The virtualism of “capacity building” workshops in indigenous Amazonia

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Laura Mentore. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.028

The virtualism of “capacity building” workshops in indigenous Amazonia

Ethnography in the new middle grounds

Laura MENTORE, University of Mary Washington

Sustainable development and conservation NGOs in Amazonia often hold workshops in which they task indigenous communities with various activities in the name of “capacity building.” People tend to perform these tasks despite often finding them to be flawed, demeaning, or based on erroneous assumptions about their lifeways and perspectives. Workshop organizers, for their part, tend to view local participation in itself as a straightforward indicator of a successful workshop to the neglect of a more complex picture. These combined tendencies contribute to expectations on both sides being partially fulfilled at best, but due to asymmetrical power distributions, can have disproportionately negative consequences for indigenous communities. The aim of this article is to critically examine these habits of workshop practice by casting ethnographic light on the multiple cultural imaginings (of present and future, self and other) that people and projects carry with them into workshop space. Capacity building workshops can be seen as the latest form of “middle ground” between indigenous social desires and global eco-politics, set apart from the middle grounds of the 1990s (cf. Conklin and Graham 1995) by an intensification of symbolic economics through what I refer to as virtualism. Two ethnographic vignettes illustrate how capacity building exercises can elicit ambivalence and pose problems and risks for indigenous communities despite their theoretical intention of “leveling the playing field.”

Keywords: capacity building, middle ground, virtualism, Amazonia, political ecology, development

In recent years, capacity building has become one of the most ubiquitous phrases in sustainable development and conservation discourses. By extension, workshops and other events that foreground capacity building activities have become a [280]ubiquitous part of life in many of the kinds of places where anthropologists conduct fieldwork, whether in rural, low-income sectors of American society or indigenous communities in Amazonia. And yet, perhaps because of its swift acceptance as a component of ground-up models of development that present themselves as intrinsically more ethical and sustainable than previous models, it is only recently that capacity building has begun to receive the ethnographic attention it merits as part of a complex hegemonic ideology that takes shape through a variety of practices in different regions and social and institutional contexts. In the context of development and conservation discourses, the phrase capacity building can be seen as a manifestation of a turn in recent years away from top-down prescriptions of problems and calls for change toward a more ground-up approach of supporting people living in poverty or threatened environments (or both) by recognizing and enhancing their own potential to enact positive changes. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP): “Capacity development is about transformations that empower individuals, leaders, organizations and societies. If something does not lead to change that is generated, guided, and sustained by those whom it is meant to benefit, then it cannot be said to have enhanced capacity, even if it has served a valid development purpose” (UNDP 2009: 6).

I have been conducting fieldwork in Guyana intermittently since 2002, primarily with indigenous communities in the interior but also in the capital city of Georgetown on the coast. Most of my research to date has been based in Erefoimo village, a community of about ninety Waiwai and Wapishana speakers in the southern rainforests of a region known as the Deep South.1 I also have long-term ties in Surama Village, a Makushi community in the mixed savanna / forest region of the North Rupununi, where my husband and I have been combining fieldwork with running an undergraduate field methods course for a number of years. The term capacity building first began to stand out to me in the North Rupununi in the early 2000s as a major framing device in meetings, pamphlets, websites, and in conversations with NGO workers. The continued proliferation of capacity building discourses coincided with a proliferation of events called workshops. What ostensibly sets workshops apart from the type of meetings they claim to have largely replaced is their incorporation of some type of participatory activity that falls under the umbrella of “building capacity.” That is, workshops come with the added claim of providing, enhancing, or identifying some skill or knowledge among the indigenous attendees, or otherwise increasing their sense of identity as “stakeholders”2 in the project at hand.

Many of the workshops I attended in the North Rupununi between 2004 and 2008 were focused on ecotourism as a means of sustainable economic growth for local communities and on raising awareness about endangered species. Others were aimed at encouraging a shift in local agricultural practices from the traditional slash-and-burn methods in the forest to cultivating the savannas (a shift that largely did not happen, and where it did, was short-lived). Around 2009, the workshop [281]themes became heavily centered on the Low Carbon Development Strategy, the national development strategy of the government at that time, which was a precursor to Guyana becoming a partner country in REDD+ (the United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). Much of the focus during this period was on the prospect of gaining foreign investments in the eco-services provided by standing forests (e.g., carbon storage and rainfall generation). These are known as PES (Payment for Environmental Service) schemes. By the time this approach to conservation had gained influence in Guyana, Surama had a fully established eco-tourism business. A more recent theme has been assessing and developing ways to mitigate the social and environmental impact of a long-standing road development project that would result in the first-ever paved highway from the Brazilian border to Guyana’s capital, and in the process, cut directly through Makushi territory. Workshops in Waiwai and Wapishana communities in the Deep South, while generally not as frequent as in the North Rupununi because of their relative inaccessibility, have tended to focus on the same issues but also include the themes of land rights and demarcations because of the greater number of communities in that region still seeking titles or extensions to their existing titles. As I describe below, consultations in the Deep South have also been held by conservation NGOs seeking to create Protected Areas.

While of course each community and each workshop is different, the workshops do have a consistent atmosphere about them. One encounters a familiar stock of grumblings and disparaging jokes as men and women prepare to attend a workshop from inside their homes, as groups of people walk together to and from workshops, and sometimes right outside the workshops on verandas and front stoops of the buildings where they are held. There are invariably some members of a community who refuse to attend—often these are elder males. On more than one occasion, I have seen people directly question workshop conveners about the formatting or intentions of a workshop, and, when unsatisfied with the response, stand up and leave. Despite this, capacity building workshops have largely retained the same basic formatting, tenor, and unofficial measures of success by their conveners as when they first began to replace the more lecture-style meetings of earlier time periods. NGO representatives facilitating a workshop may appear somewhat rattled by signs of discontent in their stakeholders, but the overall concept of the workshop and the projects and proposals on which they are based remain resolutely unshaken. While these dynamics are certainly a significant part of the picture, what strikes me the most is the extent to which indigenous peoples continue to attend workshop after workshop despite their apparent skepticism and the many other things going on in their lives. In many cases that I have observed, people not only attend but also “go along” with the capacity building exercises with which they are tasked, despite fairly overt signs of reluctance, skepticism, or ambivalence on their part.

Toward a better understanding of this tendency toward ambivalent participation on the part of indigenous peoples and the pattern of unperturbed formatting on the part of NGO workers, I offer vignettes of two specific workshop events, one in the Makushi community of Surama and another in the Waiwai and Wapishana community of Erefoimo. Specifically, this essay aims to provide thick descriptions of workshop spaces, and the various kinds of cultural imaginings that people and projects bring to them, so that we may gain further insight into some of the less [282]obvious forces that might be at play in sustaining the structure and momentum of capacity building workshops. In the conclusion, I also discuss some of the risks and longer-term consequences of workshops for indigenous peoples. Tania Li (2007) and other anthropologists of development have drawn from Michel Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and biopolitics to argue that an implicit aim of development projects in today’s neoliberal global economy is the making of self-governing subjectivities. A growing literature on environmental projects in Amazonia demonstrates various ways in which indigenous sociality and agency prove to be either directly or inadvertently resistant or counteractive to these forces and processes. Michael Cepek (2011, 2012) has written about the failed and otherwise complicated attempts of environmental projects at exercising governmentality among the Cofán, and Casey High (2015) provides a compelling account of how Waorani social history and memory influence both their strategies and limitations in dealing with development and conservation agencies. I readily concur with the general thesis in this and other Amazonianist literature that the ontological foundations of Amerindian socialities are not always readily compromised or replaced by presentations of other worlds/worldviews/forms of subjectivity, whether embedded in environmental and development projects, or state healthcare systems (Kelly 2011).

Nonetheless, as I think fellow Amazonianists would agree, this point does not diminish the need for us to critically examine the asymmetrical power dynamics that may nonetheless underlie such projects and may generate atmospheres of ambivalence, conflict, and risk in indigenous communities despite the theoretical intention of capacity building workshops to create a “level playing field” between stakeholders and NGOs. This essay fills a gap in the existing literature by focusing on the specific phenomenon of capacity building workshops and identifying a terminology that specifies the kinds of problematics they pose. To fully appreciate Amerindian strategies or resistance, counteraction, or simply living according to alternative forms of subjectivity, we do well to more fully and critically unpack what they are up against in contemporary lived realities that often include highly structured interactions with outside interest groups—here in the specific context of dealings with sustainable development and conservation NGOs.

