Alhena Caicedo Fernandez, Ph.D.

As a Latin American anthropologist and a woman, I believe there is an urgent and growing need to comprehend what is said and what is done in the name of Amazonian Indigenous peoples, ayahuasca, and the protection of the Amazon.

Despite years of research into the expanding ritual consumption of yajé (as ayahuasca is known in Colombia) throughout the world, my impression is that we still know very little about the economic and political implications of this phenomenon. As a Latin American anthropologist and a woman, I believe there is an urgent and growing need to comprehend what is said and what is done in the name of Amazonian Indigenous peoples, ayahuasca, and the protection of the Amazon. These are important questions that also should address the contrast between insider and outsider perspectives.

In this light, I carried out a test exercise tracing visual and textual narratives about Amazonian Indigenous people who circulate globally. In the news media and in artistic and even scientific works, hyperreal images are reproduced portraying Indigenous peoples as “more Indigenous than Indians,” promoting a form of essentialized authenticity that will eventually become a yardstick for measuring reality. Advertisements for the ayahuasca-related tourism industry, which attracts thousands of travelers from the Global North to the Amazon, are a good example of such narratives. These seemingly inoffensive images reproduce a kind of romanticism and nostalgia that conceals the simplifying and essentializing power of such stereotypes inherited from colonial technologies and racism, thus reinforcing colonial denials of the fundamental heterogeneity of the Amazon and its inhabitants and obscuring structural and geopolitical inequalities. These representations are not a reflection of social reality, but rather a condition of its own production.

These seemingly inoffensive images reproduce a kind of romanticism and nostalgia that conceals the simplifying and essentializing power of such stereotypes inherited from colonial technologies and racism, thus reinforcing colonial denials of the fundamental heterogeneity of the Amazon and its inhabitants and obscuring structural and geopolitical inequalities.

The interesting thing about these representations is not so much identifying them, since much has already been said about such stereotypes. Instead, it is important to point out how they are being renewed and updated and how they guide and affect personal interactions, institutional practices, and interventions of different kinds and at different scales, both in the North and in the Global South.

But the truth is that both nature conservation and the celebration of cultural diversity have also served to justify the revival of certain stereotypes and power relationships that are deployed in major economic and political interventions.

The conservation of Amazonian biological and cultural diversity is currently perceived as a moral imperative, part of a generalized sensitivity to a global problem. In the face of threats posed by climate change and the political decisions of some governments, actions aimed at defending nature and cultural heterogeneity demand sustainability and a long-term vision. But the truth is that both nature conservation and the celebration of cultural diversity have also served to justify the revival of certain stereotypes and power relationships that are deployed in major economic and political interventions. As part of this global imaginary, protecting the Amazon and its Indigenous peoples seems so obvious and self-evident that it becomes difficult for us to maintain an objective distance from these discourses and examine their history and contradictions.

In recent decades, the discourse of multiculturalism has sanctioned the appreciation and celebration of cultural diversity as perhaps never before in history, allowing social and ethnic movements to gain strength the world over. Indigenous peoples’ rights have been recognized and promoted, and the laws of many countries have been transformed. Likewise, multiculturalism in its different versions has also led to the economic valorization of culture. Through a strong articulation with environmentalism and a dense network of literary narratives, artistic images, and scientific explanations, celebrations of cultural diversity present Amazonian Indigenous populations as bearers of forms of communal, ancestral, and spiritual heritage that are imagined as constituting a radical ontological distinction from the West.

This ontological distancing has effects on perception. From a distance, that what cannot be seen clearly appears so small as to be invisible, thus opening the way for imaginings based on one’s own fantasies and phantasms. Native peoples are usually imagined through stereotypes produced and reproduced over time and naturalized by the physical and symbolic distance that inevitably makes them “other”: homogeneous beings without history, epistemologically superior, bearers of “ancient and immemorial cultures” without class conflicts, and yet, at the same time, vulnerable, fragile beings, unfamiliar with the market economy and in need of assistance. Those who know the Amazon and have lived with its inhabitants are familiar how inaccurate and caricature-like such representations can be.

Thus, the multiple heterogeneities of landscapes and populations inhabiting the geographic basin of the largest river in the world have been simplified, flattened, and homogenized. In contrast, less is known about the Amazon as a space for encounters and conflicts that constantly threaten its sustainability, the forms of coexistence between diverse cultural configurations and social and political conflicts, or the conditions that allow the arrival of transnational capital and private corporations, and the precarious presence of public institutions.

Not only is there enormous ethnic diversity, but the very way indigeneity is understood varies between Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

However globalized such representations of indigeneity may be interpreted, the materialization of their effects occurs in specific national contexts. Multiculturalism has acquired different characters that are expressed in different ways in each country. In the Amazon Basin, each nation-state harbors and expresses a configuration of alterity that is specific to its historical development, such that indigeneity has occupied a place of radical alterity. The perception and imagination of indigeneity as “other” is situated in a long-term process shaped by inter-ethnic relations, forms of knowledge, and by national and international policies, all of which have been more recently influenced by the rhetoric of multiculturalism and conservation. By the same token, such “othering” and its associated stereotypes have been contested by Amazonian inhabitants in multiple and diverse ways, based on their multiple and varied cultural configurations and organizational processes. Not only is there enormous ethnic diversity, but the very way indigeneity is understood varies between Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. For this reason, social organizations and mobilizations across the Amazon Basin have encountered great difficulties in articulating a common cause across borders.

