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Human Rights Quarterly 24.2 (2002) 563-565
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Endangered Peoples of Latin America:
Struggles to Survive and Thrive
Endangered Peoples of Latin America: Struggles to Survive and Thrive (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, Susan C. Stonich ed., 2001) pp. 232.
Published in the series Endangered Peoples of the World, this textbook format publication provides an intriguing look at specific challenges for cultural survival by different segments of the population in Latin America.
It has much merit but it also can mislead its reader to some serious misinterpretations. As a study topic, it is rather unique to find a book about "endangered peoples," which is not equivalent with "indigenous peoples." This rather vague terminology nevertheless sets the tone for an interesting collection, including a useful compilation of case studies, which is worth reading. But the reader should be very clearly aware of numerous uneven assumptions, which are made in this publication. I must argue with a number of premises set out in the "Series Foreword" by Barbara Rose Johnson. 1 She defines cultural diversity as being created mainly by isolation. While this may certainly be true, it is quite crucial to describe the nature of this isolation, whether it has been self-imposed or forced upon the individual groups. This is most relevant in the context of advocating a protection and/or [End Page 563] a continuation of the actual status. In this context, there is quite a danger of misinterpreting or misunderstanding culture change. Not every group or population listed here in this volume would choose to continue their state, whether isolated or not, had they the privilege to choose. There is a certain protectionist paternalism underlying Johnson's argument. Their vulnerability is a key characteristic of these groups, but opposition to change is not. Their geographic isolation, a rather relative concept, and poverty may be the only real differences from the main population, i.e. other village[r]s. In general I think the isolation factor has been highly overrated by western civilizations that deem themselves and their systems superior, including trade and transportation. They thereby ignore extensive ancient trade routes, which have existed all over the world since time immemorial.
I feel there is a general need to accept not only the complexity of older and other societies, but also the fact that they had extensive networks, not only for trade, but also other networks such as religious exchanges, etc. But most importantly one needs to allow for their right to change too, thereby accepting reality, i.e. that every society changes all the time for many reasons, and that there exists no pristine undiscovered populations, nor has there ever. Societies all traded with somebody, neighbors, at one time or another, sometimes over very long distances, especially for those living in so-called geographical isolation.
I fully agree with Barbara Rose Johnson that "Cultural survival" is "not solely a concern of indigenous peoples." 2 This series, she writes, "demonstrates that culture is not a static set . . . it is a flexible, resilient tool that has historically provided humans with the means to adapt . . . survive, and, at times thrive." 3
A general series foreword as well as a specific introduction by the volume editor sets the tone for thirteen case studies from Latin and South America: from Mexico (three) through Central America (seven) to Ecuador, (two) and Peru (one). This geographical limitation is, however, not duplicated by the choice of study groups. While the term South America may be a little exaggerated for only three case studies from Ecuador and Peru, it is on the other hand difficult to find a unifying criteria for the types of groups which are studied. Unable to find one common criterion, I concluded that the description "endangered" must have been chosen to cover them. Even though at least one of each of the following is represented, they cannot be defined as indigenous peoples, tribal or linguistic groups, social or geographical entities. It is a mixed bag of all of the above.
Some are ethnically homogeneous, such as the Miskito, the Kuna...