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“Inculturating the market”

Entrepreneurial perspectives on capitalist predation among the Shuar of Ecuadorian Amazonia
Natalia Buitron et Grégory Deshoullière
Traduction(s) :
« Inculturer le marché » [fr]


How does an Amazonian population living at the margins of the globalized economy envision its involvement in the capitalist market? In this article, we examine the entrepreneurial perspectives expressed by leaders of the Ecuadorian Shuar of Transkutukú. Leaders place their hope in the pursuit of entrepreneurialism as a way to guarantee domestic and ethnic self-determination. This reflexive process is encapsulated by the local formula of “inculturating the market”, which promotes production, profit, and personal accumulation. Sorcery, motivated by envy, is identified by the villagers as the main obstacle to the desired economic progress.

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Notes de la rédaction

Article received on 9 January 2023, accepted on 22 March 2023.

Notes de l’auteur

The authors have been listed in alphabetical order by their surnames. They have contributed equally to the conception and the writing of this article. Grégory Deshoulliere is grateful to the European Research Council (grant agreement no. 715725) for its contribution to this publication.

Texte intégral

1“The socios welcome you to the 33rd anniversary of [the founding of] Ipiampats!” shouted the main speaker of the feast, as a procession of authorities paraded around the central plaza of a Shuar village in Transkutukú, in the Ecuadorian Amazonian foothills, in 2013. Meanwhile, in the communal courtyard, under the scorching heat emanating from the tin roof, wooden tables had been lined up and marked with the name of each producer – the husband or wife of the domestic units participating in the product displays. Each of the tables featured a collection of forest and horticultural foodstuffs: peanuts, ginger, manioc, sugar cane, cocoa fruit, tagua, palm hearts, and grubs. Most of the produce had careful signage indicating its price, just as you would expect to find in a marketplace.

  • 1 The Spanish colono, which translates into English as colonist, is an ambivalent product of colonial (...)

2The “Market of Ipiampats”, as the villagers called it, was the first “expo feria” ever celebrated by the community. There is no doubt that this event was modelled on the fairs and markets held in settler towns of the Upano Valley in which Ecuadorian colonos1 organize a range of these market fairs to exhibit and sell anything from cattle to cash crops to guinea pigs. Much to our surprise, however, none of the impressive display in Ipiampats was sold to visitors or villagers – the universally declared goal of a market. Instead, villagers ostentatiously gifted much of it to the Shuar officials who toured around the stalls admiring the riches of Ipiampats. Whatever was left over after the gifting, villagers either shared with their own relatives during the event or took back home to consume later. Yet no one seemed visibly disappointed by the outcome. In domestic conversations, no one appeared concerned about commercial failure; instead we heard the usual comments and chitchat. For example, a villager of Ipiampats wryly recounted that everyone had made an exaggerated effort to fit as much produce as they could on their stall – from the “sorcerer of the community” (her words) to the most active producer, whose polygynous marriage allowed him, she pointed out, to muster more food than anyone else.

3The market itself had been more of an exercise than a mercantile venture, and as such fulfilled an important goal despite resulting in zero profits: villagers were able to show their shrewd entrepreneurialism and readiness for market relations. The rehearsal, though it didn’t result in concrete sales at the time, was intended to enable future sales to non-locals. Through the spectacular display, villagers ensured the approval of the Shuar elected officials, thereby celebrating those who help mediate the prosperity of their communities through their savvy politicking in government. And with their gifting, villagers were also able to (re)familiarize these very leaders – most of whom now live near the settler towns – by allowing them to re-experience native foodstuffs and habits. The villagers hoped that these homey gifts would remind their elected leaders of their promises to bring infrastructure to their villages in Transkutukú.

4The then-ongoing construction of a road that would for the first time connect the Upano Valley (historically the colonial frontier) with the Transkutukú area certainly intensified the hopes the villagers placed that day in their market rehearsal and their public act of generosity. They hoped that the road would help them access hospitals and better infrastructure, as well as increase commercial opportunities for selling native products. The prefect of the province, a notable Shuar man about whom we will say more below, was the main protagonist of the construction of the road, which his administration completed at the very end of 2015. As one of the most important visitors at the first market of Ipiampats, he stressed this expectation of infrastructural-cum-commercial development through an enthusiastic speech:

  • 2 All translations from fieldwork are ours.

Mr President of the community, you just asked me about the collection centre [space used to gather cash crops]. No problem! Once we finish building the road, we’re going to construct that too [...], so that you have more space to do your trade, your assemblies, sports, and cultural activities: everything you wish [...]. You will have my support to boost the development of our people. To all the people gathered today in Ipiampats I say the following: continue doing more productive activities, and start trading, do not dismay!2

5The market of Ipiampats encapsulates the ethnographic dynamic we wish to explore. In events like this, villagers of Transkutukú are passionately and reflectively invested in turning money exchange to local advantage. In line with this, elected leaders seek to integrate villagers into the regional and national market economy, persuaded that, today, domestic good living requires money and external commodities. But Shuar leaders and their followers also insist on integrating themselves into the market in their own terms, which often reject the economic conditions or extractive activities imposed by the national government. For them, this constitutes a battle to redefine who masters and controls the terms of market mechanics. What the leaders repudiate is not so much the market economy or capitalist logic but their subordinate position in a merchant system historically dominated by non-Indigenous people.

6In this article, we examine the relationships that the Shuar of Transkutukú, an Amerindian population, currently develop with a particular mode of organizing value: the capitalist market economy. Our focus is on the reflective engagement they develop with capitalist market exchange by becoming entrepreneurial. We also examine the extent to which capitalist economic development, as conceived and implemented by Shuar elected leaders, comes to represent a social reform project led mostly by educated male graduates whose ideological toolkit owes much to the expansion of a neo-colonial agricultural front and a neoliberal model of development. In this analysis, we go beyond the opinion that Native Amazonians inherently resist capitalist development, a view often found in the regional literature or, in a much more idealized manner, in the manifestos of anti-capitalist activists. Our general aim is to provide a different grounding to understand contemporary capitalist expansion as a frontier battleground over political determination.

7We assume that while many lowlands South American Indigenous people have endured predicaments of world capitalist expansion – dispossession by extractive multinationals and agribusiness; violent encroachment by militias, governments, and settlers; ecological depletion and the denial of self-determination – they do not all relate to or conceive of these predicaments in the same way. Missionary activity, internal colonization, pressure from extractivist multinationals, and neoliberal policies from national government or multilateral aid projects that promote entrepreneurial citizenship have played and continue to play an influential role among lowland collectives such as the Shuar. The promises that these actors bring with them, whether regarding prosperity through entrepreneurialism or social mobility through economic empowerment, fuel powerful desires for change. This is especially true among the “brokers”, for whom relations with external actors often yield some benefits and/or for whom the dangers of an uncontrolled relationship with economic actors are immediately apparent.

8While in Western Europe environmentally disembedded models of development are undergoing a crisis of representation due to climate instability and biodiversity collapse, among our interlocutors such models have gained impetus in recent decades. The most mind-bending observations of our research were not the stories of jaguar visions recounted by ayahuasca-inebriated interlocutors (of which we surely encountered many), but instead the visions of development that motivated so much collective action in the villages of Transkutukú. Rather than secret experiences, these visions were publicly broadcast in speeches that vaunted participation in an economic model that furthers inequalities and changes the face of the forest through urbanization. The image that concrete and dollars could lead to emancipatory futures never ceased to haunt us.

