Heller's Ricardo Godoy explores modern times in the Amazon

April 14, 2009

What happens when the global market economy bulldozes its way into the heart of the Amazon in the form of encroaching farmers, logging and oil companies, cattle ranchers, and assorted traders? How do indigenous people whose ancient way of life is exposed to the ragged edges of the modern world respond?

In collaboration with researchers from Bolivia, the United States, and Europe, Heller School cultural anthropologist Ricardo Godoy has made it his mission to find out. Their research, supported by the National Science Foundation, involves long plane and bus trips, not to mention hiking, canoeing, and walking to reach their study subjects. For almost a decade, they have been tracking about 1,500 of a total population of 8,000 native Amazonians known as the Tsimane’ (pronounced cheeMAU- Nay), who live in small, remote villages tucked into the foothills of the Andes in the Bolivian Amazon.

“I fell in love with the Tsimane’ because they are sweet and peaceful,” says Godoy, who lived in Lima with his Peruvian father and American mother until age fourteen. “My sense is that when you live in a small-scale society that practices cross-cousin marriage, the society ends up being a huge extended family and you have to learn how to manage your anger and get along.”

For thousands of years the Tsimane’ lived like any other Amazonian society. They hunted, fished, gathered wild plants, married their cousins, listened to their shamans, and practiced slash-and-burn agriculture.

Their first systematic interaction with outsiders occurred with the arrival of Protestant missionaries about fifty years ago. But Godoy says their hunting and foraging lifestyle has been much more profoundly changed by the inexorable march of modernity chipping away at their isolation, primarily through wage jobs, schooling, and trading opportunities.

In an approach unusual for cultural anthropologists, Godoy and his collaborators at Northwestern University, the University of Georgia, Cornell University, and the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona employ the tools of evolutionary biology and economic theory to measure how modernization is affecting the well-being of the Tsimane’ people and their use of natural resources. The research project, known as the Tsimane’ Amazonian Panel Study (TAPS), entails collecting systematic biological, economic, and social observations of the same person, household, or village over many years to create a scientific understanding of how the Tsimane’ are reacting to dynamic market forces.

So far, the results have surprised and fascinated the researchers, revealing that the market economy draws in some native Amazonians for certain benefits—such as access to health care, schooling, and employment—while driving others deeper into remote areas in search of an ever- receding traditional way of life and better
hunting, fishing, and farming.

One of Godoy’s recent studies explored the “mirth premium” among the Tsimane’. He found that people who smiled and laughed a lot had a higher body mass index (a proxy for nutritional status) and reported being healthier than their more somber counterparts. Another study showed that the Tsimane’ are quite vulnerable to climatic conditions: rainfall variability during early childhood (from two to five years) reduced adult female height—perhaps because rainfall at the wrong time of year can disrupt the growth of crops, reducing yield and food stores. Surprisingly, Godoy says that entering the market economy—so far—has not influenced their health for better or worse.

Godoy and his team have been able to design studies that get to the heart of the complex and unexpected ways the Tsimane’ interact with modernity. For instance, an ongoing TAPS study is evaluating the benefits of traditional medicinal and farming plant knowledge on others beyond the individuals who have the expertise. “We expect people to lose traditional knowledge when they are exposed to the market economy—but that is not what is happening,” says Godoy. “Not only does a mother’s plant knowledge protect child health, but adult knowledge of farming helps curb deforestation, to the benefit of the rest of the world.”

In a new study, Godoy and his colleagues have been asking subjects about their emotions, including happiness, sadness, and anger, to see how varying degrees of exposure to market forces affects them psychologically.

“Over time they report more happiness, although none of the other emotions change,” says Godoy. “They have a sane way of life . . . they have little income, but they have fresh air, fish, game, and each other; they seem to have enough for a good life.”

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