When a development project comes with ready-made solutions to offer to beneficiaries, it creates a relationship in which those from outside the community are experts who the beneficiaries are expected to imitate and learn from. Project participants become knowledge recipients, often the last ones in a chain of information. Even in cases where the technologies being offered are effective and appropriate, the result is that recipient communities are put in a position of dependence which weakens them and devalues their skills and knowledge.
In the case of aquaculture in Ecuador’s Amazon region, for example, indigenous communities often get their information from nearby settlers who, living closer to urban areas, have closer contact with technical “experts” selling information and supplies. These individuals often have gained whatever information they have from trainers from neighboring countries—Colombia, Peru, Brazil—where local aquaculture research combines with techniques developed in centers of aquaculture research in other parts of the world.
The result of such a long chain of knowledge is that systems appropriate to one experience are replicated in a new location under inappropriate conditions. At the same time, valuable expert knowledge is often filtered, simplified, and degraded as it is passed on in recipe form without the broader understanding that birthed it. The maximum potential benefit for indigenous communities is to imitate, a little later, a little more poorly, results already achieved by their mestizo neighbors. Furthermore, the fish produced by such projects have not been selected for their attractiveness to local communities, nor are they likely to have much value as a commercial product since they only reach rural indigenous communities after having been established in upstream urban areas and settler communities.
Las Lianas’ fish farming program was born from a different vision and is developing through an alternative process. Rather than see indigenous peoples as downstream recipients of western knowledge, we wish to acknowledge them as the experts, scientists, and creators of knowledge that they are. Therefore, the goal of this program is to support an indigenous aquaculture initiative whose roots are based in the profound ecological understanding indigenous Amazonian peoples, and whose growth is driven by local initiative in response to community defined needs.
The result of such an approach, we believe, will be an aquaculture better adapted to the Amazonian environment and better able to meet the needs of the communities that are developing it. For example, rather than farming the exotic African cichlid, tilapia, just because it has been raised successfully elsewhere in the world and is being sold in the Amazon, participants in this program are discovering how to farm native Amazonian cichlids that have been part of their diet for generations. This provides the double benefit of ensuring the availability of the preferred fish while avoiding the likely risk of ecological damage caused by escaped exotic species.
Moreover, this process allows participating fish farmers to build on and expand their local, traditional knowledge to create something new for the world. Not only are they increasing their communities’ capacity to feed themselves but they are developing as fish farming experts who can be source of knowledge about appropriate development for the entire region. Ultimately, we believe that this new knowledge and capacity will be as valuable as the fish that are produced.