Zoonoses - infectious diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa - have existed "since humanity began to mobilize", but what is alarming about the current virus, according to anthropologist Philippe Descola, is the speed with which it has been propagated.
“The capitalist development model is a kind of virus for our planet": Interview with anthropologist Philippe Descola
And for this specialist in the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the western development model is one of the culprits.
Descola has dedicated more than three decades of his life to study, among other issues, the ethnology of some Latin American native peoples, which has made him one of the greatest figures of Americanist anthropology in the modern world.
His research also earned him the 2012 Gold Medal from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France's highest distinction in the field of science.
Philippe Descola is known to be a great critic of the so-called Western naturalism, which considers nature something external to humans.
“Since the seventeenth century, the Western world has viewed nature as external to itself. One way to fight against the excesses of this conception is to educate yourself and see yourself as an element of nature", Explain.
What follows is an extract from the conversation that the expert had with BBC Mundo, in which he also explained how neoliberalism has affected the quality of life of indigenous peoples in South America.
“It has reduced the role and responsibility of the state in educational and health programs for indigenous peoples. Now it is the NGOs that take care of them“.
- What lessons does the coronavirus crisis leave us?
The first is that we are returning to a degree of uncertainty that we have not seen in a long time, especially in the large post-industrial nations of Europe and North America.
Suddenly, an apparently minor event, that is, a small virus, came to completely alter life on the planet.
This is a very common situation in some countries of the southern hemisphere and within populations that I know very well, particularly some native populations in America that were exposed to epidemic and contagious diseases during the conquest and until the 18th century.
It is also the case of other populations that are subject to the predation of large extractive companies, landowners, etc.
But due to the development of the welfare state in the late 19th century, European and North American societies had become accustomed to a certain degree of predictability of the future, despite all the misfortunes, crimes, and genocides of the 20th century. And this has dissipated.
Another visible fact is that inequality has intensified and become more evident due to the pandemic. And this encompasses both global inequality as we can see it within the same nation.
- How has this affected the indigenous peoples of Latin America?
The Amerindian populations are in a critical situation, except those that have the possibility of protecting themselves by completely isolating themselves. This is the case of the Achuares of the Ecuadorian Amazon, a people I know very well.
They were closed to the outside world. They were able to do it, but in other regions, particularly Brazil, the situation is very different.
The death rate is so high in Amerindian populations in the lowlands of South America because health services are almost non-existent and because contaminated people traveling through Aboriginal territories are not controlled.
Here, but also in many other parts of the world, we realize how unequal we are in the face of an epidemic.
- So, the pandemic has made it clear that there are some groups that are more vulnerable than others in the face of a health crisis.
Exactly. Some groups have been directly affected due to the interruption of their work activities with which their income has decreased.
But they have also been severely hit by the same disease, which has made the situation worse.
The lowest paying jobs in much of the world are precisely those that have been put on the front lines of the fight against the disease. That is, nurses, garbage collectors, cleaners, elderly caregivers, etc.
These are low-paying jobs that have suddenly become indispensable around the world.
- As you said, the virus has altered life on the planet. Do you think this could be seen as an opportunity to tackle problems like inequality, for example?
I have read various opinions in recent weeks about what they call the world that follows. It seems to me that the world after is a lot like the world before the pandemic.
The virus may have made a part of the population aware of the inequalities of the planet.
Some have also realized that the spread of the virus has been driven in part by the destruction of ecosystems.
But for us to change our lifestyles, modes of consumption, production and the terrible inequalities between the richest and the poorest, the shock will have to be greater.
I don't see a deep transformation at the moment.
There is something that is quite clear and that is that the youngest have realized the seriousness of the situation of inequality.
Before, young people were aware of the problems of climate change, in greater proportion than older people, but not of the problems of inequality between people and peoples.
- There is a difference between being aware and actually driving a change. How long could it take for a society to change its worldview and begin to address these issues?
Anthropologists and social scientists are very cautious about predictions in general, as there is always the possibility that they will turn out to be wrong.
Before the French Revolution, very few thought that in a couple of years the king would be guillotined and the privileges of the monarchy would be taken away.
There are situations that happen at certain times and flare up. We have seen some examples of this with the abuse of women and, more recently, the issue of racism.
