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Progress of the Victims: Political Ecology in the Peruvian Amazon written by Soren Hvalkof

by on December 6, 2011

This article is discussing the political ecology of the indigenous people, the Asheninka, and their relationship with the more modern colonists of the area of Peru called the Gran Pajonal.  The author, Soren Hvalkof, defines political ecology as, “the study of manifold constructions of nature in contexts of power aiming at understanding and participating in the ensemble of forces linking social change, environment, and development” (197).

The specific area at hand is the Gran Pajonal, which means the “great grassland.”  The local indigenous populations created the pajonal landscape and have intentionally formed and taken care of it through the practice of controlled fire management in the open grass areas.  It is created by man.  The Asheninka strongly identify with the grasslands.  They burn the grass for: pest control, killing or scaring off snakes, maintaining open spaces for security reasons, customs, and fun or simply for the aesthetic value of the open savannas.  To the colonists, the term is emblematic of modern progress, the cattle and the land is the reason they are associated and have a presence in the isolated forest area.  The grassland means pasture which is the basis of their cattle-ranching venture.  For the Asheninka, the landscape is a model alluding to their cosmology, whereas the colonists abolish the forest with expanding cattle pastures.  This issue was causing social conflict within the Peruvian state.

Hvalkof states that the process of increasing global integration has produced an international discourse favoring indigenous self-development in the Amazon (225).  By constituting new “fractal” amalgamations with international organizations, the Asheninka have now been able to change and consolidate their position in both the local and national contexts.  The author quotes American-Brazilian anthropologist Paul E. Little:

These connections are rarely neatly organized and mechanically mobilized but rather are highly volatile and irregular and vary according to the historical moment, the strength and density of the cross-scale contacts, and the specific issues at hand…I call these fractal power relationships since they are, on one hand, highly irregular and unpredictable, yet on the other, they seek and partially achieve the furthering of common interests of the social groups operating at different social scales.

“It seems that when the Asheninka engage in political power strategies related to the non-Asheninka world, they connect, enter into, manipulate, and articulate with already existing discourses, rather than aiming for something constituted solely from within their own cognized system” (227).

Hvalkof states that the Asheninka have multi-centered, particularistic worldviews, which leaves them with no ideological, ethical, or moral preferences as to whom or which world they want to cooperate with as the symbolic and moral values pertaining to them apply only to themselves.  The colonists’ twofold model does not address any ultimate spiritual invitations but rather their specific goal is the collection of material goods.  The colonists’ example “has to be ever expanding, ever civilizing and never structurally changing” (227).

This model of two unlikely and unequal partners (World Bank and the Asheninka) seems to be ideal.  There are other factors that have resulted in this final (at least for the time being) outcome, do you think that this is a viable option for other virtually unrecognized indigenous people, or is this such a large combination of factors that it would be nearly impossible to re-create the same situation?

Also, do you view the Asheninka as, for lack of a better term, “selling out”?  If so, do you think that it is necessarily a negative thing?

The idea of grasslands, pastures and cattle-ranching is the motivation behind colonizing the area.  The government has reinforced the idea of wealth and success to the colonists, feeding them hope that they could have a life of abundance and greatness.  Do you view the colonists as the “bad guys”?  Can you blame them if they don’t want to pack up easily and find new land?


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  1. I think that this situation could successfully work in other instances if the two actors were willing to work hard enough to do so. Especially for a powerful international actor such as the World Bank, their capabilities and potential sphere of influence could reach extremely far in terms of interacting with a small indigenous population if they had the goal. The reason that international actors such as the World Bank are so beneficial to the world today is because they have the power to pool resources, funds and man power so that real issues can be examined and positively influenced. If powerful international actors such as the World Bank felt that an environmental situation was dire enough, it would be possible for them to connect with indigenous populations in a way that benefited both parties. Though there were many extenuating circumstances in this article, I think that it is a good example of the potential of international cooperation for future environmental situations. This article is important in showing how international interaction is so important in preserving the natural environment in the world today.

