The Anthropology and Environment Society (AES) of the American Anthropological Association is pleased to announce the 2015 Rappaport Student Prize competition. To apply, interested students are invited to submit an abstract by 18 March 2015 of a paper that you plan to develop into a publication. The abstract should present a summary of the entire paper, including a statement of the problem being investigated, methods undertaken, the results of the study, the theoretical context in which it is being evaluated, and the significance of the research. The abstract should not exceed 500 words; abstracts that exceed this word limit will not be reviewed.

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Water in Lesotho: Contradiction, Disjuncture, Death

By Colin Hoag

There is a language we use to talk about water, and it is filled to overflowing with clichés: fluidity, movement, connection, life-itself. Thinking through water in the mountainous enclave-state of Lesotho gives the lie to our familiar metaphors. It raises the question: What if instead of moving, connecting, and sustaining, water were a source of disjuncture, contradiction, and death?

I research the landscape-making practices that surround a large hydroelectric and water export scheme called the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP)—practices that range from livestock keeping, to land rehabilitation works, to the discursive production of Lesotho as a resource frontier for water (Tsing 2005). The LHWP consists of a series of dams that trap water in deep mountain valleys, transporting it by tunnel and canal to South Africa’s arid industrial and commercial heartland, the Gauteng Province. Lesotho exports 780million m3 of water annually through the LHWP, generating 72MW of electricity and receiving royalty payments of US$45 million each year, a significant amount of money in one of the world’s poorest countries. Three large dams that make up Phase I of the Project were completed in 2004; construction on Phase II’s Polihali Dam is set to begin in 2015.

The past few decades since the Project began have witnessed the emergence of a new discourse about water in Lesotho: it is “abundant” (metsi a mangata); it brings development; it is a symbol of national identity, and a driver of “regional economic integration.” This narrative frames Lesotho’s water as consolidating within itself a multiplicity of ideas and functions, drawing on a familiar set of metaphors: it moves, it unites, it brings life.

Yet, water in Lesotho is also contradictory, fractured, and dangerous, qualities that ordinary people are painfully aware of. I consider briefly two cases below that elucidate this counter-narrative: the role of water in shaping political-economic relations between Lesotho and South Africa, and the role of rain in the production of rural livelihoods.

Katse Dam, the centerpiece of the LHWP

Katse Dam, the centerpiece of the LHWP

Water and Economic Integration

Elites in Lesotho and other proponents of the LHWP champion water as a source of “economic integration” with South Africa, an example of how productive economic linkages bring the two countries together in mutual exchange. This depiction conjures images of two actors – Lesotho and South Africa – entering into a mutually beneficial exchange: Lesotho has an excess of water supply and South Africa has a demand. Lesotho’s otherwise marginal political and economic position in the subcontinent is allegedly bolstered by exploitation of its water resources.

Of course, there is no such equal footing. The Project instead stands as an example of a long history of South African domination of Lesotho, from the days of Apartheid up to the present. The South African government had been interested in developing a water project in Lesotho since the early-20th century but negotiations between the two countries hit a wall in the 1980s, when then-Prime Minister of Lesotho Leabua Jonathan reversed his previously friendly posture toward the Apartheid regime in an effort to secure increased aid from Western countries that were antagonistic toward South African Apartheid. Jonathan was overthrown in a 1986 coup that many believe was sponsored by South Africa. The Treaty on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project would be signed just 10 months later.

South African aggression did not stop with that country’s transition to democracy in 1994. When violence broke out in Maseru after disputed Parliamentary elections in 1998, South African troops entered Lesotho to restore order and immediately sent a contingent to the Katse Dam, where they killed 13 Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers as they scrambled out of their barracks in confusion. Though it was Lesotho’s Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili who requested these troops through the regional bloc SADC (Southern African Development Community), the violence at Katse Dam has been called the world’s first “water war,” on account of South Africa’s heavy-handed effort to secure its water source.

A memorial near Katse Dam for LDF soldiers killed there in 1998

A memorial near Katse Dam for LDF soldiers killed there in 1998

The political and economic imbalance between the two countries is not lost on people in Lesotho, who are quick to point out that even as Lesotho sells its water to South Africa, many thousands of its people go without reliable access to drinking water. Many thousands of hectares of agricultural land lack irrigation infrastructure that could alleviate the regular and devastating effects of drought. Ultimately, the benefits and burdens of this water project are split along class lines: the big winners in Lesotho are urban elites who stand to gain from the lucrative tenders associated with the Project; most ordinary people, by contrast, will only see some road improvements in the mountains and perhaps temporary employment.

Rain and Rural Suffering

As elites in the capital wrangle over which politicians can best exploit the country’s water resources, rural people’s everyday experience with water is much more immediate and material. It is organized around concerns regarding a particular modality of water: rain. Rains in Lesotho are a source of longing and frustration. In the expansive mountain landscapes where my research is based, the rain seems always elsewhere: one sees clouds amassing at the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment that forms Lesotho’s eastern border with South Africa – only to dissipate midday. Snow falls on distant peaks but never those nearby. While small-talking about the drought with an elderly woman who lives up the valley from me, I pointed out that there was a short rain-shower the previous evening. Yes, she said, “but nothing fell here – we only saw the clouds over in the distance!”

People in rural Lesotho depend dearly on rain for agriculture and livestock rearing. Neither of these activities typically provides enough food or income for people to live, but since the steep decline in employment at South Africa’s mines beginning in the late-1980s, they are more important than ever. Sadly, the past two decades have also seen more frequent droughts, punctuated by short, violent storms. These storms fall on landscapes that are thoroughly de-vegetated by livestock desperate for forage, their rains peeling off precious topsoil and depositing it downslope. The storms cut gullies into croplands and digs ruts across roadways. Year after year, reforms to land use management are proposed by foreign donor organizations and the government, yet few people here report that management failures are responsible for soil erosion or poor range condition – it is the rains.

A reinforced river bank collapses in a December 2013 storm, partially washing away a graveyard

A reinforced river bank collapses in a December 2013 storm, partially washing away a graveyard

Contradiction, Disjuncture, Death

Water in Lesotho is not merely the productive, connective force that conventional water metaphors would have us believe. It is also a stumbling block, reminding people here of the contradictions and complications of life in Lesotho. It is not an index of the continuity of human being and time, etched into our very language as Gaston Bachelard (1983[1942]:15) describes it, but rather of equivocality, precarity, and fragility. It is not the materialization of purity, but rather of knotty entanglements with soils, vegetation, livestock, and regional political economic forces. In the late October Spring, as I write, even the river in Lesotho—even the river, that figure of movement and continual change, into which no one can ever step twice—is a dry bed of sand and rock.

The mighty Senqu River, during a 2014 drought

The mighty Senqu River, during a 2014 drought

These counter-stories of Lesotho’s water do not mean that life-giving connection is not a real quality of water here. Indeed, that both these opposing tropes—life and death, connection and disjuncture—can be held in tension gets at the heart of water’s contradictions. It is these contradictions that beg for more work by artists, scholars, and activists into the nature of water in the Anthropocene. We need a new language, fit to our times and places, with which to tell the many stories of what water is, what it means, and what it does.

Works cited

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bachelard, Gaston. 1983 [1942]. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter. Dallas, TX: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.


Colin Hoag is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as a PhD Student in Biological Sciences at Aarhus University, where he is affiliated with the research program, AURA: Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene. His dissertation fieldwork is supported by the Danish National Research Foundation, the Social Sciences Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the UCSC Science and Justice Research Center, and the UCSC Center for Tropical Research in Ecology, Agriculture, and Development.

