Chapter 3

Powers of place

Landscape, territory and local belonging in Northwest Amazonia*

Kaj Århem

Notions of landscape, territory and local belonging are, on the whole, little explored in Amazonian ethnography. 1 It is as if the apparently undifferentiated vastness of the lowland tropical forest has discouraged anthropologists from studying local landscape phenomenologies, and as if notions of territory and tenure are assumed to be irrelevant or poorly developed in this scarcely populated vastness. In fact, the Amazonian environment is exceedingly diverse and differentiated (Moran 1993), and is perceived as such by its human inhabitants. Northwest Amazonia is particularly interesting in this regard. Here, elaborate ‘shamanic geographies’ coexist with patrilineal descent systems and explicit notions of ancestral territories. 2 In many respects, Northwest Amazonian cosmologies, like those of the Australian aborigines, are landscape-based (Morphy 1993). Myth and shamanic discourse—the authoritative idiom in which knowledge is codified—are grounded in the local landscape, and the segmentary social organisation is spatially articulated in a distinctive territorial system, identifying exogamous descent groups with particular ancestral territories. The precise nature of this territorial bond, and the subtle connections between cosmology and socio-political organisation—in particular, the relationship between the idea of territory and the practice of tenure—remains, however, largely unexplored.

Two largely opposed views can be discerned in the literature: one where descent ideology and shamanic notions of territory are divorced from tenure and control over subsistence recourses (Goldman 1963; Jackson 1983; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1986); and another where territorial control is seen as a functional aspect of descent and thus pivotal to the working of the social system (Hill and Moran 1983; Moran 1991; Chernela 1993). Drawing on ethnographic material on the Pirá-Paraná groups of the Colombian Amazon, principally the Makuna, the present chapter suggests an alternative interpretation of Northwest Amazonian

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