I’m grateful to Abou Farman (New School University) for sending me information on a recent tragedy in Amazonian Peru that took place not far from the major city of Pucallpa. On April 19, 2018, a Canadian tourist murdered a prominent Shipibo elder and healer, Olivia Arévalo Lomas, by shooting her in cold blood in her village. Individuals soon captured the perpetrator, Sebastian Woodroffe, 41, executed him, and buried his body in the forest. The story made its way into the international press, although many aspects of the murder, including the killers’ motive, remain unclear. Peruvian authorities subsequently arrested two men said to be primarily responsible for Woodroffe’s execution.
World interest in the killings has waned as these events recede into the distance, but Shipibo and Conibo people themselves continue to express concern about what some are calling “spiritual extractivism” associated with ayahuasca tourism. A document issued by the Shipibo Conibo Center of New York puts the situation this way:
People come to the Amazon to heal themselves of the culturally specific ailments of industrialized, individualistic societies – from addiction to depression to sexual, military and other forms of trauma to eating disorders and diseases and illnesses that have found no real cure in the halls of Western medicine. Then they get to leave but they leave behind traces of their ailments, trails of inequality, frustration, violence, and sometimes legal cases.
In August, a hundred Shipibo, Conibo, and Xetebo healers met to discuss these questions and organize a union of traditional healers along the lines of similar organizations in parts of Africa. They issued a declaration that, among other things, states their intention to “investigate the development of a mechanism by which foreigners taking advantage of indigenous medicine, healing and spiritual labour might be able to contribute to the cultural and political empowerment of Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo Peoples and their path towards self-determination.” The complete declaration and related information can be accessed here.
These events are a sobering reminder that engagement of Indigenous peoples with external market forces—even those associated with the spiritual marketplace—can lead to unforeseen consequences, some positive, others negative. It is imperative that seekers from the Global North assess the impact of their spiritual quest and do what they can to mitigate its potentially damaging effects.
Today we hear less about biopiracy than we did a few years ago. As I’ve argued elsewhere, some cases of alleged biopiracy are more ambiguous than critics of cultural appropriation typically admit. But one case of flagrant biopiracy, that of sweeteners drived from the South American species Stevia rebaudiana, is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.
S. rebaudiana is an herbaceous plant native to eastern Paraguay that was long used by indigenous Guaraní peoples as a sweetener for teas and medicinal preparations. The sweetness of Stevia comes from several glycosides, including stevioside and rebaudioside, that produce a sensation of intense sweetness without increasing the blood glucose of those who consume it.
Use of Stevia as a sweetener was documented by Western science in the late nineteenth century, although its chemical constituents were not identified for another sixty years. As developed nations began to search for calorie-free sweeteners, the properties of Stevia became of considerable interest. Stevia seems to have been embraced as an alternative to sugar first by Japanese and Chinese corporations. In the U.S., use of Stevia initially stalled because of preliminary evidence that its chemical constituents might be carcinogenic, although effective lobbying by manufacturers of competing artificial sweeteners was also a factor. The carcinogenicity claim was eventually refuted, however, and Stevia‘s commercial value has grown substantially since the 1980s.
The Guaraní, one of South America’s poorest and most endangered indigenous populations, have received negligible benefits from the global market for this potentially billion-dollar product. Ironically, marketing campaigns for Stevia-based sweeteners often identify it as “traditional” or “indigenous.”
Smallholder farmers in Paraguay derive some income from cultivation of the plant for the market. But even this modest compensation is being undermined by commercial biosynthesis of Stevia‘s key compounds in the developed world. In other words, industrial producers no longer need the Stevia plant to manufacture the sweetener that has become a hot product in the competition for zero-calorie alternatives to cane sugar in parts of the world where obesity and diabetes are major public health problems. The scale of this obvious injustice is staggering.
For more information on this situation and efforts to address it, a good starting point is the publication The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia, a report published by a consortium of European and Paraguayan NGOs. A protest petition directed to Coca-Cola can be found here.
A decade ago I participated in a small international symposium focused on indigenous peoples and their strategies for cultural survival. When someone suggested that it might be useful to undertake a systematic comparison of these strategies, a prominent scholar in the group announced sententiously that comparison is inherently colonialist. There being no one in the room who wanted to be suspected of colonialist leanings, comparison was swept off the table.