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The Highway Re-Route Movement of Trinidad and Tobago: From Dependency to Democracy

By Ryan Cecil Jobson

As of Sunday, Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh has ingested neither food nor water for forty days, accepting only two bags of medical drips during a brief hospital stay earlier this month. Only two years ago, Kublalsingh ended a previous hunger strike after three weeks, when Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar intervened by agreeing in principle to an independent review of several concerns raised by the Highway Re-Route Movement (HRM) over a planned highway extension in south Trinidad. The HRM, composed of affected residents and concerned citizens alike, has called for a re-route of the proposed nine-mile Debe-Mon Desir section of the highway, which would displace approximately 300 households, encroach upon a lagoon and its protected watershed and mangroves, require extensive quarrying of the mountainous Northern Range, and cost the national treasury an estimated sum of TT$5.5 billion. When the review committee released its findings in what is now known as the Armstrong Report, a document that calls for a comprehensive review of social impacts, a hydrological study, and cost-benefit analyses of the highway, it established the grounds for a new dispute between the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and the HRM that continues to this day. After the government refused to implement the recommendations of the Armstrong Report, and continued construction of the disputed highway, Kublalsingh resumed his familiar position adjacent to the Office of the Prime Minister where he rested day after day, refusing to eat or drink, and seeking mediation between the People’s Partnership (PP) government and the HRM.

Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh speaks with local press, St. Clair, Trinidad and Tobago, 7 October 2014

Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh speaks with local press, St. Clair, Trinidad and Tobago, 7 October 2014

Kublalsingh is no stranger to conflict. In previous confrontations with the state over development projects and initiatives—including a series of successful protests against smelting plants—Kublalsingh has entered the public eye and drawn the ire of many who view him as a hindrance to national development. Many contrarian voices in support of the highway segment, of those who seek respite from the near constant traffic congestion aided by a generous state-funded fuel subsidy, have questioned his decision to carry out a second hunger strike, seeking mediation between the Prime Minister and the members of the HRM he has come to represent. In each instance, he has called for greater transparency, democratic governance, and sustainable development. Yet, the latest standoff between Kublalsingh and the Trinbagonian state bureaucracy reveals the elusiveness of these ideals more so than ever before. What it reveals is not simply a dispute over a highway, but a conflict inherent to the political constitution of Caribbean society. Put simply, the question at hand is not limited to one of pro-highway or anti-highway, pro-development or anti-development. Rather, it is a question of the way that Caribbean politics will operate after more than fifty years of the postcolonial experiment.


“Corruption constitutes one of the essential elements of the neo-colonial process of political retrogression. The extent and scope of corruption is such that it has become normative within the political systems of the English-speaking Caribbean over a period of a few years since independence. After a series of scandals in Trinidad, the populace has become conditioned to the existence of widespread corruption. It is the butt of jokes; it provides the subject matter for calypsoes. From time to time public suggestions are made regarding the reform of the greatest abuses of power by government leaders advancing their own interests, but on the whole it is recognised that corruption is now endemic to the political system and will be eradicated only with the end of the system itself.”

–Walter Rodney


As the late Guyanese historian Walter Rodney observed many years ago, accusations of corruption are omnipresent in contemporary Trinbagonian political culture. Unsurprisingly, then, one of the central contentions of the HRM has been the award of a contract for the construction of the highway on the basis of a sole tender bid, spurring renewed charges of corruption at the highest levels of the state administration. But recalling Rodney’s cautionary words from nearly four decades ago, the problem is not one of petty corruption as a pathological feature of postcolonial governments, but the ways in which it operates in the words of anthropologist Dylan Kerrigan as an accepted “way of getting business done.” Corruption, in this sense, should not be understood as a feature unique to the postcolonial world since it afflicts nation-states of the global north and global south alike. What distinguishes the Caribbean are the ways in which corruption, to mean both political malfeasance and encroachment upon local ecologies, undergirds the modern history of the region.

Since the inauguration of a plantation economy under European colonial rule, the development of the Caribbean has been fashioned in service of metropolitan markets and, as Sidney Mintz details in his pathbreaking study Sweetness and Power, toward burgeoning consumer tastes for particular commodities such as sugar. In the English-speaking Caribbean, the transition to political independence—and the ceding of political power to the descendants of enslaved Africans and indentured laborers from East Asia and the Indian subcontinent—has been focused similarly on the acquisition of export markets for specific products, and in the case of hydrocarbon-rich Trinidad and Tobago, on a pervasive taste for fossil fuels that has steered world politics and international relations over at least the past century. Adopting the development model of industrialization by invitation popularized by Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Arthur Lewis, the newly independent nations of the former British West Indies attracted foreign investment through fiscal incentives to varying degrees of success. And while Lewis imagined his recommendations as a pathway to economic and political independence, Caribbean economists have conversely observed a deepening of foreign dependence amidst the depletion of the traditional agricultural sector and rural peasantries.

Won on the back of a bargain negotiated between local elites and international financiers, Caribbean independence has been guided not by the masses of people it represents in name, but by access to the international markets it aims to preserve. It is a corruption of democracy, in its ideal sense, on which Caribbean politics are founded. As Walter Rodney reminds us, this vicious circle will only break with the “end of the system itself” rather than cursory reforms to a deeply flawed system of governance. The end of the system, though, can perhaps be achieved without violent conflict or classical revolutionary upheaval. This is precisely what Kublalsingh, and the group of citizens he represents, have placed on the table. With the completion of the Armstrong Report, the HRM and the PP government have embarked on an unprecedented collaboration between the postcolonial state and its citizens by looking inward to evaluate social impacts and environmental costs, rather than outward to foreign capital and external models of development and progress.

It would be foolhardy, in this respect, to dispute the benefits of the highway for a great many Trinbagonians burdened by an oppressive daily commute. Yet it would be equally pertinent to question the neoliberal logics of development that produced the daily commute in the first place. Why, for instance, must so many flock to the urban centers of Trinidad in search of gainful employment? Perhaps instead of quelling traffic by increasing the volume of roadways, the emboldening of existing rural economies through governmental investment will grant more the right to make a living close to home. This process cannot be achieved overnight, but proposals and initiatives cited by the HRM such as the Point Fortin hospital, agricultural development in the Oropouche lagoon communities, and decentralization of government ministries and offices point provisionally in this direction. To this end, proponents of environmental conservation and rural economic development can forge a productive collaboration from which to produce a more potent regional or global movement that does not isolate the protection of nature from the needs of citizens in underdeveloped communities across the global south. In Trinidad, the Armstrong Report is a testament to one possible future in which an alliance of this sort can potentially thrive with governmental support.

Gathering in solidarity with the women of the HRM, St. Clair, Trinidad and Tobago, 2 October 2014

Gathering in solidarity with the women of the HRM, St. Clair, Trinidad and Tobago, 2 October 2014

Since I returned to Trinidad for fieldwork in September of this year, the HRM has garnered support from a variety of sectors, including political opposition parties, trade unions, civil society groups, and environmental advocacy organizations. What might be understood as the evolution of the movement, from Kublalsingh’s first to his second and current hunger strike, has encouragingly identified the dispute against a highway as a platform for a host of related issues. Of particular note, a demonstration of solidarity with the women of the HRM, spearheaded by University of the West Indies lecturer, Dr. Gabrielle Hosein, called attention to the specifically gendered dimensions of state development initiatives such as the highway. An associated press release noted that the continuation of the Debe-Mon Desir interchange would disturb family life—to include traditional nuclear familial units and non-traditional extended family structures—dismantling integral networks of affiliation that support women, children, and their families. The forced relocation of certain families would, in turn, erode the human infrastructures whereby extended family members assist in caregiving, permitting women to seek gainful employment, manage small businesses, or maintain small-scale agricultural production to generate family income and embolden the economic independence of the region.

With this in mind, it is clear that the HRM does not oppose development. Rather, it is the centuries-long development impelled by local women, and the family and community structures that they labor to maintain, that the movement seeks to uphold. Women are too frequently cast as the hidden faces of development, or at best, deemed a cursory afterthought to large-scale infrastructure projects. The call for women’s solidarity with the HRM, then, demands that the steadfast pursuit of national development cannot come at the expense of family structures of all types or the productive engagement of women in the local and national economy.

