Tag Archives: ethnoecology

Broad writing

Here’s a piece in Seed Magzine that sweeps across lots of developments in the field, including Maffi, Holling, the Barcelona conference and a raft of other topics.


Cameroons bushmeat in the news

Bushmeat in Africa is a hot topic right now, less so in South and Southeast Asia. No one so far has written clear theory for the study of bushmeat – as with many such crises, it’s the conservation folks and the journalists who are making the running. We anthropologists are only just waking up on this one.

Here’s the BBC article that links through to an excellent documentary on eating bushmeat in Cameroon. I have to admit to serious discomfort, not just at the endless pictures of dead monkeys for sale, but at Stefan Gates’ apparent indifference to the practice – he really is there in part to decide whether or not porcupine or civet cat are tasty, though he does take a stand when it comes to primates.

We need to think about bushmeat clearly: the young restauranteuse cheerfully declaring that the chimpanzees and gorillas will never go extinct is not so surprising in itself; nor is the fact that the same police who raid the bushmeat stalls will cheerfully tuck in to bushmeat stew. Yet there has been a Cameroons public education campaign that all the hunters, vendors, cooks and eaters have obviously heard—and in that context, the insistence that ‘no matter how much we eat, I know it can never disappear’ seems to be more of a claim about the bush itself than an educated claim about population sustainability. Bowen-Jones, Brown and Robinson used commodity-chain analysis in a 2003 article, which established the socioeconomic complexity of the problem; but there’s been almost nothing on the anthropology of bushmeat—and without this, seemingly incomprehensible claims of the inexhaustibility of bushmeat will remain incomprehensible.

What, so what, what for?

I discover with delight that my stated purpose here has aroused comment – over at Jinajik I’ve been chided for an apparent attack of despair. Now, Jinajik himself should know better than to question the relevance of ethnoecology to Newar Buddhism. As I will argue in Heidelberg in May, there are important and very deep connections between the landscape of Newar Vajrayāna and its praxis. The goad makes sense, though, and with apologies to him for using it as an excuse I will try to justify recent developments in my research. In short, both my recent criticisms of certain, but not all, conservative strands in Newar Vajrayāna and my return to work in ethnobiology are nothing more than owning up to the responsibilities of my particular ethical predicament.

Here in Aberdeen we’re supervising undergraduate and postgraduate research on Himalayan Buddhism, including ‘high’ Tibetan and Sanskrit Buddhism, as well as lived Gurung, Ladakhi, Tamang or Newar Buddhism. I use ethnographic and textual sources to make it abundantly clear to the students here, and anyone else who will listen, that Newar Vajrayāna is alive, kicking, and must be accorded equal status as a distinctive type of Buddhism if we are to understand Vajrayāna. In research, I’m working on a series of articles, under the ‘Shared Shrines’ rubric spearheaded by Glenn Bowman at Kent, on the way in which Pharping Newars manage the refusal, by recently arrived Tibetans, to ‘do’ inclusive religion – why they reject ‘polytropy’ as defined by Carrithers; and still plodding on with work on Mahāyāna texts used in Newar Vajrayāna. Other lines of research—on ritualized literacy, on the regional identity of 7th-13th century Himalayan Buddhism, on trade in animal and plant materials—all derive from Newar material put into comparison or relation with neighbouring societies.

So when I declare myself to be working on Anthropology of Religion, things Himalayan, and ethnobiology I certainly don’t mean that I’ve abandoned work on Newar Vajrayāna. Fieldwork in that community is frustrating, certainly; and along with others (Todd Lewis in the 1998 Conference on the Preservation of the Buddhist Culture of Nepal Mandala; Rev. Takaoka in the 2004 conference of the same name) I have publicly deplored a particular conservative strain in Newar Vajrayāna. (For the curious, that deploration is in a 2007 issue of Matinā.). As a practising Buddhist with insider/outsider relations to the Newar Vajrayāna tradition, I deeply regret the hidebound failure of some of the Newar Vajrācāryas to leave behind the brutalities of caste, gender and race. As an anthropologist and historian of Newar Buddhism, those same prejudices are historical features of Newar society which ‘make sense’, but as a Buddhist scholar in conversation with the Newar Vajrayāna tradition it’s my moral duty to reject those attitudes.

There are problems in the Western academy as well. Where Jinajik worries about me, I grumble about the AAR panel on Tibetan and Himalayan Religions or the mission statement of the Aris Trust for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies – neither of which appeared to notice that the Himalayas is much, much bigger and more complex than ‘Tibet’. To that end Lauren Leve, may Jñānaḍakiṇī magically multiply her research funding!, has roped several of us into a panel at the AAR asking just why the North American academy seems so very determined to marginalize Newar Buddhism as a domain of enquiry.

On a different front, some Western scholars of Newar Buddhism have hung on to the rather Victorian idea that the problem is the Vajrayāna of it. Thus studies of Newar Theravāda often contain explicit or implicit comparisons of the Buddhist-ness of Newar Theravāda versus the Vajrayāna: the Theravāda is more egalitarian, a purer form of Buddhism, what have you. This seems to me a tragic failure of scholarship, insider, outsider or otherwise.

