Nicholas Emlen on his book, Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier

Language, Coffee, and Migration on an Andean-Amazonian Frontier image

Interview by Gaya Morris

This book is an ethnography of multilingualism in the Alto Urubamba Valley, on the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier of Southern Peru. Here, Indigenous Amazonian Matsigenka people and Quechua-speaking migrants (colonos) from the nearby Andean highlands live densely interconnected lives. The book explores how people from different backgrounds move between Matsigenka, Quechua, and Spanish in the many contexts of their everyday lives, as they transform the rain forest into farmland and become coffee producers for the first time.

Gaya Morris: You claim that the ethnic categories of Colono and Matsigenka “are crucial principles of difference in the local social world” but are not “empirical and analytical categories that reliably correspond to actual patterns of interaction, behavior, and language, or even to individuals” (9-10). So what role do these imaginary categories perform in processes of social differentiation and exclusion? What differences do they not mark that they are often assumed to?

Nicholas Emlen: Gaya, thank you for your interest in the book, and for your thoughtful questions.

The language ideology of the “ethnolinguistic group” has a strong hold on the way scholars talk about the social panorama of South America, and also on the way it is conceptualized on the ground. This ideology encourages us to think about Matsigenkas and Andean migrants (colonos) as clearly delineable aggregates of people. But when you look more closely at the Andean-Amazonian agricultural frontier, it becomes clear that things are a lot more complicated, and that these categories are quite negotiable and contextual.

To understand why, it helps to start by thinking about interethnic marriage, which is by now the rule rather than the exception among Matsigenka speakers in the Alto Urubamba. Most Quechua-speaking migrants to the valley are men, and many end up in unions with Matsigenka women. They either bring those women with them upriver toward the highlands, or those couples stay together in the lowlands. This makes it more difficult, in turn, for Matsigenka men to find spouses, so they travel further downriver and into the remote tributaries to start families, or to bring women back upriver. The result is an opposed system of migratory flows: men move downriver, bringing Quechua with them, while women move upriver, bringing Matsigenka with them.

As a result of this regional interplay between migration, gender, kinship, and language, many children across the Alto Urubamba frontier are growing up in trilingual households, and with a foot in both social worlds. However, this interconnectedness is quite in contrast to the region’s rigid discourse of ethnicity, which takes Matsigenkas and colonos to be distinct groups of people. It’s interesting to see how this disjuncture plays out. For instance, among one group of siblings I know, some live with their mother in a titled Matsigenka community, attend a Matsigenka-Spanish bilingual school, and get counted in the census as ethnically Matsigenka. A few of their siblings live with their father in a nearby colono settlement, attend a Quechua-Spanish bilingual school, and don’t get counted as Matsigenka in the census. With respect to exclusion, the kids living in the colono settlement find themselves treated as ethnic outsiders among their Andean peers. Meanwhile, their siblings in the Matsigenka community are treated as colono interlopers. It’s not an easy situation for anyone. The point is, these categories play out differently depending on the context of interaction, and on the perspective of the interactants.

Gaya Morris: You suggest that “recognizing the interconnectedness of Andeans and Amazonians in the Alto Urubamba is not just an academic matter; it also holds important political significance” (16). What might be the political consequences of overlooking the interconnectedness of these two regions and groups?

Nicholas Emlen: In the book, I give two main reasons why I think it’s politically important to acknowledge the interconnectedness of Andeans and Amazonians in the Alto Urubamba. The first is about recognizing the diversity, complexity, and global connectedness of Indigenous lives in South America. There’s a particular image that comes to mind when we talk about Matsigenka people and Quechua-speaking Andeans: as remote hunter-horticulturalists on the one hand, and as rural highland agropastoralists on the other. I think a different view of those people, in which they live side-by-side in the Amazon and participate together in the global coffee trade, pushes against an essentializing vision of that social panorama.