9There is a wealth of contemporary anthropological analyses that examine how Native Amazonians deal with capitalism. Our approach has been informed by at least three different strands of analysis even while we aim to spell out the specificity of the Shuar situation. The first focuses on the relational schemas at play between Indigenous people and foreign actors of the market economy (e.g. Bonilla 2005; Wilson 2010; Walker 2012; Ewart 2013). This focus has been recently expanded through a political economic theoretical framework that specifically tackles the relations that Indigenous communities establish with states and multinationals (e.g. Nahum-Claudel 2012; Lu et al 2017: 133-177; Buitron 2020; Buu-Sao 2019, 2020). In this paper, we show that “economic” phenomena interweave with the making of personhood and interethnic relations. In particular, asymmetrical relationships with non-Indigenous economic power are encoded in schemas of predation and feeding, a situation that for the Shuar makes the transformation of such asymmetry through entrepreneurialism all the more urgent and desirable. The second strand examines processes of commodification, marketization, and forms of calculation (e.g. de Vienne & Allard 2005; Chaumeil 2009; Fausto 2016; Deshoullière 2017). Recently, this focus has been expanded through a few studies of communal and private enterprises led by Amazonian peoples, and the rise of the entrepreneurial role that follows, either through the Foucauldian lens of homo economicus in neoliberal imaginaries or the Weberian lens of the calculating rationality (e.g. Erazo 2010; Buu-Sao 2018; see also Di Giminiani 2018). Whilst reflecting the conclusions of some of these studies, the Shuar case shows how capitalist development can have a strong reflexive dimension, mostly embodied by educated, middle-aged male leaders. As such, it results neither from total external imposition, omnipotent and blind to the local situation, nor from a natural (human or “Indigenous”) impetus, as though such a stance could be neutral and uncontentious. This reflexive process, encapsulated by the local formula of “inculturating the market”, reveals itself as an expanding process of commodification of non-humans and ancestral practices, within a historical trajectory of state formation and ecological depletion. The third strand of analyses concerns the introduction of money and foreign commodities among community members and relatives (e.g. Howard 2002; Gordon 2006; Walker 2013; Novo 2018; Vanzolini 2018). Such studies show that Indigenous modes of ownership differ from capitalist assumptions in an important respect: appropriation in this region does not always imply possessive individualism – in fact, it runs contrary to a capitalist proprietary model since the individual “does not even exclusively own her or his (own) body” (Brightman et al. 2016: 9). What’s more, people have ongoing expectations and moral obligations towards others that prevent the emergence of economic inequalities. We illustrate that the Shuar, too, view property as embedded within relational networks. Our analysis of intra-village sorcery and envy, however, shows how the rise of entrepreneurialism also legitimizes exclusive possession and personal accumulation whereby members of a village feel entitled to “cut the network” (Strathern 1996) in the name of communal progress, which is in itself an outgrowth of state and market integration.

10We base our analysis on fieldwork conducted between 2010 and 2013 (and since then on short stints every one or two years), in different areas of the Transkutukú region, a forested area officially known as the Taisha county to the east of the Morona Santiago province. This focus is complemented by substantial stints of fieldwork in the urbanized frontier of the Upano Valley. Within Transkutukú, Natalia primarily worked in a network of villages in the Makuma area, a territory of evangelical implantation, whereas Grégory primarily worked in a similar network located in Tuutinentsa, an area historically connected to the Salesian mission. Whilst these areas have slightly different histories associated with different missions, we have found striking similarities with regard to people’s current engagement with the market economy. These similarities, we think, go some way towards demonstrating the robustness of the sociocultural frameworks the Shuar of Transkutukú mobilize and the external structures they encounter.

  • 3 The group was previously known as “Jivaro”, a term that has pejorative connotations for them (see D (...)

11The high mobility of Shuar villagers between rural villages and market towns makes a strict rural/urban divide problematic. But despite this mobility, our analysis cannot be applied to the situation of Shuar people living in areas other than Transkutukú, let alone to the whole Aénts Chicham3 linguistic group. The Transkutukú area differs from other administrative regions in significant ways: it is inhabited by a majority of Shuar and Achuar people whose social life is strongly structured by village communities rather than market towns. Until very recently, it was an area of difficult land access, where petroleum and mining industries were nearly absent, and, according to the Ecuadorian 2010 census, Taisha was one of “the poorest counties in the country”.

12We begin by situating our ethnography within the Shuar history of village formation and its strong links to market integration. We then explore how villagers understand their relations with the economic power of non-Indigenous people. The next section focuses on the important role leaders play in “inculturating the market” as a way to counteract the economic power of non-Indigenous people. The final section shows how accusations of envy reveal social limits to accumulation through market integration whilst legitimizing its moral uprightness, thus paving the way for individually accumulated wealth.

Steps towards market integration

Village formation and cattle ranching

13At least since the beginning of the 1970s, Shuar people in the Transkutukú area have lived in villages called centros or comunidades established along a communication axis (airstrip, river, pathway). Centros are small administrative and legal entities recognized by Indigenous federations and the Ecuadorian state. This political organization and territorialization into villages is the end result of a century of settler encroachment and state-led colonization pursued through missionization, militarization, and the expansion of an agricultural frontier. In what follows, we briefly recount how this process took place in order to understand how Shuar have come to think of their situation in the regional economy.

  • 4 The Shuar obtained, and still obtain, exchangeable wealth (kuit) from other people through peaceful (...)

14As early as the 1930s, the colonization of the Upano Valley by poor, landless peasants from the Andes (known as colonos) provoked a cascade of Shuar immigration to Chiguaza and the Transkutukú area, an occupation which, in turn, forced the Achuar originally living in those areas to move further east. The colonos occupied themselves with gold mining and cattle ranching in small private farms (minifundios). In the Upano Valley, relations between the Shuar and colonos ranged from symmetrical forms of exchange such as trade partnerships and friendships4 (Sh. amik) to more exploitative ones involving debt. In the latter, Shuar adults worked as peones (unspecialized agricultural workers) or partidarios (itinerant sharecroppers) whereas youths were criados (dependent domestic servants) in minifundios. Land appropriations, episodes of violence, and labour exploitation were commonplace in this period since an increasing number of new settlements made land gradually scarce and resulted in rising tensions between these two groups. This scenario began to change through the establishment, in 1964, of the famous Shuar Federation in Sucúa (Morona Santiago), created with the support of a new generation of Salesian missionaries inspired by a certain collectivism in force then. By acting as the de facto intermediary entity between the Ecuadorian state and most Shuar settlements, the Shuar Federation’s founding also instigated the formation of the Shuar people as a single nation with a strong ethnic identity (Rubenstein 2001), an idea encapsulated in the rallying cry, widely used in times of conflict, “Irúntrarik kakarmaítji”: “Only united will we be strong.” An equivalent federation was created in the Shuar territories of evangelical Protestant missionisation by the Gospel Missionary Union (GMU).

15In classic Lockean fashion, the national legal system of land tenure during this period (1964-1981) considered land that was not economically productive as empty. Although colonos in the Transkutukú area were very few in number, the threat of imminent colonization made it urgent to obtain land property titles for the Shuar and Achuar living in the area. Encouraging a shift towards “modernization”, as it was called at the time, the Shuar federations built on such policies and adopted cattle ranching as the most effective strategy to prove their people’s ability to put the land to economic use as a way to secure titles. Indeed, missionaries had already been experimenting with the introduction of extensive livestock ranching to promote the concentration of households beyond the perimeter of the missions – even if at the time Shuar did not consume beef or dairy products. More explicitly for the GMU Protestants in Makuma than for the Salesians, cattle ranching was introduced to encourage the Shuar to adopt a system of surplus production. According to the professional cattleman adviser of the GMU, cattle ranching would also help the Shuar to develop “the habit of paying for services as abstract as education” (Caswell 1967: 26; see also Taylor 1981).

  • 5 In the evangelical area of Makuma, the cooperative provided a model for creating an ethnic federati (...)
  • 6 Great man” is the translation of the Shuar term “uuntoriginally proposed by Taylor (1981). An uu (...)

