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Natural engagements and ecological aesthetics among the Ávila Runa of Amazonian Ecuador

Natural engagements and ecological aesthetics among the Ávila Runa of Amazonian Ecuador
Eduardo O. Kohn


Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.


This dissertation is concerned with how the Quichua (Quechua) speaking Runa of the village Ávila Viejo (Orellana Province) in Amazonian Ecuador - whose lifeways are characterized by swidden agriculture, hunting, fishing, gathering, and incipient cash cropping and occasional wage labor - experience, engage with, and attempt to make sense of the complex neotropical rainforest environment in which they live. I combine ethnographic, poetic, ethnobiological, and historical approaches to capture this. I also explore the implications of this process for anthropological attempts to understand human-nature relationships more broadly.

I argue that Runa ecological knowledge grows out of culturally specific aesthetic orientations that arise in contexts of intimate engagement with the minutiae of biological processes. These aesthetic-based orientations are central to the ways in which the Runa grapple with fundamental existential problems as well as with practical ecological ones. By studying these orientations and the models they inform, I attempt to trace the elaborate reticulations among meanings and the world as well as those among socio-cultural processes and environmental perception. The ways in which these elements interact in the making of local nature knowledge can best be understood by studying specific moments of ecological engagement as well as local poetic attempts to recreate, or reflect on, such experiences. Such a focus indicates how knowing is more than a form of representation; it is also part of a lived engagement. Natural engagements, however, can also be problematic; reflections about forest experiences are as much about knowing as they are about confronting the ways in which meaning can break down in the face of the unpredictable complexity of the world.

The aesthetic orientations I isolate constitute an important generative element of the more abstract cosmologies that are often taken as the starting points for anthropological studies of ecological knowledge. In Amazonia such cosmologies also reflect the social milieu out of which they emerge. Because Ávila has been involved in larger regional as well as state political and economic spheres for centuries, the social order visible in Runa cosmology is decidedly translocal; ecological understandings, then, are also ways of engaging with history.

The organization of this dissertation is somewhat unusual. My interest in the ethnographic description of forest experience leads me to assume a position of false naiveté or heuristic bracketing. That is, the dissertation begins with trying to understand how people make sense of forest experience through the ways in which they speak about it. I initially bracket off these experiences from considerations regarding how they may relate to broader structuring principles ‹say, from the domains of cosmology and social organization. As the dissertation progresses, I move successively to a more abstract view of how people understand nature and such principles acquire an increasing importance in my argument.

Because I have organized my ethnographic treatment in this way, I have also preferred to postpone until the Conclusions discussion of how my argument relates to other research on Amazonian conceptions of nature. Deferring discussion in this fashion allows me to present the ethnographic corpus before discussing my work in the context of the literature. This allows me to explain in a more efficient and forceful manner my contribution to existing debates. In what follows I give a brief outline of how my approach differs from these other research programs.

There are four important approaches to the study of the natural in Amazonianist anthropology: cultural ecology, ethnobiology, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and the related study of traditional resource management, and social anthropology. Cultural ecology attempts to create simplified models of people’s ecological relationships because this is the only way in which such relationships can be productively studied using “scientific” methods. Although I agree with cultural ecologists that biology plays an important role in how people interact with the environment, I feel that much of the complexity of these interactions is lost if one tries to drastically reduce the number of variables inherent to them (something that must be done in order to generate testable hypotheses); embracing science does not always entail adopting quantitative methodology.

In my work I also employ some methods and concepts from ethnobiology. I find this approach very useful for documenting the enormous range of organisms with which Amazonians interact. However, ethnobiological approaches tend to overemphasize the structuring aspects of taxonomy and nomenclature. It often becomes unclear whether these categories exist in nature, in the mind, or in culture. This makes it difficult to understand the ways locals actually go about engaging with the environment and how they reflect on these experiences.

Like ethnobiology, TEK and resource management approaches are important for documenting what locals know about nature. However, adherents of these approaches situate this knowledge within western scientific and utilitarian frameworks. This makes it hard to understand the non-scientific epistemologies that generate this local knowledge in the first place.

Social anthropology has been very successful at showing the ways in which the domains of the social and the natural are used to understand each other. It has also helped us understand the complex processes by which these two domains often become part of one conceptual system that informs activity. However, the tremendous emphasis this approach places on the social is, I believe, in large part an effect of focusing on the construction and maintenance of social ties and institutions.

The social is not the only lens through which to understand people’s conceptions of nature; focusing, by contrast, on how individuals experience the complexity of ecosystems can point to engagements with a natural world that are less intimately tied to overtly social spheres. This can reveal certain situated orientations that generate knowledge. It can also reveal how people struggle to come to terms with complexity. There is no overarching system that the Runa use to “capture” nature because the world constantly defies people’s attempts to define it.