Comparison’s status remains low in cultural anthropology, and yet it is hard to imagine a meaningful or useful anthropology that completely abandons it. Although comparison may be disparaged in some quarters, anthropologists continue to traffic in generalizing terms (“neoliberal,” for instance, or even “colonialism” itself) that cry out for comparative attention—and sometimes manage to get it.
So it was with considerable pleasure that I recently read “Conflict, Peace, and Social Reform in Indigenous Amazonia: A Deflationary Account,” an essay by Carlos Fausto, Caco Xavier, and Elena Welper (trans. by David Rodgers) published in the journal Common Knowledge (downloadable here).
Fausto et al. grapple with an important question: is there a middle ground between classifications of Amazonian social movements as millenarian or messianic, terminology read by some scholars as implying that social actors are irrational, and strictly political readings of these movements based on the conviction that the people swept up in them must be seen as rational actors? Fausto and his co-authors shift the focus from dramatic, revolutionary change to what they call “more finely grained processes,” the “deflationary” element in their article’s subtitle.
[Full disclosure: As Fausto et al. note, the contrast between religiously and politically motivated social movements was central to a 2003 article by Hanne Veber that questioned arguments made in a book that I co-authored with Eduardo Fernández, War of Shadows. WoS traced messianic currents in Asháninka social movements and uprisings over a period of more than two centuries. Veber contended that studies such as ours exoticize Asháninka motivations, which in her view were strictly political. Where our book is concerned, her argument is flawed for two principal reasons: (1) We never claimed that the movements were onlyreligious; and (2) Veber’s assertions violate the ethnographic principle that one should take the statements of one’s interlocutors seriously unless there is substantial evidence to the contrary. So when Asháninka participants in a 1965 uprising said, as they did to Eduardo Fernández on multiple occasions, “Some of us thought that the guerrilla leader was the Son of the Sun,” Fernández and I felt obliged to honor their view. This debate is ancient history, and I mention it only to contextualize the essay under consideration, which challenges the notion that religion and politics are always distinguishable categories or frames of reference.]
Fausto et al. attempt to escape the straitjacket of a resistance-focused subaltern perspective that leads to a stripping out of every factor other than the narrowly political: “If one may suspect that a past religious discourse is merely a varnish hiding more fundamental motivations of power, one equally may suspect that our present-day political vocabulary is no more than a varnish hiding more fundamental conceptions about being and agency (which is to say, an ontology).”
Their analysis then reviews in considerable detail several cases of indigenous Amazonian social change in Brazil: among Parakanã of the Xingu-Tocantins; Marubo of the Javari Valley, Amazonas; and Koripako of the Upper Rio Negro. Two of the cases had strongly religious dimensions, either shamanic or Christian. But all three were reformist in nature, with results that have served their communities well in later years.
Comparison of these three beautifully documented cases echoes a point that I made some time ago in the context of a similar comparative project: that Amazonian revitalization movements should in some cases be seen as indigenous auto-critique rather than solely as expressions of resistance to colonialism. But Fausto et al. bring to this observation a more sophisticated and nuanced perspective as well as the benefit of fresh case-study material. “[W]e need to avoid the Eurocentric illusion that history and social change befall indigenous peoples only when they are subjected to the encroachments of nonindigenous society,” they assert. Indigenous peoples, in other words, make their own history by asking questions such as “How shall we live?” and then putting the answers into practice.
In works such as this we see the enduring value of comparison and its vital role in countering colonialist assumptions. If you’re interested in Amazonian history, social movements, or theories of agency, this essay belongs on your summer reading list.
A related article co-authored by Fausto and Emmanuel de Vienne, “Acting Translation: Ritual and Prophetism in Twenty-First Century Indigenous Amazonia” (2014), can be downloaded full-text from the journal HAU.
Time for contributing to his blog has been scarce in recent weeks. This post simply catches up on some developments related to the growing use of ayahuasca and related entheogens for religious and therapeutic purposes in different parts of the world.
UDV in Santa Fe. The União do Vegetal (UDV) Temple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, officially opened a few weeks ago after years of legal wrangling. Its inauguration is documented by the Brazilian anthropologist Bia Labate in an article in the Huffington Post in late April. In classic participant-observer fashion, Labate describes herself as “enjoying, alongside the members of the UDV, the pleasant taste of justice, freedom, and victory.” A story not to be missed.
When ayahuasca lands on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you know that something is going on. The article, by Ryan Dube, includes obligatory references to ayahuasca sessions that have resulted in violence or psychological injury, but it generally avoids sensationalism. As Dube notes, the explosive growth of centers oriented to international ayahuasca tourism in Peru’s jungle cities––Iquitos and Tarapoto most prominently––is both good for the local economy and a happy hunting ground for opportunistic shysters. Even as I write, doctoral dissertations are being written about ayahuasca tourism and its effects.
