Barbarism, trauma and alienation


Article’s featured image

Collector women of the Colombian Pacific. Photo: Efraín Jaramillo

Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian lowlands and ethnic peoples of the Colombian Pacific share the trauma of evangelization, the rubber industry, and the expansion of logging, cattle ranching and coca cultivation. Understood as individual suffering of anguish and hopelessness in the context of a collective disorder, the trauma of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples leads to the devaluation and assimilation of other identities, including those of their aggressors. Faced with the feeling of inferiority, ethnic peoples have the opportunity to recreate their identities within their ancestral territories.

“In times of uncertainty

people are willing to believe

 in the most tremendous nonsense”.

George Orwell

Towards the end of the 17th century, the Indigenous people of the Bolivian Lowlands had grim encounters with strange people. First, the Indigenous people clashed with Catholic religious orders that came to their regions to plant Christianity. Considered “pagan”, Indigenous beliefs and customs were ruined. At present, these worldviews only survive as “traces” of what they represented for the management of the territory and communal coexistence, especially the compromise they established with the jungle to live from it without causing damage to its biodiversity. This encounter, which lasted a century, was the “original sin” of the Christian mystical madness in American lands.

The second encounter was even more tragic. If the first had been infamous usurpers of souls, these were vandals who came to exploit rubber and enslave the Indigenous peoples to collect latex. The so-called “caucherías” [rubber tapping] extended from the end of the 19th century until the second decade of the 20th century and dominated the economic growth of the region. A third encounter occurred when logging companies came to dismantle their forests. The pillage of forest resources was joined by other people who came to exploit the soil: they razed the jungle and created cattle ranches and coca plantations.

Indigenous people of the Bolivian Lowlands. Photo: Fátima Monasterio Mercado

Trauma and alienation

For the Indigenous people, these interventions in their lives and territories represented drastic ruptures with their ways of life and customs: they were traumas that caused their sociocultural disintegration. Beyond being a lasting emotion, trauma is defined as individual suffering of anguish and hopelessness within the framework of a collective disorder. It is caused by events that threaten the life and well-being of a person or community and leaves permanent psychological and physical wounds (individual or collective).

Trauma has many origins, meanings and consequences. For marginalized groups, it has complex repercussions. In the case of the Lowland Indigenous peoples, trauma was the result of the processes of evangelical inculturation, the semi-slavery exploitation of their labor by rubber companies, the looting of forests and the continued expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier into their forests. These traumatic experiences have not only contributed to the destruction of their social and economic structures but have left an indelible mark on their minds. In this way, they created situations of alienation, as if a shadow had grown over their memory and disturbed it.

People and communities that have suffered traumatic events notoriously find it difficult to reconnect with the past. This is because trauma provokes a kind of retrograde amnesia that strips individuals of their ability to recover from situations that have disturbed their minds. Not only have their worldviews been profaned, but their territories have also been damaged, their environmental assets ruined and their organizations socially and politically deconstructed. Physical integrity cannot withstand the dissolution of the social personality,” observed Levi Strauss in Tristes Tropiques (Sad Tropics).

And although the diverse range of traumas experienced make it difficult to reencounter the past, the reconstruction of the events that produced the traumas is an exercise that has restorative purposes, especially in peoples whose identities have been alienated. From an anthropological perspective, reconstructing the past is a remembrance (symbolic function of memory) to interpret and re-signify the past. Reconstructing memory, to recognize traumatic situations experienced, confers on peoples a restorative effect in cultural and organizational terms.

Cave art in the Colombian Amazonia. Photo: Efraín Jaramillo

Traumas in the ancestral territory

Anthropological studies on the Indigenous Peoples of the Bolivian Lowlands make few references to the psychological disturbances experienced by these peoples because of the traumatic impacts that severely damaged their worldview and altered their relationship with the territory. The fact that the territory also suffered traumatic incidents that have left indelible traces in its forests, rivers, flora and fauna has been neglected. These traces produce effects of great significance, bring back memories that wound the souls of its inhabitants and provoke emotional reactions.

This is explained by the fact that the territory is understood symbolically as a being with a life of its own, a body with communities (of animals and plants) and ecosystems, with human presence and manifestation of multiple conflicts. Therefore, the territory is seen as a body that is modified in relation to other bodies (territories). As Indigenous people are linked to that body in a symbiotic way, as if they were the same thing, changes in one generate effects in the other. By embodying intimate articulations between humans and nature, the territories also provide clues as to how these links were broken.

In the same sense, because it is also a reality materialized in space, this allegorical (symbolic) territory has its own permanence in time, and in the imaginary of Indigenous Peoples, which allows it to be identified even after the disappearance of the original subjects that created it, the so-called “ancestors“. This ancestral territory is understood as a live space, rather than conceptualized, represented cartographically or measured in hectares. And it is thanks to this permanence in the Indigenous imaginary, that this space preserves structures and testimonies of its founders, which are expressed through their stories, myths and legends, and are manifested in their rites and festivities.

