of democracy as deforestation and disposession of Indigenous and peasant communities continued. Along with wealthy Bolivian landowners, the culprits also included expanding Mennonite colonies, all involved in sugar, sorghum, wheat, and soy cultivation. (Mennonites, although often maintaining traditional lifestyles, operate huge farming operations across eastern Bolivia, often insulated from state laws and regulations.) To a lesser extent, the settler communities arriving from the Andes—known as colonos—were also establishing small-scale farming communities in the east, often deforesting and pushing lowland Indigenous peoples off the land as well.

With World Bank support in the 1990s, soy cultivation expanded in the Bolivian east, along with deforestation. In effect, the World Bank subsidized deforestation, a fact it has itself acknowledged. During the 1990s, Bolivia’s east also saw the expansion of Brazilian land ownership, as wealthier Brazilians moved in to snap up cheap land, by then increasingly scarce in their own country. By the same token, cattle, long used as a speculative hedge by Bolivia’s elites, has boomed with the growth of the urban consuming class in Bolivia and with growing exports, including the opening to China. In recent years soy and cattle have become kings.

Deeper in the hinterlands, other ills plague the forest. Along the great rivers of Bolivia’s Amazon, such as the Madre de Dios, small and large scale mining companies, some organized as cooperatives, are dredging for gold. Since the 1970s and 1980s artisanal miners have panned and sifted for gold. But with the free-market neoliberal turn of the 1990s, the path was opened for the expansion of private mining concessions across the country. These patterns changed little when Evo Morales came to office. Despite lofty rhetoric, the government did not nationalize mining operations or constrain their expansion, but actually consolidated existing operations that were both legal and illegal. In contrast to policies aimed at deepening state control in other sectors, the government allowed large- and small-scale mining, including informal and illegal mining to run free. The impacts of alluvial gold mining in the Amazon have been much studied and are well documented.. Alluvial mining involves dredging fragile river ecosystems and using and discharging toxic mercury into water systems. Mining attracts workers to remote regions, often introducing new threats to Indigenous or Amazonian communities, including violence if mining activities are resisted. Workers themselves invariably suffer poor working conditions. Larger operations, including some connected to Brazilian and Chinese investors, involve large dredging boats and machines.

In order to try to reduce contraband and capture some income, the Morales government established a very low rate on gold transactions, as low as 1.5%. Yet policing mining across a vast remote region is difficult. CEDIB, a Bolivian NGO, argues that the MAS government actually exacerbated it. In addition, organized mining cooperatives have frustrated attempts to formalize and control the industry and Evo’s government relied on their political support. Despite much talk of Mother Nature, Evo’s government hoped to capture taxes and establish political bases of support in the contested Amazonian regions rather than put a stop to mining (CEDIB 2017).

Other more familiar threats, including timber cutting and illicit drug manufacturing also create challenges for the region. The environmental question in Bolivia has been riven by tensions between ecological degradation and the push development through natural resource extraction. The question becomes if and how any government, left or right, can establish institutions to oversee more rational and sustainable forms of resource use or create economic alternatives for people and communities who look to extraction as a form of survival. This longstanding challenge is now further complicated by the shifting positions of left and right on the question of nature.

On the left, Evo Morales always spoke of Mother Earth (Pachamama) being pitted in a war to the death with capitalism. While such talk evoked hopeful cheers early in his presidency, the Morales government remained deeply committed to mining, big agriculture, and gas and oil, all of them more firmly in line with capital than with Mother Earth. When the Morales government moved to build a new highway through a protected natural and Indigenous area in 2011—the TIPNIS reserve—among the rather unexpected and vociferous defenders of nature who emerged were the urban middle classes, generally conservative and right-leaning. The TIPNIS struggle pretty much shed Evo of his environmentalist clothes.

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Former mission, Iglesia San Javier de Chiquitos, is located in the Chiquitania. Photo by Marco Ambrosi

In response, and curiously, many on the right now speak of defending nature. To my mind this is little more than a tactical (and even cynical) turn, given the right’s long history of disregard for both nature and Indigenous peoples’ rights. But Evo’s bungles in the jungles helped the anti-Evo urban middle classes discover a newfound love for nature – as a new means of attacking Evo. As the fires finally burned out the conflicts over the October 2019 elections erupted. The “environment” was one of many banners waved by the opposition. Among others, this became more visible with the organization “Standing Rivers” (Ríos de Pie). Ignoring the role of big business, these activists worked hard to blame the fires on Evo Morales, seeking to garner international sympathy for the forest and create antipathy for the Indigenous president. Evo’s supporters saw many of these supposed environmentalists as agents of the right-wing, and with some reason. The Standing Rivers group is led by a young Bolivian with funding ties to conservative human rights organizations and institutions involved with the so-called color revolutions, the U.S.-backed mobilizations that toppled leaders in eastern Europe. Yet the conscientious work of long-standing Bolivian NGOs also suggest that environmentalism is not just a right-wing tool. In addition, though Evo still had massive popular support, some rural and Indigenous people have turned away from Evo because of the impacts of development activities. At any rate, Evo’s eventual resignation in the face of military pressure has opened to door to the return of the right. It remains to be seen whether and how this urban right-leaning environmentalism represents something real, given that the right-wing government that replaced Morales has deep connections to the extractive industries. Among the most extreme factions of the opposition that helped oust Evo are the cattle-raising and soy-growing forces and interests that helped start the fires last fall. At this writing, the so-called “transition government” is deepening the ethanol incentives by promising to buy 160 million dollars worth of the fuel (at a loss) to add to the gasoline supply. Those who thought Morales had become an enemy of nature – and took some pleasure in castigating leftists who supported him – can now redirect their attention to the right.

In the Bolivian Amazon, the possibility for an alternative future lies in robust policies in defense of nature and of Indigenous rights, as well as a turn away from chemical-heavy forms of highly mechanized industry which produces few jobs, few returns for other economic sectors, and noxious social and ecological effects. A number of shifts might help both the Amazon and ecological systems more broadly. Certainly a turn away from fossil fuels is fundamental – and a rejection of biofuels as well – with transportation systems gradually going electric. Bolivia’s own lithium reserves might come into play in that regard. Similarly, the dismantling – or at least containment – of the ongoing monopolization of agricultural production by multinational firms like Bunge and Cargill, along with the highly chemicalized and mechanized production matrices they encourage, is necessary. Governments should support small-scale, organic, alternative, and ecologically sustainable agriculture rather than continue subsidizing big producers. Providing economic and technical assistance for smaller producers and ending policies aimed at expanding production through deforestation –are also necessary. Rethinking and restructuring national economies to create more labor intensive industries, and thus removing incentives for people to participate in illicit or ecologically destructive activities will also help. Soy, gold, and beef are not going to save Bolivia’s economy or provide a path to equitable development. But they will most certainly continue to degrade Bolivia’s Amazon.

 

Bret Gustafson teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of  Bolivia in the Age of Gas (Duke 2020) and New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge (Duke 2009). Gustafson received his Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard in 2002. This article draws on sources from CEDIB (Bolivia); Fundación Tierra (Bolivia) and Bolivian press accounts.

Creating Huayusa Upina: A Kichwa Community’s Powerful Response to Economic Development

 

By Megan Monteleone

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A bus drives into Arajuno from Puyo along the new road, passing the old airport that now acts as a bus station and center for selling handicrafts and traditional food in June 2015. Photo by Megan Monteleone.

 

Morning fog obscured all but our immediate surroundings as César Cerda, former president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP), navigated his white Ford pickup truck along the winding, paved road toward the town of Arajuno. It was the summer of 2015 and the first day of my three-month ethnographic research trip in the central Ecuadorian Amazon.

 César drove silently with his eyes fixed on the road, his hands and forearms stained with black achiote paint (plant dye). He had used the dye the night before to paint faces and dye hair in celebration of his eldest son’s birthday—a part of Kichwa tradition. Disappearing in the distance behind us was the bustling capital city of the Pastaza province, Puyo, where César lives full-time with his wife, Margarita López, and four of their five children. Margarita’s family has roots in Arajuno going back its founding. She is the only one of her siblings who moved out to the city, though she and César go back quite often. This morning, César was headed to a meeting at the headquarters of the Association of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno (ACIA), where he had just become a director.

As the sun rose and the fog cleared, a landscape came into focus that did not resemble the Amazon I had imagined. Cattle grazed in pastures on both sides of the road. Trees had been cut down and vegetation was sparse. Small, dilapidated houses were disrupted every so often by out-of-place, Spanish colonial-style homes. New roads to extraction sites turned off in both directions. As we rounded the hillside, César broke the silence and pointed excitedly over my shoulder, exclaiming “Look there! That’s the monte!” An expansive landscape was appearing far in the distance: a rushing river, a dense forest referred to as the monte, and endless hills where birds were diving in and out. César told me that not so long ago the whole area was pure monte. A walk that usually took days could now be done in two hours by car. César seemed to be discontented and excited at the same time, emblematic of the deep tension posed by development.

Arriving in Arajuno, I felt the palpable tension between “old” and “new.” On my right was a long, empty field where the runway for small airplanes had been before the road came. Farther ahead, a bus stop had replaced the airplane waiting area. On my left was a sea of concrete buildings: two new high schools, the district education office, general stores selling produce, packaged foods, baked goods and meat, three restaurants, two internet cafes, a printing shop, multiple hardware stores, a bed and breakfast and a gas pump for refilling motorcycles. Dispersed amongst the concrete were chozas, wooden houses with traditional thatched palm roofs. César alerted me that before the road existed, only footpaths and one small shop serviced the whole area. Now, the road had produced a center of commercial activity.

We eventually arrived at the headquarters of ACIA, the largest and most active indigenous ethnic federation of the four in Arajuno, its members primarily Kichwa. That day’s meeting had been called to outline goals for the coming year. ACIA directors each had a chance to present their plans, in accordance with the mission statement: “ACIA exists to defend the sustainable management of the territory it governs, guided by the worldview of sumak kawsay.Sumak kawsay is Kichwa for “in harmony with nature.”

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The headquarters of the Association of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno in August 2016. Photo by Ted Macdonald.

 

Luisa Pauchi Padilla, ACIA’s Director of Women and Families, jumped at the opportunity to go first. She presented an idea to create a monthly “Huayusa Upina,” a traditional tea drinking ceremony, that would be organized by ACIA women. In the past, drinking huayusa tea was an integral part of the Kichwa lifestyle for both practical and spiritual purposes: it was high in caffeine and was also traditionally regarded as one of the drinks of nearby forest spirits called supai (See Ted Macdonald, ReVista’s current edition). Families consumed huayusa at 3 or 4 in the morning, sharing time together, telling stories of the past and preparing for a day of work in the gardens or forest. The ritual of daily tea drinking was becoming less common as a result of economic development. Families were staying up later and working in jobs that did not require them to rise before dawn. Luisa hoped this community-wide ceremony would help people to remember and value their culture. At the end of the meeting, the group set a date for the first Huayusa Upina to occur in the choza behind the ACIA headquarters.

While I was intrigued at the time, I did not yet know that the public Huayusa Upina event would come to exemplify a highly interesting trend occurring in Arajuno, where active and empowered women were creating and sustaining an innovative form of indigenous culture through, rather than in tension with, development.

Arajuno’s Changing Economy

Before the road was built connecting Arajuno to Puyo in 2001, the Kichwa community relied on a subsistence economy, based in hunting, fishing and gardening. Gardening was central, especially as population growth throughout the 20th century pushed hunting and fishing farther from the main town and depleted animal and fish populations. Kichwa families typically kept a garden close to their home where they grew small crops like fruit trees, huayusa leaves and chili peppers. They also had two or three large plots called chacras, located outside of what is now the populated area of the town. Women were the primary laborers in the chacra, taking on daily planting, cleaning, weeding and harvesting, and performing rituals, often related to connecting with supai, to influence a productive harvest. Men were involved earlier in the process, clearing the plots and delineating the perimeter with palm trees and plantains. They would also help out with daily maintenance when not busy with other tasks like hunting, fishing or, later on, cattle raising. It was a natural “division of labor” (see Emile Durkheim, 1893).

Women also cooked what the chacra produced. The most abundant crops, yucca (manioc) and plantains, formed the basis of a typical Kichwa meal. If meat was available, it would also be prepared, but a family could survive adequately from the chacra harvest alone. From yucca, women would prepare a traditional beverage called chicha, made by chewing boiled yucca tubers and allowing it to ferment over a period of days. The chacra and chicha—women’s responsibilities—were fundamental in sustaining Kichwa life in Arajuno, even through spurts of irregular market economies like cash cropping and cattle raising in the 1970s. Margarita López said, “A strong Kichwa woman never lacks yucca or chicha. If a Kichwa man is lazy, there may be no meat, but if a Kichwa woman is lazy, there will be no life.”

The Arrival of the Road

After the road was built, life in Arajuno changed significantly. The road brought electricity, internet, new businesses, a municipal government headquarters and new settlers, shifting the landscape and transforming a once small and isolated town into a central commercial zone with more than 8,000 inhabitants.

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Arajuno 2003 (left) and Arajuno c. 2010 (right), depict the changes brought in by the road over a seven-year period (Photo Credits: Carlos Godoy Espinoza (2003) and Pedro Avilez (c2010))

 

Although the road had some negative effects such as increased crime rates and alcohol consumption, it also provided newfound access out of Arajuno for the local community. Many people, especially young people, began to attend universities in cities as far away as the capital, Quito. They became active participants in the evolving economic sphere, taking on new jobs, or at the very least, new responsibilities.

Yet the new market economy was not sufficient to sustain Kichwa life entirely. Despite increased education, not every person could find work in a paid job at an institution and many, even those who were educated, went through periods of unemployment, worked in unpaid political positions or did occasional paid tasks to earn a small, irregular monetary income. Even in full-time, “paid” positions in government institutions, months would go by with no paycheck as a result of lagging government bureaucracy. For most people in Arajuno, money continues to be an illusory reality. When there is money, whether earned from intermittent paid tasks or a full-time job, it will be used for new expenses like sending children to universities instead of paying off debts or buying food, which keeps money from circulating regularly in the economy. Families do not want to risk dependency on money, and as a result, continue to maintain the subsistence sphere – primarily, the chacra.

Women’s Complex Work

Today, Kichwa women in Arajuno work in wage-earning jobs and participate in politics, but make time for sustaining subsistence work in the chacra. Isabel López and her family, my hosts in Arajuno, were prime examples. Isabel worked full time as a teacher and ran a sewing shop out of her downtown home, but spent many weekends, vacations and late afternoons in the family’s chacra sites in Arajuno’s interior. On rare occasions, she would hire day laborers to do urgent maintenance, but money to hire outsiders was often lacking.

Isabel’s daughter, María, was not employed full time, but still felt pressure to make money doing irregular tasks or selling cash crops like cacao, which equally complicated her ability to make time for daily work in the chacra. María had also just taken charge of managing the López family’s land in the interior of Arajuno, an unpaid, but nevertheless demanding and important role that required her to host meetings with all descendants of Pablo López (María’s grandfather) to make decisions about land use and gardening and discuss related ongoing issues.

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María (left) and Isabel (right) work in the chacra in August 2016. Photo by Ted Macdonald.

 

Despite increasing challenges, the majority of women I met in Arajuno, much like Isabel and María, maintained highly complex and demanding daily schedules that allowed the chacra work to get done. Families continue to depend on the chacra as a reliable source of food, and at the same time, rely on the harvest to maintain central aspects of the Kichwa identity like consuming chicha and huayusa tea. Isabel, her daughters and granddaughters (most of whom lived in the house together) made a constant effort to prepare chicha, get up for huayusa in the mornings and speak the Kichwa language. In the post-road context, women’s ability to manage the “old” and “new” simultaneously in their daily lives has become integral in carrying forward the Kichwa identity.

Local “indigenous” politics

With a changing economic sphere and the construction of the road, local politics in Arajuno were taking shape and gaining strength. Early politics revolved around inter-family marriages and kinship ties that delineated competition for land and resources. But as the economy developed and the local community came in increased contact with non-indigenous Ecuadorian colonists beginning in the 1960s, a heightened awareness of ethnic differences, even between “indigenous” groups, began to emerge and create a new sphere of “ethnopolitics.” By the 1970s, indigenous communities began to organize themselves into federations and began fighting collectively—as “indigenous people”—for land rights and political power. In 1979, ACIA formed in Arajuno and became highly active in the fight to gain control of ancestral territory.

This local movement in Arajuno was happening alongside major shifts in international law, which local people in Arajuno knew about and used to their advantage. During the 1940s and ‘50s, when human rights first emerged in international political discourse, indigenous people’s unique status was not actively addressed, meaning that groups did not yet have the legal recognition to claim their territory from the state, as former UN Rappoteur James Anaya has detailed. In 1957, the first international convention on indigenous rights was held by the United Nations International Labor Organization (ILO), establishing Convention Number 107. While this first law did not recognize indigenous people’s rights to “collective land ownership” or “customary laws,” two important components of the indigenous lifestyle in places like the Amazon, it did establish a platform to discuss and improve the legal status of the communities, creating a new and rapidly developing discourse that used and defined the term “indigenous” and led to a far greater indigenous participation and requirements for their consultation in the later ILO Convention Number 169.

As indigenous groups began mobilizing on their own throughout the 1970s and 1980s in places like the Ecuadorian Amazon, the international system began to consider indigenous groups as having distinct rights to contiguous and communal “territories” and the right to practice their own form of government. The international sphere, in this sense, both informed and responded to the transformation happening on the ground in the Amazon, providing a useful discourse and legal basis for ethnic federations to demand rights to land, particularly territories, or lands of traditional use and occupancy. In 1989, after years of debate with indigenous leaders, the ILO presented ILO Convention Number 169 which, among many articles, said that indigenous people have a right to their own system of living and a right to their own territories, as well as regular participation in policy making.