What is carried out in the name of ethnic and cultural diversity and biodiversity conservation acquires variable powers, effects, and legitimacy, be it in the framework of Colombian multiculturalism, or in the Peruvian, Ecuadorian or Brazilian legislative framework. For example, the emergence of a globalized economy linked to ayahuasca resulted in its designation as cultural heritage in Peru, with values and effects very different from that found Colombia, and with its legitimacy less disputed than in Brazil. The flourishing ayahuasca tourism industry found today in Iquitos, Peru would not only be controversial in Colombia, but would be an easy target of legal disputes.

In the Colombian Amazon, as in the rest of the region, legal extractive economies such as gas and oil exploration and extensive cattle ranching thrive alongside illegal economies linked to mining, drug trafficking, and logging, to which is added the presence of armed groups that control populations and territories. The threats that all of these actors pose to Indigenous peoples and biodiversity have been repeatedly denounced by social and ethnic organizations as an imminent risk that looms over the region.

At the same time, recent decades have seen a strengthening of economic development policies that seek to counterbalance environmental damage by relying on discourses of conservation and cultural diversity to characterize themselves in contrast to extractivism. So-called “sustainable development” and “green” projects join this suite of initiatives claiming that the rainforest can be used economically to generate profits without necessarily altering nature. Currently, in many parts of the Amazon, ecosystem services projects (Red +, South Pole, BancO2) as well as tourism and cultural enterprises, are being developed within and outside Indigenous territories. Undoubtedly, the green economy and, especially, ethno-tourism projects present advantages, and we can’t ignore the positive impacts in some regions. But it is also the case that many of these initiatives, which presume that a business can be built on “culture,” are imported, installed, and managed without any kind of consideration of the local population. As organizations such as UMIYAC have repeatedly denounced (see UMIYAC Manifesto), misappropriation, and bad practices are the order of the day.

In contrast to non-Indians, for whom stereotypical representations of indigeneity serve a function in selling “culture,” Indigenous  people are compelled into highlighting the diacritics of their cultural difference if they want to be successful, while modulating these discourses about their identity based on imposed markers of authenticity and purity in order to guarantee the attention and interest of external audiences.

Foreigners, as well as regional inhabitants, Indigenous and non-indigenous are involved in and benefit from this economy. In contrast to non-Indians, for whom stereotypical representations of indigeneity serve a function in selling “culture,” Indigenous  people are compelled into highlighting the diacritics of their cultural difference if they want to be successful, while modulating these discourses about their identity based on imposed markers of authenticity and purity in order to guarantee the attention and interest of external audiences. Failure to comply with these requirements will be interpreted as contamination or inauthenticity, which weakens the effectiveness of the symbolic value of indigeneity, and therefore its economic and political success. Thus, invented images of hyperreal Indians can be lucrative and even strategic, but they can also have negative consequences.

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As various Indigenous organizations have expressed, these new economic alternatives are an important opportunity to consider, especially considering the multiple threats and the precariousness of the institutions that protect their rights. But they also warn of the risks such enterprises pose to their autonomy. The “business” mindset threatens horizontal dialogue when it makes Indigenous and non-Indigenous people into competitors, or when the Indian ends up working for the gringo; it weakens community relations when it promotes individual gain and prevents the redistribution of communal benefits; it violates authority and autonomy “when it takes away our sovereignty over our own practices and territory, when it makes us think that, in order to live better, we must stop being what we are.” A visible effect of these economies, at least in Colombia, has been a massive migration to urban centers in search of job opportunities, and new forms of vulnerability that are generated there.

It is not a question of having a few Indigenous people involved in the altruistic initiatives of some NGO, but rather of articulating broader joint efforts so that the recognition and exercise of their rights can be fulfilled. 

Amid the complex economic and political landscape of the Amazon, it is true that the harmful effects of so-called “green capitalism” may seem minimal compared to large-scale extractivism. The emergence of an economy surrounding ayahuasca is now an established fact. The growth and diversification of this economy should be an object of constant reflection, if indeed the moral imperative of conserving the Amazon and dignifying its inhabitants is truly a goal and not just a message constructed to justify the market economy. It is not a question of having a few Indigenous people involved in the altruistic initiatives of some NGO, but rather of articulating broader joint efforts so that the recognition and exercise of their rights can be fulfilled. This can happen only as long as we recognize that financing projects is not enough if the political claims of Amazonian Indigenous and social organizations from nation-states are not strengthened to guarantee their rights first and foremost as citizens. The scope of market insertion, the niche markets that have been opened, the possibilities for adding value, and, above all, the type of economic relationships that are being promoted could translate into enormous advantages for Amazonian inhabitants if they gain autonomy as peoples. Otherwise, these economies could end up continuing and reproducing the same structural inequalities of colonialism that had condemned them to such a profound and insurmountable “otherness.”

Art by Mariom Luna.


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