Seeking people in their “natural environments”

Obviously I’m on a roll criticizing the press this month (expect an update on the CNN controversy soon).  Take this photo contest at Today Travel (part of MSNBC).  They requested photos from readers (presumably from the U.S.) taken abroad (presumably while they were tourists).  Then they titled it “Going Native” — even though the American photographers appear in none of the photos, and these are certainly not photos showing the integration of the photographers into local culture.

“Going Native” was a phrase which — long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away — representing something anthropologists (along with missionaries, colonial officers, and other migratory Europeans in positions of relative power) were supposed to avoid.  Getting too close to your informants — those people one interviews, lives with, and tries to understand — was said to interfere with the scientific objectivity required to draw kinship diagrams.  “Going native” meant one liked the food in the field so well that one neglected to apply for a tenure-track position in Springfield.  Or something.

“Going native” is no longer a serious concern of anthropologists (if, in fact, it ever really was).  Most anthropologists have a very different idea about objectivity — if they think that a useful analytic concept at all (personally, I don’t).  In a context where one can cook recipes learned in the field at home and become Facebook friends with informants, the field is always with you.  And so is home. While I am in the field here in Spain, for example, I can follow the news in the U.S., from major events to department issues.  The lines between home and field are still there, but technology can make them more porous.

I don’t think any of this was really on the minds of the folks at Today Travel, though.  In regards to this set of photos for “Going Native,” the editors gush:

You captured fascinating people around the world and showcased them in their natural environment. Such beautiful portraits!

This sounds like butterfly collecting. I spend a lot of time in Introduction to Anthropology arguing that humans don’t have natural environments, at least not in the western sense of nature vs. culture.  All people are just as cultural as all other people, because that is what it means to be human.  There are no environments that are more natural for (certain) people to be in, as implied here.

But let’s look at what some of these photos actually capture. The current front-runner in the online voting, and the lowest ranked, have a great deal in common when one looks closer.  (And yes, you can still vote if you wish if you want to mess with that ranking.)

Let’s start with this striking photo of an Ecuadorian ambulante in Quito.  An ambulante is a person who sells goods while walking around.  Based on my knowledge of La Paz markets (I have never been to Quito), these individuals are usually among the poorest of market vendors. They generally lack a permanent place (stall, kiosk, or an established part of a sidewalk) to sell, their inventory is usually limited, and the goods they sell are inexpensive and require little capital investment.  In this photo, the woman holds bags of oranges for sale.  She looks straight at the camera slightly suspiciously; she appears caught off guard. The camera is clearly inside a vehicle (note the out-of-focus dashboard on the lower left).  This photo is in last place in the online competition.

The front-runner is this dynamic photo of a Maasai dance performed by people in “traditional” clothes in a “natural” (i.e., no visible human-made structures) environment.  I suspect this is a photo of a performance for tourists, of the kind discussed by Edward Bruner in a chapter of his book Culture on Tour. As he discusses, what the tourists see (a Maasai dance) is a separate question from what the performers experience (in terms of pay equity, management, intended audience, message, etc).  Looking at this photo, we don’t know what these dancers were paid, what their expectations for the future are, or whether they would encourage their children to pursue employment dancing for tourists. We have no idea what the photographer is doing either — standing? sitting? sipping a gin and tonic?

Despite the very different popular evaluations of these two photos, both imply relationships of structural inequality.  One photographer has the resources to sit in the car while the photographed woman sells oranges.  The other photographer watchers the dancers who perform and are photographed for money.  Obviously these inequalities here are not natural; they are the products of human interactions and histories.

The photo that is “successful” in terms of popular internet acclaim is the one that best hides that actual human interactions taking place and creates an illusion of a “natural environment.”  The Ecuadorian ambulante is clearly engaging with the photographer, making her annoyance clear; his position as merely driving by is evident.  The winning photograph, in contrast, removes all evidence of the photographer (or any audience at all), presenting these dancers as acting in a social void.  They are in a line, facing in the same direction, but not looking directly at the camera — and dance for no obvious reason at all. There is nothing “natural” about this. What’s interesting is that it could be interpreted to appear that way.


