‘Survival’ Anthropology: Save Anthropology A-Levels

For those who are not anymore in contact with academic anthropology, this message is mainly for you. The A-Level Program is planning to cancel out the course of Anthropology for young students. As an anthropologist I am obviously shocked at the news, and find this plan an attempt to further eradicate critical thinking, human consciousness, cognitive growth and creative imagination.

Though many people don’t know much about anthropology, it is always at work behind the scenes and many concepts and ways of thinking we today use are a direct result of the work of giants from Margaret Mead to Levi-Strauss who introduced and developed the concepts of ‘culture’ in the public sphere. As THE ECOLOGIST stresses in this article, anthropology is not just the study of humans or culture, but of human’s relationships with the natural environments, ecology, and other non-human animal sphere. In short, it analyzes, theorizes, re-theorizes the multiple human potentials of ‘being in the world’. It goes alongside philosophy but it does not limit itself to thought, nor the modern society, it is about ‘humanity’ in the holistic and collective sense.

This is why it is important to let students – and especially students who are still learning about their place in society and increasing their cognitive span – that they be let studying anthropology. We are not arguing that everyone should, but the request that those who want to and are interested in studying anthropology are allowed to do so. Its not such a radical request after all.



Coca: Respecting the Sacred Plant

When I first went to Cusco, Peru, I was surprised to see people take heavy quantities of coca tea and stuffing their mouths with coca leaves. But it took me little time to understand that this plant is far from what is in the West perceived to be a dangerous and addicting drug, that of cocaine.

The coca leaf is a powerful and essential component in the difficult life in the Andes, and without it life would be inconceivable and insurmountable at the height of 3,000m. On the other hand, the drug, cocaine, is the abuse of of the coca plant, it is the abomination of the plant itself. But because you need the plant to make the drug, there has been a widespread political policy aimed at making the coca plant  illegal to plant. I here explore the fatal ‘PR issue’ that Andean countries face with the coca plant, and discuss the plant from the perspectives of the locals – those who see it for what it really is and not for its abominating mutant form.


The Sacred Plant. I believe that to know about the plant, its connection with local traditions and the diverse cultural and religious uses is an essential part of the fight against the drug. One cannot even begin framing policies against cocaine until the Coca plant is de-villainized and seen for what it really is. With renewed knowledge of the beauty and sanctity of this plant we can begin to appreciate it and perhaps even transform its ‘abuses’ into ‘uses’.

It is important to say, first of all, that the Coca Leaf is not addictive. It may be strange to hear this since the alkaloid of cocaine is addictive, but there is so little cocaine in the leaf that there is no chemical, physiological or any other kind of addiction associated to munching the leaf. The Coca Plant is an immense resource of nutrients, vitamins, and alkaloids… This is how the good old Inkas used to travel for days from mountain to mountain without barely any food but sacks of coca to supplement their diets. Per gram it has higher amounts of proteins than Quinoa, spinach; it is higher in iron than wheat, spinach and Cabbage; And the doses of Calcium are ten times that in spinach. The table below illustrates the nutritious values of the super-food of coca.

coca nutricion.png

The alkaloids of the plant have amazing properties. From having antidepressive properties, to controlling high levels of colesterol, to combatting artritis, treating diabetes, stimulating intellectual and physical work, one of the most sought after properties is that of anesthetic and decreasing the level of fatigue that is so common in the high altitudes of the Andes. In fact, when you first arrive in Cusco, which is at 3,400 meters of altitude it is strongly advised to have coca tea to help alleviate the headache and respiratory difficulties.

coca nutricion 2.png

Life without this plant simply would not be possible. This is why Quechua people see – and have seen for centuries – the plant as a ‘Sacred Being‘ for which one must thank Mother Earth, The Pachamama. Recent evidence, shows that the coca plant was being used ceremonially even 8,000 years ago. It is thanks to ‘her’ that peasants are able to go work the steep terrace fields, and retain endurance though the fierce climate; it is the leaf of the Quechua people.

