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Social and River Networks for the Trees:
Wounaans Riverine Rhizomic Cosmos
and Arboreal Conservation
ABSTRACT The effects of environmental conservation and development are of signicant anthropological interest. Recent focus on
the politics of knowledge and translation has shown the importance of cosmology in conservation encounters. I examine how Wounaan
indigenous peoples and extralocal conservation practitioners translate eastern Panama based on their own cosmologies.
I explore how Wounaans social and river-networked rhizomic cosmos is overlooked in the practice of forest-focused conservation. This
results from Panamas environmental history, in which actors simplied early representations of a complex landscape to one characterized
by forests, as well as a Western bias toward forests with scant attention paid to cosmology. Finally, I note how Wounaan negotiate this
cultural disconnect by emphasizing their ties to forests. In so doing, they buttress the arboreal bias, in turn reinforcing power relations,
but also giving themselves political leverage in conservation activities. These results inform recent discussion about politics and scientic
praxis in conservation. [Keywords: politics of knowledge, conservation, Wounaan, rivers, forests]
ABSTRACT Los efectos de la conservaci on ambiental y el desarrollo son de inter es antropol ogico signicativo.

Enfasis reciente
en la poltica del conocimiento y de la traducci on ha demostrado la importancia de la cosmologa en la conservaci on. Se examina
como los indgenas Wounaan y los practicantes de conservaci on extra-locales traducen Panam a oriental basados en sus cosmologas.
Especcamente se explora como la pr actica de conservaci on enfocada en bosques ignora el cosmos de redes sociales y uviales de los
Wounaan. Esto es resultado de la historia ambiental de Panam a en la que los actores simplicaron un paisaje complejo, as como un
sesgo occidental por bosques en conservaci on con escasa atenci on a la cosmologa. Se nota como Wounaan negocian esta desconexi on
cultural enfatizando los bosques. En este proceso refuerzan el sesgo arb oreo y relaciones de poder, ayud andoles obtener reconocimiento
poltico en conservaci on. Estos resultados reportan sobre la poltica y la practica cientca en la conservaci on.
VER THE LAST two decades, anthropologists, ge-
ographers, and others have increasingly examined
the ideologies and practices of environmental conservation
and development. This rich political ecology literature has
turned a poststructural gaze toward conservation and devel-
opment practice, interrogating the privileging of modernist
science (Goldman 2003); the separation of culture and
nature (Tsing 2005); representations of community, land-
scapes, and participation (Brosius et al. 1998; Fairhead and
Leach 1996); the assumption of development with conser-
vation (Tiedje 2008; West 2006); and the roles of politics in
governmental and nongovernmental conservation efforts
(Sundberg 1998), among others. A number of authors have
noted how local communities articulate with, rather than
AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 111, Issue 4, pp. 456467, ISSN 0002-7294 online ISSN 1548-1433. C
2009 by the American Anthropological Association.
All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2009.01155.x
simply respond to, conservation efforts (Li 1996; Moore
2000; Tsing 2005).
Recent literature also examines the politics of knowl-
edge and translation between local peoples and conserva-
tionists. Rather than focusing on the discourse of extralocal
conservation, as does much political ecology work, these
authors demonstrate how environments are materially and
symbolically created (West 2006; Zerner 2003). Paige West
(2005) attributes the lack of attention to mutually mate-
rial and symbolic environments as the result of profession-
als perceptions of environments as resources (to be used)
or knowledges (to be acted on). For example, when con-
servation efforts have considered local peoples, they of-
ten reduce environmental relationships to resources, such
Vel asquez Runk Social and River Networks for the Trees 457
as medicinal plants or nontimber forest products, or
knowledges, such as toponyms or sacred landscapes. West
(2005:633) has cautioned that environmental anthropolo-
gists need to carefully consider how we allow fundamen-
tally Western concepts and modes of explanation to domi-
nate practices of translation. In 2006, Michael Dove noted
that the lack of critical attention to the cross-cultural trans-
lation and interpretation of the concept of conservation
was a glaring lacuna in the published work on environmen-
tal conservation and indigenous peoples.
A number of authors have begun to address this void
by examining how indigenous cosmologies are overlooked
in the translation and practice of extralocal conservation.
Batak (Novellino 2003) and Manobo (Gatmaytan 2005)
peoples in the Philippines, Gimi in Papua New Guinea
(West 2005), Meratu in Indonesia (Tsing 2005), Nayaka in
India (Bird-David and Naveh 2008), Huastec Nahua in Mex-
ico (Tiedje 2008), and Sherpas in Nepal (Obadia 2008) all
conceptualize the environment and cosmos in terms of di-
alectical social relationships among humans, nonhumans,
and the physical environment. However, in each of these
cases, extralocal conservation efforts overlook the role of
these social relationships in the practice of conservation
that is oriented toward external economic markets (Tiedje
2008; West 2005), ideas of property and land titling (Gat-
maytan2005; Novellino 2003), conceptions of material pol-
lution and ecological transformation (Obadia 2008), and
biodiversity (Bird-David and Naveh 2008; Tsing 2005; West
2006). Dario Novellino (2003) and West (2005) argue that,
by not studying cosmologies, conservationists make generic
cultural issues as they relate to conservation, which, as Nov-
ellino further warns, eases a global conservation discourse.
Kristina Tiedje (2008) and Lionel Obadia (2008) also note,
as I also do below, that while conservationists may not ac-
knowledge the worldview of local communities, local com-
munities may indeed acknowledge the cosmology of con-
servationists by incorporating these extralocal ideas into
discourse and myths.
My interest in conservation and cosmology began
when I was working in eastern Panama on a conservation
and development project in late 1996. Charged with study-
ing the ecology and socioeconomics of three nontimber
forest products that Wounaan and Ember a indigenous peo-
ple use to make art, I inquired a bit about cosmology of
the two groups. I was told by other practitioners and social
scientists that it was based on a tree of life and that this
was the reason that the groups were forest conservators.
