What on earth are we doing here?

“Here” is in Tena.

Apart from being the tranquil capital of the Amazonian province of Napo, Tena is also the seat of FONAKIN’s main office. FONAKIN (Federación de Organizaciones de la Nacionalidad Kichwa del Napo) is one of the longest-standing indigenous federations in the Ecuadorian Amazon (they exist since the 1970s), and hence they were appointed as my “partner organisation” over here.

In 2004 I received 4 years worth of funding to investigate “indigenous peoples’ perspectives on the commercialization of their ancestral knowledge and related biological resources”, and write up the findings in the form of a PhD thesis. Despite serious misgivings about academic work, this is more or less exactly what I find myself doing right now, probably to some degree for want of anything better to do, but also because it struck me as a potentially useful project (as opposed to so many others generated by the academy).

At bottom this means that I am hanging out in and around Tena, talking to people in a variety of places, organisations, communities, projects about a variety of issues to do with collective rights, medicinal plants, cash needs, market access, aspirations, community values, ancestral knowledge, deforestation, etc.

At the same time I am witnessing and evaluating a project that FONAKIN is running in collaboration with a German NGO and pharmaceutical company – it is called ProBenefit and is a rather hot potato, politically.

Most importantly, however, I am trying to put my energy into planning a collaborative research and “capacity building” project from below – a project about how to defend ancestral knowledge and wisdom from what is at bottom the “primitive accumulation” of capitalism. Many people here realize the importance of such a project, but of course the required financial resources are not available and so a small group of people is now starting to explore the potential for animating the necessary collective initiative in order to begin articulating a proposal for such a project.

Please read more about this budding project and the background to this whole issue .

Also, find more information on ProBenefit.

My darling partner in crime and love, here known as colono, is accompanying me in my exploration out of the goodness of his heart and lack of access to any funds other than mine.

34 thoughts on “What on earth are we doing here?

    colono said:
    Sunday, December 24, 2006 at 16:59 (749)

    She just says this thing about funds to play down her terror and despair of having to face all this on her own.

      Eric said:
      Friday, July 10, 2009 at 16:28 (728)

      Hi have interest in publishing and using one of the amazing photos on this website, if any one knows the contact, the email address for the person who runs this website it would be much appreciated if you could send it to me at eric.estroff@gmail.com, thanks eric

    Bethany said:
    Tuesday, April 24, 2007 at 06:15 (302)

    I have read and posted some of your information about this issue on my blog. This project is very important to the survival of us all. I would like to know how I can help. Please contact me .

    Cecilia said:
    Sunday, September 30, 2007 at 13:46 (615)

    Hello guys!
    Sorry if I write to you on the comment box, but I could not find a direct way!
    I really like your blog and I have the impression we really share the same views.
    Me and my husband lived in Ecuador last year and within a few weeks we are going back, and we would love to meet you!
    Please drop me an email if you have time!

    lizseymour said:
    Monday, October 29, 2007 at 09:43 (446)

    What a wonderful illustration of capitalism vs. a version of the gift economy! I live in an anarchist collective in the US–taking even a half step out of the mainstream helps me to see how dangerous and unworkable our current economic model is. Thank you so mcuh for putting this out there.


    nick said:
    Sunday, December 30, 2007 at 20:13 (884)

    Hi colono, just came across your blog which provides some really useful and thoughtful insights into politics and society here. I live in Bolivia, where lots of similar issues to the ones you describe come up. I am currently in Ecuador and would love to chat to you or folk you recommend. I am not sure I will get to Napo though. If you get a chance, would you email me via my website? best wishes, Nick

    Steve said:
    Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 20:30 (896)

    DOes anyone have information on renting a house in Archidona for a few months? I’m also interested in seeing any pictures of Archidona. I can;t seem to find much on line but what I did see, I loved the look of it.

    Steff said:
    Monday, March 24, 2008 at 09:59 (458)


    I stumbled on your blog for my friend and i are currently preparing a social development project with my college (HEC Montreal). This first project will take place this summer for 3 months in the Quechua camp called Campo Cocha at about an hour and half or so away from Tena.

    In preparing the project we are looking for anyone who could bring us valuable information to guarantee the success of this project and i believe that your staying in Tena could be of great help!

    I hope you get my message and respond! We would greatly appreciate having a share of your past experience in the Napo region, we would also be able to show you our projec tmore in detail… In any case heres my e-mail hobo89@dacrew.us

    ELVIA said:
    Sunday, May 11, 2008 at 13:50 (618)


    Gaia said:
    Friday, May 23, 2008 at 08:35 (399)

    I casually entered your blog while I was looking for a definition of “colonos” to translate it in English while writing an essay on Indigenous Rights. I really would like to know more about the actual state of the project you were mentioning (as I see that the post is one year and a half old) and I also would like to know what results are you obtaining from your PhD investigation. I am an Agricultural Development MSc student at the Faculty of Life Sciences in Copenhagen and I am currently writing my thesis on medicinal plants used in a Asháninka indigenous community in Junín Department of Perú. I have been there last year together with my husband who is a anthropology student. I seem to understand that we share the same concerns about how to help indigenous people protect their ancestral knowledge from acculturation, while meeting aspirations of the families for their children (in terms of education, health) and protecting their intellectual property rights.
    It is not an easy task, but surely of great importance, and I would like to do as much as I can for it.
    Please contact me at my email: gaia@dsr.life.kvl.dk

    Gaia said:
    Friday, May 23, 2008 at 08:38 (401)

    I’m sorry, I posted it twice by mistake!
    Hope to hear from you soon.

    rebecca said:
    Friday, May 23, 2008 at 20:37 (901)

    Colono, please contact me via my personal email address.

