Power’s “Whispering in the Giant’s Ear,” reviewed

Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization by William Powers.  New York and London: Bloomsbury. 2006.  305 pp.

This book, written by a U.S. international aid worker, is a well-written, honest, warts-and-all look at Koel Kempff and other Bolivian national parks in a context of growing indigenous political power and the increasing interest of international corporations in “carbon sinks” in the Amazon.  The book’s timeframe covers Bolivia at the end of the Goni Presidency through the end of the Mesa Presidency, foreshadowing the rise of Evo Morales to power.  Powers is sympathetic to the political struggles of indigenous groups at that time, yet pragmatic about his role at the Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN).

Powers is not an anthropologist (although he is reading anthropologists and Bolivianists, including excellent works by Arturo Escobar, Kevin Healy, Leslie Gill, and Herbert Klein, — as well as, unfortunately, pseudo-folklorist Joseph Campbell).  Yet, he discusses many of the topics and themes that affect ethnographic fieldwork.

I was particularly touched by his on-going struggles to figure out how to be comfortable within widely divergent social circles: Bolivian NGO workers, Amazonian indigenous peoples, multi-millionaire ex-patriots, British Petroleum representatives.  I think most anthropologists would understand his anxiety as he decides where to take Salvador, an indigenous Amazonian Chiquitano leader who works with his NGO, for dinner in Santa Cruz.  People like Powers are not outside the local class structure, but they cross-cut it in ways that many Bolivians don’t or can’t.  Anthropologists are similar; they often move from poor rural houses with no water to city penthouses, from street fiestas to lavish embassy parties, from ex-patriot BBQs to university libraries.  Sometimes these gringos take Bolivians with them, and I can give a few examples from my own experience: I brought Tiwanakena assistants to work in a government archive in La Paz, welcomed rural visitors into my middle-class Sopacachi apartment, took rural Aymara to city hospitals and poor urban Aymara to movie theaters.  In Bolivia’s highly-stratified society, such movements were not unheard of (and certainly do not require gringos), but they could be uncomfortable.  I feel Powers captures this dynamic very well — the sense that not all public spaces are equally open to all members of society, and the tensions that emerge when people cross those invisible lines.

Powers also captures what I like to call “surreal Bolivia” — those moments where, at least as a gringo, something so… odd happens that it seems funny, deeply profound, and enlightening all at once.  Power’s account is littered with these moments: the local official who corners him to ask how he can be more like Bill Clinton (p. 198-199), scaring parrots (p. 169), U.S. embassy staff who can’t understand the connection between the War on Drugs and how Bolivians feel about the U.S. (p. 210), Power’s culture shock of returning to the U.S. to hyper-processed foods and hyper-materialism (p. 212-216).

There are also a few moments that might make an anthropologist cringe slightly.  Powers is very concerned with the category of indigenous people, not just as a legal or political category, but as a “real” group. When Salvador’s ethnicity is questioned in order to discredit his group’s claim to Amazonian land (p. 156), Powers seems genuinely disturbed.  Rather than see this as a legal ploy to justify the claims of loggers, he instead starts to pursue a “lost” group of indigenous people who are even more “indigenous” than the Chiquitano — the Guarasug’we. Later he gives us this strange analogy:

There’s a single tree, a hundred-year-old flowering tajibo, in the very center of BP’s Bolivia in Miniature…. As I touch its rough bark, I know that it is no longer the Guarasug’we tree tha holds up the world. It doesn’t emerge out of their animate earth or send its flowers into seven skies.  It grows out of and flourishes into globalization.  In a sense, the ground below out feet and the air we breathe have become global capitalism.  We live within Jamison’s “postmodern hyperspace,” where the great expansion of capitalism in our era internalizes the exterior world, just as the Epcot Center seeks to internalize its exterior, aspiring to be a total space, a complete world. Globalization absorbs traditional culture and wild nature and spews forth a heteronomy of fragments such as carbon ranches, green companies, and capitalist Indians.

But within this all-encompassing hyperspace there are struggles.  And looking at the tajibo tree in front of me, I get an idea.  Perhaps Salvador is a strangler fig, and the modernizing sultan Apollonius [another indigenous leader] a liana.  Both of these plants complete for the tajibo tree before me.  But whereas strangler figs, like all hemiepiphytes, begin within the tree canopy and work their way down to the soil, the thick, woody liana is a vine that starts in the soil and climbs up.  Both plants use the tree for structure, and both kill it, but in very different ways.  A group of lianas can eventually bring the tree crashing down under their weight; strangler figs take the suffocating tree into themselves, and, remarkably, the new organizsm retains the shape and verticality of the tree.

