This is not mine; this belongs to everyone: collective knowledge and specialised knowledge.
The Amazon rain forest has an enormous wealth of plants, and knowledge about them has been a challenge for the natural sciences. Many disciplines and subspecialisations have focused on unravelling this complex network of vital relationships that keeps the rain forest functioning. Indigenous peoples address this world of plants from an extensive and elaborate mythology, the definition of classification systems, and local taxonomies.
The history of the origin of plants and their classification systems has pan-Amazonian elements that make possible an understanding of and a relationship between different peoples, but also provides specifics that derive from the mythologies of the origin of each people. Thus, each indigenous people occupies a special place in the network of knowledge, which implies a particular way of relating to the forest, its plants and animals, and the spirits that inhabit it. These specificities are expressed in linguistic diversity, each group having their own language; in cultural material, each with the objects that identify them; in their food, each with particular species and varieties of crops; in their rituals and songs; and so on in many areas of life. This diversity of knowledge and ways of being in the world is considered complementary, the set that makes the world work when everyone fulfills the role assigned to them from the beginning.
Each indigenous people occupies a special place in the network of knowledge, which implies a particular way of relating to the forest, its plants and animals, and the spirits that inhabit it.
Within each indigenous people is just one knowledge, which is considered a common good that no one person can consider his or her own property; however, each person receives a particular formation that involves personal responsibility for the parts of knowledge that are given to her or him. First, there is men’s knowledge and women’s knowledge, which are considered complementary for the world to work in the right way. Each person, partly by birth order and partly by affinities and responses to shamanic visions about the powers of each, begins to acquire specialised knowledge. Some people, like the shamans or the headmen of the malocas (community longhouses), receive more knowledge through a demanding training process, which involves strict adherence to all kinds of diets and sexual restrictions. It is considered very important that not everyone has the same knowledge, as this would create excessive rivalries and conflict in the community. Thus, a father makes sure each son gets his own knowledge base, and with it his own place in the world; and in the same way women get their own knowledge, such as knowledge related to making pottery or caring for the chagra (forest garden). Usually during the formation of each person, and especially shamans and maloqueros (headmen of the malocas), each will have an opponent from another clan or people who will maintain a special relationship of ritual complementarity throughout his or her life. The meeting of opponents involves some form of challenge to knowledge ownership—in some people these are expressed in very demanding and public ritual greetings; in other peoples the rituals include complex riddles.
This knowledge and these specialties may be related to the making and owning of material culture; for example, the specialist in making manguarés, ritual drums, may be linked to the handling of rituals involving the use of this instrument. Other examples include specialists in songs or in the care and management of feather plumages. In relation to the management of the forest, there are knowledge-holders in terrestrial animals, monkeys, and frogs, and in the plant world, there are the knowledge-holders of wild and cultivated plants.
Name, Narrate, Observe, and Use
The Nonuya are part of the "people of the centre," a cultural nucleus made up of peoples like the Uitoto, Andoque, Bora, Miraña, Muinane, and Resígaro who are identified by consuming ambil, or tobacco paste, and coca in the form of mambe. These groups suffered the holocaust of the rubber trade and ended up dispersed; many migrated to new areas. In the case of the Nonuya, the demographic and cultural impact of the exploitation of rubber was so great that the few survivors are now settled on the Caquetá River in the Colombian Amazon—they practically lost their language and were raised along with the Muinane and Andoque, adopting their language and part of their cultural heritage. In this geographical context, the Nonuya traditional knowledge-holder, Abel Rodríguez, was raised and was known as Mogaje Giju in the Nonuya language, meaning “shine of the hawk’s feathers.” Knowledge is passed from father to son, from grandfather to grandson. Uncles also play an important role, as in the case of Abel, who was trained by his uncle from the time his father died. Abel learned about plants, with which he has a great affinity, to such an extent that he is known as the “namer of plants,” a term that identifies someone who knows and manages plant species, the domain of hundreds of species of tropical forest flora, their anatomical features, their architecture, the distribution of branches and leaves, types of bark, flowers and fruits, and their ecological relations with different animal species. Furthermore, this knowledge is accompanied by knowledge of the medicinal properties and cures of each plant. To learn and keep hundreds of species in one’s memory involves preparation from childhood, including diets, sexual restrictions, and the discipline to listen to stories, recitations, and songs in the evening hours. This learning process is accompanied by the development of a sophisticated ability to observe and distinguish details, however small, that differentiate one plant from another when they apparently appear similar. These skills of observation and the ability to distinguish are extremely important given the high toxicity of a large number of plant species. The use of plants is also learned in practice as and when it is required in the community; for example, healing a snake venom victim is learned when the case of a poisonous snakebite occurs in the community. Naming or reciting the healing without an actual snakebite victim would be considered to be calling the tragedy to occur.