The influence of international discourse was particularly strong in the famous case of Sarayaku, a Kichwa town just south of Arajuno, where a U.S. oil company called ARCO had begun exploratory extraction tests in the late 1980s. When ARCO went to negotiate the project’s next steps with the local community in 1989, representatives from the regional indigenous federation known as the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) demanded compensation for trees lost during the testing and the depletion of fish in the rivers. Drawing on its political strength as well as the international dialogue on indigenous rights, OPIP was able to effectively negotiate with the company to have their demands met, leading to the creation of a now influential document called the “Sarayaku Accords.” The Sarayaku Accords requested that the government end colonization, grant land to indigenous communities and suspend oil exploration until there was mutual agreement. This document also sent a broader message to the national government that the indigenous communities were demanding their rights. While the response from Ecuador’s government was slow and little action was taken, the accords established that indigenous communities had valid claims, grounded in international law. Local governments like ACIA were well aware of the indigenous success in Sarayaku, which became a motivating factor for widespread movement in the 1990s.

In response to the few government actions taken following the Sarayaku Accords, OPIP organized a march to Quito in 1992 to demand land rights from the national government. The march drew thousands of indigenous people from different ethnic federations, including both men and women from ACIA, to the capital, in what is still recognized as one of the most significant and influential indigenous mobilizations out of the Amazon. Although “contiguous territory” was not fully acquired after the march and the government still retained the right to subterranean resources like oil, the march did grant land-use rights to indigenous governments in the Amazon region. ACIA gained control of roughly 40,000 hectares of land, equivalent to 150 square miles.

By 1992, energy around the “ethnopolitical” movement was fervent throughout the Amazon, and while local people in Arajuno still considered themselves “Kichwa,” there was a growing sense of importance around identifying as part of a collective “indigenous” identity for the sake of political gain. Elario Tanguila, former Mayor of Arajuno and active participant in the 1992 march to Quito, reflected on ACIA’s “ethnopolitics” and acceptance of international discourse in our conversation during the summer of 2015, stating:

We have learned to speak as they do. We have learned to understand the laws as they do. We have learned to write as they do. We have given up parts of ourselves to become ourselves, to fight back, and to negotiate.

 

Through understanding international laws, learning Spanish and learning to read and write, ACIA members were able to participate in the burgeoning sphere of international and national indigenous politics and gain strength as an ethnic federation, successfully negotiating its rights and defending itself in the face of new influences.

Present-day politics

In present day Arajuno, ACIA is an influential political force that has successfully maintained control of land, resources and ethnic identity. Supported by Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which broadened indigenous rights and established “plurinationality” for indigenous groups in Ecuador, ACIA continues to make claims to practice traditional medicine, teach the Kichwa language in publicly funded schools and use its own legal system to settle disputes.

More recently, ACIA has begun hosting and supporting events that serve to reinforce the Kichwa identity and fundamental Kichwa practices: community-wide festivals, handicraft fairs, traditional food markets and a Kichwa radio station. These kinds of activities represent a new trend in indigenous politics in Arajuno, one that responds to the threat of economic development by formalizing practices and positioning them within the new economic system through commodification. It gives new value to aspects of life that were once normal, everyday experiences. Interestingly, this new space of culture creation relies predominantly on work historically and still done by women, and women have been the primary organizers of such events. Women who are at once highly educated and politically motivated, and continue work as householders, chacra workers, traditional food makers and handicraft artists, have demonstrated their strong desire to maintain Kichwa culture within an era of development that might otherwise erase the “traditional.” It’s in this space that the Huayusa Upina event fits.

The Huayusa Upina

At 3 a.m. on the day of the inaugural Huayusa Upina, a tambourine sounded in the streets, calling guests to the event space where plastic chairs formed a large circle around a podium and microphone. A group of ten ACIA women had been working the entire night in preparation, boiling an enormous pot of huayusa leaves over a fire and preparing chicha, yucca, and plantains.

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Community members wait for the Huayusa Upina event to begin in June 2015. Photo by Megan Monteleone.

 

To this first Huayusa Upina event, ACIA invited the leaders from the other political organizations and indigenous communities in Arajuno to promote a sense of unity. Once the guests were seated, some women stopped their preparations and began serving huayusa to each person, one by one, in traditional wooden bowls called macawas. Leaders then took turns giving speeches. Pedro Tzerembo, a Shuar leader, said:

Thanks for bringing forth this process of Huayusa Upina and continuing the fight. The national government is trying to move us toward another system, another type of organization. We have much more power than we once did. I ask you that our wisdom be used to create unity and true development we are proud of. The town is the power and an organized fight will bring us great things.

This kind of provocative phrasing—a common thread throughout the speeches— produced strong emotions from the crowd, in some cases, tears or audible weeping. Luisa Pauchi, invited to discuss her role in creating the event, told the crowd that while other communities had been including Huayusa Upina as a part of their festivals since 2013, ACIA had yet to successfully institutionalize the practice as a part of a monthly routine. She suggested that the community-wide Huayusa Upina event be continued once every month in the foreseeable future, declaring:

Now that we have the town and the road, we cannot live like we lived before. We need to get involved in a new fight. Keeping our identity and keeping our land is not possible if we do not remember where we came from.

Luisa echoed a sentiment shared by many, of the importance of maintaining indigenous culture for the sake of remembering ancestors, the fight they went through to bring Arajuno to where it is today, and for future generations to maintain an understanding of what it means to be Kichwa, or otherwise indigenous. As the event continued, more huayusa and chicha were served by the ACIA women. They then laid out large palm leaves on the floor and delivered plantain and yucca, as well as stacks of meat – a traditional setting for a communal meal, in this case, the concluding breakfast at 6 a.m.

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Attendees of the Huayusa Upina gather around palm leaves for breakfast after the event. Photo by Megan Monteleone.

 

Innovative Culture Creation

Huayusa Upina, during the time I spent in Arajuno, was taking hold as a new tradition, publicized to the community through social media and the local radio station, and widely discussed at community events. By doing ethnography—observing the intricacies of daily life and the hearing the stories of more than 80 townspeople—I found that Huayusa Upina illustrated a broader trend toward innovative culture creation, advanced by women in particular, that integrates and adapts to, rather than contests, challenges posed by development.

 

I have watched Arajuno progress from afar for the past five years, and have seen practices like the Huayusa Upina continue, with photos from events posted on social media sites and discussed by political leaders. Remarkably, people’s sense of being Kichwa in Arajuno appears to be getting stronger, rather than fading, in the face of increasing economic development and change.

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Megan Monteleone graduated from Harvard College in 2016 with a B.A. in Social Studies. Her thesis on indigenous rights in the Ecuadorian Amazon was awarded the Hammond Prize for best undergraduate thesis on Latin America. She currently works as an Associate in the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, where she has published op-eds and articles related to human rights in Nicaragua, Chile, and Ecuador

How Do Monkeys Create Tropical Rainforests?

A New Ethnobotanical Perspective

By Manuel Lizarralde

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Photo by Manuel Lizarralde, Wooly Monkeys in Manu, Peru (2007)

Tropical rainforests are not virgin but rather “anthropogenic,” as humans are said to have created these forests. At least that is what anthropologists have been arguing for the past thirty years. In this past decade, this view has expanded with concepts like “cultural” environments because forests in tropical region have been modified by the action of human activity such as dispersing seeds and transporting plants from one to another location. 

However, while I was writing a chapter in a book titled Neotropical Ethnoprimatology: Indigenous Peoples’ Perceptions and Interactions with Nonhuman Primates (a new science that studies the relationship of people and monkeys), coming out in April, I realized that we need a new term that is more inclusive and accurate. Monkeys don’t just consume fruits but must be doing something very similar to humans, making their forest by dispersing the seeds of trees they consume. The word primate includes both humans and monkeys. Therefore, most tropical forests are primatogenic since monkeys and humans disperse fruits of most trees. However, humans just do a fraction of this dispersion and more than 10% of the species of trees but “primates” reproduce 70% of the tropical rainforest.

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Photo of the author by his father, the late Robert Lizarralde (1999).

My work with the Barí people started in 1988 studying their knowledge of plants. I am an ethnoecologist and this field focuses on the relationship of people and plants.

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Photo on left by Roberto Lizarralde, Barí hunter with nigh monkeys (1962); photo on right by Manuel Lizarralde, a Barí boy with his Spider Monkey pet, Olga, Rio de Oro, Perijá, Venezuela (1999)

The Barí are an indigenous group of about 4,000 people living on the southwestern side of the Lake Maracaibo region of northwestern South America, on both sides of the Venezuela-Colombia border. Their way of living is mostly one typically associated with Amazonian cultures. They depend on manioc, supplemented with bananas and plantains as the main starches, and bocachico fish and monkeys as main sources of protein, in addition to pacas, peccaries, tapir, turkey-like birds and river turtles as seasonal sources. Their lifestyle mixes a subsistence economy that integrates horticulture with fishing and hunting. Their environment is classified as a hyper-humid, tall tropical forest. However, Barí forest biodiversity is not as high as in some places in the Amazon such as Yusuni Park in Ecuador or Manu in Peru.

In their territory, the Barí people host four species of monkey: white-bellied spider, red howler, white-fronted capuchin and gray-legged-night monkeys. All of these are quite abundant and still being hunted today. In my ethnobotanical study in the Barí homeland, I made an inventory of trees in 12 acres (5.4 hectares) of forest. Of these trees, 2,476 individual trees (67.8%) provide food for monkeys. Trees—102 different species— provided food for many animals, including monkeys.We combine ethnobotanical and ethnoprimatological information to detail the holistic understanding that the Barí have of their natural resources.

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Photo by Manuel Lizarralde, Wooly Monkey in Manu, Peru (2007)

Primates have always played a significant role in the Barí culture. This importance can be observed in their mythology where monkeys have much more complex and rich mythological stories than any other animals, including fish. Even though the work of Pennsylvania State University Professor Stephen Beckerman in the 1970s and 1980s shows that fish were even the most important source of protein, monkeys likely surpassed them in pre-contact times, before outside humans discovered the Bari’s existence. According to Beckerman’s 1975 doctoral dissertation, by weight, monkeys accounted for 5.6% of the consumed proteins and 25% of hunted animals. This figure seems to be relatively low, especially in contrast to the great role monkeys play within the Barí culture. The consumption of monkeys must have been much higher in order for them to figure so prominently in their mythological stories. Before the 1920s, the Barí territory was much larger and supported a fraction of the population density that it has in recent times. Their traditional hunting did not likely have a negative impact on communities of forest animals in the early 1900s as it has had, for instance, in Amazonian Peru due to the recent increase in population density of the Matsigenka.

The Barí people have a detailed knowledge of their flora and fauna due to their intimate relationship with their environment and hunting activity. They recognize more than a thousand plant species and more than 400 animals. They have developed a rich understanding of the behavior and diet of the animals they hunt, enabling them to predict the movement and location of these animals. While walking in the forest, they are constantly examining fresh fruits found on the ground in order to determine which animals are eating them, for they can recognize the biting patterns of most species. To anticipate the movement of these animals, the Barí hunters check which foods that are available and their seasonality, to help to predict the movements of hunted animals.

Besides providing a food source, the other important role monkeys play in indigenous cultures is as pets, which is common in many other indigenous cultures in the Amazon. University of Alabama Professor Loretta Cormier has observed that the Guajá people of Brazil have many pet monkeys, sometimes outnumbering the human inhabitants at some huts. The Barí definitely enjoy having monkeys as pets and children continually ask their parents to bring them home from hunting expeditions. The most common pet monkeys among the Barí are spider and night monkeys, while capuchin monkeys are rare. Howler monkeys have never been recorded as pets because they are harder to feed, according to the Barí. Monkey pets play a complex role of socialization and enculturation of children to develop a hunter’s ability to discern vocalizations and scents of monkeys while in the forest.

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Photo by Manuel Lizarralde, Capuchin monkeys, Manu Park, Peru (2007)

The term ethnoprimatologywas first coined by University of Hawaii Professor Leslie Sponsel in 1997 as the subdiscipline that studies indigenous people’s relationship with their monkeys. For the New World, relatively limited ethnoprimatological studies exist despite the presence of 500 indigenous cultures and 152 species of monkeys in the tropical rainforest. However, with the exception of Cormier, who provided brief information on the number of useful plants (N=275) and the percentage (65.2%) of those feeding monkeys, there have been no studies in which ethnoprimatology and ethnobotany overlap in the present. This research combines these two subdisciplines for the case of the Barí, providing not only the number and percentage of trees that provide food for primates, but also details about tree species demographics and the proportion of the forest providing food for monkeys. This is a new ethnobotanical perspective.

The theory behind this work is that Barí people have complex and detailed knowledge of their flora, like many indigenous people in the world. Ethnobotanical work completed by ethnobotanists has provided detailed examples of this extensive local knowledge by various indigenous people in the New World. The work of Glenn Shepard from Brazil’s Museum Goeldi has demonstrated that indigenous people such as the Matsigenka of Peru also have rich local ecological knowledge of their forest, which can provide excellent examples of animals’ relations to their food sources. University of Georgia Professor Brent Berlin proposed in 1992 that saliency(e.g. abundance, size of tree, outstanding characteristics such as a big colorful flower or fruit) would make a tree better known and more utilized has directly been observed these in the case of the Barí knowledge of food-providing trees for monkeys.

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Photo by Manuel Lizarralde, Howler monkeys, Manu Park, Peru (2007)

Another important theoretical aspect of this work is historical ecology, which was proposed by Tulane University Professor William Balée, since people and animals make changes in their environment and adapt to it. Cormier states: “historical ecological perspective takes into account the mutual influence of culture change and environmental change over time.” This perspective contrasts with the notion of an “ethnographic present” and the belief that cultures are unchanged and traditions being maintained unchanged by millennia. In fact, culture and the environment are constantly changing, perhaps slower in indigenous societies where technology does not evolve as fast as it is in developed nations, but still changes do occur. Understanding these changes can only be accomplished by taking into account historical events and framing them with people’s notions of adaptation and evolution of behaviors, similar to the way the work of Fikret Berkes, Sacred Ecologyhas expanded our cognition of the Cree people in Canada. According to Berkes, the Cree have been able to manage their fish and game and adapt to changes of their faunal population without detrimental effect. Drawing on these different theoretical approaches, I am elaborating below on the Barí case.

The co-evolution of flowering plants and animals that eat their fruits started 80 million years ago, with the diversity of seed and fruit sizes and types peaking 50 million years ago. This evolutionary process developed as a mutualistic interaction, with fruit trees providing nutritive resources to fruit-eaters known as frugivores (mostly birds and mammals) and frugivores offering seed dispersal services to plants. The relationship between fruit trees and frugivores is often diffuse, with most frugivores taking advantage of various species of fruiting trees at any given time and vice versa The larger the animal is, like a spider monkey or a tapir, the greater the number of seeds of different species of plants they can consume and dispersing them.

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Photo by Manuel Lizarralde, Barí women eating palm fruits on a hunting expedition, Otaka, Sierra de Perijá, Venezuela (1995)

The question is whether this 44.9% of trees that primates feed on is a low, normal or high percentage. This percentage would have been higher if my plots were bigger and fewer number since they would not include larger number of rare species that are mostly not food for monkeys. However, this is not abnormally low for other studies. Only a few studies provide some potential references. Primates in the Colombian forests were responsible for 64% of the fruits manipulated across species. These percentages are potentially higher than would be the case for all species of trees since they preselected a group of trees (73 species) that are ripe fruiting plants with good crown visibility. In another project, Cormier also stated that 65.2% of the plant species known by the Guaja people of Brazil are also food for monkeys. It is clear that increased numbers of monkey species and therefore size variation will result in subsequent increases in the number of trees that feed monkeys. Perhaps also because the Barí forests have only four species of monkeys, this percentage is smaller (versus seven for the Guajá in the Brazilian Amazon). However, this could have been different if forest plots farther from the Barí village and in areas where monkey densities are higher would have been included in this research.

In the Barí territory, primates are reproducing a type of forest that can continue to provide them with food. The absence of primates could change the future and nature of this forest to one that promotes bird or wind dispersed seed trees. Therefore, the conservation of monkeys is key to the future of this forest, which could continue to support larger animals. This research shows that monkeys are likely to be keystone species in the reproduction of two-thirds of the Barí forest. Another important point is that the field of ethnobotanical and ethnoecological ethnoprimatology work with indigenous people could provide new insights on the ecology and diet of tropical forest primates. Because monkeys do most of seed dispersing, their preservation is key to the future of this forest, which could support larger fauna. Based on this research, primates are likely to be essential species in the reproduction of the forest. Without preserving monkey’s populations, we might lose the rainforest since it needs them for their reproduction and existence.

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Photo by Manuel Lizarralde, Howler monkeys, Manu Park, Peru (2007)

Manuel Lizarralde, Associate Professor of Ethnobotany in the Botany Department and Environmental Studies Program at Connecticut College, focuses on the botanical and ecological knowledge of indigenous people of the tropical rainforest. He has done 35 months of fieldwork with the Barí people of Venezuela over the last 32 years). He has also done ethnobotanical research with the Matsigenka of Peru (1996 and 2007). He is the author of an index and map of South American Indigenous languages (1988). Lizarralde is currently working on three books: A Peaceful Longhouse in the Rainforest: the Barí of Venezuela and Colombia, Repatriation and Recovering Local Knowledge: ethnobotany of Southern New England, and Chaos and Unrest in Venezuela Today: An Eyewitness Account. He is also an avid bowyer, basket maker, plant gatherer, mushroom hunter, spearfisherman and bow hunter.

Innovating for Sustainable Development in Paraguay

A Model for the Amazons?

By Isabelle Foster

Forests. For many, they invoke beautiful images of trees and splendid scenes of nature, often inspiring deep reverence and respect for something so powerful and ancient. But as soon as one begins to peel back the branches, it is clear that this ecosystem and humans’ engagement with it is more complex than what originally meets the eye. 

These swaths of land are home—not only for the flora and fauna, but also for people. For years, villages have relied on these forests for their livelihood, using wood for shelter, medicine and religious rituals. These natural resources are vital for both the local community and their survival. This is particularly the case for a small country nestled in the heart of South America, Paraguay, the self-proclaimed Land of the Guaraní.

