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.


Gold Mining and Unequal Exchange in Western Amazonia: A Theoretical Photo Journal

I have to forgo writing a proper update until I finish the current round of in-depth structured interviews with ecotourism workers, park guards, loggers, and miners. I look forward to sharing a thoughtful reflection of insights I’ve gleaned since my last ethno-blog entry on children and labor in the region. In the meantime, I am posting a link to a preliminary draft of a manuscript about gold mining in Madre de Dios that I’ve been working on for publication. This version is an experimental hybrid between an academic journal article and a photo essay that combines recently collected ethnographic data, fieldwork photography, and anthropological theory on unequal ecological exchange.

The perspective I take deviates considerably from what is typically published about gold mining in Madre de Dios by posing the question: How is it that the Andean peasant who migrated to Amazonia to escape destitution and who now works double shifts operating mining machinery for a meager short-term wage has come to represent greed and unfettered capitalism rather than the multi-millionaire investment banker on Wall Street who profits most from the consequences of gold mining in Madre de Dios, including deforestation, pollution, illness, and debt peonage? This piece is about inequality and interconnections. The first part is a material analysis of the localized consequences of the global gold boom in Madre de Dios. The second part is a cultural critique that interrogates the rationale and language invoked in discourses about gold mining in the region and the global gold trade to show how the machinations of capital accumulation from gold mining are mystified, or made to seem bewildering. Read it here:

DRAFT Gold Mining and Unequal exchange in Western Amazonia- A Theoretical Photo Journal

I leave you with a photo of a sunset/rainbow/storm cloud looming over Puerto Maldonado from a few days ago. The rainy season has arrived!

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An ethnographic approach to understanding children and labor in Madre de Dios

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A young boy from the native community of Palma Real carries handcrafted sets of bows and arrows souvenirs to be sold in the nearby city of Puerto Maldonado

“I moved from the sierra to Madre de Dios to work in gold mining when I was 10 years old. My parents died when I was four and I had no one else. I slept in the streets and worked on people’s chacras (plots of farmland) making about 3 soles (~$1) per day picking fruits and vegetables. But then a friend of mine told me all about the gold in Madre de Dios so we came here! I had crazy ideas when I arrived to Madre de Dios… like buying an airplane. I was so young but it seems believable because I was making five times more money panning gold, around 15 soles (~$5) per day.”                     -Armando

“Armando” (name changed to protect identity) panned gold nearly everyday for a year after arriving to Madre de Dios at the age of ten years old. Because he was a child in violation of labor laws, Armando was picked up by the Comisaría (local authorities) and was taken to Albergue Juvenil (Youth Lodge), where he was provided with meals, a bed in the dormitory, and access to education at El Colegio Simón Bolívar in the small town of Mazuko. Families that live in rural communities (often who work exclusively in mining or logging) have limited access to schooling and will sometimes send their children to live in towns with family members, friends, or at lodges (such as where Armando lived during most of his years as an orphan). Upon arriving to the youth hostel, the padrino (godfather, or sponsor) of the lodge told Armando he could not work anymore in mining and that he was only to attend school and gain vocational skills working at the lodge chacra and medicinal garden.

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A woman and young man from the Andes mining gold on the shores of the Madre de Dios River

Armando learned to read and write along with forty other children, but despite the padrino’s orders he and several other children clandestinely worked in mining and logging during weekends and school vacations. Families that sent their children to live in the lodge often hired other lodge children to work in their mining or logging concessions. The work arrangements varied; sometimes a patrón hired children merely as obreros (laborers that were paid a fixed daily rate) to work in his own operations, while other times children paid concessionaires a small fee to log or pan gold independently on their land and were able to keep most of the profits for themselves.

Two boys setting up a caranchera for mining on the Madre de Dios River- a common sight upriver from the capital city of Puerto Maldonado

I have begun to document the forces that shape the lives of people who as adolescents participated in the market economy in Madre de Dios. This past week I conducted a dozen in-depth structured interviews with ecotourism and conservation workers who spent their adolescence working. A few examples of interviewees and their backgrounds working as children include:

  • a park ranger who worked on his family chacra (used both for commerce and subsistence) since the age of six and who continues to plant, harvest, and sell crops for his family when he is not guarding the post
  • an ecotourism housekeeper who worked as a vendor and restaurant server in the informal urban economy since the age of ten to help meet the demands of her single-parent household
  • a tour guide who worked with his father in mining since the age of twelve until only four years ago, once he finished his education and began a successful career as a freelance guide
  • a conservation worker (biological researcher’s assistant) who as a young child escaped his abusive home and worked in castaña, timber, and hunting, during which he developed skills and knowledge that enabled him to later find more meaningful work in conservation
  • an ecotourism student who migrated to Madre de Dios from Cusco, where he spent his childhood working cooperatively on the chacras of his family and neighbors through the traditional Andean system of reciprocal labor, which Quechua speakers refer to as “ayni” (click here and scroll up to pg 81 for more on the subject)
A young child helps her mother wash clothes for Miners on the Madre de Dios River
A young child helps her mother wash clothes for miners on the Madre de Dios River

These stories and others I have recently documented reveal a high degree of variation in how people in Madre de Dios participated in the market economy since they were young children. But how does the ethnographer go about capturing the range of stories with a fixed set of interview questions? I draw on Michael Agar’s (2006) discussion of ethnographic logic to explore these complex work patterns among children in Madre de Dios. Agar describes ethnographic logic as:

  • abductive (from latin,  ‘lead away’), because the ethnographer is ‘abducted’ by a new surprise , or what Agar calls a “rich point” – the stuff of of which raw ethnographic material is made. In journalism, this is akin to a journalist following a new lead or story. (As an aside, there has been a renewed interest in abductive reasoning in artificial intelligence research to get machines to think more like humans).
  • iterative (from latin, ‘to repeat’), because ethnographic research consists of repetition (hence why I am conducting structured interviews with multiple participants about the same topics and themes). Iteration combined with the abductive reasoning is how ethnographers pursue new surprises; we look for new ‘rich points’ through repeating methods like interviewing a series of people.
  • recursive (from latin, ‘to run away’ or ‘to run back’), because ethnography is about problem solving within problem solving (this is where it becomes a little abstract). Agar says, “Recursion helps understand when you are “done” with a particular rich point, and why some rich points are richer than others. You are done when abductive work yields no more abduction. And you are dealing with a truly spectacular rich point when the abduction seems like it will never stop, one abduction calling up another calling up another until you run out of time. Those kinds of rich points lead to book topics or even a life’s work.”

