The ESC and the Amazon: different thoughts are different worlds
by Carlos Suárez Alvarez
To me it is very clear that the first objective of the ESC is power. And they don’t know very well where they are stepping. But I could say that of most of the organizations, regional, national or international, that work in the Amazon.
There are really good intentioned people coming here to do all kind of projects (development, conservation, etc…). Most of these projects generally tend to insert indigenous people in the market economy (and its consequences) in many different ways; some of those projects are really well designed and you can see the good will of the people that bring them and the respect they have for indigenous peoples.
In most cases there is first a big problem of comprehension, not easy to solve. It is no just that both parts speak a different language or dialect, but that they also have a different thought. “To have a different thought”. Anyone can read that and understand the meaning, even imagine it, however is much more difficult to get to the point where you don’t just intellectually understand it but you also experiment it and really get to know that different thought, to hold it even for a minute. I guess many anthropologists (and not only anthropologists, of course, it is a human possibility) have had that experience. But I also have seen many professionals that have worked with indigenous people for years and still don’t understand them at all.
Two different thoughts are two different worlds; and the Amazon world-thought and the Western world-thought, simply don’t match. To me (and to many others before me: Overing, Sahlins, Gasché) the most important difference is that Amazon people is highly autonomous and individualistic. There are (was) no hierarchies and there is (was) no specialized production, and no money, and there is (was) no accumulation (not only accumulation of material things but also of power). A man and a woman, united, could potentially live by themselves (although rarely did), thanks to the abundance of the forest and the ancestral knowledge.
That Amazon world-thought meets now with the Western world-thought of hierarchies and compromises towards bosses or coordinators or whatever, a highly specialized productive system, a schedule not related to nature, with money and accumulation as conditions, where there is no way that a man and a woman can be autonomous, and are subjected legitimately to the power of others.
This leap has many consequences in the relationships established in the context of development projects brought here not only by gringos, but also by Colombians and Peruvians and Brazilians raised in cities: professionals, college graduated… Urban mentalities.
In the Amazon, development projects (those that intend to accommodate indigenous people in the globalization) fail once and again and again until the infinite… It would be too long to explain how this different mentality affects practically, but it does in many ways. Of course, if you take a look at the web pages of the project promoters, they are always successful (they better if they want more funds to keep going). And yes, those projects are always a success, however not for the indigenous people but for the professionals and institutions that implement them (and many of those are also indigenous, that’s part of the success). It is not simply a question of persons getting money (though I am very sure the ESC won’t be sad about having 58,000 dollars to “help”), it is a question of one system accumulating and administering power in its many forms, and inside that system, the competitions established among institutions and professionals to get hold of a bit of that power (and therefore to exist). The first objective of any organization is existing. Existing is accumulating power.
The options we are debating here are:
1) the ESC, that has no understanding whatsoever of the Amazon culture and ayahuasca shamanism;
2) any other NGO, or any other project, with more knowledge and more careful and caring, that will do a better job. But the indigenous organizations that I know are usually the result of Western influences and ideals, and many times are financed by western NGOs or governments, and they usually have presidents an else… And they replicate certain patterns of power accumulation, etc… Anyway, maybe that’s a little bit radical.
However, both 1 and 2 pursue or reach the same result: getting the Amazon world-thought into the Western world-thought. Note that there is no exchange, that none of our institutions become more indigenous. That means that hierarchies take over freedom, and specialized (and destructive) production over autonomous exploitation of the forest, accumulation over subsistence (sorry about the word subsistence, it sounds like if they were under something, but no: it is (was) perpetual abundance), and so on. The question is that both options 1 and 2 tend to finish a very valuable way of life, an example of society that actually could HELP US, and not the other way around. Let’s take a look at our world: did we do it so well that we can help others?
My fatalist and pessimistic opinion is that nothing can be done inside the hierarchic specialized structures of power-production to help the Amazon people, that won’t change their world-thought into ours, because as powerful king Midas, everything we touch we become it into… whatever you prefer. By the way, that doesn’t mean that I don’t do anything to improve the lives of the people that surround me (my little society).
We could give a proposal of how things can be done. However in my case this would be paradoxical, because I believe that no matter what I do or say in the context of this structure of power we belong to, I will reinforce those very same structures that I consider the cause of the problem, especially if I do some criticism that could lead to a change that will make the structures (just to use one of its many names) better adapted to a new challenge, a new situation, reaching that way a more legitimate position before the public eye. The essential (hierarchies, specialized production, accumulation) won’t change unless everyone of us decides to go to the country and grow tomatoes and breed chickens, and whenever you see your neighbors trying to accumulate something, steal them, defame them, or pay a brujo (with chicken, of course) to send them a virote.
Born in Spain, Carlos Suárez Alvarez now lives in Colombia. He has a master’s degree in Amazonian Studies from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, for which his thesis was an ethnography about Shipibo youth and cultural change. He has written a novel Ayahuasca, amor y mezquindad (Ediciones Amargord) and regularly publishes ethnographic chronicles in different magazines, paying special attention to ayahuasca but also to the irruption of development politics in the Amazon and its consequences to indigenous cultures.