Sunday, July 28, 2013

Motorcycles, surazos and monkey dreams

A half-day journey on a motorcycle through the jungle sounds like an exciting adventure, but in truth, I was ready to get off after the first few miles.  With my heavy backpack pulling me backwards on the uphills, and the steepness of the muddy slopes crushing my body into the driver’s on the downs, it was one of the most uncomfortable and tiring journeys I’ve ever taken.  So it was relief when, four hours after setting out, we reached San Jose de Uchupiamonas, the Tacana-Quechua community I first visited last November

Young friends from last year.

Returning to a community a second time is always a special experience.  People remember you, if just barely, and are surprised and pleased that you’ve come again, even if you’d promised you would - your return is seen as a sign of friendship and trustworthiness.   As the main purpose of this visit was to begin to design the content of an upcoming workshop where the past, present and future of scientific research in the community (and surrounding indigenous territory) will be discussed, it was a great help to know that many of the Josesanos knew my name, and even my purpose in the community. 

Even the chickens try to get warm.
However, even as the obstacle of building initial trust was mostly overcome, other challenges quickly emerged in the coming days.  The biggest was the arrival of a severe surazo, which is a polar wind that occasionally blows over the Bolivian lowlands during the dry months, dropping the temperature by tens of degrees.  Last year I experienced several mild surazos in Rurre, but this was of a different class – the winds blew strong and wet and on my second morning in the community, we hovered over the kitchen fire, our breath visible in the chilly air.  At night the temperature dropped into the low 40s, and I tossed and turned under my mosquito net, wrapped in three blankets and a thin sleeping bag, unable to get warm.  Unused to a cold climate, the surazo paralyzed all activities in the community until it passed, even keeping the children from school, and most people passed the time either eating or sleeping.  I had hoped to hold a community meeting to discuss the workshop, but after several discussions with the corregidor, the main authority in the community, I had to accept that the cold would prevent people from such a gathering.

The coauthored plant book, from research
carried out by the Bolivian botanist Narel
Paniagua Zambrana.
So instead I tried to make the most of the enforced downtime.  I visited homes and chatted with friends I’d made the year before, and made some new ones.  I looked for evidence of past research in the community and found a great example of a participatory ethnobotanical project, where a botanist engaged with a large portion of the community to produce a useful and accessible book that detailed local uses of plants in the region.  An entire morning was spent in the kitchen of the family of Walter and Magally, drinking hot chica and pouring over the book, page by page, with three generations of Josesanos.  The mostly Quechua-speaking grandmother was especially interested, and insisted that her granddaughter, Jenny, write down the reported cures of the various plants listed in the book.  As she and her husband were born in Apolo and arrived to the community a half-century ago on foot, many of the medicinal plants were unknown to her, and was perceived as valuable information.

During the few days that I was in San Jose, I learned a bit more about what makes some research useful and interesting to local people, and other research unintelligible and even exploitative.  Andy, one of the sons in the house where I was lodging and a young leader of his community, explained that research done in an indigenous territory – no matter what type – should always seek to engage with its inhabitants in the deepest possible way.  Not just through obtaining permission and handing over publications, but by making sure that the activity is understood by the community, and providing opportunities to involve its inhabitants throughout.  He felt angered by some biologists that had come only to place camera traps in the territory to monitor mammal populations, but that had not presented the results of their study in the community, where they might be useful for territorial planning.  As he, as well as several other Josesanos I spoke with, hope to set up community tourism projects in the future, information on natural resources is very welcome.  

A termite-eaten book found on the shelves in the office of
the Tsimane'-Moseten indigenous council. Despite digging
through boxes for days here, I only found one thesis and
little other evidence of past research, despite knowledge
to the contrary of much previous science in the region.
However, it is important to note that in many cases, results that are handed over by scientists do not always go further than the dusty storage rooms of territorial offices, or even the homes of local leaders, who collect them in small private libraries, which leads to the general impression that most researchers “don’t leave anything behind.”  Reading material is hard to come by in these regions, and is often guarded jealously, even if it is stored away for termites to munch on more than it is read.  Even comunarios with whom I have built a good amount of trust were reluctant to share the contents of such collections, and the plant book was the only evidence of previous research I was able to get my hands on in the community.

Andy Limaco is a young leader of his community.  He
is currently trying to set up a project to work with gold
miners in the region to prevent mercury contamination
of regional watersheds..

The surazo even postponed my leaving the community, as one particularly cold night left me with a slight fever, and very little will to set off on the seven hour hike back to Tumupasa in the chilly rain.  In addition, I’d dreamt of a monkey, which the Josesanos assured me was a sign of delay.  Dreams have great significance for the inhabitants of much of the Bolivian Amazon, and in San Jose especially there is an interesting mix of modernity and tradition.  Even as Andy told me the various meanings of other symbolic animals in dreams (“a jaguar means someone is envious of you – an enemy”), he asked me to help him set up a blog the next time we were both in Rurre.  Despite the internationally-touted success of Chalalan, the community’s ecotourism business, Andy feels that few outsiders have an understanding of what he calls “the reality” of life in San Jose.  He wants to publish a blog to express local perspectives on topics that are important to the lives of the Josesanos – such as finding ways to balance the need for basic services (potable water, electricity and a road), while maintaining the customs and knowledge that make San Jose such a special place.

Extreme-motorcycling - occasionally the path was so bad
that Walter had me get off (like here), but more often than
not we battled on together through the mud.
Finally one dawn the sun leaked red through the clouds, and I prepared for the long journey ahead.  In the end I accepted a ride partway on the back of Walter’s motorcycle, as he was going hunting in search of chanchos de tropa (White-lipped peccaries).  “I’m going to be lucky today,” he assured me as we set off.  “My dreams told me so.”  As we parted ways in the middle of the forest, he called after me that they’d be waiting for me in October.  And just as I had no doubt that he’d hunt a large chancho to take home to his family, I knew he trusted I’d be back again. 

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