Anthropological and archeological research in Brazil points to ways that indigenous Amazonians are integral to the protection of biomes – or domains of nature with characteristic flora, fauna, soil and more. Such research can call into question the boundaries between the categories of “nature” and “humanity”.
Forest management is an ancient practice, and archeology has been key for showing the entanglement of the natural and human worlds. Rather than being categorised as either “wild” or “wrecked”, biomes are coming to be seen as “rooted in and contingent on human actions and social configurations of the past”, as described in The Social Lives of Forests by Susanna Hecht, Kathleen Morrison and Christine Padoch. The composition of soils, rivers, flora and fauna reveal the complex relationship between humans and nature over time. Amazonians started to manage forests about 4,000 years ago, Charles Clement and other researchers wrote in 2015. Long-term occupation formed fertile Amazonian dark earth from acidic soils, explained Eduardo G Neves and James Petersen. In some locales such as the Upper Xingu during the first half of the first millennium AD, high population sites were built and connected by roads forming lattice-like structures, the land in between managed with weirs, ponds, causeways, fields for thatch and fruit trees, according the Michael Heckenberger and others.
Many contemporary indigenous peoples in Brazil – in all 255 different groups comprising less than 1% of the Brazilian population, according to the 2010 census – continue forest management with sustainable practices that attract international attention and support. The Kayapo practice of continual low-level burning favors inaja and tucumá palms and is linked to the formation of dark earth. The Ka’apor encourage old-growth forest that enhances species diversity, and this practice initiated a project funded by the World Wildlife Foundation and Rio’s Museu do Índio in 2009 to support distribution of their forest knowledge and help fight logging. Upper Xinguans, who manage their landscape with fire and have monitored rainfall for more than 1,000 years, have a wealth of generational knowledge about current rainfall changes and conditions leading to uncontrollable fire. The Associação Rede de Sementes do Xingu with the help of the Instituto Socioambiental has enlisted Xinguans since 2007 to gather native seeds to sell for replanting of deforested areas. With indigenous lands comprising approximately one fifth of the Brazilian Amazon, these kinds of practices contribute to environmental management, explained David Nepstad in 2005.
Another body of work questioning the boundaries between nature and culture is that of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and his students, called perspectivism. Based on his fieldwork with the Araweté and mastery of lowland ethnographies, Viveiros de Castro has put forth an influential general characterisation of Amazonian thought and explains that “Amerindian thought” is guided by “multinaturalism” – a mode that considers humans and animals as united by their common humanity yet with each holding different perspectives. In contrast, “naturalism” characterises Western thought, a mode founded on a shared biological nature among all living things, but a division between nature and culture, with culture being the force that separates humans from animals. Western thought regards agency and creativity as belonging to humans in contrast to the more passive nature. With the aim of “decolonising thought”, multinaturalism and naturalism are not simply different cultural perspectives on a shared world, but rather entirely different realities or ontologies.
Multinaturalism, naturalism and perspectivism
With respect to the Kawaiwete, a people who have relocated to the Xingu River in Central Brazil, multinaturalism characterises the domains of myth and shamanism. According to Kawaiwete shamans, deep in the forest and underwater live vestiges of beings that populated the earth in mythic times, before humans and animals divaricated. These ancient and powerful beings watch over forest animals and consider them their children. These beings take human souls in revenge for animals killed in the hunt, and they also keep the souls of the sick, the dead and the unborn until shamans can negotiate their return to the human world. Aspects of what many would call part of “the natural” environment are always en route to becoming transformed into the human and vice versa. Animals are also non-human subjectivities, and moral codes guide engagement with them. This sort of ontology “causes the human condition to cease being ‘special’ and to become instead the default mode or generic condition of any species”, explained Viveiros de Castro in 2018. “The domain of nature...in essence disappears.”
Critics observe that perspectivism leads to the portrayal of distinctive indigenous traditions in terms that are basically an alter-image of “the West”. Perspectivism has inspired field research in other parts of the non-western world where similar “kinds of thought” have been identified, with some suggesting this leads perhaps to an essentialised “global indigenous thought.”
Multinaturalism has also become a position from which the problems of capitalist development can be addressed. Perspectivism, because of its elegant formulation and its grounding in myth rather than historical complexity, offers a vision of another kind of world possible in the future beyond that of the current world system. As such, perspectivism has the potential to galvanize support in industrialised nations for indigenous peoples and their environments. Shamans working through translators like Davi Kopenawa Yanomami have become compelling spokespersons far beyond Amazonia for this other way to live. With respect to protecting biomes and habitats, perspectivism offers a vision of both an indigenous world and an ideal future where there is no category of the human differentiated from nature and therefore no human domination of nature.
However, perspectivism can suggest that Amazonians live in separate realities when in fact they confront the material problems shared by all, including competition over resources and pollution from fossil fuels. Lucas Bessire and David Bond suggest, instead, considering peoples’ actual working relations with the natural world. This would mean addressing both how indigenous peoples such as the Kawaiwete have shared some goals of multiethnic projects even while they interacted with the mythic beings protecting forest life. These projects include the midcentury government colonisation project called the “March to the West”, which in addition to opening areas to exploitation also brought medical experts to the interior, or the recent introduction of the European honeybee into the Xingu region. Studying how indigenous alterity entangles with projects shared across such boundaries can provide concrete ideas on how or which conservation or even development projects involving Amazonians might work.
Such research contributes to shifting our conceptualisation of biomes and habitats and new ways of working toward their protection. Archeology and cultural ecology produce fine-grained understandings of human roles in particular contexts and their historical trajectories. Perspectivism, providing compelling, even if abstract, philosophical positions, can be used as a platform to fight environmental destruction. Critiques of perspectivism document the way environmental protection or degradation happens in more historically specific ways, across interethnic divides and conceptual worlds. All these studies bring greater awareness of Brazilian Indigenous peoples’ long history of environmental engagement, crucial in attracting international support.
Suzanne Oakdale is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.
This article first appeared on Yale Global Online.