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The Andean Condor as bird, authority, and devil: an empirical assessment of the biocultural keystone species concept in the high Andes of Chile

Andrés Jacques-Coper, Proyecto de Conservación del Cóndor Andino, Zoológico Nacional de Chile, Chile; The Peregrine Fund, Boise, ID, USA
Guillermo Cubillos, Sección Educación para la Conservación. Proyecto de Conservación del Cóndor Andino, Zoológico Nacional del Parque Metropolitano de Santiago, Chile
José Tomás Ibarra, ECOS (Ecology-Complexity-Society) Laboratory, Center for Local Development (CEDEL), Villarrica Campus, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC); Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research (CIIR), Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile; Center for the Socioeconomic Impact of Environmental Policies (CESIEP), Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile


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Biocultural keystone species have been suggested for different societies, but there has been little empirical evaluation of their role in the face of rapid socio-environmental changes. The Aymara people of northern Chile have experienced historical and contemporary processes that have modified their culture and relationship with nature. The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) has previously been proposed as a biocultural keystone species for traditional Andean societies. We evaluate the validity of this assertion in the light of the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of today’s Aymara from the high Andes of northern Chile. A three-month ethnographic study was conducted in the Putre municipal district, including semistructured interviews, focus groups, and surveys of the district’s Aymara inhabitants. Our results indicate a nonarticulated set of information that can be identified as knowledge about the Andean Condor but is patchy and resembles relics, rather than an ongoing body of TEK that includes daily practices, social institutions, and a worldview shaped by the putative biocultural keystone species. Chileanization, migration, and the integration of evangelical religions into the area’s Catholic-Andean setting were identified as three processes that have deeply affected the transmission of TEK and the Aymara-condor relationship, with new generations living in socio-environmental contexts different from those of their ancestors. We suggest that, today, the condor can hardly be considered a biocultural keystone species for the Aymara people of northern Chile. Our study highlights that the role of putative biocultural keystone species is dependent on the vagaries of historical and contemporary socio-environmental processes occurring in the Andes and elsewhere.

Key words

biocultural diversity; biocultural memory; Chileanization; rural-urban migration; Pentecostalism; traditional ecological knowledge

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087