Several years later, when I was beginning ethnographic re-
search with Wounaan, I learned that there is indeed a tree
prominent in their origin myth. However, that mythol-
ogy is much more complex, with Wounaan felling the tree
to create rivers, as well as establishing their connections
with people, plants, animals, and the greater cosmos in the
In this article, I examine how Wounaan indigenous
peoples and extralocal conservation practitioners translate
the same landscape of eastern Panama based on their own
cosmologies. To do this, I draw on Gilles Deleuze and F elix
Guattaris (2007) work contrasting the linear bifurcations
of decontextualizing arborescent imagery, as exemplied in
this case by forests, with that of interconnecting, dynamic
rhizomes, as exemplied by social relationships and rivers.
Based on 13 years of work in eastern Panama, over half of
which is ethnographic research, I rst describe Wounaans
riverine cosmos.
Although Wounaan, like the aforemen-
tioned groups, also perceive the cosmos as a dynamic world
of social relationships with humans, animals, plants, spirits,
and bestial inhabitants, they view rivers as important and
dynamic organizing features of the cosmos. Rivers are rhi-
zomic networking elements of their worldview, connecting
forests, oceans, and other environments, as well as differen-
tial distributions of human and nonhuman beings that are
mapped onto them. Next I illustrate how the environmen-
tal history of eastern Panama has changed the representa-
tion of the region over timefrom one in which landscape
complexity was embraced to one simplied to the dichoto-
mous representation of forested versus nonforested areas.
I then indicate how conservation practitioners build on
this representation, as well as on their own tree-centric cos-
mology, to characterize the same material environment in
terms of trees and forests and suggest how this affects con-
servation praxis in eastern Panama. Finally, I conclude by
noting how Wounaan have emphasized their ties to trees
and forests, thereby further marginalizing rivers and rhi-
zomic ideals of landscape. This perpetuates conservation-
ists emphasis on trees and yet also garners Wounaan lever-
age in the regions conservation.
Much of eastern Panamas lowland moist tropical environ-
ment is considered part of the Dari enChoc o biogeographic
region that extends to northern Ecuador and is character-
ized by oral and faunal assemblages of North and South
American origin (Brooks et al. 2002; Gentry 1986). Lowland
eastern Panama has a distinct dry season from December to
April with annual rainfall at 2,0003,500 millimeters and
temperatures averaging 27

C in much of the region (Insti-

tuto Geogr aco Nacional Tommy Guardia 2003). In addi-
tion to sharing a similar biogeography, eastern Panama and
Colombias Choc o Department are also home to Wounaan.
Wounaan recognize their homelands as the region
around the San Juan River in northwestern Colombia
and report long use of the lands now known as Panama.
Wounaan indicated that they began migrating to Panama
in signicant numbers during the last century, travelling
both by river and ocean. According to the most recent cen-
suses, Wounaan number about the same in Panama and
Colombia, with approximately 7,000 adults in each coun-
try (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadstica
Rep ublica de Colombia 1993; Direcci on de Estadstica y
Censo 2001). In Panama, Wounaan children remain mono-
lingual speakers of their language, Wounmeu, until they
begin school.
458 American Anthropologist Vol. 111, No. 4 December 2009
Presently, Wounaan live in 16 villages of eastern
Panama and in Panama City. Panamanians frequently con-
ate Wounaan with the more numerous Ember a peo-
ple and call them Choc o. About 22,000 adult Ember a
(Direcci on de Estadstica y Censo 2001) live in villages dis-
persed throughout eastern Panama. Yet, in spite of physical
similarities, Wounaan and Ember a speak mutually unin-
telligible languages (together considered an independent
linguistic group) and have similar, but distinct, material
culture, rituals, dances, interpersonal styles, and mission-
ization histories.
Both groups are agriculturalists and sh-
ers, and Wounaan are also well-known as master artisans of
commercial basketry and carvings (Vel asquez Runk 2005).
Although there are several ethnographies on Choc o and
Ember a (Herlihy 1986; Kane 2004; Ulloa et al. 1996; Werner
Cantor 2000), only limited short-term ethnographic re-
search has been published on Wounaan.
In their 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and
Guattari (2007) describe their concept of rhizomic
thought as interconnected, heterogenous, and dynamic.
The authors draw on the botanical rhizome, those horizon-
tally interconnected roots that are typically below ground,
but they expand on that botanical meaning. Deleuze and
Guattari characterize rhizomes by nonhierarchical multi-
plicities, rather than binaries, with numerous, changing
connections. The rhizome cannot be ruptured, because ar-
eas where it breaks (are deterritorialized) reattach or form
a new connection (are reterritorialized). The rhizome is an
open network, wherein any point connects to any other
in multiple dimensions, with various points of access.
Throughout their work, the authors contrast rhizomes with
arborescent schema, which are characterized by hierarchi-
cal, dichotomous relationships that are static. Arborescent
thought is typied by rigid segmentarity, resulting in sys-
tems that structure connections between their components
and that thus create centers of signicance and subjecti-
cation. Deleuze and Guattari view the state as a frequent
agent of such structures and subjectications.
Wounaan perceive the world not as dendritic but rhi-
zomic, emphasizing connection and heterogeneity, as well
as dynamism. The Wounaan cosmos is oriented around so-
cial relationships. These relationships are about humans,
animals, plants, spirits, beasts, and the physical environ-
ment, about seen and unseen worlds, and maintaining pos-
itive relationships among them. These social networks are
differentially mapped on the landscape, with rivers form-
ing an important, material, organizing feature of the cos-
mos and creating a skeleton for landscape and cosmos. Like
the rhizome, rivers are interlaced and clustered and move
away fromthe static, decontextualizing linearity of arbores-
cent imagery (Deleuze and Guattari 2007). This rhizomic
model of the cosmos also allows interaction of people in
the landscape to further bring it into being, moving be-
yond the dualisms of peoplenature (or forestsnonforests).
This interactionTim Ingolds taskscape (2000:195)
extends the rhizome, instead of perpetuating the dichoto-
mous branching of arborescent imagery. This perspective is
illustrated in a Wounaan version of the origin of the world.
In their origin myth (Pe na Ismare 1986), Wounaan are
created at the mouth of the Baudo River on northwestern
Colombias Pacic Coast.
The trickster gure (d osat) causes
the creator (H ewandam) to turn the once freshwater ocean
to salt water and Wounaan must leave the coast in search
of fresh water.