In other words, the logic of ethnographic work entails following leads, repeating the sampling approach, returning to older unsolved questions while simultaneously pursuing new ones until finding no new variation in the data or new surprises (or what some qualitative research circles call ‘saturation’).

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A young man on a ferry carries lumber from the other side of the Tambopata River. Many children also work as estibadores (loaders/dockers) in logging or Brazil nut operations for a daily wage of around 30 soles (~$10)

Through conducting interviews this past week and asking questions about livelihoods and work histories I have discovered a fascinating complexity of work patterns in adolescents in Madre de Dios, originally prompted by the simple question, “What was the first job you had?” One thing that sets ethnographic research apart from other social scientific approaches is the abductive, iterative, recursive logic we use; had I not been an ethnographer,  I  would have simply adherd to only asking the questions on my structured interview list while ignoring these new ‘rich points’ or surprises. Through pursing new surprises in the unexpected domain of childhood work experiences I am learning tremendously about interconnections and interdependencies of biodiversity conservation and natural research extraction.

Without delving deeply into data analysis I can still describe a few general observations about work and childhood in Madre de Dios based on recent interviews. First, children often perform unpaid labor for the family as a subsistence strategy in the peasant economy in rural Madre de Dios. Second, intergenerational transmission of knowledge and experience in logging and mining is a factor that plays into whether someone who currently works in conservation has a background that includes natural resource extraction (which almost always begins by working alongside a father or uncle during adolescence). Third, children often perform paid labor in urban informal markets (in Puerto Maldonado) as an income diversification strategy of the household, especially when a parent is ill, loses a job, or the child lives in a single-parent household.

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Children of a riverine mining pueblo sit on a supply boat on the Madre de Dios River. Through interviews I have learned that many children in the region spend time working with their parents in mining during weekends and school vacations. If someone in ecotourism or conservation worked in logging or mining, they likely first worked alongside their father or uncle as a child.

Fourth, decisions about which child of a household joins the labor force is influenced by a number of factors such as intrahousehold inequality (between men and women; seniors and juniors; nuclear and extended family), gender and age of children in the household, and broader socio-cultural and political economic forces. My  final observation for now is that sometimes children in the household are self-driven to take on work to purchase items for themselves that their families could not afford. This brings me to an interesting point that is often overlooked when the topic of ‘child labor’ is invoked. If the reader has access to the peer-reviewed academic journal Annual Review of Anthropology, see Nieuwenhuys 1996 for a review piece on child labor in anthropological research. Nieuwenhuys describes a paradoxical tension between the conceptualization of childhood on one hand and lack of institutional support for impoverished children on the other:

“[T]he moral condemnation of child labor assumes that children’s place in society must perforce be one of dependency and passivity. This denial of their ability to legitimately act upon their enviroment by undertaking valuable work makes children altogether dependent upon entitlements guaranteed by the state. Yet we must question the state’s role—as the evidence by growing child poverty caused by cuts in social spending has illuminated—in carrying out its mission.”

This is indeed an interesting paradox worth further exploration. To demonstrate this point about the troublesome cultural category of  ‘children’ as passive and dependent, I just finished interviews with two ecotourism workers this week who both worked as estibadores  (loaders) in logging operations when they were 12 and 14 years old; both of them sought out jobs on their own volition so they could buy bicycles, which their families could not otherwise afford, and they told me these stories with pride.

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A child from the native community of Palma Real enjoys taking his bike to the riverbank, where he can enjoy rides near the water

It is important to note a limitation in my work as it pertains to children and labor in Madre de Dios;  I am unable to cover the entire range of variation in work patterns given the bias of my sample (i.e. my sample is limited to people who have experience working in conservation and ecotourism, most of which grew up in households and were protected and supported by their families). While I have documented three cases of extreme exploitative child labor (each of whom were orphans), if I were to write a manuscript about child labor in Madre de Dios I would lack primary data on the exploitative dimensions of human trafficking, slave labor, and child prostitution that is far too common in and around gold mining operations in Madre de Dios. Fortunately such primary data already exist; The Institute for International Studies (IDEI, Instituto de Estudios Internacionales) based out of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú published a report in 2009 that estimates 20 percent of children in Madre de Dios are subject to coercive labor. To put it another way, for every four children I see walking to school, playing in the plaza, or running around the market there is one child who is living an invisible life as an indentured laborer. Another great source comes from Verité (an organization that examines labor issues worldwide), who published this report that includes interview excerpts, summary of major findings, and samples of interview question.

Laberinto, a small mining pueblo that serves as a riverine transportation hub to several mining communities and operations along the Madre de Dios River.
Laberinto, a small mining pueblo that serves as a riverine transportation hub to several mining communities and operations along the Madre de Dios River.

Children from the Andes are often recruited through deceptive tactics under the guise that they will work in well-paying jobs as restaurant servers  in small riverine pueblos near mining camps or as temporarily gold miners. However, through the instrument of debt peonage, children become sequestered in these work places as slaves as their wages are gouged to pay for the exorbitant prices of their meager food provisions and bunking arrangements. Young girls cannot make enough money to survive by earning one sol (~30 U.S. cents) per each beer they sell at the cantina, so prostitution often becomes the only way for them to pay their debt and escape servitude. Young boys working in the mines are subjected to harsh conditions that often cause illnesses, which they are treated with medicine that puts them further into debt. Thus, children become perpetually subjected to unsanitary living conditions, sexual and physical abuse, and they are deprived of basic (health, mental, and emotional) necessities (see this report about trafficking of women and children in the region).

