Schooling the Forest: Land, Legacy, and Environmental Epistemological Practice in the Upper Napo
Shenton, Jeffrey Thomas
This study focuses on intergenerational changes to environmental knowledge, reasoning, valuation, and practice in Sacha Loma, an indigenous Kichwa community on the banks of the Napo River in the Ecuadorian Amazon. While Sacha Loma persists as a community of rural smallholders, it has undergone a continually-evolving relationship to the exigencies of the global economy since its founding. Recent structural evolutions have included land privatization, the advent of state-sponsored formal schooling, the arrival of an eco-tourism NGO, and a rapid uptick in mobility and access to urban centers. The dissertation asserts that such structural change has co-evolved with patterns of environmental knowledge, reasoning, and valuation in a mutually-constitutive manner that reflects changing notions of personal and familial desire. Based on a “cultural epidemiological” perspective positing cultural forms to be evolving, emergent distributions of understanding within a population, the study uses both ethnographic methods and the formal elicitation of environmental knowledge, reasoning, and valuations to infer intergenerational changes to “epistemological frameworks” of the local forest. I find that while relational modes of understanding the forest have been in tension with utilitarian understandings based on cash cropping since Sacha Loma’s founding, the production of new practice-based logics based on the school calendar has also, for young people, rendered legible understandings of the forest based on various “environmentalist” ideas (propounded through the NGO and the state-run oil company). The concomitants of this legibility are a decreasing knowledge base related to forest species and their interactions, in turn related to a wholly-new utilitarian valuation of the local forest. The consequence of this literal and conceptual “distancing” from the forest is a valuation on moralistic but fungible terms that links forest “conservation” to the possibility of tourist dollars. To expand the relationship of these shifts in environmental understandings to the problem of culture change more generally, I develop the notion of “epistemological practice,” meant to account for evolving, reciprocal connections between behavior, ideation, and structure within a community of practice.