As told by (now deceased) narrator Juan
From there . . . they [Wounaan ancestors] came this way
in search of water. . . . From there, where he [the cre-
ator, H ewandam] created us on the Baud o beach, they
[Wounaan ancestors] left for other lands. . . . Well, they
went along like that until they found the water that was
carried by an ant [j aar], it carried the water between its
teeth. . . . Well, there in the forest they found the ant
carrying the water between its teeth, climbing a tree.
When they realized that up there, up the tree, there
was water, they began to fell the tree, a very large tree. . . .
With that little ax [made of stone] they struggled to bring
the tree down, and the old men got tired. [Wounaan
struggle to cut the tree for several days, learning that a
toad is lling up the cut with woodchips at night. They
nd the toad, then another, and kill both.] Then they all
began to ax again until they felled the tree at midday. As
it was falling, there was another large tree in which there
was a vine called zorro vine. The tree was entangled in
that vine before it fell to the ground. Between the vine
little drops of water began to fall, but it was just a little,
and it dried up right away.
Yes, then they say that was where among the humans
the animals with four legs came. [Humans are turned into
animals and birdspacas, toucans, crested guan, deer,
caiman, macawand sequentially attempt to release the
tree from the vine.] Well, that is how it happened until
all the animals that are in the forest were created [except
white lipped and collared peccaries]. . . . Having come
there it [the macaw] tried to bite it [the vine], then he
bit harder and all at once it was cut, and when it was cut
a great noise was heard. The river and the streams, the
sound was like a waterfall. They say that what fell was in
the headwaters of the San Juan River . . .
Yes, then different rivers were formed with the splash
that occurred as the water fell. Then there was water for
all the people, even the little ones who looked for water
and were drinking freshwater. . . . Also the ones that were
leaving returned, and began to bathe. Later then they
went to the forests. Some went downriver looking for
a place to live as they chose, then they began to walk
everywhere. Then they came back, came back, came back
again, walking the same path, going back. . . . That is
how all of them spread. . . . So it was like that how the
Wounaan were in the whole world. That is why you can
see that in each river where there are people, we are there.
[Pe na Ismare 1986:2128]
Ethnographers conating both Ember a and Wounaan have
noted the prominence of this treefrequently referred to
as a tree of life (e.g., Tayler 1996; Ulloa et al. 1996)
in both Ember a and Wounaan origin mythology. How-
ever, by focusing on the tree, they do not conceive of the
Vel asquez Runk Social and River Networks for the Trees 459
rivers and broader cosmos in their interpretations. Clearly,
here, the rivers, trees, people, birds, and animals are all part
of that greater cosmos: they all come into being via their
In the above myth, the river system created is ex-
plicitly the San Juan River, the true river (d ochaar), of
Wounaan homelands in Colombia (Vel asquez Runk 2005).
For Wounaan, this river system not only holds mytho-
logical prominence but also continues to be important in
how they perceive themselves, even in Panama, based on
initial residence along that river. Wounaan and their de-
scendents from the lower San Juan and main river course
(d ochaarpien) have slightly different Wounmeu pronun-
ciation, interpersonal behavior, last names, missioniza-
tion histories, and singing and dancing styles than those
Wounaan (and their descendents) from the inland creeks
(d osigpien).
Wounaan residence on the lower San Juan
River facilitated contact with extralocal actors (compared
to the more isolated, creek-dwelling d osigpien), initially
with Spaniards and blacks and later with missionaries, mer-
chants, loggers, miners, and even researchers (Vel asquez
Runk 2005). In Panama, Wounaan (and their descendents)
from Colombias lower and main San Juan River channel
live only in three villages of one river system.
Rivers, which continue to have names in Wounmeu
in northwestern Colombia, have long formed the structure
of kin-group residence, and so, for Wounaan, social net-
works are mapped onto rhizomic river systems. For exam-
ple, Wounaan with the surname Chamarra lived on the
Siguiris ua River and those with the surname Puchicama
lived on the Docampado River (Kennedy 1972). River sys-
tems inPanama are still dominated by particular kingroups,
such as the Puchicamas residing on the Platano River, even
though since the late 1960s most Wounaan live in nucle-
ated settlements, rather than dispersed along rivers. In spite
of this, when one asks a Woun where they are from, they
will typically respond with the name of their river, rather
than that of their village.
However, this social structure
may be less obvious to extralocal actors who tend to em-
phasize villages, rather than rivers.
In addition to social networks, uvial networks also
organize the cosmos and landscape. Wounaan describe di-
rections across this landscape, with movement up (marag),
down (badag), to (jerag), and from(durrag), all in relation to
the river. For Wounaan, rivers are not planar but, rather, are
part of three-dimensional space that includes not only to-
pography but also underworld and heavens. The riverscape,
a three-dimensional, rhizomic skeleton, enables verticality
of the cosmos, including Wounaans heavens, ground level,
and subterranean realms.
Rivers themselves can be portals
to the subterranean realm. For example, ancestral Wounaan
traveled via river to this subterranean world to obtain maize
(Vel asquez Runk 2005).
The importance of the river as a linking metaphor for
peoples and cosmos is also extended by the canoe as symbol
of protection and fertility. For Wounaan, the canoe shape is
prominent in the formof the prayer canoe (kugwiu), a two-
to three-meter-long wooden dugout used to pray to the cre-
ator (H ewandam). Prayer canoes are now infrequently used
inPanama, and many Wounaaninstead participate inevan-
gelical and Catholic churches for these same functions of
prayer. One author (Isacsson 1993) noted the vaginal shape
of the prayer canoe. Indeed, whether vaginally shaped or
canoe shaped, the prayer canoe symbolizes fertility: of hu-
mans and of water and rivers (both water and river are the
same word in Wounmeu [d o]). A dugout may also symbol-
ize protection. In the shamanic ceremony to change the
direction of the soul (chaai kiir chaau pa nm) of some-
one very ill, the patient (or if an infant, the patient and
his or her mother) are protected in a balsa- or palm-ber
enclosure known as a river-dugout house (japdi).
Wounaan attempt to maintain egalitarian relation-
ships not only among humans, animals, and plants but
also among the other prominent inhabitants of the cosmos:
beasts, spirits, and spirit essences.
Beasts are those enti-
ties that Wounaan consider to exist in the real world: they
are beings that can be heard, seen, smelled, and touched.
