Selling "Cultures": The Commodification of Indigenous Knowledge
André Vereta Nahoum
What are the tensions, alliances, negotiations, and translations underlying the traffic of cultural representations in markets? This research analyzes two economic projects maintained by the Yawanawa, an indigenous population from the southwestern Amazon: one project produces annatto seeds for an American cosmetic firm, and the other involves the public display of cultural and spiritual practices. The indigenization of market practices and specific Euro-American categories - such as monetary exchange, environmental protection, and cultural difference - allow cultural elements to be translated into representations of harmonious lifestyles and good environmental practices. The economic valuation of cultural representations is being used as a new tool in local conflicts that occur internally among leaders and groups in their quest for prestige, loyalty, and material resources, and externally with the region's wider population and with national initiatives to develop profitable activities in the Amazon. Part of our global market society, the Yawanawa can also employ the demand and valuation of representations associated with their culture to individual projects on the construction of reputation and leadership, and more broadly, to the reassertion of their collective identity as a specific indigenous population with special rights. This research explores the market as an arena of complex sociability and conflict. It analyzes how values are created and exchanged within the market in a true cultural economy, and how individual and collective identity projects are constructed, challenged, and sometimes reproduced by the traffic of material and immaterial objects. Project duration: October 2009 to September 2013.