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.


Rare and elusive online Bolivian laws

Been having trouble finding Bolivian laws online? Me too. Well today was a good law hunting day and as a result I suggest adding http://www.derechoteca.com/ to your bookmarks. It doesn’t go quite back to the beginning of time but one search for arqueología turned up buckets of leys and decretos that were missing from, say, the UNESCO website. Word to the wise: save everything you might need on your own computer. However stable this site might be, Bolivian law sites are broken or missing more often than they are up and running!

By the way, hello everyone!

Bolivia’s mom and kid friendly new law

La Razón reports that all working women with nursing infants up to six months of age have the right to bring their babies to work or school with them, nurse them in a comfortable room under “condiciones óptimas,” and to continue their work/study with their infants for this period of time. The motivation behind the law is to encourage breastfeeding and fight infant malnutrition. (Of course, as Clare pointed out, “working women” here tends to mean those who work in occupations in the Western mold – offices, lecture halls, clinics, etc.)

But this law goes much further than simply promoting infant health through breastfeeding. It makes a statement that the role and place of women, mothers, and children in Bolivian society is everywhere and anywhere. Babies this age can integrate quite unobtrusively into many settings – including offices and classrooms. In the U.S. there is still a strong taboo about breastfeeding in public (mom forums even have an acronym for this – NIP, for nursing in public – and there are frequent discussions regarding being made to feel uncomfortable while nursing, not being able to nurse, rude comments received, etc) and an even stronger one against integrating children into “professional” work environments such as offices or lecture halls.

In Bolivia, these taboos certainly exist for many women, who tend to be indigenous migrants to the city, mestizas, or middle-class professionals. This law goes a long way to making a statement on gender equality and the rights of children. Empowering women to work with their children, instead of struggling to find the elusive balance between childcare, work demands, providing for one’s family, and so on, recognizes that children are an important part of society and should not be hidden in private spaces. They and their mothers belong everywhere and should be respected as productive members of society (which here includes the women’s work of bearing, feeding, and raising children). The law also addresses the perception (prevalent in the U.S. as well as parts of Bolivia) that offices, waiting rooms, and lecture halls are (often) coded as “male” and “public” spaces, such that women need to “act professional” (e.g. like men) in order to fit in. Bringing nursing infants and their mothers into these spaces forces such attitudes (however subtly) to shift. Furthermore, the law is predicated on the assumption that women can and should be bothmothers and professionals of various kinds (professors, commercial vendors, shopkeepers, students, etc) simultaneously. One does not preclude the other and the relationship between these roles does not have to be so fraught with anxiety.

Who knows how effective legislation will be in promoting breastfeeding and how many women will feel comfortable to bring their children into their specific work environment. But it is a fantastic start. I certainly wish that I could have avoided the dreaded breastpump for six months and worked with my son in a carrier or napping next to me in an office.

Let’s hope that the U.S. follows Bolivia’s lead on this one.

Here’s to a happy and healthy Mother’s Day for everyone.

Pando under martial law, U.S. citizens advised to leave Bolivia

Please see *Pronto for more information, but in summary:  The Pando is under martial law, and the U.S. Embassy is recommending that all its citizens leave Bolivia.