Bolivia’s protesting masses are not noble savages battling an evil corporate globalization.  Everything is tainted.  Salvador and hundreds of thousands of others come together as a strangler fig from within the branches of the ancient tree of indigenous culture and wild nature, shoot their roots down into the group of globalization, and use it to entomb the tree.  The new is shaped around the old, but it an entirely different species.  The strangler races against time with the lianas: the forces of monoculture and extinction that simultaneoulsly inch up the tree and threaten its collapse (pp. 230-231).

Powers recognizes that all humans have both individual goals and big dreams, and that the two come into conflict. Yet, he seems genuinely surprised that Salvador or other indigenous people might try to personally benefit from their political connections (including to him and FAN).  Underlying Power’s narrative is the sense that there really is something real and solid about indigeneity that is untouched or untouchable by the forces of capitalism.  But as Alcida Rita Ramos has warned (Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil, 1998), this “Hyperreal Indian” is always a political tool.  It is never an ethnographic description but instead used strategically to empower or disenfranchise groups labeled as “indigenous.”  Saying that “real” indigenous people should be isolated from capitalism provides a way to discredit claims made on ethnic grounds, because no group is totally isolated from capitalism today.

Yet, Powers recognizes that indigenous people are forced to speak a language the state can understand — one that mixes claims to unchanging ethnicity with real political action.  He quotes Salvador as saying “Blocking roads is the only language some people understand” (p. 250).  In the end, this book is worth reading not because Powers has a coherent theoretical stance, but rather because he allows the situation to be contradictory.  He is not afraid to show the complexities of life in Bolivia, even when they don’t fit into the narrative that he, himself, wants to write.  And in the end, it is that data which makes this book — or any other ethnography – useful.

More coverage, more of the same?

Is it just my impression, or has there been an increase in English-language coverage on Bolivia over the past 6 months? Not only was there the long piece in the New York Times’ Travel Supplement in the Fall (post is below), but there was a recent front-page article on Bolivia’s lithium resources and the “problems” nationalism causes for multinational corporations hoping to use lithium in their products. There was also significant coverage of the tit-for-tat expulsions of the Bolivian and U.S. ambassadors, and the recent constitutional referendum was covered by prominent newspapers.

Then today I saw that Clare posted this link about a woman who died from an injection of urine. I am particularly surprised that this received as much attention as it did. I wonder if it is because two “prominent” individuals (read: middle/upper class and likely identifying as white) were involved. That is, perhaps these women don’t fit the stereotype of which Bolivians are *supposed* to use medical practices that seem, to many of us, dangerous or “gross.”

What rural Bolivians could teach the writers of Battlestar Galactica

Here’s a more light-hearted post, since I know some of you are fellow Battlestar Galactica fans. (No, there’s no spoilers below — although there are spoilers in the comments.) I know this is somewhat off topic, my apologies.

I’ve been catching up on Battlestar Galactica via DVD. It should go without saying that SF says more about those who write it than it does about the future. In this case, it says that the U.S. is seriously out of touch with how agriculture works.

In the U.S. only something like 2% of people make a living from agriculture. Over 80% of people live in cities or suburbs. Most of us engage in only occasional gardening, if at all. Few of us attempt to make a serious contribution to our own dinner plates. This shows in the BSG vision of the future, where food seems to appear out of nowhere.

No one on BSG seems to be farming (although there are passing mentions). We rarely hear anything about basic food shortages, although there seems to be a lack of fresh fruit. The black market focuses on cigars, alcohol, medicine, and luxury goods. People seem to have enough booze to descend into alcoholism, even though producing that much alcohol would require a large amount of grain. Such surpluses would not only feed a large numbers of people, but would also need to be stockpiled in case of loss or attack.

The viewer never sees people trading for tomatoes. Or complaining that they haven’t had meat in a month (where is all that meat coming from, anyway?!). Or that their favorite chili pepper is simply not available because no one had it on aboard any of this random collection of ships — and so perhaps humans will never taste that again. Apartments are remarkably free of green growing things.

