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Review of To Defend Ourselves by Billie Jean Isbell 2009/12/08

Posted by lcaceda in Uncategorized.
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In the book entitled To Defend Ourselves: Ecology and Ritual in an Andean Village, Billie Jean Isbell provides a landmark ethnographic study of the Chuschino people from the Southeastern Andes in Peru.  Despite the fact that Dr. Isbell is an anthropologist and wrote this book as such, her book still is significant for the field of planning.  Published 11 years after Dr. Isbell’s first trip to the village of Chuschi the book focuses on how the Chuschino’s have been able to perpetuate their way of life and defend themselves in the face of modernization; or as The Chuschino’s would say, “to defend ourselves” (Isbell, pg. 16).

Dr. Isbell presents her observations by beginning with historical context then moving into an evaluation of cultural characteristics and rituals, she wraps up the book with a post-script in which she evaluates and looks to the future of the Chushino’s.    From an environmental planner’s perspective the most pertinent information is found throughout the book as she writes about advocacy planning, environmental conservation, environmental negotiations, migration patterns, and predictions for the Chuschino’s future such as the importance of weighing economical incentives with their corresponding environmental impacts.

The usefulness of this book for planners has its strengths and weaknesses.  One weakness is that Dr. Isbell herself is not a planner and even though she presents very valuable statistical data and information she does not analyze as a planner would.  For example she acknowledges that out-migration is an issue that the Chuschino’s will have to deal with in order to retain the power to defend themselves against government agencies pressuring them to enter the national market but she fails to look at how this can develop by complementing  out-migration with in-migration.  She notes that schools, electricity, and other commodities will be necessary to help in retaining some of the population that is apt to migrating to Lima.  An interesting characteristic is present in the population issues of the Chuschino people. The interesting issue is that the population they need to retain need to be native to the area rather than non-native in order to preserve their rituals.  This type of consideration is very different from how a rationalist planner might approach the issue from a more data oriented base.

An area of strength from the book, for planners, is that she focuses a great deal on how she developed trust among the Chuschino’s.  Her persistence to become a member of the village and not just a scientist from the university who would occasionally visit for data gathering purposes, allowed her to be trusted and revered at a level that would not have been achieved otherwise.   This is a very important lesson to have documented for planners because at least once in our careers we will have to work in locations where we are not quite in sync with the cultural characteristics

Overall the book provides a great account of how to approach issues that can be considered as planning issues from a new perspective.  My favorite quotation from the book is “they are not opposed to better education and better health care, nor are they averse to higher standards of living.  However, they are fearful of losing what have controlled for so long” (Isbell, pg 220), because it highlights the notion that the issues faced by the native people are very unique and the solutions will have to be unique and custom tailored as well.  The ethnographic study conducted by Dr. Isbell provides a very powerful account of what planners need to consider not just on the international level but at the local domestic level as well.  The book furthers our progress from form based rational planning to communicative planning, which I believe is a path that we should continue on if we aspire to produce or preserve sustainable societies with healthy levels of culture.

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