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Final Report Summary - IEIPWA (Indigenous Epistemologies and Images of Public Wealth in Amazonia)

IEIPWA focused on the place of indigenous epistemologies in intercultural and highly politicized interactions that revolve around the interface of development in Amazonia: on the one hand, the external planning and implementation of development projects in indigenous territories; on the other, indigenous people’s own critical responses to such projects. Research project developed from extensive fieldwork in Colombian Amazonia – involving collective research with indigenous communities and individuals in support of processes of self-determination – and from several years of consulting experience in the field of sustainable development. Fieldwork was carried out mostly among the Gente de Centro, ‘People of the Center’, a linguistically diverse, but culturally relatively uniform ensemble of ethnic groups that includes Uitoto, Bora, Miraña, Muinane, Andoke, Nonuya and Ocaina. This interethnic ensemble comprises approximately 7,500 individuals in the Caquetá, Putumayo and Amazon regions of Colombia, and in the northern Amazon region of Peru. Research involved transcription, systematization, and analysis of field data collected from 1996 to 2010, and substantial bibliographic research, which benefitted from the bibliographic resources at CES, the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá, Colombia, and the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, as well as other material available for free consultation or for purchase. Analysis of ethnographic materials was mainly based in anthropological theory, but it also extended to include theoretical contributions from cognitive science, philosophy, history, and social theory.
The project began with an analysis of indigenous interpretations of development, which provided an entry to indigenous notions of wealth, value, and wellbeing, and to how these notions are deployed in contexts of intercultural relations. Indigenous people consider Western money to be potentially pathogenic. Similarly, they include development in their etiology as one of the “illnesses of the white man’s path”. Such interpretations suggest not only that the indigenous and the Western pursuit of wellbeing are at odds, but also that the notion of wellbeing is embedded in ‘orders of worth’ that are, at least partly, culturally specific. In order to gain a deeper understanding on these cultural meanings, and how they are mobilized to assess, challenge, and transform the implicit beliefs of development as well as its practical workings, the project inquired into indigenous epistemologies, that is, indigenous theories of knowledge and modes of knowing. Indigenous epistemologies not only involve sophisticated theories of cognition, sociality and personal agency, but also inform native senses of history, interculturality, and cultural change. The consideration of indigenous epistemologies, not as data to be interpreted by our own theories, but as theories and practices in their own right, sheds light on how indigenous people endeavor to cure the illness of development. What’s more, it reveals a different horizon for the pursuit of wellbeing that can make a valuable contribution for re-thinking and renovating Western paradigms with regard to democratic participation, cultural rights, and international cooperation.

IEIPWA’s Main Questions
1. How does work appear in indigenous social and epistemological theories? In what sense it is seen to contribute to personal and collective wealth?
2. What is ‘knowledge’ for the People of the Centre? How is it acquired and transmitted? How indigenous epistemologies relate to native notions of wellbeing?
3. How does the People of the Center’s theory of knowledge affect social agency?
4. How public wealth can be understood in the context of non-state societies?

IEIPWA’s Conclusions
Indigenous responses to Development place emphasis on the key concept of work, which is conceived in native terms as the process that materializes the ancestral law – the Creator’s Knowledge of Life – from which wellbeing ensues. Work is a defining element of personal and collective identity. Through this daily pursuit real people are made; humanity and sociality are in fact conceived as projects in the making, by no means as finished products. Such ongoing process of humanization also depends on the correct management of natural resources, and of ‘contractual’ relations with the spiritual owners of such resources. People’s work and personal responsibility is to maintain the weave of life through processes that, at the same time, capture, transform, regenerate, and organize diversity. The ultimate goal of this daily endeavor is to achieve generalized health and abundance. Embodied notions of wellbeing are also the starting point for articulating internal differences and for building consensus in an interethnic and intercultural arena.
For the People of the Centre all knowledge originated in mythical times. As the “essence” of the creator, knowledge is a cosmogonic substance/thought that imbues the world with life, and a ‘defense’ set up against malevolent agents that sabotage the ordered world with powers, but without proper knowledge. Knowledge involves a normative dimension; it is the law of origin, entrusted to people so that they can live well together in community, interact properly with other people, animals, and spirits, and maintain life and good health. But, perhaps more interesting, are the connotations of knowledge as heuristic search involving the persistent exploration, testing, and interpretation of mythical clues by learners in daily practice. Since all knowledge is already given, for the People of the Center individuals do not construct knowledge but achieve it through engagement in a physically and spiritually demanding personal quest that is simultaneously a process of self-discovering and selfshaping. The phenomenological consideration of modes of knowledge transmission-acquisition reveal that the People of the Center’s own understandings of knowledge processes are not articulated on mind-body dualism. Rather, mind-body mediates knowledge’s materialization from dreamed to real, from purposeful intention to tangible, generalized abundance. Real knowledge must bring about the state of tranquility, conviviality, and generalized good health that constitute ideal community life. It is evaluated on the basis of underlying intention and tangible contribution to generalized wellbeing. This theory of knowledge upholds the People of the Center in assessing, transforming, and resisting foreign knowledge regimes, such as those deployed by development’s technical knowledge apparatus, sustaining indigenous self-dependence against assistentialist development programs. At the same time, it highlights the achieved character of social life, putting emphasis on one dimension of culture – its orientation to the future – that could have radical implications for supporting indigenous people’s prospects in the global world.
The analysis of these perspectives shed light on notions of property, value, and wealth in native Amazonian societies. Accumulation and abundance are opposite notions in indigenous understandings of wellbeing, and wealth is self-destroying if it is not circulated through the logics of commensality and reciprocity. In a way, the only enduring wealth is public wealth. Such realization proved not only that the understanding of value is situational, and varies according to different regimes of value, but also that notions of value are embedded in ‘orders of worth’ which undo the value/values dichotomy.

IEIPWA’s Impact
The creation of more sustainable alternatives to dominant development models must be grounded on the recognition of different epistemological configurations, as much as it must engage an understanding of local forms of organization through which demands for recognition are articulated and expressed.
In 195 contemporary sovereign states around the world there are more than 5000 indigenous groups. However, the perspectives held by these ethnic minorities on both the goals of, and the ways to pursue, social and economic development, are rarely taken into account. The analysis of the place of different systems of value in people’s economic and social rationales and in their notions of wellbeing are particularly relevant to current debates about interculturality and plurinationality, and lay at the foundation of the definition of innovative public policies, and sustainable alternatives to dominant development paradigms.
IEIPWA results should be relevant for policy makers and NGOs working on issues of development and cultural and indigenous rights. IEIPWA potential contribution to intercultural intelligibility and emancipatory forms of indigenous engagement with modernity should be relevant to civil society and indigenous organizations as well.


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