Toward that end, after presenting two vignettes of workshops in Surama and Erefoimo, I turn to discuss two concepts that strike me as especially relevant: first, the middle ground, as initially introduced by Robert White ([1991] 2001) in his provocative, if not paradigm-shifting account of interrelations between the French and Algonquin in the Great Lakes Region during the colonial era, and then taken up by Beth Conklin and Laura Graham (1995) in their analysis of the interface between indigenous and environmental movements in the Brazilian Amazon in the 1990s; second, the concept of virtualism, as defined by James Carrier and Daniel Miller (1998) and put to further ethnographic use in James Carrier and Paige West’s (2009) edited volume, and in Paige West’s (2012) study of the global fair trade coffee market in relation to the Gimi of Papua New Guinea. Together, these concepts are helpful in unpacking the exercises in symbolic economics (Bourdieu 1984) through which capacity building workshops produce distinctive kinds of asymmetrical power relations. I argue that in the middle ground of workshops, indigenous participants are disproportionately burdened with the semantic labor of authenticating the meaning of things (namely, the “future” as envisaged in [283]projects), and take on this labor at the risk of being stripped of the symbolic capital that made them appear relevant to the project at hand in the first place. As I discuss in the conclusion, if and when this symbolic capital is compromised, indigenous communities and environments can become more exposed to other forms of capitalist expansionism that are commonly glossed over as “development,” including destructive modes of resource extraction.

Now for some brief background on the two workshops described below. The first, which I refer to as the “Magic Marker Workshop,” was held by a prominent conservation NGO in Surama in 2014 for the purpose of gathering information from the community on its current land-use practices. They were told that the data—in the form of a map to be drawn by community members and a small series of interviews to be conducted by one of the NGO’s representatives—would be sent to the NGO’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to be compiled into a report that would be used to minimize the social and environmental impact of the aforementioned road development project (a project that has still yet to begin). As I try to indicate in my description below, the map-drawing activity that the community members were tasked with was based on a reductive notion of the human ecology as a “system of land-use practices,” and reflected the long-standing Euro-American fixation on maps as meaningful representations of reality.

The second vignette, “Sweeping and the Sound of Thunder,” is a creative rewriting of a capacity building workshop in Erefoimo that I initially wrote about in my graduate dissertation, and revisited in an article on the arboreal bias of conservation and PES schemes in Guyana and how they are at odds with Waiwai understandings of space and the environment (Mentore 2011). This workshop was part a series of workshops held by a prominent conservation NGO in several communities in the region in 2003 and 2004 regarding the possibility of various Wapishana and Waiwai villages in the Deep South being included in a Protected Area project. The problematics of this workshop are especially difficult to summarize because they are deeply embedded in longer-term social and political dynamics within Erefoimo and the larger region. Nonetheless, there are few key points that should be noted: at the time of this workshop, Erefoimo was a recently established community made up of a segment of families who moved north from a Waiwai village that was flooded out in 1999, and others who moved south from Wapishana villages in the savannas.3 Erefoimo did not have legal title to lands (and still does not to this day), and was fraught with tensions concerning its collective identity because of its mixed Waiwai and Wapishana composition, including some families that had never previously resided with each other. The influence of the village leader at the time (a Waiwai man who was among the first to move with his family from the flooded Waiwai village) was patchy at best and concentrated around his extended kin and others who identified as Waiwai. Some residents have subsequently told me that during the period of this workshop, they were following the purposefully [284]obstructive advice of leaders from their former Wapishana villages to the north, in hopes of undermining Erefoimo’s leader. This included not supporting the Protected Area because the village leader was a known supporter of it (as were the leaders in Masakenyaru, the other Waiwai village to the south). In the context of regional identity politics, to express support for the Protected Area essentially became a marker of Waiwai identity or a desire to be associated with Waiwai. Yet when the NGO took votes in each community, the outcome was interpreted strictly as an indicator of the level of local support for the Protected Area and nothing else. When Erefoimo was found to be lacking support for the proposal, it was excluded from the project. In this case, the NGO’s working concepts of consensus and agreement reflect problematic assumptions about community cohesion and shared ethnic identity. Their approach also presumed that people can and should evaluate the merits of the project in a bubble, apart from surrounding political tensions and social histories.

I hasten to stress that the two workshops described here occurred more than a decade apart, in different communities inhabited by different indigenous groups whose lifeways, languages, and social histories are distinct in many ways (though certainly linked on other levels). The indigenous peoples of the North Rupununi and Deep South also occupy somewhat different socioeconomic and geographic positions in relation to coastal Guyana and its mainstream national society as well as the Brazilian border, with the North Rupununi generally having closer contact to both. At the expense of situating either vignette in the context of a coherent, distinct, and bounded socio-cultural world (which the conventions of our discipline have trained us to see as the proper way of contextualizing case studies), I have chosen to situate them alongside each other, for the purpose of considering some common threads. This essay is about what makes capacity building workshops a distinctive phenomenon in indigenous communities, rather than what makes indigenous communities distinctive from each other.

If we resist the problematic assumption that indigenous peoples are simply docile and acquiescent to the agendas of foreign experts, or that they desire the exact same fantasy future that spurs on the development “machine” (Ferguson 1994), what then are we to make of their performing these exercises despite perceiving them as deeply flawed? And if we resist the equally problematic assumption that development experts are simply callously indifferent or poorly trained, what then should we make of their tendency to set aside indicators of frustration or disapproval from their stakeholders so long as they ultimately comply with the task at hand? In short, what motivates both parties to act (or deliberately withhold certain forms of action) in ways that perpetuate this problem?

Scene 1: The magic marker workshop

Over the years that I have been visiting Surama, it gradually came to seem that hardly a day could go by without a workshop of some sort. I noticed that people were increasingly having to juggle attending the latest workshop and doing the many other things that would typically fill their days, from farming, hunting, and processing manioc to traveling, caring for sick or elderly kin, running small shops [285]out of their homes, or making handicrafts. In 2014, I found myself and a small group of my undergraduate students sitting in on a workshop facilitated by the Guyanese branch of a prominent international conservation NGO. The purpose was to have community members identify their “traditional resource use areas” by way of drawing a map, so that they could be protected or avoided during a major road improvement project—with the idea that this identification process would enhance community members’ capacity to recognize and objectify their ecological and economic stakes in the road project. If construction ever begins in earnest (which it probably will, though it has been “imminent” for decades now), it will result in paving the only road that links the Brazilian border to Georgetown (Guyana’s capital city on the Atlantic coast), cutting directly through Makushi and Wapishana territories along the way. This is a government project with financial backing from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). As a stipulation of the IDB funding, a social and environmental impact assessment had to be undertaken, and it is my understanding that this work was contracted out to the conservation NGO—likely because of its close working relationship with the Guyanese government.

Held in the former primary school, which continues to be used as a gathering space, the workshop was run by a single representative of the NGO from their Georgetown office. She spoke about the importance of community participation in identifying traditional resource use areas then explained that she would be conducting brief interviews with individuals in addition to asking everyone to collaboratively draw a map of the resource areas in and around the village. After talking up these exercises as rare opportunities for “qualitative” input on the social impact of the road and providing textbook definitions of free and informed consent and intellectual property, she explained how the content of the interviews would be coded by number—again, for the protection of their anonymity and intellectual property rights. She stressed that the map should not include the particular names or uses of items in the resource areas (e.g., specific plants used for medicinal purposes), only indicate their presence.

The consultant then rolled out a poster-sized sheet of pink paper and set several packets of markers and pencils on a table in the back corner. These, she explained, were to be used to draw the map. Scipio, a senior member of the community and retired school headmaster, promptly spoke up from the back, informing her that the community already had accurate and detailed resource maps from a different project just a couple years before, and that those maps were produced by professional surveyors using advanced GPS technology and extensive input from the most knowledgeable elders and hunters in the community, some of whom were not in attendance at the present meeting. Others nodded and mumbled in agreement. He suggested that they simply go and get these maps from the storage room in the village office where they had been gathering dust ever since. She briskly dismissed this as being out of the question, and persisted in asking everyone to use the materials at hand to produce a new, hand-drawn map, and within the next couple of hours. She explained that it would be sent directly to the NGO’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to be incorporated into an official report that would be taken into account in the road planning. “This map,” she emphasized, “will impact the building of the road through your land, and this will impact the quality of life for your children’s children and their grandchildren.” When asked if they would be able to [286]review a rough draft of the written report before it was finalized and sent to the government and IDB so that the community might be able to offer any corrections or additions, she flatly replied, “No. That will not be possible.”

Some community members were so frustrated and dismayed at being asked to perform what clearly seemed to them like a child’s school project that they walked away, shaking their heads in consternation. I could feel my pulse quicken at my own frustration, but remained quietly seated in the back. As one especially astute student wrote in her journal, “Scipio became outwardly frustrated and slammed his book, Environmental interpretation: A practical guide for people with big ideas and small budgets by Sam Ham, on the bench before storming off” (Claire Jarrell, pers. comm.).

Then someone spoke up from the back. It was Uncle Glen, a highly respected man who, among other things, is a father of ten children between ten and thirty years old, an expert in Makushi medicinal plants and prayer (though he does not identify as a shaman), and a former village leader who has taken it upon himself to teach the Makushi language, dance, and crafts such as basket weaving to the youth in his community. Arms folded tightly across his chest, Glen pointed with his chin to a map that someone years ago had painted on a wall of the school. The map shows Guyana and neighboring countries, Venezuela, Brazil, and Surinam. “You want to see my resource map? There. That’s my resource map!” Everyone chuckled in approval.

