20 Jun 2009, 9:27am
Wildlife Management Wildlife Policy
by admin

The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program

Mario Blaser. 2009. The Threat of the Yrmo: The Political Ontology of a Sustainable Hunting Program. American Anthropologist, Vol. 111, Issue 1, pp. 10–20.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Various misunderstandings and conflicts associated with attempts to integrate Indigenous Knowledges (IK) into development and conservation agendas have been analyzed from both political economy and political ecology frameworks. With their own particular inflections, and in addition to their focus on issues of power, both frameworks tend to see what occurs in these settings as involving different epistemologies, meaning that misunderstandings and conflicts occur between different and complexly interested perspectives on, or ways of knowing, the world. Analyzing the conflicts surrounding the creation of a hunting program that enrolled the participation of the Yshiro people of Paraguay, in this article I develop a different kind of analysis, one inspired by an emerging framework that I tentatively call “political ontology.” I argue that, from this perspective, these kinds of conflicts emerge as being about the continuous enactment, stabilization, and protection of different and asymmetrically connected ontologies. [Keywords: political ontology, multinaturalism, multiculturalism, Paraguay, Indigenous peoples]


In 1999, after four years of a strictly observed ban on commercial hunting, news reached the Yshiro Indigenous communities of Northern Paraguay that the activity would be allowed again under the supervision of the National Parks Direction. Through their recently created federation, Uni´on de las Comunidades Ind´igenas de la Naci´on Yshir, the Yshiro leaders inquired from the Parks Direction about permits to hunt capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), yacare (caiman sp.), and anaconda (Eunectes notaeus).

They were notified that, although the institution was willing to allow commercial hunting, it actually could not issue the permits as it lacked the necessary resources to send inspectors to supervise the activity. Following the advice from the National Parks Direction, the Yshiro leaders sought support from Prodechaco, an EU–funded sustainable development project that targeted Indigenous peoples. The directors of the Prodechaco agreed to support the Yshiro federation’s bid for hunting permits with the condition that hunting had to be done in a sustainable manner. To make the concept clear, one of them explained in plain words: “The animal population has to be kept constant over the years. You hunt but making sure that there will always be enough animals for tomorrow” (conversation witnessed by author, November 1999).

Espousing a “participatory approach,” Prodechaco framed the relation with the Yshiro federation as a partnership to which the latter would contribute “traditional” forms of natural resource use.

Thus, having agreed on the goal of making hunting sustainable, the Yshiro federation and Prodechaco divided tasks: The federation would promote a series of discussion in their communities to make the goal of sustainability clear and to organize operations accordingly; Prodechaco, in turn, would arrange with the National Parks Direction the technical and legal aspect of the hunting season, which from then on began to be described as a sustainable hunting program. In the ensuing months, each party contributed their specific visions and demands into the making of the program and by the time it was launched it seemed that everybody was operating according to a common set of understandings about what the program entailed.

However, two months after the program’s beginning, Prodechaco and the inspectors sent by the National Parks Direction began asserting that Yshiro and nonindigenous hunters were actively disregarding the agreed-on regulations, thereby turning the program into “depredation” and “devastation” as they entered into private properties and Brazilian territory (Gonzales Vera 2000a). As I show later in the article, this turn of events revealed that the hunting program had been based on a misunderstanding about how to achieve the sustainability of the animal population, albeit a particular kind of misunderstanding. …

In effect, while political economy and political ecology mostly operate within the modern “multiculturalist” understanding that we exist in a power-laden world of one nature and many culturally situated perspectives of it, the political ontology framework builds on the “multinaturalist” understanding that there are many kinds of “natures.” Thus, in contrast to the “multiculturalist” focus on how different cultures go about knowing the world or on whether the world is knowable at all (an epistemic concern), a “multinaturalist” approach focuses on what kinds of worlds are there and how they come into being (an ontological concern).

Ethnographies of scientific practices have addressed the question of how different worlds or ontologies are brought into being by showing that “reality does not precede the mundane practices in which we interact with it, but is rather shaped in these practices” (Mol 1999:75). Along these lines, Bruno Latour (1999:266–276) has argued that “facts” (or reality) are better conceived of as “factishes.” The term seeks to bypass the sterile modernist discussion on whether the “things” we see in the world are “facts” (purely external and autonomous objects) or “fetishes” (reifications of our subjectivity). The term assumes that “what exists” is always in between the subject–object divide that is central to the modern ontology and that “what exists” is always the ongoing effect of practices or performances. Then, what we call “fact” (or reality) is better conceived of as a “factish” in which objectivity and subjectivity (and, therefore, nature, culture, morality, and politics) are entangled with each other in an indissoluble knot because “facts” are both real and done—or, better, they are real because they are being done.