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A prostitution house in a remote pueblo several hours upriver from the region’s capital city of Puerto Maldonado

During preliminary ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation last year I sometimes heard the terms “charapita” (little turtle) and “jovencita” (young sweet girl, the diminutive suffix ‘cita‘ denotes affection) in reference to highly desired child prostitutes who work along the river in the pueblos where miners stock up on supplies and imbibe between shifts of work. There are a staggering 2000 adolescent girls and woman working at any given time in the 400 prostibares (prostitute bars) in Madre de Dios.  During trips on the river last year I photographed mining operations with a telephoto lens only to later discover that many of the workers pushing wheelbarrows and operating the carancheras (semi-mechanized mining equipment) were children and young teenagers.

Students in Puerto Maldonado commemorate International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking, September 23.
Students in Puerto Maldonado commemorate International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking, September 23.

Last month I was walking down the busy Avenue Léon Velarde when I stumbled upon a parade of children marching to the Plaza de Armas (town center)— apparently it was International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking (September 23). The commemorative day came just weeks after a major human trafficking bust in Madre de Dios in which 36 children were rescued from trafficking but the local prosecutor returned them to the community where they had been living in indentured servitude and subjected to unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and deprived of education. Hopeful news broke the morning of the International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking that Peru will hire four special prosecutors to investigate cases of human trafficking across the country, including in Madre de Dios.

In addition to International Day Against Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking (September 23), I have documented a kaleidoscope of other events since returning from the jungle to Puerto Maldonado in September, including parades and danzas traditionales (traditional dances from Western Amazonia) to celebrate ecotourism, conservation, and the environment for World Tourism Day (September 27), a series of political rallies, candidate speeches, and other events that led up to very important first round of regional elections that took place on the 5th of October (and will finish in a few weeks between the two most population candidates), Festival de la Castaña Amazonica (The Amazonic Brazil Nut Festival, October 18), and most recently, the procession of El Señor de los Milagros (October 28), which has an interesting story specific to the Peruvian history of slavery, immigration, and conquest. I plan to share my experiences of these events soon (and their ethnographic importance) through writing, photography, and videography, but I’m so busy conducting interviews right now it is difficult to keep up with all the other data and content to share- so stay tuned! And thanks for reading!

In the meantime, here’s a sneak peak of a few events from around the city this past month:

Ecotourism students dressed in traditional Ese Eja clothing and parading down the main street, Leon Velarde to commemorate World Tourism Day through a celebration of tradition, environment, and conservation
Final rally for candidates of the political party Fuerza, who did not win any major seats during regional elections in early October
Fourth Annual Castaña (Brazil nut) Festival, during which there was live music (including traditional selvatico music), food vendors served traditional plates (and some ‘carne de monte’ or wild animal meat, including huangana, picuro, and others) with castaña sauce, and like most events in Madre de Dios, there was a “Miss _______ pagant”, this one for “Miss Castaña 2014)
Procession of El Señor de Los Milagros near the plaza

The moral economy of livelihoods, conceptions of wildlife, and curating fieldwork data

“If I did not have this chamba [work] in conservation I would be cutting down tornillo [Cedrelinga cateniformis] and shihuahuaco [Dipterys sp.], making about 3 soles per foot. But it would be only for surviving, not for plata [cash]!”

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A shihuahuaco towers over the canopy in a protected area in Madre de Dios. This emergent tree is a keystone species during the dry season when fruit resources are sparse for monkeys, peccaries, other mammals. Shihuahuaco, an ironwood in high market demand, is used as charcoal and is sought after in carpentry and parquetry (floorboard industry). A dissertation published in 2010 found that exports of shihuahuaco to China represent over 50% of Peru’s timber exports (see http://search.proquest.com/docview/906489371).

I. Livelihood Diversification and the Moral Economy

The above quote was from a discussion while hiking in the jungle conducting participant observation with a man who depends on logging exotic wood and working in ecotourism/conservation to earn a living. One thing that might upend our understanding of local conservation in Amazonia is that while biodiversity conservation and natural resource extraction are often represented as ideologically contested (and driven by divergent material ambitions), these market sectors can be complimentary from the perspective of local labor.

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A truck of confiscated lumber that was likely illegally logged is parked outside the police department in Puerto Maldonado. A recently published study found that 68.3% of all timber concessions in Peru were suspected of significant violations. More disturbingly, data indicate that permits associated with legal concessions are used to harvest trees in unauthorized areas. Read the open-access publication: http://www.nature.com/srep/2014/140417/srep04719/full/srep04719.html#affil-auth

While hiking with “Franco” (synonym used to protect identity) we passed by a shihuahuaco tree which I used to spark a conversation about his earning potential in timber (a technique my advisor, Jeff Cohen, and Jason de León describe in a discussion about ‘object and walking probes’). As I described in the previous ethno-blog entry, participant observation has generated meaningful experiences with research participants and has helped me identify and pursue new research questions. One of these new intellectual curiosities relates to the moral distinction Franco made between “sobrevivir” (to survive) and “plata” (cash) to contrast his situation from those of others who profit exceedingly in natural resource extraction. This binary arose at least once before with another research participant, but how does the ethnographer navigate the vast corpus of fieldwork data that spans several months (or even years) to identify and locate reoccurring themes?

I will tackle this question and describe how I curate data from prolonged periods of fieldwork to identify common themes and issues that appear across time (see video below). I will also share a few findings from participant observation research in el monte (backcountry, or jungle) to demonstrate how previously collected ethnographic data can be mobilized to design well-informed questionnaires or interviews. This recursive approach is a quintessential aspect of doing ethnographic research; in the words of anthropologist Michael Agar (2006), At first you cast the net wide, but with time the focus narrows, within what you learned in those early wide-open days.”  As just one example of this “funneling” down process,  I now plan to use the binary of ‘surviving vs. profiteering’ that arose during participant observation fieldwork over recent months to generate structured interview questions that elicit local attitudes about capital accumulation in the extractive economy in Madre de Dios.

Future interviews based on findings from participant observation might include questions like: “What is the difference between logging to survive versus making a profit?” or “Is mining for profit morally reprehensible compared to mining only to support one’s family? Why or why not?” Another approach is to share my research findings with interviewees and ask them to address my overall question: “Why do you think some people make a moral distinction between logging to survive versus logging to profit?” These are just a few examples of questions I am currently drafting as I prepare to conduct structured interviews.

