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Reading the Resources

The rainforest that lines the Amazon River in southeast Peru is a tangle of lush green foliage, and to those who are unfamiliar with the region, it appears pristine. But the indigenous people who call this region home have left their mark on the landscape through agriculture, religious rites, hunting and gathering.

Anthropologist Constanza Ocampo-Raeder has traveled to the Peruvian Amazon since 1996 and spent two years living among the Ese eja people. Her research sheds light on the way cultural traditions influence the management of natural resources.

“There’s all this meaning in the forest,” says Ocampo-Raeder, an anthropologist at the University of Maine who has a joint appointment in the Climate Change Institute. “When we look at these ‘pristine’ forests, we actually start seeing resource management practices reflected in the vegetation that send a really important message for conservation: Humans can interact with the environment in a relatively positive way and there are a lot of societies that do. It’s not the type of agriculture we do here. It’s very selective.”

Though Ocampo-Raeder got her start studying ways to “read the forest” in the Peruvian Amazon, she has also done extensive research on other human-nature interactions and the implications of market-based conservation strategies, such as ecotourism, in the American West, the Maya forest in Belize and, more recently, traditional fishing practices in the Andes and coastal Peru. All of her work provides cultural context in the debate about conservation, government interests and indigenous rights.

Image Description: In the Peruvian Amazon, Constanza Ocampo-Raeder, pictured above, lived among 35 Ese eja families. The Ese eja are used to dealing with outside researchers. Nevertheless, the arrangement required extensive negotiations, since not all academic work directly benefits them. Though she did become close with several families, she says, “It can be very lonely in the field. It is a transaction in many ways, and you can’t go into it thinking you’re going to be friends with everyone you interact with.”

Spring 2010

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