Territories generate information because, during settlement, Indigenous people have left signs. They are imprints of their relationship with the territory (whether cemeteries, relics or vestiges of their material culture) and of the links they established with the forest to obtain the material means for their survival (roads, bridges or fruit trees in their abandoned fields). They also consciously leave engraved testimonies to represent and symbolize their belonging to a territory: as in the case of the Amazonian Indigenous people of Bolivia, the T’simane geoglyphs discovered by anthropologist Karin Hissink in the Pachene River. The territories also show traces of the fatality of the ruptures of this relationship.

Cave engravings in the Pachene River, located in the Bolivian Amazon (1952). Photo: Karin Hissink

Ethno-territorial peoples in the civilization process

Collaborative research between Indigenous Peoples and the University of Colorado analyzed manifestations of collective trauma in marginalized ethnic peoples (Afro-descendants and Indigenous Peoples), whose identities were determined by cultural, environmental and socioeconomic relationships with the territory. These relationships predated the creation of the Colombian state and differed markedly from the land relations of other social groups in the country.

This work originated the concept of Ethnic-Territorial Peoples to refer to populations that have shared similar feelings about territory and to draw connections between Pacific Black communities and Indigenous peoples. Ethnic-territorial peoples have built intercultural ties of solidarity with the objective of protecting themselves from the outrages of the colonial regime. Subsequently, during the Republic, they have tried to stop the expansion of economic interests that collect rents, extract natural resources, violently expropriate territories and appropriate the communities’ surpluses.

These historical circumstances are analogous to those found in the Bolivian Lowlands. In both cases there have been processes of dehumanization generated by greed, racism and discriminatory policies of the State. In the Bolivian case, the community members of the Multiethnic Indigenous Territory (TIM) give an account of how economic development has led to the impoverishment of the Lowland Indigenous people. As in the Colombian Pacific Lowlands, the media discourse claimed to bring development to these marginalized regions. This ideological management of a supposedly civilizing process contributes to the alienation of the inhabitants’ awareness of their real situation.

As George Orwell points out: “Who controls the past controls the future”. And the ideology of the State fulfills the function of introjecting values into bewildered and anguished minds. Freud calls the unconscious process by which a person, by identifying with another person, adopts their ideas and behaviors introjection. This concept allows us to understand behavioral changes in some individuals or communities. One is important to highlight here, which has to do with the introjection of behaviors of Indigenous people who have suffered the consequences of the traumas described above.

Fishing in the Naya River, located in the Colombian Pacific. Photo: Efraín Jaramillo

Between the feeling of inferiority and the re-creation of identity

It is common for traumatized people to choose to identify themselves with other ideas that could “save” them. In these cases, human beings make themselves disappear and hide their beliefs and representations of themselves. Culturally and racially stigmatized, people can identify with tremendous nonsense. Even with the ideas of their aggressors. That is why it is no coincidence that there are Indigenous families who end up “worshipping” the gods of those who harmed them, or obeying the loggers, ranchers, miners and coca growers who ravage their forests, rivers and fauna. In other words: they cease to be themselves, assimilating the traits, behaviors and points of view of their aggressors.

Another similarity between the Lowland peoples of Colombia and Bolivia is the way they re-create their identities, without stubbornly thinking of “restoring” what they have lost forever. The Ethnic-territorial peoples start from what they have today and wish to continue conserving: living in community (which gives them security and protection); remaining in their territory and restoring it under the parameters of collective private property; autonomously developing their community organizations to recover (and revitalize) significant issues for their lives; and, most importantly, re-establishing relations of coexistence with the Amazon forest, a “reconciliation” with their living space, which is necessary for their material and spiritual survival. 

But there are also differences. Indigenous people and Afro descendants of the Pacific, whose memories had been confiscated, destroyed or manipulated, are “waking up” and are increasingly aware of their alienation. They have realized that the damage inflicted on their communities need not continue to be repeated. Most importantly, they have realized that the best way (perhaps the only way) to overcome their traumas is to reverse the social and economic consequences inflicted on their people. We believe they have chosen the right path.

Efraín Jaramillo

Efraín Jaramillo is a Colombian anthropologist and has accompanied the struggles of Colombian Indigenous people's organizations for the last 40 years. He was advisor to the Indigenous delegate Alfonso Peña Chepe to the 1991 Constituent Assembly.

Colectivo de Trabajo Jenzerá

Colectivo de Trabajo Jenzerá [Jenzerá Work Collective] is an interdisciplinary and interethnic group founded in 1998 by people with extensive experience in accompanying Indigenous Peoples, Afro-Colombians and campesinos in various regions of Colombia.