Are Bolivians “unfriendly” to tourists?! Part 2

In my last post I discussed a recent CNN article claiming that Bolivians were the people most “unfriendly” towards tourists.  I traced a game of telephone through the reports, where asking local businesspeople about attitudes of the national population to foreign visitors, was translated into “affinity for tourism,” was then translated by CNN into which people are “friendliest” towards tourists.

Of course, it makes a great headline for CNN.  You thought the French were rude to tourists (following one common stereotype), but no!  It’s Bolivians.  Except my experience tells me that’s not true, and the data presented don’t seem to support that claim either.

There are those who will argue that this doesn’t matter that much.  After all, some of my interlocutors (here and on Facebook) have pointed out that media sources misuse data all the time for better headlines, and that the Bolivian tourism industry faces many challenges anyway.

I would argue this is precisely why it does matter.  Bolivia — both the government and individual Bolivians — are desperately trying to increase tourism revenue in a context of global economic crisis which has hit the industry hard, and the last thing they need are false rumors about the people being “unfriendly” being circulated in the international press.

I know from experience the disproportionate effect media reporting can have on the fickle industry of tourism.  I was in Costa Rica in 1996 when a German tourist and her Swiss guide were kidnapped out of a hotel.  Although they were released, the perpetrators were captured, and this was an isolated incident rather than part of a pattern of tourist kidnappings, German media sources reported widely on the event, and German tourism to Costa Rica tanked for several years.

Media coverage absolutely matters, and we ignore it at our peril.

I promised an update on the methodology of the survey conducted among Bolivian businesspeople that produced this data.  Here’s another WEF report with some details about the 2011 survey.  I’ll summarize the information presented about Bolivia specifically.

79 people completed the survey in Bolivia, 100% of them online.  Of those, 92% worked in businesses of less that 101 employees, and none worked in businesses with more than 1000 employees.

Using statistical methods, they then weighted the responses received so they match the distribution of economic sectors in the nation (in terms of % of GDP):

Once the data have been edited, individual answers
are aggregated at the country level. We compute
sector-weighted country averages to obtain a more
representative average that takes into account the
structure of a country’s economy. The structure is
defined by the estimated contributions to a country’s
gross domestic product of each of the four main economic sectors: agriculture, manufacturing industry, nonmanufacturing industry, and services.

For Bolivia, this weighting is Agriculture 14%, Manufacturing 14%, Nonmanufacturing 22%, and Services 50%.  What is included in each of these is not outlined here (although it is fairly standard).  Tourism falls under “services,” but it isn’t the only business represented there.  I assume this means than fewer than half of the weighted responses come from individuals working in tourism in some capacity.

In other words, the businesspeople asked about “attitudes of the population towards foreign visitors” no doubt included some people who work in tourism, but was absolutely not a survey aimed exclusively, or even primarily, at tourism professionals.

I’m still looking for a full description of the methods used in this survey.  More to  follow if I find it.



How “unfriendly” is Bolivia to tourists? Musings on the misleading uses of survey data

CNN reported that Bolivia has been found to be the world’s most unfriendly nation to tourists:

Among the extensive analyses, one of the most interesting rankings was how welcome tourists are in each country, under the category “Attitude of population toward foreign visitors.”

And the world’s most unfriendly country, according to the data?

Bolivia took the dubious honor, scoring a 4.1 out of seven on a scale of “very unwelcome” (0) to “very welcome” (7).

Having lived in Bolivia for several years with people who interact directly with tourists, my first thought was: what?!  Bolivians are very welcoming and extremely friendly, and tourists I spoke to generally commented on how they felt comfortable and safe while traveling there.  I found CNN’s claim to supreme unfriendliness totally baffling.  So, being an academic, I started digging.

