It is obviously apparent that the peoples of the Amazon need effectiveness, because if you think of the rainforest as the lungs of the planet, this is an issue that affects each and everyone of us all.
I once read a paper entitled -"ONLY SLAVES CLIMB TREES", Revisiting the Myth of the Ecologically Noble Savage in Amazonia (Stearman, 1994). And since then, I have been focusing on a solution to a problem: a strategy to manage our finite resources for sustainable development. A conflict exists worldwide between the nascent order promoting globalized economic growth and the accelerating ecological degradation occurring on a global scale.
As humankind grows, we need to break free, of our own romanticized, ethnocentric perceptions; that native peoples are the true stewards of the environment- because of their connection to nature. Stearman reports that this idea, thinking of the peoples of Amazonia as “natural” conservationists or as people with an innate "conservation ethic", is harmful, not only to the indigenous groups themselves, but to the future of our conservation strategy. This hit me directly when volunteering for a conservation group in Baños - www.ecominga.com.
The “myth of the ecologically noble savage”, focuses our attention not on the cultural importance of the indigenous and the environment but on the fact that native peoples may not be the conservationists we perceive them to be. I have witnessed first-hand the pressures of subsistence living that the people of Amazonia find themselves reacting to, because they do not have good education and stable jobs.
Stearman argues that many indigenous groups appear to demonstrate ‘unique knowledge in managing their resources’ because it is needed for survival; in other words, the Amazonian Indigenous are simply reacting to the environmental pressures of our modern world in conjunction with lack of technology, their nomadic past, and ignorance. Taken in context, this knowledge may help to challenge our ideas inherent to rational land use and conservation in regions like the Amazon.
CHALLENGE ROMANTICISM: INDIGENOUS RESPONSES TO ENVIRONMENTAL STRESS
Indigenous peoples are generalized as “defenders” or “keepers” of the forest, thus stereotyping all native people as natural conservationists. In his paper, Stearman presents a well-thought out case regarding our biases. Why do we continue to romanticize the Indigenous? For what purpose? This type of thinking harms not only our research and development on the issue of conservation, but also the peoples of Amazonia. You see, when the factual origins are of secondary importance to the cultural notions, we remain stagnant in our thought and overlook the real issue-population and environmental stress.
We attribute too much creative thinking to the Indigenous people, and maybe where credit isn't due. The Cocamilla of Brazil are thought to intentionally enhance their lake fishing resources, by adding manure and garbage to the waters, reportedly undertaking this task to increase nutrients in the lake supply. However, the obvious constraints of population pressure are overlooked and instead a “conservation ethic” is attributed to the Cocamilla peoples. Interestingly, the Cocamilla themselves have no conscious awareness of managing the lake resource. The question is whether the practice should even be considered a “management strategy” at all.
There are other modern examples of the Amazonian people not recognizing resources as finite. Stearman argues that resource management strategies do not exist from the Yuqui peoples because they do not perceive a need for them. The Yuqui of eastern Bolivia, continue to live in a subsistence pattern-using the forest but not conserving it. The Yuqui remain ‘unenthusiastic farmers’, and continue their traditional patterns of foraging in spite of locally decreasing harvests of fish and game. Game animals are pursued aggressively and opportunistically without regard to the age or sex of the animal. Females with young are often specifically targeted because they are easier to hunt. This is true in my experience as well. I recently conducted outreach in the Shuar community of Ecuador where I learned that the villagers had cooked up a sloth mother, leaving the baby to fatten so that they would eat it eventually. In yet another incident, a protected species, the boa snake, was pursued by our indigenous camp workers.
Historically speaking the peoples of Amazonia are hunter-gatherers, and even in present day they respond to localized scarcity of desired resources, and exigencies of their environment. Rather than viewing the correlation of historic nomadic mobility patterns common to Amazonian agronomic systems, as adaptive and positive, we may be better off to question the stability of such agricultural systems.
From my own experience and relationships with the Indigenous of Amazonia, I agree with Stearman, whom points out that the Indigenous peoples of Ecuador’s oriente, lack specific soil knowledge compared to other groups worldwide. Furthermore, with the modern introduction of steel cutting tools like machetes and axes, the dangerous job of climbing trees to hand-pick fruit is undesirable, and the destruction of mature fruit trees and loss of productive trees near the villages continues to be a major problem. “Only slaves climb trees”, goes the saying.
The Machiguenga have a sense of their own mastery and superiority over nature, says Stearman. They hunt animals that are protected. They are dynamiting fish. Even death of game animals may be prolonged, acting in a hostile or negative behavior toward the environment. The Piro of Peru, do not restrain from harvesting species that have been identified as vulnerable to overhunting and local extinction. Rather, the Piro make hunting decisions that are in line with foraging theory and assume that harvest rates will be maximized.
THE MYTH OF THE ECOLOGICALLY NOBLE SAVAGE AND INDIGENOUS LAND RIGHTS
There is an increasing danger that native peoples must market their “stewardship qualities” in order to "qualify" for land entitlements from their respective governments. In 1992, Bolivian President Zamora, signed 115,000 ha of land to Yuqui people. After some time, the once sympathetic ministry of the environment, made public statements that the indigenous territories granted to the Yuqui should be taken back. An increasing awareness that indigenous peoples do not fit the mainstream public image of a conservationist, is providing a means to divest the Indians of their lands. It is incorrect to deny the historical and long relationship between the indigenous people and their environment. Rather, we are presented with a challenge to come up with real solutions to problems that affect us all. Clean energy and sustainable development will be profitable when we challenge our exhaustive conservation rhetoric. Once with a romantic tone associated with native peoples, now one that effectively draws attention towards more serious issues like why is it like this in the first place and what can we do?