A caranchera moves large volumes of sediment to extract gold at a beach on the Madre de Dios River that has been cleared for mining. This image of semi-mechanized mining exemplifies what research participants mean when they say some people mine gold for “plata” (cash) or profit, to contrast their artisanal mining (smaller scale, removes less ore) as a means of survival.


I now turn to a different research finding to further describe how participant observation can generate new questions for ethnographic interviews. One of my overall research objectives in this project is to ascertain the cultural outcomes for local people who have shifted livelihoods from natural resource extraction to biodiversity conservation. With this in mind, I became increasingly interested in the ways people who work in the conservation economy conceptualize, relate to, and interact with the surrounding animal world. The logic goes that if conservation workers are to be custodians of wildlife and their ecosystems, then we would expect that their practices with animals and their conceptions of them would vary to some degree from people who work in natural resource extraction.

To give an example, one cultural outcome of working in conservation is dietary change resulting from a shift in moral attitudes about consuming meat from wild animals (and some ecotourism workers are even vegetarians). However, through participant observation (e.g. eating meals with park guards, conservation staff, ecotourism workers, etc.) I discovered that consumption of wild animals is still a discursive practice to which some conservation workers vehemently opposed and others described with great pleasure, even noting their favorite meals like sopa de motelo (tortoise soup), caldo de coto (howler monkey stew), huevos de taricaya (turtle eggs), chicharrón de huangana (fried collared-peccary rinds), among other dishes.

A group of white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari). Peccaries are commonly hunted across Peru
A group of  white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari, locally called huanganas). This species  lives in large herds of anywhere between 50-200 individuals and are frequently hunted across the tropics. Huanganas provide an important protein source for families who live in rural parts of Madre de Dios, such as in native communities and mining pueblos.

Hunting of wild animals was also a particulary interesting topic that yielded great insight into local meanings of conservation. For example, a former park guard who worked at Bahuaja-Sonene National Park described conservation as a means to increase local animal populations of huanganas (white-lipped peccary, Tayassu pecari) for game hunting, which suggests that for him ‘biodiversity conservation’ does not significantly differ from ideas of natural resource preservation/wildlife management.

Spider monkey, locally called maquisapa. 'Maki' means 'hand' in Quechua, sapa is the suffix for magnitude. Of the nearly dozen sympatric species in this region, Maquisapas are preferred by hunters because they are larger-bodied primates and thus provide a voluminous amount of meat. Recent conversations with conservation workers over meals has spurred me to develop interview questions to systematically ask questions about whether they continue to eat meat of wild animals after pursuing work in biodiversity conservation.
Spider monkey, locally called maquisapa. ‘Maki’ means ‘hand’ in Quechua, sapa is the suffix for magnitude. Of the nearly dozen sympatric species in this region, Maquisapas are preferred by hunters because they are larger-bodied primates and thus provide a voluminous amount of meat. Recent participant observation fieldwork with conservation workers has spurred me to develop interview questions about consumption of wild animals.
Coati (Nassua nasua), locally called 'achuni' -described by a few conservation workers as having extremely rich meat
Brown-nosed coati (Nasua nasua), locally called ‘achuni’ -described as having extremely rich meat

In addition to consuming and hunting wild animals, participant observation also led to new findings about  the domestication of wild animals (e.g. raising monkeys as pets), keeping captive animals to attract tourists at eco-lodges, and the use of metaphors comparing human behavior to particular animal species based on certain traits. For example, a few times while working alongside conservation workers I heard about the concept of cutipar, the phenomenon through which a person is “contaminated” by the characteristics of an animal, plant, or object (read more about cutipar here). While I have yet to learn the extent to which this idea is common across the mestizo population in Madre de Dios, the term “cutipado de pelejo” is sometimes used to call out a fellow coworker who is slow moving and has a lazy demeanor, like a pelejo (sloth).

To once again invoke the iterative nature of ethnographic fieldwork, returning to data from participant observation has generated new research questions to pursue through more structured, focused interviewing. Future interview questions might include: “Were you raised by your family with the idea of cutipar?” “Can you provide me with an example of when you were cutipado? What happened?” “I have heard that ‘cutipar’ is sometimes used simply to compare someone to an animal (i.e. not really invoked by someone who believes in the idea. Can you provide an example of this?”

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Stencil art on the side of a school wall, and excerpt from the poem, El Río, by Javier Heraud, Peruvian poet who was killed at the age of 21 while in Puerto Maldonado. Translatation: everything is wood, condors, masks, rivers and dark honeysuckle. http://www.illari.org/peruanos/heraud.html

So how might one look back at their ethnographic corpus of data collected over a long range of time to identify patterns and salient themes? To continue with the example of how conservation workers conceptualize, relate to, and interact with the animal world, I hone in on excerpts of text from field notes that pertain to hunting, food consumption, domestication of wild animals, among other related topics in which the subject of animals was mentioned (see video below). This kind of analysis takes a textual-based approach (e.g. word frequency, word co-occurrence, schema analysis, identification of metaphors and analogies, etc.), which is greatly aided by qualitative data analysis software, such as ATLASti, NVIVO, MAXQDA, NUDist (who comes up with these acroynms?), ANTHTOPAC, and so forth. For a table that compares features of different QDA software on Windows and Mac platforms, see this comparison. Also take a look at the comments section of this Savage Minds post to learn different perspectives on why some anthropologists use QDA to assist with their data. I use ATLASti because it allows me to also code photos and videos in addition to text files.  Instead of ‘dancing about architecture’ and trying to write up my approach to using QDA to code and curate data, I made a video that better elucidates the process. I also included a little original music to fill the space of dead air (though recording my voice in a rapidly developing town where a chorus of bulldozers fill the soundscape, I had to apply some noise-cancellation processing). Without further adieu, here is a crash course on using Atlas.ti with fieldwork data:

Ethnography in ‘El Monte’

Apologies for the ethno-blog hiatus, since May I have been in el monte (i.e. backcountry, a term synonymously used with la selva, or jungle), several hours up the Madre de Dios River. I am now based in the capital city of Puerto Maldonado for a more prolonged period and will update the ethno-blog regularly. There are many exciting stories, videos, photos, and more to share in forthcoming posts! Over the past few months I have been conducting participant observation and semi-structured interviews with a variety of local people, including permanent and temporary staff at a conservation concession/biological station, eco-tour guides and operations staff (e.g. motoristas, logistics, etc.), local assistants of science investigators, and other locals whose livelihoods are intertwined with the conservation economy in Madre de Dios.

