Issue - July 2007

July 2007

In this issue we invite you to read and enjoy: by Mikko Mäkimartti, Living with the Yuracare; Santa Teresa de Jesús Convent is now a museum that can be appreciated by the public in all its splendour. Climate change talk is more than hot air by Lucy Witter. more...

July 2007

Living with the yuracare

Mikko Makimartti recalls five weeks studying the Yuracaré people from within their remote Amazonian community

By: Mikko Mäkimartti

In one of the deepest parts of the Bolivian jungle, between the ancient Amazon tributaries Securé and Ichilo, and safely out of reach from the nearest towns, live one of Bolivia´s oldest and most remote peoples, the Yuracaré. To reach the Yuracaré community of Sanandita involves a half-hour canoe ride into lush, humid vegetation, after taking a four-wheel drive into the stunning Isiboro Securé National Park, at least an hour from the nearest town – the Aymara and Quechua settlement of San Gabriel.

The Yuracaré is one of Bolivia´s oldest indigenous groups, colonizing the tropical foothills of the Cordillera Oriental, a range originating from the Peruvian Andes, as they have done for longer than any anthropologists have been able to record. But they have not always lived so remotely in the jungle: as communities living in the highlands, or the Altiplano, have migrated slowly down into the lowlands searching for cultivable land, the Yuracaré people have sought to preserve their customs and way of life by shifting their communities further and further away from large settlements, and further into the jungle, ending today with their annexing between the Securé and Ichilo rivers, where most of their 50 different settlements are.

Traditionally, the Yuracaré lived by hunting, gathering, and fishing. They were nomadic people who were used to moving on when the land they inhabited could no longer provide for them. As a result of this lifestyle, most members of this group had little or no contact with ´the outside world´ or other peoples in towns or cities. As ´civilisation´ has crept into their domain, each member of the Yuracaré has reacted in a different way - some have acclimatized easily to dealing with external groups and people, while others have retreated further still into isolation. For this reason, much of their lifestyle remains a mystery to the rest of the world, and few anthropologists have lived in the region long for any notable period of time. There are almost no records of how Yuracaré lifestyles have changed over the years, and the effects of creeping civilization.

For Sanandita, indigenous life goes on despite this threat. Fourteen families live here, beside a secluded lagoon created by run offs from the river Isiboro, with a narrow path running alongside it. But their idea of family structures and relationships between families have changed in order to maintain the strength of the Yuracaré – in the past, a family unit used to be much like that of any contemporary family, consisting of parents, children, and grandparents.

To the outsider, it would seem that Yuracare life is like a seven-day weekend. The lagoon and rivers provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of freshwater fish, while the land yields a selection of game, as well as a wealth of vegetables, including yucca, maize, fruits and herbs. The only reason to visit the nearest supermarket, by taking a canoe an hour or so upriver and against the current, is to stock up on bullets for hunting rifles, and maybe alcohol. As the land provides so much, there is a lot of time to take part in family life or social activities, sitting in circles outside someone´s hut to catch up on gossip, listen to the radio, laugh, eat, or drink chicha. Without work schedules, there is little pressure: two of three hours a day, according to author Roy Querejazu Lewis´2005 book about the Yuracaré, is enough time to carry out all the tasks needed to fulfil basic needs. What is equally important to traditional life here is to enjoy oneself, and the Yuracaré have made three-day ritualistic lcohol-soaked birthday parties an integral part of their culture.

The Yuracaré maintain very different ideas about personal freedom and what those in cities might call the ´work – life balance´. In his book, Lewis also found that the Yuracare have never subscribed to the philosophy of accumulating wealth or producing surplus to sell. However, today, the Yuracaré do use and make money, mostly by cultivating small coca plantations, or by opening their communities to tourism – choosing the latter when the former means cutting down trees.

Talking about religion and the Yuracaré people is complicated. From the late 17th century until the early 20th century, there was regular contact with missionary groups. As a result, Sanandita claims to be a Catholic community, and there is a church, but the last visit from a priest was over 15 years ago. Following the end of these visits, people moved away from missionary-introduced village structures - in which the houses surrounded a central square – to their present form.

Indigenous beliefs persist and many older community members believe in the Master of the Forest, an evil spirit that wanders the forest in the guise of a tiger. Some talk about a person living in nearby San Benito with the power to split open tree trunks. Hunting traditions and stories of spirits that threaten, or help hunters, also remain: hunters must not take any money into the forest, and should eat the tail of any monkeys they capture on their hunting expedition to protect against being attacked by tigers.

They should avoid the hunt altogether if they dream about animals or carrying anything heavy the night before. Observing this, it is hard to say with conviction that the Yuracaré are devoted Catholics – although some villagers believe there are plans to build a new church and invite a new priest to stay. Indeed, the Yuracaré are constantly negotiating threats to their way of life from modern civilization and religion. Change is hard to stop when the younger people of the community see visiting tourists brandishing various intriguing gadgets – cameras, mobile phones - and they learn about life outside. As young people observe the opportunities in the outside world, they want to explore them and as many Yuracaré decide to continue their education, they must obtain the money to leave the community. The current generation is unique in the challenge it faces: to take up these new opportunities, while deciding to try and observe – or abandon – the traditions of their community. Does choosing education mean sa ing goodbye to the laid-back lifestyle the Yuracaré have always had?

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