Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Myth of the Ecological Indian, Ecuador Style

In the new Ecuadorian constitution is a provision granting rights to nature. Specifically:

“Nature, or Pachamama . . . [now] has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

What does this mean in reality? That remains to be seen. Frankly, I'm skeptical it will add up to anything much. So long as Rafael Correa or people of his ideological ilk remain in power, I imagine the government will use the provision when it wants to crack down on foreign oil companies and other multinational corporations. I find it extraordinarily unlikely that they will use the law to prosecute local developers or everyday interactions between people and the land, regardless of how damaging they might be.

In a rhetorical sense, Ecuador's law is groundbreaking. And rhetoric matters. But I don't think we should read too much into it.

What we really shouldn't do is go down the path of this Utne Reader article and claim that became part of the Constitution because Ecuador's indigenous people are more in touch with nature than the rest of us:

Adopting Ecuador’s constitutional approach in many countries would require nothing short of “a fundamental change in both the legal and cultural atmosphere,” Margil says. The prevailing view that nature is property is deeply rooted in the Abrahamic tradition of monotheistic faiths, which include Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. This tradition shaped an understanding of nature as a divine gift to be dominated for the benefit of humankind. This is not, however, the only way to conceptualize the natural world.

Many indigenous cultures take a more eco-spiritual approach, positing nature as sacrosanct and viewing humans as members of a balanced, natural system. It’s no fluke, notes Earth Island Journal (Winter 2009), that the Andean earth goddess Pachamama, or Mother Universe, figures into the new constitution. The indigenous concept of sumak kawsay, or harmonious/humane living, also appears. With 40 percent of its population indigenous, Ecuador was almost certainly predisposed to becoming an early adopter of nature’s rights on a constitutional scale.

Oh boy. This is known as the Myth of the Ecological Indian. Off and on going back to the Enlightenment and Rousseau's idealized noble savage, whites have seen indigenous people as having a special relationship with nature. Note that this has rarely been supported by evidence, bur rather has existed as a philosophical construct to serve western needs to analyze themselves. In the late 1960 and early 1970s, the environmental movement resurrected this myth in order to critique how whites destroyed nature. Its most famous manifestation is the Crying Indian ad, seen here:

Native Americans have used this myth to further their own political aims, and good for them. This includes the indigenous people of Ecuador, which have effectively worked with environmental organizations over the past 20 years to fight petroleum companies who want to exploit their lands.

In the end though, the Myth of the Ecological Indian is just that, a myth. In reality, Ecuadorans want to control their own oil supply and not let Texaco or Shell come in and take all the resources and the profit. Who can blame them for this? But their own development of oil is hardly likely to be more nature-centric than Texaco's.

In any case, the Myth of the Ecological Indian also dehumanizes indigenous people, taking power to control their own lives away from them. When native peoples haven't acted like environmentalists thought they should (for example, when the Makah people in Washington started whaling), environmentalists say they aren't acting like Indians. What does that even mean? It means that for 200 years whites have had very particular, if shifting, ideas of what "Indians" act like without actually considering that the might act just like you and me.

I was dismayed though not surprised to see this myth perpetrated once again. It's been under heavy critique in the last 10 years, but among a lot of young idealistic environmentalists it holds an awful lot of water. I try in my environmental history classes to beat this myth to a pulp, but it persists.

Update: Upon further research, I had forgotten that President Correa, who pushed for these changes to the Constitution, actually has been working with multinational mining companies to expand their operations in indigenous territory, leading to riots and deaths in the protests against this. All this shows is that the constitutional bit on the environment is almost without meaning and that the author of the Utne article bought into it hook, line, and sinker with very little research.