September 30, 2015

The Vampire Pipeline: Unhealth and undevelopment in the lower Urubamba

The Vilcabamba mountain range, last holdout of the Inca empire in the 16th century, looms in the distance as a man in a cotton tunic and baseball cap scrolls through the photographs on his laptop: dozens of people, adults and children, gravely ill from what was ultimately attributed to a rabies outbreak, but which many Matsigenka people of Camaná in southeastern Peru blame on a leak in the gas pipeline which passes near their village.

“Lots of people died. Children! Fourteen years and below, he said. They took them to Lima and they died there. The doctors came and said ‘It’s not gas, it’s not gas, it’s the bat-illness that bit them.’ I said, ‘What if you’re lying?’”

Young girl from the community of Camana who died, presumably of rabies, in May 2012. Photo taken by a community member and used with permission.

 “In 2012 the pipeline broke. They said it didn’t break, but it just leaked a little. In the month of March, at the beginning. They said ‘Don’t worry, the water is safe, the contamination isn’t coming downstream.’ But then it started raining and the floods bought all that contamination down here close to the community. 

Ohohoh!," he shook his head and then continued in the staccato cadences of the Matsigenka language, It messed up the river… At first I didn’t notice it, I was eating armored catfish and they had a strange smell. And then I thought, ‘It has come down here after all. People are going to get sick. We might die.’ And then my wife got sick. And the doctors came and said it was rabies. The bat-illness that bit her. I said ‘No way! It was gas!’ Has a bat bitten my wife? She was never bitten by a bat. I built my house carefully. You don’t get rabies so easily.”

A 600 km pipeline carries natural gas from the Camisea gas fields—among the largest natural gas deposits in all of South America—from the Urubamba region in the upper Amazon, across the Andes to refineries near Paracas Marine Reserve on the Peruvian coast. The pipeline supplies over 40% of Peru's natural gas, representing a contribution to the Peruvian economy of about 28% of GDP.[1] The Camisea gas fields are located in the heart of the territory of the Matsigenka, an indigenous Amazonian people of about 12,000 who live in the lower Urubamba, Manu and upper Madre de Dios rivers; some Matsigenka in the Camisea region maintain little or no contact with the outside world. And yet because of Peru's subsoil mineral laws, the Matsigenka people have no direct ownership stake in the gas deposits, which are leased by the government to private companies.

In March 12, 2012, the pipeline administered by Transportadora de Gas del Perú (TGP) near the Matsigenka Native Community of Camana on the Rio Picha (an affluent of the Lower Urubamba) leaked into a small stream known locally as Tsirompia. According to the people of Camana, not only did fish die and become contaminated with a strange odor, but also large animals such as tapir and peccaries that drank contaminated water also died and were found lying in the forest or along the river.

Water samples collected on March 13 by a team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate showed unsafe levels of petrochemicals at two of eight collection points, namely, the points closest to the site where the leak was detected. Unsafe levels continued at these two points through March 18, and a final collection on March 22 showed a return to safe levels at one of these points, although no data is given for the second point.1 The health team concluded that, by the date of its return on March 23, the water in the region was now safe.

Yet a number of people fell ill beginning late March through mid-April, and by May 10 five children had died. According to media reports at the time, the people of Camana blamed these illnesses and deaths on contamination from the gas leak.

A health team sent by the Cusco Health Directorate in May concluded that the deaths did not result from water contamination but rather were probably due to rabies transmitted by vampire bats.
[2] In all, eight suspected cases of rabies were documented of which seven (all children or adolescents 14 years old or less) proved fatal. The only survivor was an adult woman, the wife of the man interviewed above. One of the fatal cases was confirmed as rabies by autopsy, and two additional cases showed indications of rabies by indirect laboratory results. The exact cause of the initial five deaths could not be confirmed due to lack of blood or tissue samples, however the report classified them as “probable” rabies cases.