16From the end of the 1970s, the number of centros increased rapidly in Transkutukú due to a new wave of migration of Shuar from the Upano Valley, this time encouraged by missionaries and Federation leaders to develop cattle breeding through a loan programme based on cattle cooperatives. In Transkutukú more than any other area, the concentration of houses in centros was supported by the creation of such cattle cooperatives.5 The sociological basis of cooperatives was the kin group of a “great man”.6 Cooperatives were supported by the IERAC – the State Land-Titling and Agrarian Agency, with funding from the World Development Bank – as part of its agricultural colonization projects. Designed for colonos and peasants, the cooperative functioned as an instrument for the allocation of credit and to control land appropriation at a time when one of the national government’s key agrarian reform objectives was to develop a capitalist rationalization of agricultural activity to fight latifundismo, the system of feudal production rampant in the Andes. According to Shuar accounts, the prospect of acquiring manufactured goods and securing territory (through collective land titles) was the main incentive for adopting cattle breeding and forming cooperatives.

17The cooperative-village pair entailed a significant change from an earlier form of organization based on shifting alliances of small fluid kin groups. In the minds of the instigators of this change (missionaries and federation leaders), cooperation among different domestic units should no longer gravitate around a close-knit network of relatives that coalesced into a shifting faction, but rather around a set of individuals bound by shared economic interests and united within a legally constituted entity, the centro, which was in turn subordinated to the federation. Anthropologists Mark Münzel and Axel Kroeger (1981: 282), who witnessed the expansion of cooperatives instigated by the FICSH federation in the Upano Valley, described the process thus:

The Shuar Federation wants to reinforce the old communitarian spirit, but on a new basis: rather than kinship, common economic interests tied to a new market must bring together Indigenous people. The new centros [villages] are the framework for cooperatives which organize, above all, communal cattle husbandry for sale to non-Indigenous people (our translation).

18In other words, production for exchange, as a sphere distinguished from other forms of relation, had to function as an engine of larger group solidarity. This idea was easier stated than implemented, however. In their report on the Upano Valley villages to the leaders of the Shuar federation, Münzel and Kroeger (ibid.: 255) painted a scathing picture of the late 1970s:

The Indigenous traditionalists prefer to develop solidarity with their relatives rather than with the community of the centro [village] and rebel against the collective imposition of the cooperative. [...] After the Federation succeeded in uniting a majority of the peons and small Indigenous peasants in centros [villages], most of which are new, so as to guarantee the right to the land and a cooperative policy, [...] there is now a growing tendency among many Shuar to abandon the centros according to the Jivaro [Aénts Chicham] tradition of changing place and alliance with the neighbours (our translation).

19As Philippe Descola (1982: 231) noted in an early article on the Shuar federation in the Upano Valley, the pastoral economy initially contributed to a reinforcement of the centripetal tendencies of each domestic unit, rather than to a real embrace of the collectivist ideology furthered by the leaders of the Federation and their Salesian advisers. Without unifying principles (such as clans or lineages) to circumscribe cooperative membership through transgenerational groups, the new villages and cattle cooperatives were doomed to fractioning due to the competitive dynamic of interpersonal alliances with heads of household. Nevertheless, the Shuar did not choose to revert to a house model of organization, as the previous generation had lived. When they left a village, it was often to join another one or to found a new one elsewhere, sometimes by setting up a new cooperative with their moving kin group. Indeed, if they never really embraced the collectivist ideology furthered by the Federation, the imperative to organize a kin group as a legally recognized village remained indispensable to secure land, access to new infrastructure, and projects of market integration promoted by missions, federations, state, and non-governmental organizations.

20Together, then, the threat of territorial encroachment, Christian and pro-market proselytizing, and the legal imposition to appropriate and exploit lands ultimately empowered those great men with the ability to concentrate allies around new centros, adding a novel economic dimension to their power of influence (Taylor 1981: 120). All of this transformed pre-existing dispersed settlements, where each household constituted a quasi-autonomous political unit in terms of subsistence production, into a village organization led by elected local authorities, governed by community regulations, and fuelled by the market integration of its members.

Village setting and development

21Spatial organization in contemporary Shuar villages reflects this new geo-social order that combines political and productive activities. A village is usually divided into the urban centre (urbanización) and the fields (fincas). The urban centre is the heart of the village, where all communal buildings and facilities are built: the central plaza, with the houses built next to each other around it, the assembly hall for village meetings, the football and ecua-volley pitches, and the school. It is in this urban centre that a locus communis takes shape through regular village assemblies. By contrast, the finca is the area devoted to domestic subsistence and commercial production. It includes areas of cultivation, breeding (poultry, guinea pigs, etc.), grazing, harvesting, hunting, fishing, and often a second residence. Villagers are unanimous in saying that a house (typically a husband, one or two wives, and their unmarried children) cannot rely only on these resources to lead a good life. The concentration and sedentarization of houses around the same area and the overexploitation of surrounding forest, especially due to prior cattle ranching and population growth, have made fishing, gathering, and hunting activities less reliable. A household thus typically supplements the lack of meat in its diet with sardine cans and batches of industrial eggs from stalls run by Shuar schoolteachers or colonist traders. In addition to buying meat and other consumables, villagers emphasize that they also need money to pay for important health cures (whether shamanic or medical), school utensils, and items such as clothes and manufactured tools to work their fincas. Beyond the domestic core, every village covets the supply of communal infrastructures that make permanent village life sustainable – from electricity to piped drinking water.

22But above all, the modern idea of progress prevails among our interlocutors. A life that consists of living with loved ones on the basis of horticulture, gathering, hunting, brewing manioc beer, and a little animal husbandry means only “vivir por vivir” (living for the sake of living), as villagers often state in Spanish when they refer to their parents’ and grandparents’ ways of life. Nowadays they have to “move forward” (emtikiatin; Sp. seguir adelante). Through villages, Shuar people have also acquired a particular historical consciousness whereby they, as formerly autonomous hunter-gatherers and swidden horticulturists, occupy positions of inferiority in wider translocal hierarchies where racism and classism are pervasive. Engaging with village social organization entails entering a marginalizing process of comparison with urban, colonist others living in prosperous market towns (see Buitron 2023). Villagers assume that the aspiration “to move forward” is the way to overcome the inequalities they experience in terms of material infrastructure and economic resources.

23The ways in which villagers pursue progress and development – for which they use the same Shuar term (emkatin) – are of one piece with their pursuit of personal and collective autonomy. That is, they require creating local conditions for internal productivity so as to minimize the asymmetrical dependencies that underpin relations with external others. This, as we shall see, is the key message leaders promote among their followers. But before we turn to the discourse of leaders, we need to say more about how villagers conceive of the asymmetry in which they situate their lives.

Economy beyond exchange: predation and nurture

24An analysis that focuses solely on the economy would miss the interweaving of so-called economic phenomena (especially the production, circulation, and consumption of goods) with the production of people and interethnic relations. It is this connection that justifies the oft-generalized difference between Amazonian and Euro-American capitalist outlooks on wealth: bluntly put, the accumulation of material goods in capitalist societies versus the accumulation of life in non-capitalist Amerindian collectives (Santos Granero 2015). A reading closer to the latter would thus subsume economic processes within a broader dynamic of life capture and consumption that includes humans and non-humans.

  • 7 Catholic Shuar often say that missionaries prevented them from handling money on the grounds that “ (...)

