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.

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Cartoons! Social Commentary! Bolivian Star Wars!

The TV Channel ATB has been running satirical shorts after the 10 PM news during the week. They’re pretty funny and insightful – all up on YouTube!

For your enjoyment, here’s Star Wars Boliviano:


Disclaimer: I haven’t had a chance to watch the whole thing yet, as my connection just died and it stopped loading! Also, the short on last night (with Evo and Sabina bickering around a campfire) was excellent.

Psss, wanna read a dissertation on tourism at Tiwanaku?

I have finished my dissertation, entitled, “Touristic Narratives and Historical Networks: Politics and Authority in Tiwanaku, Bolivia” (Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Ph.D. 2009).  It will soon be available on ProQuest, but if you want the 3.5 MB PDF with COLOR PHOTOS (oooo!  ahhh!) send me an email or leave a comment here with your email address.

An Invitation to Visit the Fundación Flavio Machicado Viscarra

Don Flavio listening to music.

Don Flavio listening to music.

As many of the GT members and readers will be in Bolivia for “summer” research or just travel, I wanted to invite you all to check out the activities and resources provided by the Fundación Flavio Machicado Viscarra (FFMV).

The FFMV is a small foundation that aims to conserve and make public the intellectual and cultural patrimony of Don Flavio Machicado Viscarra (1898-1986). Throughout his adult life, Don Flavio collected books, newspapers, journals, and classical music, all of which are still in his house at #2448 Avenida Ecuador in Sopocachi, La Paz.  You can make an appointment to visit the library and archive by contacting Don Eduardo Machicado Saravia (at (2)2411791), Flavio’s son who still lives in the historic house and currently is the director of the foundation. You may find something that will help with your research, or simply enjoy a tour of a beautiful, old Sopocachi home and learn about the history of La Paz and the treasures housed there from Don Eduardo.

If you wish to attend a more formal event there are two opportunities.

Between May 28th and June 18th, 2009, there is a wonderful exposition at the Espacio Simón I. Patiño of the FFMV collections. “La Paz: Momentos de Historia y Cultura” presents information on the life of Don Flavio and a sampling of his collections related to the architecture and cultural life of La Paz between 1900 and 1950. Click on the link above to find out more information.

Any Saturday from 6:30-8:30 pm you can also attend the longest standing tradition of the FFMV known as “Las Flaviadas”, where people gather to listen to Don Flavio’s classical music collection. Don Flavio believed that music should be shared and since 1938 he has opened the doors of his house so that any interested person could come in and listen, free of charge. His son, Don Eduardo, continues this tradition today and prepares a two hour program presenting composers ranging from Handel and Mozart to Prokofiev and Messiaen. You can find the weekly programs at “Las Flaviadas” Facebook page (please join our group!), in the cultural calendars published around La Paz, or in the windows of various Sopocachi cafes, restaurants, and book stores.

The FFMV is a wonderful institution that is actively conserving and creating the intellectual and cultural life of La Paz. Hopefully it can aid in your research or provide a pleasant space to relax after a busy week site-seeing or tracking down interviews.

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!

Want to learn K’iche’ Maya?

The University of Chicago Center for Latin American Studies, in partnership with Vanderbilt University’s Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, will offer a new summer intensive immersion language program in K’iche’ Maya on site in Nahualá, Guatemala. The program will be offered from June 23-August 1, 2008. This is a FLAS-approved summer language program. Full program details and application instructions may be found at http://clas.uchicago.edu/kiche_summer.shtml.

Want to learn Garifuna?

In the interest of promoting the learning of indigenous languages (especially those rarely taught in the United States), I’m posting this (non-Bolivia-related) information:

The University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies will offer a new summer intensive immersion language program in Garifuna from June 30-August 8, 2008. The program will be conducted at the University of Florida campus from June 30-July 26 and then on site in Honduras and Belize from July 27-August 8. This is a FLAS-approved summer language program. Full program details and applications instructions will be posted shortly on the Internet.