The HRM, accordingly, presents an opportunity to enact a radical politics of intersectionality through the confluence of labour, environmental, and gender politics in Trinidad and Tobago. As a political anthropologist, however, it is necessary to consider at what point a dispute over a highway ceases to be a dispute over a highway. The livelihoods of the individuals and families that reside along the path of the Debe-Mon Desir segment remain at the heart of the unfolding social drama, and rightfully so. As the HRM gains steam, though, it holds the potential to change the tenor of the movement from one of a local struggle over a highway and the people it will displace to a broader assessment of democratic politics in Trinidad and Tobago and the post-independence Caribbean. On the one hand, whether or not the highway is continues as planned, it would be wrong to allow the movement for greater democratic participation, political transparency, and ecological sensitivity fade along with it. On the other, to lose sight of those that gave rise to this movement, and the communities they seek to preserve, would be an even greater error. The movement can, and must, attend to both. The future of Caribbean democracy depends on it.

Follow this link to read and sign an active petition associated with the Highway Re-Route Movement of Trinidad and Tobago.


Ryan Cecil Jobson, a Jamaican-American, is a PhD Candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University and the recipient of a Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship to Trinidad and Tobago. For more information on the Highway Re-Route Movement, please visit its Facebook page and consider signing the above petition.


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A&E Panels and Events at the 2014 AAA

AE_flyerThe Anthropology & Environment Society has put together events and meetings at the 2014 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Continue reading for descriptions of the different sessions by theme.

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Molly Doane’s “Stealing Shining Rivers”: Transnational Conservation meets a Mexican Forest

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently caught up with Molly Doane to discuss her recent book, Stealing Shining Rivers: Agrarian Conflict, Market Logic, and Conservation in a Mexican Forest (2012, University of Arizona Press), and its broader contributions to debates over communal lands, forest conservation, and neoliberal policies. The book recently won “Best book on Mexico in the social sciences” from the Mexico section of the latin American Studies Association (LASA). This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.


MR: What is the theme of your new book?

MD: My book looks at an attempt to establish a nature reserve in one of Mexico’s most biodiverse forests, the Chimalapas Forest in southern Oaxaca. At the most basic level, this is a story of transnational environmental social movements connecting a remote forested community in Oaxaca to powerful U.S. and EU funders and conservation organizations (most notably the WWF). Can forest communities, with their particular set of social justice concerns, make common cause with mainstream environmentalists? I treat transnational conservation as an ideological commodity chain, following how environmental values travel.

Chimalapas (translated as “Shining Rivers”) is located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca within two agrarian communities, Santa Maria Chimalapa and San Miguel Chimalapa. Agrarian communities are communities that were reserved for indigenous peoples in colonial times, and have not been affected by changes to the Mexican Constitution that allowed for the privatization of ejidos. Thus, up to the present, the forest here has been “reserved” as “common” hinterlands, off-limits to private sale or development under Mexican law. The major threats to the forest are national development projects, illegal logging and ranching organized principally by politically connected ranching and timber operations, and illegal settlement by land-poor indigenous people from neighboring Chiapas.

At the community level, I summarize the past few decades of direct action against logging, ranching, settlement, and other actions that are perceived as environmental theft of communal lands. At the institutional level, I trace three types of conservation interventions: starting with an Integrated Conservation and Development Program (ICDP), a later Community-Based Conservation program (CBC), and more recently a market-based conservation program, or Payment for Ecological Services. I show how, as environmental interest in the region took off in the 1970s, the region was recast from an agricultural backwater to a global ecological asset. I focus on one attempt by a Mexican NGO to merge mainstream environmentalism with local social justice goals, why it failed, and the ultimate convergence of mainstream environmentalism with authoritarian politics.

This attempt was a Community-based Conservation (CBC) project that aimed to fuse local political desires for secure communal lands with a nature reserve model that encoded environmental regulations within local law and practice, as well as national law, in a “Campesino Ecological Reserve.” The Campesino Reserve was formulated by Maderas del Pueblo, a local NGO funded by the WWF to institute a CBC model. It appealed to community members because it incorporated an agenda of regional political and productive autonomy that shored up local control of the territory. It appealed to funders because it fit into the CBC model being promoted at that time, and resonated with the goal of compromise among multiple stakeholders—in this case, ranchers, loggers, settlers, and community members from Chimalapas. For community members, however, a Community Ecological Reserve could not be implemented by compromising with the more powerful stakeholders in this equation—in particular the politically connected timber and ranching interests and major global infrastructure projects.

At the same time that environmentalists emphasized Chimalapas’ wild assets (jaguars, orchids, and butterflies), they attempted to defuse the rebellious image of local inhabitants, who were famous for periodically resorting to banditry—such as kidnapping– in defense of their communal resources against invasions of various kinds. These direct actions had been quite effective in stopping illegal logging and illegal settlements. Once working under an international WWF project, community leaders were enjoined to avoid these types of activities, and to cooperate with federal and state environmental and agrarian agencies to achieve their goals. However, a local development agency and the state environmental agency in Oaxaca viewed community-based conservation in Chimalapas as a political threat. The nearby Zapatistas were a constant reminder of the disruptive potential of campesinos.

Local agents insisted that conservation be severed from any social justice goals reminiscent of the Zapatista agenda. What ensued was a fierce political battle over conservation in Chimalapas. No conservation rubric (park, biosphere, campesino ecological reserve) was ever achieved.

Hand-drawn map of Mexico South, 1946, by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf).  The map is featured on the cover of the book, and shows features of several current conflicts: oil wells, wildlife, and indigenous villages. Chimalapas is located at the center of the map.

Hand-drawn map of Mexico South, 1946, by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf). The map is featured on the cover of the book, and shows features of several current conflicts: oil wells, wildlife, and indigenous villages. Chimalapas is located at the center of the map.

MR: How does your book address broader questions in environmental anthropology?

MD: Based on ethnographic and historical material from Chimalapas, I develop two major concepts: accumulation by conservation and decentralized authoritarianism. These concepts build on a literature on neoliberal conservation, and on scholarship that looks at environmentalism as a form of governmentality. Using rich case material I look at how environmentalism and authoritarianism become entwined. In response to environmental NGO activity in the area, local state agencies created their own “environmental” projects in the region, using them as opportunities for state penetration and political surveillance. Ultimately, the local environmental NGO actively promoting a local autonomy/social justice agenda was routed by the state, and the WWF began to work directly with the new state environmental agencies instead. Environmentalism provided an opportunity for state intrusion, and environmentalists opted for an unsavory alliance in the hopes of instituting some sort of conservation rubric in Chimalapas.

I argue that there is an overarching market logic to this relationship. Conservation zones are key components of the neoliberal state portfolio of assets, ready for branding by conservation labels, and organized at various levels via market logic.

Market logic assumes a certain equality of claims. We think about crucial and difficult questions like: How do we manage competing goals and controversies that arise over the proper or desired use of land? How do we balance economic, social, development, and cultural heritage issues? In Chimalapas, as elsewhere, such problems are neatly encapsulated within stakeholder language. Stakeholder language is ubiquitous in the development world—including within environmental initiatives. It tells us that if we listen to individual concerns, give them their due, weigh and balance them, we can come up with mutually agreeable and fair solutions to most problems. But stakeholders really do not have equal weight. Cattle ranchers—because they were from politically connected families and essentially were the “establishment”—had much more weight in the balance than community members from Chimalapas. Development projects coordinated by state, federal and global corporate interests had more weight than communities in Chimalapas. This extra weight on the deforestation side of the scale does not ultimately benefit either the community or the environment. In win-win stakeholder scenarios, conservation areas are essentially the green median strips of the global industrial park.

MR: How did you engage with different communities as you were doing the research for your book?

MD: My research was multi-sited geographically, socially, and professionally. I did research within activist NGOs attempting to implement a community-based campesino reserve—including an NGO dedicated mainly to biological and ecological research and another dedicated mainly to social justice agendas, within various government agencies, and with officials from international conservation NGOs. Campesino leaders involved in conservation efforts were also central to the study.