25There is a certain consensus among Transkutukú villagers that their present situation is marked by an unbearable (though reversible) asymmetry vis-à-vis non-Indigenous people with money, an asymmetry that the latter aim to perpetuate.7 A history of interactions with colonos plagued by labour exploitation, scams, and abuse has clearly contributed to the view whereby the possession of money grants an extraordinary power of influence and exaction. Most middle-aged Shuar people have experienced precarious and exploitative work away from their communities in places dominated by non-Indigenous people, whether in fincas or factories. In this section, we focus only on two interrelated aspects of this asymmetry, without claiming to describe the totality of the phenomenon: the first concerns the concept of predation as it relates to the subjugating and commodifying power of the possession of money; and the second relates to concepts of feeding and ownership in relation to processes of dependence and alterity brought about by the consumption of foreign goods.

26Predation – that is, the predator-prey schema – is the relational principle whereby the non-reciprocal appropriation of substances and identities from others becomes the necessary condition for the perpetuation of the self. While predation is by no means the only relational principle that exists in Amazonia, it characterizes widespread cosmopolitical patterns in the region, and particularly among the Aénts Chicham (e.g. Taylor 2006). It involves the unilateral capture of materials – such as proper names, vital substances, bodily trophies, etc. – that sustain communities of people who share bodily appearance, in particular thanks to spatial proximity and the sharing of food and other substances. Applying this framework to their situation, the Shuar of Transkutukú perceive themselves in a reversible prey position in the face of predatory economic actors (always perceived as urbans). Indigenous peoples, their products, and their habitats appear in this perspective as reservoirs of raw materials captured and processed in distant cities. What the rich outsiders would ultimately like to appropriate is their quality of integrity, which, in the strict sense of the term, denotes a whole and unimpaired state of being due to the absence of alteration, contamination, or damage.

27Testimonies abound of strangers’ unscrupulous willingness to extract and capture the resources of Indigenous people. For starters, the extractivist quest for Indigenous lands offers striking evidence. Villagers are aware that during the last few decades, the global demand for minerals, hydrocarbons, and timber has transformed the Ecuadorian Amazon into an indispensable economic frontier for international capital accumulation. For Indigenous people, not complying with this request may result in the intrusion of state military forces into their lands. Yet subtler proof of outsiders’ thirst for appropriation is the foreign fascination with Indigenous bodies. Matching this is the endless fascination of rich tourists – and the occasional anthropologists – with anything that promises more pristine costumbres (customs) and environments.

  • 8 In rumours, oral accounts, and mythical stories widespread in the Andes, the Pishtaco (also called (...)

28But perhaps the most revealing illustration of the risk of falling prey to rich foreigners’ thirst for Indigenous substances is the figure of the head-hunter (Sp. corta-cabeza, muukan tsupin, lit. head-cutter). Before sedentarization in villages, Shuar elders captured the heads of intertribal enemies and ritually turned these into tsantsas or shrunken faces, to be incorporated into the local group as part of a ceremonial cycle of life appropriation, and then thrown away at the end of the cycle. Little understood by foreigners, this practice has earned the Shuar their notorious reputation as “ferocious savages”. During our fieldwork, rumours had turned this image on its head, depicting the Shuar as the actual victims of White head-hunting. As the rumours had it, gringos, who may look like tourists, doctors, NGO workers, or anthropologists, pay exorbitant prices to a chain of unscrupulous Shuar (or sometimes colono) men, often tour guides or young émigrés living in the peripheries of settler towns, to capture people’s heads from their community of origin. The preferred victims are said to be young women and men with long hair, i.e. those with a traditional hairstyle. These rumours, which echo the Andean trope of pishtaco,8 are neither entirely new nor entirely inaccurate. Although our interlocutors never mentioned it to us, we know from the archives and historical studies that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, early colonists known as Macabeos who lived in the Upano Valley became the intermediaries of a macabre trade involving tsantsas premised on the principle of a gun for a tsantsa. The aim was to supply curiosity cabinets and Euro-American museums via yet other intermediaries in Riobamba, a city in the central Andes.

29The corta-cabeza rumour synthesizes a local exegesis of the networks of influence within market exchanges in the neo-colonial frontier: rich gringos recruit a Shuar professional or a colono who in turn relies on locally uprooted and alienated Shuar people to do the “dirty work” of head-hunting. The trade supply chain links all these actors through the predatory lure of gain and morbid accumulation. The corta-cabeza is therefore above all a political concept. It articulates wage labour with extractivism, exchange with predation, exaction with commodification. In it, the Shuar express most vividly their repulsion and susceptibility to becoming prey, a concern certainly fed by past experiences of exploitation, epidemics, dispossession, and trafficking. But more than an Indigenous critique of capitalism per se, as Santos Granero and Barclay propose (2011), these rumours reflect an awareness of their fragile position in global supply chains, where they mostly appear as vessels of raw material for rich people who transform everything into a commodity. A critique implies refusal, while the rumours express a moral denunciation that renders visible the relations of subjugation and predation concealed by supposedly free and equal market exchanges. As we will see next, by seeking to overturn their subjugation, the Shuar aspire not so much to fairness or reciprocal exchanges as to counter-predation – occupying the predator position in an asymmetrical exchange.

30Predation (read as the power of money ownership to capture and extract Indigenous raw materials) is only one aspect of the dynamic of asymmetry involved in market relations. We can identify a second aspect which concerns feeding, a relation that involves regional rather than international actors. Feeding is an asymmetrical relationship that involves, in the Amazonianist anthropological literature, a way of both caring for and controlling others (see Fausto & Costa 2013; Brightman et al. 2016). Feeding is the mark of a relationship between an owner and their dependants. Nutrition is indeed the primary method of classifying beings as well as moulding them – that is, turning them into subjects who share the same kind of corporeality (Taylor & Viveiros de Castro 2006). The challenge that the market economy presents to Shuar villagers is how to occupy the positions of feeders or owners rather than of dependants who are nurtured. In other words, villagers ultimately view the market exchange of foods not so much as the circulation of goods of unequal value, but rather as a relationship with those who create and own them.

31Market exchanges are not simply a matter of money; they inevitably lead to the consumption of manufactured goods and foodstuffs such as Coke, Pilsener beer, or battery-farmed chicken. Consumption of this kind regularly elicits villagers’ concerns because, as they put it, it leads to the weakening (majat) of their bodies, or even a slow decline into a sickly state. This is precisely what is celebrated by village markets like the Ipiampats fair of garden and forest produce described in the introduction: the possibility of moving beyond this process by becoming feeders of colonists. It is worth clarifying that by feeding colonists, they do not aim so much to “familiarize” them – that is, turn them into kin – as might be the case within the consubstantial community. Instead, they seek to occupy the position of owner in a chain of market exchanges. For instance, Mario, one of the leaders from Ipiampats, told us that he aimed to encourage the women of the village to sell manioc beer at colonist parties, while at the same time banning, or at least reducing drastically, the consumption of bottled beer within Shuar village parties: “It’s time they [the colonos] learn to drink and buy our beer, as we have done with theirs.” For the villagers, selling indeed occupies a prime role in gaining the position of independent owner. Villagers should sell their own products to colonists, from handicrafts to cash crops such as cocoa, peanuts, and naranjilla.

Inculturating the market

  • 9 They do so typically as members of Pachakutik, the electoral branch of the Indigenous movement, whi (...)

32Leaders – mostly men – are typically school-educated individuals qualified for white-collar jobs – that is, “professionals” (unuímiaru, Sp. profesionales), as villagers call them. They are literate (including in digital technologies), fluent in Spanish, and bureaucratically savvy. What gets these leaders elected is above all their ability to embed themselves into clientelist networks and broker relations with mainstream politicians and powerful managers of NGOs. To do so, they have roughly three interrelated paths beyond the duties of village president: climbing the ladder within the Indigenous movement (starting with a leadership position in a local federation); winning elections to work as political representatives in state offices;9 or making a career as civil servants or promoters of development in a state institution or NGO.

