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Landscape Images in Amazonian Narrative: The Role of Oral History in Environmental Research (For Taylor S)

by on October 3, 2011

In the Article, Landscape Images in Amazonian Narrative: The Role of Oral History in Environmental Research, by Javier A. Arce-Nazario, Arce’s research is concentrated in the Amazonian towns surrounding the Muyuy-Panguana Archipelagom, mainly populated by riberenos (Arce-Nazzario, 119).  The research is focused on demonstrating of the following concept; “Amazonian oral history is a blend of factual environmental and narrative art” (Arce-Nazzario, 118). The factual environmental study is directed towards better understanding the landscape changes in the Amazon, while the narratives form the central point of the research, which focus on the interviewee’s personal history and experience of the culture-nature relationship with the landscape.

Although oral histories are typically regarded as academically inaccurate, as they rely on an individuals memory, Arce’s research presents how narratives, specifically Amazonian narratives rich in both facts and symbols, provide valuable information in which can be further integrated into ecosystems studies. The individual narratives are products of open-ended interviews centered in a specific setting/landscape, where the individual’s memory can be promoted to recall specific elements of the ecosystem. He stresses the significance of what is referred to as the Bio-Narrative. This concept is derived from fact that the majority of the interviews referred to aspects of the landscape’s biological composition, primarily species. The quantity of references pertaining to the overall theme of species is so prevalent that three subcategories are created to better describe particular characteristics. The categories are, “fruit tree memories, land-use/land cover history and the longing for past abundance” (Arce-Nazzario, 121). Each category represents a possibility to deepen the existing narrative in order to better understand the landscape. This allows Arce, who has a natural science background, to pinpoint perceptions of riberenos that may contradict or support the knowledge derived solely from science.

The presentation of Arce’s results illustrates both the very essence and pitfall of oral history. Enviably, each individual has differing experiences, making oral histories so unique and valuable, while similarly complicating results. As Portelli states, while history is much more than dates and names, oral histories have the potential to “disarrange many accepted truths.” By further utilizing these varying results through collaborating to comprise new information, “of official stories of environmental change” (Arce-Nazzario, 127), a more comprehensive awareness can be attained of Amazonian history. “The ribereno oral history is not only useful for understanding ecosystem dynamics and environmental history, but also for promoting a more inclusive conservation agenda for the communities of the Amazon”(Arce-Nazzario, 131).

Throughout this article, I found the nature-culture relationship to be an underlying theme. Arce’s research, through the ribereno perspective, suggests that nature and culture are not separate. It also illustrates Terkenli’s idea that landscape shapes the way in which cultures develop. Arce’s research acknowledges that a human component exists, and is completely dependent on the landscape, as it can easily be erased. One of the many examples provided was the flooding river in which created displacements or disturbances for the settlers. The settlers then readapt to their natural setting, adjusting various practices to coincide with prevalent scarcities in order to maintain their well-being.

The myths of the ribereno also positively correlate to the nature-culture connection. Arce references Slater to help better illustrate this idea stating, “Myths such as, Yacuruna, suggest not only the uneasy boundary between human and natural spheres, in which the two inevitably impinge upon the other”(Arce-Nazzario, 118). These myths illustrate how culture has been intertwined with nature throughout history and provides ongoing assurance of the relationship.



1.     Do you think that the nature-culture relationship is more prevalent in geographic regions where the people are directly interacting and living off the land?

2.     What is your opinion on the accuracy of oral histories? Do you think the validity of the narratives can be compromised due to agendas?  (Example. Economic factors)

3.     Due to various environmental and social factors, the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa’s early history relies on oral history. History books on this subject have been published and academically recognized. Why do you think this practice continues to be viewed so negatively when most of a countries beginning is explained through oral history?