The Plant Namer—The Botanist’s Guide
Abel unveiled his knowledge when working as a guide to researchers in vegetation ecology in the Colombian Amazon, specifically in the area of the middle Caquetá River, between Araracuara and the community of Peña Roja. While others from his community had knowledge about plants, it was clear to all that Abel wielded the most knowledge and was the most consistent in naming plants in the local language. The academic researchers used scientific methods, such as establishing vegetation plots and transects of different sizes, for which the trees were marked and samples were taken for identification. In all these exercises, Abel’s collaboration was extremely useful and his own community recognised him as the “namer of plants” and the official guide for botany researchers. On several occasions, Abel was invited to Bogotá and Medellin to complete the work of recognition and identification in the herbaria. In 2002, due to various complex factors, Abel had to settle in Bogotá, far from the forest and the plants that he knew in so much detail. So that he could document his plant knowledge, Tropenbos International Colombia assigned him a number of scholarships, within the framework of its strategy to promote the recognition of local and traditional knowledge and to establish a platform for knowledge dialogue—a process that took place over more than a decade.
Recognition and Support for Local Knowledge
This strategy of supporting the collection and sharing of traditional knowledge was expressed by assigning financial support to allow traditional knowledge-holders to explore the documenting of their own knowledge and different forms of transmission for both members of their own community and for the scientific community. Financial support is provided after lengthy discussions with the knowledge-holders to clarify their aims and to explore the languages and forms for advancing the work and its subsequent disclosure, respecting traditional forms of protection and access to this knowledge.
These talks reflect many prevention characteristics, which are the result of a long history of denial and contempt for traditional knowledge. In many cases, such talks are necessary to overcome knowledge-holders’ low self-esteem and to revalidate the accuracy and detail of the knowledge. Especially with young people, it can be difficult to overcome this history of denial.
In relation to the management of the forest, there are knowledge-holders in terrestrial animals, monkeys, and frogs, and in the plant world, there are the knowledge-holders of wild and cultivated plants.
The strategy arose when many knowledge-holders pointed out that there was no suitable path for transmitting their knowledge in the current context where many young people had lost interest or were unwilling to pursue such strict traditional training. Some pointed to the need to find ways to communicate traditional knowledge to other areas outside the community in order to achieve respect and recognition from society in general. For example, under the guidance of one or more knowledge-holders, local youth research groups were formed, written documents were produced, and knowledge was recorded and explored with illustrations. Of late, video and animation have been used to capture knowledge about sacred natural sites and the great mythical narratives. The results of these investigations are shared in academic and artistic spaces of intercultural dialogue.
In the first of these exchanges with Abel regarding the possibility of documenting his botanical knowledge, a series of alternatives were proposed that would respect the oral nature of his traditional knowledge—interviews, recordings, video—as he felt limited by using the written word to gather and transmit his knowledge.
The use of the spoken word seemed the most appropriate form, but “telling for the sake of telling” made no sense because the urban environment was not conducive to transmitting knowledge to his children. Such transmission requires special diets and visits to the forest to recognise the plants, the sites, and the conditions where they grow, and to constantly confront the knowledge of mythology and recitations with his own observations. Unable to reproduce a form of oral transmission in a traditional setting, after some trials he proposed the use of drawings of trees to provide reference material for education in indigenous schools and to promote scientific dialogue.
From the "Vanchama" and the Paper
In the Nonuya tradition, several occasions exist when representation is used through painting. One of the most important occasions are the drawings on yanchamas, or “fabric,” made from the bark of certain trees, which are used for carrying children and are decorated for baptism rituals with abstractions that represent different beings. But in other elements of material culture, such as balayes (woven baskets) and woven sieves or the low wooden "thinking" benches, and even on the walls of the great maloca (community longhouse), different figures can refer to the colouring or markings of animals, their footprints, or their teeth, for example. However, these representations highlight some characteristic and are not intended as highly realistic representations.
For painting the yanchamas and other objects, vegetable dyes are used or extracts from nearby soil types or clays.
Paper has begun to be used in the forest in schools and for interaction with the state; all kinds of papers and files have begun to be part of daily life for indigenous organisations and families. However, paper has a short lifespan in the tropical rainforest climate, since moisture, fungi, and insects attack and destroy this material in a very short time, so no tradition exists for using this material in the communities.