33Villagers are emphatic that their leaders must not subordinate their interests to those of powerful outsiders at the expense of villagers’ welfare. Doing so would, at best, prove them to be mediocre and, at worst, analogous to the corta-cabezas we mentioned earlier – that is, Native people who work for foreign extractors. Instead, the figure of the leader features as anti-corta-cabeza par excellence. Even so, the suspicion that they could be seduced, influenced, or manipulated by powerful outsiders is omnipresent. One way for leaders to avoid these suspicions is to ensure that the wealth they bring to the community comes from capture rather than from a reciprocal exchange with outsiders. This is because villagers read most reciprocal exchanges with powerful outsiders in terms of negative asymmetry – that is, a gain for the colonos at their expense. Instead, leaders should take advantage of the colonists to the benefit of villagers. So, for some to win, others must lose.

34In recent decades, the Transkutukú area has undergone significant infrastructural development through road connectivity, making the goal of commercial production a more concrete target. The most important example in this regard was the construction of the Ebenezer-Makuma-Taisha road (2012-2016), which connected the territories of Transkutukú (the county of Taisha) with the main settler towns of the region (Macas and Puyo), and by extension with the rest of the country. After many years of repeated interruptions and broken promises, Marcelino Chumpi, the Shuar prefect of the province elected under the Pachakutik flag, resumed the construction of the road within Transkutukú. Chumpi was no ordinary prefect: he was the first Indigenous person to be elected to a prefecture, the most important public office at the level of the province in a region where colonos have historically monopolized electoral politics and state budgets. The construction of the road became the main point of contention between the Shuar of Transkutukú and the Ecuadorian government. For our Shuar interlocutors, the road came to symbolize their capacity to use local government resources to pursue development on their own terms, as well as their ability to sabotage the central government’s intention to blackmail them into oil and mining extraction. This act of defiance illustrates how a capable leader gains legitimacy by privileging capture over reciprocal exchange with non-Shuar, even if gestures of defiance often lead to important political unrest (see Deshoullière 2016).

35At the same time, the conflict over the road created an intense moment of internal reflection among villagers about the specific ways in which they should pursue economic development: whilst some privileged cash crops such as cocoa or peanut, others vaunted the benefits of Shuar-led extractivism (timber such as balsa tree, and “artisanal mining”), and yet others defended alternatives such as tourism and cultural activities that tap into the national patrimonial market. As the reader may intuit, some of these proposals are at odds with each other, yet they all fit within a broader template of a market economy (see also Cova 2021). In this respect, the prefect Chumpi was able to set an influential imprint of entrepreneurial Indigenous autonomy. Like him, the most reputed leaders aim to harness provincial state budgets to fuel local economic growth which is expected to engender market opportunities, and self-fashioned progress, through the framework of entrepreneurialism. Typically, village leaders use rural entrepreneurship programmes promoted by the government and non-governmental agencies to make their fellow men entrepreneurs as well. Such programmes present a certain fit between the discourses of the leaders and the neoliberal ideology of market entrepreneurialism. The latter is often a key feature of rural development agendas and anti-poverty intervention led by governments and NGOs in contemporary South America (e.g. Di Giminiani 2018).

36So, what leaders emphasize is that villagers must become entrepreneurial in order to reap profit from production. Consider the following speech by the Shuar leader Sergio Ayuí, mayor of the county of Taisha during 2014-2018. In his speech, given on the occasion of a visit during a village celebration, he stresses the comparison with mestizo settlers, and highlights the central question of the commodification and economic use of land that has dominated colonial relations in the region:

Atumi uchiri unuímiakarti nu jíntia winiakui suruktin na arakmatarum. Cacao aratarum, shiam, kuchi ipiampartarum, tura iik jintia jikmiasha áya wekamka warijaink kuit waínkiataj. Nunka takakeaji iikia yatsurú, nunkanam producía ajastai ! Warijai apachia kuítian waínkiaru ainia? Kuítian waínkiaru ainia? Nayaimpinmaya kuítkia tarutcharu áiniawai, atsa. Ninkia timiaju yaúnchuk jintintiamu asár, kuítniaka nunkanmaya najanawar, ninkia timiau kunkuimiancha najantkar, apachkia emkatin wekainiawai. Tuma asamtai iisha enentaimratai yamáikia, progreso, un desarrollo, iin nunkesh itiurkataj? Áya arakma yua yuakurek matsamtiaj, auchujainkia tuyá producia ajasar kuit waíniaj iisha mercadonam, nuna ukunam kuítrin ajasartataj. Nu enentáimratai tusan yatsurú nu enentai ikiureajrujme.

We must prepare your children because once the road gets here, you should cultivate for sale. Let’s plant cocoa, let’s increase chicken, pigs, because if we are just going to use the road only to walk, then we do not get any profit. We, we have the land, my brothers, so let’s cultivate it! How have colonos generated money? How did they enrich themselves? Money did not fall from the heavens, no. They have been educated in that way for a long time; by making wealth out of the land, they have built roads, vehicles, and now they move with progress. That is why now we also need to think about progress, about some development, what are we going to do with our land? We cannot simply live eating our own crops, instead we must produce to sell in the market to increase our income for the future. We need to think about this, brothers, and this is the thought I leave you with.

37The speech relied on the widespread stereotype that mestizo people have astonishing money-making abilities. Indeed, villagers often marvelled at the way colonos were able to transform everything into a commodity. “You go to the markets, they make everything look shiny. What power is it?” was one man’s question on a lazy Sunday afternoon watching the football matches in Achunts (Makuma area). “Those people from the Coast [Sp. costeños], they also can sell you anything, with their smooth talk. They know that sort of stuff,” added another. “Say if we started selling something, what would we sell? Our people still don’t understand money,” retorted an elderly man.

  • 10 For the missionaries, it was a matter of discovering a primitive Christianity already present in th (...)

38To overcome this (alleged) lack of understanding and get on top of the money-making game is precisely what prefect Chumpi calls “the inculturation of the market”, an expression that neatly sums up the logic of the game. “Inculturation” (Sp. inculturación) echoes the theological toolbox of Salesian missionaries of the sixties and seventies linked to the Catholic Church’s culturalist turn of the Second Vatican Council. In contrast to acculturation, inculturation implies continuity in change.10 In a collection of academic texts mostly dedicated to oil exploitation, Chumpi (1999) discussed how the Shuar should appropriate the mechanisms of wealth extraction specific to the capitalist market economy. Rather than emulate the colonos, the aim is to outdo them, and, above all, avoid being at the receiving end of the colonists’ subjugating moves.

39Obviously, Chumpi, like the villagers who support him, remains painfully aware that entrepreneurial activity can also bring destitution and dispossession, for example, if villagers start selling off raw material like timber, whilst buying in the cities what they can no longer procure for themselves in the forest. Infrastructure must therefore stimulate entrepreneurial activity that enables Shuar to achieve, in the first instance, a degree of alimentary self-sufficiency and integrity – that is, feed themselves their own food – while allowing them to become feeders of others, by selling their own produce to them rather than buying from them and therefore getting dispossessed in the process.

