Knowledge dialogues – cooperation rethought

The Amazon Basin covers much of the northern half of the South American continent. 49 million people inhabit an area of seven million square kilometers spread over nine countries. A good two million of them belong to indigenous groups. Since Alexander von Humboldt's travels, much research has been done on the region's 300 or so indigenous languages and its impressive cultural and biological diversity. More recently, in the wake of the blatant and growing threat to the region’s ecosystems caused by deforestation, mining or the construction of dams, media reports have drawn attention to what this means for the people, their natural environment and their traditions.

This article is part of our 2022 Impulse entitled: "What should I do? What am I allowed to do?". It is about the question of how science deals with responsibility and ethos.

Rethinking concepts

Around the late 1960s, indigenous populations in the Amazon started to make their voices heard directly, addressing nation states and the international community on their own part and without intermediaries. Now, in the face of ever-escalating threats, it is necessary to create new alliances and break new ground. This is also true for the field of research.  In this respect, researchers seek to deconstruct entrenched concepts of "heritage", for example, and to rebuild them by reshaping the biased perception still predominant in the Global North.
 

With this aim, Carla Jaimes Betancourt, a scholar of the ancient american studies, is conducting research on the natural and cultural heritage of indigenous populations. In her view, the prevalent perspective has always been questionable and she has long felt the need to develop alternative approaches. A native of Bolivia, she lives in Germany and is well connected in the scientific community. She is a professor at the Institute for Archaeology and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Bonn and now, together with 20 other scholars from Bolivia, Brazil and Germany she wants to realize a fundamentally different research concept.

This means that everything – from the formulation of the research questions and methodology to the implementation, documentation and writing up of our findings – is done as a team effort.

Carla Jaimes Betancourt

In a collaborative project bearing the title "Heritage and Territoriality: Imagining Past, Present and Future among the Tacana, T'simane and Waiwai", indigenous peoples "are not to be seen merely as the objects of research, but as co-researchers and equal members of the project team, contributing their own narratives and expertise," explains Professor Jaimes Betancourt. "This means that everything – from the formulation of the research questions and methodology to the implementation, documentation and writing up of our findings – is done as a team effort." She and her colleagues refer to their project as a "knowledge dialogue".

The desire for protection and coexistence

The team includes researchers from the fields of archaeology, ecology, social and cultural anthropology, and sociology who work at universities or for organizations in Manaus, La Paz, and Bonn. The special thing is that eight members of the team are indigenous Waiwai who live in the Brazilian Guayana Shield or belong to the indigenous Tacana and T'simane peoples in the sub-Andean Forest and the savanna region of Llanos de Mojos in Bolivia. Some of the four men and four women have academic backgrounds, and some are entering research for the first time through this project. Their communities nominated them to join the project because of their particular knowledge of the regional fauna and flora, sacred and archaeological sites, or various other aspects of materiality.

"This project will allow us to coexist with the whites without giving up our way of life – so that we can protect our territory, which they are invading to change the forest," says Alexander Waiwai, an indigene, hopeful. He is involved in the heritage project as a doctoral student in anthropology – and has been active since the discovery phase, which was characterized by workshops, but above all numerous video calls and coordination processes.

This project will allow us to coexist with the whites without giving up our way of life.

Alexander Waiwai

And project member Hermindo Viez from the indigenous Tacana people in the Bolivian Amazon emphasizes: "For us, the protection of our archaeological sites is of paramount importance. They must be respected and given greater protection, for example, when planning to build dams."

Horizontal knowledge dialogues and decolonization

Carla Jaimes Betancourt, Professor of Cultural Heritage of Indigenous America in Bonn since 2022, summarizes the framework of the project from her point of view: "International consortia are exploiting resources in the territories of indigenous populations without regard for the well-being of the people who depend on the diversity of natural resources in this area. Since the conquest and colonization by Europeans, indigenous populations have struggled to defend their territories and maintain their self-determination and rights. Archaeology shows that the deep indigenous history of the Amazonians is characterized by the production of cultural and agro-biological diversity. Indigenous populations understood how to manage these resources for thousands of years, creating forest and urban landscapes. I am convinced that we have much to learn from them about the conservation of cultural and natural heritage. "

In this way, we want to make voices heard that have been silenced in the past.

