Profit vs Reciprocity 

by Gayle Highpine


“They should be able to make a profit” – ESC member, in conversation with the author

Right there is a starting assumption that is fundamentally at odds with indigenous culture. Amazonian indigenous societies in my experience — and certainly all Andean indigenous societies — are fundamentally based upon reciprocity. Not profit. Profit and reciprocity are fundamentally different values.

Reciprocity is based on the principle of balance — ideally an equal balance between giver and receiver, between income and outgo. Profit is based on imbalance — on the idea that I should receive more than I put in.

That is why profit demands continuous expansion. If all of us put $10 into an enterprise and all of us expect to receive $11 back, in order to accomplish that we must bring in income from outside our circle. An economy of reciprocity, on the other hand, can be self-contained and economically independent, with no need for outside input, or even necessarily for money. An economy of reciprocity promotes community bonds and a sense of mutual dependence and mutual responsibility. Its aim is to make it possible for everyone to make a living, and to create security and stability for its members. An economy of reciprocity promotes a stable and sustainable relationship with the natural world, because the ethic of reciprocity and balance extends to the relationship with the natural world. An economy of reciprocity is sustainable and can continue in a state of balance indefinitely.

(Another type of economy, that of my own culture, is the gift economy, which also ensures that everyone’s needs are taken care of and which, like an economy of reciprocity, is also balanced and sustainable indefinitely.)

An economy of profit-making, on the other hand, is unstable, insecure, competitive, unbalanced, and creates winners and losers. Profit is open-ended. There is never enough.

When you are interested simply in making a living for your family, there is a point in which you can have enough. Survival needs are taken care of, and you can go off and enjoy life with your family. You can even have a little more than enough, to enrich your life with greater enjoyment. But if your goal is profit, there is never enough. And the greater the profit, the greater the imbalance.

In the case of the Amazon, bringing in the profit economy also contributes to increasing brujeria (sorcery). Envy is the main source of brujeria (the other source is revenge). Creating imbalances of wealth and power in a society where people have lived as equals for millennia is to throw gasoline on the smoldering fires of envy and brujeria, and on the feuds that develop over suspicion of brujeria.

(I have always been baffled by how, in this society, people are supposed to want to be envied. Envy is a form of hostility, why would you want hostility directed toward you? “Your friends will hate you” — why on earth would anyone want that???)

And an economy based on profit requires perpetual expansion, so it requires an influx of money from the outside. Profit by definition makes the Ayahuasca economy dependent on the outside economy. It firmly hooks the Ayahuasca world into global capitalism and helps those who are hooked into it dominate the Ayahuasca world.

Global capitalism is already destroying the Amazon. Oil companies and other multinationals are destroying the forests and poisoning the rivers. And the more that people lose their independence and become dependent on money and the global capitalist system in order to survive, the less they can resist the forces of destruction. Global capitalism is intrinsically unsustainable because it requires perpetual expansion (growth) in order to survive. It is founded upon imbalance, not on balance.

The ESC member did not say “They should be able to make a living.” He said “They should be able to make a profit.” As though the virtue of promoting profit economy in the Amazon is not even something to question. As though there is no difference between making a living and making a profit.

The ESC model is designed (whether intentionally or unconsciously) to accelerate the takeover of the Amazonian Ayahuasca world by Western-based capitalist model. It does not require conscious intent — all it requires is for gringo values and assumptions to be simply taken for granted without question. This is only one example of how dangerous and harmful and disrespectful to a traditional society that gringo cultural assumptions can be, even when the intention is to try to do good.