A march on Oaxaca to bring attention to Chimalapas

MR:  What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about environmental projects?

MD: Forest conservation happens in places where the legal, land tenure, and corresponding socio-cultural systems encourage forest conservation—most notably, common property regimes. We should really think about that. Right now, the main strategies for forest conservation are payments for environmental services schemes of various sorts. These require less community consensus to implement, and in concept could result in long-term contracts for communities to provide environmental services like watershed management. BUT privatization is central to market logic; and common-lands are perceived by investors as barriers to market development. We should think about communal logic and market logic before we make deep commitments to the commodification of environmental services. Maybe not all situations can be win-win. At some point we have to confront the reality that business as usual and conservation are not in fact as compatible as we might like them to be.

Related to this, there is a tendency for environmental problems to be defined in terms of wilderness or pristine environments, and to incorporate indigenous peoples as either part of the problem or part of the solution. Most of the world’s intact forests are located in common lands managed by indigenous people. So this is understandable. But too often environmental conservation is cast as a problem for indigenous people—how will we prevent them from deforesting these lands or help them save these lands—rather than a problem for non-indigenous people. How do we make this coincidence of forest with communal, indigenous territory a learning opportunity for the majority of us, rather than a problem for indigenous people?

This conservation problem is largely addressed as though it is a certain kind of technical problem that can be addressed with the proper GIS systems, maps, and land management plans to be implemented by individual indigenous people. Is conservation really a technical problem? I don’t think so. It is a political problem, an economic problem, and a problem at the nexus of production and consumption.

MR: What are the broader contributions of your book to public and policy discussions about social and environmental justice?

MD: Environmental justice and social justice are linked and must be understood as linked. In rural and urban areas alike, the world’s poorest and most powerless people have been left holding the bag for the environmental problems created by the industrialization of our societies. Environmental problems affect us all and are everybody’s problem.

The Chimalapas River

The Chimalapas River

MR: How is your book being used beyond the academy? Is it actively shaping the management of nature in your study site?

MD: It’s too early to say. I know that some of my earlier published work contributed to a rethinking of WWF strategy in the area—the link to the government proved embarrassing. More generally, my work joins a subset within environmental anthropology that interprets engagement more broadly. For example, our work may influence journalists and other popular writers, or help to shape future projects. The type of scholarship I have engaged in here IS being noticed. There is a rising tide of criticism of mainstream environmentalism. Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book on climate change suggests that mainstream environmentalism is a part of the problem—not the solution—and she has used the work of environmental anthropologists to support her assertions. I am part of an editorial collective called Critical Green Engagements, with Jim Igoe, Tracey Heatherington, Bram Buscher, Melissa Checker, and Dan Brockington (University of Arizona Press) that, through the books we are bringing out, asks how anthropologists can contribute to a sea change in how environmental stewardship is understood and carried out.

MR: What is the key message or key point you hope people take away from reading your book?

MD: Environmental conservation cannot be separated from social justice goals and requires actual political change. My sense is that most people who care about conservation and donate to such causes are also fans of democracy. Mainstream conservation as practiced is, unfortunately, not necessarily promoting democracy.

Molly Doane is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is currently finishing a book concerning organic, fair trade coffee that is produced in Chiapas, Mexico and sold in the Midwest and the UK.


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Veronica Davidov Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist Monica Salas

1. To start with, can you say a bit about your background, what brought you to anthropology, and how did you select your fieldsite?

Growing up in Veracruz, I witnessed changes in both the material and social landscape that I wanted to develop a more complex understanding of. So I moved to central Mexico in order to pursue a degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla (UDLAP). There, I developed my interest in Mexican Agrarian History and Environmental Anthropology through a collaboration with faculty members who were conducting archival and ethnographic research at the time on the changes in land tenure and use in the Cholula Valley. This experience inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree in Anthropology. I decided to focus my project on Veracruz not only because the area was familiar to me but also because it has generated such rich historical scholarship that I wanted to engage from an anthropological perspective.

Cornell has been a great place to develop my project conceptually. I have benefited from the generous guidance of faculty in the Anthropology and History departments. I have also received support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Mexico’s Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), all of which allowed me to return to Veracruz in September 2012 and carry out 12 months of ethnographic and archival research.

2. Can you say a bit about your dissertation project and how your Rappaport Panel paper fits with it?

My project examines the less perceptible effects of modern state interventions in the northern highlands of Veracruz, Mexico.  Specifically, I focus on the social and political afterlife of documents, artifacts, and industrial and monumental structures left by the implementation of post-revolutionary policies (such as the re-distribution of land to campesinos, the practice of indigenista policies, the implementation of major archaeological projects, and the nationalization of the oil industry) and the effects, desires, fears, and expectations that these material remnants generate. Crude Residues, the paper I presented at the Rappaport panel, is, in fact, a short version of one of my dissertation chapters, which focuses on the debris left by the oil industry in the city of Poza Rica. Both the paper and the chapter examine the ways in which, in this industrial setting, the natural and built environment has generated particular ways of seeing, perceiving, and inhabiting—of knowing—that are both generative and unsettling. Through an analysis of everyday encounters with the materialities of oil, I sought to demonstrate the ways in which crude residues alter living spaces and continue to informmodes of social and political organization in this region.

3. In your work, you engage with and draw upon new materialism, which is a relatively new terrain in anthropology. What do you see as the value of such an approach for anthropology, and how does it fit in with ethnography, which is, of course, conventionally a human-oriented endeavor?

Yes, in the paper I draw on the work of “new materialists” such as Jane Bennett as I was interested in finding a conceptual framework that could help me highlight the sensuous and material qualities of industrial debris and their implications in everyday social life. Once I paid serious attention to the unpredictability of igneous rocks, for instance, I was able to suggest that the transformation of the Papantla district into an oil region in the twentieth century was neither merely an act of political will, nor solely the product of scientific intervention and economic interest. It was rather the result of a working relation—of encounters—between a diverse array of human actors (scientists, Totonacs, foreign investors) and unstable and ‘vibrant’ material forms. The rest of the paper, similarly, followed a series of interactions (between oil residues and corporate actors, residents, retired oil workers and local scientists) that equally revealed the effectiveness or ‘agency’ of particular industrial objects, decaying structures, substances and smells. Overall, New Materialists’ conception of materiality—as always something more than mere matter: an excess, a force, or a vitality that renders matter active, productive and unpredictable, helped me think through my ethnographic and archival material. Yet, to account for the ability of ordinary material things to animate or produce dramatic and subtle effects does not mean—as Timothy Mitchell suggests in Rule of Experts—introducing in our analysis a limitless number of non-human actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power.Rather, it means acknowledging the kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, and interactions, out of which intention and expertise in a specific context must emerge.

4. The ethnographic details of your paper are quite often harsh and represent people in difficult circumstances.  Can you talk about the emotional/affective labor aspects of your fieldwork and writing process given your fieldsite and topic?

The project itself came out of my frustration with the nationalist and patrimonial rhetoric around oil in Mexico. I felt there was a need to de-naturalize oil and to turn to what people in the oil regions are left with. Insofar as I wanted to bring attention to the environmental degradation in industrial zones like Poza Rica, I was very aware that fieldwork was not going to be easy. It was in fact quite challenging as I tried to be particularly attentive to the difficult circumstances that oil in this region has generated.  But while I wanted to highlight what I saw as residual forms of violence—the unacknowledged revolutionary legacies—I did not want to deny the optimism, hope, and commitment of many residents who either develop strategies to disentangle themselves from the noxious substances or have a strong affective connection with oil fields. Achieving a balance and trying to remain truthful to the diverse array of experiences I found in the field was the main challenge in this project.

5. Your work is part of the growing branch of anthropology focusing on natural resources and on oil.  What do you see as the project of anthropology of natural resources today?