  1. In response to your first question Taylor, I believe the nature-culture relationship is less prevalent in areas that are industrialized and in communities that are consumer driven. People in these areas tend to pay less attention to the natural environment that surrounds them. This may be because they are distracted by man made elements of their environments (television, shopping, etc) or they haven’t lived in a place long enough to experience significant changes in that natural environment.

  2. Summer Rose W permalink

    I think oral histories can be really accurate. They may not be exactly accurate like a scientific study, but accurate in a sense that it reflects how the person experienced that history. Stories that are passed down orally may be able to convey more feeling than something that is written, or something that is found out through scientific study. On pg 118, Arce-Nazario writes about someone telling the story about how a lake was formed. In the telling of his story, Arce-Nazario points out that the narration allows the listener to understand not only the physical formation of the lake, but “also symbols of change that affect ribereños’ daily lives”.

  3. Frederick Reisen permalink

    I agree with Emily that the nature-culture relationship is less prevalent in areas dominated by an industrialized landscape and in communities based on consumerism. I believe the both the lack of “nature” and distractions play an integral role in this fall out between man and his surroundings. Furthermore, I think it is interesting that those people living in places that we can generalize as neglecting nature will also most likely be the ones to feel possible negative effects environmental degradation the strongest (i.e. costal cities and rising sea levels or urban areas and poor air quality). Is this merely a coincidence of maybe just an instance of the universe’s ultimate justice? In regards to the third question I believe it is more than a countries history but an entire regions history. I believe most of the negativity is centered around the departure from the western attraction to recorded history. I think it is both a facet of fearing what you do not understand and moreover not wanting to understand. Perhaps this is a tactic to hold onto control of history or maybe just a lack in cultural communication but something that I believe should give momentum to the oral history technique.

    • I think you rise a very interesting point Fredrick. As Arce stated, “Ribereno oral history can be conceived as a set of narrative structures based on topics of shared experience and images of culture-nature relations”(Arce-Nazzario, 120). A pivotal aspect of this process is conversation through a cultures language. Language is incredibly complex, with phrases and words having different emphasis/meaning across various languages. An example I can think of is in the Spanish language. Querer directly translates in English to, I want, but when conjugated for example to Te Quiero, it could mean I love you. The degree of emotion in the meaning of Te Quiero is generally strong whereas, Te amo directly translates as, I love you, but signifies a more intense meaning. (Note: Language varied even within the Spanish-speaking culture. This is based of the culture in Quito, Ecuador.) Obviously this can get extremely confusing when an individual is recording personal narratives with little cultural knowledge behind the words. Also, there is the problem of translation, as Arce mentions, where certain phrases/words don’t hold the same meanings in their original state as in the translated version.

      This creates a problem, as you said, “of fearing what you do not understand and moreover not wanting to understand.” With this lack of knowledge, individuals are applying their own perspectives to interpreting a cultures history. This is illustrated in Lila Abu-Lughod’s, Veiled Sentiments, where the father traveled with his daughter to the town to explain the nature of her visit in a way in which would positively be received in the community. His knowledge of the culture recognized the importance of this introduction, while the young daughter had overlooked this social norm.

  4. 242colleencarey permalink

    I believe that the nature-culture relationship is more prevalent in geographic regions where people are directly interacting and living off the land. As we can see, the underlying theme we have been talking about in class is on this nature-culture relationship. We can also see that when studying this relationship, the subject/subjects of our study have been people that interact with nature regularly. In this article on the amazon, the ribernos have a close relationship with nature.
    Oral histories are subject to a person’s background and beliefs; they can be bias, subjective, and compromised. But that’s one person. When doing research and taking down oral histories of many people, I think that accuracy can be highly possible.
    I think that the practice continues to be viewed so negatively because it is simple. It isn’t scientific. Researchers have gotten so caught up on methods and research being so scientific, the simple things, like someone’s story is disregarded. Now that oral history is being addressed as something that can benefit research, I believe that it will be incorporated more readily into scientific studies.

