Benno, Paraguay

 

Your life in a few words, starting with an hint on your childhood

I was born and grew up in Switzerland during the 1950s and 60s, in materially secure circumstances, but at the same time suffering under the pressures of a school and a social system based on competition and exclusion and which did not foster solidarity nor a sustainable human conviviality. My generation was told not to dream; we were expected to become realistic, efficient and productive. I was not taught to cultivate intuition nor to be open to inspiration. It was only much later that I learned from indigenous cultures that dreams are a source of knowledge, and that to live a good life meant to live in a way that permitted at all times to be open to inspiration.

I studied philosophy of science, but after five years decided to leave university: too many fascinating fields, places and worlds were there to discover to fit into a life spent in academics. I went to live in a mountain village on the south coast of the island of Crete. Islands had always attracted me. The time in Crete was my first experience really of living by modest means and with people of another culture: an apprenticeship for life. It was paradise but somehow I felt I was too young to just stay in paradise, I had to do achieve something to contribute to a better future. I went to South America with the idea to join the efforts of others in “creating a better world” there. Those were the years of upheaval, rebellion, resistance, revolution, answered by the system with repression and the establishment of dictatorships. I worked for three years for the ICRC, visiting political prisoners under the dictatorships in Chile, and later in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.

In 1977 I quit and settled in Paraguay; it was there that I had had a key encounter with indigenous people and their way of life. I was impressed and decided I wanted to learn from them, for myself and for “my own people”, our societies. This was to become the basic theme of my work and life from then on. For many years, I was active in grassroots “cooperation” work with indigenous peoples, and with other marginalized groups like urban poor, campesinos (small subsistence peasants) and, for a number of years, with street children, conducting participatory research and working as a “street educator”. My work and life was also a process of constant learning: working alongside anthropologists I learnt to look through their eyes; in charge of educational activities, I learnt from Paulo Freire’s pedagogics (“you cannot really teach anybody anything”). I explored homeopathy (inducing processes of change by mobilizing naturally present forces in the body itself, by means of a minimal stimulus); I learnt to focus my social work on (often invisible) processes and energetic fields, and on the question how one could contribute to their fluidity.

With the years, the pretension to “change the world” was gradually scaled down to just only trying to get an understanding of what was going on.

 

 

Your work in the field of anthropology regards either the teaching and the practice on the field and you dealt a lot also with dictatorships and political prisoners. What do you think about the actual situation in Latin America especially within the crisis of Venezuela and, if pertinent, which is your opinion of the state of art related to the previous US politics regarding the area?

This is to broad and too complex a question to be answered here. But this I can say: for the more than forty years I have lived in Latin America, the US have always had a negatively dominating role: first, by imposing governments and dictatorships, later, by setting to work more hidden and structural violence. The goal was to curb, and if possible annihilate, locally rooted and inspired initiatives and processes that aimed at, or defended, conditions of more freedom and self-determination. Cultural diversity, the huge diversity of locally based life models based on subsistence were to be dismantled and replaced by gradually establishing those economic conditions which are in place today and which favor –with vast populations always more dependent on consumer goods- the interests and profits of huge transnational power structures like banks and multinational corporations, which now use national governments as a mere instrument at their service. The US have been one of the principal agents of the decade- long processes leading to the present situation, but not the only one. Many local forces, bodies of knowledge, hosts of wisdom have been degraded and weakened, but by no means lost. Especially in times of crisis and absence of serious government they awaken under the form of self- governed initiatives and the kind of solidarity innate in Latin America cultures.

Venezuela under Chavez adopted a position that came to clearly stand in the way of the previously described economic interests defended by the US. Therefore, the US has been trying to get rid of Chavez and to reestablish its control in Venezuela by different, but unsuccessful means. Now, after his death, this continues. I am very sure that what is happening in Venezuela at the moment cannot be explained without taking into account the role and workings of the US in defense of the above mentioned power structures which it takes to be its own interests.