However during my visit to the community in April of 2014 as part of an independent evaluation of social, economic and environmental impacts of gas development in southern Peru, many community members suspected that some or perhaps all of these illnesses and deaths were not a result of rabies, but rather consequences of the gas leak in March.

We stopped eating fish for months. There were even cases of children who became malnourished because their parents were afraid to feed them fish.”

As one man said, “There has not been one case of rabies for years and years. There’s a gas spill, and suddenly people start dying. It’s not rabies: it’s the gas. It’s been another two years since then and not a single case of rabies: it was the gas!”

August 11, 2015

Surreal Specters: Martin Gusinde and The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego, reviewed in the New York Review of Books

The surrealists’ 1929 Map of the World depicts Tierra del Fuego as larger than Australia: Martin Gusinde's photographs show us why.

When Martin Gusinde was ordained as a priest in Germany in 1911, he hoped to travel to New Guinea to work as a missionary among exotic tribes. Instead, his superiors sent him to Chile to teach at the German school in Santiago. Within a few years, however, he found his calling at Chile’s Museum of Ethnology and Anthropology, carrying out expeditions to Tierra del Fuego in the far south of Chile and Argentina

Photography was an important aspect of Gusinde’s scientific and humanistic endeavor, and The Lost Tribes of Tierra del Fuego is the first book to address this work in its own rightHis portraits especially reveal a tension between Gusinde’s ethnographic training and his humanistic (and artistic) instincts.

Ulen is a clown­like male spirit, whose role is to entertain the audience of the Selk’nam Hain ceremony (1923) © Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Editions Xavier Barral

Gusinde’s expeditions predate the surrealist movement and the irreverent 1929 map showing Tierra del Fuego as disproportionately large; but his first monograph, including 250 images, was not published until 1931. And yet even if only by coincidence, there is something bewitchingly surreal about Gusinde's photographs of the Hain initiation ceremony, in which young Selk’nam men are hazed by a pantheon of spirits that are revealed, in the final moments (forbidden to women), to be kinsmen in elaborate masks. Several photos show naked male figures standing barefoot in the snow, their bodies painted in bold white stripes on dark ochre and wearing eerie, phallic headdresses

In 1923 Gusinde photographed the last Hain ritual before the Selk’nam were decimated by a final wave of measles and forced to assimilate. 

The last fluent Selk’nam speakers died in the 1980s,
[1] and Herminia Vera, who spoke the language as a child, lived until 2014: at ninety-one, she was born the same year Gusinde photographed the final Hain ceremony documented in this book. But Joubert Yanten, a linguistically talented mestizo man (he goes by the tribal name Keyuk) has sought to encourage a cultural revival

In a recent interview with the New Yorker[2]  Keyuk explains the etymology of the group’s name: “The word ‘Selk’nam’ can mean ‘We are equal,’… though it can also mean ‘we are separate.’” Gusinde’s camera captures the essence of this fundamental enigma of the ethnographic encounter.

Read the full review at The New York Review of Books

by Martin Gusinde, edited by Christine Barthe and Xavier Barral
with text by Marisol Palma Behnke, Anne Chapman and Dominique Legoupil
English edition: Thames & Hudson; French and Spanish editions: Editions Xavier Barral
Photographs © Martin Gusinde/Anthropos Institute/Editions Xavier Barral

     [1] Rojas-Berscia, Luis Miguel (2014) A Heritage Reference Grammar of Selk'nam. MA Thesis, Dept. Linguistics, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.
     [2] Thurman, Judith (2015) “A loss for words: Can a dying language be saved?,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2015.

June 30, 2015

Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon: Excerpt from 'Broad Street'

Never tell a Matsigenka shaman his tobacco snuff is anything but katsi, “extremely painful.”

I learned this lesson the way I learned most of my lessons during fieldwork and in life generally—the hard way. Many years ago, in a village at the headwaters of the Manu River in the Peruvian Amazon, my friend Shumarapage initiated me into the pungent delights of seri[1], a fine green powder of tobacco and ash that Matsigenka men blast up one another’s nostrils to dispel fatigue, treat colds, build bonds of friendship, share shamanic powers, or just get plain smashed.