This was an apt commentary on what seemed like an impossibly difficult if not ludicrous task, in part because of the limited timeframe, scant materials, and absence of key residents, but also because Glen and others in Surama do cover extremely expansive distances in pursuit of what they deem necessary or desirable for their families, whether a particular type of wood for making roof shingles or a specific part for an outboard engine sold only in a specific hardware store in town, or healthcare across the border in Brazil. Like many Amazonian peoples, the Makushi have social ties and exchange partnerships that extend far beyond the communities in which they reside. Many people in Surama have kin in Venezuela and Brazil and may travel to both countries on a regular basis, often returning with all kinds of things, from new varieties of cassava cuttings and seeds for their farms to DVDs and other novel commodity goods. Glen’s “resource use area” arguably extends far beyond the continent of South America. One of his daughters has spent the past several years working toward a medical degree in Cuba on a government scholarship; another is a flight attendant for an international airline. Glen and his wife, Jean, recently travelled to Germany on an invitation to speak about Makushi cultural heritage and receive training in jewelry making in order to develop a sustainable handicraft business for the community (another capacity building endeavor facilitated by another NGO). Though he holds a passport and has personal ties to individuals, NGOs, and government officials in several countries, it is also not unusual for Glen to set off into the forest carrying nothing more than his bow and arrows and a small bag of farine, and return the following day with smoked game, a live tortoise, and a palm basket filled with fruits. Suffice it to say that the map-drawing exercise was not designed with the complexity and range of socio-spatial movements that define Glen’s lived experience in mind.

For a moment it seemed the workshop might fall apart. Yet, in a turn of events that would surprise and humble me, everyone stopped speaking out and started [287]working on the menial task. Even those who had initially walked away trickled back into the school to help. For several hours, a group of 15–20 men and women of varying ages leaned over the large table in the corner with pencils, rulers, and erasers in hand, talking their way through where each house should be drawn in relation to the others; where various footpaths ran between the creeks and the dirt road, how many farms each household currently had under cultivation, old farming areas likely to be planted again in the future, where to draw the “bush islands” known for their medicinal plants, and on and on. Everyone knew that by virtue of how the task was designed, they had to leave out countless places of great value and meaning to them, places infused with, and even named after, major events in Makushi social history. There was no mention of any of this to the NGO representative, who was conducting her brief interviews with people under a nearby mango tree. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that she did not really want to know about those kinds of things, or that her knowing would not have affected the task in any way. Rather, this social information, which essentially undermined the premise of the whole undertaking, came out indirectly, in the briefest of side comments between those who leaned evermore wearily over the paper and others who rested on an adjacent bench. And it came out in somewhat more extended conversations I would later have over food and drink with the people who participated in drawing the map, long after the workshop had ended. The group made a real effort to give the consultant what she wanted, and tried to get the scale and layout of the map as “accurate” as they could, given that they were drawing freehand. Never missing an opportunity for lewd jokes and bantering, they even managed to conclude the afternoon on a light note.

In the thick heat of late afternoon, the consultant began to bundle up her things and notified her driver to ready the vehicle. The expression on her face betrayed a sense of accomplishment in the face of a tiring unpleasantness. Everyone quietly parted ways. Some headed up to Aunty Emily’s shop for a much-needed drink. Others went home to check on their children. And the consultant vanished in the SUV just as quickly as she had arrived, leaving a trail of red Rupununi dust in her wake.

Interlude: In the time-space between fieldwork and writ-ing

The following semester, when discussing this workshop with students in my “Environment and Development Narratives” course, I found myself struggling to specify the underlying reasons for my upset beyond the typical critiques of neocolonialism. In many ways, this workshop followed the same script and touched upon the same issues—and was handled by the local people in the same tolerant and gracious way—as numerous other workshops I had observed over the years: the task ultimately gets completed and the NGO representative leaves with an impression that there were some obstacles, communication barriers perhaps, but ultimately it was a constructive undertaking because the community recognized the gravity of the issue and complied. Why do communities ultimately go along with these tasks if not out of agreement with their premises? It wasn’t coercion or enthusiastic willingness, but something far more complex in between. I found myself reflecting back on other workshops. One in particular stood out, from the early stages of [288]my fieldwork in Erefoimo. I discuss this workshop in my dissertation and mention it in an article (Mentore 2011), but have never really been satisfied with how those accounts were written. I decided to embark on a rewriting of it as a way of searching for any insights that might emerge through a process of extended reflection. I made a point of allowing myself to draw on not only my original field notes and earlier versions of the case study but also a more diffuse stock of memories of other events, and my longer-term experiences with and impressions of the actors involved. If readers detect elements of ethnographic fiction in the way this story is written, it is in the spirit of the Geertzian claim that all interpretive acts are creative, imaginative fictios in the sense of “makings,” and that this feature of writing should be embraced in our endeavor to be more persuasive in our accounts; that is, to help readers sort winks from twitches and real ones from mimicked ones (1973: 15–16). Here I also take inspiration from Kiran Narayan’s (1999) call for a writing style that entails “mindful border crossing” between the genres of ethnography and fiction as traditionally defined. For me, this approach to the writing experience opened a pathway into cultural imaginings that are evasive yet compelling, and which I am comfortable asserting that people do nonetheless carry with them into workshop spaces. In this vignette, I have allowed myself to draw from a broader repertoire of experiences in years before and after the workshop, through “shadow dialogues” (Crapanzano 2003; see also West 2005) between my fieldwork, other writings, teaching, and other facets of life, and to venture even more tentatively into the speculative realm of the inner thoughts and emotive states of some of my closest interlocutors (Narayan 1999). Through this, I was able to arrive at a longer-term and multiangled perspective on the event. What we may be inclined to judge (or dismiss) as a matter of style was in and of itself the analytic process that led me to see capacity building workshops as insidious exercises in symbolic power that hold potential for both accumulation and dispossession. I will unpack these ideas further below; let us turn now to the Erefoimo workshop.

Scene 2: Sweeping and the sound of thunder

Everyone could hear tara tara (the sound of thunder) roaring off in the distance. Only this time it did not signal the imminent arrival of yet another rainstorm. In Waiwai, trucks bear the same name as thunder, their loud engines clearly emulating the sound that otherwise emanates from the sky. And at that moment, all ears were attuned to the sound of thunder that was slowly straining and grinding its way along the battered path of muddy creek beds and massive, unforgiving roots toward the small clearing on the banks of the Kuyuwini River. Just a few bends upstream from Erefoimo village and on the opposite side of the river, this spot is as close as a vehicle can get to the village in the rainy season. The last leg of the journey has to be done by boat.

For a brief moment, life came to a standstill as everyone at their homes, farms, or the river’s edge made an acoustic estimate of the truck’s location. How much farther would kamara-katow, the blazing eye of the jaguar, pass across the sky before the sound of thunder stopped? Will we be eating our second meal of the day? Or is the road in such ugly condition that the thunder will continue until the jaguar has [289]tied his final knot at the horizon line and we are settled in our hammocks, listening to Uncle Wario play his guitar into the darkness of night? These are the temporal and spatial terms through which people in Erefoimo envision movement—including the labored, mechanical movement of the truck that contained the NGO consultants traveling south from the savannas for their next round of community consultations about the proposed Protected Area.

Meanwhile, back on the road, the gazes of the weary consultants were transfixed on the hazy, fluorescent green numbers on the digital clock on the truck’s dashboard: 1:28. They held their breath in hopes of not getting stuck in the thick mud or puncturing yet another tire. The last thing they wanted was to have to get out and walk the final stretch. It was dark under the cover of dense forest, and the mosquitos would be relentless. The road had become far worse since they left the open savannas, and they wondered if they would be able to stick to their itinerary. An additional day in Erefoimo would mean that much more expense to have to justify to the accounting department. There would be the extra fees for the driver, the cooks, the interpreters, not to mention for their own time. Andrea took out her notebook and made some cuts to her presentation, until the nausea from being tossed around in the back of the Range Rover forced her to close her eyes and concentrate on her breathing. A half-empty bottle of warm Tangerine Icy rolled back and forth across the back of the truck, picking up dirt until she stopped it with her foot and shoved it under the seat.

As the sound of thunder grew nearer, Janice slipped out of her hammock where she left her baby sleeping. Adjusting her cotton skirt, she picked up the handmade broom from the corner where her daughter had left it that morning. Dusting it off with a few smacks of her hand, she slowly made her way over to the Umana Yana, the round, conical-roofed meeting house in the middle of the village. This is where the team would surely tie their hammocks for the night and hold their meeting the next day. With a couple swats of the broom, she chased out the dogs sleeping under the wooden benches, followed by the chickens that pecked at crumbs of farine from the recent collective meal of bush deer that Fitu and his son had killed. Starting with the bat droppings in the far corner, she swept her way across the circular, concrete floor and out the west-facing doorway.