Another class of beings Wounaan call spirits (b en), and
these, unlike beasts, are not visible in the real world. Only
seers (dau b n kn) can see the entities contained in
this invisible, everyday worldwith the aid of psychoactive
plants. All objectstrees, rocks, and animalshave spirit
essences (mie). A spirit essence causes illness only when
one stumbles on a rogue one, when a shaman (b enkn)
sends one under his control to cause illness or when one
under a shamans control acts on its own to cause illness.
It is in this malevolent state that a spirit essence (mie) is
referred to as a malevolent spirit (mepeer). When one is in-
fected by a malevolent spirit, one does not know it or see
it: it is only later that the spirit manifests itself by illness
and that spirit can be seen by a seer. These beasts, spirits,
and spirit essences are like the cosmos they inhabitever
shifting and changing.
Spirits and beasts are distributed across the cosmos, but
malevolent beings are more likely to be found in the less
domesticated spaces of river headwaters. Downriver areas
are considered erratic, raucous, and, in the littoral, insect
laden. These areas are often port towns inhabited by blacks
(against whom Wounaan are prejudiced yet maintain and
build social relationships) in both Panama and Colombia.
As one ascends the river, one crosses the productive shing
areas of the littoral.
Next come the highest reaches of the tidal ow, where
Wounaan live, near the easy transportation of the tide-
inuenced river yet above the biting insects of the man-
groves. Wounaan residence creates a domesticated space
that malevolent spirits nd unattractive. Farther up the
river, one reaches the river headwaters. These less accessible
areas may have river rapids or precipices that make them
suitable habitat for beasts and spirits. The malevolent spir-
its here are wild because they have never been controlled
by a shaman and are, therefore, the most bellicose of the
460 American Anthropologist Vol. 111, No. 4 December 2009
malevolent spirits (hooimepeen) (Pe na Ismare 1997). Here,
for example, the j e, a giant boa constrictor, helps guard
gold, capsizing boats and drowning gold seekers in the
river. In these upriver areas, one might nd a Cyclanthaceae
(Asplundia alata [wr wr k er]), along and on the rocks of
shallow rivers, the spirit of which causes the tremors after
which it is named.
Working upriver one is more likely
to be inicted by illness, because of the greater density and
bellicosity of the spirits and beasts in those headwater areas.
The shaman, b enkn, manages both spirits and
beasts so that they do not cause illness and misfortune.
For Wounaan, therefore, both plantbased cursing or poi-
soning (paker) and spiritual illness (mepeenau) are indica-
tive of a tumultuous world or the world amiss. Curing is
a means to rectify problems and equilibrate relationships
across the seen and unseen world of people, beasts, and
spirits. Yet, there remains a stochastic character to illness:
it is not simply caused by an intentional poisoner, a malev-
olent shaman (b enkn), or one of his unruly malevolent
spirits [mepeen]; it also canbe caused by rogue spirit essence
(mie) in the landscape.
It is to the advantage of Wounaan to stay only rela-
tively short periods in upriver areas, which then serves to
conserve them. This was evident in the corpus of myths I
collected, with Wounaan repeatedly encountering difcult
and risky situations in upriver areas. During my research,
members of one Wounaan village were keen on mapping
the cultural features of the communitys land. Although we
had long since mapped the lower community boundary,
village members took almost two years to map the upper
boundary. I initially thought the impetus for nishing the
map was my return with a partially completed version, but
I later realized that Wounaan had decided to send some
of the most t community members to the upper bound-
ary with a geographic positioning system unit so that no
one would be required to stay the night, thereby avoiding
malevolent spirits.
In spite of the profound transformations in Wounaan
life over the last 50 years as a result of sedentarization
and village formation, syncretic traditional and Christian
beliefs, the extension of the Pan-American Highway into
eastern Panama, and increasing extralocal interactions in
the region (further discussed below), Wounaan cosmology
remains centered on social networks and reciprocity. For
Wounaan, solidifying social relationships with the seen and
unseen worlds is the way toward a more egalitarian cos-
mos and, thus, one at greater equilibrium. This is perhaps
most apparent on a daily basis by the food sharing among
households. In any village, at dusk, one is likely to see chil-
dren bringing food to another house: if one has food to
give in return, that is expected. This reciprocity is also ex-
tended to those withextraordinary wealth. Those Wounaan
who are Panama City residentsespecially those who ben-
et as vendors of indigenous art and therefore indigenous
identitymaintain reciprocal relationships with their ex-
tended Wounaan social networks. For example, they are ex-
pected to nancially support Wounaan efforts, such as the
large meetings with all Wounaan (who care to attend) held
every two years (known as a congreso nacional). Wounaan
will also attempt to build social networks. For example,
they graciously host ofcials, conservation and develop-
ment practitioners among them, intheir villages and expect
that those ofcials will similarly reciprocate by carrying out
the activities to which they promise.
Eastern Panama, known by the historical and now provin-
cial name of Dari en, has long been stereotyped as a dan-
gerous, inhospitable, insect-infested, tropical environment.
Although early colonial and explorers accounts of the re-
gion interlaced rivers, oceans, mangroves, forests, and other
environments (typically in pursuit of trans-isthmian canal
routes), over the last century eastern Panama has become
increasingly associated with forests.
That is, while early
accounts focus on a more interconnected, rhizomic land-
scape, the region was reterritorialized (Deleuze and Guattari
2007) by Panamanian and international development and,
more recently, by conservation efforts. As a result, eastern
Panamas landscape, for many, has been reduced to an ar-
borescent bifurcation of forested and deforested areas.
By the middle of the 1900s, people inhabited much
of eastern Panama, and residence patterns were deter-
mined largely by ethnicity. Blacks, descendents of freed
and escaped mining slaves, lived principally in nucleated
settlements near the mouths of large rivers. Ember a and
Wounaan lived in households dispersed along rivers,
and Kuna lived in nucleated settlements in the extreme east
and northwest. All transportation was riverine, marine, or
Beginning in the 1960s, the Panamanian state became
increasingly interested in its largely undeveloped eastern
region. In the late 1960s, Panamas populist dictator Omar
Torrijos initiated a formal effort to sedentarize Ember a and
Wounaan into villages, much as he had facilitated the
expansion of cattle-ranching settlements throughout the
country (Priestly 1986). The foundation for this effort was
Ember a and Wounaan settlement that began in the 1950s,
when parents sought schools for their childrens education
in Spanish and four communities formed as a result (Her-
lihy 1986). Catholic and evangelical missionization were
aided by village formation, and in Panama many Wounaan
hold syncretic religious beliefs with Christianity (yet with-
out an apparent emphasis on environmental stewardship).
