The New York Times has a curious article about a hunter-gatherer group in Colombia, the Nukak, leaving the forest:
While it is not known for sure why they left the jungle,
what is abundantly clear is that the Nukak's experience as nomads and
hunter-gatherers has left them wholly unprepared for the world they
have just entered.
The Nukak have no concept of money, of property, of the
role of government, or even of the existence of a country called
Colombia. They ask whether the planes that fly overhead are moving on
some sort of invisible road.
They have no government identification cards, making them nonentities to Colombia's bureaucracy.
It seems to me the article (by Juan Forero) spends a lot of words
establishing the mismatch between Nukak knowledge and the realities of
rural Colombia, but I can't tell whether this is straight reporting (vis-à-vis the locals) or conscious imitation of old stereotypes.
Better details about the Nukak are to be had from this photoessay
by photographer Niels Van Iperen. The photographs are stunning, but
large so they take some time to load even on broadband. Van Iperen
visited the same town as the Times, and talked to many of the same people. But his account is very different in its depiction of life and its context.
At the time of their "discovery", the Nukak Maku's
population was estimated to be about 1500. At present, about 380 are
thought to be alive, of whom the eldest are around 40 years old. Over
the last 15 years all the elders have died, mainly from flu and
killing. Of these 380 persons, over 40% are now living in refugee camps
like this one, on land with a very different vegetation to what they
are used to, making it almost impossible for them to feed themselves.
Also, it is impossible for them to move around in this area. Usually
the Nukak Maku 'move' every 3 to 10 days, but the first refugees
arrived here over 3 years ago and have not been able to change location
once. The piece of land they have been allocated does not have flowing
water; instead they use two nearby ponds - one for drinking, one for
bathing. This is why all children have parasite-infections. But the
problem is worsening; the drinking water pond has dried out, and the
washing water basin is too dirty to be drunk. The rainy season probably
won't start for 2 months.
It sounds like the group profiled in the Times has a reasonable idea of what they want:
Ma-be explained that the idea is to grow plantains and
yucca and take the crops to town. "We can exchange it for money," he
said, "and exchange the money for other things."
But first they need to learn how to cultivate crops. The
Nukak say they would like their children to go to school. They also say
they do not want to lose traditions, like hunting or speaking their
language. "We do want to join the white family," Pia-pe said, speaking
of Colombian society, "but we do not want to forget words of the Nukak."
After a recent meeting with government officials, the Nukak
were clear about what else they wanted: vehicles, drivers and doctors
so a group of 15 Nukak could set off on a tour of the countryside,
searching for a spot to settle down.
But the Times story gives a very different spin on the previously displaced Nukak:
What everyone agrees on is that the Nukak of Aguabonita
must avoid the fate of the Nukak who came here in 2003 and now live in
a clearing called Barrancón.
Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in
Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food
from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish. They
also have no plans to return to the forest. "I think we will be here
always," said Martín, a young man who is considered a leader.
The Times account seems mystified about why the Nukak left the forest -- I would describe it as "bemused", which is certainly Ann Althouse's take.
I would say that disease is the most pressing concern, but the economic
arrangements will continue to be problem also. From Van Iperen's
Ironically, the Nukak Maku are not poor monetarily. Since
1996, the Colombian government has put aside a yearly budget to help
various indigenous groups, including Nukak Maku. By now this fund is in
the order of US$200.000. However, owing to a bureaucratic technicality,
they are unable to access their share: the Nukak do not have a leader,
which means nobody can claim this money on their behalf. For a couple
of months the government has been paying various Nukak families US$150
per month to survive on. However, as a nomadic tribe, they have no
concept of money management. They go the supermarket in the city, spend
150 dollars on food and drinks, eat and drink all they can for 3 days,
and then have nothing left for the rest of the month.
It's interesting to compare these two accounts -- both essentially
first-person narratives of encounters, including short interviews with
experts. Van Iperen had the luxury of more space, which is used to good
effect. But is the Times audience getting anything like a balanced depiction of the problems facing the Nukak?
John Hawk's Blog