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Native tree species can also combine with grass and cattle. Anadanthera colubrina (Kurupay) and Cordia trichotoma (Petereby) in a 3-year old plantation. Photo by Raul Gauto

The human-nature relationship often brings about a common predicament. How does one properly conserve land while ensuring that indigenous populations—such as those in the Amazon relying on these natural resources—continue to make a living? The choice cannot be as stark as total deforestation for the sake of economic development or an untouchable nature reservation for complete preservation. Instead, the answer must be somewhere in the middle, a more well-balanced approach of land stewardship that involves many stakeholders.

Unsurprisingly, the challenge of balancing these seemingly competing but vitally important demands has been an important topic for sustainable development. 

Paraguay, home to just over seven million people—slightly less than the population of New York City—might have come up with a solution. Forestal Sylvis (FS), a Paraguayan social enterprise, has developed an innovative approach for forest cover recuperation and economic development that, if scaled, could have a tremendous impact on the Amazon and similar ecosystems around the world. 

The founders, Raul Gauto and Eduardo Gustale, created FS in 2009 as a social enterprise providing an economic return for landowners and investors by planting forest on degraded areas or pasturelands and sustainably harvesting timber that can then be sold for profit. Gauto and Gustale sought to create a financially sustainable, private-sector solution with positive social and environmental impact. 

As Gauto explains, his interest in conservation started with one of his first jobs working on government-based reforestation program that encouraged private companies to plant trees for tax-reduction credit. However, he was struck by the contradictory nature of the program—namely that the companies were paid to destroy natural forests in order to plant non-native pine trees. Inspired to learn more, Gauto went to the United States to study forest economics at Virginia Tech; it was there that his perspective shifted from reforestation to forest conservation. Afterwards, he spent years co-creating Fundación Moisés Bertoni—foundation dedicated to sustainable development in Paraguay—and supporting the organization’s large-scale programs with international organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. After years of on-the-ground experience, Gauto was awarded an Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship and spent several weeks in the United States. During this time, he traveled around the country, speaking with experts and seeing examples of forest conservation. He spoke with professors at Yale University, Cornell University, members of the World Resources Institute and even the Nobel-prize winner Murray Gell-Mann, who at the time was a board member of the MacArthur Foundation. 

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Silvopastoral system combining trees with grass. Tree rows are seven meters apart; there is then 2.2 meters between each tree. Photo by Dante Godziewski

These conversations planted the seed—literally—for FS. It soon became apparent to Gauto that it was not just about preserving forests but also about preserving and fortifying the livelihoods and lifestyles of those who inhabited these natural ecosystems. His observation, therefore, was that an integrated approach was needed to protect the rainforests and help locals.    

One of Gauto’s most salient observations was the close link between poverty and forests. In his own words, “Poverty was the most important long-term threat to the existence of a nature reserve.” Part of this realization stemmed from his time at Fundación Moisés Bertoni, where he helped create and implement one of their flagship programs— a boarding school in the middle of a forest. Each year, the school offers free boarding education for 150 girls from ages 16 to18, from some of the poorest families in the region. During their three years at the school, girls learn both academic and entrepreneurial skills. The school seeks not only to educate women and help their families, but to also transform the social and economic politics of the region. By instilling in these young women an appreciation for forests and an awareness of their importance, the school has been able to spread this attitude more widely in the local community through the girls’ contact with families and neighbors.

Gauto explains that he then set out to create a triple-bottom-line company, or a company that measures success on three factors. Instead of just measuring financial return—as is common with most companies in the marketplace—this group also measures social and environmental impact and integrates all three components into their business model. 

Given this triple-bottom-line approach, the company must focus on all three areas. Making sure all of these pieces work together is not easy and requires time. In 2010, the team rented their first piece of land using personal funds and began experimenting with the business model. The key was to talk with different stakeholders, better understand the local context, and identify existing incentive structures so that their company could identify how to effectively implement change.

Gauto outlines the three main components of the company’s theory of change:

 

1. Economic:

Oftentimes, social enterprises struggle to find a sustainable business model. However, FS has created an attractive investment opportunity for many, boasting up to 14% internal rate of return (IRR). Organizations and individuals with capital can work with FS by specifying how much land they would like to invest in. FS then identifies land and searches for interested landowners with whom they can negotiate rent. These landowners continue to retain all property rights and simply rent a portion of their land to FS for a period of eight to ten years. During this time, the investor pays to plant, maintain and grow trees on lands that had previously been dedicated to agriculture (sugar cane and others) or cattle raising (grassland). These trees are combined with grass in between the rows, so that it can serve to feed cattle and increment the revenue. The combination of trees and cows not only generates an encouraging IRR, but it also dramatically reduces the negative impact of open-field agriculture. Local families, who now have a steady income, no longer have the need to continue clearing native forests for their sustainability. At the same time, because the eucalyptus trees used for reforestation are very efficient fuel, families satisfy their demand for fuelwood using the timber that is harvested every two years, as part of the field thinning process. This therefore reduces the desire to clear-cut the forest in order to obtain fuel.

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Two-year old plantation on the upper watershed of the Ybycui National Park. Photo by Raul Gauto

FS explains that landowners then receive annual rent payment per hectare and a final percentage of the total revenue at the end of the multi-year rental. This set-up aligns interests and helps landholders see the value of making sure planted trees remain well-maintained. Investors will receive profits from the first tree-thinning at year three, a second thinning at year six, and the majority of their payment when the clear cut occurs at year eight or nine. 

Gauto describes how FS itself receives a portion of the final profit at the end of year eight and also charges a tiered management fee to investors based on the number of hectares in which they have invested. Currently, the company has about 18 individual investors and hopes to make this investment opportunity more attractive by innovating in the financial market space. 

FS is aware of the importance that secondary markets and liquidity play in the investment world. In global markets, stocks and bonds can be bought by one individual and then sold at any point in time. The purchase is not fixed—there is the possibility to sell these financial instruments if the investor wants a quicker return. Therefore, Gauto explains how FS is working with the government and the private sector to develop a similar secondary market. By creating a new financial instrument in Paraguay, people can sell on the open market, thereby increasing liquidity and hopefully the attractiveness of these investment mechanisms.

 

2. Social:

As Gauto said he soon realized, working closely with all stakeholders—particularly the local population—is critical for the long-term success of their company and the protection of the plantations and the remaining rainforest. Similar to Fundación Moisés Bertoni’s school, which provided women with skills for making a livelihood, FS also provides families with the opportunity to make a sustainable living. To measure the improved wellbeing of families working in the plantation and in the region, FS has partnered with Fundacion Paraguaya to apply Poverty Stoplight to these families. This is a social tool which measures different dimensions of poverty so that families can identify their own areas of weaknesses and prioritize areas for improvement.  

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The combination of trees with grass completely covers the soil and avoids erosion from wind or rain. Photo by Raul Gauto

Previously, families cut down trees to plant sugarcane or grass, faster growing crops that promised more sizable profit, more quickly. Trees, on the other hand, took longer to grow, and it appeared that their main value-add was from immediately clear-cutting a region and selling the timber. However, FS’ payment structure has provided an economic incentive so that families switch from planting sugar cane to planting trees and stop cutting down existing forested lands. Paying a yearly rent smooths the income stream of the family, making it more consistent and reliable. At the same time, families are also incentivized to take care of the trees with the promise of final profit-sharing at the end of the eight years. 

And while the company could easily use tractors and advanced technology to facilitate planting, FS says that they do not mechanize the process to the degree possible in order to employ more people. For every ten hectares (about 25 acres) of land under their stewardship, one family is given at least five years of continuous work. So far, they have rented over 4,000 acres from small-and large-landholders and created jobs for between 70 to 100 families, importantly also providing opportunities for women. The jobs required for taking care of trees varies, and women can perform several of the tasks themselves. Gauto explains how this provides them with their own income and independence, thereby strengthening their position in the family and community.

The founder also explains that the impact of FS has been so large that young people who originally left the region to find work elsewhere have moved back after hearing about the opportunities FS created in their villages.

 

3. Environmental:

FS provides families with an income that dissuades them from deforesting the rainforest to plant crops such as sugarcane and grass. This work has been effective in extending the boundary of natural forests, as more trees are planted around these areas. One example is Parque Nacional Ybycuí, one of the most biodiverse parts of the country. Native animals now have more space, and certain species are beginning to return. 

Gauto added that, over the years, he and his team have experimented to determine optimal tree spacing for the land. This is important, since trees require sufficient lateral space to properly express their genetic potential and produce high quality timber. At the same time, overcrowding requires additional effort, as trees must be thinned-out and cut back. Through trial-and-error, the team came up with a new land management methodology that cut costs by roughly 35%. The reduction in the number of seedlings, amount of fertilizer and effort to till the soil and prune the trees has significantly contributed to the price decrease.

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Thinning out of a 3-year-old plantation, producing over 30 cubic meters of fuelwood per hectare. Photo by Raul Gauto

At the same time, increasing the number of trees in the general region is vital for sequestering carbon, reducing erosion and protecting the watershed. Tree roots provide better water filtration and absorption in the ecosystem and improve water quality. Increased tree shelter also improves local microclimates and provides a healthier space for cows grazing between trees, since they are protected from extreme heat in the summer or frost in the winter.

This approach has attracted the attention of large organizations. In 2017, FS began partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to plant native tree species in the same silvo pastoral system to recuperate degraded areas. Within the country, the government and society have also been taking notice. José Molinas, the former Minister of Planning, has stated that, “the sustainable development initiative proposed by Forestal Sylvis has a tremendous potential to reduce poverty, boost economic growth, and mitigate climate change. The initiative has a strong potential to reduce poverty by creating quality employment opportunities.” This recognition has largely stemmed from their holistic approach. Molinas describes their work saying that “by integrating quality wood production with efficient cattle raising, the initiative catalyzes technology adoption and sustainable investment to push both rural and urban economic activity. Tree growing allows for significant levels of CO2 sequestration, contributing to mitigate the effects of climate change.” 

To expand their work, Gauto explains that their next focus is to work with Paraguayan institutional investors and pension funds, which will hopefully be facilitated with the new secondary market.

Preserving forests is an important issue not only for Paraguay, but for other countries around the world. Protecting the Amazon and similar ecosystems is of utmost importance, but it is not easy to do so. Any potential solution must include the collaboration of many different stakeholders and be fundamentally cross-sectoral. 

Despite this challenge, FS has come up with an innovative approach to not only protect these irreplaceable greenspaces but to also offer a social impact and be financially sustainable at the same time. Scaling this model globally could have a tremendous impact in sustainable development and lead the way for a new, more integrated approach for land conservation.  

 

Isabelle Foster was a Fulbright research scholar to Paraguay from Stanford University (until Fulbright recalled its scholars because of Covid-19). She graduated Stanford in 2018 with her BA and in 2019 with her MA. She is a researcher on economic development—particularly interested in innovation, entrepreneurship, and impact investing—and has done in-depth research on Paraguay over the past few years. During her time in Paraguay, she worked in the Presidential Delivery Unit with the National Innovation Strategy. In addition to her research, she is an avid rower and triathlete, is teaching herself guitar and has set her sights on visiting all the national parks in the United States. She can be reached at isabelle.foster@fulbrightmail.org or at her LinkedIn

For more information about Forestal Sylvis, please visit its website.

Lowering National and International Laws into Amazonian Hills

Seeking Territorial Rights

By Ted Macdonald

Thousands of Amazonian indigenous peoples converged on Quito in October 2019, led by Jaime Vargas, the president of Ecuador’s national indigenous confederation CONAIE. Ostensibly protesting increased gasoline prices along with other organizations, , the Amazonian groups were focusing on the government’s failure to advance dialogue on existing human rights laws, particularly those related to territorial rights and natural resource development.

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Arajuno: Puka Rumi botanical garden Ayahuasca (photo Ted Macdonald)

Though desirous of maintaining their distinct cultures and languages, those from the Amazon region have little interest in separating or isolating themselves from national governance or economic development. They simply want to participate as distinct but equal peoples. Dialogue and consultation on Ecuador’s impressive 2008 Constitution, as well as earlier national legislation and ratification of international human rights norms has fallen way behind. The 2008 constitution greatly expanded collective land and self-determination rights through a new category, Circumscribed Indigenous Territories(CTI). From a legal perspective, CTI self-determination claims simply seek what human rights lawyer James Anaya writes is the “foundation” of human rights, self-determination, currently linked to lagging advances on the related right to Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC) for any development work or other territorial interventions.

As another indigenous rights lawyer Jérémie Gilbert clarifies, such self-determination simply seeks the internal “right to effective political participation within States’ borders,” not some controversial external claim regarded as “separatism.” These rights were even more recently supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ 2015 report Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Descendent Communities, and Natural Resources: Human Rights Protection in the Context of Extraction, Exploitation, and Development Activities.

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Arajuno: Puka Rumi botanical garden. Photo by Ted Macdonald

But, in Ecuador no local CTI request has yet been recognized. Nor is appropriate prior consultation acceptably carried out. While Jaime Vargas warmly accepted President Lenin Moreno’s offer for open dialogues, specific territorial self-determination claims often require historical, social and cultural contextualization. That is: How do indigenous peoples understand their “territory?” How long have they claimed it? How might others understand it? Since land and resource claims will be discussed under new, broadly democratic, laws---not simply denied or awarded by the state as in the past—ethnography and history can help to bridge such logical questions.

 

Early Territorial Claims: Arajuno

One large Ecuadorian Amazon indigenous community, Arajuno, located on the border between Pastaza and Napo provinces, has submitted a CTI claim and awaits dialogue. With and for the local indigenous federation, theAssociation of Indigenous Communities of Arajuno(ACIA), as well as the founders of the local natural resource cultural center, Puka Rumi, I am currently helping to detail their historical, social and cultural responses to the broad questions above, largely through recent and earlier (mid-1970s) conversations and ethnographic work, as well as written sources.

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Arajuno Association of Indigenous Communities (ACIA) meeting. Photo by Ted Macdonald

By tracing the area’s settlement and growth largely from atop the hands and through the eyes of Arajuno’s founders and current leaders, many of whom are direct descendants of the original arrivals, a culturally defined understanding of territory and its importance is clear. Understanding kin-based and spiritually-shaped space, as well as simple long-term residence, help to support not only the historical claims of Arajuno but those of many other indigenous communities of the Upper Napo region seeking formal recognition of self-determination through their CTI. In brief, past history can assist future dialogue.

 

Early Arrivals: How and why?

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Pasu Urcu, Arajuno. Photo by Ted Macdonald

Amazonian origin myths often cite primordial emergence from water, stones or animals. Arajuno’s leaders, however, describe more historically precise early arrivals. In 1912, Domingo Cerda, a powerful yachaj (shaman) arrived with his family and settled for a while at the foot of a high hill, Pasu Urcu. He had left his principle settlement, or quiquin llacta, near Tena/Pano, on the Upper Napo when police pursued him on charges of witchcraft. A bit later, and similarly avoiding police, another yachaj, Roque Volante Lopez, arrived from Apayacu, also close to Tena, with his family. At the time they were also in debt to usurious White merchants, or patrons, who provided essential merchandise at extraordinary costs, incurring debts generally paid off through gold panned from riverbanks, and sometimes reduced through domestic labor at their estates.

Viewing Pasu Urcu from above, without talking to Roque or Domingo’s descendants or observing their residence, they appeared to be simply “running away,” hiding in the forest from police and patrons. By contrast, coming down to the ground, exploring residence and tracing movement over a longer period, unfolds indigenous territorial priorities and examples of agency. Each stayed for a while, gathered foods, fished, and hunted. Later, after clearing themselves of police charges and gradually paying down debts to the patrons, they settled more permanently, establishing a residential kin group referred to a muntun. Apparently drawing on the Spanish term for heap or mound, and contrasted to the hierarchical chiefdoms of the highlands, the Amazonian muntun, was easily and frequently misunderstood and dismissed as “savage nomadism” by missionaries and government officials who sought to sedentarize and “civilize” them. Meanwhile, the forest residence muntun was fully accepted by patrons, who simply hoped to secure goods as debt payment from indigenous “underlings.” Most outsiders, in brief, showed little interest in or understanding of indigenous residential preferences or their sense of territoriality.

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Andean Kichwa visiting Puka Rumi botanical garden. Photo by Ted Macdonald

Domingo and Roque were, in fact, simply replicating an ancient residential pattern, along with others who settled alongside hills at several points up and down the Arajuno River. Pasu Urcu gradually became their purina llacta, or walking settlement, richer in fish and game than their main settlement, quiquin llacta, and freer from external demands and internal social tensions. As the frequency and length of stay increased, subsistence gardens, chacras, grew, creating more stable and dependable secondary residences. For this Pasu Urcu and its adjacent environs were in some ways ideal. Although risks of possible attacks by neighboring Huaorani along the right bank of the river, the surrounding forests and rivers had much more fish and game than the more densely populated area of their quiquin llacta. Such expansive territorial movement, often perceived and misunderstood as “flight” in the Upper Napo, can be traced back Spanish colonial times.

 

Territory and Spirit Ties

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Margarita Lopez, yachaj’s daughter, explaining Puka Rumi and Pasu Urcu to Andean Kichwa. Photo by Ted Macdonald.

Perhaps the most significant geographical and territorial marker was Pasu Urcu itself.

Like most such hills, inside Pasu Urcu spirits, supai,were understood to reside. They were regarded as the masters of the surrounding fish, birds and other animals, and managers of the garden lands. Women easily and carefully related to garden spirits. Gaining access to the area’s wild game required strong and long-term ties with the supai. They sometimes wandered in the forest during the day, but were most frequently met through dreams, understood as a time and space where all spirits and human souls wandered about in the night air.

Arajuno resident Jorge Tapuy’s early dream illustrates the initiation of essential supai relationships.

In a dream a friend and I were walking inside Pasu Urcu. It was not as it appears from the outside. It was a city, just like Quito .. with houses, stores, music, windows, and all sorts of animals and spirits sitting by them. Suddenly, a beautiful supai woman with long black hair and strings of beads around her neck and wrists approached us and asked me to follow her. As I left my friend, the supaiasked why I had not come to marry her earlier. Then she told me that we must visit her mother and ask permission. I was very nervous but still followed her as she explained how I should approach her mother and what I should say to her, to demonstrate respect and abilities.

