Risk Narratives and Reciprocity in Work and Leisure

Much time has lapsed since the last dispatch from the field; it has become increasingly arduous to commit to updating the ethno-blog as my days are enveloped by an ever-growing barrage of fieldwork tasks. However, with the recent flooding in the region I had a free rainy day to write about some findings from structured interviews and participant observation in Puerto Maldonado. I tackle three interconnected topics that have recently emerged during fieldwork: (1) risks associated with park guarding and the consequences they might entail, such as a costly injury or financial hardship from quitting the job, (2) a particular strategy to cope with such consequences called a pollada (chicken party), which is also an important cultural practice that encourages reciprocity and solidarity, and (3) ethnographic challenges of framing interview questions to better understand the ways in which work, reciprocity, and contingent labor are intertwined in Madre de Dios.

A storm brews during a ferry crossing of the Tambopata River to interview park guards at a control post

Risks of Park Guarding 

Since arriving to Madre de Dios at the start of April 2014 I have been collecting narratives of conservation work. Risk is one theme I explore during structured interviews and many of the stories my questions elicit are surprising and sometimes a little terrifying. I have gained tremendous respect for conservation workers, especially park guards who in particular face myriad risks while guarding their control posts and conducting patrols. Below are a few abbreviated examples of risk narratives:

A lone park guard was working in the office at his outpost near the Transoceanic Highway when he was suddenly knocked unconscious by a blow to the head with a pistol. He awoke several minutes later as masked men fastened him to a tree and left him for the forest—they were likely narco-traffickers securing a safe passageway through the protected area. Two harrowing days passed before help arrived after personnel at headquarters grew concerned when the park guard hadn’t responded to two consecutive daily dispatches. He was found alive but had lost some blood and was covered in insect bites.

Inspecting spears and other articles that park guards found in Alto Púrus National Park at an abandoned campsite of people living in voluntary isolation

In a more remote area of Madre de Dios at the world’s first private conservation concession (Los Amigos) a park guard or “promotor” was conducting a bi-monthly routine patrullaje (patrol) on a peke peke (canoe with small outboard motor) up the Los Amigos watershed in 2013 when his boat was attacked at the bend of the river by several members of the Mascho-Piro native ethnic group. The Mascho-Piro (among several other native populations in Madre de Dios) have been living in voluntary isolation since the rubber boom ended over one hundred years ago (click here for an excellent blog post about the Mashco-Piro by anthropologist Glenn Shepard).

The park guard quickly continued upriver until another group of Mascho-Piro men emerged from the forest at the next river bend and began shooting again with bows and arrows—the park guard quickly maneuvered the boat in a fast 180 degree turn and throttled the motor as fast as it would spin to escape (which he did without injury though he returned to his post with a few ‘souvenirs’— arrows that had fallen inside the boat). I accompanied his replacement (he quit soon after) along with two other guards in May 2014 as they patrolled the Los Amigos River past an abandoned control post that was raided a few years ago by Mashco-Piro.

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A park guard on the routine patrullaje (patrol) up the Los Amigos River on the same stretch where another park guard was attacked by the Mascho-Piro a year prior. I had the opportunity to accompany the team on this patrol in May 2014.
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Abandoned control post on the Los Amigos River, now closed after the Mascho-Piro arrived to the area in 2011 and rummaged through supplies (they only took cooking pots)
A double rainbow over the Los Amigos Biological Station, headquarters of the Los Amigos Conservation Concession at the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Los Amigos Rivers

I recently conversed with a taxi driver who was a guard at Manu National Park in the 1990s. At this time park guards received a monthly salary of around 50 percent of what it is today (~$500) and did not receive benefits such as health insurance. The cab driver recounted a story of his last day on the job. He was clearing trails with a machete one afternoon when he arrived to a massive thicket of paca (thorny bamboo with very sharp spines). He began to cut it down when suddenly a few shoots fell onto him and punctured his abdomen, causing a profound wound that excessively bled. He was fortunate to have access to a helicopter that particular day; a congressman had just flown in from Lima to visit a nearby native community and offered his helicopter to transport the injured park guard to the nearest hospital in Cusco. He mentioned that he lost 20 kilograms after the accident due to health complications associated with the injury.