While the insights of anthropologists’ work on oil and resources more generally are not sufficient in themselves to guide national (or international) policies, it is nonetheless true that we can join, contribute or initiate a serious conversation around such policies—policies that will affect the ways in which both resources and people are understood and managed. In Mexico, for example, president Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced his constitutional amendments to open up Pemex (the Mexican state–owned Petroleum Company created after the nationalization of the industry in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution) to the private industry. Despite the importance of the reform, the debate around it was shockingly poor: full of mystifications around “the market”, “science”, and the “nation-state”.

On the one hand, supporters of the reform argued that Mexico’s old oil fields are depleting rapidly, and Pemex lacks both the money and technology to tap its substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and in the shale formations that run along much of the east coast. On the other hand, Peña Nieto’s opponents on the right blasted the plan as inadequate to attract investment. It would be easier, they argued, if Mexico could allow the type of concessions in which the United States and other countries transfer outright ownership of reserves to private companies. Meanwhile, Peña’s opponents on the left vowed to block what they termed as the “theft” of the nation’s resources. They proceeded with a discussion around “the true” meanings of the words and actions of the mythical figure of Cárdenas, responsible for expropriating oil in the 30s. Absent from the debate was the consideration of the behavior of shale formations and effects that the exploitation of unconventional oil (fracking) will generate: effects that will certainly transform—even more—not only the landscape of the oil regions, like the northern highlands of Veracruz, but also the lives of those living in them.

6.  What is next for you?  What are your plans for next year, and beyond?

I wrote the paper for the Rappaport Panel from the field. Now that both fieldwork and coursework are over I can devote myself exclusively to writing the dissertation.  In fact, I just came back from attending Cornell’s Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes, which marks for me the start of this process.

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Global Environmental Winds: The Chinese legacies of an ostensibly North American creation

By Michael J. Hathaway

In 2002 Greenpeace opened a Beijing office, surprising many who imagined that the Chinese state, in its zeal for absolute rule , would not allow Greenpeace on their soil. Many people regard environmentalism as a Western export and China as a country especially antagonistic to the environment. Greenpeace’s confrontational style was seen as untenable in a nation known for its intolerance of dissent. I, however, saw the development as somehow fitting; an ironic recirculation, albeit in different form, of Greenpeace’s radical sixties origins, deeply inspired by China’s own Cultural Revolution.


Greenpeace-China protesting at a Chinese power plant. Recent Greenpeace campaigns point out that vast amounts of energy are consumed in running, heating and cooling the data centers that make up “cloud computing.” In the year 2012, NRDC estimated that in the U.S. alone, 75 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were consumed, some of it by coal power. (http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/cloud-computing-efficiency-IB.pdf) Image from: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/china-polluting-power280709/

This connection between China and Greenpeace suggests that we might understand “the global” and “globalization” somewhat differently. In environmental anthropology, we often view the global conservation as largely Western, from the Yellowstone-style imposition of wilderness to neoliberal conservation. Although true in many ways, environmental organizations and social movements owe far more to transnational events and engagements than we tend to realize. I explored this topic in my recent book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (University of California Press). My ongoing research with Chinese experts, officials, and villagers as well as expatriate conservationists examines how environmentalism China emerged as a social force since the mid-1980s. Many accounts of international conservation projects cast these as an imposition, resisted by local people. In China, I found less resistance and more engagement with environmentalism, which was more diffuse than a few projects, but part of a larger social change often described as a “wind.” This wind was metaphorical, not one that happened regardless of human presence, but a force created and shaped by human actions. Winds travel, and they can grow strong, transform and dissipate. The wind metaphor was applied to domestic events, such as the Cultural Revolution or other social events that swept people up and shaped their lives.


Auto repair class at Breakaway: A Women’s Liberation School in Emeryville, California, 1973. The teacher is still an auto mechanic in San Francisco. Photograph by Cathy Cade/Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Only when I returned to the U.S., however, did I understand how winds offered a way to understand transnational social change. One day in Michigan, a 55 year old Euro-American radical feminist told me that the idea of China was absolutely critical for her work. Some of her friends chimed in, talking of Chinese female tractor drivers and scientists. One said, “China created a divorce law in 1950, but we were in New York and you couldn’t even get legally divorced until after 1966, unless you could prove your spouse cheated on you.” Another added, “We borrowed the term “liberation” from the Chinese, who were always talking about it, even naming their army the People’s Liberation Army.” Many of the activities that feminists employed, such as study circles, consciousness-raising groups, and “speaking bitterness” (speaking about one’s difficulties) were borrowed from China. Women sought to grasp the difficulties of being women, the “problem that has no name.” Many feminists sought to understand this problem as patriarchy, and move from individual experience to theorizing it as a social institution, which would then be capable of being named and transformed.


Cultural Revolution woodcuts of a female scientist and a tractor driver on stationery used by Redstockings, a socialist feminist organization based in New York. Courtesy of Redstockings.

Carol Hanisch, who coined the expression, “the personal is political,” told me that she was strongly influenced by Maoism. She and her peers read Mao’s Little Red Book, and used many references to China in their pamphlets and posters. Hanisch’s expression catalyzed new forms of political protest. Although a massive corpus of writing now exists on this movement, I only found several articles analyzing China’s indirect yet powerful role. Ironically, many contemporary Chinese feminists also see feminism as a Western invention: these transnational histories are little known even in China itself. This phenomena is broadly true of this time period. Alice Echols writes that American scholars tend to produce “histories of … ‘the sixties’… [as] a primarily American phenomenon” (2009:487). Her observation instantiates a tendency to view nations as sealed containers—where important events happen domestically and not through international affairs—and to focus on the West, or in particular America as the origin of international dynamics, not only for feminism, but also civil rights and environmentalism.


Black Panthers studying Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. The Panthers initially raised funds by selling copies of the Little Red Book on campuses and roadsides. The book was required reading for all Panthers. From: http://fuckyeahmarxismleninism.tumblr.com/post/49773032994/black-panthers-studying-quotations-from-chairman

In terms of civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contributions are better known than the Black Power movement. Each was inspired by “Third World Revolutionaries:” King more by Mahatma Gandhi and Black Power groups more by Mao Zedong. King employed Gandhi’s civil disobedience and non-violence whereas others drew on Mao’s confrontational style. Before Nixon traveled to China, several Black Panthers had already returned from China, buoyed by support and inspiration. Robert Williams promoted the Black Panthers’ dramatic use of guns to gain media attention and perform black masculinity. Williams left the U.S. for Cuba and later China. He died in Michigan the year I arrived, working at the Center for Chinese Studies. A documentary film about his life, Negroes with Guns, is available.

We also need to question stories about the origins and spread of environmentalism. Richard Grove has argued against seeing global environmentalism as an American invention stretching from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (1992). We can see different genealogies, distinguishing conventional groups like the Sierra Club from Greenpeace with origins in grassroots activist environmentalism, which emerged from a Chinese-influenced counter-culture movement. Before working to “save the whales,” Greenpeace focused on stopping nuclear tests. They used confrontational tactics and staged dramatic events, drawing from techniques used by feminists and civil rights activists. They were influenced by new winds of change from China and elsewhere, which continue to shape how Greenpeace-China carries out its work today. This brief story, I suggest, hints what we know as conservation today is both transnational and diverse in form as well as influence.

Works cited

Bier, Laura. “Feminism, Solidarity, and Identity in the Age of Bandung.” In Making a World After Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives, edited by Christopher Lee. Pp. 143–72 Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.

Echols, Alice. “Across the Universe: Rethinking Narratives of Second-Wave Feminism.” In New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness, edited by Karen Dubinsky, Catherine Krull, Susan Lord, Sean Mills, and Scott Rutherford, 406–10. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2009.

Grove, Richard H. “Origins of Western Environmentalism.” Scientific American 267, no. 1 (1992): 42–47.