Developing a Pictorial Work
When Abel was more than 60 years of age, he approached the Tropenbos offices in search of financial support. We were working on basket-weaving techniques and fishing traps and suggested that he contribute to this subject. As he was unwilling to write, it was suggested that he explore the design of baskets and the vines used for making them. In these early drawings on paper, he showed his great skill as a weaver through drawings consisting of weaving illustrations, fibre by fibre, or showing weaving through the intertwining of strokes in the drawing. The first vine that he drew showed his great knowledge and detailed observations, and it was obvious that what he painted was a living being that was growing, reflecting the way the plant was held in the tree. These early drawings from memory seemed to reflect what some anthropology studies of Amazonian cultures have called perspectivism, or the ability to understand the world from the perspective of other beings that inhabit the world; to see the world as a caiman, a fish, or a palm. The drawings of the different vines reflect a detailed observation of the life force of the plants, highlighting their growing forms: some straight upward, others turning to the right or left or crossing over to form an "x," some hanging, others growing from below and sticking to the trunk, or being born up in the branches.
The system of knowledge behind [Abel’s] representations both corroborates and articulates advanced understanding of tree architecture, landscape ecology, plant and animal ecological relationships, ecological dynamics, and even climate change.
Our astonishment at his powers of representation led him to continue exploring this avenue of knowledge transmission through the drawings of trees. Abel began illustrating the trees individually using traditional classification systems. In these systems, different groups of trees or families have a captain or head that leads the group. Thus, he was creating sets of drawings highlighting the features that differentiate these groups: colours, sizes, architecture, growth forms, the textures of the bark, branches and leaves, and, in some cases, smells and tastes. Then he drew pictures showing the development of the trees over time, from germination to old age. He would then highlight elements, similar to scientific illustrations, that show not only the tree but insert drawings showing characteristic elements, such as leaves, flowers, and fruits.
In the next phase, he prepared drawings showing trees as part of the landscape, the forest land, flooded forests, recent stubble, and old stubble in mature forest.
In a series of drawings, he showed the variations throughout the annual cycle, reflecting a broad knowledge of the rhythms of nature, which involve changing colours, the seasonal presence of flowers and fruits, and the varied relationship of plants with animals and insects.
He took care to capture his knowledge of cultivated plants and the chagra, or forest garden. In all of these drawings, he shows how the chagra is part of the forest; it occupies a space within the forest and slowly becomes forest as soon as cultivating and weeding cease.
His latest explorations have been to represent mythology, and, especially, the tree of abundance. This mythical tree that covers the world but is not visible gives rise to all life in the forest as well as the foods for animals and humans.
The work reflects a traditional knowledge that is opposite to scientific knowledge in the sense that it is not fragmented but is part of a complex integral world that can only be known from living on the inside as part of that world and not as an outside observer.
Abel began exploring different materials: pencil, pen, watercolours, and oils, until finding that inks and pen were the best way to reproduce the wide range of green and brown colours needed for showing detail and differentiation while also achieving the required transparencies to meet classification systems. His relationship with the yanchamas and natural dyes no doubt played an important part in selecting ink as his best ally for illustrations. While his work is pictorial, it does not seek a realistic representation but is at all times based on the unique features of the species or landscape in question.
His work clearly converses with knowledge of ecology, botany, and agronomy. The system of knowledge behind his representations both corroborates and articulates advanced understanding of tree architecture, landscape ecology, plant and animal ecological relationships, ecological dynamics, and even climate change. Above all, the work reflects a traditional knowledge that is opposite to scientific knowledge in the sense that it is not fragmented but is part of a complex integral world that can only be known from living on the inside as part of that world and not as an outside observer.
Traditional Knowledge in the Art World
Abel’s work has not passed unnoticed in the world of academia and the natural sciences. His work has entered the dialogue and occupies a privileged place in the art world to the extent that he was winner of the Prince Claus Award of Holland in 2014.
His work questions ways of understanding and seeing the world and reminds us of unhurried ways of learning about the world, seeking understanding and coexistence rather than domination, and showing the need to observe and flow with the rhythms of nature.
Support and recognition of his work have certainly created an opportunity to reverse the denial of other ways of acquiring knowledge and of living in the world. His work has inspired many young people in the culture along the middle Caquetá River to follow in his footsteps and to search for new languages to communicate a way of understanding and living that seeks to survive in a region located on the periphery of our modern world.
Extracts from this document were published in the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Cosmopolitical Forest, commissioned and produced by the Museum of Art, National University, Colombia. 2014. This text and the accompanying images include reproductions of traditional knowledge. Duke University recognizes and respects traditional knowledge, intellectual property, and cultural heritage shared by indigenous communities and asks readers to do the same. The University does not possess the authority to grant permission to re-post or re-publish this paper; it is our understanding that researchers may quote from it or cite it by adhering to accepted standards regarding copyrighted content. This paper was prepared by Abel Rodriguez, an Indigenous leader of the Nanuya Nation (Colombian Amazon) in collaboration with Maria Clara van der Hammen, Anthropologist with Tropenbos International, and Carlos Rodriguez, Program Director of Tropenbos International. The aforementioned collaborators visited Duke University in March 2016 to participate in a symposium (Narrating Nature) and graciously shared this text.