Amazon villagers also love to shop

This was the most unexpected revelation from my master’s thesis research. It made me curious  about the products they liked shopping, the lengths they went to get them, and where the things they bought were coming from. 

I mention my thesis in the introduction of my kickstarter campaign and I promised I'd elaborate on this because it did shape the way I see humans and their interaction with the world. It definitely made me aware that the consumption frenzy we have witnessed around the world in the last decades isn’t only due to the continuous bombardment of advertisement, but also because humans love to trade, and they love to self express through the choices they make, even when they live in huts with no running water.

So, heres the story, I’ll try to keep it short.

I studied environmental engineering in Bolivia, my home country, and my master’s thesis was a research of the livelihoods of the families living in one particular village located inside the Manuripi Natural Reserve, in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon. In 2004 I did my field trip and it required for me to visit and stay with them for 4 weeks.

The study consisted of site visits to each home and their production plots and a very thorough survey to understand how each family lived, what they ate, what activities they engaged in, how those helped towards meeting their basic needs and what they needed to source elsewhere and from where they did so. I wanted to have a good understanding of their entire livelihoods to be able to estimate how much they relied on their environment to satisfy their main needs. My hypothesis was that a village that mostly depends on the surrounding forest to meet their needs, is likely a good aid towards the preservation of such environment.

It was a super humbling experience and probably one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life. How welcoming each family was, and how open, candid and fun. One of the biggest risks of the study was that people wouldn’t want to engage with me, but that wasn’t the case at all. They didn’t shy away from making fun of me, my look, my accent and my questions. They really allowed for me to get to know them as we discussed their lives to very deep detail.

I gathered information on their diets, how they cooked, the quantities they prepared, and how the ingredients were sourced. I asked the same about their homes and all infrastructure they had built, there was also a list of poverty markers from the World’s Heath Organisation included in the questionnaire. The result was astonishing: They grew their own crops, farmed their poultry, pork and beef (which they seldom ate themselves), primarily hunted or fished for meat and built their homes and other dwellings entirely from materials sourced from the local forest.

It was a strange thing to witness because even tho all the poverty markers were ticked, the villagers of San Antonio del Chive had everything they needed to lead a good life, in their own words. Families struggled with the same struggles faced by families around the world, but there was a sense of optimism and empowerment.  And, as a result, they did play a crucial role in the conservation of their natural environment.

These were the findings of the survey for all households: no one held a job, so no source of steady income was present; no one had tap water or owned a shower; there was no electricity from a main source; homes had no glass windows or lockable doors; every household had an outside pit toilet and small number of rooms compared to the amount of people living in each household. However, the combination of local natural and geographical characteristics meant that they had access to unspoiled natural water streams going through their property, in which they bathed and washed their clothes, and they all had a special water hole which was fenced to keep the water clean for drinking. A local NGO had helped set up a solar panel from which each family draw power to charge a car battery and this allowed them to have a small source of electric power and as a result, movie night was an actual serious affair.

Each family had access to 500 hectares of untouched forest to hunt and source building materials from, and they were allowed the use of small areas of land to grow crops to satisfy their own dietary requirements and to raise a bit of cattle; massive rivers surrounding the Nature Reserve allowed for them to go fishing when needed; a main access road, on the sides of which the community was settled, gave them access to the main city and its hospital when needed; and they had built a local hall that served as a classroom school for their children, it was served by one government appointed teacher. Perhaps most importantly, there was a sense of security regarding tenure of land and guidelines on the use of soil allowed, due to it being located inside a national protected area.

Each family received its yearly income at once when they sold the Brazilian nut collected from their forests after having harvested and allowed for it to dry. When they received the money for what they had gathered, they’d have money to spare, and what would they do with it? Go shopping of course! The only thing money was good for, was to go shopping in the city, to buy the things that weren’t available in the village: essential household items, like gas bottles, bicycles  and tools; but what was the thing that each household looked forward to the most, was to go shopping for new clothes and shoes and perhaps accesories like a new handbag. 

The findings that surprised me the most had to do with the little luxuries in life: every household had a kitchen stove for the sole purpose of boiling water to make tea. When asked why they wouldn’t use it to cook other things, like rice, which was a main staple of their diet and cooked three times a day, the unanimous response was that rice, like most things, tastes the nicest when slow cooked on a fire pit. Not all households had a TV, but there where a few and watching movies was a communal affair. There was a petrol fuelled generator that would regularly be used to light up the school/townhall for community gatherings/parties and households could borrow it to have their own private parties too.

In the time I spent at the community there were two celebrations I took part in, the last one was a birthday party at one of the family homes. That party is still to date, one of the best ones I have been invited to. Food was prepared during the day by several mums whilst others catered for the many little children that had to come along throughout the day of preparations. Every household brought a chicken, every part of the chicken was used in I can’t recall how many amazing and super tasteful dishes. There was cold beer and the music was off the charts.

On the hour long walk back to the tent, guided by starlight coming though the trees alongside the road in an otherwise pitch black night, surrounded by mysterious insect songs and after having danced the night away and tried the yummiest wood fired birthday cake, I found my heart was full of gratitude, respect and awe. I was struck by how extraordinary humans can be. How resourceful and creative when they feel safe and are allowed to live a dignified life. And how relative the concept of poverty seemed to me that day.

The people in my village were lucky, because reality was not the same outside of the Natural Reserve. Once out and on your way to “civilisation”, the forest was already gone and the landscape, as far as the eye could see, was of grass and soy plantations with lonely giant trees scattered, the Brazil Nut trees that withstand most fires, they remain here and there as the only reminder that those lands too were once lush green untouched rainforests.

I wanted to share this story, because it plays massively in the decisions I made in my life and the way my business looks like today. I understand now that there is no black and white; poor people are never just poor; happiness doesn’t come in the form of having the most; and there is such joy to be found helping and witnessing underprivileged people find their own way into a good life right there, where they live, and how amazing it would be if their economic activities could actually help save their environment! 

If you have been to Mia Strada, or browsed our website, you’ll know that have found a few really gorgeous brands working in collaboration with communities doing exactly that. This is my drive, it is why I chose to run my business the way I did, and why it matters so much to me that people become aware of where things come from and how they are made. Trade and commerce could build a better world if the brands chose to invest in the right practices, and we can guide them by letting them know we support their positive choices. 

I do really believe that mindful choices can shape a better world faster than anything else.