The Life of People in Amazonia: The View of an `Indian’ from India

The  presence of native `Indians’ in Amazonia makes the duplication in the title necessary. I should be cautious in writing this essay since my experience in Amazonia is limited to 20 days of field work around three major settlements – Manaus, Santarem and Belem in Brazil and discussions in a set of universities there. (By the way, I could visit these areas only due to the generosity of Brazilian researchers.  One university there bought my international flight tickets, a few professors arranged my meetings and field visits, and a set of researchers and students accompanied me as guides and translators without taking any money.)

There are other Indians who have lived in Amazonia for a much longer period. Nine priests from Kerala work in (and a set of indigenous villages around) Santarem for a number of years. One Indian who has migrated to Manaus in search of employment has become a successful businessman there. My colleagues Dileep Ranjekar and S Giridhar visited a set of schools in Belem about a decade ago and wrote about it.

My focus is on the life of `marginal’ social groups like those who depend on the tributaries of Amazon River, and also indigenous people. The first impression based on visits to a set of their settlements is that there is no serious `food poverty’ under normal circumstances there. Most parts of Amazonian nature continue to be `bounty’ and `abundant’. People’s diet comprises of three major items from the locality: Different products made from Cassava root which is grown in the `firm ground’ of the region; a number of fruits from trees and plants, and Acai is the most popular one; and then fish from the majestic Amazon and its tributaries. These materials continue to be available despite all deforestation, unplanned development and industrial extraction. The low population density (for example, 2.5 per square kilometre in the Amazonas state of Brazil) ensures this per-capita availability of food.

The absence of a major structural fragmentation like that between landowners and landless agricultural workers among these people, and a relatively higher value accorded to female labour (and their status) among most (but not all) social groups there mean that the resources available are distributed less unequally among them. This facilitates an overall improvement in the welfare of people as and when there are opportunities in this regard.

Most people in this area have access to land or forest for their sustenance. The absence of food poverty may have created another trend. Unlike in other parts of the world, there is no major impetus among the adults of these communities in Amazonia to migrate to the cities and be there as workers and residents in urban slums. Even those who go to cities for higher education may prefer to come back to their own communities.

There are other `enabling’ factors for people living there. Since Amazonia is huge and has long boarders with different countries, it requires a boarder protection force which can withstand the difficulties of the terrain. Hence the grown up boys are likely to be inducted into defence forces and they may get a pension after serving the army for a decade or so. There are other governmental schemes which provide financial support for others (such as older people) who live in these communities.

This description should not give an impression that the life is smooth and comfortable in Amazonia. Though food is not scarce, the scarcity of safe drinking water is an issue, especially where the river has higher levels of pollution. They may have to buy and transport drinking water (in cans) for their daily use. Though there is electricity connection, its availability can be erratic. The access to their settlements is mainly through boats which may approach remote settlements once in a day. Travelling to cities would take one to several days in a boat for most of these habitations.

Though there have been attempts to improve the healthcare during the last couple of decades, those illnesses which require admission in hospitals may warrant travelling to one of the cities such as Manaus and staying there (and this can be costly). Though childbirth has been managed traditionally within the community, there is a growing tendency to use hospitals for this purpose and that may also require travelling to and staying in cities.

I have discussed the developments in the schooling of these communities elsewhere. There has been a substantial improvement in schooling during the last two decades. It is reflected in the availability of schools and the facilities there. There have been efforts to train teachers from these communities through special programs in universities. However there are persisting challenges. These communities may have to depend on teachers from cities for certain subjects and in higher grades. There is a scarcity of teachers who are willing to stay in these communities. The government is trying to solve this issue by facilitating online lectures. However it may be leading to poorer learning achievements of students. Socialisation in closed circles and the lack of a pursuit of opportunities elsewhere would encourage girls to become pregnant at the age of 15-17, and this may have a negative impact on the continuation of their education.

There are also conflicts, contestations and challenges to the life of people there. The federal and state governments (especially those which focus on economic growth) are interested in opening up more and more areas for industrial activities such as mining. These come into conflict with the rights of, and the use of resources by, local people and may affect the quality of their life. Private companies are interested in intruding into local production systems. They may use hired workers for, say fishing in the river and this may affect the incomes of local people who are self-employed in fishing.  Some of those non-indigenous agriculturists who cultivate large stretches of land also get into violent conflict with indigenous people. On the other hand, there are a few models where industrial production and the nature-dependence of local people go hand in hand without much conflict. Indigenous people and other such `marginal’ groups are politically and socially active currently and hence their interests cannot be suppressed easily.

Lessons for others

The people in Amazonia continue to have a higher level of direct dependence on nature for their sustenance. Even when they cultivate, it is with minimal external inputs. This is somewhat similar to the life of indigenous people in other localities (say like those in Papua Island in Asia or in parts of Africa), or to some extent, that of tribal population in India. What does development and modernisation mean to these communities and groups of people, is an interesting basis to reflect on development in general.

There are two undesirable and extreme positions in this regard. One is a mindless effort to integrate these people into the mainstream and industrialised world. This has been the attempt of not only colonialist extractors but also nationalist modernisers and serves the interests of a capitalist class which is interested in nothing but profits.  Such a pursuit of development or modernisation would make these people, at the best, the lower-tier workers of an industrial production system. That may lead to the destruction of their natural endowments and knowledge valuable for humanity as a whole.

The other undesirable view is the glorification of the life of these nature-dependent communities which encourages sections of activists and intelligentsia to argue against all kinds of human development for such people. Those who hold such a view want to preserve the territories of such people like those earmarked for wildlife conservation. These scholars and activists neglect the internal conditions and challenges faced by nature-dependent people and their own aspirations for an improvement on certain aspects of their life.

These extreme views are faulty for a number of reasons. There is a need to reflect critically on the life of these people along with the actions of external intruders. There is a need to pursue a development path that values their linkage with nature, their knowledge and community traditions, but that enhances their capabilities through education and appropriate health-care. There may be a need to encourage these people to reduce family size so that the quantum of land and forest resources available per person does not decline that drastically in future. There is a need to respect their aspirations, with an evolved understanding of human rights. Combining all these may not be an easy task but may require the presence of multiple discourses in public domain including the own articulations of these nature-dependent people.

The need to look into the life of these nature-dependent people is important for another reason too, when the global population is concerned about the sustainability of its dominant development path. Is it possible to have a happier life for the humanity as a whole without enhancing the material consumption of all to a level matching that in highly industrialised and developed countries? The trajectory of the life of such nature-dependent people may give a few insights in this regard.

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