Janice knew the other women were talking about her not keeping up her duties as village leader’s wife, but recovering from her ninth birth was slow going, and lately she felt like she was in a fog. It was often hard for her to tell when she was awake and when her spirit was simply moving about the village while her body lay sleeping. Silently, she hoped some of the women would notice her cleaning. Before she even completed that thought, she looked up and saw Lucinda and Alice walking over from their homes on the east side of the village with brooms in hand. As usual, none of the Wapishana women from the west side who had recently moved to Erefoimo from the savannas, including Janice’s own sister and sisters-in-law, turned up to help. After spreading around the dust evenly so that it looked clean enough, they rested their elbows on the low slats that form the walls of the Umana Yana and chatted. They knew better than to put their full weight on the boards, for the entire structure was in terrible need of repair. Some people had started grumbling that if Lucinda’s husband hadn’t stepped down as leader to give Janice’s husband, Isaac, a chance at the position, the work would have been completed months [290]ago. The three women, all born into Wapishana-speaking households but married to Waiwai men, opted to speak in Wapishana, expertly circumnavigating the more sensitive topics and making small talk instead. “Did you hear the Tiger Frog calling last night? More heavy rain will fall tonight, oh my!” Small children played between their skirts, sucking mango in one hand and shooing out the returning chickens with the other.

As the women continued chatting, their gazes fixed upon Isaac, who was making his way down the steep embankment to the village boat—the one metal dingy moored amid half a dozen dugout canoes. He carried the outboard motor on his shoulder, accompanied by Maruchi and Gustaf (the village work leaders, or antomañe komo) and a troop of boys and girls who didn’t want to miss seeing the source of the excitement long ago conjured by the sound of thunder. With expert balance, Isaac slid his feet out of his rubber flip-flops, left them deeply entrenched in the thick, grey mud, and stepped directly into the boat. Without causing the slightest shift in the balance of the boat, he made his way to the stern and fastened the engine. Everyone else quietly fell into place, intuitively taking the same caution to evenly disperse their weight. Several other canoes were also filled and the motley crew of men, women, children, and dogs headed upriver to the landing to wait for the truck.

The jaguar’s eye was on the brink of tying its final knot on the horizon when the weary team of consultants finally clambered out of the metal boat and made their way up the embankment into the village plaza. Keeping their boots on, they promptly trekked thick mud throughout the Umana Yana. Pretending not to notice this strangely negligent behavior, Isaac, Janice, and a few others helped them tie their hammocks and mosquito nets, then Isaac invited them over to his house for an evening meal of tuma pot (fish and peppers boiled in cassava water). A few villagers brought small pots of boiled meat and more cassava bread to share. Children peered curiously at the strangers from behind wooden posts, then ran off in giggles, chasing after Zimri and the wobbly old bicycle rim he expertly balanced and rolled throughout the village plaza with the end of a stick. Silhouettes of bats danced across the sky, feasting on swarms of mosquitos as the final knot in the sky was completed.

Before retiring for the night, the team announced to Isaac that they would begin their presentations at 7 a.m. sharp the next morning, and asked if he could please inform the rest of the community. Isaac nodded in agreement but knew full well that the announcement would be no more than a token gesture, a message whose content was already known by everyone. Nonetheless, Isaac walked into the village plaza just before the jaguar opened his eye again, and emitted the formal invitation into the chilly air. In the ritualized singsong style that each leader is obliged to practice and perfect in his own way, his message was phrased not as a directive or even as a request, but rather, as a casual mentioning that he himself would be attending to hear what the visitors had to say. This most passive form of invitation drifted its way through the wooden slats and clay bricks of sleepy houses, where young girls stoked the coals from last night’s fires and mothers put banana porridge on to boil.

Sitting on low wooden stools and overturned plastic buckets around their hearth, everyone ate their morning meal with indifference to the familiar sound [291]of howler monkeys emitting their vacuous calls from the forest canopy. Their ears pricked, however, at the alien sound of Eustace’s watch alarm beeping from inside the Umana Yana, and as they peered across to the Umana Yana, they noticed how the group used this as their signal to get up. Stiff and groggy, they appeared to have had a rough night in their hammocks. After packing their duffle bags, they proceeded to set up their equipment and rearrange the benches that lined the circular perimeter of the Umana Yana into straight rows, so that they now faced the newly created “front” of the space where the projector stood. As Lucinda and I made our way over for the meeting, I thought to myself that it would be impossible to do the Anaconda dance like we had at Kresmus (Christmas) with that kind of linear set up. You couldn’t snake around the space in a procession with all the benches in the middle. And it would be difficult for Isaac and the work leaders to distribute food and drink between those tight aisles. You wouldn’t be able to read the subtle expressions on everyone’s faces during a public meeting like you can when the benches are arranged in a circle, much less hear everything when the talking starts to jump from one person to another. Watching the NGO team struggle all morning to rectify the problems that the circular configuration of the Umana Yana posed for their presentations, their implicit models of sociality and communication were laid bare.

Villagers quietly made their way into the Umana Yana and took a seat on the benches. Everyone was dressed in their nicest clothes—the men in trousers and button-down shirts and women in cotton dresses or skirts and bright colored t-shirts, their hair neatly combed and shining with oil. Several adults were not in attendance, most notably Janice father, Harold, the senior man at the center of a small faction on the west side of the village who had moved to Erefoimo more recently from the savannas. As others had predicted, Harold’s daughter and son-in-law would turn up last and sit as far apart from the core group of Waiwai residents as they possibly could. This spatially marked their position on ongoing disputes within the village, which tended to be framed around the question of whether Erefoimo should identify as a Waiwai community and follow Waiwai social practices and moral codes (collective work events, generalized reciprocity in game meat and other foods, Waiwai ritual festivities, etc.) given that some of its residents identified as Wapishana and had moved there from Wapishana villages (often associated by people in the region with a stronger ethos of autonomy compared to Waiwai villages). It was known in advance, and probably discussed around every hearth before the meeting even began, that if the Waiwai-identifying families from Akotopono showed support for the idea of a Protected Area, then Harold and his faction members would not.

At the recently constructed front of the space, the consultants took turns delivering presentations that had been prepared in advance. Each entailed some form of visual aid projected from a laptop onto the large screen, or keywords and quick sketches drawn with a black marker on a large tablet of paper. Erefoimo residents were shown various maps of land areas and lines that would be drawn on maps if Protected Areas were established. Next they were shown diagrams of the “rainforest ecosystem,” in which a basic black-and-white illustration of a forest is segmented into different layers or parts: Emergent Layer, Canopy Layer, Understory Layer, and Forest Floor.

According to the NGO’s internal report on the consultations, the team’s special representative from the Guyana Forestry Commission, “showed on a map and [292]diagrams, the last remaining rainforests in the world, the ecological benefits of the rain forest, and hence the importance of conserving it.” The report further states, “Conservation terms and other related concepts were defined, such as biodiversity, conservation, ecology, sustainable and ecosystem. [The representative] made the comment that the Southern Guyana region is seriously considered for protection because there are many species of trees in the area.”

This part of the meeting was followed by a diagram labeled “Community,” which is especially interesting in light of the factional politics that so largely defined social life in the village at the time. The diagram consisted of three concentric circles, each labeled with a different category of persons. These categories were defined by their level of participation in “Village Activities.” The circle at the center of the diagram was labeled “Core Group.” It was described as “village leaders, councilors, teachers, women’s groups, church leaders, students, and so on.” The second circle, surrounding the Core Group, was labeled “Occasional Group.” This was described as “people who, though not in the core, do attend village activities.” The third circle, surrounding the Occasional Group, was labeled “Hidden Knowledge.” This group was described as “persons who do not participate in any village activities but have a wide knowledge about their resources.” I wondered what Harold, presumably shut away in his house or out on the river, would make of this diagram. Built into the diagram was the assumption of a detached perspective, a third-party with a bird’s eye view, somehow capable of objectively determining where each person in any given community would fit in the diagram. Or perhaps it presumed a unanimous consensus among all members of a given community, as though they would readily agree on who constituted their core versus hidden elements. In short, the diagram was not designed to accommodate the complex meanings of visibility, space, relationality, and transformational personhood that largely defined, and continue to define, the experience of collective living for people in Erefoimo.

As I stood by the east doorway (in what had been set up as the “back” of the Umana Yana), I was struck by the confidence of the members of the consultation team in what they were saying. This was not your basic arrogance, but something subtler—a kind of steady certitude that what they were saying was fundamentally true and correct, and mattered a great deal for everyone in attendance. There was a genuine tone of urgency in their attempts at relaying things like the layers of the rainforest environment, the valuable eco-services that trees provide the to planet by storing carbon and generating rainfall, and the certain fact that some people possess a valuable kind of knowledge about resources but are “in hiding” and need to be drawn out.