  5. amygraceaustin permalink

    Pertaining to the question regarding the “accuracy” of oral histories, I am not sure what the writer means by “accuracy”. While oral histories are almost entirely free-form in nature, they hold validity in that what is spoken is one person’s reality. This ties in to the idea that everything we perceive is viewed through a cultural lens – oral histories should not be seen as any less “valuable” or “accurate” in the sense that it is all part of a cultural construct.

    Since anthropologists now have the technology to digitally record oral histories and transcribe them exactly as spoken, the “accuracy” is maintained. I believe that oral histories are an integral part of anthropological narrative. They provide the concrete emic perspective that anthropologists are seeking out. It is the most raw form of information that can be collected, in that it is a way to most significantly limit the bias that occurs through interpretation of data. Connecting the voices of the key informants in the study through the process of recording and utilizing oral history data is a vital tool.

    Oral history data gives anthropologists a whole new framework for assessing the “accuracy” of information. If all the stories that key informants are recounting about a particular event are “wrong” in accordance with the published record, maybe it’s time to critically examine the historicity and biases that shaped the “truth”.

    What we hold as truth may be very far from it, and oral history is one way of making us shut up and listen to a different possible reality.

    • Amy,
      That is a very interesting point. “Accuracy” can hold different meanings depending on the party in which it pertains to. Oral histories do provide the spoken word of a persons reality and therefore represent and accurate depiction through their perceptive. Other individuals may perceives their depiction of the same oral history as being more accurate, because they are looking through their personal lens to conceptualize their reality. This shows how “accuracy” can be perceived in various ways. Oral histories are a part of a cultural construct but and do serve as a valuable medium. I think it is important as Arce-Nazzario pointed out, to utilize various mediums to cross-reference the validity of these oral histories, as he illustrated through the example of the lake. This gave Arce-Nazzario a greater sense of what occurred in historical periods and illustrates how important it is to use various resources to obtain a greater level of understanding.

  6. Oral history cant always be trusted. While there are some truths, this can vary a lot, you can find a lot of myths and faults in just relying on oral history.This does not take away from it’s importance though. And as to the first question, I agree with whats been said. People who are living in the environment will have better culture-nature relationship than those that live in a city or more urbanized areas. I guess living off of and wit the land is one of the best ways to become more connected with it.

  7. amygraceaustin permalink

    Hmmm but I would argue that people living in cities or urbanized areas are just as much engaged in an “environment” as those living through subsistence farming. While these environments may be shaped more by human industrial technology, these human-altered environments take on immense new meaning and opportunity for exploration, just as do those altered by people living in a more rural landscape.

    I guess in terms of “trusting” oral history or not it is important for the anthropologist to define the goals they hope to achieve through this process. If they want specific dates or geographic locations, this might not be the best method, but what can be trusted is that what the informant is saying is loaded with an immense amount of contextual information. The informant may not always be telling the “truth” but their oral history can open up pathways for further and further exploration.

  8. In response to question one, I think that though this article advocates for the timeless co-existence of an intertwined culture and nature relationship, it is apparent that the relationship is much more prevalent in areas where people are directly interacting with the land. As this article shows, throughout history, groups who lived off the land had a strong connection with it that went beyond any relationship we are capable of having in developed society today, where we are not similarly dependent. Culture was so heavily shaped by land in the past because it was so essential to the preservation of life.
    As the oral histories of this article blatantly show, nature relations were a large component of cultural development. Even though the culture-nature relationship has greatly evolved as industrialization has grown and become more and more prevalent, I think Arce’s argument that oral history has the ability to tell valuable information about the history of humans and nature is completely accurate because those who are giving their oral depiction are people who were directly interacting with the land they lived on. Their oral testimonies show that the culture-nature relationship has long since been one of importance and necessity for people who directly live off the land.
    Furthermore, after reading this article I object more strongly to Terborgh’s argument that the relationship between humans and nature is completely separate and viewed negatively. I think that the oral accounts of Arce’s article show that the nature-culture relationship has historically been one of respect and gratitude on the part of humans. People treated the land as if it was a life source, shaping their culture around it and proving that humans and nature had the ability to be a cooperative group. Though the relationship between humans and nature has changed as industrialization has come about, it has had the ability to be a positive co-existence in the past, disproving Terborgh’s argument that humans can only be harmful and separate from nature.

