Living Human, Being Culture

Bundling beans, a traditional crop
Bundling beans, a traditional crop

It has been an unexpected delight to discover the writing and work of Wade Davis this year. He is an enthobotanist and anthropologist, whose writings about culture serves as a helpful lens through which to view my own experiences. Through his travels in Colombia, Peru, Canada’s Arctic, Tibet, Kenya, Haiti and many more, Davis explores the foundations of culture and all that lies within, from language, to religion, to food gathering, to everything that people use to help them understand, and thus function, in the world they believe they inhabit.

We all operate in a way that makes sense to us. If we did not, we would all end up in a mental institute, unable to behave in any sort of rational way. Whether we are aware or not, we are following cultural norms and patterns that instinctually allow us to move through our world with ease.

Cultural loss, which is taking place at an alarming rate worldwide, more than anything is a sense of bewilderment, a lack of understanding of how to function in the world, because the world has stopped being the world people thought they lived in. Of course, cultures are changing and adapting all the time, but there is a difference between a forced and an empowered adaptation.

A number of different causes, including the rise of the nation state with the creation of artificial boundaries and development strategies that have very little to do with the people who are the most heavily impacted, contribute highly to forced cultural loss.

In Colombia, I see this playing out with displacement. As people are forced to leave the life they have always known of agriculture and country life, often due to an international development strategy that they were never consulted about, they lose the ability to be themselves.

As people flee the Montes de Maria, first because of armed conflict in the late 90s and early 2000s, and now because of avocado crop failure and basic lack of services, to the city of Sincelejo, much is lost, including an instinctual way of functioning, because that way of life does not exist anymore. This includes how to find food, how to work, how to be in relationship with others, how to ride a motorcycle instead of a horse. Of course people adapt, find new community, and do learn how to function in a new environment.

But it is not the same and they did not have a choice. Often, especially for youth, new community means urban gangs and crime or prostitution as a way to earn money to buy food that cannot simply be found in their fields. There are no other jobs and the skill set that was specially adapted to a rich life in the country has no place in an urban environment.

It is a tragedy, not because some sort of romantic notion that rural life is better than urban, but because another understanding of what it means to be human is gone forever without permission or care. Wade Davis says it best:

Indigenous peoples do not stand in the way of progress; rather, they contribute to it if given a chance. Their cultural survival does not undermine the nation state; it serves to enrich it, if the state is willing to embrace diversity. And, most important of all, these cultures do not represent failed attempts at modernity, marginal people who somehow missed the technological train to the future. On the contrary, these people, with their dreams and prayers, their myths and memories, teach us that there are indeed other ways of being, alternative visions of life, birth, death and creation itself. When asked the meaning of being human, they respond with ten thousand different voices. It is within this diversity of knowledge and practice, of intuition and interpretation, of promise and hope, that we will all rediscover the enchantment of being what we are, a conscious species aware of our place on the planet and fully capable not only of doing no harm but of ensuring that all creatures in every garden find a way to flourish.
(Wade Davis, Light at the End of the World, 202.)

This is why I support movements like Idle no More in Canada and the non-violent march communities in the Montes de Maria here in Colombia are planning to demand their rights as people with the right to self-determination. Not because I want these communities to be stuck in the past, with no possibility of change, but because they have the right to decide their own future and should be allowed access to the tools, like health care, education, political representation, and whatever else they decide they need, that allow them to do that best. And without these communities making their own choices, we all lose.

A year's supply of rice hanging in a traditional rural home in the Montes de Maria.
A year’s supply of rice hanging in a traditional rural home in the Montes de Maria.

3 comments on “Living Human, Being Culture”

  1. Hi Anna, would you give us permission to use your photo of the rice hanging in the traditional home (with credit to you, of course)? We’d like to use it to accompany a blog that I’m doing about our research on implementation of the land restitution law in Montes de Maria (and how it’s actually leading to land consolidation by agribusiness. I’ll be glad to share a draft of the blog with you if you can send me your email address.

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