Monthly Archives: September 2014

Risks of Commercial Plantain Production in the Bribri Territories

While volunteering in the Bribri village of Yorkin, I was told the story about why the women in the village decided to start their ecotourism project, Estibrawpa. I was told that before they started their ecotourism project, most of the men were working in banana and plantain plantations. The women say that not only was it an issue for the men to be gone for long periods of time (in those days it took an entire day to travel to and from the village), but the men were also suffering from respiratory and skin ailments. The women explained that they started the ecotourism project to keep the men in the village and eliminate or minimize the health risks associated with working with agrochemicals in the plantations. Knowing nothing about plantation agriculture, I set out to find some information in the literature.

In the article “Pesticide application practices, pest knowledge, and cost-benefits of plantain production in the Bribri-Cabecar Indigenous Territories, Costa Rica” by Polidoro et al. (2008), the authors state that there has been numerous reports of environmental and human poisonings in commercial plantain and banana plantations in Costa Rica. This is especially the case in the Talamanca region where the Bribri reside. This region accounts for 52% of the plantain, 6% of the commercial banana production, and 90% of the organic banana production and Costa Rica. Plantain has historically been an important subsistence crop among the Bribri and has been grown as a commercial export crop since the 1980s. In many Bribri communities, traditional cultivation of basic grains, organic cacao production, and traditional fallows have been replaced by monoculture plantain production. Legislation regulating the use of pesticides and fertilizers are absent in the indigenous Bribri Territories.

Polidoro et al. (2008) conducted a rapid rural assessment to evaluate plantain production in the Bribri indigenous territories. They found that 60% of their respondents grew plantain commercially in monoculture systems using pesticides and fertilizers. They found that the majority of indigenous farmers did not use any type of protective clothing while applying chemicals to their crops. They found that nematicides and insecticides were being applied in manners which allowed for exposure which has been shown to cause both acute and chronic health problems. They also found that over 97% of the farmers used chlorpyrifos treated bags which protect the fruits. The farmers apply these bags by hand which also exposes them to organophosphates. As a result, their respondents reported problems with nausea, headaches, and rashes.

By this initial review of the literature, it appears that the women in Yorkin were right. Commercial plantain production exposes farmers to dangerous agrochemicals and this practice is widespread in the indigenous Bribri Territories. In my opinion, the women have created a more sustainable method of bringing money into their community while preserving their traditions and improving health.

Pesticide application practices, pest knowledge, and cost-benefits of plantain production in the Bribri-Cabecar Indigenous Territories, Costa Rica

Beth A. Polidoro, Ruth M. Dahlquist, Luisa E. Castillo, Matthew J. Morra, Eduardo Somarriba , Nilsa A. Bosque-Perez (2008)

Ecotourism: How do you know it when you see it?

Last month (August 2014) I had the opportunity to work as a volunteer for an ecotourism project named Estibrawpa in the Bribri village of Yorkin. The Bribri are an indigenous group in Costa Rica who live in scattered villages on indigenous reserves near the border with Panama. Estibrawpa was started by a group of women in 1992 as a way to bring money into the community, preserve their traditions, and address health issues. The women explained that before they started their ecotourism project, the men of the village were for the most part employed in wage labor on banana plantations. Due to the fact that traveling in and out of the village involved a daylong journey in a dugout canoe, the men who were working in the plantations were away from the village for long periods of time. As the women describe it, this led to much “depresion” in the village due to fractured and disrupted households. The men were also suffering from respiratory and skin ailments caused by working with chemical fertilizers and pesticides in the plantations. Reflecting on the fact that ecotourism is very popular in Costa Rica, the women decided to start their own ecotourism project.

Visitors arrive via dugout canoe
Visitors arrive via dugout canoe

From its humble beginnings, Estibrawpa has grown over the past 10 years. At first visitors had to commit to a three-day trip to the village; a one-day journey in dugout canoe to the village, a day in the village, and a day return trip out of the village. In time, the community made enough money to buy two outboard motors for their dugout canoes, enabling visitors to come for day trips, increasing the number of visitors. The women explain that now men are able to stay in the village working as guides, canoe captains, and construction workers. Women are involved in organizing the program and scheduling trips, cooking, and giving demonstrations on cacao production which is the exclusive domain of women among the Bribri. Children are taught how to be guides, construction workers, and organizers, and are educated in the stories that make up the Bribri “historia” and the native Bribri language. The women conclude that as a result of their ecotourism project, the village enjoys better mental and physical health.