With Ember a and Wounaan populations largely in nu-
cleated settlements, eastern Panamas populations were re-
stricted to discrete villages.
This government-facilitated
deterritorialization allowed subsequent control of natural
resources. The reterritorialization of the region was initi-
ated with the U.S.-nanced extension (Howe 2001) of the
Pan-American Highway, completed in 1984. With the high-
way extension, the regions main transportation mode be-
gan to shift from uvial to terrestrial.
Highway construction also necessitated logging, and
the timber industry began using the highway as its
Vel asquez Runk Social and River Networks for the Trees 461
principal access road, catalyzing vast landscape changes.
Loggers, who had previously been conned to rivers for ac-
cess and transport, began making secondary roads from the
new highway cut. The new roads were rapidly colonized.
Mestizo immigrants from the countrys majority ethnic
group of mixed Spanish, indigenous, and black heritage be-
gan moving into the region before the highway extension
was completed (Wali 1989).
Perhaps as a result of the changing land use with
the highway extension, as well as increased market ac-
cess, Wounaan and Ember a artists began to make ne
commercial basketry and carvings that gained appeal in
the late 1980s. By the mid-1990s, commercial artists were
in 80 to 90 percent of households in some Ember a and
Wounaan villages, with Wounaan considered the master
artisans (Vel asquez Runk 2001). Wounaan and Ember a re-
liance on forest resources to make art also underscored their
links to forests.
The reterritorialization of eastern Panama continued
with the taming of the region via logging. By the 1990s,
eastern Panama was established as the source of the coun-
trys majority forest stocks (Romero et al. 1999), a char-
acterization that only increased with the environmental
agencys periodic paper and online publication of satellite
image-based maps illustrating the regions extensive forest
cover. Mounting conservation and ecotourism efforts con-
icted somewhat with the logging interests throughout the
area. Eastern Panama also continued to experience occa-
sional violence, attributed to spillover from the Colombian
conict, which reinforced ideas of a dangerous, unmanaged
The mid-1990s saw the initiation of signicant inter-
national conservation and development funding in eastern
Panama, with over $123 million spent or allocated for the
region by 2006. In Panama today, conservation tends to
be carried out by internationally funded, semiautonomous,
short-term projects. In eastern Panama, many of the con-
servation projects framed the environment in terms of
forests and trees, seeking to offer economically and ecolog-
ically sustainable alternatives to the inhabitants of the agri-
cultural frontier to improve their lifestyles (Anonymous
2000:7) or train communities in planning, management,
and transformation of their forest resources (Anonymous
1997:17). There was often an implication that local farm-
ers or resource users did not know what they were doing,
and so projects were to promote changes in the existing
modes of production and natural resource exploitation
(Anonymous 1998b:1), to achieve the adequate manage-
ment and use of natural resources (Anonymous 1998a:3),
and to carry out production training using demonstration
farms and lead farmers (Anonymous 2005:1).
Conservation interests characterized the conservation
propensities of the regions inhabitants.
Satellite image-
derived maps demonstrated signicant deforestation along
the Pan-American Highway, attributed to the cattle pastures
of the now-majority mestizo population (Dames and Moore
Group Company 2001). Panama found itself in something
of a rhetorical bind, elevating cattle ranching as part of na-
tional culture and identity while simultaneously vilifying it
in a new discourse of deforestation and development.
It is
within this recharacterized landscape of forested and defor-
ested environments that Wounaan (and Ember a) became
considered forest-dependent conservators of the regions
The simplication of eastern Panamas heterogeneous land-
scape conforms to Deleuze and Guattaris (2007) arbores-
cent model, in which complexities are represented using
binary logics while connections and heterogeneity are lost,
often as the result of the reterritorialization by the state. In
Panama, it may be tempting to see this emphasis on forests
as a result of the timber industrys strength; however, I be-
lieve it stems from a Western bias for arboreal imagery that
is expressed in conservation.
The perception of trees and forests in Panama differs
by context. Mainstream Panamanians, as evidenced by the
aforementioned national embrace of cattle ranching, are
not pro trees. This is apparent when taking a domestic
ight from Albrook Airport in Panama City, as this aerial
vantage point allows one to see the prevalence of trees
in the former Panama Canal Zone, which was controlled
by the United States until December 31, 1999, contrast-
ing with the adjacent scarcity of trees under Panamanian
management. However, environmental conservation in the
country, whether practiced by mainstream Panamanians or
extralocal actors, has an arbor-centric discourse. This dis-
course seems to be tied to an extralocal, Western bias for
trees and forests in conservation.
The Western symbolic importance of trees and forests
is deep rooted. James Frazer (1922), in The Golden Bough,
famously compared Western and non-Western religions by
focusing on beliefs related to trees. More recently, Douglas
Davies (1988) and Dove (2004) have examined tree symbol-
ism in Western thought. As Davies wrote, In scaling the
tree of knowledge without getting too far out on any limb,
inexploring the many branches of thought, and inattempt-
ing to get at the root of the matter, we pursue a branching
task (1988:32). Davies (1988), Dove (1998), and Laura Rival
(1998) have also illustrated that some non-Western cultures
have prominent symbolic beliefs about trees. They discuss
how trees are evocative symbols because of their longevity,
which allows them to represent history, remind us of our
own mortality, and have prominence in ritual. Because of
their immobility, trees also come to represent certain lo-
cations and additionally inspire thought because of their
intricate yet visible structure (Rival 1998). Regardless, tree
symbolism, as Dove (2004) noted, has become naturalized.