    Dom said:
    Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 13:45 (614)

    Very interested in all of the above and your project. I have spent nealry a year travelling ecuador and Peru and was involved in a volunteer project and internship on the river Napo so have experienced the problems and talked with many of the locals first hand and was able to guage some of their personal views and feelings.

    I believe these issues, conservation, protection global awareness, etc . and all that is mentioned in your blogs are of utmost importance and even dire urgency of further work, funding but ultimately people out their who are willing to work and help promote solutions to some of these areas. The responses from most people I have spoken to seem to reflect similar concerns and views and the support is there, just not active enough in most circumstances.

    I am planning on returning to Peru and the Amazon imminently having come to the end of my work contract here in the Uk. And I very much have the view of grounding myself in the thick of things in a remote indigenous town, to find work and hopefully follow a few leads and widen my contacts for future projects and work and becoming fully pro active in these struggles.

    I would more than welcome any advice, contacts or updates you have, dont hesitate to contact me direct by email



    deryk said:
    Tuesday, October 14, 2008 at 17:28 (769)

    very very interesting project. I would love to know how the research goes. will you be coming out with ‘best practices’. I know even the most well meaning people can cause damage. I myself am interested in sustainable development in the amazon region that may incorporate geotourism, or experience tourism: people living and spending time with indigenous communities instead of rich jungle lodges. do you have any thoughts on that practice?

    Vivid said:
    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 10:20 (472)

    An insightful blog, thank you, and an interesting and worthwhile mission. I too am exploring (virtually) what happens at the frontiers of our industrial, capitalist society. It reveals a lot about who we are as a culture. I try to convey some of it in my blog, VIVID, designed to encourage people to take a fresh and critical look at the system on which most of us depend. I would be pleased to chat more, if it’s of interest … meanwhile, I will add a link to yours and I wish you all the best.

    colono said:
    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 12:57 (581)

    Had a look at your blog, looks nice, some good posts – thanks for linking, have done the same in our blog roll! And here is a direct link to VIVID: http://itsvivid.wordpress.com/

    Vivid said:
    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 17:04 (753)

    Thank you, appreciate it (and for finding VIVID -thought the link would come via WordPress!) – keep up the great work.

    colono said:
    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 17:11 (758)

    Most welcome!

    Normally your (user) name would become a link – perhaps you aren’t logged in?

    Vivid said:
    Friday, February 27, 2009 at 20:52 (911)

    Hmmm, thought so too and am certainly logged in now so let’s see … (feel free to delete this comment!)

    Anne said:
    Monday, March 9, 2009 at 02:29 (145)


    I’m sorry if it’s a bit “off-topic”, but I can’t seem to find the email address or phone number of FONAKIN (I am a translator, looking for spanish>kichwa translators; I read that FONAKIN did some translation job for a project and I would like to contact them). So please accept my apologies for asking you that question, I hope you can help me with their address or phone number.

    Thanks very much and keep up the good work,


    Rosanna said:
    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 23:05 (004)

    Hola Colonos..
    Por se caso la colona es la chica que conoci en AMUPAKIN? Soy la Canadiense que se caso con un Kichwa de Archidona…no son ustedes que vinieron a mi boda?
    Estoy muy interesada en su pagina y voy a leer mas ahora. Por favor contactame si son los mismos!

    Mucha suerte,

    colona responded:
    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 19:03 (835)

    As requested by Anne, the contact details of FONAKIN (Federación de Organizaciones de la Nacionalidad Kichwa de Napo) are as follows:

    TENA, NAPO 1510
    casilla Postal: 217

    Teléfono.: 593 – 062 886-288/886-909,
    Fax: 593 – 062 886-288/886-909

    Good luck!

    inca said:
    Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 01:49 (117)

    I’m a development studies student in Melbourne, Australia and I’ve been reading about FONAKIN in some articles by Thomas Perreault. I was wondering if they have a website and where i can get the most up to date information on the organization.
    What you’re dong sounds great :D
    Muchas gracias!

    colono said:
    Friday, March 27, 2009 at 12:30 (562)

    Hi Inca,

    I don´t think that FONAKIN has a website yet, but they would like to have one. If you speak Spanish we can put you i touch with people who are active in FONAKIN. You would have to log in, then we get your email address (not publicly displayed) and can write to you directly.

    Enrique G de la G said:
    Friday, July 31, 2009 at 16:21 (723)

    Hola Colonos:

    I am currently working for a very well-known German newspaper, and am flying next Sunday to the Amazonía to check some Kichwa communities. It would be great to talk to you. Could you please mail me back to get in touch asap?