The report referenced by CNN is the World Economic Forum’s 2013 “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report.”  Among the many factors influencing tourism competitiveness discussed in this report is “affinity for tourism.”  Here, Bolivia is ranked 139th out of 140 nations, with a score of 3.2 out of 7.  The report breaks down this number into four subsections, as follows:

12th pillar: Affinity for Travel & Tourism ……………….. 3.2 ….. 139
12.01 Tourism openness, % of GDP* ………………………. 2.8 …..105
12.02 Attitude of population toward foreign visitors … 4.1 ….140
12.03 Extension of business trips recommended ……… 3.6…..138
12.04 Degree of customer orientation …………………… 3.5 …..136

Element 12.02 is what has been termed “friendliness” by CNN.  But where do these numbers come from?

This data was taken from a different report by the WEF called the 2013 “Global Competitiveness Report,” which outlines the general methodology for the “Executive Opinion Survey” on which this information was based.  This survey has been conducted for 40 years and no doubt provides useful information, but we need to consider seriously what it actually measures.  (For those of you more versed in statistics than I, please do take a look at it; it goes into mathematical detail about how these numbers were produced.)

The “Executive Opinion Survey” was conducted with 72 Bolivian businesspeople through an online survey.  In other words, these numbers do not come from asking tourists whether they thought Bolivians were friendly towards them. It actually measures whether Bolivian businesspeople think other Bolivians are friendly to “foreign visitors,” a category which includes not only tourists but others kinds of travelers.  (They also asked these businesspeople whether they would recommend fellow business travelers coming to Bolivia to extend their stay for leisure, giving the data for section 12.03 above).

Translating this data — that Bolivian businesspeople think their compatriots are unfriendly to foreigners  — into the conclusion that tourists find Bolivians to be unfriendly, is dubious at best.  Just because the Bolivian government has nationalized foreign businesses does not mean that local people are hostile to leisure travelers.  Not all foreigners are the same.  They have different purposes, travel in different circles, have different expectations and hopes, and locals recognize these distinctions and respond to these groups differently.

In addition, there is the question of how internal politics in Bolivia might affect these results.  Given the national divisions between rural and urban, rich and poor, indigenous and mestizo, these numbers may tell us more about relationships between Bolivians rather than between Bolivians and tourists.  While in Bolivia in 2002-2004 I heard many times from urban non-indigenous people that rural indigenous peoples (like the ones I lived with) disliked tourists, or didn’t understand the value of tourism. These comments were usually due to the use of blockades as political tool, which was common at that time.  Some urban businesspeople involved in tourism felt that this hurt “everyone” because it affected tourism.

Certainly the blockades at that time did affect tourism, and rural indigenous people were aware of that. But these communities generally benefited economically very little from the presence of tourists (with the exception of a few towns), and blockading roads was the only way to gain the political attention they needed to solve real problems.  Blockades weren’t primarily about inconveniencing tourists; it was about the relationship between rural communities and the Bolivian government (at that time, under Pres. Sanchez de Lozada and then Pres. Mesa).

Allow me to share a memory from that time.  I did research in a rural town that housed a major tourist attraction.  The town decided that after four days without electricity in the entire region, and unsuccessful talks with the appropriate officials, that they would blockade the pan-American highway (this, for the record, quickly led to the electricity being turned back on).

Before starting the blockade, however, locals talked to all the tour guides working in the area that day so they could leave with their groups before the blockade started.  (These tour guides were based in La Paz and traveled with these groups to this rural site for just the day.)  While locals saw the blockade  as politically necessary, they considered the convenience of tourists in its timing.  I’m sure most of those tourists were not aware of this behind-the-scenes event, but would have been happy to know that even though locals could have forced them to stay and spend more (sorely-needed) money in their town, locals instead made sure that the tourists visiting them could return to their hotels in La Paz as they’d planned.

I will continue to investigate the methodology of this WEF study and report if I find anything more.

Update, June 28 2013:  This is part one of a four part series.  Read part two, part three, and part four.

Quinua: The Ancient Super-Food of the Future… and 2013

My fellow gringos, it has been far too long.  Let’s break radio silence with the happy news that Evo Morales has been named the Quinoa Special Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Assuming western popular interpretations of the Mayan calendar are incorrect and the world does not end (sorry, I’m currently thinking about these questions), 2013 will be the International Year of Quinua.

I love quinua.  I can’t wait to get quispina in our local coffee shops. Yum!