Where the Andes and Amazon meet in Madre de Dios, Perú - biogeographically, culturally, and econonically
Where the Andes and Amazonia meet biogeographically, culturally, and economically. Thousands of mostly landless Andean peasants have migrated to Madre de Dios in recent decades hoping to find a better life working in the booming gold mining industry. Photo taken from a mirador (lookout) at one of my ethnographic field sites, Los Amigos Biological Station, near the confluence of the Los Amigos and Madre de Dios Rivers in southeastern Peru


Since 2008 I have been traveling upriver to learn about the role biodiversity conservation and natural resource extraction play in local livelihoods, but I am also keenly interested in how these economies define and transform space. It was serendipitous that my longitudinal research in Madre de Dios began as the latest gold boom commenced following the global economic recession (see Asner et al. 2013). To help me understand the effects of transnational development and natural resource extraction, I have been photographing these trips for the past six years and using images as props in photo elicitation interviews and analyzing photographs using methods from cultural geography, such as landscape interpretation (see Duncan et al. 2004).

Below are a few selected photos that document the trip from Puerto Maldonado to a biological research station several hours up the Madre de Dios River:

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The first leg of the trip spans a section of the newly paved Transoceanic Highway from Puerto Maldonado to the small mining port town of Laberinto. The highway connects traffic circuits of Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru, enabling Brazil and Bolivia to access sea ports on Peru’s Pacific coast, and further developing infrastructure in Andes/Amazonia Peru, which is home to some of the poorest Peruvians in the country. Numerous mining communities, haciendas, and chacras (cultivated land) have sprung up along the Transoceanic Highway in recent years. My ethnographic research has recently documented land disputes between local landholders and migrant squatters on plots along the highway as land becomes more valuable. See HERE for an recent open source publication about the effects of road construction on landscapes in the tri-national frontier of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru.
The Peruvian government has erected large signs in recent years to advertise investment in infrastructural development. This photo was taken during Master’s thesis research in 2010 when the Billinghurst Bridge was still under construction. Guillermo Billinghurst (president of Peru from 1912-1914) is known for his contribution to the labor movement with his landmark legislation that guaranteed an 8-hour workday. Many development signs around Puerto Maldonado emphasize labor in their promotion of construction, development, and notions of progress. On the left of the sign there is a support column at the edge of the river labeled  “Antes: incertidumbre” (Before: Uncertainty) and to the right the latest construction progress (in 2010)  labeled “Ahora: Futuro” (Now: the future). Many locals I have interviewed in Puerto Maldonado question whether the new bridge has lived up to the promises of a better future or merely enabled more capital to flow through their city and fingertips.
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The recently enacted government-enforced fuel inputs strategy to cut off energy supplies to miners has taken a toll on many non-mining populations, including local riverine communities that depend on fuel for transportation of goods and people, especially native communities, which often use a collectively owned generator to power their pueblo and motors for pumping stream water into the community for drinking and washing, conservation organizations and ecotourism operations have also been affected by the new laws that put a quota on the amount of fuel that can be purchased. During the fuel shortages just over a month ago, many people have turned to informal means to power their towns and enable their mobility. The above photo documents one of the trips we made upriver along with residents of a small mining pueblo who hitched a ride on a boat service that normally only transports cargo upriver.
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A cargo boat departs the port of Laberinto during the region-wide fuel shortage that took place during July and August. The boat is carrying 50-gallon drums of fuel that will likely be used to power mining equipment upriver. During fieldwork in 2013, it was possible to see several ‘cargo completos‘ (full boats) of petroleum and gas going up and down the Madre de Dios River each day, while I only counted two boats during the last trip upriver during the fuel shortage. Likewise, there were far fewer mining operations during this time.
Mining standing in front of a caranchera (semi-mechanized mining equipment including motor and pump, sluice box, carpeted ramp for capturing gold flakes). During the dry season (especially July-September) it is common to see smoke along beaches, where felled trees and gathered driftwood (locally referred to as palizada) incinerated to make space for mining sites.
A miner stands in front of semi-mechanized mining equipment, including a motorized pump, sluice box, and carpeted ramp for capturing gold flakes. During the dry season (especially July-September) it is common to see smoke along beaches, where felled trees and gathered driftwood (locally referred to as palizada) are incinerated to make space for new mining beach sites.


My last ethno-blog update focused on semi-structured interviews I conducted with merchants of agricultural products during the paro regional (regional workers’ strike) with the objective to better understand from an emic perspective how local livelihoods were affected by the longest paro in recent history of Madre de Dios. Whereas in the last entry I described preliminary results from semi-structured interview data, in this post I will discuss a different ethnographic method—participant observation—and what kinds of insights can be gleaned by this approach.

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Working as “machetero” – which includes cutting and cleaning trails, clearing miradors for tourists to view, and in this case, clearing a spiky bamboo thicket to assist a local conservation worker in tree climbing to find a raptor’s nest

For readers new to anthropology and the practice of ethnographic inquiry, participant observation is a cornerstone of our disciplinary methodology and involves active engagement with the people under study. As it might be inferred by the wording, participant observation entails participating in social life and simultaneously observing it. Participant observation is a craft that can be used to accomplish a variety of ethnographic undertakings, such as to:

  • learn a new language/increase fluency and to gain ‘communicative competence’ (i.e. to learn about the rules of communication within a community; see Briggs 1986, read the intro book chapter HERE)
  • hang out and build rapport with research participants
  • reinforce neutrality (becoming aware of inherent biases based on one’s own gender, class, religious background, upbringing, etc.)
  • reduce reactivity (the phenomenon in which people alter their behaviors when they know they are being studied, see Gary Larson Far Side comic below for a satirical example)
Far Side Cartoon
One of Gary Larson’s best Far Side cartoons (I admit, I’m biased as an anthropologist), which demonstrates the phenomenon of ‘reactivity,’ in which locals alter their behaviors when they know they are being studied. Participant observation can help minimize this effect and help the ethnographer become aware of when and why it occurs (which is also ethnographically interesting, as participant observation is also about interaction and engagement)

Participant observation can be useful to generate both qualitative and quantitative data; as methodologist Russ Bernard (2011: 257) describes, participant observation “puts you where the action is and lets you collect data… any kind of data you want, narratives or numbers.” Indeed, whether I am engaged in daily labor tasks with a conservation worker and eliciting narratives about risks of trapping jaguars for research (one time a jaguar suddenly awoke while undergoing an immobilization procedure and required manual restraint—the local assistant had to jump on its back) or whether I’m pursuing more quantitative questions and assessing a worker’s wage earnings as he plans his next 8-day cachuelo (temporary work) for ~1500 soles compared to his normal S./1100 monthly salary in conservation, participant observation is a powerful mixed-method for the ethnographic toolkit. See HERE for more on wage differences between gold mining and other livelihoods in Madre de Dios such as agricultural work.

