Monday, August 15, 2005

El Americano Feo

Such is the uncomplimentary name given by Peruvian TV to Charlie Munn, a Baltimore millionaire that has devoted much of his time and fortune to the conservation of wild parrot species. You could accuse Munn of imposing Western standards on developing countries and he would agree with you. Munn's activities, as recorded in a programme called The Real Macaw pinpoint some of the thornier issues facing the West's better side whenever it seeks to remodel the often reluctant rest of the world in its own image.

For example, in order to preserve a patch of parrot-inhabited, logger-threatened rainforest in Peru, Munn has established an upmarket eco-tourist lodge there and handed over ownership to local Machagenga Indians. We see him instructing the management team how to cook and keep home for such discerning guests and how he is immediately confronted with oppostion from a faction wanting to pack the joint with mochileros (backpackers). "You gave us the place, so it's surely ours to run as we want now?" they tell him. Shortly afterwards Munn discovers that the husband of the lodge's cook Delia is working for the loggers.

For V these incidents underscore one of the enduring drawbacks of doing something nice for the Indios. They don't get it. "Espejitos" is the term used in Guatemala for this phenomenon. People that were so easily bamboozled with beads and little mirrors have an atavistic mental block when it comes to Western standards of economic value and exchange. Munn's "survival of the richest" mantra may have met its match!

Over in Brazil's Amazonia Munn has employed the most talented former trappers on a fixed salary of $500 a month to protect the Hyacinth Macaws that they used to ensnare, and in doing so offended local wildlife authorities who have accused him of interfering in their criminal justice system.

Yet V and I were with Charlie on this one - the trappers are highly skilled operators making excellent use of the very talents that have made our own species so successful. Theirs is more a crime of ignorance than unpleasant greed, so the idea of re-programming them to understand and protect their natural environment seems quite a sound one.

There was another interesting documentary on TVe featuring an investigation into the Amazonian Cayapo tribe's habit of kidnapping toddlers of European or African stock and raising them as their own. The team secretly filmed a toothless village chief with obviously Nordic features. "La Selva se defiende". The Cayapo go about their business stark naked but for a strange bog-roll like tube inserted into the underside of their chins, which gives the impression that the whole tribe simultaneously suffered some sort of freak accident.

I also learned this weekend that the Catholic Church operated a monopoly on the cultivation of coca in sixteenth century Peru. Previously chewed only by the upper echelons of Inca society, the narcotic leaves were regarded by the ecclesiastical authorities as a useful way of increasing the hardiness of indigenous labourers in the often chilly Andean climate.

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