For the concluding event, the consultants drafted three statements: 1) In support of a protected area 2) Undecided about a protected area 3) Opposed to a protected area. With the help of the village leader and several other interpreters, all three statements were written in English, Waiwai, and Wapishana. Community members were tasked with reading the three letters in the language of their choice, and then signing their name at the bottom of the one that best reflected their “position.” The Letter of Agreed Commitment received twenty-six signatures. The Letter of Undecided Commitment received fifteen. No one signed the Letter of Non-commitment. Although no one signed their name under the Letter of Non-commitment, [293]the number of signatures beneath the “Undecided” letter was taken by the consultants to indicate a lack of consensus.

Though they remained reserved and professional in demeanor, a palpable air of dismay hung over the consultants after seeing the results. It seemed they had been hopeful that their presentations would compel a majority of people in the community to support the Protected Area, and the results indicated to them that this had not been accomplished. How could the community not have recognized that protecting the forest was in their best interest? Every single presentation was translated into both the Waiwai and Wapishana languages!

What the consultants were not aware of was that the people who signed the “Undecided” letter were part of Harold’s faction, due in large part to kinship ties and in some cases, dependency on his faction as their main network for food exchanges. As I would learn through fieldwork in subsequent years, some of those who signed the “Undecided” letter were actually interested in the Protected Area but feared negative social repercussions from Harold’s faction if they did not publicly distance themselves from it. One woman in particular told me recently that Harold had threatened to stop allowing her to harvest cassava from his farm if she supported the Protected Area, a risk she could not afford to take at the time because she and her husband had only recently planted their first farm and it would be another six months before it was ready to harvest. In interviews I conducted in 2016, it came up that some people in Harold’s faction had met with a prominent Wapishana village leader in the savannas during the consultations and this leader had terrified them with his version of what a Protected Area would entail: strict bans on all fishing and hunting, clearing trees to make farms, collecting palm fruits and leaves for thatching; in short, a total ban on all subsistence activities. Because of their continued trust in this leader, they believed his depiction of Protected Areas over the consultants’ own presentations, and collectively agreed in advance of the meeting that they would vote “Undecided.” Harold’s deliberate absence from the meeting, coupled with the signatures of fifteen others as “Undecided,” was interpreted by other Erefoimo residents as a further expression of their internal differences and ongoing political tensions. As Lucinda would put it to me, the results of the vote demonstrated just how much difficult and incremental work that lay ahead for them toward becoming ewtoto, a “place where real people live.” Regional politics would continue to pose a formidable obstacle to the realization of this (notably, Waiwai) concept of ideal community living for some years. As I would later learn, the Wapishana leader had depicted the Protected Area in such a negative light not only to undermine Erefoimo’s village leader by turning some of his residents against him but, furthermore, because of his own interest in having Erefoimo and its surrounding lands included in his own application for a land title extension for his community (an effort that would be greatly aided if he could secure the support of Wapishana families residing in Erefoimo).

Just as in Surama, no one attempted to explain any of these complex factors to the consultants, nor did the consultants entertain the possibility that the voting results might mean anything other than what they interpreted to mean: a lack of consensus in support of the Protected Area, and on another level, perhaps, their own failure to build up such a consensus through a persuasive presentation on the environmental stakes and economic potentialities entailed. The results were in [294]and the workshop was simply over. The next morning the consultants were taken back upriver to their Range Rover, and life in the village fell back into its familiar rhythms.

In the months that followed, the NGO moved forward in collaboration with Masakenyaru village, a Waiwai community to the south of Erefoimo on the Essequibo River with a population around 260 (with whom many Erefoimo residents hold close kinship ties and with whom they used to live in Akotopono). Masakenyaru’s voting record had indicated a clear consensus in support of the Protected Area. Shortly after the consultations, Masakenyaru entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the NGO and then applied to the government for legal title to lands. In a landmark case, they were successful in receiving title to 2,500 square miles (an area roughly the size of Delaware), by far the largest indigenous titled area in Guyana at 3 percent of the country’s total land area. Erefoimo, by comparison, remains one of the few Amerindian communities without title to its land to this day. The village and all surrounding farms and hunting grounds are technically on state-owned land. In recent years, Erefoimo has been shaken by an unmonitored gold rush that brought freelance miners from other countries onto lands surrounding their village, the effects of which I have begun to examine in my current research (which I briefly touch on in the conclusion).

When Erefoimo was cut out of the Protected Area project, it was denied benefits that came with partnering with one of the most powerful international conservation NGOs in the world. Masakenyaru saw benefits in the form of legal expertise in securing their land rights, job training in species monitoring, GPS technology and eco-tourism hospitality, new forms of local wage-earning jobs (though not as many as initially envisioned), valuable materials and infrastructure like Internet and solar power, and the less concrete but perhaps most valuable thing of all: state recognition as a place of value. The NGO’s website and other public media forums described Masakenyaru and its lands in a discursive code that affirms the appearance of a common ground between the “native way of life” and Western fantasies of a quality of life imagined to be found in intact, biodiverse tropical environments shielded from extractive industry and “deculturation.” I would argue that this has enhanced the symbolic capital of the Waiwai at Masakenyaru, and one could make an interesting study of how this symbolic capital has been converted into various other modes of capital, from the political capital that would enable a village of 260 people to obtain legal ownership of a region the size of Delaware, to the economic and technological capital of receiving an improved airstrip, solar electricity in each household, and satellite Internet (and to an extent that surpasses other, far less geographically remote communities in the Deep South). The Masakenyaru community has also arguably experienced an increase in social capital, as hosting eco-tourists and scientific researchers has led to several of them partnering with the community to launch longer-term collaborative research projects in which local people are employed, and in one recent case, a business venture with a young South African to bring “extreme fishing” enthusiasts to have catch-and-release adventures in the “virgin waters” of the creeks and rivers in the region. To be clear, each of these new relationships and material changes has come with its problems, and it remains to be seen what conditions in the Protected Area will look like in the longer term.[295]

Regardless of the pros and cons of Masakenyaru’s situation, the outcomes for Erefoimo have been dramatically different, and arguably far more negative, in light of its “lack of consensus” on the Protected Area. The symbolic capital that Erefoimo once was afforded through a perceived common ground between its interests and the Protected Area project rapidly converted into symbolic poverty in the aftermath of the workshop. The lack of consensus on the Protected Area fed into a reworking of its image in the eyes of the state and other agencies in Guyana as a divided community with an ambiguous identity and a lack of deep historical ties to the land area it occupied. For over a decade now, this has been the dominant image of Erefoimo that one gleans from both formal and informal discussions about the community by government officials and national media. Its reputation as a place of internal division and with a lack of ethnic coherency has come to serve as the dominant explanation for why Erefoimo has yet to receive land title, unlike most other indigenous communities in Guyana. Taking into account the impact of unmonitored gold mining in close proximity to Erefoimo in recent years, one can fairly directly trace the movement from symbolic capital to symbolic poverty and then socioeconomic dispossession and environmental insecurity. This outcome can be seen as a partial explanation for why communities tend to “go along” with capacity building exercises. As techniques for retaining the appearance of perceived common grounds with powerful outside agencies such as international conservation NGOs and their representatives on the ground, capacity building exercises maintain the actual middle grounds on which their symbolic capital so precariously depends.

One of the most concerning potential outcomes—and therefore vitally important for sustainable development and conservation NGOs to recognize and learn from—is that their withdrawal from a proposed partnership with a community (whether based on a community vote or unilateral decision) that essentially create a vacuum in which other nonsustainable and nonconservationist modes of capitalism are more readily able to step in and take their place. When Erefoimo was excluded from the Protected Area, it essentially became a buffer zone—the end of the line, so to speak, for artisanal gold mining and other resource extraction methods not permitted within the Protected Area. Through personal, off-the-record conversations with various government officials, I can say that Erefoimo’s tarnished reputation in the eyes of the state as a result of its “lack of consensus” (which was discursively attributed to internal socio-political instability and a lack of a coherent ethnic identity) has played an indirect role in compromising its ability to obtain land title.

While space does not permit an extended analysis of this issue, it is worth pointing out that the notion that consensus can be “built” through a workshop, just like any other “capacity,” is strikingly contrary to how Erefoimo residents understand shared perspective as a condition of long-term coresidence, intermarriage, commensality, and shared labor, processes that facilitate the gradual socio-cosmological transformation of people into like-bodied persons who are thereby capable of embodying the same point of view. This indigenous alternative means of “capacity building” reflects a well-known feature of Amazonian sociality, as discussed in the extensive literature on Amazonian perspectivism and the making of “real persons” (e.g., Conklin and Morgan 1996; Viveiros de Castro 1998; Gow 2001; McCallum 2003; Santos-Granero 2012). From this stance, informed by my long-term research with Erefoimo residents, I would say that their so-called failure to reach a consensus [296]on the Protected Area was largely a result of the fact that they were, at the time, a recently established community that had yet to generate the conditions for what we might refer to as concorporate perspective.