Entering the village
Entering the village

I decided this situation provided an excellent opportunity to conduct my dissertation research. My first order of business was to peruse the literature on ecotourism and community-based development. I recently found an article by J.K Reimer and Pierre Walter (2012) entitled “How do you know it when you see it? Community-based ecotourism in the Cardamom Mountains of southwestern Cambodia.” Their research involved analyzing an ecotourism project by comparing its aspects to a framework devised by Martha Honey in her book “Ecotourism and sustainable development: Who owns Paradise?” (2008). Honey’s analytical framework for ecotourism includes seven components that should be present in an ecotourism project. It includes: the project involves travel to natural destinations, minimizes impact, builds environmental awareness, provides direct financial benefits for conservation, provides financial benefits and empowerment for local people, respects local culture, and supports human rights and democratic movements.

Traditional bow and arrow
Traditional bow and arrow

In my opinion, analyzing the Estibrawpa project in Yorkin according to Honey’s framework will provide a fruitful beginning to the process of describing and analyzing the community’s efforts. In addition, the collection of biomarkers including blood pressure readings and the administration of the CES-D scale for measuring depression will provide measures for health which can then be compared to similar populations throughout the world. This project will also illustrate how the interaction between biological bodies and their environment affects physical health as measured by blood pressure and mental health (and its neurological correlates) as measured by the CES-D. It is my hypothesis, that through the process of niche construction (modifying their environment and their interactions with it through their ecotourism project) the residents of Yorkin are benefiting the community and improving physical and mental health.


Thoughts on Shamanism

Often I have marveled about the ubiquity of shamanic complexes throughout the world. In my opinion, variations of the shamanic paradigm were present in all hunter/gatherer/foraging groups. I have also wondered “why is this the case?” After reading work by Michael Winkelman, I have been moved to believe that within the shamanic paradigm aspects of behavior have served to integrate human minds more fully between notions of the individual and its relationship to the social world. Aspects of the shamanic complex can be seen as increasing the adaptability of humans. Winkelman suggests that, and I agree, that the shamanic complex grew out of ancient hominid ritual capacities and practices. There are even similarities between the shamanic ritual complex and activities of chimpanzees. These include community rituals focused on alpha male displays involving vocalizations, drumming, and bipedal charges. Similarities between shamanism and behavior of chimpanzees include: community bonding rituals that involve emotional vocalizations and drumming as social signaling and communication processes; altered states of consciousness (ASC) that involve the elicitation of an integrative mode of consciousness; and healing effects, including ritual effects in eliciting opioid responses and the ASC that provide physiological relaxation and integration (Winkelman 2009, Winkelman and Baker 2008). I was fascinated when I first heard of the accounts of chimpanzees performing a “rain dance” in which males hoot, run up and down a hill, and break branches while a storm is approaching. Winkelman suggests that these rituals reflect a biological basis. “Communal rituals elicit attachment bonds and related physiological mechanisms that reduce endogenous opiates (opioids), producing psychobiological synchrony and community cohesion within the group. Opioid release stimulates the immune system, producing a sense of euphoria, certainty, and belongingness, enhancing coping skills and maintenance of bodily homeostasis, and enhancing stress tolerance and environmental adaptation” (Winkelman 2009).

James McClenon suggests that the roots of shamanic healing may go as far back as controlled use of fire. Sitting around the fire may have enhanced trance states and other altered states of consciousness among early humans. During altered states of consciousness, humans are more open to suggestion and McClenon (1997) suggests that hypnotizability was hardwired into humans and was adaptive. This hypnotizability would increase the impact of shared experiences and knowledge among a group of people, indeed providing the shared knowledge which leads to cultural development. McClennon goes on to suggest that all hunter gatherer groups at some point probably practiced some form of shamanism, and the shamanic complex laid the groundwork for further religious beliefs and practices throughout the world (1997).

According to Lévi-Strauss (1963), the healing that the shaman performs occurs within a shamanic complex which depends on the shaman, the sick person, and the surrounding community to believe in the efficacy of the treatment. The shaman manipulates socially constructed and maintained beliefs and symbols to create a socially authorized translation of the problem causing sickness. Through this process, the shaman reorganizes the reality of the patient and his or her social network. As mentioned above, the performance of the shaman ultimately contributes to the belief in the healing ritual and produces what can be called a meaning effect which can be compared to the case of modern pharmacology in which patients improve even when they are receiving a placebo or sugar pill.