40Forests and non-humans are not absent from local reflections on market inculturation. When addressed by Shuar leaders, however, they are integrated into an expanding process of commodification or, related to it, they need to be protected so as to guarantee the success of tourist activities. A Transkutukú leader, with a well-established career in “sustainable development” NGOs, illustrates how market appropriation requires not only the perpetuation of self-sufficiency through food integrity but also the insertion of non-humans into the market sphere. This is what he said as part of a conversation with Grégory and another villager about the opportunities of the new road:

Wikia tú weajai eamkatniuka iniaisar nuya ju namak nijiata jusha iniaisar tura ii nekas suriktintri ajasar entsa epenkar ipiamparar. Kapunniunmaya yajásmash achikiar tánkumar… Urukamtai? Mash amunawai. Amukamtaish ii uchirisha warinia yuawartatá? Tuma asamtai yunkits áiniana au, kashai áiniana au, paki áiniana au achirar tánkumkar kame tánkumamu ipiamparar. Nuna jeanchu, ni kame pujustintri najánar ipiamparar iish yurumatniuka nuya kuítkia suruktin. Nunis jútikia penker iisar biodiversidad waínkiar, iik ipiamparar surukar kuítkia suruktatji. Kame ii turachkurkia aya eamtak pujurtiatji, ii takatri atsawai, kuit waínkitin atsawai, ii uchi unuíniartin atsawai. Aya eamtak pujakur takatmantsaji. Nekachma tsawancha ajapnawai, takakmantsawai [...]. Tuma asamtai carreterajai ipiamparartai, surutmartai, kampunniush waínkiartai yajásmash nuya kampuntin amukaij tusar nuu ii uuntri túrin ármiayi.

Me, I usually say that we should stop hunting and poisoning fish and instead devote ourselves to lucrative activities such as fish farming. We should also catch and domesticate forest animals ... Why? Because everything is on the wane. And if everything finishes, what will our children eat? So we have to catch the agouti, the paca, the peccary, domesticate and reproduce them in captivity. Not inside the house, but in an appropriate place so as to reproduce them for our consumption and for business. Doing so, we care for biodiversity, we would produce [things] ourselves and then sell [them] at the market. Moreover, if we don’t do it, we only devote ourselves to hunting, no more work, no more making money, no more educating our children. When we just spend our time hunting, we stop working. We waste time and do not work [...]. So, with the road, let’s produce, sell, take care of the forest and everything so as not to destroy the forest as our elders did.

41This extract is exemplary in the intertwining of naturalism and capitalism: it brings together the commodification of forest fauna with its protection (kept outside domestic relations, therefore not as pets), and the value of work with the profitable use of time. All of these are opposed to predation by hunting, which the leader sees as embodied in the practices of the elders. In other words, the patterns of predation and familiarization are depreciated in favour of those of production and protection. As we have seen, the speech of the mayor of the county of Taisha quoted above goes in the same direction: with the new road the villagers should start relating to their territory in an economic way, “by making wealth out of the land” as the colonists have. Reflections of this kind are clues of the ontological changes underway among Shuar leaders and villagers, in a historical trajectory of state expansion that began with establishing a property relationship with the land and animals (via cattle ranching). They illustrate how the “inculturation of the market” recomposes living beings and territory and subordinates them to the attribution of market value – which turns non-humans into commodities and commodities into capital.

42Following this logic, leaders also promote exchanges based on a mercantile view that facilitates tourist and commercial activity within the public spaces of the villages. For example, they often incite villagers to sell rather than gift food and manioc beer during their festivals, substituting profit for hospitality – an initiative that villagers eagerly discuss at present. Whether leaders sing the praises of commercial farming or investment in eco-lodges, the key message is that progress is achieved by increasing mercantilization – that is, by fostering exchange rather than use value. An even more radical initiative that some leaders proselytize is replacing collective property titles with individual ones within the villages, as a way to unlock the potential for household credit. In addition to providing access to bank loans, individual titles would enable villagers to sell their plots to settlers. These leaders recognize, however, that this might pave the way for dispossession.

43Such scenarios clearly raise the question of the viability of autonomy within a strategy of market integration through entrepreneurship. Yet leaders like Chumpi often paint a rosy future in which the Shuar take control over extractive industries and change the logic of the extractive game for their own benefit. They thus exercise a power that could be termed, following Piergiorgio Di Giminiani, the “governance of hope” (2018). In doing so, they affirm a form of cultural or ethnic originality imagined as impervious to the consequences of economic and territorial transformations. However questionable and utopian this position might be, it stresses that it is not the capitalist market economy that bothers most Shuar leaders, especially in the context of unequal interethnic relations and the increasing difficulty of ensuring the reproduction of living habitats. What bothers them is their position as potential prey and as dependants in the current configuration. A short speech by the President of the Shuar Federation in 2018 to his supporters in response to criticism he had heard about his management summarizes this logic of greater involvement in merchant entrepreneurship as a means of collectively leaving an unfavourable position: “The rich, those who have money, they don’t want the Shuar and their organizations to have money too. Why? Because that way they can keep the Shuar as prey.”

Envy and accumulation

44With the end of the cooperative experiment that gave rise to villages in the region, communities gradually lost some control over the labour and income generated by their members. Currently, the village offers a legal framework whereby individuals and small kin groups establish commercial relations with external actors, whether public or private. It is in helping villagers to establish such relations that the work of leaders fulfils an important articulating role. And where state and NGO-supported commercial projects are “communal” (Sp. comunitarios), householders frequently attempt to particularize the implementation of these projects in order to preserve their own domestic autonomy.

45A combination of luck, investment capacity, and clientelist connections to powerful leaders dictates some family businesses’ relative success and accumulative capacity over others. Whilst more unstable in nature, these commercial activities join earlier waves of accumulation by salaried schoolteachers and elected leaders who have for some time been able to distinguish themselves by renovating their houses, buying petty commodities such as sound systems and home appliances, and raising a few heads of cattle (the accumulation of which has long functioned as local saving accounts). Activity sponsored by leaders can then lead to the enrichment of certain individuals and family units more than others, as can be expected from activities geared towards capitalist profit. This raises the question of how villagers deal with personal accumulation. Do they posit positive limits to internal accumulation, in the sense of deliberately chosen and valued ways to limit personal accumulation? Or do they reproduce the market game within their communities?

46The asymmetry between leaders and their followers is of a shifting and far more acceptable kind compared to the one that characterizes relationships with colonists and the distant rich Whites. Native leaders change rapidly and, in the eyes of their supporters, a leader is a creator of leaders (see also Codjia 2019): he has to work towards creating more symmetrical relations that enable villagers to become leaders. Thus, leaders achieve legitimacy and local authority not through the possession of wealth – although this is often a consequence of holding public office – but through its redistribution. Redistribution does not happen through big feasts (though these, too, may occur). Rather, Shuar leaders must mobilize external wealth in order to equip and enrich their villages with the projects, infrastructures, and knowledge that will improve local conditions (see Buitron 2020). Similarly, villagers underscore that their leaders should not capture external wealth for the benefit of close relatives only; rather, a principle of parity must be respected whereby divisible goods are shared with each and every domestic unit, or, in the case of indivisible goods, they must benefit all villagers. An example of the former may be tilapia fingerlings or construction materials given to individual households, whereas a school, public house, or road meets the conditions of the latter.

47What’s more, the success of one is – at least discursively – praised as desirable and compatible with the idea of living well together. Anyone who has lived in a Shuar village knows that the desire to live well together (pénker matsamsatin) is constantly reaffirmed in the speeches delivered by heads of household in village assemblies. Living well taps into a pre-existent and largely implicit moral economy of kinship, whereby people are expected to share with each other foods, words, residential proximity, labour, and festive activities. Being a member of a village means extending this moral economy to the community of co-residents, even if this raises new challenges, namely distinguishing what is “communal” from what is “personal” and managing the competing obligations created by the moral expectation to behave as “kin-congeners” to a much larger group of people. But the most important challenge is the rise in envy and sorcery, which villagers consistently view as the main internal obstacle to their vision of progress because it undermines personal accumulation. That is, villagers’ experiences of envy and sorcery give rise to powerful critiques of the self-generated obstacles they face in their pursuit of commercial success. Let us examine this process.

