Indigenous Moral Philosophies and Ontologies and their Implications for Sustainable Development


  • Robin M. Wright



religion, nature, culture


This paper draws on the theoretical reflections of two well-known ethnologists on indigenous Amazonian ontologies and moral philosophies, as well as my own field experience among an Amazonian native people, the Baniwa, in order to pose critical questions regarding the process of implementing ‘sustainable development’ projects. New ethnological perspectives challenge modernist thinking to de-colonize the ways in which scholars conceive of indigenous Amazonian cosmologies particularly with regard to such notions as ‘spirit’, ‘egalitarianism’, and ‘power’. The dramatic case of a Baniwa leader illustrates the heuristic value of taking Baniwa moral philosophy and cosmological framework seriously prior to and during the implementation of a recent artwork development project. The reflections of a Baniwa intellectual reinforce the pressing need to rethink current developmentalist thinking that ignores these frameworks.


Boyer, V. 1999 ‘Os Baniwa Evangelicos Falam Dos Missionaries Protestantes: Sofia e Seus Sucessores’, Religiao e Espaco Politico 18: 99-124.

Bresler, R., and F. Oliveira 2001 ‘Projeto Arte Baniwa: Comunidades Baniwa do Alto Rio Icana’, in H.B. Barboza and P. Spink (eds.), 20 Anos de Experiencia de Gestao Publica e Cidadania (São Paulo: Programa Gestao Publica e Cidadania): 1-18.

Bruin, G. n.d. A Relacao Comercial entre Empresas e Fornecedores Sociais: um Estudo Multicaso (unpublished ms).

Descola, P. 1994 In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Fisher, W.H. 1999 ‘Review of In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia by Philippe Descola’, Journal of Political Ecology: Case Studies in History and Society 6.6. Available online at: http.//

Garnelo, L. n.d. ‘Manhene: Bruxaria Tradicional Baniwa e Suas Implicacoes no Movimento Etnopolitico e Nas Politicas Publicas de Saude’ (paper presented at the 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, LA. Symposium on ‘The Poetics of Violence’) (my translation).

Journet, N. 1981 ‘Los Curripaco del Rio Isana: Economia y Sociedad’, Revista Colombiana de Antropologia 23: 125-81.

La Paix des Jardins. Structures Sociales des indiens Curripaco du Haut Rio Negro (Colombia) (Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, Musee de


Overing, J. 2003 ‘The Backlash to De-colonising Intellectuality’ (talk presented in the Department of Anthropology, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianopolis, 30 November).

Overing, J., and A. Passes 2000 The Anthropology of Love and Anger: the Aesthetics of Conviviality in Northern Amazonia (London: Routledge).

Unterstell, N., and R. Martins 2004 ‘Projeto Arte Baniwa: Possibilidades para o Comercio Justo no Brasil’ (paper presented at the 6th annual International Conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research, July).

Viveiros de Castro, E. n.d. ‘The Forest of Mirrors: A Few Notes on the Ontology of Amazonian Spirits’ (paper presented at the symposium ‘La nature des esprits: humains et non-humains dans les cosmologies autochtones des Amériques’, sponsored by the Centre Interuniversitaire d’Études et de Recherches sur les Autochtones, Université Laval, Québec, April 2004).

‘Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4.3: 469-88.

Wright, R.M. 1998 Cosmos, Self and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn (Austin: University of Texas Press).

‘Prophetic Traditions among the Baniwa and other Arawakan Peoples of the Northwest Amazon’, in J.D. Hill and F. Santos-Granero (eds.), Comparative Arawakan Histories: Rethinking Language Family and Culture Area in Amazonia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press): 269-93.

‘The Wicked and the Wise Men’, in N. Whitehead and R. Wright (eds.), In Darkness and Secrecy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press): 82-109.

Historia Indigena e do Indigenismo no Alto Rio Negro (Campinas: Mercado de Letras & Instituto Socioambiental).



How to Cite

Wright, R. M. (2007). Indigenous Moral Philosophies and Ontologies and their Implications for Sustainable Development. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 1(1), 92–108.

Most read articles by the same author(s)

Similar Articles

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 > >> 

You may also start an advanced similarity search for this article.