This naturalization of trees and forests is particularly
prominent in environmental conservation. Dove (2004)
suggested that the prominent symbolism of trees prob-
ably inuenced the agenda of academic, ecological, and
462 American Anthropologist Vol. 111, No. 4 December 2009
botanical research, which in turn inuenced the agenda of
international environmental intervention. Dianne Roche-
leau and Laurie Ross have observed that forests are used
as stages for global economic and environmental scripts
(1995:408). For many, environmental conservation, partic-
ularly tropical conservation, has become synonymous with
forest conservation. This relationship between tropical con-
servation and forests has been noted by John Schelhas and
Max Pfeffer, who suggest that
tropical forest conservation has been one of the most
important international environmental issues, both as a
popular topic attracting widespread public interest and
for its role in shaping the way that environmental scien-
tists and groups have approached environmental issues.
It is apparent to me from my work as a conservation and
development practitioner (with both international conser-
vation organizations in the United States and smaller or-
ganizations in Latin America) that conservation was often
oriented around forests, much to the detriment of work in
other environments. Joby Bass (2005) also found the preva-
lence of pro-tree discourse among Western environmental
organizations operating in Honduras. Similarly, in Nepal,
Barbara Brower and Ann Dennis have referred to park man-
agement as arbor centric (1998:185).
However, this emphasis on forests is often described
in its inverse: deforestation (Tucker 2007; Williams 2003).
Yet, a natureculture dichotomy and a foresteddeforested
dichotomy are creations of a binary, arborescent logic. Both
of these simplicationsremoving culture fromforested ar-
eas and removing nature from deforested areashave facil-
itated the use of forests in a global environmental discourse
by allowing a facile representation of material landscape.
This differs from rivers, which tend to be part of a more lo-
cal, environmental narrative. Tim Palmer suggests as much
in his advocacy for river conservation as running through
our civilization, the rivers history lies central to local cul-
ture (1994:206).
Even with the tens of millions of dollars being spent on
conservation in eastern Panama, none of the conservation
and development projects have attempted to understand
Wounaan conceptions of the world or landscape.
This re-
sults in an arboreal bias furthered even in primary-school
activities, such as the countrys celebration of natural re-
sources month during which teachers helped Wounaan stu-
dents to draw trees and write forest-centric conservation
A Western bias on trees, peripheral consideration of
other knowledge systems, and a materialist bias have fa-
cilitated the work of conservation science. In recent work,
researchers (e.g., Brosius 1999; Goldman 2003; West 2006)
have noted that conservation has become a privileged dis-
course, as Arturo Escobar (1995) similarly said about de-
velopment. By elevating conservation science, practitioners
are able to establish authority for the landscape, even for
areas they have briey visited.
Together a materialist bias and elevation of conserva-
tion science have often blinded conservationists to the po-
litical relationships in which land-use decisions are imbed-
ded (Brosius 1999; Sundberg 1998). Like research in other
locales, in eastern Panama environmental-conservation ac-
tivities use a discourse of smallholder responsibility for en-
vironmental degradation, typically deforestation. Indige-
nous swiddeners, with the visual representation of chopped
and burned trees, are popularly vilied as forest destroyers.
Mestizo cattle ranchers are maligned for converting forest to
pasture but are considered more culturally advanced than
swidden agriculturalists.
Additionally, the roads that facilitate transportation of
cattle to market are perceived as benecial to development.
Yet other narratives are suppressed in this representation:
the sedentarization of indigenous communities and con-
trol of natural resources; the U.S.-funded Pan American
Highway extension and expansion of the logging indus-
try; the immigration of mestizos; and the incorporation
of the region into the national political sphere. More re-
cent narratives obscured are Panamanian elites land spec-
ulation into teak farming and carbon credits; Colombian
cattle ranchers push to connect to Panamas international
markets; USAID funds for Dari en National Parks debt-for-
nature swap that Panamanian conservationists consider to
be guilt money for problems the U.S. has caused in Colom-
bia; Panamas need to conquer their unruly frontier during
a period of U.S. retiree investment; the expansion of neolib-
eral economics by development banks loans (and, thus, in-
debtedness) for land titling; and the ow of international
monies and concomitant political power into conservation
(Vel asquez Runk 2005).
I have found that individual Wounaan negotiate this
disconnect with conservation and development projects by
emphasizing their ties to trees and forests in spite of their
For example, the emergence of Wounaan
commercial basketry and carving fromforest resources rein-
forced Panamanian and international notions of Wounaan
as indigenous people dependent and centered on their
forested environment. Yet even city-residing Wounaan
have adopted a discourse of tropical-forest dependence to
better sell forest-product art. For example, tags that ac-
company art Wounaan state that income earned from
the sale of this lovely basket reduces the need to destroy
rainforest for agriculture or deep inside the jungle of the
Dari en rainforest, you will nd yourself surrounded by . . .
Wounaan Indians.
During meetings with conservation, environmental
agency, and other ofcials, Wounaan individuals often
mention their environmental stewardship and conserva-
tion of forests. For example, a Wounaan chief explained
their networked cosmos in arboreal terms, saying, we
would not fell the espav e [Anacardium excelsum, a favored
dugout species] tree with a hole, because the paca [Agouti
paca] lives there, which would be food for us. We can-
not burn [huge areas] because we would lose our knowl-
edge of an area (eld notes, July 26, 2004). Wounaan
Vel asquez Runk Social and River Networks for the Trees 463
negotiation of this cosmological disconnect between them-
selves and conservation practitioners serves to buttress the
arboreal bias, reinforcing power relations in everyday life
and, as per Michel Foucault (1977), inducing a state of con-
sciousness and invisibility that ensures the automatic func-
tioning of power.
At the same time, this strategy also has another effect:
it gives Wounaan a strategic advantage by granting them
power in the conservation activities. This was illustrated
during eldwork in 2004, when I joined about 30 Wounaan
men from three villages for forest-guard training by the
Panamanian environmental agency. During the two-day
training, seven environmental agency ofcials reviewed the
relevant laws and patrolling techniques, with the end result
of formally authorizing the Wounaan trainees to wear the
agencys forest-guard T-shirts, patrol those villages lands,
and hold individuals who infringed on them. Agency of-
cials made note of the unusual event by telling Wounaan
that they were allied with us on the side of conservation
(eld notes, July 26, 2004).