  2. katiecarbaugh permalink

    “This model of two unlikely and unequal partners (World Bank and the Asheninka) seems to be ideal. There are other factors that have resulted in this final (at least for the time being) outcome, do you think that this is a viable option for other virtually unrecognized indigenous people, or is this such a large combination of factors that it would be nearly impossible to re-create the same situation?”

    I disagree that the World Bank is great. It’s hard to say that about a money-driven company (shareholders in the United States want the value of those shares to increase). Just because it appears that the World Bank has helped some nations doesn’t mean that it actually has. I wonder what the indigenous would have to say about the World Bank if they were given access to the information that we have. Unfortunately, the people do not understand the historical events that have occurred when countries in Poverty accept a loan from the World Bank. When they do so, they are often setting themselves up for a very, very difficult time paying back the money. Also, with the contract between the World Bank and the people it’s “helping”, the “discourse of development” that Richard Peet and Michael Watts discuss in “Liberation Ecology” is spread.The first world nations are forcing all the people in the world to conform and peruse a specific type of political and economic development even when that development causes extreme environmental destruction and poverty.

    • In response to your second question I would say that the Asheninka are only selling out in terms of Pimm’s defintion of equilibrium. However, I would argue that just becuse the inigenous people are not returning to the same equilibrium does not mean that in doing so they are becoming something different all together. The Asheninka are simply adapting and changing, as we all are, to modern times and finding balance in a new system. I do not agree with you Katie, that the world bank is just trying to get all people to conform. In a way, yes, people must change to better fit the global climate but this is natural and inevitable. I think the presence of the World Bank could be looked at as a good thing for the indigenous people of Peru simply for the reason that globalization is real and occuring throughout Peru for oil and many other resources. With this, these communities are going to gain access to more infastructure and with this access to resources such as hospitals that could help them with disease or injuries, that woul have killed them prior to these events.

  3. In regards to your first question, I don’t see the Asheninka of Gran Pajonal “selling out” at all. This indigenous group was previously objectified through colonist exploitation to becoming, “active political agents of social change and democratization, an unexpected and hitherto unseen transformation in the long, depressing history of Amazonian colonization”(4). This is a remarkable social change altering the relations of power within the state, which has traditionally been governed by local hierarchies headed by colonist who have been associated with the oppression of individuals. “The Asheninka radically empowered themselves by exploiting the changing nature of the national state…in increasingly globalized contexts lost their legitimacy and maneuverability. Along with being victimized by colonization, the Gran Pajonal were also, “devastated and depopulated during the peak period of the slave hunts”(8). Clearly these groups have suffered serious oppress and deserve the benefits of the grand development schemes transformations in the 70s and 80s, “represented by the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and USAID, and come European countries” (10).

  4. punam123 permalink

    i think colonist from a very long decade has been exploiting the natural resources and the indigenous people. For example, the Native American extinction when the United States began colonizing. The destruction of Amazon and its effect on the indigenious people etc.As you stated in your blog, that the colonits twofold model does not address any ultimate spiritual invitations but rather their specific goal is the collection of material goods. Colonist has always been exploiting the resources for their own benefits. There is no stopping on it. If people object towards their colonizing method they would go to other places and again start colonizing. So, new methods and policies should implement so, colonizer will stop exploiting.

  5. I have a really hard time finding the colonists as the “bad guys” but I also don’t find them entirely innocent, either. Every person plays a part, and I think that when people go into other areas and start to make their own lives, there will always be changes to the area in which they choose to inhabit. The examples that Punam make are sound ones, about the colonization of America and the work that’s going on in the Amazon, and I agree that when people aren’t allowed in one place that they’ll end up finding a new one, but I don’t think that methodologies and policies are the best option. I’m not sure that I find colonizing exploitative, but at the same time, it’s not entirely pure, either. I am, to be honest, on the fence about this article and what’s they describe, and so I won’t go one way or the other. I do believe that the desire for material goods is an unhealthy and dishonorable reason for going into a country, and so in that sense, I find it all immoral. Still, I have a hard time believing that all people who immigrate places are horrible people; perhaps it’s only the ones who start off the project with a specific goal in mind that’s less thoughtful than finding a new home.

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