John Renshaw. The Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco: Identity and Economy. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xv + 305 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-8991-8.
Reviewed by Claire Warrior (Exhibitions Department, National Maritime Museum, London)
Published on H-AmIndian (April, 2003)
Understanding Economic Values in the Paraguayan Chaco
Understanding Economic Values in the Paraguayan Chaco
The first aim of Renshaw's book is to provide an ethnographic description of contemporary life in the Paraguayan Chaco. A limited literature is available on the area, particularly in English, and Renshaw successfully provides a comprehensive insight into the socio-economic organisation of the thirteen ethnic groups in the area. Although ethnically and linguistically diverse, shared cultural features of Indian groups and the perception of them as bounded communities within a circumscribed geographical area make generalisation possible, and the book thus focuses on Chaco Indians in general rather than aiming at specificity. Writing this ethnography posed a further problem, and outlining its solution is a second aim of the book. The situation of Chaco Indian groups--who have a sense of autonomy from Paraguayan socio-economic structures, yet also necessary a necessary integration with them--demanded the development of a methodology that encompasses issues of social change and continuing ethnic identity, without removing Indian groups from history or supposing that external values have been imposed upon them.
The analysis is firmly centred upon an Indian point of view, particularly with regard to economic themes, which Renshaw takes as his primary focus. The author justifies this by noting the relative ease with which economic activities can be observed, the apparent congruence between activities and what people think about them, and the impact of social change upon the economy. Finally, a description of Indian economic values, particularly in relation to sharing, property, and natural resources, feeds into the third aim: to examine development projects in the Chaco, questioning the assumptions behind them and their relation to indigenous priorities, looking at why projects fail and showing how they may reinforce and be reinforced by Indian values and identity.
The book begins with a description of Renshaw's fieldwork, most of which took place between 1975 and 1983 in connection with various development projects, giving him an overview of the Chaco rather than an insight into a particular community. The Chaco is introduced through a detailed examination of the environment, a brief recent history and a thorough grounding in the complexities of Chaco ethnic diversity. Economic life is analysed through an examination of the subsistence economy, the raising of agriculture and livestock, and the market economy in turn, with illustrations of the many activities involved, from hunting, gathering and fishing to agricultural cultivation and wage labor. Ultimately, the rationality of the subsistence economy is seen to inflect all other economic interactions, whilst the sense of independence and flexibility engendered by the separation of social relations from relations of production within this economic sphere is also highly valued. Such key values, Renshaw later argues, are fundamental to Indian ethnic identity, and their prevalence illuminates what might seem to be economic anomalies e.g. a preference for wage labor rather than other forms of production for the market, as it allows rapid access to desirable products that can be integrated into exchange networks without compromising indigenous emphases on equality and sharing. The final two chapters focus on social relations, particularly household structures and kin relations, and their intersection with economic activities, as well as examining how political leadership does not necessarily compromise the key values of equality and autonomy, and how Indian organizations have been involved in development projects, successful or otherwise. The need for development projects to be in harmony with such central values emerges, as well as the necessity of appreciating the significance of kinship based, informal social organization if projects are to be implemented.
This book is an effective overview and a useful up-to-date addition to the literature on the area, as well as a highly detailed work of economic anthropology. Its broad scope makes it a good introduction to the region, although the complex mosaic of ethnic groups and its wide geographic sweep can be difficult to grasp. It successfully demonstrates the centrality of economic values related to the Chaco subsistence economy and Indian identity, and how they play into perceptions of what appropriate economic activities are. Outlining the interplay between Chaco economies and values and the wider regional and national contexts does allow the reader to appreciate the complexities of the contemporary situation. However, the general nature of the book and the need to abstract out to provide an overview means that a direct Indian voice is necessarily absent. Nevertheless, Renshaw's work gives a deeper general understanding of what Chaco Indians hold to be important, and may indicate potentially fruitful directions for future development projects, in sympathy with, rather than opposed to, the values of the communities involved.
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Claire Warrior. Review of Renshaw, John, The Indians of the Paraguayan Chaco: Identity and Economy.
H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.