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Manuela Carneiro da Cunha

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha: A militant anthropologist

The researcher, who has just retired as a senior professor from the University of Chicago, releases a collection of texts

Eduardo CesarThe anthropologist Manuela Carneiro da Cunha politely requested that the time of her interview be postponed, for reasons that turned out to be very fair: sending an open letter with many signatures to the President of the Republic, warning him about the dangers of opening, for political reasons, a road linking Manaus to Porto Velho and how this would affect the native population and the environment. As she herself likes to emphasize, political militancy has always been part of her life and was a very important factor in her intellectual maturity. Many of her studies into native Indian law and history were the direct result of the political importance of these subjects. However, as she also highlights, there was never a simple relation between intellectual progress and political militancy, as explained in one of the essays in her newest book, Cultura com aspas [Culture, quote unquote] (Cosac Naify publishing house, 440 pages, R$69), a series of essays that are as outstanding as their author and that provide an overview of the production, over the last 20 years, of this full professor who retired from the University of Chicago last July.

This restless and “political” soul can already be glimpsed in the very choice of the theme of her first article on the relation between myth and history, for which a Messianic movement that arose among the Canela Indians, in the state of Maranhão in 1963, was the starting point. Underlying the movement was the myth of Aukê, the story of the Indian boy that reappears as a white man and asks the Indians and the whites which arms or utensils they prefer to eat and to hunt. The Indians choose the bow and arrow; the white men, the shotgun and the plate. This was the origin of the inequality. The movement, it was believed, would lead to a new relation of power, with the Indians becoming the plantation owners and the whites hunting in the forest, thus inverting the myth and, according to Manuela’s article, inverting history and inequality. This is the way she is.

Born in Portugal, the daughter of Hungarian Jews that had moved there shortly before the war, she arrived in São Paulo at the age of 11. She began studying physics at USP, but upon relocating to Paris, she moved on to mathematics (in which she got her undergraduate degree). During the 1960’s, she began going to the seminars of Lévi-Strauss, who was looking for someone to translate his schemes into mathematics and accepted the young woman in his group. He inspired her to subsequently do some research among the Krahó Indians of Central Brazil. This eventually led to Os mortos e os outros [The dead and the others], to this day a fundamental text about Indians, from the structuralist and psychological standpoint. In 1975, she travelled to Nigeria with her husband and there she entered a new research phase, centered on the issues of ethnic identity. This enabled her to submit to USP, in 1984, her post-doctoral thesis (livre-docência), Estrangeiros libertos no Brasil and brasileiros em Lagos [Freed foreigners in Brazil and Brazilians in Lagos]. She stepped up her political militancy by taking part in the Pro-Indian Commission of São Paulo and became an important member of the discussions on laws pertaining to Indians that were included, in part, in the text of the new Constitution of 1988. She published Enciclopédia da floresta [ Encyclopedia of the forest] and História dos índios no Brasil [History of the Brazilian Indians], among other books. She was a professor at Unicamp and at USP (where she founded the Center for Indigenous History and Studies); until July, she was a full professor at the Department of Anthropology of the University of Chicago. Read below segments of the interview that she granted Pesquisa FAPESP.

What is your opinion of the political participation of anthropologists?
You started by talking to me about Lévi-Strauss (see article on page 78), who many people believe did not get involved in political issues. I believe that there are several dimensions and ways for this political participation to take place. It is in itself an object of study. That is what Georges Balandier, for instance, did in the 1960’s. He was a French anthropologist who was particularly interested in the decolonization of Africa. Others came up with explicitly Marxist interpretations, or better said, interpretations inspired by Marxism, of anthropological material: this is the case of Gordelier, of Terray and of many others in France. Ultimately, one may, as Mauss and Lévi-Strauss did, create political impact with a theoretical work as its starting point. This is the case where the French anthropologists are concerned. In Brazil, anthropologists become naturally solidary with people, with the populations that they study and work with. It is increasingly normal for anthropologists, certainly for those from my generation, to be recruited by these populations to advocate their rights among other things. Nowadays, the new generations, when they get to the field, besides having to negotiate to a far greater extent the terms of their acceptance than the preceding generations, they must also promptly provide an exchange element, often of an educational or political nature. And almost all the anthropologists of my generation and those that are now following are directly involved with such issues.