  9. I think you ask some valuable questions.Oral history is extremely important because people view their world differently with their different backgrounds. One person, just like in class last Friday, may notice one aspect of a situation (or setting) while someone else misses it entirely. I had to read Stoller’s book last year called “The Sorcerer’s Shadow” and it directly relates to this. Many of the situations that Stoller found himself in could only be explained through oral history. For example: he had to eat this heavy paste that would sit in his stomach but his instructor told him the stories of other men who had gone through the same ritual and why. It was all based and carried down from oral tradition. If the eldest sorcerer died before passing on his knowledge of sorcery, sorcery would fade away. Arce-Narario’s article brings up stories that people tell to make sense of an odd situation, which is the same in Stoller’s book. When he is learning sorcery, his teacher has stories of encounters that people have with magic. These oral narratives express the importance of these experiences and how they differ from other people’s encounters. I think that people build their beliefs off of oral narratives, collecting ideas and situations that help them make sense of the world.

  10. Oral history seems to be more prevalent in regions where people are directly interacting with their environment because their landscape grows their food, gives them transportation, and provides shelter from the resources available to them. Although oral histories of the environment could be extracted from more modern and urban communities, the whole nature/culture aspect would be much more generalized and less personal. In most cases, it was not our grandparents who cultivated or cleared the land to build our houses and grow our food, but instead we hire other people to do it and therefore become less emotionally and physically tied to our landscape.
    Although oral history is valid for any research done on a particular environment, there will be factors in which these told memories may not be as significant for finding hard evidence. the circumstances people are in at the time of telling their story will greatly affect the way in which they tell their stories. For example, if their crops and lifestyle are relatively stable and prosperous, one might focus on positive aspects of their oral history or generalize the bad times. However, if times are hard for them at the moment, they might focus and add details of how hard it has been on them for so long by purposefully or accidentally trying to gain sympathy from their audience.

  11. janellekramer permalink

    In terms of the first question, no, I believe that the culture-nature relationship is prevalent throughout every culture. In industrialized societies, we still interact with the environment. It is more common for people in industrialized society to take the environment for granted, and this may be why many people argue that the relationship is not as strong. However, no matter what society one is in, the environment still plays a vital role in how we live. In more developed countries, we are more Ok with adjusting the environment to our benefit, which I’m not saying is necessarily a good thing, but we still interact with the environment. However, we are not as emotionally tied to it, and that is where the problem lies.

  12. shanewyenn permalink

    Great post Taylor and thank you for bringing up this great discussion. In response to your first question, I think it depends on your definition of “nature.” If you are defining nature to be outside of a city, free of buildings and human-made technology, then yes, it seems to be that people living off the land within this definition of nature have a very deep rooted connection to the region in which they inhabit. But at the same time, I’ve heard big cities like Los Angeles or New York City referred to as “urban jungles,” where instead of people having a connection to the trees or soil, they seem to have a deep connection to buildings, streets, restaurants, etc. So to answer your question, If you dig down deep enough, I think the nature-culture relationship can exist in either place.

  13. Kelsey Snyder permalink

    In response to the first question, I think that the nature-culture relationship is often seen as more competitive in agricultural societies as opposed to hunter-gatherer societies. After all, in an agricultural society it is like humans are taking over the land and turning it into something that is more economically viable. The success of this depends on natural factors, such as temperature, rainfall, or the presence of natural pests, which turns it into a competition. The success of a harvest means the success of man. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer societies were more a part of nature as their means of existence was similar to and tied in closely with other animals.

  14. obviously this depends on the configuration of server or something other

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