What strikes me most about this conversation about quinua is the convergence of temporalities in its praise.  Don’t get me wrong, quinua is delicious.  But so are many other foods, and we don’t talk about their deliciousness in identical ways.  If one wants to sing the praises of soda or twinkies, one is not going to do that with the same language one lauds a filet mignon or an heirloom tomato.  So let us consider for a moment how people talk about quinua, somewhat independently from its wonderfulness.

Quinua is not new.  It was domesticated centuries ago and has been part of Andean diets since long before 1492.  This is emphasized in its marketing in the U.S. — it’s the grain of the Inca and of Andean tradition.  The claim that it is part of food security in the Andes — and could be in other parts of the world — is not a stretch either. In fact, this is not the first time that an Andean domesticate has had the potential to change the world’s diet.  Potatoes revolutionized the world, producing far more calories per acre than wheat, and allowing for in situ storage that protected crops from requisitioning by marauding armies in Europe.  The history of the potato is well-documented and studied, and an amazing example of how a single domesticate can change world history.

Potatoes have a couple other advantages over quinua, which may not be evident to people who haven’t tried producing them.  Having farmed potatoes in Bolivia and the U.S., and helped with quinua harvest, threshing, and cooking in Bolivia, I can say that potatoes are far less work.  Threshing quinua is among the hardest physical labor I have ever done.  In addition, quinua is susceptible to hail damage, which is common in the Andes.  So while quinua is both delicious and nutritious, it is also riskier to grow and requires far more labor, most of which is done by hand.  That non-mechanization is used as further evidence of quinua’s traditional, ancient nature in its marketing abroad.

Morales has claimed that NASA identified quinua as ideal food for astronauts.  I am fascinated by this intersection of the ancient/traditional and the futuristic/technological.  Astronaut food is generally distinguished more by its modernist scientific processing than by its ingredients.  I’m not an expert on feeding astronauts, but a wikipedia overview gives a sense that space food is culturally defined and specific to particular astronaut programs, even though it is generally dehydrated and vacuum sealed.  Commercially available space foods focus on methods of preserving, rather than ingredients themselves.  Even NASA’s webpage profile of Michele Perchonok, the Space Shuttle Food System Manager, notes that

Food is very important to today’s astronauts. It provides them with both nutrition and a comfort from home…As the shuttle food system manager, Perchonok is responsible for making space food taste good and be good for the crews.

Food tasting good and being comforting is a cultural matter, not a strictly nutritional one.  No human eats everything that is edible to humans (thus allowing me to co-edit – and shamelessly plug – a book such as this one).  I couldn’t find any evidence that quinua has actually been made part of the diet of U.S. astronauts, only that this was proposed in a 1993 NASA technical paper.  Nevertheless, the quinua-NASA connection has been much touted, and not only by President Morales.  Sites dedicated to health foods also highlight this connection (see here, here, here, here, and here, just to link to a few).

Invoking NASA lends scientific legitimacy that connects quinua to the technological future.  The ancient super-grain of the future brings superior health, melding traditional food and nutrition science.  But sending quinua directly into space (really or virutally) elides the actual existing commodity chains that link Bolivian quinua growers to U.S. quinua consumers.  Quinua becomes science fiction come true — the perfect nutrition for human progress writ large against the cosmos.

We (by which I mean U.S. consumers) have good reasons to want to ignore the realities of the quinua commodity chain.  Quinua tastes good, and it has taken off in U.S. markets.  I can now buy it in my rural PA grocery store.  It’s a great gluten-free alternative to wheat (for pastas, for example).  But what does all this mean for those who produce it?

The New York Times and Time have both reported that the foreign demand for quinua has made it too expensive for many Bolivians to buy.  In fact, the NYT cites evidence that malnutrition of children has climbed in quinua producing regions as quinua became more profitable to export.  Hardly the outcome we western quinua-lovers would wish for — to take the ancient grain of the future out of the mouths of its potential future farmers.