How do you see the ethical issue of the anthropologist’s intervention within communities?
The first ethical principle is certainly to advocate the rights of these people. This is an absolute principle. Never mind that this has consequences, every action has consequences. However, one cannot imagine that the theoretical effort of anthropologists is a direct consequence of their political activity. It isn’t; these are two different paths. Both the practice and the theory have political effects. I have just alluded to the political effects, for instance, of the thinking of Lévi-Strauss. He was, among many other things, an environmentalist and an animal rights advocate before such social movements came into being. However, wanting to understand a given author’s anthropology by means of his/her political activity I find is a mistake.

What is the formula for satisfactorily bringing together political activity and theoretical work?
Or rather, for keeping them apart, isn’t that so? [laughter] I don’t know if there is much wisdom in this, but I do believe it is the following: theoretical work is the work of reflection, of taking a step back, as things are not exactly on the same plane. However, one does feed the other. For instance, what I learned from political practice has deeply influenced my way of seeing things and has certainly given rise to theoretical issues, undoubtedly. However, this doesn’t mean that theory doesn’t have its own path. In my case, theory appeared first. What led me into anthropology was Lévi-Strauss, it was interest in his anthropology, which in turn resulted from my mathematical training, which was very close, conceptually, to Lévi-Strauss’ type of thinking. In other words, the mathematics I studied was structural mathematics, tied to set theory, and it was very close to Lévi-Strauss’ thoughts, as he had an affinity for this kind of mathematics. It was this affinity that led me into anthropology. After three years as a student under Lévi-Strauss, having had a child and after my husband completed his thesis, we returned to Brazil and the first thing that Lévi-Strauss said to me was: “Now go and do some fieldwork.” I had never done any. There is a curious biographical detail: when I first arrived in Brazil at the age of 11, in the first Christmas vacation, a friend of my parents invited me to his house, with his wife and son. They lived in Santa Catarina, in the Itajaí valley. And he took me to see the Xokleng Indians. I was 11 years old and meeting the Xokleng Indians was one of my earliest experiences in Brazil. This friend was called Alexandre Lenard, he was a Bach expert, and was quite a celebrity in a TV auditorium show at the time, called O céu é o limite [The sky is the limit]. It was only in 1978 that I really turned to politics, because that year there was that threat, that I discuss somewhere, of an indigenous emancipation decree, which was actually an attempt to emancipate the natives’ landholdings. This was highly repulsive to anthropologists and not only to them, but also to jurists and several sectors of society. And we managed to mobilize people, they sought a channel to express themselves perhaps; there was extraordinary mobilization around this issue, a rejection of this attempt to mandatorily emancipate Indians that was, in fact, a way of taking over their lands. This was followed by a strong movement in favor of the demarcation of indigenous lands – at the time, someone wrote that it was even touching to see those small stickers that people put on their cars, – for the demarcation of indigenous land”. This was a striking moment. It was followed by the creation of several pro-Indian commissions and we began to work on the legal and the historical issues, but mainly on the legal ones, and to see what was going on. From 1978 to 1988, the year of the new Constituent Assembly, we had 10 years in which such issues matured, thanks to study and militancy regarding several points. For instance, I don’t know whether you recall that there was a Bertrand Russel tribunal, which was a human rights court. And Mario Juruna – a Xavante Indian who was later elected to Congress, but  was already famous because of the tape recorder – was invited to the Russell tribunal, but the Brazilian government refused to give him a travel visa. This was the trigger for a discussion of the types of rights that the Indians had. Being under the State’s tutelage, whether the State was entitled, for example, to deny them a visa, denying them the right to come and go, etc. And this case was merely one example of the essentially legal issues that were heavily studied at that time. There were judges, for instance. So we got to the Constituent Assembly with a series of views that were much more practical than they had been previously in regard to what needed to be done. Just to give you an example of this legal personality issue: it was solved without anybody protesting at the Constituent Assembly, contrary to other topics that were surrounded by a great deal of discussion. How was it solved? Article 232 of the Constitution opens by stating the “Indians, their organizations”, etc. The mere fact of naming the Indians and their organizations transforms them, ipso facto, into a legal entity. They acquire a legal personality simply be being the subject of a sentence; it’s one of these legal miracles. In other words, after that, there were no further doubts about whether Indians were entitled to start legal proceedings on their own account or not, for instance.