After hundreds of killings by the police, all it took was for a video to suddenly go viral for a sizeable international mobilization to emerge.
But they are very difficult movements to anticipate.
- Where could you start?
In the world there are small communities that have organized to face capitalist devastation.
In France, we have the Zone À Defendre (“Zone to defend”) of Notre Dame des Landes, where a group of people united against a great plan to build an airport, these people feel so identified with the place that they decided stay and fight to protect it, under the motto: "We do not defend nature, we are nature that defends itself."
As there are more situations like this, things will change more rapidly in relation to private appropriation and all those things that have been characteristic of European and global economic development since the end of the 18th century.
- You think that the Achuar people in the Ecuadorian Amazon under-exploit their natural resources. How can they be encouraged to make better use of natural resources without harming nature?
The Achuares under-exploit resources for many reasons that I try to analyze in my books.
They could have stepped up production to maintain larger populations. They have not done it because they found a balance between work and leisure.
The Achuares, like many other indigenous populations in the world, work a maximum of four hours a day. In these towns there is a kind of insurmountable limit of working hours that has been modified in certain historical moments, in particular through forced labor
It is not about making better use of it. I think they are making the most of the forest and its resources. Only they have not done the kind of environmentally destructive overexploitation that the big producers of cocoa, coffee, etc.
So, it seems to me that they are rather an example to follow, but a very particular one because, on the other hand, they do not actually receive aid from the State.
I think you are Venezuelan and you know the situation well.
In Latin America, neoliberalism has reduced the role and responsibility of the state in educational and health programs for indigenous peoples. Now it is the NGOs that take care of them.
Thanks to the work of NGOs, these types of populations can also have access to goods that they cannot produce themselves.
- Do you think that the peoples of the Amazon have a healthier relationship with nature than Western civilization?
Yes, but I think we should emphasize that nature is precisely a Western concept.
Therefore, talking about healthy relationships with nature is already putting yourself in a position that is not that of the Amerindian populations.
Amerindians have very personal relationships with plants, animals, and other minds.
Nature is an abstraction, it is a philosophical concept. To speak of a healthy relationship with nature is to place oneself in what I call the Western naturalism of an exteriority of humans in front of nature.
Many populations throughout the world do not have this exteriority or, in any case, they did not have it for a long time.
The word nature has no translation in Chinese or Japanese. It is a term that does not exist in any other non-European language derived from Greek or Latin.
Since the seventeenth century, the Western world has viewed nature as something external to itself. One way to fight against the excesses of this conception is to educate yourself and see yourself as an element of nature.
- Will there be long-term consequences for the peoples of the Amazon? Do you think that the pandemic would permanently change the lifestyle of these peoples?
I don `t believe. Many epidemics and infectious diseases have affected Amerindian populations, in Mexico, Central America, etc., with extremely high mortality rates.
At some point most of the population disappeared as a result of these diseases, but they recovered and still exist.
In the context of the peoples of the Amazon, it will be just another episode of all the evils that have hit these populations.
Some of the most recent are the rubber rush in the 20th century and later the invasion of land by large landowners and extractive companies.
When one has faced terrible conditions of conquest and domination, one develops the capacity to resist.
That is something that we in the West lost a long time ago.
- Do you think that the changes that the environment has undergone in recent decades have facilitated the spread of this type of virus in the world today?
Yes of course. All the main infectious epidemics of the last decades are local zoonoses, which come from wild species and have been transmitted through other wild species or from domestic animals to humans.
And then comes the spread between humans.
The trigger has been wild animal populations which, due to deforestation and the destruction of wild natural environments, come into continuous contact with human populations and, therefore, facilitate these contaminations.
These are things that people still ignore, because you have to be able to combine the approach of scientific ecology, anthropology, infectology, virology, etc.
And these are disciplines that don't always work together.
- So if we don't change the model, these diseases could become more frequent?
There are several consequences and I believe that the current model of western development is one of the causes of this pandemic. It can be said that the capitalist development model is a kind of virus for our planet.
There have always been epidemics. Zoonoses have been around since humanity began to mobilize.
They are not new, but the speed of spread of this coronavirus is and is alarming.
The triggers for the development of this type of disease are also new. They are the fault of this model and they do not stop increasing.