If this were a real situation (and yes, clearly it’s not) everyone would be trying to grow food in their living areas. Containers would be refashioned to hold plants. Information about how to grow food would be circulated by the government and between friends. Potato plants and fresh basil would be barter goods. Everyone would be learning new skills to adapt to such a massive upheaval in society, and growing one’s own food would be part of that.

Politically, also, agriculture seems to be a non-issue on BSG. The agricultural ships of the fleet are not calling the shots, demanding that farmers get more perks under threat of supply blockades. The only time a garden ship appeared, it seemed to have a lot of open, green, unplanted space on it.

There are a lot of wasted organic materials in BSG world. Topsoil would be at a premium — but no one is looking for that during mining operations. Sending bodies into space would be a luxury funeral; they would have to be composted. Sewage would have real value. (Frank Herbert, for example, had thought through these kinds of issues with his water economy in “Dune”).

One could say that the show focuses on the military, and in times of war the military usually get the best of what’s available. One could also claim that SCIENCE! has solved those kinds of problems. Certainly that would be the Star Trek solution (where science almost always saves the day, especially in the modernist vision of the early series). But I have the impression that’s not where the writers BSG wanted to go with this show.

The rural Bolivians I had the privilege to know understand how to navigate this kind of economy, where one works to create value on the margins of the cash economy. I was constantly impressed with their inventiveness of producing things of value to make a little extra money, or gain access to other kinds of resources. Everyone I met had multiple jobs — some paid, some “unpaid” but productive in other ways — in order to make life a little better for themselves and their families. They know how to make things grow, and are constantly experimenting with seeds, conditions, and methods. I had hoped that some of that inventiveness had rubbed off on me during my time there, but in urban Chicago my experiments with vermicomposting, tomatoes, and bell peppers have been far less successful than I had hoped (although sometimes the results are tasty!).

If we ever become a nomadic space-faring species, let’s hope we have some farmers with us. We may not eat as well as they do on TV, but we may survive. Sometimes we forget that agriculture is the first, and most important, human science.

Tourists or not, Lake Titicaca already is a wonder

Following on the media success of the New Seven Wonders internet election (in which Machu Picchu was selected as one of the seven), the same group is now opening nominations for the New Seven Natural Wonders. The Binational Autonomous Authority of Lake Titicaca (ATL) is promoting the nomination of Lake Titicaca, partly in the hopes of promoting tourism to the region.

I am fascinated by this desire to recreate a modern version of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Those seven sites were chosen not because they were the most amazing on the entire globe, but because they were the major attractions on a well-established route for Greek, and later Roman, tourists. (For more on this, see Feifer 1985)

The New Seven Wonders follows in that tradition. All the “winners” are major tourist attractions, in addition to being marvels of human creativity and architectural virtuosity. They are not all along the same tourist route, but that partially a result of how tourism has changed. One change is obviously the speed, ease, and First-World affordability of long-distance travel and communication. But the other is how First-World conceptions of labor have changed. In the U.S., two weeks of vacation a week is now common; even Europeans have limited time, albeit longer. Few can afford to spend months or years traveling (although there are exceptions), so our trips become more focused both geographically and temporally.

I imagine this new election will follow in the tradition of choosing “natural wonders” that are already popular with tourists. But in the end, “wonder” is not determined by majority vote, but by personal experience. Even if Lake Titicaca is not among the final seven, anyone who has been there knows that it evokes true wonder. I have never seen water or sky so blue. It is spectacular and unique.

We should also hope that we live in a world with more than seven places that can be called wondrous.

Earthquake near Pisco, Peru

Everyone has no doubt heard of the terrible earthquake and resulting human suffering near Pisco and Ica, Peru. If you are in a position to, please consider donating to agencies assisting the survivors, including:

American Red Cross
Catholic Relief Services

Ideas of Convenience, Environmentalism, and Diapers

As I was reading Clare’s last post, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a recent series of conversations I had while in Bolivia. About diapers.

Let me explain. Miguel & I are expecting, due around Christmas. Since this is our first kid there are lots of decisions to be made: breast or bottle, co-sleeping or separate room, natural childbirth or the best drugs money can buy, and of course, disposable or cotton diapers. The last pairing took me by surprise, as I’d always expected to use disposable diapers. The extent of my reflection on this issue ran to thinking of maybe the unbleached or more natural kind, but still firmly within the disposable category. To me, it was a foregone conclusion, since no one uses cotton diapers any more, right? They’re more prone to leak, more work, and generally outdated, there’s no good argument for them!