After passing through three doors, we finally entered her mother’s room. She sat at the edge of an enormous bed, all hunched over with her hair and eyes turned toward the floor. I couldn’t see her face; her body was covered with bristles, like a porcupine. We sat silently on the bed beside her for a few minutes. Then the supai woman nudged me, urging me to speak. I was scared but I finally told her mother that I wanted to marry her daughter.

But then her mother retorted that I could not marry her daughter because the she was huayusamanda... a regular drinker of the herbal tea, huayusa. To live with her I too would have to drink it. I replied that I already drank much huayusaand would drink whatever amount she gave me. Then the old woman suddenly lifted her head and a pair of glowing dark red eyes stared up at me like two flashlights. She said that if that’s true, I could marry her daughter.

We then left, and I woke up. That was how I met my supai huarmi, spirit wife, who is still with me.

After that, Jorge explained that, when told of the marriage, the spirit woman’s father made wild game accessible. To strengthen ties, Jorge and the master male supai, Amasanga, met regularly, not simply at dawn while drinking the mild huayusa, but also at night as they occasionally shared supai favorites, the strong forest vine beverages, ayahuasca or chirihuaysa. Despite current imagery of hallucinogens, Jorge explained that indigenous people did not consume the drinks for pleasure, but simply to strengthen relationships. Progressively, he became “one who knows,” a yachaj, or shaman. Most male residents sought similar ties with local supai. Though some human wives argued that they might lose their husband, most supai huarmi did not affect the human marriages. But to be very closely tied to supai required much fasting and hallucinogens. Those who did so most frequently were regarded as strong shaman, or sinzhi yachaj, often becoming the principal claimant to the surrounding lands and resources and, thus, the principle social focus of their muntun.

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Andean Kichwa visitors at the foot of Pasu Urcu. Photo by Ted Macdonald

Other muntun members were, of course, the sinzhi yachaj’s immediate family. But, due to the prevalence of illness and death at the time, nuclear families were generally not large. Those from similarly truncated kin groups joined muntuns, often seeking ties with the respected yachaj or invited to do to strengthen the group. Consequently, social life, as well as resource access, was centered on the residence group, not simply blood kin. And members regarded the muntunas coterminous with their territory.

Sometimes and at some places, of course, hunters walked across streams or through thickets and were seen as trespassing across borders. This sometimes led to disputes. However, in many such cases, the principle yachaj of each muntun gathered, imbibed ayahuasca, called in their respective supai, asked them to clarify boundaries, accepted their agreed upon frontiers, informed the communities and settled the matter. In brief, consultation and consensus over land rights was common, and succeeded.

Unfortunately, access to natural resource was not the only assistance provided by supai. They also served as nocturnal protectors from or agents of attacks between competitive yachaj. Attacks led to illness transferred by supai darts, or biruti. The following account, related by another friend, Alonso Andi, clearly illustrates external feuds as well as internal muntun solidarity.

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Arajuno restaurant , late evening conversations. Photo by Ted Macdonald

As a young orphan, Alonso, wandered a bit, but later settled close to the Pasu Urcu muntun’s head shaman, Pablo Lopez, and was gradually treated as another son. One of Alonso’s long stories is particularly appropriate to the combined sense of community and territory.

One day, while working in the chacra, my sister was calmly sucking on some sugar cane. She suddenly became ill and vomited blood. We rushed her to Pablo’s house, where he quickly took ayahuasca and began the cure that evening. With the help of supai, he quickly saw a biruti inside of her. But as Pablo began to suck it out, thebiruti darted away and lodged itself inside him, purposely. It was a plot to kill.

The girl, most agreed, had been attacked by a recently arrived downriver yachaj, Velarez. Aware that Pablo was the most powerful yachaj in the area, Velarez knew he would be chosen to cure the girl, so he asked supai to easily pass the dart to her. Velarez, however, was not popular. He had recently arrived in a downriver muntun, Puni, after being chased out of more distant settlements …Pacayacu, Upper Villano, and Boca de Villano. Many of his new neighbors disliked him and they told Pablo that Velarez, was delighted with his trick, saying had duped Pablo and would soon take his women away. What enraged Pablo was that, earlier, he had cured Velarez, who was somehow envious and simply wanted to eliminate Pablo, not discuss anything.

Pablo, though initially furious with Alonso, calmed down and asked Alonso and another relative, Vicente Andi, to travel down the Curaray River to Boca Villano and bring back a powerful yachaj Bancu Acevedo, one of Pablo’s close friends, who had trained and guided his fasting to become a very powerful Bancu yachaj.

After several days paddling downriver and searching around the area, Alonso and Vicente finally met Acevedo and they all set off for Arajuno. As they poled upstream, Acevedo called in his supai to see if Pablo was still alive, and to clear their path of any dangerous supai perhaps placed there by Velarez.

Five days later, they arrived in Arajuno. But Acevedo was unable to cure Pablo. Fearing attacks from Velarez, Acevedo packed up Pablo took him and his family back to Villano. But after a month there Pablo did not improve. So, he asked Alonso and Vicente to bring him back, so that he could die at home.

During the trip, Alonso had a strong dream. Traveling down the Curaray River, a large tree filled with Chahua Mangu bird nests suddenly fell into the river. All the birds scampered from their nests, and sat atop the remaining unsubmerged branch. Suddenly they flew up together and raised the fallen tree.

The next day they met Pablo, who was heading upstream to meet them. They related the optimistic dream to him. But Pablo remained quite upset that, after having cured many in Villano long ago, no one there was able to help him. He feared that Velarez had beaten him.

However, on returning home, the people of Arajuno brought that dream to life. They said it was impossible to kill Pablo, since he was much more powerful. So, they gathered, took him to his house, where he began to call all of his supai towards him. With that help, Pablo then pulled out a pair of scissors from his body, the same ones that he had pulled out of Velarez when he cured him earlier.

This, all agreed, was the only weapon strong enough to kill Velarez. So, Pablo then handed the scissors over to his supai and dispatched seek out Velarez. He quickly fell seriously ill and died in Puni, where he had no local community support.

Alonso’s story clearly links Pasu Urcu’s yachaj to his muntun. Inter-muntun feuds were generally sparked by interpersonal fights and frequently blamed for sudden illness and death. Earlier, Yellow fever was one of the most frequently cited bituti insupai attacks. It had killed Roque, Domingoand many others. However, as treatments and vaccines were introduced, feuds decreased significantly. Local understanding added a social dimension. Vicente Andi explained that yellow fever, Quillu Ungui, could be heard in the forest. Quillu Ungui supai often emitted whistles or yelled, he said. To control these malicious, sometimes uncontrolled supai at about mid-20th century, the head yachaj from Arajuno and several adjoining headwater rivers met, drank ayahuasca and called in their close supai. The supai were then sent to capture many of the Quillu Ungui supai, and later trapped them in pool in the upper Villano River. Capture seemed to work. Yellow fever declined, and so did related feuds. Spirits who earlier functioned dramatically in both feuds and wildlife access, came to rest almost exclusively as the basis for claiming resource access, defining territoriality and assisting internal social relations.

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Arajuno municipal offices. Photo by Ted Macdonald

Such ideas and actions illustrate that, earlier in the large previously multi-muntun area that now makes up Canton Arajuno, each group shared the sense of territory as those who first settled near Pasu Urcu. While feuding between yachaj clearly existed, other relations and actions illustrate dispute resolution across the currently wide territory, and the continued priority of natural resource access. It continued amidst significant outside arrivals.

As will be detailed in the forthcoming book, similar territorial interest persisted amidst what appeared to be major changes. The first was oil exploration and airport construction by Shell Oil Company (1942-1948), followed by the arrival of Protestant and, later, Catholic missionaries, who remained after 1955. In each case the new outsiders, despite obvious domineering imagery, new values and economic influence, did not truly understand or interfere with traditional territorial priorities. Later, an apparently radical territorial shift appeared in the 1970s. Colonization by Whites began in 1960 and increased during the 1970s as new agrarian reform laws pushed for the privatization of Amazonian landholdings and made demands for visible land use. This led many to seek private 125-acre lots and loans to purchase cattle, particularly in Arajuno then quiquin llacta. As lots near colonists were demarcated and privatized, many also did so, as kin-based neighbors in their purina llacta.

Years later in both areas, cattle disease and decreased economic demands led to a lesser demand for individual lots in interior areas. More important, in 1979, the indigenous federation ACIA was established, soon working to shift much of the purina llacta lands back to communal property to be shared by the families who originally moved there. Although such areas now contain some private family plots, the larger areas illustrate kin based territory (see map) In brief, though land titling suddenly and dramatically shifted, and remains so around the downtown area of Arajuno, the oldermuntun community-based cultural organization persists through much of the interior. This raises a question. Today, to what extent might such shared ancestral territorial interests persist as Arajuno seeks self-determination through the CTI?

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ACIA Map: Arajuno Centro and surrounding communal territories

 

 

Current Territorial Appearances

Riding into town nowadays, much seems to have changed. Maps, aerial photographs or a simple walk around town present a greatly modified landscape. About 8,000 people now live on the right bank of the Arajuno River in an urban municipality marked by parks, food and clothing stores, bars, elementary and secondary schools, a cooperative bank and several government offices. Beyond that, the large Canton Arajuno (national political unit) extends eastward to the Peruvian border and comprises 81 communities. The canton also includes the territory of their Huaorani neighbors as well as most of the Yasuni National Park.

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Reviewing genealogies, Luis Canelos, Megan Monteleone, and Ted Macdonald. Photo by Aaron Kalischer-Coggins

Since 1992 the municipality now connects with the city of Puyo by a road, along which buses and trucks regularly ply hourly. The southeast border area is flanked by an Argentine oil company’s production facility and pipelines from wells near Boca Villano, where Bancu Acevedo once lived. Arajuno anticipates discussion regarding future oil development inside its territory. And a new Chinese-run lumber company now sits even closer to the canton’s border, awaiting logs.

At first glance, Arajuno’s original settlement appears to have grown like most urban areas, through a simple combination of local population growth and an influx of new settlers enabled by the road. In part, simple population growth explains many of the radical physical changes. However, despite increased numbers and urban growth, a high level of political and cultural continuity persists throughout the western part of the territory. There sit 18 communities. Amidst agriculture, animal husbandry and open forested areas, the kin-based indigenous residents continue to claim communal rights to land and resources, put forth largely by the directorate of the local federation, the Asociacion De Comunidades Indigenas De Arajuno (ACIA). Though such organizations are relatively recent political creations, their current claims and uses reflect the ancestral cultural and spiritual ties to land and resources reviewed earlier.

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Arajuno wedding. Cesar Cerda, padrino, leads the dancing. Photo by Ted Macdonald

Unlike the early settlement days, there is now no internal territorial argument with the Huaorani, residing within Canton Arajuno, farther to the east and sometimes sharing kin ties and residence. However, the Huaorani currently illustrate some future problems. Currently debating oil development on their lands, new production was legally halted in 2019. But the court decision was not a final territorial rights victory, but simply an opinion that prior consultation has not been undertaken satisfactorily.

Though Arajuno’s historical territorial claims in the more densely packed area persist, individual choices have diversified the community. While many members of early the muntuns seek to continue their traditional unity, through shared cultural traditions (see Megan Monteleone’s article here) and continued territorial interest in their long-held purina llacta, others seek a different economic and social life centered on individual economic life. Like many such Amazonian and other previously isolated tropical forest communities, there is not a uniform view or future aspiration. Diversity is common, as illustrated by a recent New Yorker article on the famously unified and independent Kayapo nation in Brazil, or the violent land disputes currently arising amidst Nicaragua’s Mayagna, after Awas Tingni won a major Inter-American Court of Human Rights land claim in 2001. In each area, some views on land and economic priorities have clearly changed… and require consultation and negotiation.

But the large clusters of communal lands located around Arajuno’s center still reflect the earlier muntun purina llacta. Nearly all are regarded as communal holdings, surrounded by open forested areas with named after their initial claimants. They are often seen as nature preserves and frequently visited by students and scientists, as well remaining personalized spiritual and hunting territories by muntun members. In brief, despite all the changes, the sense of spirit-defined purina llacta persists, physically as well as culturally.

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Arajuno women happily dancing at a wedding. Photo by Ted Macdonald

And the supai are still there, and matter. When the entrance road was recently constructed along a hilly ridgeline into Arajuno, engineers simply carved through an upriver hill,Huama Urcu, whose supai were linked to a close muntun. Later, a woman from Pasu Urcu, who had married a man for Huama Urcu, and her father suddenly fell ill. Both died. The presumed cause was an angry supai who was said to have bitten their necks like a buzzard, due to frustrated rage because his home had been partially bulldozed by contractors. Most locals desired the road, but they had not been consulted regarding the route. Now, national oil companies are working to persuade some individual communities inside Canton Arajuno, despite the demands of ACIA for broader consultation, negotiation, and consent.

Such communal preferences illustrate, simply but clearly, what is meant when Kichwa and other Ecuadorian indigenous currently invoke their desire for sumak kawsay, a “good life. ” Their aspirations are not utopic dreams or permanent tranquility. Rather, they simply seek a meaningful life realized through a degree of self-determination.

 

Ted Macdonald is a Lecturer in Social Studies and Faculty Affiliate at DRCLAS, Harvard University. He has worked directly on Latin American indigenous rights issues and cases since 1980. Currently and in collaboration with Kichwa Indian community leaders, he is preparing an ethnographic history of territorial rights and self-determination in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Myth and Metaphor

Managing Nature in the Colombian Amazon

By Wade Davis

The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective deity will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A tribal society whose every interaction with the forest is mediated by reciprocal obligations informed by myth and sanctioned by the spirits, will never understand the motivations of an industrial society that considers that same forest to be but cellulose and board feet, trees existing to be cut.

Neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia, the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon had no idealized concept of conservation, no conscious notion of having to protect, in a strictly material sense, a seemingly endless forest that they lacked the technical capacity to harm. Their stewardship, forged through time and ritual, was based on a far more subtle intuition—the idea that the land itself was breathed into being by human consciousness. The indigenous people do not perceive mountains, rivers and forests as inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is seen to be alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination. 

The European tradition, in all its brilliance, took a very different path. The defining mission of the Enlightenment was to liberate humanity from the tyranny of absolute faith. Expunged from the record were all notions of myth, magic,  mysticism, and, most importantly, metaphor. The universe, declared French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century, was composed only of “mind and mechanism.” With a single phrase, all sentient creatures aside from human beings were devitalized, as was the earth itself. Phenomena that could not be positively observed and measured could not exist. The triumph of secular materialism became the conceit of modernity. The notion that land could have anima, that the flight of a hawk might have meaning, that beliefs of the spirit could have true resonance, was ridiculed. 

The reduction of the world to a mechanism, with nature but an obstacle to overcome, a resource to be exploited, has in good measure determined the manner in which this singular tradition, informed by science and empowered by industry, has blindly interacted with a living planet. For three hundred years, this paradigm has been ascendant, fueled quite literally by the ancient sunlight of the world. But dominance and ubiquity do not imply normalcy. The ethnographic record suggests that this way of thinking is, in fact, highly anomalous in the human experience. Reciprocity, not extraction, is the norm. This dynamic may be expressed in any number of ways, but universally comes down to a simple but fundamental exchange; just as the earth yields its bounty, people have an obligation to maintain the well-being of the earth. In such a cosmic scheme, people are vital, for it is only through the generative power of ritual that realms of the spirit can be entered, mystical deeds accomplished, energies harmonized, and the universe itself realigned. In such wisdom traditions, every ceremonial gesture, each prayer and offering, is a declaration that humans are not the problem but the solution.

Our destiny is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. The very existence of other cultural possibilities, other dreams of the earth, other visions of life itself, illuminates the folly of those who say we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit the planet. Even as we anticipate the promise of such a transformative shift in perspective and priorities, it behooves us to listen to the other voices of humanity, knowing full well that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine. In the Northwest Amazon, the beliefs and intuitions of the people, distilled in the genius of their shamans, natural philosophers all, can only fire our hearts with wonder. 

 *****

For the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, in the remote reaches of the Colombian Amazon, rivers are not just routes of communication.  They are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, the paths along which the ancestors travelled at the beginning of time. Origin myths vary but always speak of a great journey from the east, of sacred canoes brought up the Milk River by enormous snakes known as anacondas. Within the canoes were the first people, together with the three most important plants—coca, manioc and yagé, all gifts of Father Sun. 

When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, according to the myths, outstretched as rivers, their powerful heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skin giving rise to rapids and waterfalls. Thus came into the being the homelands of the Makuna, Barasana, Tanimuka, Tukano and all the other Peoples of the Anaconda.

Makuna today acknowledge this primordial journey, even as they trace the genesis of the world to a far earlier time, when there was only chaos in the universe. Spirits and demons known as He preyed on their own kindred, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence, devoured their own young. The Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu, Woman Shaman, responded by destroying the world with fire and floods. Then, just as a mother turns over a warm slab of manioc bread on the griddle, she turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating a flat and empty template from which life could emerge once again. Romi Kumu opened her womb, allowing her blood and breast milk to give rise to rivers, allowing her ribs to become the mountain ranges of the world. As Woman Shaman she gave birth to a new world: land, water, forest, and animals. 

In a parallel story of creation, four great culture heroes — the Ayawa, mythic ancestors also know as the Thunders — came up the Milk River, passing through the Water Door, pushing before them as ploughs the sacred trumpets of the Yurupari, creating valleys and waterfalls. Rivers were born of their saliva. Slivers of wood broken off by the effort gave rise to the first ritual artifacts and musical instruments. As the Ayawa journeyed toward the center of the world, the notes of the trumpets brought into being the mountains and uplands, the posts and walls of the cosmic maloca or hut.

At every turn, the Ayawa confronted greedy demonic forces, avaricious spirits that thrived on destruction and coveted the world. Outwitting the monsters, casting them into stone, the Ayawa brought order to the universe, causing the essence and energy of the natural world to be released for the benefit of all sentient creatures and every form of life. Then, stealing the creative fire from the vagina of Romi Kumu, they made love to her, and, fully satiated, rose into the heavens to become thunder and lightning. 