It is useful to ask oneself what would happen, in Latin America as well as in other continents, if national and local populations were left alone, left to determine their collective life processes and plans freely and by themselves?

 

 

Your interest today is toward a minority of people (Ayoreo) and you settled Iniciativa Amotocodie: can you tell us more and which kind of milestones you’ve reached with?

From the 1990s on, I followed the impulse to explore the phenomenon of indigenous peoples and groups in voluntary isolation, i.e. living invisibly for us in their own world and (pre-colonial) cosmovision. There are such groups in Paraguay, and they add up to more than 120 peoples within the national territories of several modern states in Latin America. What would their everyday life be like? They lived geographically in spots of our own maps, but within a world of their own. How would they see ‘the world’, their world? What was it like? And how would they explain to themselves sudden presences coming from our world, like a plane passing overhead? Finally, what was it that happened exactly in the traumatic moments when they were contacted against their will by agents of our modern civilization?

After exploring free-lance for ten years, in 2002 I founded, together with my life partner and friends, the NGO Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA). It aims at trying to protect the several isolated groups of Ayoreo living in the North of the Paraguayan Chaco against a rapidly increasing deforestation for livestock farming and agro-industrial plantations, as well as threats posed by petrol drilling, land speculation, land grabbing, drug trafficking, missionaries. The situation is dramatic and violent, but in an invisible and silent way. An important part of our task consists in systematizing and informing the public opinion about what we know about the isolated indigenous peoples: about the way they live and about their relation to nature and the world. It is known that their life paradigm is radically diverse from that of modern civilization, and therefore it can be a source of vital stimuli for reflecting our own individual and social life, our future, our relation to nature and the world. Their presence on our planet and what it stands for, although extremely marginal, constitutes a vital part of humanity of the present. Just think of the ability they have –unlike ourselves- to coexist with nature without exhausting and destroying it!

 

 

You as a reader: which places, which needs, which books with you now

I read passionately and all the time, background analysis about what is happening (example: writings by Gustavo Esteva, México), theoretical books (example: Ivan Illich, one of the most important thinkers of the last century, he should be read a lot more), and a many novels -including crime novels. Novels –and to some extent also films- open up worlds, present or past, and help to understand the present. Recently, I have been reading Jack Kerouac, Paul Auster and Jane Austen. And recovering some of my Italian (language of my childhood),  Camilleri’s “La mossa del cavallo”, a novel set in the past in Sicily (Sicily is a most inspiring island), and, with a particular interest, Giorgio Fontana’s “Morte di un uomo felice”: it is about past political violence and resistance in Italy (Slow Words interviewed Giorgio Fontana once he won a very famous literary Prize, Campiello on 2014, we explored in our way from many viewpoints).

 

 

Which music is with you now and what in general do you like to listen to?

I do a lot of walking to keep fit, and while doing it, I listen to music: Glenn Gould playing Bach, or the Beethoven Sonatas. I love to listen to pianist Yuja Wang on YouTube. Many events of my past are associated with pieces of music – classical, hits, folkloric – and by listening, I can return to them whenever I feel like it.

 

 

Your favorite food and drink?

Italian food, pasta, risotto, but also simply red wine, goat cheese and bread made with farina Tumminia (a grano duro from Sicily)

 

 

Which is the secret place in your city (or elsewhere) to hide from the daily noises, for a little evasion or simply to slow the pace?

In any city, I try to find a seashore, a riverside or a park where I can walk, listening to music while observing what is going on around me: things in nature, people…

 

 

What did you learn, so far, form life?

I am still learning, so I just mention these:

  • people, but also peoples (pueblos, popoli, societies) are organic beings, not machines; we are living bodies, and we are part of something still bigger that is also alive
  • from indigenous peoples, and from our own traditional cultures and ways of life we can get inspirations which help us to discern and analyze our own way of life, and to reactivate patterns and abilities we have (culturally) forgotten about; this does not mean one returns to the past; it simply mean one becomes more complete again.

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