48The envious are said to act secretly, using their favourite weapons – low blows, discreet backbiting that misleads (tsanúma), and occult malfeasance as when people pay a shaman to harm others on their behalf (waweamu, yajauch najánamu; Sp. brujería, malhechos). As Lenin, a middle-aged villager, showed us his gardens, he remarked with annoyance that not so long ago he had very prolific dragon-fruit trees with particularly sweet fruit, but “out of envy” (Sp. por envidia), someone caused them to die, thus cutting short his commercial plans. Similarly, a remarkable villager, Adolfo, despite his young age, had just graduated with a degree in education. With no children and a monthly salary, he lived with his wife in greater material comfort than most of his neighbours. Yet not long after, his recently pregnant wife became seriously ill, “out of envy”, as he told us.

49When the threat of envy escalates and tensions paralyse everyday interaction, villagers may convene public assemblies where they discuss the matter collectively. It is in these assemblies that heads of households lament the situation and exhort others to live well together by leaving envy and sorcery behind. Consider the speech of Tarcisio, an aspiring cattle-man and elected leader in Ipiampats:

Winia nuar yamái takus, wáit anemai aja pujawai winia nuar. Iiyutarum wáitrakun tatsujai ! Nuwaiti nekás íi nakítiamu unuímiaruti tajinia, nu pénker matsamsatin wakéraji. Ya wáaka surutmak kuítian waitmaktinian nakitia? Ya warinrin ipiampar nuna yuatnium nakitia? Enta nuniniáiti íi sunkurmajnia nu warinkisha jeach jearmataj tukamasha tujiarar eketeaji. No podemos invertir, porque ahí directo nos cae la enfermedad. Si yo compro un motor de luz, si yo compro una motosierra, en éste instante enfermedades me vienen, si yo tengo dos cabecitas de ganado dicen « Tarcisio Chu millonario-aiti, hay que hacerle daño ». Esos criterios deben acabar compañeros. Si somos licenciados, nekas pénker matsamsatin wakérainji, frenemos ese vicio que está ingresando, juí irutkamunam.

Recently my wife gave birth, but she is suffering. Go and see, I am not telling you lies! This is really what we don’t want; we who call ourselves educated [schooled] and want to live well together. Who doesn’t want to make money by selling livestock? Who doesn’t want to eat the things they grow? Well, even if we want to, we can’t achieve anything because we make ourselves sick, we’re stuck. We can’t invest, because then the disease comes straight to us. If I buy an electric generator, if I buy a chainsaw, diseases come my way right away. If I have two small heads of cattle, [the envious] say, “Tarcisio Chu is a millionaire, we have to hurt him.” These views must stop, compañeros. If we are graduates [high school graduates], if we really want to live well together, then let’s put the brakes on this vice that is penetrating the community here.

50Tarcisio’s message stresses the intimate link between being educated and “living well together”. The idea here is that progress is embodied by the achievements of formally educated elected leaders. So goes the critique then: although many villagers claim they are educated, or desire to be like educated people, in order to progress, they bewitch those who try to invest, produce, and achieve. This observation could have been made by any other villager. People generally complain that it is impossible to rise economically in Shuar villages, and there is a general feeling of being “stuck”. The “vice” (“vicio”, a Spanish word) to which Tarcisio refers is envidia, envy. Calling it a vice, Tarcisio probably echoes the Christian dogma about the seven deadly sins, of which envy is a central one, thereby reinforcing his moralizing stance as a head of household.

51What Tarcisio ultimately defends is the idea that domestic investment in the possession of goods is part and parcel of living well together, and this is precisely what sorcery motivated by envy stands against. A month or so before the assembly where Tarcisio spoke, he had been working as the head of the Education Department of the federation FICSH based in Sucúa, a small market town, two days away from Ipiampats. At the end of his tenure, he returned to Ipiampats, where he held a “party with his people” (“shuarijai nampermamu”, also called in Spanish a “fiesta familiar”) – that is, a party that villagers distinguish from “a village party” (irutkamu nampermamu, Sp. fiesta comunitaria). For the occasion, he killed a young bull and treated his guests to manioc beer and rice, an unusual and appreciated grain. Shortly afterwards, he told us with dismay that he had overheard gossip about him from “envious people raging in vain”. Then his wife became ill, so his suspicions of wrongdoing were immediately directed at the envious backbiters: “Because that’s the way it is here, they don’t like it when you have more than them. If you have more, they get angry and want to hurt you.”

52Envious people, it is believed, attack those who rise above their fellows. Anthropologists often associate envy with a selfish and distressing desire for what others possess, perhaps conflating the meaning of the Indigenous word with that of their reference language (English or French). The late anthropologist Steve Rubenstein interpreted envy among the Shuar of the Upano Valley as an “abundance of desire” (1995: 10). That is, “people blame witchcraft on envy – a desire for a sexual or marital partner, land, or money” (ibid.: 236), or as he put it elsewhere, “[envy], the competing desires to be like someone else and to have someone else’s possessions” (2002: 80). However, in our own work among the Shuar of Transkutukú, desire or covetousness did not appear as the single or even most important dimension of envy. Our interlocutors used two vernacular terms to qualify the Spanish term envidia, which we translate here as envy. These are suir and kajén, which connote what in French, Spanish, and English would be called anger or rage, a rather different emotional experience from the conventional understanding of “envy”. Suir is a rage that has been provoked by someone or something, an exaggerated heating-up of the person, who, having suffered from a deliberate affront, becomes “red with anger” (sui-r- kapant-sa-). Kajén, by contrast, does not have this connotation of excessive heating; it denotes wrath rather than irritation, more murderous instinct than boiling anger, and more vehement power than affronted rage. To describe envious people, our interlocutors insisted on their restlessness or lack of tranquillity as they were consumed by the rage of seeing others having more than them. The envious are angry because they cannot tolerate the greatness of others, since it diminishes their own. By stripping the achievers of their wealth or weakening them, the envious get the satisfaction of knowing that these people will no longer surpass them.

53If we consider the “angry” dimension rather than only the “desiring” one, we can explain why villagers conceive of envy as an obstacle to collective welfare. Instead of being an attachment centred on the possession or loss of something, as would be the case for jealousy or greed, envy is directed towards people who possess something, and aims at depriving them of it rather than obtaining it for themselves. In this reading, while the envious person desires, h/she is not so much aiming at an object to possess as at a subject to belittle. Another way of putting this is in Marina Vanzolini’s words about “capitalist sorcery” whereby “it is more the relationships than the things that matter” in the cycle of envy (our translation, 2018: 334).

54Further, envy does not manifest in the same manner across all situations of inequality. None of our interlocutors would ever consider a wealthy tourist a likely target of envy. Nor would a wife envy her husband, and vice versa. A situation of observable inequality is not sufficient to arouse or infer envy leading to secret retaliation – even if misdeeds within couples or towards strangers do occur. Rather, imputations of envy are aimed at third parties inscribed within a field of rivalry rather than a field of enmity or complementarity. They typically target people of similar fame, position, or benefits. In other words, envy appears among people who are likely to experience a certain parity: colleagues, classmates, real and classificatory sisters and brothers, daily co-residents, competitors for sex or political office, and beneficiaries of paid work or inheritance.

55This allows us to complicate the standard explanation in the literature whereby fears of envy help to curtail social stratification created by the individual accumulation of wealth. George Foster (1972) was probably the first to analyse envy as a wealth-levelling mechanism, echoing British structural functionalism and its interpretation of sorcery as social control. In this view, any visible enrichment poses a risk to the stability of the group and thus calls for retaliation. The fear of occult retaliation, in turn, forces the enriched person to redistribute some of his/her possessions or to avoid accumulating altogether – a form of “levelling sorcery” (Fisiy & Geschiere 1993). In this perspective, what motivates envy is ultimately a concern with equality, and the emergence of anything perceived as envy would correspondingly stifle the rise of inequalities within the group. The gossip that sparked Tarcisio’s complaint can be taken as a criticism of his personal enrichment. We may also safely assume that by exaggerating the state of his wealth to the point of caricature – “Tarcisio Chu is a millionaire” – such gossip accuses him of stinginess for organizing a party only with his residential group rather than with all villagers.