The Abuse of the Coca Plant.  From the Sacred Leaf, we got to the Abusive Alkaloid. The leaf was first transformed into a drug and distilled in the pure form of cocaine by European Scientists, more specifically by Richard Willstätter in 1898, and has historically consumed in Europe and North America until today.

An Illegal Plant?  The consumption of the drug has been increasing sporadically in the past years, and the American ‘war on drugs’ has made the West attack fiercely the producers of coca leafs in order to combat the production of the drug. As a result, since the ’60s the UN and its’ Convention on Narcotics has been a battling ground between countries combatting the import of cocaine and the Andean Countries (Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia) that have high production of coca plants. But the production of coca plants does not automatically translate into the production of cocaine. And although there has been a more recent ‘understanding’ of the international organization on the local cultural usages of the plant, ‘war’ on the Coca Plant is still underway.

Bolivia has been a particular scenario, because most of its population is indigenous Aymara and mestizo. President Evo Morales has been a strong advocator for the Coca Plant, and its importance for Bolivian Indigenous Identity. He is often assailed by the Western media, take a look at BBC, for his socialist policies that protect indigenous rights and customs, policies that are today at the forefront of alternative approaches to development that are sustainable and culturally virtuous. Recently, Diego Morales charged back on the United States for pursing their geo-political agenda only and for backing Drug Trafficking, of which the United States is one of the greatest cocaine consumers and profiters.


Solutions?  Morales is doing this very well, and pushing on the legalization of the plant at the international level. He is well aware of the ignorance surrounding this topic and has set on himself, since 2006, the marketization of the Coca leaf as the Ancient Sacred plant. His efforts are inspiring: recently he distributed Coca leaves to spectators of the Dakar racing, and has welcomed and celebrated Ban Ki-moon’s birthday with a Bolivian-made cake made of Coca Leaf.

We hope that these examples tell the more complete story of the Coca Leaf, a Sacred Being indeed.


Further Reading:

The Coca Leaf Is Not a Drug – Natural News.




Monumental Symbols, and the Nature-Culture Fiction

In Monuments resides a powerful force, the force to affect of individual and collective human bodies and to subdue them in front of the immensity of the structures. Neo-marxists have discussed the important role of these massive bodies and their relation to their use of power; Lefebvre, for example, speaks of their complex relations to abstract space in The Production of Space (1992). But while they have this affective power that is crucial to legitimize the authority of states, there is also a more general symbolic claim that these monumental structures make, which I quickly explore. And this has to do with our present fascination, if not obsession, with historical monuments – which create a global flow of tourism to these historical cores comparable to a sort of modern peregrination.

Monumental structures of past civilizations are highly valued in our times. We look back at them with awe and wonder, and cherish them because it means something important to us: it validifies the moral importance of civilization, it justifies the transcendental culture over the circular processes of nature, and materializes the eternal potential of all humans through culture in spite of humanity’s temporality.


Those historical symbols of civilization such as the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the Colosseum of Rome, the Great Wall of China, and even Angkor Wat, Macchu Picchu.. can be seen as reflecting the symbol and sign of a civilization’s ‘mark’ over nature and over man’s temporal nature. While humans come and go, wars destroy the cities and the civilizations of the time, these millennial creations that remain with us today are symbols of the potential for man to make something ‘everlasting’, and ‘eternal’. To mark their footprint over the titans of time, and make them human creations for time immemorial.

While past historical monuments remain for us cherished objects of enchantment, onto which we project the justification for our domination over nature and the potential we are given to continually master it, what are the contemporary monuments that mark the present civilization’s ‘mark’ over nature?


Are they the phallic-like skyscrapers that penetrate nature vertically as a sign of man’s domination over nature? What is really going to remain on to future generations to admire and remain in awe of the present’s civilizatory force?

