Salamanca and the City: Culture Credits, Nature Credits, and the Modern Moral Economy of Indigenous Bolivia./Salamanca et la Ville: Credit Culturel, Credit Naturel et Economie Morale Moderne Chez Les Indigenes De Bolivie

Article excerpt

  We shall be asking what is the significance of this constantly
  recurring overlap of biological, moral, and economic planes ...'
  Jeanne Favret-Saada, Deadly words: witchcraft in the Bocage (1980:

Anthropology has of late devoted considerable attention to discussion of 'alternative' or 'multiple' modernities (Appadurai 1996; Arce & Long 2000; Gaonkar 2001). The present article is differently motivated. Rather than describing another variation on the modern, it marshals its evidence around the old-fashioned notion of vanguardism. To do so, it considers a set of fantastic stories about knowledge and obligation that circulate among denizens of a remote tropical Bolivian indigenous community, Isoso. It describes how these stories relate to both the historical and the contemporary experience of people in the community.

The latter is marked by involvement in two externally funded collaborative projects: one focused on traditional medicine, the other on a national park. The argument is that in these environmental conservation and traditional medicine undertakings, Isoseno practice is vanguardist because it brings about (while also reflecting upon) novel modes of engaging both nature and culture. For this reason, the particularly situated and historically contingent way in which Isoseno people critically discuss the experience merits thoughtful comparative attention.

The present report draws on fieldwork carried out in Bolivia between 1997 and 2000. Isoseno people speak Guarani and take their name from their home territory, 'Isoso'--a hispanicization of a Guarani phrase for 'water that goes'. (1) Nine thousand Isoseno people live dispersed in twenty-seven villages strung along one hundred kilometres of a seasonally flooded river in the Chaco, lowland South America's arid central plain (see Fig. 1). Since the late nineteenth century, Isoseno have combined long-standing practices of maize agriculture, fishing, and hunting with seasonal wage-labour migration to create their way of life. In the mid-1990s, Isoseno also began actively to pursue projects that might provide regular salaried employment to community members. Most of these revolve around the local environment, local culture, or local identity and are funded multilaterally by grants, loans, or other foreign aid. The traditional medicine development project and the national park management initiative were two major endeavours underway in the community at the time of my fieldwork. Both explicitly included the Isoseno as expert partners, and both integrated scientific with local knowledge in their operations. (For a detailed account of the two projects, see Lowrey 2003.)

The analysis presented here takes up the fact that undertakings of this kind--that is, environmental and cultural collaborations involving funding and scientists from wealthy nations, private capital, transnational co-operation between state agencies, and traditional peoples in poor nations--create new calibrations among radically different systems for moral/qualitative and material/quantitative evaluation. They are sustained by necessarily novel social relations of property. For example, funders effectively pay Isoseno a kind of rent when they earmark aid money to help them manage their territory in a particular way. It is a special kind of rent that is not a payment for the use of the land but instead a recognition of what environmental economists call its 'existence value'. By the same token, indigenous intellectual property, and even something as intangible as indigenous identity, may now for some purposes be reckoned in terms of actual or potential money value. The much-ballyhooed (and rapidly fading) 1990s rush on indigenous medicinal knowledge was fuelled by fevered--and fleeting--speculation that perhaps the 'Next Big Biomedical Thing' was in the hands of indigenes. The traditional medicine project had its origins in that mid- to late-1990s moment. …