In the ongoing struggle to eliminate gold mining within protected areas of Madre de Dios, a park guard at a control post on the Malinowski River recently attempted to confront a group of gold miners illegally operating on a beach within the Tambopata National Reserve, but was defiantly met with rifles and pistols and warned to leave. He had to recruit the help of local police authorities to end the operation. These confrontations have grown increasingly common in recent years since the gold rush commenced in the region.

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Mining operation on the riverbank of the Madre de Dios River

While the daily life of park guarding is sometimes described as mundane and uneventful, banality vanishes at the bite of a jergon (Fer-de-lance, Bothrop sp. venomous snake) or from a chainsaw accident from removing fallen trees from the trails. These variegated risk narratives throw light on what the front lines of local conservation work look like when things go awry. They also allude to an important question:

How do families cope with ruptures into their lives that result in unexpected medical bills or financial hardship?

The pollada is one solution to such problems.

The Pollada: Economic Strategy and Form of Solidarity

A ticket for a pollada thrown by Tukuy Yawar, a local dance organization in Madre de Dios. Polladas have been adopted by organizations and associations in recent years as a means to raise funds.

pollada (chicken party) is a cookout with family and friends for the purpose raising funds to pay an unexpected expense. When the expense is a medical bill or a costly medication the fundraiser is called a Pollada prosalud (pro-health pollada) and when it is for paying a debt, bank loan, travel expense, etc. it is called a pollada económica (economic pollada). The family in need (or a supporting relative, friend, or colleague) purchases a large quantity of chickens to grill and serve for a profit. Plates consist of a quarter-piece of chicken and side or two that varies depending on region. In Madre de Dios grilled chicken is normally served along with boiled yucca and a small salad of lettuce and cucumber (sold for 10 soles  or~$3.25 currently). Beverages are charged extra and beer in particular is important because it encourages more consumption (and thus more profits raised to support the cause). Sometimes a live band plays music and people dance (called ‘pollada bailable,’ or ‘dance pollada’).

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Typical pollada plate and ticket. Grilled chicken served with regional sides, including tacacho (fried plantain balls), yucca, and salad. Tickets commonly include religious phrases to frame purchasing the ticket as an act of nobility.

The time factor of polladas is important. They occur during Saturdays of the weekend and are thus considered leisure events that consist of supporting a noble cause while passing free time visiting and drinking with relatives, friends, and acquaintances invited by others. Often times family members who host the pollada meet a week prior to determine how many chickens they can sell and then divide tickets (for plates of food) among each member. The tickets perform an important function; while anyone can simply agree to attend a pollada (and likely never show), tickets are sold during the week leading up to the pollada so that invited friends who say they will attend must commit to pay for their plate in advance. Often time one is solicited to purchase a ticket with a phrase that begins with,  “Colabórame” (work with me) or “Apoyame” (support me).

Polladas are both a  household economic strategy and inter-household practice that encourages solidarityThey originated during economic and political hardship in metropolitan Lima among Andean migrants who continued traditional practices of reciprocity (such as ayni, see pg81 here) between family members and neighbors. The practice of throwing polladas have since diffused and is now ubiquitous across Peru. For an in-depth analysis of the emergence of polladas in Peru, see this academic journal article (in Spanish).

Work and Reciprocity

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Interviewing a former park guard and learning about the risks of work in the forest

Reciprocity can also play an important role in work strategies, sometimes in ways I had not anticipated. During recent structured interviews I learned that sometimes simply asking the question, “Have you ever worked in mining or logging?” was not a sufficient way to to address previous experiences in natural resource extraction. “Work” denotes paid labor, and many park guards and ecotourism workers never worked in mining or logging for a wage.