    Thanx so much (in advance!)

    Best, Enrique

    rubyfried said:
    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 17:54 (788)

    Hi Colono—

    I am working at a local midwifery in Archidona (20 minutes north of Tena). I am a volunteer from the US who found this midwifery-Ascociacion de Mujeres Parteras Kichwas del Alto Napo (AMUPAKIN).

    They are currently entering into negotiations with the government regarding potential changes to their health center, and are in need of legal aid in this delicate process. Considering they are a Kichwa organization as well, I am hoping that FONAKIN may be able to provide legal support for them through these negotiations.

    If we could be in contact to discuss the possibilities of this partnership, that would be great.

    Thank you,

    liz said:
    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 19:52 (869)

    Hola Colonos,
    This doesn’t actually relate to the above thread but I am blog-stupid and didn’t know how else to get in touch with you. Apologies.
    I recently read your piece about Jatun Sacha/Pfizer. So frustrating. I was planning on volunteering with Jatun Sacha and am now obviously trying to find a new, more legit org to work for. I was hoping you maybe had some ideas? I’d love working in the Tena region, though getting a but more remote would be sweet. I speak some Spanish and will take ~100 hours of language instruction before trying to volunteer. Have no knowledge of Kichwa, would love learning. Trying to find a gig where the focus is the environmental/natural resource focused but allows me to be working with people. So anyways, if you have any ideas and are feeling charitable I would love to hear from you! I listed my email above. Thanks so much. And for keeping this blog going.

    liz said:
    Wednesday, February 3, 2010 at 19:59 (874)

    Wow, actually I just read your profile info above. That sounds amazing and exactly what I would love to do. I have done a small amount of work with the Akwesasne Nation up by the NY/Canada border and am generally interested in such issues. Any chance you’d allow some clueless yet enthusiastic, hardworking kid to follow you around a bit? That’d be sick.
    Looking forward to hearing back.

    Roberto Tapia Villacres said:
    Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 11:57 (539)

    it is disturbing all this talk about the poor Indians and the kichwa rights. What about the real colonizers and our families who have worked very hard to make Tena a competitive city, please educate people with actual facts and i dont mean when the Spanish came with disease blablabla…. the Indians need to adhere, integrate to our society. because we all benefit from a sustainable apparatus.

    Ing.Roberto Tapia Villacres MBA University of New Haven

      colono said:
      Friday, May 21, 2010 at 11:04 (502)

      Anyone boasting an MBA in times like these – or any other time for that matter – have shown their true colours: most disturbing attitude to life and the world!

    colono said:
    Friday, May 21, 2010 at 11:14 (510)

    A general statement in response to FAQ:

    Over the years we have spend a lot of time and energy helping people finding their ways in Ecuador and Peru, but too many people just ask for a lot of information, we spend a lot of time suggesting projects, providing contacts and so on, just to find that in the end people go and do their own thing anyway.

    Personally, we think that you should go and find their own way – which is precisely what a contract and payment from home before you even leave makes impossible, but which is also what makes a lot of our efforts in vain and slightly frustrating – and therefore this is the message we have to everyone wanting to volunteer:

    Do your research, be critical, be open and open-minded, go there, make friends, allies and connections and then do some good work.

    Don’t bother going for less than 6 months, for social reasons and for environmental reasons.

    Show a good example! Try to understand the very different culture and ways of life, don’t judge and don’t assume you know.

    If you are not in favour of global capital and the commodity market place, be very critical and do your reading and talking to learned people beforehand, whether they are activists, social workers, development workers or academics. Read for example a book like Massimo de Angelis’s The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital, or Peter Linebaugh’sThe Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All” and for women’s struggles particularly see the work of Silvia Federici, especially her “Caliban and the witch: women, the body and primitive accumulation“. Finally, maybe have a look at Jay Griffiths’sWild: An Elemental Journey“.

    Most importantly of all: think and inform yourself very critically before you act – anything you do will have an impact, potentially an enormous one and easily a negative one, even though carried out with the best of intentions, if you do not know about local culture, politics and 500 years of colonisation by your fellow white people!

    Jon Ippolito said:
    Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 01:42 (113)

    Great to hear from someone doing work on this important edge. You might be interested in the Cross-Cultural Partnership, a legal framework for ethical behavior across cultural boundaries such as the one you are experiencing between colonizers and colonized in Latin America:


    (PS: I wrote the original post on “Your guide to the Facebook revolt of 2010” that you blogged recently.)

      colono said:
      Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 10:45 (490)

      Thanks…. Let’s hope Facebook sinks!

      Had a look at the http://connected-knowledge.net/ site – interesting. I have just written a PhD on property relations in this context (GPL, commoning etc.) with a central philosophical argument that is inspired both by hackers and indigenous peoples’ practices……

    woooo said:
    Friday, April 15, 2011 at 03:12 (175)

    can the ex-authors of the blog get in contact ? I’m interested in continueing these conversations in other fora

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