Locating the middle grounds in a virtual terrain

Of the many themes and questions these two stories raise, here I focus on the distinctive ways in which power is exercised in capacity building workshops, with particular attention to the symbolic or representational dynamics of the exercises that indigenous participants are tasked with performing and what it means for these performances to occur in a “middle ground” kind of space. What are the implications of a specific party, the one deemed as “indigenous stakeholders,” being placed in these performative roles as part of the itinerary created by the other party, the “consultants”? What are the risks and benefits to indigenous peoples who meet or fail to meet the expectations of the workshop organizers? If we accept the basic anthropological claim that one of the main functions of ritual performativity is to objectify otherwise abstract meanings and values and thereby reinforce them in symbolic form, what are the abstractions that are ostensibly made concrete through capacity building exercises such as drawing maps and voting on a Protected Area? Insofar as these exercises are ritual and symbolic, what do they “stand for,” and to whom? How might the destabilization of their intended meanings—whether by refusing to perform the exercises, or performing them in such a way that does not conform to others’ expectations—affect people’s lives and cultural imaginaries of a better future? Might indigenous performances of capacity building exercises simultaneously convey multiple meanings to different audiences (NGO representatives and themselves), who interpret the performative act through different cultural and cosmological schemas? Are workshops designed to have the capacity to accommodate such multiplicity, or would that undermine their entire purpose? It is toward examining these many questions of power over the “meaning of things” in workshop space that the concepts of middle ground and virtualism come into play.

From Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s literary image of the noble savage to marketing images of smiling indigenous children on fair-trade chocolate bar wrappers, the Western imagination has a long track record of burdening indigenous peoples of the Americas with its representational ultimatums. At least since European contact with the New World, Western perceptions of the native “other” have tended to be framed around questions of desire, perhaps even situated on a spectrum of desirability (typically at the extreme ends, as that which is most or least desirable) and within collective imaginings of past and future temporalities. Of course, the contents of those desires, pasts, and futures have undergone many changes over the centuries (one only has to consider the opposite depictions of the “savage” in the writings of Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau to see how readily and how far the pendulum can swing). Today’s dominant imaginings of Amazonian societies are increasingly entangled with desires for an idealized future version of the human condition, particularly future ecological and economic conditions, which can be readily gleaned from the kinds of goals and objectives one finds in sustainable development and conservation projects (e.g., socioeconomic growth with less negative [297]impact on biodiversity and the climate; less human conflict over resources; a more equitable global distribution of wealth; increased self-sufficiency at household and community levels). This is complicated by the fact, if one reads between the lines a bit, that these discourses on the future are partly manifestations of a nostalgia for a human past that is imagined to have been more simplified and less destructive—a past with which Amazonian peoples have also been problematically associated.

Capacity building exercises are partly about creating opportunities for indigenous peoples to appear to give representative form to this imagined future—and thereby, through the symbolic function of their performances—to seemingly bring to life or authenticate this imagined future, making it realer than real, or in a word, hyperreal (Baudrillard 1994). This occurs in small, specific and unobvious ways, like drawing a map that seemingly affirms the preconceived notion of resource use areas where inherently sustainable practices are carried out, or amassing a series of signatures on pieces of paper that seemingly affirms the possibility of a written record of a united community that sees its environment in the same way and shares a common interest in “protecting” it from external threats.

When communities like Surama and Erefoimo go along with these exercises and meet the NGO’s expectations as far as how they are performed and what meanings are expressed in the performance, it creates the appearance of a common ground between indigenous peoples’ lived experiences and the imagined future at the heart of the project. Through the objectification of meaning via ritual performance that conforms to its preconceived script, it becomes possible for the signifier to appear to stand in a direct one-to-one relationship of logical or “natural” association with that which it signifies, despite the fact that the association is (as with all communication) entirely a matter of perception and agreed upon convention.

The appearance of a common ground in workshops depends on two things: indigenous peoples going along with the capacity building exercises, and the workshop organizers taking their performance as the main indicator of a successful workshop event (which is simultaneously a communication event about the meaning of the future and what counts as a good or improved version of the future). What these events create is not actual common ground but the perception of common ground on what can be better understood as middle ground. Instead of being spaces in which a foundational correspondence between indigenous lifeways and the imagined futures in development projects gets uncovered, workshops can be seen as spaces that foster or provide for mutual misinterpretations between indigenous peoples and NGO representatives. In keeping with the notion of middle ground as defined by White ([1991] 2001), these misinterpretations can nonetheless be creative in the sense that they generate outcomes, and sometimes in the process, partially fulfill desires on both sides.

The concept of middle ground was introduced by historian Robert White in his account of how French and Algonquin trading partners and allies in the Great Lakes region inhabited radically different worlds yet, through their mutual misinterpretations of each other, “constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world . . . [where] the older worlds of Algonquians and various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange” ([1991] 2001: xxv–xxvi). Importantly, these shared meanings were based not on mutual understandings but mutual acts of misinterpretation that nonetheless resulted in both parties [298]meeting some of their goals through the other. White goes on to explain how this middle ground eventually broke down, as the Algonquin were reconceptualized as alien others in subsequent waves of policy and practice toward Native peoples. A main takeaway from White’s account is that there is no empirical basis to the middle grounds. It exists entirely at the level of perception, and disproportionately in the eyes of the party that holds greater control over the conditions of the contact (for example, the NGO that controls the production of workshop spaces and itineraries).

In “The shifting middle ground: Amazonian Indians and eco-politics,” Conklin and Graham (1995) take up White’s concept of the middle ground to characterize a period of apparent convergence between Kayapo socio-political interests and the environmental movement in the 1990s. Similar to the apparent middle grounds between the Algonquin and French, we come to find that what looks on the surface like a convergence between Kayapo interests in land rights and self-determination on the one hand, and the growing “save the rainforest” movement on the other rested entirely on the way the Kayapo were perceived by Western environmentalists and corporate entities like The Body Shop. According to these perceptions, the Kayapo were pure and enlightened custodians of the rainforest, living in harmony with nature (Conklin and Graham 1995: 702). Only through the symbolic capital that this afforded the Kayapo—that is, by being perceived as standing for something of value to the powerful outside groups they sought as advocates and allies in their struggles with the Brazilian government—did their interests appear relevant to those outside groups.

The fragility of this kind of symbolic capital is exposed in instances such as the 1992 media defamation campaign against a prominent Kayapo leader who was accused of rape precisely when the United Nations Earth Summit conference was opening in Rio de Janeiro (Conklin and Graham 1995: 704). The charges were dropped two years later, but nonetheless, the negative media depictions severely compromised this man’s “capacity,” and by extension, the “capacity” of the Kayapo people, to be seen as symbolically representative of the Euro-American ideal of a pure and virtuous way of living in harmony with nature. In my reading, the mutual misinterpretations might be summarized as the following: Kayapo misinterpreted these powerful outside groups as caring about their social and political welfare in and of itself and regardless of whether it meshed with their own interests, and the outside groups misinterpreted the Kayapo social and political interests as being uniformly and consistently on par with their environmental interests and vision of an ideal socio-ecology. What both the Algonquin and Kayapo cases demonstrate is that beneath this thin veneer of symmetry—at the level of mutual misinterpretations—lies a highly unstable and hidden asymmetry in terms of what each party stands to gain or lose from potentiality of the middle ground.

In sum, when one of the parties is at the table, so to speak, only by virtue of what they symbolize to the other, all it takes for middle grounds to disappear is a single incongruous image, an action or statement on their part that doesn’t fit in the chain of semantic associations. What Conklin and Graham’s analysis makes explicit is the “inherent asymmetry” between indigenous Amazonian peoples and outside groups such as conservation NGOs, even in contexts of what appear to be mutual interests, collaborative exercises, and shared imaginings of the future, so long as one party has greater control over the production and circulation of images and their meanings. [299]As they succinctly put it, “the external market that bestows symbolic value may also take it away, particularly if the conditions of its legitimacy fail to be met” (1995: 706).

The workshops in Surama and Erefoimo, though different in many ways, are indicative of a general intensification of this symbolic economy. If the principal risk in the early- to mid-1990s was that indigenous Amazonian peoples might get depicted by the media as doing something that goes against dominant perceptions of them (thereby compromising their symbolic capital and by extension, their partnerships with powerful outside groups), the process has now shifted from avoiding negative depictions to having to actively affirm the dominant, positive perceptions through performative actions in the carefully managed space of workshops according to predetermined itineraries, expectations, and ways of measuring outcomes of capacity building exercises.

What is so insidious about this shift toward an intensified “burden of proof” is that capacity building presents itself—at the level of general sustainable development theory—as a positive move toward enabling target populations to see themselves as active “stakeholders.” In practice, the performative acts that affirm dominant perceptions of a common ground between indigenous lifeways and imagined futures of development projects (i.e., going along with drawing a map or signing names on pieces of paper) often seem less like openings for indigenous peoples to exercise creative agency, and more like a limited opportunity for them to affirm these perceptions under threat of losing the very symbolic capital that made them seem to be a part of the future as envisaged in the project at hand.

