Things are almost always more complex than they seem.
A slight change of pace from my previous two posts but as we rise over the Amazonas and make our way to Rio de Janeiro, I of course reflect on our time in Manaus and two experiences really embody the sentiment in the title for me. First, our trip to an Indigenous community about 90 minutes up the River Negro outside of Manaus. I, like others in the group, had mixed feelings about the experience. The community seemed happy to have us there, warmly welcoming our group and demonstrating some traditional dances, accompanied by an explanation. After the performance we were offered the opportunity to purchase hand-made goods produced by local families, though it was stressed that the community was already compensated by our tour agency, and that we should feel no pressure to buy anything. I must clarify, the tour agency who hosted us are well-reputed and my concerns aren’t that this community is being exploited on a micro-level, as they were paid for services rendered. But what of those services?
Is it authentic? If the community still lives a ‘traditional lifestyle’, whatever that might look like for this group of individuals, and wishes to share its culture with visitors, from around the world, then I’m cool with that. If this community dresses up and puts on a show about how their ancestors lived for tourists 3 times a day as an important income stream for a rural these families and when the day is over goes back to their houses to watch Brazil’s Got Talent, I am also on board with that – just tell me.
Is it exploitative? As above, I don’t believe that to be the case in this instance. In many others, it clearly is, where tourism agencies are the ones profiting from the exchange, to the detriment of local communities and where tourists are none the wiser, taking home a memorable photo.
Then why do I feel uneasy? In short, I’m still not sure. At home I have a photo of when I visited Scotland and saw a guy belting it out on a set of bagpipes, I love that photo, he’s wearing a kilt and has a fierce beard, what more could you ask for. The fact that I have no qualms about that photo must mean that part of the answer lies in the inequity of the exchange - I am a coming from an affluent, developed nation to purchase a piece of another culture.
This segues well into the second experience I want to briefly touch on. On Monday morning we visited Fundaçao Victoria Amazonica (FVA), a local non-profit organisation which works on a variety of projects aimed at promoting sustainable bio-conservation, from public policy in Brasilia to empowering indigenous communities in the Amazon. We spoke with Fabiano, who described exploitative schemes in the past where an intermediary would offer isolated communities items (e.g. industrialised farming tools) in exchange for future goods (e.g. Brazil nuts). The issue being that the intermediary had the power to set the prices of both (high for the tools, low for the nuts) and communities would be locked into an endless cycle of debt. He spoke of the work FVA is doing to redress this power imbalance, such as processing their Brazil nuts in the community, dramatically increasing the price their goods may command in the marketplace and reducing the need to farm so widely.
Fabiano spoke of the challenges around funding in the NGO sector. He recalled a time when FVA’s largest donor was Ford, and the organisation chose to no longer accept their money because they were attempting to influence the direction of the organisation’s work. Or the fact that some of the communities FVA work with are 7 days away by boat, but it can be hard to convince donors to stump up for petrol money. And that whilst the Brazil government is happy to pay for the transportation and logistics costs associated with the projects it funds, it refuses to pay for the wages of any of the 15 staff that work for the organisation to deliver the projects.
I certainly don’t claim I am the first come across these issues and I come to them as a Psychology student who has done only one development-related elective. I’m guessing that’s kind of the point of these trips though. Those in the development and NGO fields are already aware of these issues. It’s wider society in our collective role as consumers of tourism experiences or as donors to NGOs that has the power, and it’s not until we understand these issues, that we are likely to see any real change.
P.S. We also saw a sloth and it was amazing and swam with dolphins. Life’s great.