Michael J. Hathaway is associate professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

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Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: How Local Experts are Already Active in Conservation Efforts and What We Can Do to Recognize Their Work

By Nora Haenn and Birgit Schmook

Around the world, conservation programs appear to be in conflict with local people, but what if this story isn’t quite true? What if local people are contributing to conservation programs but not receiving credit for doing so?

Popular depictions of national parks describe them as under threat from poachers, slash-and-burn-farmers, and other nearby residents. Popular tales often contrast these residents with scientists bent on saving the environment from harm. In our recent article, “Improving Conservation Outcomes with Insights from Local Experts and Bureaucrats,” published in Conservation Biology, we took a closer look at how conservationists and some local people actually interact with one another. Along with our co-authors, we found that people living in an around protected areas not only contribute to conservation programs, some conservation endeavors could not exist without their expertise. For anthropologists, this story is a familiar one. By publishing in an interdisciplinary journal, we hope to reach across disciplinary boundaries and speak to the larger group of conservation researchers and practitioners, some of whom may not affirm the importance of local expertise in their work. In the paper, we call on conservation researchers and practitioners to do a better job of publicly acknowledging the role of local experts and other non-scientists in conservation biology.

The paper uses two examples from the rainforests of southern Mexico to show this hidden contribution to environmental protection and how the work of resident experts gets erased in conservation reporting. In the first example, these experts help Ph.D. biologists train their graduate students. In the rainforests, scientists cannot even begin to research without guides. Between snakebites and the threat of getting lost on meandering paths, the forests are too dangerous for outsiders to venture in alone. So, researchers rely on the in depth knowledge of guides, people who tend to be hunters with significant experience in the woods.

Guides tutor students in detailed ways. Here’s the advice one researcher said he would give to students new to working with guides: “You need to trust this person. You are going to be following him. Learn everything you can from the guide. Ask about everything you see.” Student research often gets translated into academic publications. Despite the guide’s primacy in the research of students and professors alike, they are almost never listed as co-authors, and often are not listed in a paper’s acknowledgements, the section where researchers thank the most important contributors to a study.

 Researchers enter the dense forests of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with expert guides who protect them from snakes, meandering paths, and other forest dangers. (Photo: Sophie Calmè)

Researchers enter the dense forests of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with expert guides who protect them from snakes, meandering paths, and other forest dangers. (Photo: Sophie Calmè)

The second example shows how the Mexican government itself relies on residents’ expertise to collect information on biodiversity in the region of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, the country’s largest protected area for tropical ecosystems. One Reserve program requested that area communities hire biologists to report on endangered species. These biologists conduct research in the same manner as graduate students: they work with local people whose knowledge gets translated into scientific accounts, this time as demanded by park service reports. The biologist writing the report receives credit for the research.

Why don’t local experts get full credit for their work? We argue this is because resident experts are campesinos, not members of the middle class. They do not have the social and educational pedigree expected in the scientific community. To protect the perceived value of their research findings, and their status in the field, scientists are hesitant to highlight the important role these experts play in data collection and the training of professionals in the field.

By failing to highlight the role of local people in conservation research, observers get a skewed perspective on people’s relationship to conservation efforts. Because locals are not acknowledged as part of the conservation effort, they are perceived as obstacles to conservation. This makes it more difficult to identify partners for conservation efforts, since outsiders are often unaware that locals already play a crucial role in conservation. The failure also makes scientists appear as the only people capable of environmental protection, when, clearly, today’s challenges require the participation of many different social groups.

This failure to fully acknowledge the role of skilled guides also has serious repercussions for the guides themselves. A lack of formal credit in the science community means that these guides don’t get the status – or the salary – that comes with being a recognized expert. Campesinos earn about $10 a day, or half of what would be a middle-class salary in the region.

While our focus was on tropical Mexico, our conclusions are relevant for conservation biologists doing fieldwork around the world. In many places, social hierarchies encourage a separation between conservation practitioners and local people. This means the environmental knowledge that often makes conservation workable goes unrecognized.

Nora Haenn is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at NC State University. Birgit Schmook is Faculty in Conservation and Biodiveristy at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico. The paper’s additional authors include Yol Reyes of ECOSUR and Sophie Calmé of the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada. This article was written with Matt Shipman of NC State University.

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Engagement as Life Politics in the Colombian Amazon

By Kristina Lyons

On August 19, 2013, small farmers and miners, healthcare and transportation workers, educators and students, indigenous communities, afro-Colombians, and popular sectors at large mobilized across seventeen departments of Colombia in a National Agrarian and Popular Strike that was temporarily suspended in September.  After failed negotiations with the State, the strike continues, and centers around the following demands:

March for the Hoe and Seed in Valle de Sibundoy, Putumayo in support of the National Agrarian and Popular Strike.

March for the Hoe and Seed in Valle de Sibundoy, Putumayo in support of the National Agrarian and Popular Strike.

1) suspension of the free trade agreement with the United States; 2) participation of small miners in mining policy and an end to a national development model fueled by extractive industry; 3) the recognition of the political and territorial rights of rural communities; 4) constitutional reforms to combat the privatization of health, education, and fuel; 5) a radical transformation of U.S.-Colombia antidrug policy, and 6) peace with social justice that commences with a long-awaited integral agrarian reform, and national constitutional assembly.

Strike Encampment in Villagarzón, Putumayo.

Strike Encampment in Villagarzón, Putumayo.

The stables of the town fairground in Villagarzón were selected as one of five points of mobilization for protestors in the southwestern department of Putumayo.  Black plastic bags slung over clotheslines protected the small farmers from intermittent tropical rain. Hammocks crisscrossed the horse stalls. Clothes hung to dry over the rails of the pigsty and trough.  The steam of boiling pots of yucca left makeshift tents dripping with humidity. Farmers crouched down under the shade of the pavilion to rest between their rotating work duties: highway blockades, security patrols attentive to the encroachment of anti-riot police, cooking and collection of firewood, logistical coordination, and attendance of popular education workshops. It was this latter activity that had Heraldo, an animal husbandry technician and small farmer, and I at the strike encampments that day.  Strike leaders had asked Heraldo to lead a workshop on alternative Amazonian agriculture among a group of farmers whose main economic sustenance is provided by “illicit” coca crops.  Nowhere are the consequences of antinarcotics policies – aerial fumigation, forced manual eradication of coca plants, and failed USAID “alternative development” programs – more visible than in Putumayo, a focal point of the militarized agricultural interventions that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2001 vis-à-vis Plan Colombia.

A coca leaf asphyxiated from the inside out after exposure to aerial fumigation with Monsanto’s commercial herbicide, glyphosate.

A coca leaf asphyxiated from the inside out after exposure to aerial fumigation with Monsanto’s commercial herbicide, glyphosate.


Hand Wraps: Protective measures taken by to avoid blisters from the friction of scraping coca leaves off the branch during harvest.

The National Agrarian and Popular Strike profoundly shifted my political engagement with small farmers in Putumayo.  My previous research had been attentive to the alternative (often covert) life politics emerging along with relational ecological practices in gardens, forests, and fields.   In August, I was propelled into the oppositional politics occurring on streets, across negotiation tables, and in regional meetings and mobilizations. When my dissertation was reviewed by the Cultural Division of the Bank of the Republic of Colombia looking to fund projects on soils, seeds, plants and “local knowledges,” a unique opportunity arose to support an initiative articulated among protestors in Villagarzón.  Both coca and non-coca growing farmers in Putumayo have long demanded state support for the development of a regional small farmers’ integral life plan (today known as the Plan for Integral Andean-Amazonian Development PLADIA 2035). In other words, a viable and community-designed and implemented process that will gradually shift rural livelihoods away from their dependence on not only commercial coca cultivation, but all extractive-based economic practices. This is a political struggle to address the structural inequalities that lead to participation in “illicit” economies, and starkly contrasts with the repressive antinarcotics policies that have cost the lives of human-plant-microbial communities over the last thirty years.