As we argue, the greatest monuments of our times will be not only the immense and mastodontic sky-reaching towers, but also the infinite fields of plastic and toxic waste that our a-natural society has produced during its fictitious presumption of mastery over nature. This duality of skyscrapers on one side and the mountains of waste on the other, has been masterfully juxtaposed in the Disney movie Wall-E, in which towers of garbage loom higher in the sky then their metal and glass counterparts.

This image is powerful, and symbolically omniscient in that it exposes the fiction of modern monumentalist culture, and its fallacious claim to transcendence over the natural world, which at the end is ‘us’. The claim over the natural is simply not tenable, because ‘we are nature’, ‘we are’ part of it and cannot do without it. The modern towers – the labor, the economy, the environment that created its conditions – are inherently dependent on the natural conditions that it tries to symbolically subdue. Therefore, these towers of garbage, which are the material manifestation of the modern claim of superiority over the natural, are the symbol of this fiction: the impossibility of man to live outside of nature, or, to over-impose himself over it.

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Victory for Yukon Wilderness Is a Gift to the World

In the past weeks National Geographic published an article covering the recent victory of the First Nations of the Yukon, the Na-cho Nyak Dans, in the Supreme Court ruling that recognized their land rights over the Peel River watershed. The natural-resource hungry Yukon Government’s extraction plan was ruled out as violating land use planning processes. And environmental associations such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, closely in collaboration with the Canadian First Nations, rejoiced in cheering with the First Nations.

The Peel river in the Yukon is characterized by astounding natural landscapes, drinkable waters of the river, predators-prays ecologies, and a still flourishing indigenous communities. At the same time, the region is a rich reserve of minerals, coal, gas and oil. The Yukon government was shamed for its attempt to bypass indigenous rights and environmental regulation to give ‘the go’ to private extraction companies. Fortunately, this plan was ruled out by the supreme court that deemed the action an “usurpation” by the local government, in that they “introduced new substantive proposed modifications that were neither consulted on nor put to the Commission for consideration” (CPAWS)

This story tells once more the importance of granting indigenous land rights, that provide legal safety for indigenous peoples and future generations, and further provide environmental protection of pristine lands.

peel2 The Na-cho Nyak Dans celebrated cheerfully the supreme court’s decision of the Yukon government to open the area to a one-sided vision of development of the region. It is a success that the Yukon land use plans continue by the rule of 80% lands remaining protected, and 20% used for sustainable development.

Only through a planned, collaborative action can there be a shared benefitting from land use by the three parties involved: the First Nations, the government representative of the whole population, as well as the land itself. In this final court ruling, it becomes clear that when indigenous land rights are accounted for in land use processes, what we can call long-term perspectives of land use are taken in greater consideration. What is deemed one of the “last great wilderness areas” by the CPAWS, is dependent on indigenous ecological frames of reference.

Perspectives that don’t reduce nature to its productive/financial potential, but see nature for what it really is: alive as much as us, and composed of beings which we are intrinsically dependent on. Since governmental policy does not incorporate such long-term planning strategies, it is in the indigenous wisdom that we need to be more and more reliant, and it is in their perspectival, cooperative, cross-generational policies that should be integrated in land use planning.


PEC 215 and the struggle for indigenous’ land rights in Brazil.

This week, indigenous peoples from several parts of the Amazon have travelled all the way to Brasilia, to stand in front of Brazil’s parliament in protest against the voting for the PEC 215.

The PEC 215 consists on an amendment to the constitution of 1988. Specifically a change in the indigenous’ rights status from the Federal Government’s authority (as is today, stated in the constitution), to the Congress, where indigenous territories will become open for debate to the interests of ruralists. This will officially paralyze the demarcation of indigenous territories, which is an open invitation for ruralists, deforestation, building of roads and dams, among other business oriented interests in these wild lands.

What a desertion of indigenous people’s rights!… The lawyer of ISA (Instituto Socioambiental) Maurício Guetta stated the outrageous danger the approval of the PEC 215 represents: “the goal of this proposal [PEC 215] is to impose severe and unconstitutional limitations to the indigenous’ peoples’ rights” (you can read this full article here on ISA’s website available only in Portuguese).