Not exactly. While we were visiting family in Bolivia in June, my pregnancy was a frequent topic of family discussion (babies are in the air in Miguel’s family — Miguel’s cousin and his wife are due the day after we are, also with their first kid, family conversation often orbited around pregnancy and babies). A few times, one of Miguel’s aunts asked us what we were planning to do – breast or bottle feed? Disposables or cloth? I usually launched into a pro-breastfeeding argument, letting everyone know we would be doing that, but that we would use disposable diapers, causing to a raised eyebrow or two at the mention of disposables.
At one family meal, Tía Lea started talking about the benefits of diapers for babies. Without specifying, she said that one kind of diaper is “unsanitary,” “bad for the baby,” and otherwise just bad for the health of the baby and the family in general.

I assumed that she meant cotton diapers. I was wrong. She looked at me after I said this, and said no, disposable diapers were the ones that were unsanitary because they often get thrown in the street and are hard to dispose of, so waste accumulates in your house. Furthermore, with disposables she thinks that babies don’t learn when they are wet so toilet training is harder, they get more diaper rash, and are exposed to all sorts of absorbent chemicals, meaning they sit in their waste longer than they otherwise would. All of these factors, to her, are bad for the baby and bad for the family, since the baby isn’t learning what it should when it should. To say nothing of the added expense of buying disposables, which to her is bad for the family budget and inconvenient. Most of the family members there — including her son, who had just completed a rotation in obstetrics — agreed with her.

This rattled my preconceptions, to say the least. After returning to the U.S., Miguel brought up the diaper debate again. He said in his family they’ve always used cotton diapers, even after they moved to the U.S., so he’s very comfortable with how to fold them properly so they don’t leak, how to clean them, and so on. I then did some poking around online, and found impassioned arguments for cloth diapers, as well as plenty of families saying that disposables work fine for them. But it seems that the simple diaper + diaper pins of our infancy have been improved upon. Now there are snug, breathable and washable covers that ensure you fold them accurately and reduce leakage, flushable liners that helps reduce clean-up, even “starter packs” that come with everything you’d need (see http://www.bummis.com).

The point here is that the attitudes I ran into in Bolivia about something as ubiquitous & pedestrian as diapers flags something profound regarding orientations towards what “convienence” or “sanitary” means, to say nothing of our responsibilities as family members, parents, and perhaps even global citizens. Here in the U.S., we are often told that disposables are better, more sanitary, and more convenient, just as we are similarly convinced of the benefits of bottled water, for instance. What does this say about our attitudes towards “convenience”? Are we too short-sited environmentally? Can we rework our ideas of what is “convenient” to better incorporate factors like the impact on a very local enviroment (i.e. your home), your baby’s perceptions and development, and so forth? It seems that a big problem contributing to the disproportionate environmental impact per U.S. inhabitant is precisely this short-sighted, immediate-gratification, and, most notably, individualistic definition of convenience. But taking Lea’s (as well as many other relatives I spoke to) attitudes towards diapers into account means that we need to understand the plurality of ways that “convenience” “sanitary” and “benefit” can be defined.

PS: We’ve decided we’ll give cloth diapers a shot, at least at first. We might combine with disposables, especially while visiting friends or family for a weekend, but the arguments for using cloth (at least sometimes) are convincing.

Melting Glaciers and Conspicuous Environmentalism

Irony lies somewhere between this news release (also this one) and this one.

The fact that Bolivia’s glaciers are melting at a phenomenal rate will have serious implications for access to drinking water and irrigation of crops for those living in the Andean altiplano. Ski resorts are easy to photograph, but the real suffering will occur among Bolivians who could never afford to go skiing anyway.

And now in the United States, people fear that attempts to lessen one’s environmental impact are a form of capitalist conspicuous consumption. I worry that we have lost sight of the fact that despite the supposed “debate,” environmental destruction is not abstract in many places.

We need more structural and political solutions to our resource addictions than simply selling more efficient products to those who can afford them (although that helps, certainly). It’s better to drive a high-fuel efficiency car. But it would be even better if more people could afford to live near where they work, and if public transportation were more reliable and extensive. While some individuals are willing to change their own lifestyles, we seem to still lack the collective political will to make real changes to our society.