The actual and potential variety of ways of doing “factishes” (or realities) ground key ideas in the political ontology framework: the notion that there exist multiple ontologies–-worlds and the idea that these ontologies–-worlds are not pregiven entities but rather the product of historically situated practices, including their mutual interactions (see also Haraway 1997; Law and Hassard 1999; Mol 2002). Building on these ideas, I argue that the “misunderstandings” that occur in settings where attempts are made at integrating Indigenous and modern scientific knowledge might turn out to be instances of what Viveiros de Castro calls uncontrolled equivocation, “a type of communicative disjuncture where the interlocutors are not talking about the same thing, and do not know this” (2004a).

Uncontrolled equivocation refers to a communicative disjuncture that takes place not between those who share a common world but rather those whose worlds or ontologies are different. In other words, these misunderstandings happen not because there are different perspectives on the world but rather because the interlocutors are unaware that different worlds are being enacted (and assumed) by each of them. For example, as I will show in detail, the appearance of an agreement about the meaning of “sustainable hunting” actually occluded that “animals”—and, by extension, the world(s) they are part of—were radically different entities for the Yshiro and for the bureaucrats and experts involved in the hunting program. Interestingly, rather than triggering an attempt to establish an agreement on a more solid basis, the revelation that the program had been based on an equivocation triggered a coercive response on the part of the Paraguayan government aimed at containing what was considered the unreasonable (and therefore threatening) behavior of the Yshiro. …


The Yshiro people live in the northeastern part of the Paraguayan Chaco over the Paraguay River. Although the Paraguayan state began to assert possession of the area in late 19th century, governmental presence has remained tenuous to these days. Bahia Negra, with 1,000 inhabitants and a military base, is the only town in the area with some governmental services. The only connection to most Yshiro communities is through the Paraguay River, and it takes seven to eight hours to reach the farthermost of them. The only regular physical communication that Bahia Negra has with the rest of the country is a weekly boat that comes from the southern city of Concepci´on after three days of travel. The lack of governmental presence in the region has been the norm since the 19th century…

After the collapse of the logging economy in the 1950s, the Yshiro became largely dependent on commercial hunting for their subsistence, as the latter became increasingly based on market goods (see Renshaw 1996; Susnik 1995). Commercial hunting pivoted around patrones, local military and civilian Paraguayan authorities who, through a system of debt bondage, brokered between the hunting families and the industry that processed and exported the hides. It is important to stress that commercial hunting was a “business on the side” for the Paraguayan authorities and that until the 1990s the dominant policy of the Paraguayan state was to encourage the conversion of all forests into lands for agriculture and cattle ranching (see Stunnenberg 1993). Consequently-and in contrast to what happened with the fur trade in North America (see Feit 1995; Nadasdy 2003)-at no point did the hunting economy generate an interest for conservation or “rational management,” let alone a concern for the ways in which the Yshiro understood hunting or animals in general.

Only in the late 1980s,when it was clear that several species were being depleted, did the Paraguayan government begin to ban hunting for commercial purposes. Nevertheless, with the connivance of the local authorities involved in the trade, the Yshiro kept hunting illegally, although in decreasing numbers. Two developments allowed the Yshiro to progressively break free from debt bondage and the commercial hunting economy. One was the establishment of a community free from any kind of external oversight after successful land claims in the mid 1980s; the other was the emergence of a commercial fishing economy that offered an immediately accessible market, thereby allowing the Yshiro to operate free from intermediaries. These developments, combined with more effective controls on international trade of wildlife, put an end to the old hunting economy in the mid 1990s. …

… However, by 1999, those [Yshiro] who strongly rejected the practices of the “traditionalists” had become a minority, thereby making the differences between groups even less pronounced and allowing negotiations leading to the creation of the Yshiro federation that I mentioned in the introduction (see Blaser 2004). This was the context in which, as requested by the EU-funded Prodechaco project, the Yshiro leaders began to promote community discussions about the idea of making the hunting program sustainable. As we will see, the way in which the Yshiro conceived sustainability was quite different from the way in which experts and bureaucrats did.