Carla Jaimes Betancourt

By explicitly developing collaborative research, her team aims to realize horizontal “knowledge dialogues”. Jaimes Betancourt goes on to explain an important goal of this symmetrical exchange: "In this way, we want to make voices heard that have been silenced in the past."  She adds, "It is especially important to me that we also contribute to the decolonization of academic knowledge: for instance, by questioning the distinction between those doing research and the persons being researched, which is a further product of colonization."

 The project team first wants to explore the complexity of the term "heritage" – based on local indigenous knowledge. They also want to find out how concepts can be developed for a collective understanding of natural and cultural heritage and how indigenous approaches can be incorporated into the Western view of heritage. They are confident that this will result in important new impulses for the protection of sacred sites or rainforest ecosystems. The recognition of their own perception of their indigenous heritage should strengthen the position of the affected communities in the struggle for their rights and the defense of their territory.

Three people in the jungle, one takes photos
All these pictures were taken as part of the project during workshops and excursions.

In addition to Carla Jaimes Betancourt and her colleague in Bonn, Professor Karoline Noack, other members of the project team who are involved as applicants  include the ecologist Lilian Painter, PhD, from the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bolivia, and the archaeologist and anthropologist Carlos Machado Dias Junior, a professor at the Federal University of Amazonas in Manaus, Brazil.

"… their own anthropology"

Together with a colleague, a few years ago the latter founded the initiative titled “Nucleus of Studies of the Indigenous Amazon (NEAI)”. The two researchers succeeded in enrolling indigenous students at the University of Manaus in postgraduate studies. In common with the other project members, Dias Junior also feels a specific responsibility as a scholar. "We call the idea we developed for NEAI 'cross anthropology'. Actually, it's quite simple, almost naïve," he explains. "If anthropology is the study of observing, translating and describing social worlds, surely we could agree that indigenous peoples have their own anthropology." His goal, therefore, is to encourage as many indigenous people as possible to take up postgraduate studies – he says the project "Heritage and Territoriality" could contribute a lot in this direction.

If anthropology is the study of observing, translating and describing social worlds, surely we could agree that indigenous peoples have their own anthropology

Carlos Machado Dias Junior

Since the 1990s, the Brazilian professor has been conducting research in the Amazon region together with the Waiwai people, who have become almost like friends to him. Dias Junior is happy to be able to supervise the indigenous researcher Alexander Waiwai as a doctoral student and cites a very personal reason for taking part in the project: "I want to make it easier for my Waiwai friends to understand how an anthropologist works and what that means."

Opening up new perspectives on "heritage"

Archaeologist Patricia Ayala-Rocabado also finds the encounter of different ideas and attitudes in the project important and helpful. She wants to question and sharpen her own view of the complex concepts of "heritage" and "territory" – for example in relation to archaeological sites, materials, or ethnographic collections. "I always look upon excavation sites with respect, but notwithstanding, I naturally have a distance from them that my indigenous teammates do not have.

Through our collaborative methods of co-producing knowledge between indigenous and non-indigenous researchers, we want to look upon the issue of heritage in a holistic perspective that reflects the ontologies of indigenous peoples

Patricia Ayala-Rocabado

For them, they are sacred places that have great significance in the lives of their community – and not just in terms of the past, but in everyday life, in the present," says the Chilean professor. Project leader Jaimes Betancourt summarizes the central idea once more: "Through our collaborative methods of co-producing knowledge between indigenous and non-indigenous researchers, we want to look upon the issue of heritage in a holistic perspective that reflects the ontologies of indigenous peoples." She and her teammates strongly believe that the new transcultural and transdisciplinary view will do much to help strengthen the adaptive capacity and resilience of indigenous groups. After all, the threat to their environment and cultural heritage is more tangible and more current than ever.