EDUARDO CESARWhy does Brazil treat its Indians so poorly? What are your views on this?
I know of no country that incorporates its indigenous peoples well. Perhaps Fiji, but it’s a terrible example, because they want to get rid of the others. Of course, Brazilian history is the history of the oppression of several categories of people, one of the most heavily oppressed ones – though by no means the only one – being the Indians, given that they were enslaved and made to work through several legal fictions. There’s an extended history of appropriation of their labor and lands. And the new avatar of this very oppression is this notion that they must be incorporated and that this incorporation must take place through cultural assimilation. This thing started back when the country was a colony that assigned itself the duty of evangelizing the Indians. All this development ideology, especially as from the 1950’s, is an ideology of assimilation rather than an acknowledgement of the importance of differences, as one witnesses nowadays. So I think we are now in a new phase. I also think that the 1988 Constitution led to a new phase, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a lot of retrograde individuals who believe that the Indians are an obstacle to progress and that they should be brought into the national communion – which to the Indians means, to this day, losing their lands and becoming a sort of urban underproletariat of the Amazon region. However, as more and more indigenous lands are acknowledged and demarcated, I think a new phase has begun. There are people who question this ideal of development and progress. So what should this new development be? Who should benefit from it? How is it to be measured? With GDP? With the Gini index that assesses inequality? With some index that combines sustainability with the Human Development Index? That is the new question, and one that doesn’t only apply to Indians; it is an issue that concerns traditional populations in general, as well as the Amazon region, the country as a whole. In other words, what is the development that one is supposed to provide? And here I would like to go into a different aspect of this: the issue of education. I work in several places in the Amazon region and one of the principal reasons why people leave their sites and relocate to the city is to provide their children with an education. In other words, the ideology of education has entered Brazil and has become impressively disseminated. However, what education? What I have witnessed in the education that is being provided to these populations is a disgrace. A disgrace. It’s education that is totally divorced from what they know and that depreciates traditional knowledge. This means that children enter school and are regarded as knowing nothing; they are expected to forget all they know, everything they brought from home. And this doesn’t apply only to children, but to the teachers as well. I have been retelling an experience that really drew my attention. It took place in the middle segment of the Negro river, involving a teacher of Tucano ethnicity who was teaching in a one-room school at a small local community. This teacher was a fine fisherman, knew the forest very well, was highly conversant with all the techniques required to live in that region, yet he was transformed when he entered a classroom. It was a new world that bore no relation to the world he knew and to the world the students knew. Just to give you an example, I once asked him: “Are you having any difficulty here at your school?” to which he responded: “Oh yes, for instance, in natural history”. “And why the difficulty?” “Because they don’t give me cardboard with which to teach”. I mean,  He had a boa constrictor at home; in fact, this teacher kept several animals at home. The dissociation between what is taught at school and what one brings from home was such that he could only conceive of teaching a class with cardboard. No relation is drawn between that theory and the world that they are aware of. This means that there is a major depreciation and loss of traditional knowledge and that good education is not acquired. So one is left in a kind of limbo between two worlds. Education is regarded, in this part of the Amazon region in particular, not as an end but as a means. Is this the type of development we want?