If the risks and burdens of middle-grounding have intensified for indigenous peoples in recent years, it is surely owing in part to the shift in late capitalism in the order of relations between reality and models/simulations. Through an analogy that is strikingly relevant to the map-drawing exercise in Surama, Jean Baudrillard describes this as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal . . . the map that precedes the territory” (1994: 1). I refer loosely to the growing tendency in everyday life in Euro-American societies for simulations and models to provide our sense of what is most “real” (in the sense of authentic, persuasive, and believable), and the increasing extent to which life and felt experiences are described in lay discourses as being “like” their simulated version and not the other way around. In a digitally driven world, life-as-lived can do little more than approximate, or seem reminiscent of, the greater realness factor, the “hyperreality” of the world of simulacra. Arturo Escobar (1996) has compellingly examined how this postmodern shift in experience and discourse factors into the emergent discursive code of sustainable development that is facilitating a new “semiotic conquest of nature” in late capitalism. Indigenous peoples, no longer strictly defined as “resources” as they were in the extractivist paradigm of production in post–World War II development programs, undergo a redefinition as “reservoirs of value” in accordance with a new conservationist paradigm of production. He goes on to explain an important caveat:

This is one of the reasons why communities—and particularly ethnic and peasant communities of the tropical rainforest areas of the world—are finally recognized as the owners of their territories (or what is left of them) but only to the extent that they accept viewing territories and themselves [300]as reservoirs of capital. “Communities . . . are then enticed by biodiversity projects to become stewards of the natural and social ‘capitals,’ whose sustainable management is henceforth both their responsibility and the business of the world economy” (citing O’Connor 1993: 8). Once the semiotic conquest of nature is completed, the sustainable and rational use of the environment becomes an imperative. (Escobar 1996: 335; emphasis added)

This distinction between resources and reservoirs strikes me as highly relevant to a more robust critical analysis of capacity building practices. For present purposes, I will focus on the role of capacity building exercises in reinforcing this hyperreality, or what is in some literature known as virtualism.

In their study of virtualism in the global political economy, Carrier and Miller (1998) argue that the models found in economic theory increasingly drive our evaluations and expectations of human behavior, rather than the other way around. What were once regarded as models in the sense of “abstractions” within the discipline of economics are increasingly invested with a hyperrealness, and used as measures against which human behavior in the twenty-first century is perpetually deemed as lacking or deficient and needing to conform. Human life is expected to model or exemplify the realities presented in economic models, thereby endowing the latter with something else altogether: the excessive or “hyper” realness of the virtual. This concept has been extended in a number of different directions, including an edited volume by Carrier and West (2009), with chapters examining various techniques and strategies by which environmentalist organizations in different world regions strive to “bring the world into conformity” with their biological visions and ideals (Carrier and West 2009: 8).

One of the most compelling ethnographies to date on virtualism is West’s (2012) account of the social life of coffee from the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea. The author chronicles how coffee marketers essentially steer an economy of signs that invites Western consumers to imagine that purchasing single-origin, fair-trade certified coffee can actually alleviate third-world poverty, save the rainforest, and preserve exotic indigenous cultures—one cup at a time. What West makes so clear is that the economic value of the coffee grown by peoples like the Gimi is directly dependent on the continuation of symbolic associations between a Western consuming self and native producing other, and against the backdrop of perceptions of a biodiverse and threatened environment. All of this must be held together in the collective imaginary of the consumer base. While people on all ends of the commodity chain appear subject to and dependent on the powerful force of a virtualism that produces and essentially sells these symbolic associations, the situation is far more precarious for growers such as the Gimi. The viability of one of their only means of production in the global market economy requires them to do the seemingly impossible: to preemptively conform to or model a fantasy-driven, virtual reality generated by and for powerful others, to which they have extremely limited access in social, semantic, and geographic terms.

A similarly difficult scenario can be found in the expectations placed upon Amazonian peoples to model or simulate the fantasies of a better future that are the basis of sustainable development and conservation projects. In the emergent paradigm of conservation economics, capacity building workshops are not about [301]imposing abstract models from a project onto the reality of indigenous peoples’ lives and decision-making processes but rather imposing a set of expectations that indigenous peoples can and will model the hyperreality or virtualism at the heart of conservation and development projects. This begins with performing the tasks identified as “capacity building” in the actual workshop space, and then, if partnerships are formed, extends into other spheres of action and decision-making (e.g., Should I work for a month at the eco-lodge for wages, or plant this season’s cassava farm? Should I go hunting with my brother or do species monitoring with the visiting biologist?).

When examined through the theoretical lens of virtualism in the late capitalist era, we may gain some insight into the particular kinds of collective imaginaries that sustainable development projects bring with them into capacity building workshops. The bigger question, which I have only been able to touch upon in this essay, is what peoples like the Makushi, Waiwai, and Wapishana bring to this mixed bag of imagined futures and interpretive schemas as they too bring social histories, cosmologies, and ongoing political dynamics into workshop space. Here I would like to conclude with some reflections on what indigenous peoples stand to risk when they do not meet expectations or affirm assumptions of a common ground between their lifeways and project virtualisms.


As indicated in the above vignettes, both the people of Surama and Erefoimo ultimately went along with the exercises that the NGO tasked them with despite finding them flawed in fundamental ways and based on erroneous assumptions about their lifeways, desires, priorities, and social ecologies. In both cases, those exercises were premised on a human-environment configuration that was imaginatively conceived in realms anterior to their lived experiences, by NGOs that viewed their communities as having a representative role to play in relation to their own visions of a better, more sustainable future. In both Surama and Erefoimo, the workshop conveners seemed to turn a blind eye to readily observable signs of people’s reluctance with the workshop activities, and focused on ensuring the completion of the tasks at hand. Such completion was taken as their indicator that the workshop succeeded at accomplishing its aims of building capacity and gathering meaningful data in the process. It is hoped that if nothing else, this article has complicated the meanings and measures of workshop success and drawn more attention to the various ways that ambivalence and forceful cultural imaginings contribute to perceptions of perceptions of success and failure.

Before this is seen as a straightforward critique of capacity building endeavors in Amazonia, I hasten to add that in many ways, capacity building is part of a long-awaited response to calls for agents of sustainable development and conservation to better acknowledge and work with the indigenous peoples who inhabit some of the most biodiverse and threatened environments on our planet. Anyone who has followed this trajectory over the last several decades will know that this was a hard-won battle, and that a number of Amazonianist anthropologists have played roles in bringing about these kinds of shifts, not least of all the late Terence Turner. [302]It should also be acknowledged that, on a certain level, when indigenous peoples go along with drawing maps even though they are gross distortions of their cultural understandings of land and space, or when they compile signatures on pieces of paper even though it is a gross distortion of their social theories of personhood and perspective, they are likely doing so in part because these actions do sometimes lead to the formation of valuable relationships that they desire with powerful outside groups.

The Makushi, Wapishana and Waiwai know full well that partnerships with NGOs come with risks and burdens but also positive potentiality, as means of acquiring skills, relations, and materials that they do not locally produce or otherwise have direct access to: legal expertise, job training, opportunities to travel abroad, computers, GPS devices, solar panels, and infrastructural changes they may desire such as airstrips and paved roads. This dual perspective on NGOs strikes me as consistent with well-known Amazonianist views toward strangers, enemies, trade partners, and affines as simultaneously dangerous and desirable, threatening yet invaluable toward the larger project of social reproduction and expansion (Viveiros de Castro 2001; Santos-Granero 2007; Ewart 2013). In this vein of thought, perhaps what is distinctive (and distinctively problematic) about the sustainable development NGO as other is that a community’s chances of partnering with them are contingent on how well they locally perform a virtual future that this Other has designed in a time-space that is prior and anterior to their contact with each other in workshops.

The road development project that was the impetus for the “Magic Marker Workshop” has yet to get underway, making it difficult to say what the people of Surama might gain from the map-drawing exercise, or how the road will impact socio-ecological relations in the North Rupununi. The truth is that paving the road between the Brazilian border and Guyana’s coast has been in the “planning phase” for so many years that everyone on all sides is surely wondering if it will ever become more than an abstraction. What I can speak to is the trajectory that has unfolded over the last thirteen years since the Protected Area workshop in Erefoimo.

In terms of the mutual misinterpretations that characterize middle grounds, we could say that Harold and his faction of supporters in Erefoimo interpreted the Protected Area workshop as an opportunity to publicly undermine the ability of their village leader and his local supporters to persuade other community members that the Protected Area would be a good move for the community’s future well-being. The NGO representatives saw it as opportunity to create a very large Protected Area that would encompass more than one indigenous community. At the time, it looked like the desires of both of these parties were partially met. Harold succeeded in limiting the persuasiveness of the village leader’s vision of the community’s future (but did not win over as many of his rival’s supporters as he had hoped and has struggled to retain them over the years). Some of the households who voted “Undecided” would come to regret their decision and blame him for persuading them to see the Protected Area as a bad idea. The village leader would step down for a few years, only to be brought back in by popular demand. Today he continues to be the village leader, with growing support for his continued effort to gain legal title of their land from the government. The NGO did succeed in gaining the consensus of [303]one of the two communities it was interested in partnering with, but the sustainable development side of the project has faced some major setbacks. It has not led to the creation of very many local jobs or brought about an influx of foreign researchers and eco-tourists anywhere close to the extent that was originally projected.