In my opinion, the shamanic paradigm was an important factor in contributing to the complexity of the workings of the human brain. The human brain must orient the individual self and its relationship to its environment and all the social relationships it can encounter. It is no surprise that many people seek out modern-day experiences with ritual and altered states of consciousness to treat drug addiction, chronic pain, and various psychological issues. Aspects of the shamanic complex provide opportunities for healing of the individual and social reintegration.

Levi-Strauss, Claude.   1963   The Sorcerer and His Magic. From Structural Anthropology. Basic Books.

McClenon, James.   1997   Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36(3):345-354.

Winkelman, Michael.   2009   Shamanism and the Origins of Spirituality and Ritual Healing. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 458-489.

Winkelman, M., and J. Baker.   2008    Supernatural as Natural: A Biological Theory of Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).

Primate Social Cognition

I am currently reading the book “The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology” edited by Daniel H. Lende and Greg Downey. These are thoughts I had after reading the chapter “Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction: A Core Context for Neuroanthropology.” It was written by Catherine C. MacKinnon and Augustine Fuentes. The authors begin their discussion with the background of primatology. In the 1930s up through the 1950s researchers were focused on studies of social behavior and ecology of the nonhuman primates. In 1951, Sherwood Washburn called for a “new physical anthropology” in which research would integrate laboratory and field studies, examine comparative anatomy and functional morphology, and describe the links between ecology and behavior. In the 1960s and the 1970s fieldwork was conducted with chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans by researchers such as Jane Goodall, Diane Fosse, and Birute Galdikas. In the field of psychology, Harry Harlow conducted his notorious experiments on the significance of primate mother – infant attachment and social bonding. In the 1970s and the 1980s the focus turned to social biology and evolutionary psychology. Here researchers focused on how human brains gained cognitive components that evolved to solve the reproductive problems faced by our hunter gatherer ancestors.

Primates, including humans, share various general characteristics including; prehensile hands and feet, a reliance on visual and tactile sensory pathways, extended periods of infant dependency and development, and significantly enlarged brain to body size ratios. The expansion of the visual system is seen as being tied to sociality. Primates must be able to read complex social signals and their emotional content. Among primates there is a strong tendency towards sociality and group living. Physical and emotional bonding and social attachment have been determined to be crucial for the healthy development of the central nervous system. Primates employ color vision to help find foods, use their memory in the spatial mapping of resources, and communicate about food sources as well as predators. The authors suggest that our brain and our visual system selectively focus on information which can protect us from potentially dangerous individuals or situations. Advanced cognitive structures allow primates to display a great range of plasticity in foraging behavior and living environments.

Primates also engage in niche construction, which can be defined as the modification of the functional relationship between organisms and their environment by actively changing one or more of the factors in that environment. Through this process primates have significant effects on their environment which then affect their population. For example, responses to the energetic cost of increasing brain size and extended period of child rearing in genus Homo included more cooperation between group members, an increase in the complexity of communication, and increased effectiveness at avoiding predators and an expansion of the types of environments in which they live. This is also seen in other primate species. For example, female capuchins keep track of and maintain large social networks over the course of their lifetimes. Social organization characterized by fission-fusion groups and subgroups common among chimpanzees is another example. It is been observed that some members negotiate rank through aggression while others rely on coalition partners and social bonding. The authors conclude that a highly evolved social cognition is required to keep track of the social networks. The authors suggest that social network analysis can be a fruitful method allowing researchers to examine types of interactions among individuals in a social group. Social network analysis allows for the examination of complex patterns in which primates organize themselves socially.

Primates also share the characteristic of an extended period of dependency after birth. The level of social complexity is correlated to increased sizes of neo-cortices. Among the primates, humans have the least mature brain at birth followed by a period of rapid brain growth, influenced by an environment rich in social stimuli. It is also suggested that an increased consumption of animal protein also brought hominids in close competition with carnivores also resulting in an increase in brain size.

The cultural intelligence hypothesis suggests that humans have a species specific set of social cognitive skills for participating in and exchanging knowledge through particularly complex cultural groups. Among primates, research has found cooperative and altruistic behavior in certain situations with varying results. Chimps have been found that while in adjoining cages they will sometimes give tokens which produce a food reward for both of the animals. It is also been shown in laboratory research that capuchins may value equitable behavior. In conclusion, research suggests that primates display extensive plasticity in sociality and cognitive functioning which results in increasing brain size, social complexity, and evolutionary success via biosocial niche construction.