The lack of agro-ecologically appropriate and Amazonian-based technical assistance places serious obstacles on farmers who want to learn how to cultivate what I refer to in my research as selva [tropical forest] life projects. When they do have contact with agricultural extension technicians, farmers are most often directed to “correct” the pH levels of their soils, conduct chemical tests of soil fertility, switch to marketable varieties of seeds, and clear rather than incorporate tropical forest into their family farms.  Heraldo on the other hand shared the reasoning and simple method for conducting biological homemade soil tests: comparing the sounds of livingness between animal feces and the soil where one plans to sow a plant or tree after hydrogen peroxide is applied to both.  He contrasted this with laboratory-based chemical testing.  The farmers in Villagarzón were enthusiastic.  How could they learn more about agro-ecology, and more importantly how could they share these practices with other members of their communities?  Our collective conversation that day led the group to conclude that perhaps documentary film techniques might be the best way to multiply an Amazonian-based, farmer-to-farmer pedagogy that not only explores options beyond monoculture coca, but also its official substitution by licit export-oriented crops.

Heraldo indicates a polyculture design for sowing an Amazonian creeping plant garden. Mocoa, Putumayo

Heraldo indicates a polyculture design for sowing an Amazonian creeping plant garden. Mocoa, Putumayo

During the month of January, with the funding of the Bank of the Republic, we initiated a collaborative documentary film project called, Cultivando un Buen Vivir en la Amazonía [Cultivating ‘Living Well’ in the Amazon].  This audiovisual project is conducted in collaboration with a UCSC filmmaker who is completing his M.A. in the Social Documentation Film and Digital Media program, as well as a group of farming leaders in Putumayo.  It aims to transmit Amazonian-based farmer-to-farmer agricultural practices among small-farming associations, networks, and unions in order to provide alternatives to current state-led militarized development paradigms. The project consists of thirteen short videos, photography and popular education manuals that present both the daily life-politics and the political life of PLADIA on farms and among rural communities. More than an attempt to influence public policy, this project aspires to multiply what I conceive of as “agro-vital spaces,” or the relatively autonomous life-making strategies that work to build an Andean-Amazonian territory – in the midst of social and armed conflict – one farm at a time.  Whether it is conceptualizing the distinction between land and territory, food security, sovereignty and autonomy, learning techniques for composting, seed and soil conservation, or the design of Amazonian gardens, no new “agricultural model” exists; only seeds, stories, and experimental practices to be shared and refashioned (or not) from one farm to the next.

Fruits and vegetables cultivated in Nelso and Elva’s Amazonian garden.

Fruits and vegetables cultivated in Nelso and Elva’s Amazonian garden.

The 5 to 10 centimeters arable layer that is characteristic of the Oxisol and Ultisols of the Amazon.

The 5 to 10 centimeters arable layer that is characteristic of the Oxisol and Ultisols of the Amazon.

In our project, engagement means not only following the teachings of farmers, but being attentive to the ways that diverse elements and beings engage us: solar and lunar patterns, nutrient cycles, delving rootlets, and plant-microbial communities as they quietly creep, bud and decompose back into the selva.  Engagement leads us to not only question what it means to define a ‘soil’ as “productive,” but also market-oriented and ultimately human-centered notions of productivity itself.  More than anything perhaps, this documentary film project engages with tenacity; a tenacity shared by the thousands of Putumayo farmers whom, since 1996, have marched to denounce the devastating impacts of aerial fumigation on local economies, staple foods, and public and environmental health. However, rural communities also march to defend the dream of creating an alternative territoriality with its corresponding economic, political, and environmental, or better yet, life possibilities and limitations. Engagement may allow for articulating diverse kinds of political work and action that are not mutually exclusive – the kinds of politics that compose public spheres where direct opposition, power struggle, and debate occur, and the unassuming political work involved in recuperating hojarasca [litter layers or dying and falling leaves] on a farm – this thin and ephemeral layer that renders all life, and hence selva agri-culture possible.

Small farm in the Andean-Amazonian foothills.                                    Serranía de los Churumbelos, Putumayo

Small farm in the Andean-Amazonian foothills.
Serranía de los Churumbelos, Putumayo

It is not that farmers are ashamed of being cocaleros [coca growers] or condemn those who are.  Rather they are tired of being criminalized by the state for residing in what are classified as coca-ridden “red zones,” while remaining on the losing end of a long commodity chain that provides growers with minimal benefits – albeit more than a neoliberal state guarantees its citizens – and highest risks.  Most coca growers have been pushed into marginal, rural frontier zones by historical cycles of structural and armed violence in the country’s Andean interior and Coastal regions.  Colombia is currently the second most unequal country in the world according to a recent Bloomberg study. As many cocaleros describe it, the capitalist system “eats away at you and pushes you out,” leaving people on the fringe of urban centers fighting tooth and nail to make a living doing just about anything including turning to coca fields in remote regions of the country. Other small farmers become cocaleros due to the historical social abandonment of rural areas, the lack of markets, fair prices and subsidies, access to fertile land, and democratic participation in agrarian policy and public life.

After conducting fieldwork in Putumayo since 2005, I have witnessed innumerable poorly planned, ecologically inappropriate, violent, and undemocratic development initiatives associated with the “War on Drugs” that further disillusion, criminalize, and impoverish rural communities hoping to transform their life conditions and livelihoods.  Since 1996, the agrarian and popular sectors of the southwestern Amazon have struggled for the opportunity to determine their own life projects and processes with all the risks, creativity, potential failures, and critical reflection that this entails.  Our documentary film project is one more seed planted among these many.

Kristina is a UC President´s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Anthropology Department and with the Center for Science and Justice at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is an advisor for the Regional Working Group of Dialogue and Accords (MIA), and the Regional Alliance of Small Farmer, Indigenous, Afro, Union, and Youth Social Movements in Putumayo, Colombia.    

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Amelia Moore Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Dana Graef

Amelia Moore (Assistant Research Professor, University of Miami) Interviews Dana Graef (Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology & Environmental Studies, Yale University)

“Red and Green: Hues of Environmental Contestation in the Americas”

In this paper, Dana asks what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, two nations that are internationally recognized as paragons of sustainable development: Costa Rica for its forest conservation, and Cuba for its sustainable agriculture. She argues that the complex nature of color—encompassing both perception and physical being—makes it an ideal lens for examining environmentalism, which varies between nations and among individuals. Through her paper, she examines how ‘red’ dimensions of environment and development—crises, communism, fire—give green forests, fields, and nations new contexts and distinct meanings.

Dana Graef

Dana Graef

1) What initially drew you to your field sites and how did you come to conduct research in both Cuba and Costa Rica? This seems particularly challenging, logistically, and other graduate students might be inspired to hear how you managed this multi-sited investigation.

I was first drawn to my field sites for different reasons that predated graduate school. I lived in Costa Rica for a year after high school and spent some time there growing up. As a result I began college with interests in environmental and indigenous issues in Latin America. I took an Organization for Tropical Studies Field Ethnobiology course in Costa Rica after my freshman year that sparked my interest in large-scale development projects. Over consecutive summers I examined potential impacts of a hydroelectric project and historic impacts of the Inter-American Highway on a Costa Rican indigenous community. I also had the opportunity to go to Cuba for a 10-day research trip through the Princeton-in-Cuba program. I was originally planning a research project on Ernest Hemingway and José Martí, but my grandfather sent me a magazine clipping about urban agriculture in Havana. I re-read it on the plane, and it changed my trip.

When I began my doctoral program at Yale, I expected to pursue research solely in Costa Rica—but having already spent a fair amount of time there, I was also looking for ways to freshen my perspective and see my research in a different light. Thinking about Cuba and Costa Rica in a comparative perspective was intriguing, and eventually led to my dissertation research on how agricultural practices change and why in relationship with environmentalism in both nations. My dissertation research has followed many twists and turns over the years. I had to be flexible in my project; I’ve been fortunate to have a committee that supported my flexibility. I ultimately conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Costa Rica, while considering Cuba as a comparative counterpoint.

