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Vanishing Cultures

To the Editors:

It is always a pleasure to read a review by John Terborgh [“Vanishing Points,” NYR, December 19, 2002], but we were puzzled by the nostalgic tone in his description of how Misael, an Amazonian native, has forsaken his culture for the greater economic opportunities of a jungle town. Misael’s people, the Matsigenka (or Machiguenga), inhabit Peru’s renowned Manu Park, where Terborgh conducts research. One might expect him to be relieved rather than saddened, since Terborgh has elsewhere written (Requiem for Nature, Island Press, 1999) that he views Westernizing Matsigenka as a growing “threat from within” to Manu’s ecology, and proposes that they be enticed to leave the park, just like Misael has.

These somewhat contradictory attitudes arise out of a notion of culture as a static, species-like entity. Traditional culture is like an endangered species, worthy of preservation, while Westernized Matsigenka are akin to some invasive species that needs to be removed. It is true that Matsigenka culture is now undergoing major transformations, but this has always been true. Five hundred years ago, the Matsigenka traded with the Incas. Three hundred years ago, the Matsigenka and their neighbors rebelled and ousted the Spanish for nearly a century, continuing to forge their own iron tools. A century ago, the Matsigenka were enslaved for the rubber trade, and survived only by isolating themselves until the 1950s. Since then, their culture has been altered by missionaries, oil companies, and the pan-indigenous movement. The Matsigenka have long been incorporating outside influences while retaining their identity. Men returning from the forest set down their arrows and take up a game of soccer. Vick’s vapor rub and penicillin are as much a part of local medicine as herbs and shamans. And the recipe for ayahuasca, the ritual hallucinogen that Terborgh cites as a core element defining “what it is to be a Machiguenga,” turns out to have been introduced to Manu in the 1950s, just before Protestantism.

This combination of adaptability and integrity will be key to preventing biodiversity loss in Manu Park. As readily as the Matsigenka have adopted soccer, they could incorporate game management techniques into their traditional conservation ethos. According to Terborgh, the great conservation challenge is finding ways to compensate local peoples for the opportunity costs of conservation. As enthusiasm for Integrated Conservation/Development Projects has faded, conservationists have become interested in the concept of direct compensation. Under the principle that one gets what one pays for, locals (like the Malagasy farmers Terborgh mentions) would be paid for protecting wildlands. But who is a local, and thus deserving of payment, and who is not? Since many poor countries have poorly developed property rights, any form of direct compensation will attract applicants until the program collapses. This is why the first-choice stewards of Manu Park should be the Matsigenka. Here, it should be possible to effect a sustainable trade: land tenure in exchange for responsible conservation practice. The result would be a park protected by a people defending their own land, rather than a vast demographic vacuum maintained tenuously by force and surrounded by disenfranchised former inhabitants.

Throughout the Amazon Basin, indigenous territories are a key component of any conservation strategy. Will indigenous cultures change? Of course they will. They always have. Yet for many, which direction they take is still to be determined. There is now a tremendous opportunity for dialogue. What are the Matsigenkas’ plans for their future inside and outside Manu Park? How can their hopes be reconciled with long-term protection for a natural area? These are the questions that John and Misael should be asking each other at their next meeting.

Glenn Shepard Jr.
Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA)
Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil

Douglas W. Yu
Centre for Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (CEEC)
University of East Anglia
Norwich, England

John Terborgh replies:

Shepard and Yu point out that the Machiguenga have been changing for the last five hundred years through contacts with the Incas, the Spanish, rubber barons, and missionaries of various stripes. They are quite right. Nevertheless, today’s Machiguenga recognize themselves as distinct from other peoples and are so recognized by the outside world. Selective adoption of practices learned from other cultures has not fundamentally altered the way they live as Arawakian-speaking, bow-and-arrow hunter-agriculturists. Change has been incremental rather than fundamental. The continuity of the Machiguenga cultural tradition has not been broken, at least until now.

What is happening today, as Misael’s children and others like them forsake traditional life to partake of Peru’s public education system, is breaking the historical continuity. With education, the self-identity of Misael’s children will be transformed. Twenty years from now, when they have children of their own, what will they reply if their children ask, who are we? Will they reply that they are Machiguenga, or that they are Peruvian? I venture it will be the latter, for ironically, in a land of Indians, no one admits to being an Indian. A perva-sive stigma born of conquistador prejudice sadly endures.

As close witness to a process of generational discontinuity, I do confess to harboring certain regrets, but doubtfully the ones Shepard and Yu had in mind when they alluded to my “nostalgic tone.” My regrets are for the loss of cultural values that we ourselves hold in the highest esteem, but too often fail to practice. In a society where survival requires cooperation and sharing at all levels, mutual trust is a deeply ingrained norm. Thus, a Machiguenga experiencing the outside world for the first time is completely unprepared to deal with people who lie, cheat, and steal. It can be a bruising initiation—one that has prompted many a Machiguenga to abandon any further thought of integrating into the modern world. But some, like Misael, are not easily daunted, and more will follow on his path.

Should the willful estrangement of indigenous people from their cultural traditions be lauded or discouraged? It is at this juncture that my views depart from those of Shepard and Yu, whose comments reveal nostalgia no less than mine do. I fully agree with them that the absence of defined land rights is one of the greatest obstacles to conservation in the tropics, but I disagree that indigenous people should be viewed as appropriate stewards of a national park through a “sustainable trade: land tenure in exchange for responsible conservation practice.”

Let us dissect their proposition to see what it entails, particularly the key phrase, “responsible conservation practice.” First and foremost, there is an implicit assumption of stability over time that in my view is unwarranted.

In an inherent contradiction, the Machiguenga subsist on the very natural resources the park was created to conserve. Even if one were to concede that the consumption of fish, game, and other forest products by the extant Machiguenga population is not seriously threatening the park, at what point would it threaten the park? The question is such a loaded one that no explicit answer would ever be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the Machiguenga are experiencing a population explosion. In my thirty years in the park as a researcher, I have watched a demographic pyramid grow before my eyes, as a tiny nearby settlement of two families comprised of fewer than ten individuals has grown to over thirty, as one generation has followed another in rapid-fire succession. Thus, the crucial assumption of stability is manifestly false on demographic grounds.

It is also highly questionable on socioeconomic grounds. Since the park’s inauguration in 1973, its administrators have adhered to an unwritten policy of proscribing firearms, mechanized implements, and commercialization of the park’s natural resources. Whereas the policy makes good sense in the context of protecting the park, it relegates the park’s Machiguenga inhabitants to the wrong end of a double standard by effectively prohibiting their economic development. Machiguenga living outside the park (the great majority) are free to buy chainsaws and boats, and to participate in the market economy by cutting and transporting wood and other products. Meanwhile, their brethren who live in the park have their hands tied and are consigned to a “living museum.” The policy may be well-intentioned, but it is patently unfair. Either the park’s administrators will relent in enforcing the restrictions (something they are under pressure to do), or there will be growing discontent among the Machiguenga who may decide to take matters into their own hands. No stability here either.

What is the solution? Allow the Machiguenga free rein to buy chainsaws? Endeavor to perpetuate the living museum? Or spend some money to save the park through a voluntary resettlement program made attractive by the prospect of access to schools, health care, and jobs? For me, it’s not a difficult choice.

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