Really enjoyed getting to know Anishinaabe plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s way of thinking the other day. She spoke on campus about what we can learn from plants. Not some sort of metaphor—Kimmerer draws from indigenous teachings to argue that we should see plants as sovereign, sentient beings. There’s some Western precedent for this, too; apparently Plato argued that plants have souls.
Such a view leads to some interesting perspectives. Kimmerer talked about how “humans and plants worked together to create corn,” a cool way of thinking about the breeding process that turned a Mexican wild grass into the most important food source in the world.
There’s more here than semantics, philosophy, or spirituality. Kimmerer argued that Western cultural dominance has imposed the idea that plants are objects—referred to as “it”—rather than the pronoun we’d use for a living being, and the pronouns that her Potawatomi language still uses. In her view, this objectification is a key precursor to the abuse and exploitation of nature.
For the bulk of human history and until very recently, Kimmerer’s view was the dominant one. She argued that our lives since the Industrial Revolution have been humanity’s first experiment in treating the world as if it isn’t alive. “The results are in, and they don’t look good,” she said. If the grim projections of our environmental future are to be believed, she’s certainly right.
El Alto, built on the plateau beyond the valley of La Paz. It’s often referred to as the capital of Aymara culture, and the city’s growth reflects the growing urbanization of Bolivia–El Alto’s population was 11,000 in 1952, 307,000 in 1985, and about 800,000 today. Its endless streets of cubic red brick buildings are filled with Bolivians who combine urban life with rural custom, taking the Aymara language and culture and adapting it to city life. It’s a symbol of the increased power and cosmopolitanism of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples. They are still building.
Another blog post that I wrote in January and never posted.
So I’ve been pretty captivated lately by the history of the Inca state of Vilcabamba, founded in 1539.
Just a decade earlier, the Incas had ruled a 770,000 square mile area ranging from modern-day Colombia to modern-day Argentina. Spanish invasion began in 1532, and by 1539 the Inca survivors controlled just a small patch of thick, remote Amazon jungle around the city of Vilcabamba.
For eight years, Vilcabamba was ruled by Titu Cusi, a politically savvy leader who kept Spanish invasion at bay through appeasement, acceptance of Spanish missionaries, and diplomatic stalling.
With one exception:
An innocent Spanish prospector called Romero appeared in Vilcabamba in 1570 and asked permission to search for gold. ‘The Inca gave him permission, and he discovered rich veins in his search for mines. In a few days he mined quantities of gold. Romero thought that the Inca would be delighted, and brought him the gold in the hope of negotiating a new licence for a period of months during which he could mine much. When the Inca saw the gold he thought it could arouse greed and attract thousands of Spaniards, so that he would lose his province. He therefore ordered them to kill the Spaniard Romero.’ Intercession by Diego Ortiz could not save Romero, who was beheaded and thrown into a river. This was the only Spaniard killed on Titu Cusi’s orders. The Inca rightly saw that the lure of mineral wealth was the one magnet that would certainly bring Spaniards swarming into Vilcabamba. –John Hemming
Vilcabamba was finally conquered in 1572 after the Spanish decided its example was a threat to their colonial project.
What’s crazy, though, is how much the dynamics sensed by Titu Cusi still operate today. If you’re a rural community trying to live on your ancestral territory, one of the most disastrous things that can happen is the discovery of natural wealth on your land.
I’m doing some work at the Potato Park, a project aimed at preserving Andean culture and potato biodiversity. One staffer recently argued to me that the project would be impossible if gold or copper existed in Potato Park territory.
To wit: Peru recently approved 18 new wells to drill for natural gas in the Amazon, despite studies arguing that the arrival of workers from far away could spread “fatal epidemics” in the Kugapakori-Nahua-Nanti Reserve for indigenous peoples. Ostensibly pro-indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales is pushing a highway project through indigenous land despite widespread opposition, in order to facilitate natural gas extraction. In Honduras, conflicts over mines and dams have killed dozens in places like Río Blanco. It can literally mean the different between death and survival for a culture today: Illegal logging in Awá territory in Brazil has caused a ”genocide” of disease that whittled the Awá population to just 400 before the Brazilian government took action against loggers. It still remains to be seen whether the evictions came in time to save the group.