The proposal also represents a dangerous threat to the preservation of this (still) rich ecosystem, since so far as these lands were still considered indigenous’ territories, they have been “saved” from governmental projects that, in the name of progress, would result in the deforestation of many of these territories – such a situation reminds us of the past struggle caused by the planned construction of the Xingu’s hydroelectric dam, against which the Kayapó peoples have been successfully protesting since the early 1980’s (Check out this wonderful special post by National Geographic on the Kayapo’s struggle: Kayapo.org ).

To continue with the ‘constructions-in-the-name-of-progress’ examples…
According to the constitution as it stands right now, indigenous people’s cannot be forced to evacuate their lands. But the construction of several dams planned along the river Xingu, Madeira and Tapajós would inevitably result in the flooding of villages, which would force them to leave their historical territories behind, making these projects unconstitutional.
Do you see where I’m getting at?

If the constitution embraces the change proposed by PEC 215, the invasion of current indigenous lands and their evacuation will technically no longer be illegal and the indigenous people’s will loose their only recognized right to remain in their houses. Namely, instead of working side-by-side with the indigenous peoples for the protection of the forest against its current illegal invaders (illegal loggers and miners, for example), the PEC 215 will actually legitimize this invasion and take advantage of nature’s richness in the name of “progress” and economic growth – economic growth for whom, exactly, remains an issue to be discussed in another chapter.

What this will mean for the future, in terms of cultural genocide and loss of ecosystem, only time will tell – if we don’t act immediately.

Environmental Protection also comes with Indigenous Land Rights

The map speaks for itself.

Where indigenous territories and lands have been legally assigned, environmental and forest protection have been assured. This is because of the rapid ‘economic development’ that has been happening in this region of the Eastern Amazon, and especially in the regions of Amazonas, Para’, and Maranhao. But this ‘development’, has been strongly endorsed by the Brazilian Labor Party, and environmental protection plans and policies completely abandoned.

To make matters worse, the legal rights of the indigenous groups – of which only a few indigenous peoples of the Amazon are recognized – are in the process of being changed, debilitated, and erased by the Brazilian government. These rights, which are now in the constitution of Brazil, are being downgraded to judicial rights in that they will be evaluated – look into ‘PEC 215’.

In a world governed evermore by lobbies, rent-seeking, corruption, human rights abuse, land extortion, we need the evermore presence of resistant voices. We need people that will fight for what is right, and keep in check the ever-expanding, self-destructive power of the state.

If the Brazilian state, with 70% of the Amazon forests in its hands, sees in this ‘green paradise’ only raw material for extraction, rivers to extract energy, and fields to grow soy and cattle… then we have a state that knows nothing of what it ‘owns’. The situation in Brazil is precarious. Now that the Brazilian state, alongside the Peruvian state, is eliminating the rights of indigenous peoples, and devaluing environmental protection… It is up to us to chose our future, and the future of the next generations.


Survival International: Indigenous Reserves remain Environmental Zones

Survival International: The Dark Side of Conservation, and the expropriation of Indigenous people form their land

Save the Amazon: let it’s indigenous peoples continue to take care of it.

We believe the Amazon’s preservation is immediately interconnected to the preservation of it’s original inhabitants: the indigenous peoples. People are part of the ecosystem, we are part of nature, although we have grown accustomed to refer to “the nature” as something outside and distant from us. Here is our attempt to remember that there are cultural groups who still respect the forests and rely directly on it for survival.

RoadFree.org is a great international organization working to raise awareness and come up with initiatives to reduce the destruction of biodiversity and emissions of carbon dioxide through the deforestation caused by road building through wild spaces.

Watch this video for inspiration, lets act together by learning about our current situation, spreading awareness and information, and thinking about how we can stop the destructive invasion of the Amazon and the disrespect of its indigenous peoples.