This is a presentation of Chapter 3, ‘Living in Napo’, of my PhD thesis (The Protection of Traditional Knowledge in the Ecuadorian Amazon: A Critical Ethnography of Capital Expansion, 2010), which is a brief political economy of extraction and colonisation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It contextualises my fieldwork (2005-2008) in the Napo region, as well as the key focus of my research in that period, a participatory bioprospecting project.
“Antes los gringos decían que somos estúpidos,
ahora quieren llevarse nuestro conocimiento…”
The aim of this chapter is to introduce the reader to the Napo region of the Ecuadorian Amazon and its inhabitants by way of a – necessarily limited – historical political economy of the area. Its purpose is to illuminate the context in which my field work took place and, relatedly, to paint a picture of historical, political, economic, cultural and local specificities…
- 3 Living in Napo: a brief political economy of extraction and colonisation in the Ecuadorian Amazon. 154
- 3.1 Napo Runa: Ethnicity, Language, Culture. 156
- 3.2 Conquest of the Upper Napo and 300 years of colonial domination. 163
- 3.3 Liberalism and the rubber boom. 168
- 3.4 Early colonisation and the Josephine Mission in Tena. 173
- 3.5 Debt-Peonage. 176
- 3.6 Gold, early oil and wage labour. 178
- 3.7 The Rise of Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations. 186
- 3.8 Oil boom, debt crisis and neoliberalism. 198
- 3.9 Indigenous uprisings. 205
- 3.10 Afterword: Correa and the criminalisation of protest. 209
This thesis argues that Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) agreements, no matter how fair and equitable, ultimately help to destroy traditional knowledge rather than protect it. ABS agreements are promoted and implemented as one of the key mechanisms for the protection of traditional knowledge from illegitimate appropriation by pharmaceutical companies or other actors.
However, because they dominantly treat traditional knowledge as intellectual property in need of protection from misappropriation, they have the effect of expanding capital into a previously non-capitalist domain. The thesis argues that it is in the domain of subsistence that traditional knowledge is developed and reproduced; but the expansion of capitalism destroys people’s autonomous subsistence and thus the very foundations of traditional knowledge. In order to make this argument, the thesis combines two main strategies.
First, a critical understanding of Karl Polanyi’s notion of the double movement of capital is integrated with the autonomist Marxist idea of capital as value practice, and the concomitant understanding that alternative value practices constitute an ‘outside’ of capitalism. This theoretical framework guides discussion of the way in which the protection of traditional knowledge constitutes a form of capital expansion.
Second, a detailed ethnographic presentation of a bioprospecting project and its ABS negotiations in the Ecuadorian Amazon is considered in political and historical context. This reveals the way in which traditional knowledge protection introduces market valuations into an area of life which had theretofore been oriented by different values.
In conclusion, the thesis points to the importance of engaging in value practices which create and re-create the ‘outside’ of capitalism as a counter-hegemonic form of traditional knowledge protection which actually safeguards the conditions in which traditional knowledge can flourish.
Keywords: Access and Benefit Sharing, bioprospecting, capital, critical ethnography, double movement, Ecuador, indigenous movement, Napo, subsistence perspective, traditional knowledge, value struggle.