Second, a lot of urgent geopolitical problems are playing out in the Andean-Amazonian transitional zone. If we overlook the interconnectedness of those regions, we risk missing or misunderstanding those problems. A lot of these problems come from a paradox that I discuss in the book: on the one hand, the region is remote and inaccessible, so it’s a perfect place to conduct all manner of illicit activities, like cocaine production. On the other hand, it’s also very close to the Andes and to the broader Amazonian river network, which makes those illicit activities viable and lucrative—that is, its proximity also makes it a convenient place from which to distribute cocaine. That’s why today’s cocaine-producing area was also home, for instance, to the Inca resistance against the Spanish in the 16th century. In both cases, the forests of Alto Urubamba have provided refuge and cover, but also proximity and broader regional access. So it’s the in-between-ness of this region that keeps thrusting it onto the global geopolitical stage. If we only focus on the rural highlands or the remote lowlands, we won’t understand how these urgent problems are playing out at their interface. Furthermore, economies in the eastern Andean slopes like the cocaine trade, illegal logging, and hydrocarbon extraction disproportionately affect the region’s most vulnerable people, so I think it’s important to shine a light on them.

Gaya Morris: You write that when you envisioned investigating multilingualism in this region you didn’t initially anticipate studying coffee production so closely, but now when you look into a cup of coffee you can’t help but imagine the “inconceivably vast network of relationships and words” that went into making it (143). If you were to give summary or relate a few anecdotes from your fieldwork amongst coffee farmers, what part of this story would you want to share with the average coffee consumer? What would you say to someone who only buys Fair Trade coffee beans?

Nicholas Emlen: It’s true—when I first went to the Alto Urubamba Valley to learn about multilingualism, I didn’t know anything about coffee farming. But I quickly realized that in order to understand the social reality of multilingualism in the valley, I would also have to learn about coffee. That’s because almost every most interaction was connected to that economy, directly or indirectly. The reverse is also true: becoming a coffee farmer is not just about putting seeds in the soil and learning to make them grow, but also requires adopting particular linguistic registers and interactional practices in all three languages.

To give some examples: coffee farmers must absorb complex information in workshops, conducted in a technical register of Spanish, in which they sit for hours and learn about fertilizers, coffee pulpers, fermentation, and humidity. Then, to secure a buyer for their coffee at a good price, they must negotiate with merchants in tense roadside drinking and joking sessions, in Quechua; knowing how to deceive, read between the lines, and deploy a kind of dissatisfied silence are all necessary to making a good profit. To confront encroaching neighbors, farmers must file petitions in a rarified legal register of Spanish, or send non-linguistic messages, like tearing out coffee plants in the middle of the night and leaving them piled up along a property boundary. Some farmers conceal their strategies by speaking Matsigenka around merchants, or by using coded language over the radio. These are just a few of the linguistic dimensions of coffee production. My point is that becoming a successful farmer is as much a matter of adopting linguistic and communicative practices (all of which are embedded in the local social world) as it is a matter of learning agricultural techniques, narrowly defined. This is what linguistic anthropology offers in this case: a holistic analytical lens through which to understand the local practices of multilingualism and the dynamics of coffee production as a unified social system.

I’m not sure what this perspective offers to a coffee consumer. Producers in the places where I work haven’t yet achieved export-grade coffee, and systems like Fair Trade aren’t well known. But I think it’s a good practice for anyone in today’s world to be aware of (or at least curious about) where their food comes from, and to be mindful of the people and landscapes that are affected by their consumption choices. In particular, imagining how our food arrives to us through countless interpersonal interactions across the globe—this is, understanding the food system as it is mediated by language use—pushes us to acknowledge the humanity and day-to-day experiences of those who produce and distribute it.

Gaya Morris: Given that people will talk about the landscape in very different ways—such as “the domain of intersubjective relations with other-than-human entities” versus “a resource to be exploited for commercial gain” (229)—depending on the setting and the language they are speaking in (Chapter 6), would you say that language politics in the Alto Urubamba may go hand in hand with conservation?

Nicholas Emlen: Certainly. Chapter 6 of the book is about the amazingly diverse conceptualizations of the landscape that people draw on as they move between ideologically-regimented contexts of speech. For instance, during the community agricultural workshops that I mentioned earlier (which are conducted in Spanish), people discuss the chemical properties of the soil, and how to clear and burn a plot of forest safely. By contrast, in Matsigenka myth narrations (which take place among family members in the home), the very same people talk about the landscape as a place of interactions with dangerous spirits. In these contexts, people invoke very different ideas about the land, as well as different kinds of social commitments (i.e. to the community versus the family), visions of history, and even what kinds of beings exist in the world. In this way, changing patterns of land use are linked with the local dynamics of language use.