However, just as I wrote in an earlier post about children and labor in Madre de Dios, many conservation workers  helped their parents or relatives by washing gold or carrying lumber when they were young. Unpaid labor is not restricted to childhood; some conservation workers answered “no” to having worked in mining or logging but later in the interview mentioned helping a family member or in-law in such activities (and sometimes frequently) to reciprocate for help they received  (e.g. the person takes care of the interviewee’s children while they work at a control post or eco-lodge). I have thus had to reexamine interview questions to reflect on how my study participants and I ascribe different meanings to words as seemingly simple as “work.”

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A young man operating a caranchera mining operation on the Madre de Dios River. At least one-quarter of study participants have worked in mining or logging, and even more when considering unpaid labor as children or to help a family member as an act of reciprocity.

There is another important distinction to make regarding the term “work” in the context of the interview question, “Have you ever worked in mining or logging?” Some interviewees responded “no” but later mentioned that they washed gold or carried lumber when I asked about previous cachuelos they had. A Cachuelo is an informal temporary job that people work for an extremely short period (and usually for a higher wage than what is typically received during more consistent, formal work). They might spend a day harvesting crops, painting a building, and in some cases, washing gold or carrying lumber. Some conservation workers I interviewed earn more money working cachuelos during their days off than they do in their regular jobs. Cachuelos are a crucial part of my research and asking about them has yielded many insights about the nature of contingent labor in Amazonia.

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Trailer loaded with timber at Boca Unión on the Madre de Dios River. A cachuelo (temporary, informal work) in timber might include loading timber into or out of a trailer. Other examples of cachuelos I have learned about during interviews include washing gold, harvesting crops, collecting Brazil nuts, painting buildings, participating in a scientific project as a field assistant, or fixing infrastructure at eco-lodges such as thatched rooftops.

Concluding Thoughts

The children of an ecotourism worker standing at the doorway of their home.

I began this ethno-blog entry describing risk narratives of park guards and their potential health and economic consequences. I selected examples to describe more extreme cases that involved physical risk and discussed polladas as a culturally important coping strategy when a family member endures a serious injury at work or financial hardship from quitting his or her job due to such risks.

However, park guards (and other workers in the conservation economy like eco-tour guides) also face social risks when they continually miss anniversaries, birthdays, and day-to-day life with their families due to the remote location of the workplace. The cumulative effect might be an estranged relationship with a spouse or offspring (as more than one conservation worker described, “You arrive to your home and your son calls you “uncle”).

There are also cultural risks when someone who works in biodiversity conservation abandons particular cultural practices that relate to the environment, such as eating wild animal meat (e.g. monkeys, peccaries, caiman, etc.), hunting, or working in logging or mining. Though each of these topics deserve their own articles, they should at least be mentioned when considering the vast array of risks in conservation work, and they are often times the cause of more enduring problems. I am having to rethink ideas of “risk” just as I had to redefine “work” to ask about prior experience in natural resource extraction.

Other interviewing issues come to the fore of my mind as I reflect on the topics of “work” and “risk” and its multiple meanings between my study participants and I. For example, one method I have employed during interviews is to ask participants to list all the words that come to mind when they hear the word “nature.” The purpose of this task is to compile and analyze all interviewee lists to establish what is called “cultural domain” (read more about this ethnographic method here). With the exception of a few outlying responses such as “my life, my work” and “ayahuasca, vitality” most responses tend to be mundane such as “trees” and “birds” and so forth. Thus, I added a followup question that has elicited more insightful responses about participants’ perceptions of the environment: “What is the opposite of ‘nature’ in your opinion?” This inquiry has helped me to understand how participants conceptualize ‘nature’ visàvis human activities and social life. This point further exemplifies that ethnographic interviewing is a dynamic process that requires careful reflection of how questions are framed. Moreover, it demonstrates that we live in different conceptual worlds that are often difficult to elucidate, as subtle differences in the meanings of words can create large gulfs between how ethnographers and their study participants understand and construct reality during an interview.

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