For other graduate students interested in comparative and multi-sited research, I would offer a few thoughts. It is worth considering ways that comparative and multi-sited research are not necessarily the same thing. My research was driven by a geographic comparison, and to be remotely ethnographic in such a comparison, you need to do multi-sited research. That said, it is also possible to be multi-sited without adapting a comparative framework, or to be comparative without being multi-sited. For a doctoral project, making the connections between your sites as clear and concrete as possible is a good thing. (I say this in retrospect, of course!) It’s definitely challenging, but because of that, I’ve enjoyed the sense of discovery that multi-sited and comparative research brings.

2) Many of this year’s Rappaport papers were coincidentally about unconventional comparisons in some way. How did you manage the multiple levels of comparison between Cuba and Costa Rica and red and green, etc. in this article and did you encounter any comparative pitfalls that you had to avoid?

Hearing different ways that the Rappaport finalists were making comparisons was one of the unexpected highlights of the panel. To manage the comparisons in my paper, I established a narrative structure through iterative trial and error. I opened with the theoretical concepts and approach, and followed with a section on Costa Rica, a section on Cuba, an integrative section on both countries, and finally, an analytical section. I wrote the sections on Costa Rica and Cuba to mirror one another. Stitching together Costa Rican and Cuban voices respectively, I touched on representations of their environmental movements to audiences abroad, as well as internal debates within each nation and pieces of my own observations. It was my goal to give the reader a sense for how environmentalism in each nation has particular vocabularies that both vary and speak to one another at the same time. On one level my paper was about what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, while on another level this was a paper about the different socio-political meanings we ascribe to landscapes and to environmental change.

I think that for comparisons to really work, there needs to be a kind of productive tension between the concepts you are examining. There needs to be enough commonality that they speak to one another, but also enough difference to keep a sense of reality. At least for me, the greatest challenge in writing comparative work is not to be overly simplistic or overly wedded to your analytical categories and their attributes. In analysis and writing, my goal is to maintain a sense of possibility. It’s very tempting to establish a neat binary, ascribe certain qualities or attributes to each side, and follow that thread through your work—but this would ultimately not represent the true complexity of social interactions. Writing a faithful narrative that evokes some sense from the messy complexity is the greatest challenge of this kind of work, and it takes some honing. For me, a lens into this complexity is color. Beyond ideas of Costa Rica and Cuba as green nations, it was the juxtaposition within color itself—of green and red—that helped me think my cases through from a new perspective.

3) Your paper is very creative and dynamic.  The greatest innovation is that you begin to outline what you call “chromatic anthropology” in order to ethnographically investigate the life of color in relation to environment and development.  How did you come to focus so specifically on color? 

My focus on color came about for a number of reasons. First, the juxtaposition of The Green Republic (Evans 1999) and The Greening of the Revolution (Rosset & Benjamin 1994) on my qualifying exam reading lists in 2009 led me to consider distinct meanings of greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba. The idea that Costa Rica and Cuba are both green for different reasons became a major theme of my dissertation research. While in a practical sense Costa Rica and Cuba’s environmental reputations for conservation and sustainable agriculture can be studied independently of color, a common thread between them is chromatic: it is a question of greenness. Second, I was encouraged to think about color more broadly when I presented an early draft of a dissertation chapter on indigenous agrarian change in a graduate colloquium a couple of years ago. One friend in the Anthropology Department, aware of my interest in greenness, commented on the multiple colors present in this particular chapter. He encouraged me to read Taussig’s book What Color is the Sacred (2009), and suggested that I might consider broadening my perspective on color beyond green. I made a mental note of this suggestion, and eventually returned to it when I was conceptualizing the framework for my Rappaport paper. A third source of inspiration came from a visit to the Yale Art Gallery in 2012. I saw some striking abstract paintings by Josef Albers—large blocks of color on different backgrounds. As I recall, the museum’s description of Albers’ work noted that you will see a block of the same color differently, depending on the background. This resonated with my thinking about greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba: similar concepts or practices appear different depending on their context. I suppose in addition to all of this, I’m a visual thinker. Color makes sense to me, from both an ethnographic and an ecological perspective.

4) How does this focus open a window for you into events in environment and development in your sites in the Americas specifically?

For me, color—in particular, red and green—became a way of re-thinking ideas of sustainable development as they are applied and understood in Latin America. A major challenge of my dissertation has been the fact that greenness is, at least in my experience, very hard to analyze. It means so many different things at the same time—many of them contradictory. The fact that Costa Rica and Cuba are both called green nations for different reasons is a delightful expression of that. The idea that Costa Rica is recognized as a green nation for its forests, while Cuba is recognized as a green nation for its sustainable agriculture has influenced the trajectory of my research, as well as my writing. Among other things, the pairing of Costa Rica and Cuba led me to think more concretely about the social and political associations with forests and fields.

While I had originally envisioned the Costa Rican dimension of my research taking place almost exclusively in the indigenous territories where I had previously worked, the questions of greenness and the comparison with Cuba also led me to broaden my fieldwork in different directions. In an attempt to balance my research and provide a more solid basis for comparison, I ended up conducting research on organic agriculture in Costa Rica as well. So by pursuing the different meanings of greenness, I was able to see how chemical-free agriculture exists under radically different conditions in different places, and responds to different needs. These include prioritizing local subsistence, national and international markets, attempts to be ecological, and goals of productivity.

5) In your opinion, what can a chromatic anthropology reveal about the world in general?  What else would you like to see happen with this orientation?

I suppose that for me, chromatic anthropology is a reminder that there are so many different ways of seeing the world. So often, we see through others’ eyes. Sometimes, this is by design—we try to see things as others would see them in our field sites, we try to understand distinct perspectives. But often, it is unconscious, a result of habit. We see things as we saw them yesterday, or as we were trained to see them. For me, chromatic anthropology is also a reminder to be present: to observe, to really see what is before you, to write it down, and then, to try to capture some of that vividness in your writing.

When I was preparing for this paper, I began to casually browse a number of ethnographies on my bookshelf, looking for color. I was surprised by how hard I had to look even for simple color terms in many works. I think this may be associated with an aversion to description. Early in graduate school, I realized that when ethnography is called “descriptive,” it is said with a particularly deprecatory tone. Description can be tolerated if it is followed by an appropriate degree of explicit analysis, but lacking that, it is not sufficiently analytical. The implication is that analysis and description are two different things. If I had my druthers, there would be a greater appreciation for description in anthropology and an acknowledgement that careful description is analytical unto itself. Descriptive writing—writing that does not shy away from what the ethnographer sees—does not have to be flowery filler. Through careful description, all kinds of new questions present themselves.

6) How does this article fit into your larger dissertation project? 

This paper provided an opportunity to tackle the theme of color, which is more implicit in other parts of my dissertation. The chapters of my dissertation examine what it means to be green and the shifting relationships between environmentalism and agrarian change from different perspectives. I consider cases including indigenous agriculture, organic agriculture, conservation, a mine and a dam, and broader ideas of environmentalism. I alternate between in-depth case studies on Costa Rica and comparative chapters that juxtapose Costa Rica and Cuba. My dissertation begins with a chapter that examines processes of agrarian change in an indigenous community in southern Costa Rica, with a particular focus on the transition from fire to herbicides. In the second chapter, I examine multiple origin stories for organic agriculture in Costa Rica and Cuba, considering the roles of crises and history. In the third chapter, I look at the origins and history of a biological field station in southern Costa Rica where there was an emphasis on agroecology in the late 1980s. An expanded version of my Rappaport paper is the fourth chapter of my dissertation. I conclude with a chapter that examines changing memories of protests against a formerly proposed Aluminum Company of America mine in Costa Rica, published last year in Development and Change. As a whole, I am interested in ways that environmentalism means different things in different places, while also invoking certain common interpretations and ideas.

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