Environmental Factishes, Variation, and Emergent Ontologies among the Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon
Theories of environmental decision-making are based on “modern” conceptualizations of the world that are normalized and legitimized by scientific constructions of a reality that is assumed to be objective. Without recognizing the usage of their own conceptual constructs, such theories are often applied in social contexts where people may have entirely different conceptions of their own worlds. In contrast, the relatively recent development of ontological approaches in anthropology address this issue by emphasizing the existence of alternative conceptions, or ontologies, that constitute alternative worlds or realities, and by attempting to understand people on their own terms. However, these academic developments also show a tendency to exoticize non-Westerners, and assume, a priori, an alterity that can hinder understanding and collaboration with indigenous peoples. This dissertation is an attempt to challenge both approaches, from an empirical, middle-ground position by examining the environmental factishes – things that are half material (fact), half ideological (fetish) hybrids – of a community of indigenous Matsigenka of the Peruvian Amazon, and to determine whether their worlds are as radically different as ontologists suggest. Through the use of mixed qualitative and quantitative methodology, the results of this study suggest that the Matsigenka world is populated by different types of subjects with varying degrees of agency, intentionality, and human-like consciousness. Some of these subjects are associated with food and behavioral restrictions because of their potential to damage the souls and bodies of infants. Others have master spirits who monitor the Matsigenka’ treatment of species under the spirits’ protection. In contrast, many species, including some important game animals, have neither human-like agency nor consciousness. These results suggest that, while there are some similarities to “modern” conceptualizations of certain animal and plant species, the Matsigenka world is different in several essential respects that must be taken into account when theorizing about environmental decision-making.