"Tobacco is the shaman’s soul. The more 'painful' or 'pungent' (katsi) the tobacco, the more powerful the shaman."

That first time, Shumarapage punished me with an intentional overdose. “Just one more puff,” he kept saying, until ten hits later I was lying in a puddle of green snot and vomit while a crowd of men, raucous on manioc beer, laughed all around me (the Matsigenka have a rather harsh sense of humor). Among the Matsigenka, such an episode is nothing to be ashamed of: on the contrary, guests are expected to overindulge as a sign of appreciation. And so despite this traumatic initiation, I soon came to savor the sharp sting of tobacco, crave the euphoric rush of nicotine, even appreciate the purifying bouts of retching that sometimes follow an overindulgence. 

Matsigenka men usually share tobacco at dusk, as the cooking fires begin to flicker against the black wall of the surrounding forest and crickets, frogs, and nocturnal birds tune up for an all-night symphony. A pair of men, usually brothers-in-law or other close kinsmen, sit facing one another on a dingy cane mat in the sandy plaza between thatched houses where women cook, gossip, nurture and laugh while children sleep or play.

The men are often grimy and tired, having just arrived from their slash-and-burn gardens or a hunting foray. They may chat softly for a few minutes about the day’s toils and revelations—peccaries plundering the manioc crop, tapir tracks along the stream—or they may be too tired, and so remain silent. One of them reaches into a coarsely woven net bag slung across his chest and removes the shell of a giant snail (Megalobulimus sp.), known as pompori in Matsigenka, which can be as white and polished as porcelain from years of use. He extracts a cloth wad from the shell’s orifice, careful not to spill any of the precious green powder stored inside. He raps the shell with his knuckles, tilting it slightly downward so the powder sifts down from the coiled innards towards the mouth.

"Green tobacco powder is mixed with the ash obtained from burning the bark of an exceedingly rare tree species known simply as seritaki, 'tobacco bark'.[2]"

The tobacco’s owner brandishes his seritonki, or “tobacco bone,” an L-shaped tube made from two leg bones of the curassow, a pheasant-sized game bird with silky black feathers and a hooked, bright red beak. The bones are secured with sticky brown resin and twists of handspun cotton. Then follows a brief but animated conversation as the two men decide who will go first—which is to say, who will start out on the receiving end of the seritonki

“You first!” says the tobacco’s owner. 

“No, you first!” says the other man. “Your tobacco is very painful! I’ll never get used to it.”

“You first!” insists the tobacco’s owner. It’s like watching two gentlemen bicker over who will hold the door.

“All right, I’ll go ahead, but just two nostrils’ full,” the second man acquiesces. He rubs his nose and scratches his head in anticipation.  

May 30, 2015

A Welcome of Tears, and Farewell to Chief Mro’ô

When you cry for someone you’ve lost, you cry for everything you’ve ever lost.

Although it is perhaps the most universal human emotion, grief weighs uniquely upon each of us, and we each must find our own way through the wastelands of loss and bereavement, shadowed by the patterns and compulsions of our distinctive personalities, families and societies. Modern American society seems bent on classifying, five-stepping and pressing on through grief; other societies across the globe give witness to a wide diversity of strategies, from strong repression
[1] to cathartic indulgence.[2]

The Kayapó people of Brazil enact the lingering toll of grief through the ritual “welcome of tears,”[3] in which friends or family members who haven’t seen each other for some time cry, wail, embrace and wipe tears away as they remember loved ones they have lost since their last meeting. This custom attracted international attention in 2011, when a photograph of Kayapó chief Raoni in tears was circulated widely with a caption stating (incorrectly) that he was crying over the approval of the Belo Monte dam project. In fact, he was enacting the tearful ritual of greeting with a relative

Kayapó chief Raoni greets a relative in the traditional "welcome of tears"

When a young Kayapó filmmaker called me at 2 AM on the second of January this year to tell me that the chief of Turedjam village, Mro’ô, had died, I thought I must have misunderstood. This just couldn’t be: Mro’ô is younger than I am. I had seen him a little more than a month before, if ever preoccupied with the burdens of leadership on a violent frontier, still alive, healthy and happy, surrounded by his grandchildren at an idyllic small village where one of his daughters had moved. 