Some might point out that the transition in the Andes to cheaper and more processed foods (rice, wheat, sugar) is not new, but this is reinforced by price.  If people cannot afford to feed their children quinua, those children will not come to see it as an essential part of their cuisine.  There are complicated links betwee economic access and culinary desire.

“Little Globalizations”

A lot of globalization literature focuses on what I would call “Big Globalizations.”  George Ritzer worries about the McDonaldization of Society while James Watson’s edited volume Golden Arches East shows how McDonalds has become localized throughout Asia.  Now, I love Watson’s book — I teach chapters from it in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class — but at the same time I find this fascination with what Daniel Miller calls “meta-commodities” such as McDonalds and Starbucks and Coca-Cola to be a bit… class marked.

Here is Bolivia, where there are no McDonalds and Coca-Cola is common but the most expensive of the soda options, such commodities are part of upper-class life.  Burger King (which there is in La Paz) is expensive by local standards; most Bolivians, I would hazard, have never eaten there.

Nevertheless, globalization can be seen everywhere.  These are the “little globalizations” of no-name brands and mom-and-pop owned stores, the connections forged without global marketing campaigns or U.S. reader brand recognition.  Here’s some examples from my wanderings today.

I start off at Cafe Terraza, an upscale coffee shop in Sopacachi.  They have wireless, as do many upper-end cafes in La Paz these days (quite a shift from 1993, when to my knowledge there was only one internet cafe in the whole city, in Calle Sagarnaga).  Two flat-screen TVs are going.  One is showing a retrospective compilation of runway fashion shows by Michael Kor, subtitled in Spanish.  The other is showing MTV, alternating between Spanish rock and US hits like Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” (with its overt bisexual DBSM imagery that would shock many Bolivians) and Beyonce’s “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (with its pin-up girl vision of 1950’s US domesticity, which is itself deeply culturally marked).

Leaving, I take a mini up to Calle Rodriguez.  The tape deck is playing 1980’s US rock hits from New Order and Boy George.  I pass billboards advertising another Sopacachi store, NIM, that sells “Hindu fashion” from India and Indonesia.

In Mercado Sopacachi, I am greeted by the familiar smells of the market, the tension in my hamstrings as I walk up cobblestone streets.  Women wearing indigenous polleras (originally based on Spanish colonial fashions) sell vegetables, fruits, fish, meats.  Women in western dress zip by in taxis carrying crates of eggs.  Stands sell American-style dog food by weight, even though most dogs in Bolivia fend for themselves.  Women sell ginseng powders, “Nuez de India” for weight loss, thumbdrives to use at those now-ubiquitous Internet cafes, pirated CDs and DVDs from everywhere, Northface jackets that are surely imported whether they are knockoffs or not.  Everyone seems to have a cell phone; the newspaper today is reporting that there are almost as many cell phones in Bolivia as people.

Restaurants offer cuisine from Italy (especially pizza), Spain (tapas), Argentina (steak), China (chifas), real Italian gelato, and “Api Happy,” a cafe-style place across from UMSA offering a hot drink typically found in market stalls, but at 4x the price.  My favorite is the Thai restaurant in the tourist district that incorporates the native Andean llama meat into some dishes.

I am only scratching the surface, of course.  But the sheer quantities of imported goods, tastes, knowledge, and interests is astounding — and all this in an area that is assumed by most in the U.S. to be on the very edges of globalization.  Clearly such assumptions are false, but part of that has to do with looking only at “Big Globalizations” (example: map of Starbucks and McDonalds “taking over the world”)

If we assume meta-commodities are the only index for global connections, we may miss the “Little Globalization” that are so integral to peoples’ lives.

El Duderino and BoRev on the Atlantic on Morales

In my last post I critiqued Barclay’s article in the Atlantic.  I was mainly interested in the way that racial conflict was being invoked, and honestly, it was an off-the-cuff post.  I linked to two bloggers who write regularly about Bolivia.  Miguel suggested that instead of critiquing Barclay I should critique them instead.  Miguel has issued the challenge, and I accepted.  Here we go (with some trepidation, since the Bolivia ex-pat community is small, and I don’t know who either of them are.)