Now that over a decade has passed, we can see that neither party has seen their desires come to full fruition or their imagined future retain the shape it once held. Perhaps there is a leveling element to that. However, in keeping with the intrinsic asymmetries of middle grounds, the costs of not including Erefoimo in the Protected Area have been far greater for Erefoimo than for the NGO. In 2016, I returned to Erefoimo for the first time in several years, partly to document the aftereffects of a gold rush between 2008 and 2011 that brought unprecedented numbers of artisanal miners into the region, including camps and extraction sites just a few miles outside of the village.

As people in Erefoimo described it to me, it was as though everyone with a shovel and a gold pan suddenly set out into the “bush” to start prospecting. Floods of outsiders came almost overnight not only from other parts of Guyana and neighboring countries Venezuela and Brazil, but also Canada, United Kingdom, United States, and Germany, and set up camps just a short distance outside the village. I would not make the oversimplified and far-reaching claim that any NGO directly or single-handedly creates the conditions for such an events; clearly it has as much to do with government policies on indigenous lands, local politics, and global economic forces. When the US recession impacted the global financial market in 2008–2009, many investors shifted from riskier investments to the notoriously stable commodity of gold, bringing about a 101 percent surge in the Producer Price Index (PPI) for gold. Not coincidentally, the same time period saw the beginnings of a new gold rush throughout much of Amazonia, including Guyana. Nonetheless, if one accepts the notion that symbolic capital is both a potential source of value and source of vulnerability for Amazonian peoples especially in the context of global capitalist expansionism, one can trace a path from the liquidation of Erefoimo’s symbolic capital in the aftermath of the workshop to the community’s compromised ability to mitigate against the onslaught of foreign, undocumented miners on their land.

Escobar (1996) has noted that in much of South America, conservationist modes of capitalism via sustainable development projects have not outright replaced the ecologically destructive, extractivist modes of capitalism that defined earlier decades of development practices, and that in many cases they are coexistent or even overlapping with each other. Erefoimo’s case further suggests that, depending on the outcome of events like capacity building workshops (that is, how effectively a community creates the sense of a common ground between their lives and the project at hand), the virtualism of better future human conditions through sustainable development can actually contribute to the making of conditions ripe for highly destructive modes of resource extraction. In an ironic twist that complicates this analysis, so can workshops that appear to have fully successful outcomes. From what I gathered during my research in 2016, a number of Masakenyaru residents are now starting to consider doing small-scale gold mining within their Protected Area as an alternative means of local economic growth, in lieu of the largely unfulfilled promise of wage-earning opportunities through conservation.[304]

Local and regional politics, the politics of engagement with NGOs, and the politics of representation on global economic and environmental stages all converge in the space of capacity building workshops. When designed in distant drawing rooms and based on hopeful visions of the future that do not carefully take into account the fuller complexities of indigenous lives, social histories, and desires, the very exercises that claim to be steps toward leveling the playing field can reify the historical continuum of asymmetrical power dynamics between indigenous peoples and Euro-American interests.

Looking forward to future studies in capacity building workshops in Amazonia, they might be fruitfully examined as instances of “cosmopolitics” (Latour 2004) in action. Because workshops have become such a regular feature of community life in contemporary Amazonia, scholars of the region may want to begin examining how it is that desires and futures produced in such seemingly disparate cultural imaginaries have become so deeply intertwined as to create middle grounds in which they habitually talk past each other yet partially fulfill goals and desires through each other. Because symbolic capital is so malleable and unstable, it would be worthwhile to study other instances of its transformation to see what forms it takes, whether the generation of new forms of value for indigenous communities or setting up conditions for unsustainable, destructive ecological practices like gold mining, logging, and oil extraction. A cosmopolitical anthropology of contemporary Amazonia that more fully accounts for both the creative force of indigenous worldviews and the forces of extractivist and conservationist modes of capitalism would entail examining how desires seemingly borne of such radically different cultural imaginaries are now being produced, sustained, and negotiated in both embodied and virtual forms, and thick ethnographies of the kinds of mutually misinterpreted conversations they are having with each other.

To end on a note that extends from an Amerindian ethics of being: it is clear to me that another reason people in Surama and Erefoimo go along with these exercises is because of their unflagging commitment to the potentiality they recognize in workshop space for what they would consider to be truly meaningful exchanges. That is, workshop spaces also signify, through Amerindian interpretive schemes, a potential to transform others who enter into their lived worlds into “more fully human” kinds of persons through substantive acts of reciprocity. They initiate this potentiality by generously giving of themselves, their time, their energy, their patience, their emotions, other interests, and priorities, in order to satisfy what they interpret as their guests’ desires for these things. In this sense, “going along” with what workshop conveners ask of them entails a kind of giving of the self, which could easily be underestimated as simply “playing the good host,” or worse still, as confirmation of the “docile” stereotype of Native Americans. Just as I have long observed this distinctive act of acceptance-in-the-hope-of-transformation in workshops with NGO representatives, I find myself now witnessing something strikingly similar in meetings and interchanges with gold mining bosses and workers who now occupy their lands. Perhaps it is from the radical hopefulness and creative agency embedded within this American ethic of social transformation that we stand to learn the most and which historically we have failed to take seriously as an alternative path to a more bearable future for humanity.[305]


In 2015, I was given the opportunity to participate in one of the first attempts to generate a more focused anthropology of capacity building: the 2015 Wenner Gren Workshop, “Hope and insufficiency: Capacity building in ethnographic comparison” at the IT University of Copenhagen. This article is a revised version of the paper I presented there. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the workshop organizers, Rachel Douglas-Jones and Justin Shaffner, for facilitating such a meaningful ethnographic exchange, and further thank them both as well as Casper Bruun Jensen, Viktoryia Kalesnikava, Morten Nielsen, and Paige West, for providing extremely engaging and constructive feedback on my paper.


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La virtualité des ateliers de développement de compétence en Amazonie Indigène: une ethnographie des nouveaux terrains d’entente

Résumé : Le développement durable et les ONGs spécialisée dans la conservation en Amazonie organisent souvent des ateliers où les communautés indigènes sont invitées à participer à diverses activités de “développement de compétence” (capacity building). Les individus acceptent souvent de prendre part à ces tâches alors qu’ils les trouvent problématiques, dégradantes, ou fondées sur des présupposés erronés sur leurs modes de vie et leurs perspectives. Les organisateurs de ces ateliers, quant à eux, conçoivent le fait même d’une participation locale comme un indicateur de succès, en négligeant les complexités de cette situation. Ces tendances se combinent et forment de chaque coté des attentes qui ne sont que partiellement satisfaites au meilleur des cas, mais à cause d’une distribution asymétrique du pouvoir, elle peuvent donner lieu à des conséquences qui affectent plus gravement les communautés indigènes. Le but de cet article est d’analyser les pratiques typiques de ces ateliers en éclairant tout particulièrement les imaginaires culturels multiples (du présent et du futur, de soi et des autres) que les individus et les projets amènent avec eux dans l’espace de l’atelier. Les ateliers de développement de compétence sont en quelque sorte la forme la plus récente d’un “terrain d’entente” entre les aspirations sociales indigènes et l’écopolitique globale; ils se distinguent du terrain d’entente des années 90 (cf. Conklin et Graham 1995) par leur intensification de l’économie symbolique à travers ce que je désigne par le terme de virtualisme. Deux vignettes ethnographiques illustrent la manière dont les exercices de développement de compétence engendrent une ambivalence, des problèmes et certains risques pour les communautés indigènes quand bien même leur intention est de mettre tout le monde sur un pied d’égalité.

Laura MENTORE is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Mary Washington. Since 2002 she has conducted ethnographic research among indigenous peoples of Guyana. She has published several articles and book chapters on indigenous political ecology and interspecies relationality, and during a 2017 sabbatical she will be working on a monograph about socio-ecological mastery and transition among the Waiwai.

Laura Mentore
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of Mary Washington
1301 College Ave.
Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401


1. Names of individuals and NGOs have been changed or omitted throughout this article, in an effort to preserve their anonymity.

2. This and similar buzzwords are used by the NGOs that run the workshops. This is their term, not mine.

3. While this residential community was formed in 1999–2000—new houses, farms, and eventually a school and health clinic were built—the site has a long history as a camp for travel between Waiwai and Wapishana villages, and as a fishing site. Oral histories, material artifacts, and references to the area in European travel accounts all indicate that the same site was a Taruma village until around the turn of the twentieth century.