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Rene, raptor expert and tree-climber who works on scientific research projects when he is not working at an eco-lodge on the Madre de Dios River. One empirical loop that participant observation can help me close is to determine under which circumstances do conservation workers depend on cachuelos (odd jobs/temp work between more permanent work positions) in extractive economies versus other market sectors.

For local people who have one foot in biodiversity conservation and the other in natural resource extraction (whether they work in gold mining or logging or are members of households that depend on diversification strategies that include both conservation and extraction), the use of interviews to immediately hedge into sensitive topics may not be an effective method to elicit reliable, meaningful responses. Surveys or interviews can sometimes impose a set of practices that are alien to some locals and can lead to less reliable responses than if the “interview” is unstructured through the process of participant observation in daily life.

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Artisanal miner working on a beach of the Madre de Dios River

Participant observation has generated meaningful experiences with research participants and has helped me identify and pursue new research questions. For example, hiking with a local investigator’s assistant on trails he made a decade ago and spotting wildlife together led to numerous conversations about his prior involvement in the pelt trade, a short economic boom to which some refer to as “el tiempo de piel” (the time of pelts) that has not been well documented (ethnographically or otherwise) in this region (for more on the history of wildlife hunting in Peru, see HERE).

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Posing for a photo with Don Dario, a conservation worker I worked with and interviewed several times while in ‘el monte’

What does it mean to be both a participant and observer? The participant-observation dichotomy poses some practical issues for conducting ethnographic research. Emerson et al. (1995:18; 2001) describe a contrast between “getting into place” to observe noteworthy events on one hand or to suspend all writerly tasks in order to participate fully and to keep the writing from intruding into relationships established in the field. The former tactic somewhat removes the ethnographer (as observer) from the scene in which he or she is embedded, while the latter approach (ethnographer as participant) requires greater reliance on ‘headnotes,’ small jottings, scratch notes, abbreviated words and phrases, and other fragments of writing that are often later expanded into fuller-fledged field documents.

My portable ethno-lab, which consists of rite-in-the-rain notebooks, litescribe pen and pads, two different field audio recorders, DSLR camera and lenses,
My portable ethno-lab, which consists of rite-in-the-rain notebooks, litescribe pen and pads, two different field audio recorders (Sony D50, larger recorder for professional high quality audio, and smaller portable Zoom recorder for more spontaneous moments), DSLR camera and lenses, Infinity transcription pedal, iPad for photo elicitations, and other gadgets. The most important item? PEN AND PAPER, because everything else will eventually break down or run out of batteries

The struggle to determine whether to write or engage (through participation or observation) is a central paradox for the ethnographic fieldworker-writer in general, and certainly a challenge for me during my time in el monte. There were several instances during which all I could do is recite data in my head to commit to memory, as taking notes was not physically possible or socially acceptable. To further complicate matters, my computer broke during the second month of fieldwork, which made note-taking and research more difficult because I typically type up expanded accounts and use qualitative analysis software as an organizational database and archival tool. The ethnographer’s greatest tools when technology fails is pen & paper, astuteness, and memory.

During my time as a participant observer I shadowed my research participants, engaged them in their daily tasks, and observed them interacting in both work and leisure contexts to gain a deeper understanding of what it is like to be a conservation worker in Madre de Dios. Below is brief description of some of the work positions I shadowed and observed:

  • Promotores (equivalent to park ranger): Patrol river in concession, check on abandoned station, monitor wildlife, act as guide (taking groups of visitors to mammal clay licks), assisted with anaconda captures
  • Motoristas/Tripulantes (boat crew member): Watch the river for potentially dangerous debris and signal the motorista to maneuver boat, help load food, baggage, and other items onto boat, and dock for bathroom breaks (pare técnico) and final arrival to destination
  • Asistentes de Investigadores (Investigator assistent: Drive remote control car into giant armadillo burrows, assist in setting up animal traps, assist in tree climbing to look for raptor nests, etc.
  • Macheteros (machete worker, trail-maker): sharpening machetes, create and clean trails, trim miradors/outlooks on the terraces
  • Ayudantes de Cocina (kitchen helper): prepare garnishes and refresco (juice), serve food, wash plates, clean kitchen
  • Mantamientos (maintenance): retrieve nonfunctional motorcar on muddy trail, transport food from port up to the terraces, repair mesh of buildings, repair rooftops
  • Guias (tour guide): pick up tourists from airport, transport tourists to rainforest from city, lead tours, identify flora and fauna

Read more about participant observation in this Sage publication. The next ethno-blog post will discuss some of my findings from conducting participant observation research and informal/semi-structured interviews. Stay tuned, I have some amazing stories to share! For now, I’ll leave you with a sneak preview of a forthcoming entry about an anaconda trapping expedition I made on the Los Amigos River with the promotores:

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Interviews with merchants during the “truce”

NOTE: In case you missed it, check out my first post from the field, in which I describe arriving to Madre de Dios just as the city became militarized and region-wide protests turned violent. See my second post from the field for a brief analysis of the strike, and this short video, a montage consisting of imagery and soundscapes from conflicts between protesters and police.


Many comerciantes (merchants) used dramatic expressions to describe business woes during the paro (strike), such as: “Queria ahorcar” (I wanted to hang myself), “Estaba aterrorizada” (I was terrified [of riot police]), “Tuve sacarse la mugre” (‘I removed the dirt’ is the literal translation, but it is an expression that means ‘I worked really hard’), and Nos estan dejar morir” (They [the government] left us to die.”