From El Duderino:

Barclay tells us all about how Evo is stirring up racial divisions (by being brown), inciting violence (by being brown), destroying the economy (by being brown), and acting like a petty-thug dictator like Mugabe (by being brown) except for some reason the vast majority of Bolivians keep supporting him and keep voting for him. Wonder why? Well Barclay doesn’t have one word from a single Evo supporter who make up a pathetic 60+ percent of the population.

I have to agree with Duderino here that  Barclay does not interview any Morales’ supporters.  And if her intent was for this to be a balanced piece, it would need to include that perspective.  However, I don’t think Barclay herself is being racist, as el Duderino accuses.  It is important to distinguish between the reporter and what is being reported.  I (like all anthropologists and journalists, I imagine) have conducted interviews where I completely disagree with the interviewee, and felt that nevertheless I needed to include that information in my work.  Of course we have choices about what to include and highlight from what people tell us, but I don’t think Barclay is writing about something that is marginal to Bolivian politics.  In short, I think el Duderino shoots the messenger.

Then el Duderino posts the last paragraph of Barclay’s article with his response:

Although the lowlands have prospered from farming and natural gas, the highland regions remain stuck in a poverty trap that Morales has shown little flair for unlocking. When he expelled the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2008, he killed a trade agreement with the United States that was one of the few lifelines for Bolivia’s exports. Depressed oil and gas prices have since meant less revenue for Bolivia, and less support from Morales’s chief mentor and benefactor, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. The only growth industry, in fact, appears to be coca.” (Barclay)

Very insightful, I learned a lot in this paragraph. Apparently, based on nothing, we learn that Evo in fact has not governed over a period of economic growth. That in addition to being the President of Bolivia (able to expell US diplomats and the DEA), Evo is also the President of the United States who retaliatorly cancelled (against Congress’ wishes) Bolivia’s trade preferences. (Barcley’s cause-effect scheme here is extra retarted because she previously wrote a story on the US cancelling of Bolivia’s trade preferences). Also, Evo apparently has the power to lower global commodity prices… by expelling the DEA (huh?), and while she is at it, just tack on the totally unqualified and false statement that coca is Bolivia only growth industry.

Of course Evo has the right to expel US diplomats.  But surely he was fully aware of what the consequences of that might be — likely, that it would affect trade relations with the U.S.  To imply that Evo didn’t know that — as el Duderino implies when he sarcastically suggests that Barclay thinks Evo is the President of the US — is insulting to Evo.  And while Evo is not responsible for the global market, those economic forces do affect politics in that country and the way that Evo is constrained as President (and everyone works under constraints of some kind).  In short, it matters.

As for coca — I agree with Barclay here.  Coca is one of the few truly successful commodities produced in Bolivia, and has been for a long time.  I believe we should end the War on Drugs because I don’t think that fight is either ethical or effective (even by the standards of its supporters), and I think the negatives of the Drug War far outweigh any positives.  But one cannot claim that coca is not profitable or a growth industry.

On to BoRev:

[Barclay] asks the big questions: Why do the brown people hate us when we only want best for them? Is the Bolivian economy struggling because of the global economic crisis, or there something more Indigenous afoot? And why do they insist on calling it ‘Bolivia’ when God already gave it a beautiful name, ‘Rhodesia’?

These questions are not the ones that frame Barclay’s article, obviously.  She is considering Evo’s opposition, much of which is organized along racial and geographical lines and express their differences in those terms.  Again, shooting the messenger.

BoRev also fails to notice that the photojournalistic piece accompanying Barclay’s article was specifically put there to be a different perspective.  He suggests instead that it might be the work of Aymara hackers.  I kind of wish it were — we would love to write about them here!

So, to keep up the grading metaphor, if Barclay gets a B+, I’ll give el Duderino a B- and BoRev a C-.  I don’t fail students who show up, and clearly both el Duderino and BoRev are obviously deeply engaged with Bolivian politics.  And while I may not agree with them, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be listening — albeit critically.

Newsweek coverage of Bolivia

Newsweek just published an online interview with Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. It has been excerpted, but this provides a succinct summary of the issues and what is at stake.