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The Ecology of the Barí [EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW]

Dec 12, 2014 02:44 PM EST
Amazon rainforest
Deforestation is destroying the Amazon rainforest that thousands of plant and animal species call their home. But while most people focus on its impact on wildlife, few consider the devastation it causes for indigenous peoples.
(Photo : Flickr: Geoff Galice)

Deforestation is destroying the Amazon rainforest that thousands of plant and animal species call their home. But while most people focus on its impact on wildlife, few consider the devastation it causes for indigenous peoples.

Inhabiting the rainforest of the southwest Maracaibo Basin, which is split by the border between Colombia and Venezuela, the Barí have lived off the land for thousands of years. They were content cultivating banana and plantains, hunting and fishing, with little regard for material goods. Then in the 1600s, the first record of the Barí people, Spanish invades began burning, killing, capturing the Barí as slaves and reducing them to missions. Since then, foreigners and disease have continued to challenge these slash-and-burn cultivators, with their population steadily recovering.

And now with seven percent of their land lost to logging, and even more to Westerners trying to turn these simple hunter-gatherers into cattle ranchers, the traditional Barí way of life is rapidly disappearing.

Anthropologists Stephen Beckerman and Roberto Lizarralde spent years among the tribe as part of a long-term study to understand these so-called fierce and unreceptive people. In fact, the two found just the opposite to be true - that the Barí are a truly peaceful people - and the duo prove the point adeptly in their newly released book "The Ecology of the Barí: Rainforest Horticulturists of South America."

The duo's fieldwork provides a rare glimpse into the aboriginal lifestyle of spearfishing and gardening that is quickly fading due to pressures from the modern world. Author Beckerman, who voices his unoptimistic concern for the tribe's well-being, sheds some light on their struggle to keep Barí tradition and culture alive.

NWN: You first studied the Barí people in the 1980s when you joined your co-author on this book, anthropologist Roberto Lizarralde, on his expedition to the southwest Maracaibo Basin where these people live. What got you interested in studying the Barí?

Beckerman: I first became interested in the Barí because they still had an aboriginal economy to a very large extent; that was what attracted me to them.

Once you became acquainted with this group of people, in terms of their society and ecology, was it what you had expected to find, or were there any surprises?

I didn't go in with detailed expectations. I was surprised to discover that even though they spent more time fishing than hunting, fishing was a bigger source of animal protein in the diet, and much more important as a source of nutrition. That was a surprise.

What are some of the other social aspects that you observed in this culture, in terms of things like warfare with other tribes, diet, reproduction, social standing and subsistence practices?

In terms of warfare, that's actually very interesting. They were reported to be extremely fierce. They defended their territory fiercely from oil workers and homesteaders who had invaded it. According to geologists, they had put arrows into at least 100 oil workers. But they had an unbelievable civil peace internally. In all the years Lizarralde and I were there, we never so much as heard an adult raise their voice to anybody, or to us. Until people [were] taken to missionaries and raised off mission, and exposed to general Colombian/Venezuelan peasant values - then, they could be fierce.

But the traditional Barí were extremely peaceful internally, completely peaceful.

One aspect in particular that your work focuses on is "partible paternity" - the idea that a child can have more than one biological father. Can you explain how the Barí came to believe in this idea? Also did it create conflicts among the tribe, when more than one person could lay claim to a child?

As far as how they came to have the idea, nobody knows. What we do know is that it's a very widespread idea in all of South America, probably going back thousands of years.

And as far as whether it produced jealousy with anybody - the answer among the men is, no. Men seemed to be perfectly happy to acknowledge that other men had had sex with their wives and contributed to having a particular child. And the mother's husband was always the social father, and other men did not try to usurp his role.

We did have a couple cases in which women volunteered that they were not happy about their husbands being the secondary fathers of other women's children. There's an obligation if you're a secondary father to give, first of all, parting gifts to the woman you're having sex with, and second, to give gifts to the child when it is born. Of course, those gifts are fish and game. And so a married woman thinks her husband is having an affair with another woman and there's some fish that are going to their children rather than to her own.

How exactly were you able to communicate? Were you able to learn the language over time, or did you rely mostly on body language and hand gestures?

Neither Lizarralde nor I became fluent in the Barí language. However, fairly quickly a number of people became reasonably fluent in Spanish, so that's what we worked in mostly.

One interesting fact about the Barí is that they are incredibly knowledgeable about the biodiversity in Amazonia and use 80 percent of the plants around them. But deforestation, which is a huge issue nowadays, threatens the surrounding plants and trees. How can these people learn to adapt to their changing environment?

Well, there was a big push when I was there to sell the rainforest into pasture and turn everybody into cattle ranchers, which worked for a few years. And then the price of supplies went through the roof and they couldn't afford to keep their cattle healthy. And of course it's a humid, tropical environment where there are all sorts of parasites and diseases and the cows all died. It was a disaster.

The missionaries and government development agencies wanted to turn the Barí into cowboys.

So being cattle ranchers was supposed to replace their way of life as horticulturists?

Yes, because it would bring them into the cash economy. They would sell the cattle for money, they would have money so they could pay taxes and buy manufactured goods, and so on and so forth.

With the cattle failing on them, as you said, and becoming a disaster, were they able to return to their gardening way of life or do they still have that Western influence?

They definitely still have Western influence. They live mostly in pounds now, their former mission settlements. They grow cash crop like rice, bananas, cacao, and they raise pigs and chickens, [for example].

You mentioned the missionaries in South America, but over the years other modern influences have been the introduction of schools, literacy programs, medicine and religion. Do you think future generations of Barí will be able to uphold some of their long-held traditions, or will they see their culture change to the point that all of that is lost?

I'm afraid that that's more likely - that most of it will be lost. There are some Barí that are concerned about preserving the traditional way of life; they do some things to preserve it. For instance, they still teach boys how to go spear fishing because their grandfathers did that. There are a few things like that. But basically they've been overwhelmed by the national culture of Venezuela and Columbia.

In the past the Barí have had to deal with countless outside influences, but it seems that this time they might be outmatched. Where do you think they'll be in another 50 years?

It's a thought that makes me very sad. I just hope they'll have some land and some cultural autonomy left. But I don't know if I should be optimistic even about that.

I should add that the Barí homeland in Columbia - and increasingly in Venezuela - is not under the control of the national government in either country; it's a guerilla refuge. There are two guerilla movements there: the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Do you have any plans to visit the Barí people in the future?

Not until the ELN and the FARC make peace. Apparently, there's a price on my head. About 15-20 years ago, I got an email from a missionary I had known in Columbia asking if I was alright; there's a rumor going around that I've been kidnapped. I think it was the ELN that had snatched some poor Norwegian agricultural officer who had been in the area trying to help peasants improve their agriculture. He was tall and he spoke Spanish and they thought he was me... They eventually let him go.

One more thing: when Hugo Chávez first came to be president of Venezuela, one of his first acts involved finally giving Indians a fair share. Their lands would be demarcated and guaranteed by law. And [after] the very first set of maps and markers were presented to the commission that was supposed to be in charge of this project, nothing happened. And it's still the case that nothing has happened.

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