Institutions and Parasites
It would be unfair, however, to describe the time I spent in San José as a violent one. The only panic event that took place during the year of field work, and to my knowledge in a longer while, was a drill planned by the police, exploding an artifact in control settings to practice the reaction of crowds. It was so real, that people were not informed.
During my stay I interacted with a number of institutions and government officials. Of particular interest for the nature of this dissertation, is the conversation held with an individual working for the government in the office of indigenous affairs. After explaining the purpose and methods of my dissertation, he tried to persuade us not to work with the Nukak, because in his opinion they did not suffer the burden of malaria, and my research was going to prove useless. Months later, after aggregating the numbers, I can say with not doubt that there could be nothing further from the truth: the Nukak suffer Anual Parasitary Indices (APIs) higher than 600 per thousand, while neighboring ethnicities, also considered endemic populations, have APIs of 30-60.
The lack of awareness of the official was, in my opinion, symptomatic of the state of abandonment to which the Nukak had succumbed after their first contact with the colonizing frontier, in 1988. Since 2003, a group of 108 individuals (during my field work) relocated to a government owned land due to an increase in violence in their traditional territory. Once, one of their leaders was murdered for leading a return to the reserve.
The interaction between the Nukak and institutions of all sorts is better described by a meeting that took place in March 12th, 2012 in Aguabonita, the temporary settlement that became permanent. There was an interest to hold the meeting at the location where the Nukak live, so that all institutions would take note of their living conditions. All the relevant institutions attended, sharp on time. Child Welfare Office (ICBF, acronym in Spanish), a delegate of the governor, UNHCR, Indigenous Institutions (CRIGUA2, acronym in Spanish), the Secretary of Health, independent attorneys, a delegate from the Secretary of the Interior, and all our research team. You name it, we were all there. If you wear a vest with a logo, and you drive a Toyota in San Jose, you had to be in this meeting. We were all there, sharp on time. But the Nukak were not there. The meeting was schedulled for 3:00 p.m. But the Nukak rather go hunting. Even though they normally do not hunt on a daily basis.
Almost 2 hours after the agreed appointment time, the Nukak emerge from the forest. They take their time to shower. All the guests have been cooking under intense sun and humidity. And there is nowhere to catch some shade in Aguabonita.
The Nukak finally groomed up and were ready for the meeting. They began speaking. They seemed divided in their will: some wanted to go back to the reserve, some wanted to stay and have a nice house in San Jose, and cars and clothes.
Then each representative intervened. Some in the name of the Nukak, some in the name of the state, and some in the name of both. The Nukak, entitled to transfers, are required by law to elect a leader and live in their reserves to receive their transfers, that amount large sums after 11 years of accumulation because the Nukak are unable to fulfill both conditions. And there are many non-Nukak ideas of what to do with that money. I find myself agreeing with the government officials, to my surprise.
The meeting concludes with some minor conclusions: a drain was to be dugg to prevent flooding.
In retrospect, the most tragic aspect of the abandonment suffered by the Nukak is that in the interaction with other parties, the government demands that they have meetings and agree as a community. Graduating from the Ph.D. involves taking a committee to agree, and we have seen how something as a presidential race can turn a whole country into madness. Now, imagine what it must be deciding every aspect of your community in agreement with every member. It is Paralyzing.
(Experimentos, estoy finalizando mi tesis de Ph.D. y voy a escribir aca la introduccion. se agradecen ediciones, comentarios y sugerencias. Todavia no se si me acepten algo como esto.)
6 months after beginning field work exploring the factors of human ecology affecting the transmission of malaria in the Northen Amazon Basin, Ramiro, one of the local field assistants that was a crucial part of this research endeavor, shows up tipsy and with a hale of alcohol in his breath.
-- Alejandro, worry no longer! --he says, without realizing that the lack of context for his clarification makes me even more anxious.
-- What should I be worried about, Ramiro?
-- Not a thing, I tell you. I have spoken with everyone.
-- Who is everyone?
After some discussion, he conveys that he was drinking with the commanders of armed forces present in the region (probably by an invitation he could not refuse). The names of such organizations are subject of political and journalist debate, but their chain of command is clear. Guaviare, once one of the most violent regions of Colombia, has vivid memories of the legacy that drug trade and war stamp on a region.
The commanders of whichever groups Ramiro spoke to approved our research, he said, and granted us permission to continue. A permission that I never requested, and for which I gave no explanation or interview. In his book about paramilitary forces in Colombia, anthropologist Aldo Civico says that the true power is exercised by paramilitary leaders in regions by being a latent presence without the need to hide from the population.
The power of armed groups, from all across the political spectrum, granted us permission to conduct our research on malaria because they deemed it important. Malaria is a Vector Borne Disease that affects thousands of people in the Americas each year, and is particularly acute among populations that live in the forest. Plasmodium parasites affect human populations living in the jungle without regard of political affiliation. As I was to confirm during my field work, medical commissions are among the most free moving professionals in a war zone.
During the data collection phase of this project, I was accompanied by two research assistants (Ariel Dombrowski and Alison Maasen), who contributed tremendously to the materialization of this effort. I was particularly concerned with the continuation of the project, and avoiding conflict with any form of force in the region, for which I instructed them to avoid all discussions about drugs, politics or violence. During this stage of field work, I realized that political opinion, at least in some regions of the world, is a privilege reserved for elites. When I asked about security of the place when I first arrived to San Jose, I was told by most of my local confidants that as long as I did not interfere with busynesses that were not my own, I would be safe.
Perhaps it was this lack of political vocation, or journalistic interest. Perhaps it was the nature of a project conceived to bring awareness and knowledge of a disease to the people who contract it. Whichever was the reason, I was free to operate and conduct my observations about malaria in two indigenous reserves, and it was probably because I did not have a political agenda.
Or did I have a political agenda? I grew up in an "emerging" country, as part of a privileged population that is able to finish a college degree and learn a foreign language. I was given an opportunity to study a topic of my choosing (provided that a committee would approve of my elaborations), in one of the leading research institutions in the world. When I compare myself to my local peers, most indulge in lifestyles that I cannot afford. My local peers in the university program, most a few years younger than me, stress about the state of the job market in our field, in an era that has been mostly marked by increased competition with little adjustment in demand by universities. During my days at Stanford, the department of Anthropological Sciences ceased to exist, and became one unit in combination with a program of Cultural and Social Studies in Anthropology, which became the dominant field in the new department. When I was among the Nukak, the hunter-gatherer society where I conducted my research, they often were amazed by my bachelorhood at such late stage in life.
During the 6 years of enrollment in the doctoral program, I have been paid to study. This is by international standards a privilege, since in many countries in both developed and developing countries, it is common to get loans for graduate education. In the US, it is deemed as an activity paid at rates lower than the minimum wage.
Do I have a political agenda? I have to finish this dissertation! This is my motto, but often I feel like a one man army. With no arms.