You monitored the issue of the Raposa Serra do Sol reservation closely and it is now exactly one year; now, this issue?
The Lula administration has done some good work in this indigenous area. One of them was precisely approving the Raposa Serra do Sol area and advocating its position in the Supreme Court. The Minister of Justice has also been acting very positively in the acknowledgement of indigenous lands, but we are yet to reach the end of this matter; there have been no recent approvals of indigenous areas. This is the positive side of the issue. However, the problem with the Lula administration is structural. When you get a growth acceleration program, such as the one that was determined, and as soon as the commodities, export crops and livestock farming sectors become the driver, let us say, the flagship of Brazilian economic policy, when there is a conflict between indigenous rights and the projects that are part of, for instance, PAC [growth acceleration program], it is undoubtedly PAC that holds the upper hand. So PAC is aligned with a sort of developmental philosophy that to my mind is outdated. The cornerstones of the government’s support base are alliances, some of which are, let us say, surprising. Just to give you an example, a highway is being announced that is totally absurd. This is BR 319, from Manaus to Porto Velho, which cuts across what my friend Bertha Becker calls “the heart of the forest”. It is a road for which there is no logistical or economic reason whatsoever and that would bring about enormous damage to the environment and population. So why is this highway being discussed? For reasons of electoral convenience, purely and simply. A highway that – get this – is parallel to a waterway. It makes no sense whatsoever. Parallel to the Madeira river. And that would bring to the state of Amazonas all the problems of Rondonia, because it would link Rondonia to Manaus by road. The mere announcement of the road is sufficient to drive a flow of population, as people promptly establish themselves along the highway that is expected. And afterward everyone says: “Well, but this population now needs a road”. The very expectation has serious consequences in human rights and environmental terms. Today, an open letter to the President of the Republic is being released, against the construction of BR 319, and signed by a number of people, including politicians, such as former governor Jorge Vianna, with whom we met last week in Chicago, at a conference on the Amazon region. I mean: there is a unanimous opinion that this road is a crime, but it is being discussed and even if it doesn’t come true, it will have an impact”.

