• A photo is worth a thousand words
The New York Times highlighted the work of Nicolas Janowski, a freelance photographer who was trained as an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. In recent years, he has traveled around the western part of the Amazon in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. One result of his ongoing project is a photographic essay called The Liquid Serpent, referring to an indigenous term for the river that flows through the heart of the Amazon. The title offers a glimpse into Janowski’s conception of the region as having magical and mystical qualities. He says in his introduction: “The Amazon is neither man nor animal; she is nature’s hybrid.”
• The shifting odds of life and death in the Alto
Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, published an article in Natural History magazine describing changes in a shantytown in northeastern Brazil. She first lived in the Alto as a Peace Corps worker in 1954 and later returned to do fieldwork on poverty, hunger, and child death. Those experiences led to her book, Death Without Weeping and many other publications.
The undercurrent driving the book is the very high rate of infant and child mortality at the time. Parents responded through delayed bonding until a child made it through the early years.
Fifty years later, fertility rates are down in Alto as are infant and child mortality rates. Scheper-Hughes writes: “…the bottom line is that women on the Alto today do not lose their infants. Children go to school rather than to the cane fields, and social cooperatives have taken the place of shadow economies. When mothers are sick or pregnant or a child is ill, they can go to the well-appointed health clinic supported by both state and national funds. There is a safety net, and it is wide, deep, and strong.”
Yet, now “The people of the Alto do Cruzeiro still face many problems. Drugs, gangs, and death squads have left their ugly mark. Homicides have returned with a vengeance, but they are diffuse and chaotic … One sees adolescents and young men of the shantytowns, who survived that dangerous first year of life, cut down by bullets and knives at the age of fifteen or seventeen by local gangs, strongmen, bandidos, and local police in almost equal measure.”
As Scheper-Hughes has written so compellingly for many decades, the “modernization” of life and death churns on, taking different shapes in different contexts. One wonders what the next fifty years will bring to the people of the Alto.