Apropos of which, I recently corresponded with Miroslav Horák of Brno University, who has authored a report on a Tarapoto-based drug-treatment facility that uses ayahuasca as part of its treatment regimen. The report, entitled The House of Song: Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts by the Traditional Indigenous Medicine of the Peruvian Amazon, is available for full-text download (4.7 MB) from Horák’s Academia.edu page.
On a completely different note, don’t miss Indian Country Today‘s extensive coverage of a recent series of SAR public talks on the future of repatriation 25 years after the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE. I was contacted by Ricardo D’Aguiar, a freelance videographer and producer, about his documentary about ayahuasca therapy in Tarapoto. Most definitely worth a look!
Here’s Ricardo’s description of the video and relevant links to view the trailer and the complete documentary:
The film presents the work of the research & treatment center Takiwasi based in the High Amazon region of Peru. Founded in 1986 by French, Japanese and Peruvian doctors, Takiwasi uses Traditional Amazonian Medicine combined with Western psychology to achieve a high success rate in the treatment of severe drug addiction, depression and other psychological ailments. Patients from around the globe as well as from the local community seek Takiwasi which also offers seminars for self-exploration and spiritual research. Takiwasi relies on a interdisciplinary, multinational staff of both western-trained professionals and traditional healers from around the region which is notorious for producing some of the greatest curanderos of the Amazon. The center has developed aunique approach of integration and articulation between Western science and traditional methods to produce a therapeutic protocol focused on long term, sustainable results for its patients.”
The rapid improvement and falling price of electronic equipment have put video in the hands of indigenous peoples worldwide and made it easier for film crews of modest means—whether indigenous or not—to document native music, stories, rituals, and political aspirations.
In Amazonia, work on this front was pioneered by the late Terry Turner, who introduced video equipment and training to the Brazilian Kayapó, who use it to document their culture and fight for their rights to land and a voice in Brazilian politics.
The Awajún of Peru have been uploading videos to YouTube for at least a decade. Based on my admittedly unsystematic survey, I’d say that a solid majority of these are music videos showcasing Awajún rock bands specializing in música tropical, especially cumbias. (See this one from the Alto Mayo community of Shimpiyacu, for example.) None of these are strong candidates for an MTV video award, and I’m not sure that they provide much reassurance that the Awajún are protecting their traditional heritage—but then young Hopis of Arizona have long been fans of reggae, which hasn’t prevented their Indian nation from being one of the most religiously conservative in North America.
In the last few years, however, some video material focused on other aspects of Awajún life has begun to emerge. The production quality varies but appears to be improving.
The 30-minute video Awajúnti Takatji, “Awajun Style,” includes songs, myths, and views of everyday life in the community of Chipe-Cuzu. A shorter video entitled Yumi (“Water”) focuses on the environmental threat to Awajún territory posed by government-approved mining activities. For hard-hitting indigenous political messages, it’s hard to beat this raw but effective video that draws on rap music and images of violence taken during and after El Baguazo (2009).
A recent Paris Reviewinterview of Sarah Thomason, a linguist on the faculty of the University of Michigan, focuses on “language leakage”—how words move from one language to another, or don’t—as well as the factors that cause languages to persist or respond positively to efforts to renew them.
I’m no longer close enough to the pragmatics of spoken Awajún to comment on how the language is dealing with new lexical demands (names of car parts, say, or terms used when working with computers), but I remain cautiously optimistic about prospects for continued use of the language in general. The Awajún were among the earliest groups to work with missionary-linguists of SIL/WBT, and bilingualism has been central to Awajún primary education since the late 1940s. Their cultural pride and large population bode well for the language’s viability in the immediate future. It’s harder to say how the language will fare farther along, however. Even large Indian nations in the United States—notably, the Navajo—struggle to ensure that young people continue to speak their native language.
A short video demonstration of spoken Awajún, part of a series called “Todas las voces,” is available here. Among the increasingly educated Awajún there is ongoing debate about whether the Awajún alphabet developed by SIL effectively represents the language’s sound system. Fermín Tiwi Paati, a young Awajún intellectual whom I interviewed for Upriver in 2012, discusses proposed alternatives here.