Let’s talk about intellectual property rights, an issue that is important for you.
For the last 15 years or longer, I have worked a lot on the issue of intellectual rights. More than 15 years. Not necessarily intellectual property. We are used to saying “intellectual property rights” as if this were an automatic thing, as if all intellectual rights had ownership. This is a concern derived from the issue of protecting the intellectual rights of indigenous populations and of traditional populations in general, of the protection of the knowledge of this huge universe that is comprised of traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge was first acknowledged in a highly startling way in the biological diversity convention, which was written up and opened to signatures in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Thereafter, the issue only grew in magnitude. Brazil is one of the world’s most diverse countries, as are India, Malaysia and South Africa, and it has had a very consistent policy of protection of traditional knowledge and genetic resources within its territory. One of the banners of this advocacy is to demand that evidence of the legal origin of genetic resources and of the associated knowledge be required when a patent is requested, anywhere in the world. This would enforce the legality of the chain of origin of the invention. Each invention or each new cultivar, in the case of agriculture, should demonstrate where it came from. So this requirement of stating the origin of things is strategic for all highly diverse countries, including Brazil. Brazil, Colombia, Peru, etc. This same acknowledgement of traditional knowledge and of genetic resources meets with some resistance within Brazil. In other words, vis-à-vis the international community, Brazil demands it, but internally, scientists, especially in the field of the natural sciences, have difficulty acknowledging the value of traditional knowledge, the knowledge of traditional populations. There is a tendency to put it down and, among certain sectors, to believe that it leads to nothing, based on a range of allegations. As this interview is for the FAPESP journal, it is worth discussing this. As from a certain moment, research is separated into synthetic molecules on one side and molecules derived from natural products on the other. In other words, one is resorting to natural evolution. With evolution, with the importance of genetics, there is, evidently, an inclination to believe that synthetic products can replace the natural ones. However, then we run into a new problem. Traditional knowledge knows the biological activity of certain natural products, giving rise to a kind of advantage, a sort of initial clue for natural products associated with traditional knowledge. The technology of the so-called fast trial of substances goes against this. It resorts to tremendous speed in testing [substances] against cancer, Aids, whatever. Because of such high-speed technology, it is also argued that one can do without the clues provided by traditional knowledge. Whether this is true or not, we are yet to find out. The current disdain – only in certain sectors, at present – for the contribution of traditional knowledge, to my mind, is very near-sighted. Just as an example: let’s say that one is looking for a cancer drug and that the Indians of a certain ethnicity know a plant; they don’t diagnose cancer, [but the plant] has a biological action, which is tested in a pharmacology lab. And let’s say that this substance is active in fighting cancer. I have heard pharmacologists state that traditional knowledge didn’t add anything because it didn’t apply to cancer precisely. Here’s another example: conservation biologists, for a long time, thought that the sustainability level of a given animal depended simply on how much it reproduced and to what extent it was hunted. Therefore, for it to be sustainable, it had to be less hunted than viably reproduced. This model, according to the rubber latex extractors of the state of Acre, was nonsense; [according to them] the abundance of game depended on whether or not there were regions in which there was no hunting, the refuges. If there are refuges for the prey, this type of animal will always be abundant. Many years later – and nowadays – the most accepted model is precisely this one. It is the indigenous model. Which they already had way back. I mean, the model is not indigenous, it’s the model of the rubber collectors: the abundance of game depends on the existence of these refuges. Just to show you that in many areas there is highly important knowledge. Well, this traditional knowledge has its own protocols and procedures. It is not the same as the knowledge produced in the last 300 years, which has been created through certain protocols, in labs, etc. So there’s a difference, but it’s a productive difference, between the traditional knowledge systems and the academic knowledge systems. This is the coexistence whose value I feel it is very important to acknowledge, and this is why I’m so annoyed with the education that is being provided to this population. A mother lode of knowledge, of knowledge acquisition, of innovation protocols (because there is a lot of innovation) is being destroyed, and in the name of what? Of sub-education that doesn’t give people access to the production of knowledge, but only to repetition and frustration, in part.

But, despite all of this, are you still optimistic about Brazil?
Very. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. If you ask me what the next president should do, I think he/she should change the priorities. That’s it. Human rights issues cannot trail behind other considerations that are seen as more important. Issues of justice must be taken into account.

Do you think that the indigenous issues in the Amazon region still stand a chance?
I think so, I think things are changing. As I said, I think that since 1988, since the Constituent Assembly, there has been a qualitative change, that did not affect everyone to the same extent and that involves relapses every once in a while as well. However, there is a critical awareness of this. In the 1970’s, who would question progress, the idea of progress, such as it was understood at the time? Today, progress and development, yes, but not conducted in any way whatsoever.

Do you still manage to think about mathematics?
I think that what was left of it is an inclination to think structurally, which is part of my training. Because mathematics is a human science, isn’t it? Actually, Vico talks about mathematics as a human science. Because it is the science that is created by man, I mean, mathematics is entirely created by man, it doesn’t exist in nature, it is a creation of the mind. And what is it? It’s a type of ordering of the world. It’s a kind of organization that one overlays onto the world and I think this is also part of the anthropology that I try to do. It is. Because this is the fundament of structuralism. Managing to get to know these islands of structure, as Lévi-Strauss used to say, within the general chaos. In other words, the world is unstructured, but thought is capable of structuring certain things. And, upon structuring them, to gain a certain type of understanding, of comprehension, and an intellectual grasp, in a way, of certain spheres, which are few, and this is mathematical thinking: it’s a certain way of trying to organize the world.