Puerto Maldonado has been relatively peaceful since syndicate leaders called a tregua (truce) during Semana Santa (Holy Week), as it is bad form to protest during important holidays like Easter. Indeed, some things are still considered sacred. The truce has been suspended until further notice, which is good news for residents in Puerto Maldonado – everyone from students and teachers to merchants, mototaxi drivers, and tourism agencies. The paro, which occurred from March 25 until April 17, is the longest strike the region has experienced in recent history. It was a relief to walk to the center of town during Semana Santa to find this view of residents enjoying the holiday (rather than chanting in protest “Death to President Humala!”):

Image(Semana Santa in the Plaza de Armas)

The paro had a significant effect on the regional economy with losses totaling over S/.5 million (~1.8 million USD). Agriculture and tourism market sectors reported losses of over S/.2 million and S/.1.5 million, respectively. The owner of the hostel where I am staying estimates that he lost ~70 percent of business for April (mostly from domestic tourism), while a friend who works for LAN Airlines said sales were down to about 50 percent. Last week, residents were afraid the paro would continue in the coming days, so I took advantage of the tregua and planned a short study to examine the effects of the paro on agricultural livelihoods, the most affected market sector in the region.

1512007_10152368621690449_2743373699954030366_o (Translation of sign on regional government building: “Long Live the regional strike! If there is no solution, the fight continues!”)

I recruited the help of a good friend, Tania, who is a graduate of Universidad Nacional Amazónica de Madre de Dios (UNAMAD). Tania’s support was invaluable, especially with regards to building rapport, translating slang, and understanding idioms and other locally specific expressions. Together we conducted 40 semi-structured interviews with comerciantes (merchants) of agricultural products in order to better understand from an emic perspective how local livelihoods were affected by the longest paro in recent history of Madre de Dios.

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(Tania and I with our field notebooks, ready for interviews at Los Milagritos Feria, which is only open during the weekends) 

I specifically chose merchants of fruits and vegetables because (1) they are a vulnerable population, most of whom live on the margins of the economy and are thus more vulnerable to market shocks and uncertainties; and (2) the commodities they sell are particularly risky, as surplus value can be quickly converted into surplus risk through the rapid process of spoiling (especially in humid environments, which is the case here in Amazonia Peru). The unique temporal variable (i.e. short shelf life) puts agricultural comerciantes at greater risk, especially in times of paros, which are designed to be market shocks. The paro was a catalyst that turned potential profit into potential loss and I wanted to learn how comerciantes coped with this shock.

10272768_10152382422515449_1118843140122532896_o(“intermediary” merchant at the Feria Los Milagritos)

One category of questions were designed to determine how much merchants typically earn per week or month (total sales, capital, etc. to get a baseline), how much they lost during the paro (in terms of spoiled commodities and loss of income), and how they mitigated further losses (e.g. by price adjustment, clandestine sales, support through special seller-client relationships, and so forth).

10273199_10152389406775449_7822840082734697005_o(fresh fruit at a small fruit market near Mercado Modelo, an important commercial area of town)

I was aware that many merchants are members of syndicates that participated in the strikes, so I also pursued these interviews as opportunities to better understand protesters’ motivations for supporting the strike (e.g. whether comerciantes marched out of obligation to their syndicate, coercion or fear of retribution if their businesses remained open, or on their own volition and in solidarity with other protesters). I was also curious about their attitudes toward new laws that sparked the paro (and thus, their political orientation to key issues, such as mining, government control of resources, among other controversial topics).

Furthermore, interviewing ‘huelgistas‘ (strikers) while they were back to work rather than marching the streets allowed me to explore a fomenting labor movement without greatly endangering myself; it was impossible to conduct interviews while a faction of protesters vandalized private property and attacked pedestrians and people on motorcycles, or while Peruvian National Police tear gassed  civic workers during a peaceful demonstration, and even opened fire at protesters and residents just a couple of weeks ago.

10256632_10152376149940449_2704810145575511807_o(the last day of protests prior to the Easter truce)

It is crucial to point out that comerciantes do not constitute a homogenous population. Thus, we interviewed comerciantes who occupy different levels of a market hierarchy to explore the variation of this population. Our study delineates the following categories of merchants:

  • mayoristas, who move large volumes of fruits and vegetables at the weekend-only feria (fair), most of whom have their own modes of transportation from Cusco, where much of their produce are grown, to Madre de Dios.
  •  intermediarios (intermediaries), who buy from mayoristas and typically sell at the major markets in town (e.g.  Mercado Modelo and Mil Ofretas, two of the market sites where we conducted interviews). However, some smaller business owners have their own small chakras (croplands) of plantains, passion fruit, yucca, and papaya here in Madre de Dios.
  • venderores, or street sellers who typically buy from intermediarios at the market and sell in small groups of other street vendors around the market (some put together bags of mixed vegetables for soups).
  • ambulantes, mobile vendors who sell fruit out of a cart.

10265432_10152388847215449_5961996358801943893_o(‘un ambulante’ – mobile fruit vendor who sells mandarins, polmagrantes, grapes, passion fruit, and apples near the Mercado Modelo)

1782394_10152386399110449_5218129050609458315_o(mayoristas at the Feria Los Milagritos)


I have not yet completed data analysis of these interviews but several patterns have already emerged from interviewing, digitizing field notes, and looking over data:

(1) THE AFFECTS OF LOSS: Though it is no surprise that every class of merchant lost a significant amount of money during the paro, most comericantes lost at least 50 percent of their monthly salary and several interviewees did not break even (they either took out loans or dipped into savings to cover business expenses). Many comerciantes used strong affective expressions to describe feelings of hopelessness during the paro, such as:

 “Queria ahorcar” (I wanted to hang myself), “Estaba aterrorizada” (I was terrified), “Tuve sacarse la mugre” (‘I removed the dirt’ is the literal translation, but it is an expression that means ‘I worked really hard’), “Nos estan dejar morir” (They [the government] left us to die,” and so forth.