It wouldn’t surprise me if within the next five years or so there begin to emerge Awajún videos with higher production values and more ambitious goals. Like many expressions of modernity, the rise of globally accessible media is a double-edged sword for Amazonian peoples. It exposes them to powerful outside images and ideas that may lead young people away from traditional values and modes of expression. At the same time, it potentially offers small indigenous communities the opportunity to communicate their experience and aspirations to a global audience.
Minor Awajún-related media footnote. A 54-minute feature film about the life of Church of the Nazarene missionaries Roger and Esther Winans, The Calling, is now available on YouTube thanks to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Roger Winans established the first Protestant mission among the Awajún in the 1920s. The video was made from worn 16mm film, and everything about it is low-budget. Still, it expresses a particular moment in Awajún (and U.S.) history. The Awajún portion begins at about the 30-minute mark.
According to an article published in El País, Lima, on 27 November 2015, the Awajún of the Province of Condorcanqui are struggling with an incidence of HIV-AIDS that exceeds that of Peru’s general population. “The percentage of infected individuals as percentage of the total population has fluctuated over the past four years between 1.32% and 2.1%, well above the 0.23% incidence for Peru as a whole . . . .”
Among the factors contributing to this high incidence, according to the article, are increased contact with outsiders, frequent travel to urban areas by Awajún youth, a tolerant attitude toward male homosexual behavior, and the early onset of sexual intercourse among young men and women.
In some cases AIDS fatalities have been attributed to sorcery. “Saúl Sejekan, vice-apu of Huampami, the capital of the Cenepa valley, tells of a recent case of the death of a young man. Extra-officially he was known to have had AIDS, but his relatives assured him that he had been killed by sorcery. As is common in these cases, the community gathered and decided to expel the person who had supposedly caused the harm . . . Sejekan considered the accused to be innocent in this case, but he couldn’t oppose the community’s decision.”
Advocates for the Awajún are arguing for implementation of a policy of intercultural medicine that would integrate local communities with treatment strategies and campaigns of prevention. So far, the government’s response has been slow. “This policy has already gone through all channels of consultation and approval, but it’s not known why the president has the Supreme Degree in his hands and still doesn’t sign it.”
At a time when so much of the utopian promise of the Internet seems to have soured thanks to ubiquitous trolling, corporate surveillance, and blatant commercialism, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the pleasant surprises that it still can offer. One of these was my discovery of the article “Secret Reserves,” written by the journalist Pablo Calvi and recently published in the magazine The Believer, a publication previously unfamiliar to me but which I intend to visit often.
Calvi’s article deals with the circumstances of an indigenous people of Amazonian Ecuador known as Sápara (or Zápara or Záparo). In some ways the piece is a conventional cautionary tale of a society struggling to survive amid the scramble for natural resources—in this case, petroleum, arguably the most sinister substance of all with respect to its economic power and poisonous effects—in an environmentally fragile frontier zone. But the author brings to the story an unusual level of descriptive brio as well as attention to the complexity of the situation. Contributing to the latter are conflicts between and within indigenous populations over the best strategy for dealing with the Ecuadorian state and the corporations whose activities it relentlessly promotes. Descriptions of Sápara prophetic dreaming are interwoven with assessments of Ecuadorian politics and development policies.
Some passages that capture the flavor of the article:
There’s a steel vein running through the Andes from east to west, a warm, hollow line that sucks out the guts of the jungle, four hundred thousand oil barrels at a time.
Francisco is short and fibrous. The Sápara call him Tio Rango (Uncle Rango), which gives him an aura of familiarity and kinship. People say that, back in the day, he was Manari’s father’s bodyguard. Whether he was or not, he is certainly the village’s muscle. He has curious black eyes and a staccato voice tuned to give orders but used mostly to crack jokes in Kichwa that everybody seems to love.
I’m naive enough to believe that such evocative writing might do more to change minds and hearts and policies than does anthropological prose, either of the strictly utilitarian variety or high-flown ruminations on Amazonian ontologies and the like. Each kind of writing has its place, I suppose. And each is afflicted by a degree of political impotence. The current free-fall of world oil prices probably does more to help the Sápara than anything that Pablo Calvi or anthropologists might write. Which of course is not sufficient reason to forsake hope or the responsibility to witness or a commitment to struggle when points of political leverage present themselves.
This site offers information about the book UPRIVER (Harvard UP, 2014), other books by Michael F. Brown, issues related to Amazonian peoples, events at the School for Advanced Research–Santa Fe, and occasional meditations on anthropology and human social life in general.