Being Tikuna in a Contemporary World: An ethnoecological account of human- wildlife interactions in the Colombian Amazon

Hannah Parathian (Oxford Brookes University)

Individual and societal worldviews are the result of a set of historical and political experiences combined with the social, economic and cultural realities of the local situation [Ellen 1993]. The land in which a person exists shapes his or her culture. This lays the foundations for relationships with the environment and behaviours towards other species. The two are intricately linked and thus engender the basis of biocultural diversity [Sullivan 2006]. These factors are continuously adapting and evolving as interrelated elements shift and change. This forms a fluid, cyclic nexus of interactions and responses to random changes, occurring at various levels [Meadows 1998]. Science has frequently touched on the idea of a multidisciplinary approach that encompasses systems thinking [Holistic Science, Harding 2006; Deep Ecology, Naess and Sessions 1984; and Systems Thinking, Meadows 1998; Permaculture 2000] however the topic is largely considered ‘alternative’ and is embraced by only a small number of theorists and even fewer practicing scientists. Consequently, Western science and non-indigenous concepts do not easily accommodate holistic worldviews that are common to many traditional peoples.

Animist worldviews are rapidly being replaced in many indigenous cultures by non-traditional practices propelled by economically driven initiatives that cause a breakdown in reciprocal sustainable relationships between humans and nature. Sullivan [2010] states that, “The road towards development and tourism ridicules holistic world visions by commoditising nature and strengthening the separatist view of humans from nature.” And yet, for most traditional peoples there is no escaping these factors nor avoiding their impact. The challenge to design innovative conservation strategies for areas that are being infringed upon by development and pressures from global capitalism is becoming increasingly apparent as the long-term sustainability of such initiatives prove unsuccessful [Johnson 1997; Siuria 2006]. People’s perceptions of nature are influenced by various interwoven elements and yet conservation biology often considers separate parts of the web in isolation. Scientific methods designed around one-dimensional settings produce cultures of conservation where resource levels are fragile and specialised [Stearman 1994]. To carry out effective long-term biocultural conservation it is essential to employ methods that support existing cultures and practices by gaining insight into indigenous views of the world.

My research examines human-wildlife interactions among the Tikuna indigenous people of the Colombian Amazon. Data was collected in two indigenous communities whose territory overlaps land protected by the Colombian Government Parks Unit. Living within a National Park brings with it numerous pressures on individuals to accommodate changes driven by tourism, development and biodiversity conservation. Often, these directly oppose traditional animist practices which strengthen Tikuna identity and people’s relationship with the forest. I explore the multiple relationships that influence the use of wildlife by local people, in this region and the various actors with their disparate goals, by which the system is driven.

The aims of the research are:

1)    To provide a historical understanding of human-animal interactions and societal concepts of nature by examining cultural shifts and changes that have occurred over time.

2)    To identify the internal and external influences shaping people’s perceptions of nature and how these vary between individuals depending on age, gender, education and cultural beliefs.

3)    To consider modifications in the socio-economic and biocultural elements that drive decisions made by local people over resource use, supporting a holistic approach to conservation.

Participative methods were adopted to explore local views, focusing on topics selected by participants. This proved an effective and appropriate way of understanding people’s perceptions of wildlife and how their opinions and belief systems are constructed. Participant observation, semi-structured interviews, role-play, focus group activities and participatory filming were carried out with male and female participants aged between 3-78 years (N=228).

Results suggest a network of interconnected components influence people’s interactions with nature. A series of historical experiences with non-indigenous societies have caused local Tikuna culture to gradually move away from traditional animist beliefs towards more economically driven motives. This has altered the way people perceive and value wildlife and other species. With a push for biodiversity conservation and ‘eco-tourism’ alongside a loss in traditional knowledge and practices there is an increased dependency on fossil fuels and commercial goods, and nature is viewed as a commodity. To fully understand this complex setting at a meaningful level means exploring the response-change mechanisms that create the system in which it exists. This may provide real life solutions to local sustainability issues for local people as it strives to overcome the simplification of reductionist science and considers the system in its entirety. In addition, observing the multiple connections and interactions at play, forces us to adopt a more holistic approach by drawing on ideas parallel with those derived from animism supporting traditional Tikuna belief systems.

Conservation led by non-indigenous organisations often attempts to apply management regimes based upon a simplified understanding of the local situation derived from dualistic Westernised belief systems that are out of context with local worldviews. Without a complete understanding of the social, cultural and biological complexities which are continuously evolving in such localities, Western intervention and conservation plans continue to fail to meet the needs of humans and wildlife. Where outside intervention is requested by local people (to supply resources, scientific training and funding for example) a holistic approach to ethnoecology which adopts indigenous animist views alongside contemporary western ideals should be applied. Not only will this provide intelligence about different cultures but also lead to an appreciation of the different ways people experience the world. From here it may be possible to foster a common set of environmental ethics which allow researchers and local people to work together in a truly collaborative way.