June 2003

All Eyes on the Amazon

Scholars gathered at Dartmouth College to discuss Amazon issues
such as human rights, cultural preservation, technology, bio-piracy,
sustainable development, education, religion, art, and literature.
Participants talked about their growing expectations toward
policies forged by President Lula of Brazil.

Dário Borim

One of the most interesting cultural events on South American issues ever to take place in the U.S. occurred in the mountains of New Hampshire between May 1 and 3. We must feel very grateful to the Dickey Center for International Understanding, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and the Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies Program of Dartmouth College. Under their generous sponsorship, Amazonian Perspectives/Amazonian Prospects gathered scholars from various fields, delegates from NGOs installed in the Amazon, writers, artists, and two members of the indigenous group Tuyuka.

Ruben G. Oliven, former president of the Brazilian Association of Anthropology (now a visiting professor at Dartmouth College), started the conference's first session of communications wondering about the very words we use to describe the oldest inhabitants of the Americas. He argues that in the United States people have opted for politically correct terms for any situation involving ethnicity or gender: "In the North American context this means a more positive way of addressing minorities. One can of course ask the philosophical question about the power of nominating, or to put it in a more Shakespearean way, `what is in a name?'"

Meanings change over time, Oliven explains, and "native," a word originally used by the colonizer when referring to the colonized, "suddenly becomes correct." He imagines, then, how "British citizens would find it strange to be called natives by tourists asking them street information in London."

Brazilians tend to be less politically correct, suggests the anthropologist, and they call their natives "índios," a word chosen by Europeans thinking of the Caribbean islands as if they were part of the East Indies. To the Brazilian anthropologist, the use of these words seems less important than realizing that a democratic society "can only be based on the acknowledgement that nation-states are filled with differences and that they can only be democratic if they take these differences as being a richness and not a problem to be solved."

In reality, the conference debates encompassed a plurality of problems and themes far beyond what's in a name. We discussed issues such as human rights, cultural preservation, technology, bio-piracy, sustainable development, education, religion, art, and literature. The final debate approached guidelines and growing expectations toward policies forged by the Brazilian states' new leadership and by President Lula's government.

It was fascinating that apart from various participants coming from four of the countries that constitute the Amazon region (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru), the program included a dance and music show by Marlui Miranda*, renowned Brazilian singer and researcher of indigenous music and art, and by the Tenório brothers (Higino and Guilherme), who also discussed life conditions and aspirations of their people, the Tuyuka, for centuries established in the Upper Negro River Region.

Higino Tenório, for example, spoke of the rhetoric of national security as an instrument by which the Brazilian military have explained and justified their unwillingness to ratify Brazilian Indians' right to land possession in areas close to international borders. The delay in the process of demarcation and homologation of Indian areas was a negative aftermath of Fernando Henrique Cardoso's legacy, but the Lula administration's slow pace thus far has been frustrating and worrisome signs of inertia and detachment.

On the brighter side, Aloísio Cabalzar, an anthropologist from Socioambiental Institute (ISA), had concrete results to report. He and Flora Cabalzar have worked for several years with the Tuyuka people (consisting of approximately 1,200 individuals living across the border of Brazil and Colombia) and provided us with an insightful firsthand account of the important work done with them. Various music and dance workshops, literary compilations and story-telling recordings, as well as the Tuyuka School literacy program in the Tuyuka language and culture—all these accomplishments testified to the efficacy of indigenous and non-indigenous combined initiatives within the region. One of the main concerns has been to create new and efficient forms of teaching and reciprocal understanding of cultures.

We may contend that the conference at Dartmouth confirmed the multicultural and multinational forces that shared the same concern. Bolivia-born poet, artist, and professor Nicomedes Suárez-Aráuz, for example, digressed eloquently about his work toward a Pan-Amazonian literary vision. He is the editor and founder of an accomplished journal based at Smith College, the Amazonian Literary Review.

Another significant contributor to the success of the colloquium on the Amazon was China-born Adrian Cowell. He presented his moving and inspirational documentary, The Last of the Hiding Tribes. The work features the dramatic history of survival of an isolated tribe, the Panará. Generation after generation, the Panará had kept themselves away from any contact with non-indigenous people for various centuries until their existence was threatened by the imminent construction of a Trans-Amazon highway in 1973.

The screening and discussion of Cowell's movie marked the golden end to a conference appropriately opened by Márcio Souza's instigating keynote lecture on "The Amazon and Brazil: Rewriting Gone with the Wind." With his broad historical knowledge and ingenious wit, the novelist/playwright actually participated in all sessions of the colloquium. Together with other distinguished researchers concerned about the role and the future of the Amazon, such as Antonio Benítez-Rojo, Raúl Bueno-Chávez, Michael Dorsey, Marcelo Gleiser, Gustavo Mejía, and Marysa Navarro, the Amazonian writer had much to do with the plain success of one more outstanding cultural happening organized by Dartmouth College professors Rodolfo Franconi and Beatriz Pastor.

As if that wealth of educational experience per se was not enough, each participant took home a copy of a unique and outstanding CD-ROM developed by Dartmouth professors Christof Daetwyler and Piers Armstrong. It contains not only a rich compilation of annotated websites related to the Amazon and a gathering of the papers delivered in Hanover, but also four video-interviews, with several of the conference participants discussing music and literature, ecology and biodiversity, religion and tradition, and much more. To those who could not go to New Hampshire, here is a compromise: you may visit the conference's  (also constructed by professors Armstrong and Daetwyler ) and there find invaluable research tools for your own Amazon perspectives and prospects.

* Marlui Miranda, the renowned interpreter of Brazilian Indian music, has released two CDs in the US, Ihu, Todos os Sons, and Ihu 2: Kewere: Rezar: Prayer.

Dário Borim welcomes comments at Minas Gerais-born professor, translator, creative writer, and FM radio programmer, Borim instructs in Portuguese, Luso-Brazilian literature, cinema, and music at U-Mass Dartmouth. Paisagens humanas (Ed. Papiro), a collection of his crônicas and short stories, came out in December 2002. Perplexidades: Raça, sexo e outras questões sociopolíticas no discurso cultural brasileiro (EdUFF) is due in 2003. He hosts a weekly radio show dedicated to Lusophone music on

Discuss it in our Forum

Send your
comments to