Realizing that she was pregnant, the myth recounts, Woman Shaman went downriver to the Water Door of the East, where she gave birth to the ancestral anaconda. In time the serpent retraced the harrowing journey of the Ayawa, returning in body and spirit to the riverbanks, waterfalls and rocks, where it birthed the clan ancestors of the Barasana, Makuna and all their neighbors. 

The world of the Makuna begins at the falls of Yuisi and ends at the cataract of Jirijirimo on the Río Apaporis. The hills along the Taraira, and the falls of Yurupari on the Río Vaupés and Araracuara on the Río Caquetá, the mountain escarpments beyond the Kanamari- all of these physical and geographical points of memory and origin remain vibrant and alive, a mythic geography written upon the land. Each is part of a sacred nexus that recalls an impossibly distant era where the Ayawa released to humans the raw energy of life, even as they bequeathed to all Peoples of the Anaconda the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation. 

For the people living today in the forests of the Apaporis and Piraparaná, the entire natural world is saturated with meaning and cosmological significance. Every rock and waterfall embodies a story. Plants and animals are but distinct physical manifestations of the same essential spiritual essence. At the same time, everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.

This is the realm of the He spirits, a world of deified ancestors where rocks and rivers are alive, plants and animals are human beings, sap and blood the bodily fluids of the primordial river of the anaconda. Hidden in cataracts, behind the physical veil of waterfalls, in the very center of stones are the great malocas of the He spirits, where everything is beautiful — the shining feathers, the coca, the calabash of tobacco powder, which is itself the skull and brain of the sun.

It is to the realm of the He spirits that the shaman goes in ritual. The Barasana shaman has little interest in medicinal plants. His duty and sacred task is to move in the timeless realm of the He, embrace the primordial powers, and harness and restore the energy of all creation. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.

Such renewal is the fundamental obligation of the living. In practice, this implies that the Barasana see the earth as potent, the forest as being alive with spiritual beings and ancestral powers. To live off the land is to embrace both its creative and destructive potential. Human beings, plants and animals share the same cosmic origins, and in a profound sense are seen as essentially identical, responsive to the same principles, obligated by the same duties, responsible for the collective well-being of creation. 

There is no separation between nature and culture. Without the forest and the rivers, humans would perish. But without people, the natural world would have no order or meaning. All would be chaos. Thus, the norms that drive social behavior also define the manner in which human beings interact with the wild, the plants and animals, the multiple phenomena of the natural world, lightning and thunder, the sun and the moon, the scent of a blossom, the sour odor of death. 

Everything is related, everything connected, a single integrated whole. Mythology infuses land and life with meaning, encoding expectations and behaviors essential to survival in the forest, anchoring each community, every maloca, to a profound spirit of place.

These cosmological ideas have very real ecological consequences both in terms of the way people live and the impacts they have on their environment. The forest is the realm of the men, the garden the domain of women, where they give birth to both plants and children. The women cultivate thirty or more food crops and encourage the fertility and fecundity of some twenty varieties of wild fruits and nuts. The men grow only tobacco and coca, which they plant in narrow winding paths that run through the women’s fields, like serpents in the grass. 

For the women, the act of harvesting and preparing cassava, the daily bread, is a gesture of procreation and a form of initiation. The starchy fluid left over once the grated mash has been fully rinsed is seen as female blood that can be rendered safe by heat, and drunk warm like a mother’s milk. The crude manioc fiber resembles the bone of men. Fired on the griddle, shaped by female hands, the cassava is the medium through which the plant spirits of the wild are domesticated for the good of all. 

Like all food, it has ambivalent potential. It gives life but may also bring disease and misfortune. Thus, nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder, and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman. Food in this sense is power, for it represents the transfer of energy from one life form to another. As a child grows he or she is only slowly introduced to new categories of food, and severe food restrictions mark all the major passages of life — moments of initiation for a male, the first menses for a woman, transitional moments when the human being, by definition, is in contact with the spirit realm of the He.

When men go to the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity. The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessing of a greater authority for the honor of taking into one’s family a precious being.

Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian, be it in the form of a jaguar, anaconda, tapir, or harpy eagle. Man in the forest is always both predator and prey.

The same cautious and established social protocols that maintain peace and respect between neighboring clans of people, that facilitate the exchange of ritual goods, food, and women, are applied to nature. Animals are potential kin, just as the wild rivers and forests are part of the social world of people.

Together these ideas and restrictions create what is essentially a land management plan inspired by myth. Entire stretches of the Piraparaná, home to several hundred species of fish, are deemed off limits for spiritual reasons. Shamanic sanctions, though inspired by cosmology, have the very real effect of mitigating the impact of human beings on the environment. And, as the mythological events that inspired such beliefs are ongoing, the consequence is a living philosophy that really does view man, woman and nature as one.

All of this comes alive is the great seasonal ceremonies that bring together families from up and down the Piraparaná and beyond. For days on end, there is little rest. As the rituals begin, time collapses. There are two series of dances, separated by the liminal moments of the day, dawn, dusk and midnight. The regalia is not decorative. A corona of oropendola feathers actually is the sun, each yellow plume a ray. It is the literal connection to sacred space, the wings to the divine.

In donning the feathers, the yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rain, the men really do become the ancestors, just as the river is the anaconda, the mountains the house posts of the world, the shaman the shape-shifter, in one moment a predator, in the next prey. He changes from fish to animal to human and back again, transcending every form, becoming pure energy flowing among every dimension of reality, past and present, here and there, mythic and mundane. His chants recall by name every point of geography met on the ancestral journey of the Anaconda, toponyms that can be traced back with complete accuracy more than 900 miles down the Amazon to the east. 

White people see with their eyes, but the Barasana, it is said, see with their minds. On the wings of trance, they journey both to the dawn of time and into the future, visiting every sacred site, paying homage to every creature, as they celebrate their most profound cultural insight, the realization that animals and plants are only people in another dimension of reality. 

 

Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, Wade Davis is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Author of 22 books, including One RiverThe Wayfinders and Into the Silence, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia. His latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, will be published by Knopf in September.

Myth and Metaphor

Managing Nature  in the Colombian Amazon

By Wade Davis

The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective deity will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A tribal society whose every interaction with the forest is mediated by reciprocal obligations informed by myth and sanctioned by the spirits, will never understand the motivations of an industrial society that considers that same forest to be but cellulose and board feet, trees existing to be cut.

Neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia, the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon had no idealized concept of conservation, no conscious notion of having to protect, in a strictly material sense, a seemingly endless forest that they lacked the technical capacity to harm. Their stewardship, forged through time and ritual, was based on a far more subtle intuition—the idea that the land itself was breathed into being by human consciousness. The indigenous people do not perceive mountains, rivers and forests as inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is seen to be alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination. 

The European tradition, in all its brilliance, took a very different path. The defining mission of the Enlightenment was to liberate humanity from the tyranny of absolute faith. Expunged from the record were all notions of myth, magic, mysticism, and, most importantly, metaphor. The universe, declared French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century, was composed only of “mind and mechanism.” With a single phrase, all sentient creatures aside from human beings were devitalized, as was the earth itself. Phenomena that could not be positively observed and measured could not exist. The triumph of secular materialism became the conceit of modernity. The notion that land could have anima, that the flight of a hawk might have meaning, that beliefs of the spirit could have true resonance, was ridiculed. 

The reduction of the world to a mechanism, with nature but an obstacle to overcome, a resource to be exploited, has in good measure determined the manner in which this singular tradition, informed by science and empowered by industry, has blindly interacted with a living planet. For three hundred years, this paradigm has been ascendant, fueled quite literally by the ancient sunlight of the world. But dominance and ubiquity do not imply normalcy. The ethnographic record suggests that this way of thinking is, in fact, highly anomalous in the human experience. Reciprocity, not extraction, is the norm. This dynamic may be expressed in any number of ways, but universally comes down to a simple but fundamental exchange; just as the earth yields its bounty, people have an obligation to maintain the well-being of the earth. In such a cosmic scheme, people are vital, for it is only through the generative power of ritual that realms of the spirit can be entered, mystical deeds accomplished, energies harmonized, and the universe itself realigned. In such wisdom traditions, every ceremonial gesture, each prayer and offering, is a declaration that humans are not the problem but the solution.

Our destiny is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. The very existence of other cultural possibilities, other dreams of the earth, other visions of life itself, illuminates the folly of those who say we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit the planet. Even as we anticipate the promise of such a transformative shift in perspective and priorities, it behooves us to listen to the other voices of humanity, knowing full well that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine. In the Northwest Amazon, the beliefs and intuitions of the people, distilled in the genius of their shamans, natural philosophers all, can only fire our hearts with wonder. 

*****

For the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, in the remote reaches of the Colombian Amazon, rivers are not just routes of communication.  They are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, the paths along which the ancestors travelled at the beginning of time. Origin myths vary but always speak of a great journey from the east, of sacred canoes brought up the Milk River by enormous snakes known as anacondas. Within the canoes were the first people, together with the three most important plants—coca, manioc and yagé, all gifts of Father Sun. 

When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, according to the myths, outstretched as rivers, their powerful heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skin giving rise to rapids and waterfalls. Thus came into the being the homelands of the Makuna, Barasana, Tanimuka, Tukano and all the other Peoples of the Anaconda.

The Makuna today acknowledge this primordial journey, even as they trace the genesis of the world to a far earlier time, when there was only chaos in the universe. Spirits and demons known as He preyed on their own kindred, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence, devoured their own young. The Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu, Woman Shaman, responded by destroying the world with fire and floods. Then, just as a mother turns over a warm slab of manioc bread on the griddle, she turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating a flat and empty template from which life could emerge once again. Romi Kumu opened her womb, allowing her blood and breast milk to give rise to rivers, allowing her ribs to become the mountain ranges of the world. As Woman Shaman she gave birth to a new world: land, water, forest, and animals. 

In a parallel story of creation, four great culture heroes — the Ayawa, mythic ancestors also know as the Thunders — came up the Milk River, passing through the Water Door, pushing before them as ploughs the sacred trumpets of the Yurupari, creating valleys and waterfalls. Rivers were born of their saliva. Slivers of wood broken off by the effort gave rise to the first ritual artifacts and musical instruments. As the Ayawa journeyed toward the center of the world, the notes of the trumpets brought into being the mountains and uplands, the posts and walls of the cosmic maloca or hut.

At every turn, the Ayawa confronted greedy demonic forces, avaricious spirits that thrived on destruction and coveted the world. Outwitting the monsters, casting them into stone, the Ayawa brought order to the universe, causing the essence and energy of the natural world to be released for the benefit of all sentient creatures and every form of life. Then, stealing the creative fire from the vagina of Romi Kumu, they made love to her, and, fully satiated, rose into the heavens to become thunder and lightning. 

Realizing that she was pregnant, the myth recounts, Woman Shaman went downriver to the Water Door of the East, where she gave birth to the ancestral anaconda. In time the serpent retraced the harrowing journey of the Ayawa, returning in body and spirit to the riverbanks, waterfalls and rocks, where it birthed the clan ancestors of the Barasana, Makuna and all their neighbors. 

The world of the Makuna begins at the falls of Yuisi and ends at the cataract of Jirijirimo on the Río Apaporis. The hills along the Taraira, and the falls of Yurupari on the Río Vaupés and Araracuara on the Río Caquetá, the mountain escarpments beyond the Kanamari- all of these physical and geographical points of memory and origin remain vibrant and alive, a mythic geography written upon the land. Each is part of a sacred nexus that recalls an impossibly distant era where the Ayawa released to humans the raw energy of life, even as they bequeathed to all Peoples of the Anaconda the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation. 

For the people living today in the forests of the Apaporis and Piraparaná, the entire natural world is saturated with meaning and cosmological significance. Every rock and waterfall embodies a story. Plants and animals are but distinct physical manifestations of the same essential spiritual essence. At the same time, everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.

This is the realm of the He spirits, a world of deified ancestors where rocks and rivers are alive, plants and animals are human beings, sap and blood the bodily fluids of the primordial river of the anaconda. Hidden in cataracts, behind the physical veil of waterfalls, in the very center of stones are the great malocas of the He spirits, where everything is beautiful — the shining feathers, the coca, the calabash of tobacco powder, which is itself the skull and brain of the sun.

It is to the realm of the He spirits that the shaman goes in ritual. The Barasana shaman has little interest in medicinal plants. His duty and sacred task is to move in the timeless realm of the He, embrace the primordial powers, and harness and restore the energy of all creation. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.

Such renewal is the fundamental obligation of the living. In practice, this implies that the Barasana see the earth as potent, the forest as being alive with spiritual beings and ancestral powers. To live off the land is to embrace both its creative and destructive potential. Human beings, plants and animals share the same cosmic origins, and in a profound sense are seen as essentially identical, responsive to the same principles, obligated by the same duties, responsible for the collective well-being of creation. 

There is no separation between nature and culture. Without the forest and the rivers, humans would perish. But without people, the natural world would have no order or meaning. All would be chaos. Thus, the norms that drive social behavior also define the manner in which human beings interact with the wild, the plants and animals, the multiple phenomena of the natural world, lightning and thunder, the sun and the moon, the scent of a blossom, the sour odor of death. 

Everything is related, everything connected, a single integrated whole. Mythology infuses land and life with meaning, encoding expectations and behaviors essential to survival in the forest, anchoring each community, every maloca, to a profound spirit of place.

These cosmological ideas have very real ecological consequences both in terms of the way people live and the impacts they have on their environment. The forest is the realm of the men, the garden the domain of women, where they give birth to both plants and children. The women cultivate thirty or more food crops and encourage the fertility and fecundity of some twenty varieties of wild fruits and nuts. The men grow only tobacco and coca, which they plant in narrow winding paths that run through the women’s fields, like serpents in the grass. 

For the women, the act of harvesting and preparing cassava, the daily bread, is a gesture of procreation and a form of initiation. The starchy fluid left over once the grated mash has been fully rinsed is seen as female blood that can be rendered safe by heat, and drunk warm like a mother’s milk. The crude manioc fiber resembles the bone of men. Fired on the griddle, shaped by female hands, the cassava is the medium through which the plant spirits of the wild are domesticated for the good of all. 

Like all food, it has ambivalent potential. It gives life but may also bring disease and misfortune. Thus, nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder, and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman. Food in this sense is power, for it represents the transfer of energy from one life form to another. As a child grows he or she is only slowly introduced to new categories of food, and severe food restrictions mark all the major passages of life — moments of initiation for a male, the first menses for a woman, transitional moments when the human being, by definition, is in contact with the spirit realm of the He.

When men go to the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity. The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessing of a greater authority for the honor of taking into one’s family a precious being.

Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian, be it in the form of a jaguar, anaconda, tapir, or harpy eagle. Man in the forest is always both predator and prey.

The same cautious and established social protocols that maintain peace and respect between neighboring clans of people, that facilitate the exchange of ritual goods, food, and women, are applied to nature. Animals are potential kin, just as the wild rivers and forests are part of the social world of people.

Together these ideas and restrictions create what is essentially a land management plan inspired by myth. Entire stretches of the Piraparaná, home to several hundred species of fish, are deemed off limits for spiritual reasons. Shamanic sanctions, though inspired by cosmology, have the very real effect of mitigating the impact of human beings on the environment. And, as the mythological events that inspired such beliefs are ongoing, the consequence is a living philosophy that really does view man, woman and nature as one.

All of this comes alive is the great seasonal ceremonies that bring together families from up and down the Piraparaná and beyond. For days on end, there is little rest. As the rituals begin, time collapses. There are two series of dances, separated by the liminal moments of the day, dawn, dusk and midnight. The regalia is not decorative. A corona of oropendola feathers actually is the sun, each yellow plume a ray. It is the literal connection to sacred space, the wings to the divine. 

In donning the feathers, the yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rain, the men really do become the ancestors, just as the river is the anaconda, the mountains the house posts of the world, the shaman the shape-shifter, in one moment a predator, in the next prey. He changes from fish to animal to human and back again, transcending every form, becoming pure energy flowing among every dimension of reality, past and present, here and there, mythic and mundane. His chants recall by name every point of geography met on the ancestral journey of the Anaconda, toponyms that can be traced back with complete accuracy more than 900 miles down the Amazon to the east. 

White people see with their eyes, but the Barasana, it is said, see with their minds. On the wings of trance, they journey both to the dawn of time and into the future, visiting every sacred site, paying homage to every creature, as they celebrate their most profound cultural insight, the realization that animals and plants are only people in another dimension of reality. 

 

Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, Wade Davis is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Author of 22 books, including One RiverThe Wayfinders and Into the Silence, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia. His latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, will be published by Knopf in September.

Myth and Metaphor

Managing Nature in the Colombian Amazon

By Wade Davis

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A Barasana youth plays with his pet macaw in San Miguel on the Río Piraparaná. In 1986 Colombian president Virgilio Barco Vargas told Martin von Hildebrand, then Head of Indigenous Affairs, to do something for the Indians. In five extraordinary years Hildebrand secured for the native people of the Colombian Amazon legal title to an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, land rights that were encoded in the 1991 Political Constitution. In the years that followed, as Colombia endured the ravages of war, a veil of isolation fell upon the Northwest Amazon. And behind this veil a cultural revival took place unlike anything seen in South America.

The full measure of a culture embraces both the actions of a people and the quality of their aspirations, the nature of the metaphors that propel their lives. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective deity will be a profoundly different human being from a youth brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A tribal society whose every interaction with the forest is mediated by reciprocal obligations informed by myth and sanctioned by the spirits, will never understand the motivations of an industrial society that considers that same forest to be but cellulose and board feet, trees existing to be cut.

Neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia, the indigenous peoples of the Colombian Amazon had no idealized concept of conservation, no conscious notion of having to protect, in a strictly material sense, a seemingly endless forest that they lacked the technical capacity to harm. Their stewardship, forged through time and ritual, was based on a far more subtle intuition—the idea that the land itself was breathed into being by human consciousness. The indigenous people do not perceive mountains, rivers and forests as inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is seen to be alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination. 

