a) General description
With a population around 14,000 people, the Tsimane’ constitute the third largest Amerindian society inhabiting the lowlands of Bolivia. Despite being predominantly hunter-gatherers, the Tsimane’ also practice small-scale slash-and-burn agriculture and are progressively adopting economic activities, such as temporary seasonal wage labor, trade and forestry. Given that engagement in these new economic activities vary across individuals and villages, this semi-nomadic foraging-horticulturalist society nowadays displays different degrees of market integration and cultural change.
b) Geographic situation
The Tsimane’ inhabit a large territory (14º10’ – 15º40’S, 66º20’ – 67º20’W) in the southwestern Department of Beni, in the Bolivian Amazon. The climate of the region is thermotropical with summer rains from October to April. Habitats in the area range from wet to moist sub-tropical and gallery forests, and most of the territory is covered with Amazonian lowland forests with a high semi-deciduous canopy reaching 40 m.
c) Brief History
The origins of the Tsimane’ society are connected to the pre-Hispanic migrations from the Andes into the Amazon. During the times of the Spanish colony, the Tsimane’ had less contact with Spaniards than other Amazonian groups. The first record of contact assigned to the Tsimane' was in 1621 through the Franciscan priest Gregorio de Bolívar, who attempted and failed to Christianize and settle the Tsimane’ into missions. However, the first significant changes in Tsimane’ culture did not occur until the mid-20th century, when cattle ranchers began to develop agricultural production in the Beni region, and with the breakthrough of the missions through the Territory. In the 1970s, the area inhabited by the Tsimane’ was affected by several waves of government-planned Andean colonization. Since then, the Tsimane’ have suffered incursions of colonists and loggers that have affected their settlement patterns and their availability to use of natural resources in the area. External pressure on the territory and its resources propelled the creation in 1989 of the Gran Consejo Tsimane’ (GCT), the first political representative authority of the Tsimane’ society. This organization has been instrumental for the recognition of the territorial rights and citizenship of the Tsimane’, with the titling of the Territorio Indígena Chimane (TICH, Tsimane’ Indigenous Territory).
d) Main Economic Activities
Tsimane’ rely on a subsistence economy based on slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting, fishing and gathering, being the sale of thatch palm and cash cropping of rice and plantain their primary sources of monetary income. Although the Tsimane’ continue to be a highly autarkic society, there are individuals who have access to cash income from wage labor in logging camps, cattle ranches, and in the homestead of colonist farmers, or from the sale of timber and non-timber forest resources and cash crops.
e) Social organization
Tsimane’ society is largely egalitarian, being kinship, and specifically the extended family the basis of the Tsimane’ social organization. Most Tsimane' still practice a Dravidian cross-cousin marriage, meaning that a man weds the daughter of his mother's brother or that of his father's sister, despite a growing tendency for exogamous unions in some villages close to towns. However, the importance of kinship in orchestrating social life is rapidly changing due to external pressures from missionaries and from contacts with the non-Tsimane’ population. Traditionally a non-hierarchical society, the need to acquire legal titles to land pushed the Tsimane’ to elect community leaders, locally called “corregidores”, gaining more importance as local leaders than community elders.
f) Current challenges
Conflicts arising from the land tenure regimes and titling regularization are still on the agenda of Bolivia, both at the local and national levels. Despite the fact that the Tsimane’ TCO demarcation process concluded recently, many logging interests still glide over the exploitation of natural resources inside the Tsimane’ Territory. Resolving the increasing number of conflicts with encroachers, forest concessions, and the expansion of colonist frontiers is still challenging for the Tsimane’ society and their political representatives. As for the Local Environmental Knowledge, recent research suggest that the Tsimane’ could be abandoning their traditional knowledge as they perceive that this form of knowledge does not equip them well to deal with the new socio-economic and cultural conditions they face nowadays. All these processes, along with the touristic interest in the area, the abandonement of traditional activities (encompassing diet and health issues) or the ongoing impacts of climate change, to cite just a few, will probably shape new scenarios for the history of the Tsimane’ society in the years to come.