With the emphasis on trees and forests, both conser-
vationists and Wounaan miss an opportunity to pursue
further conservation work to which both parties profess
their interests. For Wounaan, this is particularly evident
in conservationists apparent disinterest in water conserva-
tion. Failing to address water conservation is not simply a
salient symbolic issue but also a material one. In their na-
tional meetings, Wounaan have expressed concern about
decreasing water quantity, quality, and availability, in a
way that highlights the movement of water through a net-
worked Wounaan and non-Wounaan landscape. However,
as the rhizomic cosmos is constantly shifting and building,
it seems that these are issues that may indeed be addressed
in the future.
The binary arborescent cosmos oriented toward trees and
forests contrasts with a rhizomic one. Wounaans rhizomic
model is one of complexity, of networked social relation-
ships among humans and nonhumans that are differen-
tially characterized across the physical landscape connected
by rivers. Indeed, riverscapes can be huge, as demonstrated
by those Wounaan who migrated from the middle reaches
of the San Juan River in Colombia to Panamas Tuira River
via river travel and portages. And a river-dominated frame
helps explain Wounaan migration to Panama because, in
water, national boundaries are less concrete. A skeleton of
rivers allows an almost-ecological perspective of connect-
edness, linking marine sites to mountain ranges via river
courses. A river-dominated cosmos takes the form of an ex-
tensive, three-dimensional rhizomic network rather than a
stubby dendritic form, and it also takes on vertical struc-
ture. Rather than binary potentials, the network offers con-
nections and multiplicities of movement. It is the uid-
ity of waterits movement and ow, its transmutability
and potentially surprising, contradictory naturethat al-
low it to be both a metaphor for social networks (Kamash
2008; Strang 2006) and a means of spatially perceiving
them. Together, the complexity, dynamism, and stochastic-
ity of Wounaans rhizomic cosmos (the shifting, ooding,
tidal-inuenced river) embraces modern ecological thought
on nonequilibrium ideas and human and landscape
Interestingly, there is a long history of rhi-
zomic thoughtthat is, of networked complexity in
conservationlargely as exemplied by the interconnec-
tions of forests, waters, and people. In the United States,
conservationists attribute the presumed benet of forests
for conserving water to Marshs Man and Nature, origi-
nally published in 1864, which suggested that the forests
of the Adirondacks conserved the water supplies of New
York City.
In the mid-1990s, watersheds were again a raised as
a means of connecting people, landscapes, poetics, and
conservation efforts. In 1996, I attended part of an Orion
Societysponsored conference in Washington, D.C., called
Watershed: Writers, Nature and Community. By the late
1990s, the use of watersheds as connecting metaphors was
incorporated into broader ideas of environments that were
networked into landscapes. Conservationists embraced this
broader scale by considering and planning conservation of
landscapes (perhaps as best exemplied by the incorpora-
tion of mapping). In central Panama, the Panama Canal
Watershed has served to draw attention to connections be-
tween forests and waters. However, as discussed by Vazken
Andr eassian (2004) and David Kaimowitz (2005), these con-
nections are often popularly misunderstood as well as sci-
entically debated. The continued focus on the Panama
Canal Watershed in the countrys conservation is increas-
ingly oriented toward neoliberal economics of ecosys-
tem services and carbon credits, rather than ecological
Yet, in spite of the recognition of landscapes and com-
plexity, conservation continues to focus on trees, forests,
and the terrestrial environment. This is to the detriment
of marine and aquatic environments, as I found with con-
servationists relative inattention to aquatic livelihood ac-
tivities (Vel asquez Runk et al. 2007). At the same time, a
focus on land may make conservation praxis more open
to boundary-making efforts, such as land titling and bor-
dered protected areas, rather than considering more dy-
namic states, such as rivers and social relationships. I be-
lieve that one of the reasons for the repetitious efforts
among conservation and development projects in eastern
Panama is this focus on trees and forests. Although clearly
it demonstrates little attention to other cosmologies, it also
indicates little dialogue with the regions inhabitants. At
the same time, Wounaans repeated mention of trees may
blind some conservation and government ofcials to their
networked cosmos.
Like conservationists, anthropologists and other social
scientists have similarly tended to neglect aquatic environ-
ments. Although there is a signicant literature on the
464 American Anthropologist Vol. 111, No. 4 December 2009
importance of rivers in the Neotropics (Goldman 1979;
Hugh-Jones 1979; Nietschmann 1973; Oslender 2004), in
other tropical regions (Feld 1997; Jennaway 2008), as well
as outside of the tropics (Conner et al. 2008; Kamash
2008; Klubnikin et al. 2000; Strang 2006; Thomas 2002),
researchers have been inclined to concentrate on landed
or aquatic environments. This is another example of ar-
borescent thought, in which complexity and dynamism
are reduced, rather than networked. In contrast, however,
Stephen Lansing (2006) and Hugh Rafes (2002) provide
notable examples of anthropological work that embraces
rhizomic thought on the environment, highlighting the
complexity, movement, and subjectivity of water in Bali-
nese irrigation and Amazonia, respectively.
Although conservationists and social scientists have
increasingly recognized the study of complexity, environ-
ments, peoples, scales, and dynamism, I believe that the
continued focus on trees and forests and people as apart
from nature attest to the ease of dichotomous arborescent
thought (as well as a Western bias for arboreal imagery).
Academic training encourages students to select the study
of terrestrial environments or aquatic ones as well as natural
sciences or social sciences. The growing academic embrace
of rhizomic thought, via studies in environmental anthro-
pology, environmental sciences, and cultural geography,
will allow us move beyond the traditions of binary logics.
It will also create more informed conservation praxis.
JULIE VEL ASQUEZ RUNK Department of Anthropology, Univer-
sity of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602-1619;;
Acknowledgments. All research was carried out under a written re-
search agreement with local, regional, and national Wounaan lead-
ership of the Congreso Nacional del Pueblo Wounaan and the
Fundaci on para el Desarrollo del Pueblo Wounaan. I am deeply
appreciative of the support of Maj e, Boca Lara, and Panama City
residents in carrying out this research. I am grateful to the AA
anonymous reviewers, AA editors Tom Boellstroff and Mayumi
Shimose, and Joby Bass for their comments and suggestions.