But let me get back to the question: why ethnobiology in particular? Four reasons, at least for now:

(1) Because it’s a return to a beloved domain of research: I was a ‘biologist’ playing with bones and learning to graft long before I was an ‘anthropologist’, ‘Himalayan specialist’ or even, so far as I understood the label, ‘Buddhist’. One of the privileges of working at a research university is, unsurprisingly, having the freedom to widen one’s research—and here I am retrieving an interest I had to suppress in order to get through writitng the DPhil, publishing the book and landing a proper job.
(2) It’s a natural development of my long involvement with Engaged Buddhism. When Franz Metcalf asked me why I was working on ethnobiology I cheerfully borrowed the title of his own book as an explanation. Would a Buddha these days teach Buddhism in a university? Somehow I think that’s just asking to be swallowed whole by the necessary hypocrisy of language – just the sort of thing Nāgārjuna meant by prapañca — and since I do actually teach Buddhism in a university, and mutter vows about somehow becoming a Buddha some æon, then it seems to me necessary to do find a way to do engaged research as part of a life teaching Buddhism—just as it seems to me necessary to refuse the automobile, to oppose wars, and all those other other obvious decisions.
(3) Because an anthropology which refuses to draw lines between human society and the wider community of which it is part is the first step towards a properly Buddhist anthropology.
(4) Actually, you can’t possibly understand Newar religion at all without a clear understanding of how it is situated in its ecology and its landscape. Where else are swifts considered gods? So it’s not despair—it’s delight.

Ancient lunch

I just discovered this article on the foraging habits of early humans at Niah Cave in Sarawak. Modern humans there eat bats and even use them for wedding feasts – one of the rare explicitly ritual uses of bats. WIth luck further contact with the Cambridge zooarchaeologists behind this work will shed more light on early human uses of small vertebrates.There has been a very long history of humans and bats sharing dwelling spaces. In the beginning, we would have discovered new dwellings by seeing the whirling clouds of bat emerging from a cave at dusk. Now they depend on us for bat-friendly structures.I only wish the Schwegler bat houses were a little cheaper – £74 is a bit dear for my budget. Otherwise I’m sure we’d have a few along the walls of Yeti Nivas already.

Acquainted things have happened

Well, I’ve hauled the bedraggled blog from Blogger to WordPress. Why, exactly, is not quite clear to me; one of those fretful decisions arrived at through an accumulation of tiny reasons. Maybe just time to shake out the cruft.

Reviewing old entries I was delighted to recall dinner with Bill Woodcock last year, when I was in Berkeley for the Society of Ethnobiology conference. Turns out Brent Berlin was a friend of his family when he was a young ‘un. I don’t think we knew any anthropologists at all – biologists, yes, but not social scientists.

This will not be true for Eleanor or Raymond or Tanglewest, who will grow up knowing ecologists and anthropologists, lamas and priests, all sorts of people. There at least I’m doing the job right.

Today was such a fine day that I would be remiss not to make note of it. The bulbs are surging, the birds are singing, it was shirtsleeve warm for the first time in weeks, and it was even still daylight as we cycled home. Coming out of the Encountering Buddhism lecture I saw my first bee of the year and shouted ‘hello!’. I was so happy to see it. It promptly landed on a student’s face – and much to their credit they did not flinch.

Ethnobiology Conference, Berkeley

That was the most interesting conference I have ever attended. After several years of reading through articles, doing interviews, tentatively teaching: this the reward. Good people. Interesting data. Good arguments. Wow.

Perhaps the most striking thing was the huge range of methodologicial maturity. There were presentations that sounded like exotic tour offers, flashy but also extremely patronizing. The well-meaning liberals and the developing-world bioprospectors were both in evidence. But—some of the papers I heard there did combine theoretical sophistication with rigorous research methods. Key notions that resurfaced over and over were:
• multi-sited research
• migration
• hybridity
• the clear use of statistics
• historical depth
• the importance of shifting from ethnobotany to ethnoecology (that includes critters)
• the importance of literate or non-literate canons as determiners of conceptual inventory
• the economics and trade routes that connect collectors to markets and migrants to their home ecosystem.

I missed the Thursday night session on collaborations with indigenous communities, which would have been good, and a Friday afternoon session on ethno-ornithology, including a whole paper by Gregory Forth on bat classifcation. There was a jarring note from one contributor at the final paper, an overtly racist comment, that in being so jarring made clear how harmonious most of the proceedings were.

Important papers for me were those of

Tom Carlson on clinical practice that was not afraid of listening to the ethnomedicines of the clients
Jennifer Sowerwine on multi-sited studies of Iu Mien in California
Elda Miriam Aldasoro Maya, again a multi-sited study of Ñuu Savi (Mixtec) immigrants in Oaxaca and Hillsboro, Oregon
Ranier Bussman who delivered a double whammy with real historical depth on comparative studies across the Ecuador/Peru border
Gary Martin on marketplace studies in Marrakesh, work which I shamelessly have to borrow in order to pursue my own research in the Kathmandu marketplaces.

Next year’s conference is in the Arkansas Ozarks.