Mro'ô Kayapo, 1969-2015

When I had last seen him, Mro’ô was proud to learn that yet another of his many ambitious dreams would soon come true: three Kayapó film makers, including one novice cameraman from his own village, had been invited to travel in March of 2015 to represent his people’s concerns and show images from Kayapó culture at an international event on digital media in the United States. I had come to Turedjam in late November of 2014 with anthropologist/journalist Felipe Milanez to convey the good news to the people of Turedjam, and to begin the complex and time-consuming arrangements for obtaining passports and U.S. visas for the Kayapó film makers who would be traveling.

A soft-spoken yet determined leader, Mro’ô had first approached me at the Goeldi Museum in Belem during my first month curating the ethnographic collections there in 2009. He was visiting the museum with French anthropologist Pascale de Robert, and asked me for help to obtain ongoing support for this exchange with the Goeldi Museum. He was especially eager to equip and train a cohort of Kayapó youth to use video cameras and digital editing equipment to record Kayapó culture, both material objects preserved in the Goeldi Museum collections, and the living culture of traditional dances, songs, orations and ceremonies that still take place regularly in modern Kayapó villages : “The old people are all dying,” he had said. “We need to register our culture so that our children and grandchildren will not forget.” 

January 21, 2015

Indigenous Engagement with Digital and Electronic Media: InDigital Conference at Vanderbilt University

Update Nov. 2016: Call for papers now open for InDigital Latin America II at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, March 16-18, 2017

A cartoon by Gary Larson from 1984 shows natives in grass skirts rushing to hide TV, VCR and telephone before the anthropologists arrive. As these devices have become smaller, cheaper, and more widely available, the penetration of electronic media into indigenous cultures has only grown.

Native peoples of the Amazon and elsewhere in Latin America have become engaged consumers of electronic media, while also making use of video cameras, cell phones and laptops to create and transmit their own artistic and cultural productions and political views. The results can be complex and surprising, ranging from videos about traditional ceremonies to catchy electronic music and even a native-language cover of the Beatles. Among the works made by Kayapó film makers I trained as part of an indigenous media project at the Goeldi Museum in Brazil are films documenting tug-of-war at an interethnic sports competition; a professional soccer game in Rio de Janeiro; the “Miss Kayapó” beauty contest at a local fairground; and a concert by the indigenous pop star Bepdjyre, who composes his own lyrics in Kayapó but sets them to popular Brazilian dance rhythms.

Bepdjyre's stage show includes Kayapó girls showing off sensual dance moves gleaned from watching TV and DVDs.

This conference, held March 25-28, 2015, sponsored by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee University, brought together anthropologists, media scholars and indigenous filmmakers to reflect on the appropriations and interpretations of digital media by indigenous peoples, and to discuss the transformations this use of technology is bringing about.

The "Miss Kayapó" beauty contest captured by film maker Tatajere.

Faye Ginsberg of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University gave the keynote address at the event. Kayapó film makers Bepunu, Krakrax and Kiameiti showed works produced on their own village-based laptop editing suites as part of the Goeldi Museum media project. Richard Pace of Middle Tennessee University presented results of a study financed by the National Science Foundation on the uses and impacts of satellite TV, DVD players and cell phones in a Kayapó village. 

An edited volume including many of the works presented at the conference is currently in preparation at Vanderbilt University Press.

A call for papers is now open for InDigital II to be held at Vanderbilt University, March 16-18, 2017. For more information, visit

Updated from the original posting by The New York Review of Books.