Why South America?
**Just a warning in advance: this is a long one, but it really explains why exactly I'm doing what I'm doing.**
Despite the impression that some folks may have of it, South America is more than just empanadas, llamas, and soccer. It is a continent that has seen the toppling of a civilization and multiple revolutions within the last 500 years, while the land itself has some of Earth's oldest ecosystems; as old as 55 million years in the case of the western Amazon rainforest. This relatively-recent and widespread human turnover makes the continent ripe with potential to be one of the world's most economically powerful regions. Unfortunately, economic progress has faltered in the wake of civil wars as well as subjugation by European colonizers and the Monroe Doctrine, keeping many millions of South Americans at levels of poverty that economists such as Jeffrey Sachs would certainly deem unnecessary, if not unacceptable.
The end of the Cold War and the transition toward genuine democracy, though not flawless, has produced a higher quality of life for many South Americans. Institutionalized conflict against the state--mainly carried out by guerrilla groups like the FARC in Colombia, Shining Path in Peru, Tupamaros in Uruguay, and Montoneros in Argentina--has been eliminated entirely or weakened by attrition. Some violence and instability continues, but not quite on the same scale as seen before. These recent gains could be the first steps toward even greater political stability and economic success. Travelling the continent on what I believe to be the cusp of prosperity provides an opportunity to see certain lifestyles in their final stages as the forces of globalization and wealth lead the lives of South Americans toward a more internationally-integrated and technological society. This type of peaceful transition will also breed its own unique traditions that I will get to see just as they emerge. It will be a pleasure to share my observations with y'all following along back at home.
I also look forward to learning more about Indians*. No, this is not just a line from The Liberal Arts Major's Handbook of Things to Talk About at a Vegan Bat Mitzvah. As most of us know, the year 1492 marked the start of colonization of the Americas. Settlers, mainly European colonizers and their descendents, spread across the entire hemisphere in the matter of a few centuries, while the natives retreated before a tide of disease and conquest. In much of the United States and Canada, the legacy of our lands' previous inhabitants prior to Columbus' arrival is all but gone. The story differs down south. Indians in areas colonized by Spain and Portugal--especially Mexico, Central America, and along the Andes--have survived in greater numbers and, unlike their counterparts to the north, many Indian groups in Latin America still reside in their traditional lands.
As a descendent of a family of farmers, some of whom still live off the land in New Mexico, I was instilled from an early age with an appreciation for what the Earth can provide. A lifetime enjoying the outdoors has bolstered the respect and awe that I hold for our planet. Part of what I wish to learn more about is the the duration and richness of the connection that Indians in South America have to the lands that their cultures or tribes have inhabited for several centuries. I don't wish to live out some neo-hippie fantasy of growing dreads and living on a potato farm in Ecuador. I simply believe that there are lessons to be learned from cultures who are more conscious of their connection to the Earth. Modern life is amazing, and I am grateful for the convenience and access I have to things to that would otherwise be impossible. However I do wonder if in our pursuit of technological advances and economic growth we unintentionally dissociate of ourselves from the planet we inhabit. If this is the case, it puts the cart before the horse. Movements rooted in conservation, sustainability, and cultural sensitivity often come under attack by people claiming to be free market advocates on the basis that regulation impedes economic productivity. What the latter group fails to recall is a very basic Economics 101 concept: externalities.
Though small movements are underway, the prices of most things we consume do not factor in such things as pollution or political instability in other countries as a result of our economic habits. Yet we can see these negative externalities take shape if we know where the connections are, such as clearing parts of the Amazon to make way for livestock pastures and soy farms to meet demand in the Europe or newer economic powers like China. Campaigns against the drug trade throughout Latin America like Plan Colombia or the Mérida Initiative in Mexico are supported with US taxpayers' dollars and our own soldiers on the ground, even though the demand for these drugs is mostly American and European in origin, not domestic.
Those of us from industrialized nations, especially the US, have heard all our lives that our way of life is second to none and beyond question. From Bretton Woods to the IMF, history offers up episode after episode of the industrialized world's attempts to force economic development upon the Third World in a "top-down" fashion. The underlying assumption is that a more industrialized society is a better one. I would contend that what is needed is a more balanced approach. Although it is often overlooked in our extreme and polarized society, the physical laws of the universe hold that an optimal system is a balanced one, and I think it can be applied to human interactions as well. Equilibrium can be sought somewhere between the hyper-modern society I know now and the "traditional" (for lack of a better word) lifestyles that still exist in much of South America. As economists such as Joseph Stiglitz have observed, there is no "one-size-fits-all" policy prescription for developing countries seeking economic growth and integration into the global economy. Instead, infusing capitalism and free-market measures with considerations for local interests such as cultural traditions and graduated exposure of domestic industry to international competition has proven successful in numerous cases. By observing how these people's connections to the land manifest themselves in present-day economic endeavors, I hope to gather my understanding for what is the most appropriate approach to economic development for the diverse communities I visit in South America.
It would not take much effort to go on ad nauseum about things that foreign powers have done or been indirectly involved in that has undermined economic and political progress in Latin America. I will touch on the topic from time to time, as the legacy of colonization and unofficial foreign dominion is still very evident throughout Latin America, but know that my criticism is intended to be constructive. Latin America is a fascinating place, as rich and diverse in natural resources as it is in various cultures. One of the main themes of this trip will be my attempt to convey the beauty and complexity of these countries in a way that might illuminate the connections between "Us" and "Them". I mentioned negative externalities before, but there is always a potential for positive externalities that greater cultural understanding and economic cooperation can bring. Preservation of extremely important biological resources, such as the Amazon rainforest or the glaciers of Patagonia, could hold unknown cures for diseases, new sources of energy, and insight in to the history of Earth. Scientists are constantly discovering new ways in which humans draw benefits from "unused" habitats even when they have not been overtly exploited by us. On the human side of the equation, successful policies or projects that can reduce poverty in Latin America inherently increase the size of consumer bases in these countries. Local peoples' familiarity with their lands could still hold valuable knowledge of region-specific agriculture and land management that will only become more important as human population, and thus the pressure we put on the planet, continues to skyrocket. In strictly economic terms, these sources of capital represent huge potential opportunity costs if they are exhausted to achieve short run gains before we know their full value in the long run.
*As Charles Mann wrote in a not-so-obscure work of non-fiction, there are obvious intellectual qualms with using the term "Indians" to refer to people living in the Americas since before Europeans arrived in 1492. The fallacy is well known now, but the problem remains with how exactly these various groups of people should be referred to. As Mann writes, his rule of thumb--which I will also employ as I write about this trip--is to call people what they would call themselves, and the fact is that most of the people in this group accept and prefer to be called Indians rather than Native Americans, Amerindians, or other attempts to rectify the historical misnomer. I will try when I can to specify their ethnicity or tribe (e.g. Quechua, Mapuche, or Guaraní), but when referring these groups in general I will call them Indians in accordance with what they call themselves.