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The Río Apaporis appears just above its confluence with the Río Caquetá. The Amazon at the time of European contact was no empty forest but an artery of civilization and home to hundreds of thousands, indeed millions, of human beings. Diseases such as measles and smallpox, previously unknown in the New World, swept away within generations 90 per cent of the Amerindian population from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic.

The European tradition, in all its brilliance, took a very different path. The defining mission of the Enlightenment was to liberate humanity from the tyranny of absolute faith. Expunged from the record were all notions of myth, magic, mysticism, and, most importantly, metaphor. The universe, declared French philosopher René Descartes in the 17th century, was composed only of “mind and mechanism.” With a single phrase, all sentient creatures aside from human beings were devitalized, as was the earth itself. Phenomena that could not be positively observed and measured could not exist. The triumph of secular materialism became the conceit of modernity. The notion that land could have anima, that the flight of a hawk might have meaning, that beliefs of the spirit could have true resonance, was ridiculed. 

The reduction of the world to a mechanism, with nature but an obstacle to overcome, a resource to be exploited, has in good measure determined the manner in which this singular tradition, informed by science and empowered by industry, has blindly interacted with a living planet. For three hundred years, this paradigm has been ascendant, fueled quite literally by the ancient sunlight of the world. But dominance and ubiquity do not imply normalcy. The ethnographic record suggests that this way of thinking is, in fact, highly anomalous in the human experience. Reciprocity, not extraction, is the norm. This dynamic may be expressed in any number of ways, but universally comes down to a simple but fundamental exchange; just as the earth yields its bounty, people have an obligation to maintain the well-being of the earth. In such a cosmic scheme, people are vital, for it is only through the generative power of ritual that realms of the spirit can be entered, mystical deeds accomplished, energies harmonized, and the universe itself realigned. In such wisdom traditions, every ceremonial gesture, each prayer and offering, is a declaration that humans are not the problem but the solution.

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Barasana and Makuna men grow only two plants, tobacco and coca. To prepare coca they first dry the leaves in a ceramic vessel over a fire and then pound them in a wooden mortar, to which are added the ashes of yarumo leaves. This mixture is then passed through a fine bark filter to yield a final product the consistency of talcum powder. Taken orally coca is a mild but nutritious stimulant with especially high levels of calcium.

Our destiny is not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise. The very existence of other cultural possibilities, other dreams of the earth, other visions of life itself, illuminates the folly of those who say we cannot change, as we all know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit the planet. Even as we anticipate the promise of such a transformative shift in perspective and priorities, it behooves us to listen to the other voices of humanity, knowing full well that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine. In the Northwest Amazon, the beliefs and intuitions of the people, distilled in the genius of their shamans, natural philosophers all, can only fire our hearts with wonder. 

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For the indigenous peoples of the Vaupés, in the remote reaches of the Colombian Amazon, rivers are not just routes of communication.  They are the veins of the earth, the link between the living and the dead, the paths along which the ancestors travelled at the beginning of time. Origin myths vary but always speak of a great journey from the east, of sacred canoes brought up the Milk River by enormous snakes known as anacondas. Within the canoes were the first people, together with the three most important plants—coca, manioc and yagé, all gifts of Father Sun. 

When the serpents reached the center of the world, they lay over the land, according to the myths, outstretched as rivers, their powerful heads forming river mouths, their tails winding away to remote headwaters, the ripples in their skin giving rise to rapids and waterfalls. Thus came into the being the homelands of the Makuna, Barasana, Tanimuka, Tukano and all the other Peoples of the Anaconda.

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Those responsible for weaving the feathered coronas are isolated in the maloca for several weeks and forbidden to eat meat or be with their wives. To create the brilliant yellow plumes they pluck the feathers of living parrots and apply a paste of frog venom and toxic berries to the birds’ breasts, causing a new plumage, normally deep red, to emerge in the colour of the sun. The regalia are not decorative; they are a literal connection to liminal spacewings to the divine.

The Makuna today acknowledge this primordial journey, even as they trace the genesis of the world to a far earlier time, when there was only chaos in the universe. Spirits and demons known as He preyed on their own kindred, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence, devoured their own young. The Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu, Woman Shaman, responded by destroying the world with fire and floods. Then, just as a mother turns over a warm slab of manioc bread on the griddle, she turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating a flat and empty template from which life could emerge once again. Romi Kumu opened her womb, allowing her blood and breast milk to give rise to rivers, allowing her ribs to become the mountain ranges of the world. As Woman Shaman she gave birth to a new world: land, water, forest, and animals. 

In a parallel story of creation, four great culture heroes — the Ayawa, mythic ancestors also know as the Thunders — came up the Milk River, passing through the Water Door, pushing before them as ploughs the sacred trumpets of the Yurupari, creating valleys and waterfalls. Rivers were born of their saliva. Slivers of wood broken off by the effort gave rise to the first ritual artifacts and musical instruments. As the Ayawa journeyed toward the center of the world, the notes of the trumpets brought into being the mountains and uplands, the posts and walls of the cosmic maloca or hut.

At every turn, the Ayawa confronted greedy demonic forces, avaricious spirits that thrived on destruction and coveted the world. Outwitting the monsters, casting them into stone, the Ayawa brought order to the universe, causing the essence and energy of the natural world to be released for the benefit of all sentient creatures and every form of life. Then, stealing the creative fire from the vagina of Romi Kumu, they made love to her, and, fully satiated, rose into the heavens to become thunder and lightning. 

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This waterfall hidden deep within the forest is considered by the Barasana to be the primordial home of the Ancestral Mother, Romi Kumu. It is perhaps the most sacred site in their homeland. They say that in the beginning, before the creation of seasons, before she opened her womb, before her blood and breast milk gave rise to rivers and her ribs to the mountain ridges of the world, there was only chaos in the universe. Spirits and demons preyed on their own children, bred without thought, committed incest without consequence. Romi Kumu destroyed the world with fire and floods. She then turned the inundated and charred world upside down, creating an empty template from which life could emerge again. As Woman Shaman she bequeathed to all people the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation.

Realizing that she was pregnant, the myth recounts, Woman Shaman went downriver to the Water Door of the East, where she gave birth to the ancestral anaconda. In time the serpent retraced the harrowing journey of the Ayawa, returning in body and spirit to the riverbanks, waterfalls and rocks, where it birthed the clan ancestors of the Barasana, Makuna and all their neighbors. 

The world of the Makuna begins at the falls of Yuisi and ends at the cataract of Jirijirimo on the Río Apaporis. The hills along the Taraira, and the falls of Yurupari on the Río Vaupés and Araracuara on the Río Caquetá, the mountain escarpments beyond the Kanamari- all of these physical and geographical points of memory and origin remain vibrant and alive, a mythic geography written upon the land. Each is part of a sacred nexus that recalls an impossibly distant era where the Ayawa released to humans the raw energy of life, even as they bequeathed to all Peoples of the Anaconda the eternal obligation to manage the flow of creation. 

For the people living today in the forests of the Apaporis and Piraparaná, the entire natural world is saturated with meaning and cosmological significance. Every rock and waterfall embodies a story. Plants and animals are but distinct physical manifestations of the same essential spiritual essence. At the same time, everything is more than it appears, for the visible world is only one level of perception. Behind every tangible form, every plant and animal, is a shadow dimension, a place invisible to ordinary people but visible to the shaman.

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White people see with their eyes, but the Barasana and Makuna see with their minds. When they ingest yagé they journey both to the dawn of time and into the future, visiting every sacred site, paying homage to every creature as they celebrate their most profound cultural insight - that animals and plants are only people in another dimension of reality. This is the essence of their philosophy.

This is the realm of the He spirits, a world of deified ancestors where rocks and rivers are alive, plants and animals are human beings, sap and blood the bodily fluids of the primordial river of the anaconda. Hidden in cataracts, behind the physical veil of waterfalls, in the very center of stones are the great malocas of the He spirits, where everything is beautiful — the shining feathers, the coca, the calabash of tobacco powder, which is itself the skull and brain of the sun.

It is to the realm of the He spirits that the shaman goes in ritual. The Barasana shaman has little interest in medicinal plants. His duty and sacred task is to move in the timeless realm of the He, embrace the primordial powers, and harness and restore the energy of all creation. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.

Such renewal is the fundamental obligation of the living. In practice, this implies that the Barasana see the earth as potent, the forest as being alive with spiritual beings and ancestral powers. To live off the land is to embrace both its creative and destructive potential. Human beings, plants and animals share the same cosmic origins, and in a profound sense are seen as essentially identical, responsive to the same principles, obligated by the same duties, responsible for the collective well-being of creation. 

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With great care men prepare for the celebration of Cassava Woman, here applying face paint derived from vegetable dyes. The decoration anticipates transformation. The Barasana and Makuna liken yagé to a river, a journey that takes one above the land and below the water to the most remote reaches of the earth, where the animal masters live and lightning is waiting to be born. To drink yagé, the anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote, is to return to the cosmic uterus and be reborn. It is to tear through the placenta of ordinary perception and enter realms where death can be known and life traced through sensation to the primordial source of all existence.

There is no separation between nature and culture. Without the forest and the rivers, humans would perish. But without people, the natural world would have no order or meaning. All would be chaos. Thus, the norms that drive social behavior also define the manner in which human beings interact with the wild, the plants and animals, the multiple phenomena of the natural world, lightning and thunder, the sun and the moon, the scent of a blossom, the sour odor of death. 

Everything is related, everything connected, a single integrated whole. Mythology infuses land and life with meaning, encoding expectations and behaviors essential to survival in the forest, anchoring each community, every maloca, to a profound spirit of place.

These cosmological ideas have very real ecological consequences both in terms of the way people live and the impacts they have on their environment. The forest is the realm of the men, the garden the domain of women, where they give birth to both plants and children. The women cultivate thirty or more food crops and encourage the fertility and fecundity of some twenty varieties of wild fruits and nuts. The men grow only tobacco and coca, which they plant in narrow winding paths that run through the women’s fields, like serpents in the grass. 

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During the celebration of Cassava Woman men consume copious amounts of coca, tobacco and yagé. Coca is a mild stimulant. Amazonian tobacco is so strong that sweat beads on the fingertips as soon as the snuff is blown up the nose. The Barasana say that under the influence of yagé they travel through multiple dimensions, reliving the journey of the ancestors. In chants shamans do in fact recall with complete accuracy points on the landscape reaching east almost a thousand miles down the Amazon, through lands neither they nor any of their community have ever visited.

For the women, the act of harvesting and preparing cassava, the daily bread, is a gesture of procreation and a form of initiation. The starchy fluid left over once the grated mash has been fully rinsed is seen as female blood that can be rendered safe by heat, and drunk warm like a mother’s milk. The crude manioc fiber resembles the bone of men. Fired on the griddle, shaped by female hands, the cassava is the medium through which the plant spirits of the wild are domesticated for the good of all. 

Like all food, it has ambivalent potential. It gives life but may also bring disease and misfortune. Thus, nothing can be eaten unless it has passed through the hands of an elder, and been blessed and spiritually cleansed by the shaman. Food in this sense is power, for it represents the transfer of energy from one life form to another. As a child grows he or she is only slowly introduced to new categories of food, and severe food restrictions mark all the major passages of life — moments of initiation for a male, the first menses for a woman, transitional moments when the human being, by definition, is in contact with the spirit realm of the He.

When men go to the forest to hunt or fish, it is never a trivial passage. First the shaman must travel in trance to negotiate with the masters of the animals, forging a mystical contract with the spirit guardians, an exchange based always on reciprocity. The Barasana compare it to marriage, for hunting too is a form of courtship, in which one seeks the blessing of a greater authority for the honor of taking into one’s family a precious being.

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There is no beginning and end in Barasana thought, no sense of a linear progression of time, destiny or fate. Every object must be understood at various levels of analysis. A rapid is an impediment to travel but also a house of the ancestors. A stool is not a symbol of a mountain; it is in every sense an actual mountain, upon the summit of which sits the shaman. This lad’s corona of oropendola feathers really is the sun, each yellow plume a ray.

Meat is not the right of a hunter but a gift from the spirit world. To kill without permission is to risk death by a spirit guardian, be it in the form of a jaguar, anaconda, tapir, or harpy eagle. Man in the forest is always both predator and prey.

The same cautious and established social protocols that maintain peace and respect between neighboring clans of people, that facilitate the exchange of ritual goods, food, and women, are applied to nature. Animals are potential kin, just as the wild rivers and forests are part of the social world of people.

Together these ideas and restrictions create what is essentially a land management plan inspired by myth. Entire stretches of the Piraparaná, home to several hundred species of fish, are deemed off limits for spiritual reasons. Shamanic sanctions, though inspired by cosmology, have the very real effect of mitigating the impact of human beings on the environment. And, as the mythological events that inspired such beliefs are ongoing, the consequence is a living philosophy that really does view man, woman and nature as one.

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The shaman’s most prized possession is a six-inch crystal of quartz, worn around the neck with a single strand of palm fibre. It is the crystallized semen of Father Sun, and within it are thirty colours, all distinct energies that must be balanced in sacred ritual. Once inside the crystal the shaman looks out at the world, over the territory of his people and the sacred sites, watching the ways of the animals, harnessing and restoring the energy of all creation. The shaman is a technician of the sacred. He is like a modern engineer who enters the depths of a nuclear reactor to renew the entire cosmic order.

All of this comes alive is the great seasonal ceremonies that bring together families from up and down the Piraparaná and beyond. For days on end, there is little rest. As the rituals begin, time collapses. There are two series of dances, separated by the liminal moments of the day, dawn, dusk and midnight. The regalia is not decorative. A corona of oropendola feathers actually is the sun, each yellow plume a ray. It is the literal connection to sacred space, the wings to the divine. 

In donning the feathers, the yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rain, the men really do become the ancestors, just as the river is the anaconda, the mountains the house posts of the world, the shaman the shape-shifter, in one moment a predator, in the next prey. He changes from fish to animal to human and back again, transcending every form, becoming pure energy flowing among every dimension of reality, past and present, here and there, mythic and mundane. His chants recall by name every point of geography met on the ancestral journey of the Anaconda, toponyms that can be traced back with complete accuracy more than 900 miles down the Amazon to the east. 

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The fertility festival in honour of Cassava Woman lasts for two days and nights, attracting scores of men and women from along the Río Piraparaná to the maloca at Puerto Ortega. As the ritual begins, time collapses. Two series of dances are separated by the liminal moments of the day: dawn, dusk and midnight. In donning the feathersthe yellow corona of pure thought, the white egret plumes of the rainthe men become the ancestors, and under the influence of yagé, a powerful hallucinogenic potion known also as ayahuasca, they journey to the origins of the world.

White people see with their eyes, but the Barasana, it is said, see with their minds. On the wings of trance, they journey both to the dawn of time and into the future, visiting every sacred site, paying homage to every creature, as they celebrate their most profound cultural insight, the realization that animals and plants are only people in another dimension of reality. 

 

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Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society from 2000 to 2013, Wade Davis is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Author of 22 books, including One RiverThe Wayfinders and Into the Silence, he holds degrees in anthropology and biology and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, all from Harvard University. In 2016, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 2018 he became an Honorary Citizen of Colombia. His latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, will be published by Knopf in September.

Saving Latin America’s Forests: Diminished Agricultural Land Clearing and Stronger Property Rights

By Douglas Southgate and  Brent Sohngen

            Surging deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon grabbed international headlines in 2019.  In early August, The Economist decried environmental destruction in the world’s most extensive rainforest as “vandalism.”  Three weeks later, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel characterized that destruction as an “acute emergency,” one that would be high on the agenda at a Group of Seven summit Macron was about to host in Biarritz.

Yet the recent loss of natural habitats in the largest country in South America is a departure from broader trends, which are bending in the direction of forest recovery.  Even in the Brazilian Amazon, annual clearing of tree-covered land has plummeted, from an average of nearly 5,000,000 acres between 1995 and 2005 to an average of 1,680,000 acres from 2014 to 2018 according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.  To be sure, land clearing accelerated in 2019.  Still, last year’s total was less than half the annual rate of forest loss two decades ago.

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Community sawmill in the Maya Biosphere Reserve; man on right is the authors’ colleague, Bayron Milian Photo by Brent Sohngen


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A Cofán family collects wild guava alongside the Río Aguarico in the Ecuadorian Amazon Photo by Douglas Southgate

By no means is decelerating deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon anomalous.  Consider what has happened in forests close to the Atlantic Ocean, which extend from the northeastern corner of Brazil down to the border with Uruguay.  In the late 1980s, environmentalist Norman Myers included those forests in a short list of hotspots of threatened biodiversity – places around the world where habitats harboring a large number of endemic species are under serious threat.  Through 2005, yearly habitat losses in the Brazilian Atlantic hotspot regularly exceeded 150,000 acres.  But more recently, the average rate has been about 27,000 acres per annum.  In a 2018 article published in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, Camila Rezende and eight other scientists contended that the region no longer fits Myers’s definition of a hotspot.

            Other Latin American nations have experienced a slowdown in habitat destruction since the turn of the twenty-first century.  According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, net annual losses of South American forests outside of Brazil diminished by 40 percent between the early 2000s and 2015.  A decline of 50 percent occurred in Central America during the same period.  Tree-covered land is actually increasing in a few countries – including Chile and Uruguay, where there are extensive plantations dedicated to timber production.  Forests are making a comeback as well in Costa Rica, due to the strengthening of forest ownership, payments for the ecosystem services provided by tree-covered land and park protection.  These three countries are now following the lead of the United States, Russia and other nations north of the Tropic of Cancer, where forests are spreading after contracting and degrading for decades, if not centuries.

 

Food Economy Developments

Researchers who investigate deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon offer various explanations for decelerating habitat loss.  Enforcement of national legislation mandating forest protection in the region has improved, some contend.  Also said to have an impact is better monitoring of food supply chains, to discourage the clearing of natural habitats to make way for new farms and ranches.  But there is a more fundamental reason for diminished deforestation, both in the Amazon Basin and elsewhere in Latin America.  Changes on the demand side of the food economy and on its supply side are combining to scale back agricultural land use, thereby reducing the threat to natural habitats.