  • 11 To freely interpret Graeber’s analysis of Nancy Munn’s research on the Gawan’s pursuit of fame (200 (...)

56But this is only one aspect of the phenomenon. In our observations, the fear of inciting or being the target of envy strengthened rather than diminished the rising entrepreneurs and owners of wealth. This happened because being the target of envious people confers legitimate victim status, enhancing the victim’s moral standing in the community and nurturing defensive accusations in their favour. In this sense, denunciations of envy, as in Tarcisio’s speech, are as much about rendering personal failures relational by attributing individual misfortunes to the relational states of others as they are about stigmatizing powerless rivals. In so doing, the victim’s moral stance emboldens the logic of personal accumulation that underpins the inculturation of the market. It is as though the envious sorcerers represent the “absolute selfish villager”11 opposed to the wealth-producing leader who accumulates. The moral critique is the following: the angry enviers covertly spread gossip and prey upon the body of the community, thereby treating villagers as non-relatives, de-kinning them, as it were, while preventing them from achieving exemplarity and progress. By contrast, the exemplary entrepreneur speaks openly and directs predation towards outsiders, beyond the village’s members, while sharing his benefits with fellow villagers, whom he treats as relatives. The extent to which people like Tarcisio share the benefits with everyone in the village is questionable at best. But the idea here is that by bringing wealth into the village, these individuals potentially create more opportunities for progress that benefit others – whether that is by furthering infrastructural development or projects, as outstanding leaders often do, or by bolstering the reputation of their native villages and therefore increasing Shuar competitiveness vis-a-vis mestizo others. By seeking collective autonomy from the dominant society, leaders and their supporters legitimize internal differences.

57In brief, heads of household actively promote a positive relationship with exclusive possession and personal accumulation as compatible outcomes of living well together. Public calls to fight against greed, on the other hand, are rare (we never heard any). Tarcisio’s speech is exemplary in this respect: he affirms the priority of exclusive possession over and above the emotions and relations that link people within the community, even if it is precisely such emotions that prompt envy in the first place. Tarcisio is not blind to the asymmetry he creates by accumulating and being selective in his sharing. Yet he advocates a new relationship between people and things that surpasses the implicit expectations of kinship morality. It is this new relationship that he posits as progress, as do many others.

58This state of affairs might signal a shift towards possessive individualism through wealth accumulation. However, it is worth emphasizing that this shift continues to operate within a relational conception of property and personhood. By linking debilitation, failure, and illness to envious sorcerers, villagers like Tarcisio connect the alternating internal states of persons with the relational states of communal life, and this reveals the fragility of the radical claim to personal accumulation and exclusive possession.


59The Shuar attempt to create a form of “exclusive inclusion” – that is, to gain exclusive control over the means of their inclusion, and therefore determination, in the market economy. The hope of Transkutukú leaders about the emancipatory potential of entrepreneurialism cannot be explained as a natural desideratum nor as an inevitable development of state and market in Ecuadorian Amazonia. Rather, it involves a reflexive process on the ecological depletion of the living environments in which villagers are immersed, and on their marginal position vis-à-vis market actors – all of this within an environment saturated by wealthy extractivist agents thirsty for growth of raw substances, ghostlike head-hunters who subjugate impoverished people, and NGO- or state-backed programmes that endlessly foster market integration. Embracing processes of commodification – historically linked with state appropriation of land and the adoption of cattle ranching – Shuar leaders place their hope in the pursuit of mastery within the capitalist market economy through productive entrepreneurialism – that is, as a way to overcome the possibility of being captured by others (private enterprises and clientelist governments) in order to guarantee domestic and collective self-determination.

60The inculturation of capitalism led by leaders, as we have shown, does not encounter positive limits within villages. Villagers do not fight against greed, but rather against envy. Envy is said to fuel sorcery, and sorcery ends up eating up whatever is accumulated – in a way, entrepreneurial capitalism eventually feeds the invisible wars between sorcerers. This shows that what ultimately matters are people and relations rather than things. However, this outcome is not, according to most villagers, a desirable or ingenious way of socially producing economic homeostasis. Rather, Transkutukú villagers perceive it as a self-generated aberration, a curse besetting the vision of the future that leaders pursue.

Haut de page


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1 The Spanish colono, which translates into English as colonist, is an ambivalent product of colonial modes of identity attribution, which Shuar people use routinely to refer to Ecuadorian non-Indigenous people. In Shuar, the term used is apach. In this text, we use colono/colonist as a synonym for mestizo a term of self-identification widely used in this region of South America.

2 All translations from fieldwork are ours.

3 The group was previously known as “Jivaro”, a term that has pejorative connotations for them (see Deshoullière & Utitiaj 2019). Aénts Chicham-speakers live between Ecuador and Peru.

4 The Shuar obtained, and still obtain, exchangeable wealth (kuit) from other people through peaceful exchange networks between a pair of persons (usually men) who become formal “friends” over a long period. Exchanges between amik differ from capitalist market exchanges in that transfers of an object do not necessarily result in profit for the receiver. Outbidding is not sought, but it is hoped that the exchanges will involve objects of roughly equivalent value. Exchanges between amik carry the connotation of contractual debts (tumash) and in this differ greatly from the forms of mutual generosity that characterize sharing between relatives, where reciprocity is not required. See Taylor (2015) for a comprehensive analysis of exchange friendship among the Aénts Chicham.

5 In the evangelical area of Makuma, the cooperative provided a model for creating an ethnic federation – the Asociación Independiente del Pueblo Shuar – which in turn allowed Shuar to apply for collective land titles.

6 Great man” is the translation of the Shuar term “uuntoriginally proposed by Taylor (1981). An uunt is a strong man known for his generosity, war feats, and abilities to influence people; it differs from the classic Melanesian “big-man because the uunt derives no particular economic advantages from his status.

7 Catholic Shuar often say that missionaries prevented them from handling money on the grounds that “money is diabolic”. If the association between money and the Devil is made occasionally, the statement is considered a ludicrous and hypocritical missionary ploy to benefit at Shuar expense. Engagement in monetary exchanges and economic success is thus read as a mark of emancipation from missionary tutelage.

8 In rumours, oral accounts, and mythical stories widespread in the Andes, the Pishtaco (also called Nakaq, Kharisiri, Lik’ichiri, etc.) is a White man or a non-Indigenous person who preys upon Indigenous people, from whom he extracts fat or other vital substances.

9 They do so typically as members of Pachakutik, the electoral branch of the Indigenous movement, which pursues different economic policies that differ by region and constituents. The difference between climbing the ladder within the Indigenous movement and becoming a professional politician as an elected party officer is subtle but increasingly differentiated as the social movement and the electoral machine clash over strategy. A minority of Shuar politicians also opt for electoral proselytizing via other (non-Indigenous) parties.

10 For the missionaries, it was a matter of discovering a primitive Christianity already present in the Aénts Chicham cosmology and of adapting the proclamation of the Gospel to traditional discursive modalities.

11 To freely interpret Graeber’s analysis of Nancy Munn’s research on the Gawan’s pursuit of fame (2001: 84).

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Natalia Buitron et Grégory Deshoullière, « “Inculturating the market” »Terrain [En ligne], 78 | 2023, mis en ligne le 09 juillet 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Natalia Buitron

University of Cambridge

Grégory Deshoullière

London School of Economics and Political Science, UK/Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale

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