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Lucy Mair Medal Award, And John Palmer’s Speech

We are very proud that Dr John Palmer, our anthropological advisor, was in January 2010, awarded the prestigious Lucy Mair Medal by the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. This is given to 'honour the application of anthropology to the relief of poverty and distress, and to the active recognition of human dignity'. This is a well deserved recognition for his selfless work for the Wichí of the Itiyuro Basin.

Here is an extract from his acceptance speech:


In the first place, (thanks to) Chacolinks Charitable Trust, a small but big-hearted voluntary organization whose fund-raising efforts provide a lifeline for the programme of applied anthropology on which the RAI has generously bestowed its recognition. Chacolinks, it should be added, has strong ties with anthropology: its Founder and Coordinator, Clare Passingham, is niece to the late Rosemary Firth; and its Chair is former Curl-Essay prizewinner, Professor Jeremy MacClancy.

In addition, Professor MacClancy is the architect and anchorman of a Trust Fund administered by Oxford Brookes University. The Fund provides sponsorship for the work that I have come to understand as "anthropology at the scene of the crime”.

Personally, it is also important to summon in spirit those members of the Wichí people – including those no longer alive – who would be (or would have been) happy to share in celebrating this glad occasion. May I give pride of place to my wife, Tojweya.

The Wichí are an indigenous people of the semi-arid tropical forests of the Chaco, a lowland plain that occupies the greater part of the South American continent between the Amazon Basin and the Argentine Pampas. Their so-called "hunter-gatherer” economy consists in the harvesting of resources – both natural and cultivated – most of which are seasonally available and subject to immediate consumption.

Leadership is entrusted to those who are identified as possessing the spiritual attribute of goodwill. Conversely, aggressiveness – understood by the Wichí as the antithesis of goodwill – is stigmatized. By the same token, social violence is largely absent.

With a traditional land-base that covers an area of approximately 100,000 km², and with an estimated population of upwards of 50,000, the Wichí constitute the largest language group within the ecosystem to which they belong. As we know, though, from relatively recent events in Rwanda, this demographic advantage should not be confused with political dominance.

With the exception of a small proportion of the population living on the Bolivian reaches of the Pilcomayo River basin, the Wichí are an enclave of the Argentine nation-state.

Argentina is an independent Republic whose status as such is implicit in its membership of the United Nations. None the less, it is a country born of a colonial regime and, from the point of view of its indigenous inhabitants, such as the Wichí, the colonization process still continues.

It is a commonplace among anthropologists that "colonization is predicated on the violation of human rights”. Lucy Mair’s own writings, although not couched in terms of the legal concept of human rights, bear witness to the concern felt by anthropologists with regard to the "disintegration” that typically results from the exposure of native peoples to unmediated western influence. 

In the context of a former Spanish colony, the situation is no different, except for the fact that there now exists a body of international (and internal) law that guarantees respect for the customary law and institutions of indigenous peoples such as the Wichí. Applied anthropology therefore has the option of collaborating with lawyers in the struggle to reach judicial verdicts that oblige the public and private sectors to abide by existing legislation on indigenous rights.

Such is the crux of our work, and I emphasize that it is "our” work because, in this case, the role of the anthropologist is that of an intermediary between the Wichí themselves, who are the exponents of the problems with which they are burdened, and two committed women lawyers who represent them in judicial proceedings. Anthropological involvement consists principally in participation in an advisory capacity and as interpreter, on occasion also assuming the mantle of plaintiff or even defendant.

Discounting administrative and legislative measures taken, applied anthropology has here been involved over the past thirteen years in over 70 separate legal actions. The lawsuits in question deal mainly with Wichí land rights and the defence of their lands against deforestation and logging, but customary cultural rights have also been addressed.

President, Director and distinguished members of the Royal Anthropological Institute, thank you very much indeed for the honour of your recognition. It comes as an invaluable stimulus for the continued pursuit of applied anthropology among the Wichí of northern Argentina.

(This is an edited version of the speech read by Stefan Wilson, as John Palmer could not be at the ceremony in London.)

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