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El Mirador National Park, bordered by community-managed forests in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala Photo by Douglas Southgate

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Tikal National Park, bordered by community-managed forests in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in northern Guatemala. Photo by Douglas Southgate

On the demand side, the number of mouths to feed is now growing much less rapidly than it did during the twentieth century, when the global population rose from 1.65 billion in 1900 to 2.47 billion in 1950 before soaring to 6.07 billion in 2000.  Human fertility fell to or below the replacement level of about 2.1 births per woman at least a generation ago in wealthy nations such as Germany and Japan.  Individual rates of reproduction are also below the level required for a stable population in many of the world’s emerging economies, where most human beings dwell and which include most Latin American nations.  Brazil’s total fertility rate (TFR) declined by more than 50 percent between 1960 and 1990, from 6.1 to 2.9 births per woman.  The same demographic indicator nearly halved again during the next quarter century, reaching 1.7 births per woman in 2017.  In Peru, which has the largest Amazonian territory aside from Brazil’s, the TFR fell from 6.9 in 1960, to 3.9 in 1990, to 2.3 in 2017.  Human fertility has followed the same descending path in Colombia, which also extends far into the Amazon Basin:  TFRs of 6.7 in 1960, 3.1 in 1990, and 1.8 in 2017.

Human numbers are still going up in countries such as Brazil, Colombia and Peru, due to the demographic momentum unleashed in the recent past when TFRs were still above the replacement level.  But during the next few decades, when human fertility is expected to remain at or below 2.1 births per woman, population growth will abate, cease and even reverse itself.  The demand for food will still rise, as household earnings improve.  However, increases will be modest compared to those experienced during the second half of the twentieth century, when rates of population growth peaked and when China and other emerging economies achieved unprecedented gains in living standards.

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Girl in the Peruvian Amazon Photo by Lyn Bonyhadi

Developments on the supply side of the food economy have contributed at least as much as slower demand growth to the diminished expansion of agricultural land use.  During the middle 1960s, the introduction of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat in South and Southeast Asia marked the beginning of a Green Revolution (as it was soon known) in global agriculture.  Thanks to farmers’ speedy adoption of those varieties and subsequent advances in agricultural productivity, global average cereal yields today are more than double what they were before the Green Revolution.  Greatly exceeding the contemporaneous expansion of farmland, productivity gains in agriculture explain why food supplies have gone up faster than food demand during the past half century, as signaled by a dramatic decline over the long term in inflation-adjusted prices.

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Agouti in the Peruvian Amazon Photo by Lyn Bonyhadi

 

 

Forest Ownership

            Between slower growth in the demand for food and continuing improvements in agricultural technology, economic forces are aligning in favor of forest conservation.  But for conservation to happen, those economic forces need to be expressed in markets, which comes about if forest dwellers have property rights in land, trees, and other resources.

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Milian Xate for the adornment of flower arrangements in the United States and elsewhere collected in the Maya Biosphere Reserve of northern Guatemala Photo by Sara Grossman

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Xate storage sheds in the Maya Biosphere Reserve Photo by Sara Grossman

            Reinforced local ownership was an early result of efforts during the 1980s by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Palcazu Valley of Peru, no more than 400 kilometers directly northeast of Lima though over and across the Andes from the capital city.  The valley’s forests could have been divided among individual households.  However, doing so would have resulted in parcels too small for the application of improved management practices.  Instead, group ownership was instituted, with titles awarded to communities of the Yanesha – an indigenous group that comprised half the local population at the time.

            Once community titles were in place, USAID provided technical advice and other support for small-scale agriculture, to increase food availability for the Yanesha and their neighbors.  Also, American experts associated with the Tropical Science Center (TSC) in Costa Rica were brought in to design and implement an environmentally sound system for timber extraction.  In addition, the Yanesha Forestry Cooperative, owned by the indigenous communities and underwritten initially by USAID, was created to process harvested timber.

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Focus group at ACOFOP (individuals from Carmelita concession) Photo by Brent Sohngen

            The Palcazu Valley project was innovative – not least the logging system designed by TSC experts, which mimics the gaps that heavy storms open up regularly in primary forests and that shade-intolerant tree species need to reproduce.  But because of the illegal drug trade, guerrilla activity and the remoteness of many Yanesha landholdings, that system was abandoned during the 1990s.  Nevertheless, indigenous communities have held on to their titles, which in some places has kept deforestation in check.  These days, the Yanesha market non-timber products —such as uña de gato (cat’s claw), a medicinal plant—harvested from community forests.  They also sell carved bowls and other items crafted from wood, including on the internet in cooperation with international partners.

            As USAID’s efforts in the Palcazu Valley drew to a close, 30 years ago, a similar initiative was ramping up in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) of northern Guatemala, where there are large numbers of threatened species and archeological sites of global significance.  Anthropologist James D. Nations, who has carried out field research in the area since the 1970s, observes that prospects for converting the entire MBR into a single, big park were always “essentially zero.”  When called on by USAID to design a project, Nations and his colleagues favored enhanced protection for existing parks.  But for most of the reserve, they recommended a system for harvesting timber similar to what had been pioneered in the Peruvian Amazon.  Another similarity to the Palcazu Valley project was that a majority of the tracts set aside for controlled logging were entrusted to local communities, not private firms.

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In the Peruvian Amazon Photo by Lyn Bonyhadi

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Certified lumber harvested from community concessions in the Maya Biosphere Reserve Photo by Brent Sohngen

            Current USAID support for the MBR is modest relative to the investment in community forestry made during the 1990s.  However, the strengthening of local ownership appears to have paid off, both for forests and for the households involved.  In a pair of studies using separate sets of data, Allen Blackman of the Inter-American Development Bank and Lea Fortmann (whose doctoral dissertation at Ohio State University focused on northern Guatemala) concluded that there was less deforestation in community forests than in neighboring portions of the MBR.  This finding applied to a variety of participating communities, including some whose members inhabit forested holdings as well as others made up of residents of nearby settlements who manage uninhabited tracts.  Deforestation was even arrested in the holdings of recent migrants to the region, in spite of their limited knowledge of forestry.

Corinne Bocci (another Ohio State doctoral student) analyzed the USAID project’s impact on household earnings.  She found that households belonging to communities that manage forests generally have higher incomes than unaffiliated households.  Furthermore, members’ incomes are more stable and tend to grow faster over time.  Interestingly, individuals involved in the management of uninhabited tracts experienced the greatest gains in living standards.  In inhabited areas, household incomes have gone up the most in the oldest communities, which predate the USAID project by decades.  But even where recent migrants are concerned, stronger property rights have enabled people to benefit economically from conservation.

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Launch on the Río Ucayali bear Pucallpam, in the Peruvian Amazon Photo by Lyn Bonyhadi

 

New Opportunities

Advances in production technology and slower demand growth in the food economy are creating new opportunities for forest conservation, including in the Amazon Basin and the rest of Latin America.  To take advantage of those opportunities, forest dwellers must have a secure legal stake in the resources that surround them, so that they can benefit from the wise use and management of those resources.  The environmental and economic gains of this approach have been demonstrated in Guatemala.

Property rights are not a panacea.  But how, one wonders, are natural habitats to be saved without local empowerment of the sort that exists only if resources are locally owned?

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Tourist camp in the Peruvian Amazon 10 Photo by Lyn Bonyhadi

 

Douglas Southgate is Professor Emeritus of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, Ohio State University. Brent Sohngen is Professor of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics, Ohio State University.

 

The “Unknown” Feminism of the Amazon 

Uchunya Women as a New Conscience for Latin America 

By Luis Miguel Hoyos Rojas

The Uchunyas are an indigenous community belonging to the Shipibo tribe in Ucayali, Peru. Like any Latin American society, they face diverse problems, including the threat of neoliberal economic development, as they confront a palm oil company that operates in their ancestral lands, However, as they recounted to the world on the German television station Deutsche Welle (DW) in 2019, the Uchunya recognized their native culture; they did not look down on the gender role was linked to that culture and the concept of gender, distinct from the Marxist feminism that refers to mutual aid and egalitarian cooperation. 

“(…) every evening, when I finish my work, we organize games with the neighbors, the women play volleyball, although some men also join them and the women can play together with the men.” 

The Uchunya women have a different concept of equality which, although it can be understood (or we can understand) is from the vantage of roles and distribution of responsibility, does not denounce the suppression of women in social and productive processes because  they say, “It has been this way for centuries” and for now at least, do not insist on structural change: “They believe they are, and indeed they are, equal to the men.” 

“(…) A Uchunya woman can do what she wants, there are several who do other things,” (Judit Zangano, a community elder)

In spite of many transformations since 1970 that recognized women’s equality as a principle, women continue to be humiliated, raped, murdered, rendered invisible and erased from historical memory throughout much of Latin America. 

An ambiguity remains: “equality in the eyes of the law,” the gains of “liberal feminism” and the supreme value of liberalism, “autonomy” do not reflect women’s daily reality. This context spurred feminist struggles against regimes and movements that, grounding themselves in the “equality” of women were equally repressive. An example is the “FARC-EP” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), that defended social equality from a Bolivarian Marxist-Leninst perspective, but controlled the sexuality of the women who fought along with the men. 

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ONAMIAP has set up A School for Political Formation for Indigenous Women. Photo courtesy ONAMIAP

Unintentional Absence

Although the women’s struggle in Latin America of the 1970s was directly influenced by liberal feminism, it was not a strict imitation of the U.S. and European experience. In Latin America, two special contexts prevailed, the identification of an ideological type of “modern woman” and the integration of two types of “modern woman,” that is intellectual and middle-class women who were totally visible through political movilization. The union of these women, who were for the most part socialists and radicals, with activists against repression from the peoples’ movements, gave birth to popular Latin American feminism, understanding “popular” in the Latin American sense of mass movements.  

 Thousands of leftist youth and intellectuals militating for equality in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Chile became the fervent feminists of the 1970s, often adopting a double militancy. They were active in party politics, as well as in women’s groups, as happened in Colombia with the leaders María Cano and Betasabé Espinosa. Their struggle was an important one, but the existence of other women was often forgotten, for example, the indigenous woman. At the time, the indigenous was not identified with the idea of the modern, athough the indigenous woman was a collective although hidden presence in the Amazon. 

With this observation, we are not denying the narratives that explain that even before 1970, indigenous women were activists as part of the feminist struggle. The “organizing processes of the Ecuadoran Amazon,” was led by indigenous women between 1960 and 1970, for instance. But to affirm that the influence of indigenous women was as present and visible as the suffragist movement in New York, for instance, or as popular feminism is to ignore the great context of the Latin American indigenous woman. Before 1970 and in the watershed year of 1970 itself, indigenous women in six of the nine countries of the vast Amazon basin did not speak Spanish or Portuguese. As is the case today, they had another perception of the world and were not aware of political theory imported from Europe and the United States. Indigenous women did not integrate into the feminist struggle of 1970 not because they were passive or invisible, but because they did not identify with the ideological stance of the period. The monoculture of law, poltical theory and the development model of the time, most concerned with understanding the relationship of the subject with the modern state, were a type of knowledge that was far from their reality, becoming nonexistent processes of translation and intercultural dialogue.  Put this way, it cannot be denied that the feminist struggle had a different, but not mistaken, historical objective: to reclaim political ideas and rights granted by modernity to women, which because of its very nature did not encompass the indigenous reality of the Amazon. 

 

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Photo courtesy of derechosinfrontera

The Indignation of Uchunya Women

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos explains that “indignation” is a movement that allows the identification of something new, but absent, and encompasses demands made by people who are not activists in any social movement.  It is a type of hidden but present protest, which when made visible is almost always without the intervention of traditional political structures such as parties and movements and by people who are not usually considered poltical actors. 

If the feminism of the 1970’s managed to denounce women’s oppression and inequality, this struggle does not fit in with Boaventura’s concept of “indignation.” The feminist voice of 1970 was aimed at pointing out inequalities through organized politcs, which achieved significant and timely changes. In this sense, the movement of the 1970’s differed from the experience of the Uchunya women of the Amazon. 

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Luisa Mori González, leader of the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya. Photo courtesy of DW/E, Anarte 2019

Machismo is a social problem, and indigenous people are not exempted. Unlike in the case of the feminist struggles, the indignation of the Uchunyas does not arise from resistence to machismo as the motor for social exclusion, nor because of their weakness within the present feminist culture. Their indignation does not make the same demands of modernity, but protests that their rights are not lumped together with what is dubbed “inclusive citiizenry” to which they were unintentionally relegated by previous feminist movements. That is, that the models of domination—economic, political and social—that arrived in the process of modernization—should get out of the Amazon.  They protest that Latin America must understand that their current demands, legitimate for the consciousness of other women, are not appropriate for understanding indigenous identity. Because the longed-for equality, the culminating point of a liberal state in which the patriomy, property and work are key aspects and even taken up again by modern economic constitutional law, does not have the same meaning for them. The Uchunya appear to have transcended from the concept of equality to the consciousness of autonomy, without the mediation of the modern state. 

“(…) We indigenous women have always been united, we accompany [our] men. We have only one voice. In the past, our grandparents, aunts and uncles fought [for this unity]. If we had not done this, we would not have so much territory. At that time, colonization was arriving in our territories. We managed to legalize the territories in Pastaza. Today we women play an important role. Some compañeroswho had organized marches changed their minds and tried to negotiate the territory, something that is at odd with our ancestral beliefs.  But we women kept up the fight and we have the belief system of defending our pachamama [Mother Earth], so that she will not be sold or exploited.” (Zoila Castillo Tuti, indigenous woman from the Ecuadoran Amazon, Gender and Political Participation Workshop, Puyo, Ecuador. September 25, 2018).

Thus understood, equality (at the moment) is not discussed in the same terms we understand. The indigenous women have a distinct concept, definitely “strange’ for modernity. Doubtlessly, the concept of equality stands our feminist conceptions on their head, including the struggle of 1970 that did not teach this community the sense of “equality.” Their experience does not seem to have been reached by any classic feminism, but the conceptual model they use to understand “equality” is the object of desire that modern feminist theory has not achieved as a universal reality.  In this community, there is also another silent indignation, the voices of women who—like the feminists—denounce violence:  

“(…) Sometimes there are men who still have ‘this machismo’ and when they start drinking, they abuse women.” (Luisa Mori, community leader)

Women experience the struggle against this scourge in the Amazon, using their own customs, among them the resort to dialogue and communication “among equals.” This is a revealing fact since “absent from modern society,” far from the distinct constructions Italian  philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “organized society,” these indigenous women understand that do not need social movements to construct a civilizing consciousness among community members capable of mitigating violence. 

“(…) The head of the uchunya community can be a woman, there is no prohibition, {but] such a situation would provoke a punishment from the spirits of the ancestors.” 

“(…) There are women “chiefs or municipal agents, but for this, we have to organize and know how to do the job well.” (Luisa Mori, community leader)

From the depths of the Amazon, voices are raised not to denounce economic invisibilty otr to do away with “a model of normality” that generates dependencies.  These women want to be heard in protest to erradicate violence and the indigenous prejudices against women through organizational processes. These women do not want external agents such as NGOs, important in the formation of leadership, to become an instrument that intervenes in their historic consciousness. This type of protest is quite controversial because the feminism of the 20th century is viewed through modernizing perspectives. Gender mainstreaming in Latin America has been the principal focus with which to measure and evaluate the modern changes that require gender equality. 

 

Another Feminism? Another Consciousness for Latin America

The Uchunya women seek the preservation of social and historic self-determination. 

"I cannot get all the women out. The geographic situation of isolation is also an obstacle for collective movilization. But we have to get out there,” proclaimed the woman leader. “If they can’t do it by themselves, others will come to help.” 

This is a new feminist experience. By taking away the focus from inequality, because they perceive equality as something natural, they are reframing the focus of feminism: if the paradigm of discrimination is eliminated as the most important element of the genders in conflict, and is replaced by a consciousness that accepts and permits (without great conflicts), difference as the fruit of diversity, and in turn  allows that men and women can do the same things, we can see what is really important and it appears that the Uchunya have always perceived this: to identify that in social levels one is exercising one’s autonomy. In other wors, autonomy as a principle of equality of both genders is being fulfilled in this individual way of being. It is similar to the concept of liberal feminism, but different because the focus is not on the necessity of negotiating the differences between men and women, but to put forth a model that reframes the access to equality. The greatest injustice is the lack of women’s autonomy because equality is a given. Thus, the Uchunya protest with indignation the macho violence of the Amazon, but from their own standpoint, because their problem is the loss of autonomy that is at times threatened by the modern struggles that (sometimes) try to impose the mold of “feminist subject.” The Uchunya with their feminism of indignation struggle for their independence and autonomy, but never lose their equality. The Uchunya, who only recently began to be known to the rest of the world, present a new constitiutonal consciousness for women with their innate understanding of equaity. 

“(…) I do the same work as my husband: I go to the chacra[small farm], I fetch my yuca and my plantain, I go to cut my wood, I think that my husband and I, there, [are equals] and I am not the only one who stays at home with the children.” (Pamela Espinosa, an indigenous woman)

The silent struggle of these women puts a limit on political theory, because it bears witness that the great problem is not simply the articulation of political parties with social movements, which are channeled so that the state grants certain rights. Rather, it is the inclusion of a third concept of “collective presences” of subjects like these women, invisible in traditional politics, but evolving behind our backs. This feminist experience detracts from the modern constitutional egocentrism because the experience of Uchunya women builds civilizing changes that our modernity has not produced. For example, the fact that gender equality is not yet a global reality is still the driving force of feminist discourse, theorizing that equality is one of the most basic liberties for women. The Uchunya women, on the other hand, understand that nature is part of our consciousness and the role of gender in productivity. 

"(...) Most of the men in this community are engaged in hunting, fishing and farming the land, but we can do it too and do it when we want to. We just enjoy the care and custody of our children and home.”