While on a fishing trip with an Yshiro friend in 1999, I asked what he thought about the regulations on fishing that the government had recently started to enforce and whether they would be useful at all to sustain the stocks of fish. As my friend looked at me utterly perplexed, I further explained that the authorities said that the restrictions were meant to protect the resource from disappearing. My friend said that this made no sense for the amount of fish in the river had nothing to do with how much they were harvested because the fish come with the birds of rain (Osasero). As long as there is rain, there is fish. “Then, why do you think that they make all these regulations,” I asked. He responded,

Don’t you know? In the bible it says that around the year 2000 the rich will laugh at the poor. Look those tourists that come in their boats, they are all fat, they eat very well. Look at us [the Yshiro], we are thin and our children sometimes cry because there is no food. Yet the government let them take all the fish they want and does not allow us to work to feed our families. They are laughing at our poverty. [conversation with author, September 1999]

My friend was perplexed not about the rationale for the regulations, which he as many other Yshiro have heard before from the radio, but about my expressing this rationale as a matter of fact and without questioning it. In hindsight, I realized that my friend expected that after many years working with the Yshiro I should know better: the rationale for restrictions does not reflect Yshiro conceptions of human–animal relations and, because the consequences of the restrictions are unequally adjudicated, one is warranted to assume that hidden motivations might be behind them. In effect, for many Yshiro the availability of fauna is only indirectly connected to the way humans treat them. …

The Yshiro call their territory the yrmo, a word that also connotes world or cosmos, which, according to several Yshiro elders, is governed by the principle of relationality-that is, the mutual dependence of all that exists. Reciprocity between all the entities that co-constitute it is fundamental to keep the flow of energy that sustains the yrmo. It is against this background that Yshiro understandings of the relations between human and nonhumans, including animals, must be comprehended. …

Given the characteristics of the environments performed by bureaucrats and scientists, it is not surprising that, as news reached Bahia Negra that a hunting season would be opened, concerns were raised by two biologists from a Spanish environmental NGO working in the Yshiro area. According to them, studies of the local animal population were improperly conducted; therefore, a hunting program based on these studies would be disastrous for the environment. To assure them of the contrary, the Yshiro leaders invited the biologists to a meeting at which the details of the hunting program would be discussed. After hearing the leaders explain how they planned to make the hunting program sustainable by ensuring widespread reciprocity, one of the biologists addressed the meeting and said:

We are very happy that you are using your traditions to organize the work. We do not have problems with this idea; on the contrary we think this is very important and good for the communities. Our problem is with the studies about the animals that were not properly made and are being used to open this hunting season. That is our problem. [field notes, March 1999)

For these biologists, it did not matter that according to the Yshiro the sustainability of the project was assured by its focus on sustaining reciprocity; as long as they could not confirm that this view would not contradict their “scientific” understanding of the environment, the sustainability of the program would be in doubt. In other words, the Yshiro could believe whatever they wanted about the environment, but the actions prompted by these beliefs should not run counter to what the biologists knew about the environment.

Unsatisfied with the “scientific accuracy” of the hunting program, the biologists kept trying to complicate the launching of the program by bureaucrats …

Evidently, “Yshiro conservation” was recognized as nothing but an “interest” translatable as equivalent to those of other parties to the program and thus was subordinated and reduced to those parties’ understanding of conservation. But once it became clear that this translation was based on an equivocation, Yshiro conservation was seen either as a clever manipulation of culture or as being based on error. In either case, it became evident that bureaucratic–scientific conservation could only be enforced among the Yshiro either through the effective or the threatened use of coercive force.

Not surprisingly, starting in 2001, the Paraguayan government created a Secretary of the Environment, established the office of the Environmental Prosecutor, and strengthened police vigilance in the Yshiro area-this in addition to declaring most of Yshiro traditional territory a biosphere reserve and establishing a National Park close to the largest Yshiro community without any meaningful consultation or participation on their part.


… The conflict that ensued from the hunting program highlights the need to understand these kinds of situations from a political ontology perspective that focuses on the power dynamics produced in the encounter between the dominant modern ontology and Indigenous ontologies as they are embodied in concrete practices. The different political ontologies that shaped the “environments” of bureaucrats and experts make evident that “modern” factishes-as much as any factish-are variously “interested” and therefore not entirely coherent.

As I have tried to show here and as other ethnographies of ontological encounters reveal (see Clammer et al. 2004; Cruikshank 2005; de la Cadena 2007; Nadasdy 2007; Poirier 2008; Povinelli 1995), this reduction is not innocuous; rather, it sets the stage for the continuing subordination of other worlds. Thus, a critical question is, what would it entail to do an anthropology that avoids the trap of uncontrolled equivocation? Although I cannot fully address this question here, I want to stress that this is perhaps the most fundamental challenge that any political ontology approach must face. Put in other terms, the challenge is how do we account for ontological encounters when any account presupposes an ontological grounding? I hope this article will entice readers into taking up the challenge.

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