(2) TEMPERING THE MARKET SHOCK: Another interesting finding is that comerciantes mitigated and minimized losses through a variety of strategies; the most salient include: (1) “descargar” (to offload or discharge) through clandestine sales of quick-spoiling fruits and vegetables in the “mañanitas” (early mornings, usually from around 3am to 6am) in various street locations or privately at a merchant’s home on their back patios, even though they were obligated to comply with syndicate rules that strictly prohibits selling; (2) street auctions of fruits and vegetables that were nearly spoiled in order to “recuperar el capital” (to recoup capital) i.e. break even on expenses; (3) private commerce with “clientes fijos” (fixed clients) in which comercicantes were reliant on pre-existing relations with repeat clients (e.g. restaurant owners, merchants for mining associations, etc.); (4) price adjustments, including price lowering to quickly sell spoiling goods and price raising to recoup losses during the month; and (5) cooperative pooling, in which merchants contributed resources for an olla comunitaria (communal pot), as food resources became more scarce. Merchants also took shifts watching over the market when it was closed to ensure no looters took from their fruit stands, which were only protected by tied-down tarps.

(3): THE MULTIPLE MEANINGS OF “APOYO EL PARO” (“I SUPPORT THE STRIKE”): Most interviewees participated in marches during the paro and expressed some degree of what they called “apoyo” (support). However, this term lacks a monolithic definition and should be understood as a complex signifier with multiple meanings:

  • Many comerciantes protested for a few days out of compliance or obligation to their respective syndicate president or they would otherwise receive a multa (fine).
  • Comerciantes who were independent also marched, though often under duress and out of fear that huelgistas (strikers) from out of town would retaliate against them by burning down their fruit stand if they did not participate in marches and demonstrations.
  • Comerciantes (including those who were members of syndicates) marched on their own volition and some did so for the entire length of the paro. While their reasons for protesting were manifold, the most common response given during interviews was “No somos narcotraficantes” (We are not drug traffickers), which was in direct response to a new government decree to put a quota on gasoline coming into the region on the basis that narcotrafficking is rampant (since the protests ended, the insinuation of narcotrafficking was dropped  from the decree and replaced with illegal mining). The reaction to the language of this decree was so strong that around 2000 members of indigenous communities traveled to Puerto Maldonado to participate in protests this April.

(4): OUTSIDERNESS: Conceptions of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ appeared in several interviews, but what was particularly interesting is the variation in who constitutes an outsider, including:

  • Foreign businesses from the U.S. (namely Hunt Oil, in reference to Lot 76 which is estimated to hold 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 90 percent of which inconveniently overlaps with mining concessions and protected areas for conservation and indigenous groups, see here), but also large mining operations based out of Russia, China, and other foreign nations. Many interviewees lamented that “Madre de Dios has been sold to outsiders.”
  • Miners, most of whom are migrants from the Andean region of Cusco or Puno. Some interviewees contended that “miners are not from here” and that they contribute very little to the local economy, while others were sympathetic to miners’ grievances that the central government is making it impossible for them to formalize. Statements like “no poner les trabas” (don’t put on the shackles) appeared a few times during interviews. Another dimension of outsiderness in relation to mining  is that informal work is increasingly becoming outside the law, and thus illegitimate in the eyes of the state, which is now retaliating with force.
  • National Police and politicians in Lima, who have a monopoly of power over determining the fate of the region. The state’s reputation has only worsened since the paro, when national police looted “ollas comunitarias” (community pots) and personal effects of residents in Mazuko (caught on tape), tear gassed civil workers on the Billinghurst Bridge, and opened gunfire at protesters and residents on the Interoceanic Highway in Puerto Maldonado. Lack of response from Lima only further signified the marginal status of Madre de Dios. “Does Ollanta [current president of Perú] even realize that we are in Perú?” – was a common rhetorical question asked throughout the weeks of protests.lote 76(Lot 76, which many protesters contend is evidence that the Peruvian government is ‘selling out Madre de Dios to foreigners,’ such as U.S. hydrocarbon company Hunt Oil)



Our requests to interview potential research participants were often met with curious (and sometimes suspicious) questions like, “para que?” (i.e. for what reason are you interviewing people?). I explained that as an anthropologist, I am interested in the social and material realities for people living in Madre de Dios and that most available information about the regional economy is from the perspective of economists in Lima and abroad rather than from the local population. Explanations like this encouraged merchants to share their experiences and discuss their contentions with a number of issues.

10317557_10152377656555449_3257417633883795650_o(the edge of Mercado Modelo, which was shut down for most of the paro)

The next step for this particular project is to convert interview data into a matrix and to systematically code responses using inductive and in vivo protocols to identify other patterns and to look for co-occurring themes. This will be a time-consuming task for 40 interviews and I am about to start another phase of research that will consume most of the daylight hours. Tomorrow we are heading into a remote part of the Madre de Dios region to spend time at a conservation concession, where I will work alongside ‘rangers’ as they patrol concession territory, conduct transects, prepare meals for tourists and groups of students taking field courses, and a number of other activities. I will likely not have reliable Internet access until July or August, but I will attempt to post a text-only blog entry in the coming weeks if time and radio-tower Internet speed permit. I am looking forward to the spectacular sunsets over the Madre de Dios River from the mirador (lookout), such as this one from fieldwork in mid-2013:

IMG_2550 (sunset of beautiful saturated colors over the Madre de Dios River)


Soundscapes of the Strike in Madre de Dios, April 2014

Soundscapes of the Strike in Madre de Dios, April 2014

In this video, I combine audio recordings (of strikers chanting, police vehicles, etc.) and photography from fieldwork in Puerto Maldonado with a short original composition (nylon string acoustic, bamboo flute, tabla drum) to depict the escalation of protests in the city as the regional strike in Madre de Dios progressed into its third week in April 2014. We are now completing day 23.

Toward the end of last week it was no longer safe for me to document activities on the streets, so the second half of the video contains imagery mostly from a great local news source, La Revista Madre de Dios (see here for originals + commentary: https://www.facebook.com/larevista.mdd?fref=ts), and a few images from RPP Noticias.

Please see my recent ‘note from the field’ http://theobrero.com/2014/04/12/why-civil-society-is-on-strike/ for more information about the strike