We need to develop economic consciousness in which property and land, realities present in our constitutions, should not be understood merely as capitalistic aspirations, but as means that permit an access to development, but not taking precedence over men and women themselves. The Uchunya women also give lessons to the theories of economic development because their consciousness is coherent and respectful of the natural resources that are objects of exploitation. For example, they defend  “Sumak Kawsay,” or simply “good living,” a simple paradigm in which a fully lived life maintains a balance between harmony and development, a concept that has already been incorporated in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. The experience of indignation of these women or “the feminism of indignation” redefines our perspectives because it present a distinct definition of social assets and does not sacrifice the equality of men and women. Here we can ask: But how can this life and development of gender coexist peacefully? How is equality a path for development? How can one construct autonomy as important as the water, the air and the earth to which they attribute great importance? 

“(..) The women on the other hand keep on struggling and we have the mentality of defending our  ‘pachamama’ [Mother Earth], which cannot be sold or exploited.” (Zoila Castillo Tuti, indigenous woman).

To understand this experience requires a change of consciousness, including another way of knowing and this cannot be, as Boaventura observes, a  “monoculture of law and politics.” The experience of the Uchunya women is an invitation to revise our perspectives, to think of new horizons, but also to revise our socio-political canons. Like these women, we should arrive at a level of knowledge that there is no greater right than that of being autonomous and free, that equality does not need to define who we are and that no social truth can substitute for our differences. It would be interesting to learn from all that is hidden in the Amazon, but also to overcome the dichotomy between equality or autonomy, and how the two become the maximum expression of what it means to be a human being. 

 

Luis Miguel Hoyos Rojas is a Ph.D. student in Law at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Spain. He received his LL.M  from Harvard Law School in 2012.  Contact: hoyoslm@gmail.com

El "desconocido" feminismo de la Amazonía

La mujer uchunya como nueva conciencia para América Latina

Por Luis Miguel Hoyos Rojas

Los Uchunyas son una comunidad indígena del pueblo shipibo en Ucayali, Perú. Como cualquier sociedad latinoamericana, tienen diversos problemas, entre estos, la amenaza del desarrollo económico neoliberal, pues se enfrentan a una empresa de palma aceitera que opera en sus tierras ancestrales. Las mujeres Uchunyas contaron al mundo a través de la emisora Deutsche Welle (DW) en 2019 que ellas reconocen su cultura originaria, no desprecian el rol de género asignado que vino con aquella y la concepción de género, a diferencia del feminismo marxista hace referencia a la ayuda mutua y cooperación igualitaria.

“(…) cada tarde, al terminar las labores, se organizan partidos entre los vecinos, las mujeres, juegan al vóleibol, aunque algunos hombres también se les unen y las mujeres pueden jugar con los hombres”.

Ellas también tienen una concepción distinta de la igualdad que, aunque se entiende (o podemos entender) desde roles y distribución de la responsabilidad, no denuncia la supresión de la mujer de los procesos sociales y productivos, porque como dicen: “ha sido así desde milenios” y no insisten por ahora, en un cambio estructural: “Ellas se creen y son iguales que los hombres”.

“(…) Una mujer Uchunya puede hacer lo que quiera, hay varias que hacen otras cosas”. (Judit Zangano, anciana de la comunidad)

Muchas transformaciones desde 1970 han reconocido la igualdad de la mujer como “principio”. Sin embargo, las mujeres seguían siendo humilladas, violentadas, asesinadas, invisibilizadas y en gran parte de América Latina, eliminadas de la memoria histórica.

Esta es la ambigüedad: La “igualdad frente a la ley”, conquista del “feminismo liberal” y el valor último del liberalismo la “autonomía”, no eran la cotidianidad de las mujeres. Este contexto impulsó las luchas feministas contra regímenes y movimientos que amparados en la “igualdad”, fueron represivos: Un ejemplo es las «FARC-EP» (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), que siendo entonces defensores de la “igualdad social” bajo postulados bolivarianos, marxistas y leninistas, controlaban la sexualidad de las mujeres.

 

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ONAMIAP implementa la Escuela de Formación Política para Mujeres Indígenas. Cortesía de ONAMIAP

La ausencia no intencional

Aunque la lucha de 1970 tuvo una influencia directa del feminismo liberal esta no emergió imitando estrictamente la experiencia estadounidense y europea. En América Latina se caracterizó por dos contextos especiales, la identificación de un tipo ideológico de mujer, “La moderna”, y la integración de “mujeres intelectuales y de clase media, quienes fueron totalmente visibles como movilización política. Esta unión de mujeres en su mayoría socialistas y radicales, con otras de sectores populares activas contra la opresión, dio origen al “feminismo popular latinoamericano”. Miles de jóvenes militantes de izquierda e intelectuales de la igualdad en Brasil, Perú, Ecuador, México y Chile, se convirtieron en las fervientes feministas de 1970, y a menudo asumieron la doble militancia: Activas tanto en partidos políticos como en grupos de mujeres como sucedió en Colombia con las activistas María Cano y Betasabé Espinosa. La lucha fue importante, pero olvidó la existencia de otras mujeres: la “Indígena” que no eran para la época identificadas con la idea de la modernidad, aunque si eran una presencia colectiva oculta en la Amazonía.

Con esto no negamos las narrativas que explican que desde antes de 1970 existieron “activismos de mujeres indígenas” como parte de la lucha feminista. Los “procesos organizativos de la Amazonía ecuatoriana”, cuya codirección estuvo en manos de mujeres indígenas entre 1960 y 1970 lo comprueban. Pero afirmar que la influencia de la mujer Indígena fue tan notoria y visible como el movimiento Suffragistde Nueva York o el feminismo popular, es desconocer el gran contexto de la mujer Indígena latinoamericana: Desde antes y en el especifico 1970, la mujer presente en seis de los nueves países que integran la vasta región de la Amazonía, no tenía acceso al español o portugués, como hasta hoy tenían otra conciencia del mundo y desconocían la teoría política traída de Europa y Estados Unidos. La mujer indígena no se integró a la lucha feminista de 1970 no por ser pasiva e invisible sino porque se le hizo, al no identificarla con la postura ideológica de la época. La monocultura del derecho, la teoría política y el modelo de desarrollo de aquel entonces, más preocupados por comprender en que consistía la relación del sujeto con el Estado moderno, fueron saberes alejados de ellas, convirtiéndose en procesos de traducción y diálogo intercultural inexistentes. Así planteado, no se puede negar que la lucha feminista tuvo un objetivo histórico distinto, pero no equivocado: Reivindicar ideas políticas y derechos otorgados por la modernidad a la mujer, lo que no significó un abarcamiento de la realidad Indígena amazónica.

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Cortesía de derechosinfrontera

La indignación de las Uchunya

Boaventura de Sousa Santos, profesor en la Universidad de Wisconsin-Madison, explica la «Indignación» como un movimiento que permite identificar algo nuevo, pero ausente, y que comprende reivindicaciones que hacen personas que no son militantes de ningún grupo social. Un tipo de “protesta oculta pero presente”, que al hacerse visible casi siempre sin la mediación de estructuras políticas tradicionales como partidos y movimientos, da existencia a personas que habitualmente no son consideradas actores políticos.

Si bien el feminismo de 1970 logró denunciar la opresión y desigualdad de la mujer, esta lucha no encajaría como “Indignación” según los términos de Boaventura. Pues la voz feminista de los ‘70 se concentró en señalar la desviación de la igualdad a partir de una incidencia política organizada que logró cambios significativos y temporales. Desde este sentido, la lucha de 1970 se aparta como veremos, de la experiencia de las mujeres Uchunya de la Amazonía.

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Luisa Mori González, lideresa indígena en la comunidad de Santa Clara de Uchunya. Cortesía de DW/E, Anarte 2019

El machismo es un problema social y los pueblos indígenas no son la excepción. A diferencia de las luchas feministas, la indignación de las Uchunyas no nace de la resistencia al machismo como generador de exclusión social, tampoco del debilitamiento de ellas al interior de la cultura feminista actual. Su indignación no exige las mismas reivindicaciones de la modernidad, sino que protesta para que sus derechos salgan de la sombra de la llamada “ciudadanía inclusiva” a la que fueron relegadas (no intencionalmente) por los movimientos feministas del pasado. Es decir, que los modelos de dominación—económicos, políticos y sociales—que llegaron a través de las modernizaciones salgan de la Amazonía. Protestan para que América Latina entienda que las reivindicaciones actuales, legitimas para la conciencia de otras mujeres, no son aptas para entender su identidad Indígena. Porque la tan anhelada igualdad, punto culminante del Estado liberal donde el patrimonio, la propiedad y el trabajo son aspectos claves e incluso retomados por el moderno derecho constitucional económico, no tienen para ellas el mismo sentido. Como veremos, las mujeres Uchunya parecen haber trascendido de la igualdad a la conciencia de la autonomía, sin la mediación del Estado moderno.

“(…) Las mujeres indígenas siempre hemos sido unidas, acompañamos a [nuestros] hombres. Tenemos una sola voz. En el pasado lucharon nuestros abuelos, tíos y tías. Si no hubiéramos hecho eso no tuviéramos tanto territorio. En ese tiempo la colonización se llevaba nuestros territorios. Logramos la legalización de territorios en Pastaza. Hoy en día las mujeres tenemos un papel importante. Algunos compañeros que organizan marchas cambiaron de idea y trataron de negociar el territorio, algo ajeno a nuestras creencias ancestrales. Las mujeres en cambio seguimos luchando y tenemos mentalidad de defender nuestra “pachamama”, que no se venda ni explote” (Zoila Castillo Tuti, mujer indígena de la Amazonía ecuatoriana, “Taller Género y Participación Política”, Puyo, Ecuador. 25 de septiembre, 2018).

Así entendido, la igualdad (de momento) no se discute en los mismos términos que conocemos. Tienen una concepción distinta, definitivamente “extraña” para la modernidad. Indudablemente su concepto de igualdad da un vuelco a nuestras concepciones feministas, incluyendo la lucha de 1970 que evidentemente no enseñó a esta comunidad el sentido de la “igualdad”. Su experiencia parece no alcanzada por ningún feminismo clásico, pues el patrón conceptual que usan para entender la “igualdad”, es el objeto del deseo que la teoría feminista moderna no ha logrado como realidad universal. En esta comunidad también hay otra indignación silenciosa, las voces de mujeres que al igual que los feminismos que conocemos, denuncian la violencia:

“(…) A veces hay varones que tienen todavía ‘ese machismo’ y, cuando se dan a los licores, hay maltrato contra las mujeres” (Luisa Mori, lideresa de la comunidad)

La lucha contra este flagelo es un proceso real, ellas lo viven en la Amazonía usando sus propias costumbres, entre esas la apelación al diálogo y la comunicación “entre iguales”. Este es un dato revelador, porque como “ausentes de la sociedad moderna” lejanas de las distintas construcciones que Gramsci llamó “sociedad organizada”, entendieron que no necesitaban movimientos sociales para construir conciencias civilizatorias entre los miembros de su comunidad capaces de mitigar la violencia.

“(…) La jefatura de la comunidad uchunya puede ser liderada por mujeres, no hay veto, [pero] tal situación generaría un castigo de los espíritus de los ancestros”.

“(…) Hay mujeres “jefas o agentes municipales, pero para eso hay que organizarnos y saber bien cómo llevar esa carga”. (Luisa Mori, lideresa de la comunidad)

Desde la profundidad de la Amazonía se levantan no para denunciar la invisibilidad económica o para erradicar un “patrón de normalidad” que generó dependencias. Alzan su voz para reclamar que sea escuchada su protesta de erradicación de la violencia y los prejuicios femeninos Indígenas, a partir de sus procesos organizativos. Para que la presencia de agentes externos como ONG´s, importantes para la formación de sus liderazgos, no se convierta en un instrumento que intervenga sus conciencias históricas. Este tipo de protesta es bastante controversial, sobre todo porque las luchas feministas desde el siglo 20, insisten en cambios de la mujer a partir de perspectivas modernas. Siendo américa latina una región donde el “gender mainstreaming” ha sido el principal enfoque para medir y evaluar los cambios modernos que requiere la igualdad de géneros.

 

¿Otro feminismo?, otras conciencias para américa latina.

Las mujeres Uchunya buscan la preservación de su autodeterminación social e histórica.

"Yo sola no voy a poder sacar a todas las mujeres. La situación geográfica de aislamiento también es un obstáculo para la movilización colectiva. Pero, tenemos que salir”, proclama la lideresa. Si ellas no pueden hacerlo solas, otras vendrán en su ayuda”.

Esta es una nueva experiencia feminista. Las Uchunya al quitar el foco de la desigualdad, porque para ellas “ser igual” es algo natural, plantean una relectura del feminismo que paso a explicar en los siguientes términos: Si el paradigma de la discriminación es erradicado como lo más importante de la teoría de los géneros enfrentados, y es reemplazado por una conciencia que acepta y permite (sin mayores enfrentamientos), la diferencia como fruto de la diversidad, y esta se acepta como realidad, porque permite que hombres y mujeres puedan hacer lo mismo, podríamos ver lo realmente importante y que parece que las Uchunya, vieron desde siempre: Identificar en que niveles sociales se está ejerciendo la autonomía o visto desde otro punto, si la autonomía como principio de la igualdad para ambos géneros se esta cumpliendo en la individualidad del ser. Si, parecerá una concepción feminista liberal, pero se aparta de esta porque no centra el foco en la necesidad de negar la diferencia entre hombres y mujeres para proponer un modelo que replantee el acceso a la igualdad. La experiencia de las Uchunya se preocupa por hacer de la autonomía el bien más importante a perseguir (no la lucha contra la discriminación) por tanto en este esquema, la mayor injusticia es la falta de autonomía de la mujer, porque la igualdad es indiscutible. Algo que se aparta de los feminismos liberal, radical y marxista, quienes denuncian la “discriminación” de la mujer como la mayor injusticia social, y la autonomía como el resultado esperado. Por esta razón las Uchunya protestan indignadas contra la violencia machista en la Amazonía, pero a partir de ellas mismas, porque su problema es la pérdida de autonomía que a veces es amenazada por las luchas modernas que de manera forzosa (a veces) intentan imponer un único “sujeto feminista”. Las Uchunya con un “feminismo de la indignación” abogan por su independencia y autonomía, por nunca perder la igualdad. Las Uchunya que hasta hoy dejaron de ser desconocidas para el resto del mundo, presentan una nueva conciencia constitucional de la mujer con su concepto de la igualdad.

“(…) Yo hago lo mismo que mi marido: me voy a la chacra [pequeña finca], me traigo mi yuca y mi plátano, me voy a cortar mi leña, pienso que mi esposo y yo, al menos, estamos ahí los dos [somos iguales], no soy yo la única que se queda en casa con los hijos”. (Pamela Espinosa, mujer indígena)

La lucha silenciosa de estas mujeres pone al limite la teoría política, porque evidencia que el gran problema no es simplemente la articulación de partidos políticos con movimientos sociales, y como eso se canalizan para que el Estado otorgue derechos. Si no, la inclusión de un tercer concepto “las presencias colectivas” de aquellos sujetos que como ellas, invisibles desde la política tradicional, están ahí evolucionando a nuestras espaldas. Esta experiencia feminista desvirtúa el “egocentrismo constitucional moderno”, porque la experiencia de la mujer Uchunya construye también cambios civilizatorios que nuestra modernidad no ha producido. Como, por ejemplo, la “igualdad de géneros” que no es una realidad global y desde el discurso feminista, es todavía una teoría de las libertades más básicas de la mujer. La narrativa de estas mujeres permite entender otras formas, desde la importancia de comprender a la naturaleza como parte de nuestra conciencia y su rol en la productividad de los géneros,

“(…) La mayoría de los hombres de esta comunidad se dedican a la caza, la pesca y el cultivo de las tierras, pero nosotras también lo podemos hacer y lo hacemos cuando queremos. Solo que disfrutamos el cuidado y custodia de nuestros hijos y hogar”.

Hasta desarrollar una conciencia económica donde la propiedad y la tierra, realidades presentes en nuestras cartas constitucionales, no sean entendidas solo como aspiraciones capitalistas, sino como medios que permiten un acceso al desarrollo, pero nunca más importantes que los hombres y las mujeres. Las Uchunya también dan lecciones a las teorías de desarrollo económico, porque su conciencia es coherente y consecuente con los recursos naturales objeto de explotación. Por ejemplo, son defensoras del “Sumak Kawsay” o simplemente, “buen vivir” que no es más que un paradigma donde la vida en plenitud, guarda un equilibrio con la armonía y el desarrollo, un concepto que ya fue incorporado en cartas constitucionales de Ecuador y Bolivia. La experiencia de indignación de estas mujeres o “feminismo de la indignación” redefine nuestras perspectivas, porque presenta una distinta definición de los bienes sociales y no sacrifica la igualdad de los hombres y mujeres. Hay preguntas como: ¿Pueden la vida y el desarrollo de los géneros coexistir pacíficamente?, ¿Cómo la igualdad es un camino para el desarrollo? ¿Cómo se construye una autonomía insustituible? tan importante como el agua, el aire y la tierra a quienes ellas dan igual importancia.

“(..) Las mujeres en cambio seguimos luchando y tenemos mentalidad de defender nuestra ‘pachamama’, [la Madre Tierra] que no se venda ni explote” (Zoila Castillo Tuti, mujer indígena).

Entender esta experiencia exige un cambio de conciencia, incluso otro conocimiento y este no puede ser como dice Boaventura, la “monocultura del derecho y la política” actual. La experiencia de las mujeres «Uchunya» es una invitación abierta a revisar nuestras perspectivas, pensar en nuevos horizontes, pero también a revisar nuestros cánones socio-políticos. Como ellas, debemos llegar al nivel de conocimiento de que no hay mayor derecho que ser autónomamente libres, que la igualdad no necesita más justificación que aquella que dice que “lo somos” y que ninguna verdad social puede sustituir nuestras diferencias. Sería interesante aprender de ellas todo lo que oculta la Amazonía, pero también como superar la dicotomía entre igualdad o autonomía y como las dos se convierten en la culminación máxima del ser humano.

 

Luis Miguel Hoyos Rojas es Doctorando en Derecho (PhD Law), Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (España). Tiene una Maestría (LL.M) de la Facultad de Derecho de Harvard University (2012). Contacto: hoyoslm@gmail.com