Environmental conservation is yet another way to talk about the landscape. It is associated with different social commitments (in the case, to all of humanity), and with different ideas about what the forest is, what purpose it serves, and who is entitled to have opinions about its future. I suppose this is one of the challenges facing conservationists in the Alto Urubamba: inserting a new conceptualization of the landscape, along with all of its potentially conflicting ideological associations, into an already crowded field of day-to-day landscape experiences.

Gaya Morris: In framing your book as a “time capsule,” you allow that “much of what (you) describe will be outdated” (36). Are there any significant changes or events that have taken place in the region since your fieldwork in 2009-2012 that readers should be aware of? Any that might cause you to revise any part of your analysis?

Nicholas Emlen: All fieldwork is a snapshot of a fleeting moment in time. This is particularly true of fieldwork in a place like the Andean-Amazonian frontier, where the transformation from remote forest, to frontier settlement, and to middle-class urban center can happen in just a few decades. I have a friend in a frontier settlement who transformed a small, remote piece of forest into a fruit patch; from a fruit patch into a fish farm; and from a fish farm into a discoteca. All of this happened in about 25 years. I have tried to keep in mind this extraordinary pace of change as I wrote the book. So, looking back on it now, I think the analysis is a good representation of what the place was like in 2009-2012. But indeed, a great many things have changed since then.

I most recently visited the Alto Urubamba in November 2019, to present my book to the communities where I conduct my fieldwork, and to start some new projects. During that visit, I had the interesting experience of reviewing the final proofs for the book while I was staying in those very same communities. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on what has changed, and what has not. One big change is that there’s now electricity in Yokiri, the community where I lived for nearly a year, and there’s now even patchy cell phone reception in some places. Here is a photo of a soccer game in Yokiri in November 2019, under the new electrical lines that were built a couple of years before:


This new connectivity has transformed the valley’s communicative life. For instance, most of my Matsigenka and Andean migrant friends are now on Facebook, which allows them to communicate with each other more easily. As a result, the system of public radio communication I discuss in chapter 4 of the book has basically disappeared by now. Facebook has also presented the valley’s residents with a dramatically new landscape of information. This includes memes about the differences between cats and dogs, but also content regarding relationships, religion, and national politics. Unfortunately, this change has also brought more insidious material into the lives of Matsigenkas and colonos, including conspiracy theories, fake news, and outright scams. A view of the region both before and after the arrival of social media presents some interesting longitudinal possibilities, and I’ve just begun a new project that explores the place of these communicative transformations in the chaotic frontier society as it expands ever further in the forest.

The region has also faced some economic headwinds in recent years, which has had pretty alarming consequences for people there. Corruption is even more widespread than it was before, and the cocaine trade has become more assertive and institutionalized. Heavily armed smugglers now trespass through remote parts of Matsigenka communities on well-established paths, and community members avoid those places, fearing for their lives. Prostitution, crime, and alcoholism have all become more prevalent since the fieldwork that led to this book. So, one concern I’ve had is that the book isn’t dark enough. Don’t get me wrong, it’s already very dark, particularly in the parts about the cocaine trade—but there’s something a little more apocalyptic in the air at the moment, which I don’t want to miss. I want to be sure I’ve struck the right balance between emphasizing the kindness and decency of the people that I know in the valley, and drawing attention to the ongoing geopolitical catastrophe that they endure—and which we all must reckon with, if a relatively intact Amazon rain forest is indeed crucial to our survival on this planet. Striking that balance is a real challenge.

Part of my concern might also be the result of how I’ve changed as a person since I first visited the valley in 2009. I think that now, as a father and a husband, I’m more viscerally affected by the dark aspects of frontier life than I was as a young fieldworker in my 20s. Anthropologists who engage with the same communities over the course of decades, or who are members of those communities, always witness changes in those places. What might be less obvious is how the anthropologists themselves also change.


Author bio:

Nicholas Q. Emlen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, and at the DFG Center for Advanced Studies “Words, Bones, Genes, Tools,” University of Tübingen.