Rocio Rodriguez-Granados kindly edited my Spanish abstract. Spe-
cial thanks to the School for Advanced Research for their writ-
ing support as a Resident Scholar. The support from a Program in
Agrarian Studies Reciprocity Grant and two John Perry Miller Fund
Fellowships enabled me to discuss early results with Wounaan.
Funding for initial research and analysis was provided by an
American Association of University Women American Dissertation
Fellowship, a Cullman Fellowship, a Fulbright-Hays Dissertation
Fellowship, a Smithsonian Institution Predoctoral Fellowship, a
Yale Center for International and Area Studies Dissertation Re-
search Grant, and a Society for Economic Botany Schultes Award.
1. I use Wounaan instead of the Wounaan because I think the latter
conveys anessentialized idea of a monolithic group. I do not intend
it to be disrespectful.
2. This differs from the signicant literature that examines local
cosmologies and conservation practices, often referred to as sacred
ecology (e.g., Berkes 1999; Grim 2001; Tucker and Grim 1994).
3. I resided in eastern Panama for almost ve of those 13 years. I
lived in Darien Province from 1996 to 1999, working throughout
that region as a conservation and development practitioner on the
ecology and socioeconomics of Ember a and Wounaan nontimber
art. Subsequently, I worked as an ethnographic researcher from
2001 to 2004, living in two Wounaan villages in eastern Panama
Province and Darien Province. During both periods of residence,
I took a number of short research trips to other areas of eastern
Panama, which were necessarily restricted because of the paramili-
tary and guerrilla violence since the mid-1990s. In the interim and
subsequent years, I have traveled to Panama every year for research,
with as many as three trips a year.
4. The Choc o language group (Constenla Uma na 1991).
5. Recently, Wounaan have gained indigenous intellectual prop-
erty rights for their chunga (Astrocaryum stanleyanum ber) coiled
basketry and tagua (Phytelephas seemannii vegetable ivory) and
cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa rosewood) carvings. This substanti-
ates commercial-art vendors observations, in both Panama and
Colombia, that Wounaan excelled at these arts, compared to
Ember a.
6. There is no singular origin myth; however, there are elements,
themes, and images that Wounaan understand as critical to de-
scribing the creation of the world. These elements remain com-
mon knowledge among Wounaan and are frequently commented
on (e.g., joking about walking on a beach like Wounaan ancestors
on the Baudo beach after their creation). Storytellers combine these
critical elements with improvisational and narrative skill. Modern
Wounaan consider the storytelling of their and the worlds origin
to be a particularly difcult and lengthy narration, and, as many
storytellers told me, there was already a published version of it in
Wounmeu from a 1977 workshop (Pe na Ismare 1986). Therefore,
although I recorded over 35 Wounaan myths and legends during
my eldwork, I did not tape the origin of the world. I use the Pe na
Ismare version, subsequently translated into Spanish from Woun-
meu by To no Pe na and into English by Maria Runk, Luisa Lema
Velez, and me. The entire English translation is in Vel asquez Runk
7. I use Spanish words in italics and Wounmeu words underlined.
8. The ant that carried the water between its teeth was a Para-
ponera. The description of the San Juan River is reminiscent of
John Hemmings description of the Amazon River: Look at the
Amazon River on a satellite image and it resembles a gigantic tree
9. Wounaan from the creeks [d osigpien] (and their descendents)
often refer to two downriver groups: those from the lower San
Juan [d obadpeen] (and their descendents) and those from the
main San Juan River channel [d ochaarpien] (and their descen-
dents). However, in my research with a purportedly lower San
Juandescended community, they self-identied as from the main
San Juan [d ochaarpien]. I therefore conservatively refer to two
groups. It was unclear as to whether the preferred terminology
resulted from classication of only two Wounaan subgroups or an
avoidance of the term associated with malevolent downriver areas.
10. Woun is singular, Wounaan is plural.
11. Previous authors (e.g., Pineda Giraldo and Pineda 1956) have
equated Ember a and Wounaan cosmology as tripartite with an
everyday ground level as well as virtuous heavens and a sinful
hell underworld learned about through teachings of the Catholic
Church. However, given Wounaan conception of malevolence and
benevolence in all levels, and similar stratication in other indige-
nous cosmologies (Sullivan 1988), such a conclusion seems overly
12. Jap is specic to a river dugout; Wounaan refer to ocean
dugouts with the Spanish word bote (boat).
13. A detailed description of Wounaan illness, curing, and
shamanic healing may be found in Vel asquez Runk 2005.
14. B enkn translates as people (kn) of the spirits (b en).
15. These social relationships include naming blacks as godpar-
ents, sharing seeds, working for them as contracted shrimpers, and
purchasing their coin-crafted jewelry, among others.
16. Many areas of both Panama and Colombia are outside the
tidal zones of the littoral; however, this same schemata of raucous,
potentially malevolent downriver areas (badag drr) still applies.
Several Wounaan relayed to me that Panama is perceived to be
downriver from Colombia (perhaps partially as a result of the cur-
rents and wind that favor transportation from south to north). It
was only when Wounaan began to hear of land availability, high
plantain yields, and the low costs of goods that they began to per-
ceive Panama as benevolent (Vel asquez Runk 2005).
Vel asquez Runk Social and River Networks for the Trees 465
17. Like many words in Wounmeu, wr wr is onomatopoetic, for
the sound of the rustling leaves.
18. See Herlihy (1986), Kane (2004), and Vel asquez Runk (2005)
for pre-Columbian and colonial-era accounts of this region.
19. This is not to say that all of Ember a and Wounaan were in
settlements, but the overwhelming majority is now. Even several
houses that I knew in the late 1990s to be a few hours walk from
the nearest village have since been abandoned (typically as a result
of the sporadic paramilitary and guerrilla violence spilling over
from the Colombian conict).
20. Eastern Panamas mestizo immigrants refer to themselves as
interioranos, those from the interior (provinces west of the canal).
21. Interestingly, the regions black populations are largely over-
looked in such characterizations.
22. The Panamanian national dance, song, and dress are all from
the Western cattle-ranching culture.
23. And only one, to my knowledge, attempted to understand Em-
ber a cosmology but did not explicitly tie that work to conservation
24. This might be understood as part of Wounaans long-
term resistance and adaptation to extralocal actors, which has
been documented since colonial times in Colombia (Williams
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