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  • Being Amerindian Today:Livelihoods, Technology, and Dynamic Indigenous Knowledges
  • Elisa Bignante*

*Photography by Andrea Borgarello, unless otherwise noted.

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Figure 1.

—Katoonarib, South Rupununi, Guyana. A woman roasting cassava. The Guiana Shield region of South America is largely inhabited by thriving Indigenous communities, whose knowledge and skills are indispensable for effective conservation of the region and are a great asset to world culture.

It is well known in human geography that Indigenous knowledges are often too simplistically associated with “tradition,” with the risk of crystallizing alleged “traditional identities” without taking into account their dynamic nature and the historical, socioeconomic, and political processes in which these develop (Bebbington 1993; Jackson and Warren 2005). Indigenous [End Page 188] knowledges have been in constant and close contact (and contrast) with Western culture and Western capitalism since at least the fifteenth century.

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Figure 2.

—Wowetta, North Rupununi, Guyana. Along the centuries, and through the action of missionaries, Christian religion has spread among the Indigenous communities of the Amazon forest.

Technological change and new products and ideas have long spread within Indigenous communities (Agrawal 1995), as part of a process of adaptation that is not necessarily the result of a hegemonic tendency toward modernity, globalization, and the loss of cultural identity (Briggs 2005; Belton 2010). Nevertheless, we are so used to conceptualizing the Indigenous as “traditional” that the presence of technology in Indigenous people’s lives somehow looks “out of place”: instead, ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) are an integral part of Indigenous communities’ practices, as the pictures will show.

This visual essay explores the diffusion of technologies and new commodities within the Indigenous communities living in the Amazon forest of Guyana, South America: the Makushi people who inhabit the northern area of the Rupununi river region, and the Wapishana people who live in the southern area. [End Page 189]

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Figure 3.

—Wowetta, North Rupununi, Guyana. Cars allow a faster connection between villages. In the picture a cow has just been killed and is about to be transported to other villages in order to be sold.

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Figure 4.

—The Rupununi River, North Rupununi, Guyana. The Guiana Shield contains ten to fifteen percent of the world’s freshwater reserves and is home to an extremely rich diversity of plants and animals, most of which are unique to this region. The forests are home to more than a thousand species of trees.

[End Page 190]

It focuses, in particular, on the challenges and opportunities ICTs, new commodities, and technologies bring to Indigenous’ everyday practices and on the new, evolving knowledges they contribute toward shaping.

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Figure 5.

—A house in Annai, North Rupununi, Guyana. New building materials, new vehicles, and new imported products and technologies are rapidly diffusing within Amerindian communities.

Pictures were shot during January 2014 by photographer Andrea Borgarello. Working with these Amerindian communities of the Rupununi was part of the European Union-funded project COBRA (Community Owned Best practice for sustainable Resource Adaptive management in the Guiana Shield, South America). COBRA aimed to understand the social, ecological, and cultural impacts of global environmental policies on the Guiana Shield region of South America—a region with the highest percentage of forest cover and lowest rate of deforestation on the planet—from the perspective of its inhabitants (Bignante et al. 2016; Mistry et al. 2016, 2015, 2014; Tschirhart et al. 2016; Berardi et al. 2015).

In the period 2011 to 2015, COBRA supported Indigenous communities to make recommendations, based on their own understanding and observations, to be used to facilitate the establishment of strong policies [End Page 191] in support of community-owned solutions for sustainable development in the Guiana Shield.

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Figure 6.

Figure 6.—Katoonarib, South Guyana. The economic transformation of the Guiana Shield based on the conversion and degradation of its natural ecosystem is gaining momentum. Yet, there are also many examples of the sustainable exploitation of the region’s natural resources alongside the protection of its biological and cultural diversity. For instance...


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pp. 188-210
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