Michael Dove Interviews Emily Wanderer, 2014 Rappaport Finalist

MRD: Your site – Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Disease or INER – and your topic – the role that concepts of air pollution and disease play in making the Mexican nation – are, to say the least, quite unique.  How did you come to be there in the first place and studying these topics?  What was the first ‘aha’ moment that led you to think of this as your dissertation topic?

Emily: I found my way to my dissertation topic through a combination of strategy and serendipity (as I imagine many people do). I have long been interested in the development of biosecurity practices and the intersection of science and politics. Early on I had done ethnographic research in a biodefense and infectious disease research lab in Chicago, and I wanted to build on that experience for my dissertation. The outbreak of H1N1, or swine flu, that started in Mexico, drew my attention. The outbreak was a surprise to public health experts, who had anticipated that the next influenza pandemic would be one of bird flu from Southeast Asia. The outbreak generated debates in Mexico, as people argued about why it happened and what should be done about it. Different people blamed the outbreak on the industrialization of Mexican agriculture, the lack of funding for public health, the absence of regulations, neoliberalism, and even human genetics.

Intrigued by these debates, I went to Mexico to study the development of biosecurity. I wanted to know how scientists produced knowledge about Mexican biology, and how this knowledge informed political projects to protect health. In short, I was interested in how science and the nation are co-constituted through biosecurity projects. I thought Mexico would be a provocative site to study these issues because while it’s deeply implicated in western projects and foundationally conditioned by European expansion, indigenous worlds are also essential to understanding Mexico. This combination of European and indigenous worlds continues to be an important element of the collective imagination of the nation and political ideology, informing the ways people think about the population and serving as the basis for arguments that Mexican populations are different. Further, looking at scientific and health research on the periphery helps demonstrate how contingent and local relations shapes discourse and scientific research about biological organisms. This is especially relevant in an age of global health and conservation regulations. Work in Mexico helps critique or complicate the idea of the universality of biology (both as discipline and life forms).

Initially, I planned to look at biosecurity in relation to infectious disease. However, what I found was that while in the U.S. biosecurity tends to be defined as protecting the population from intentionally introduced disease, in Mexico, when people talk about biosecurity they talk about health and the environment much more broadly – not just human health, but also ecological health, invasive species, biotechnology, and genetically modified organisms. My dissertation ended up being a multi-sited project, and the paper that I presented for the Rappaport prize addressed just one of those sites. In addition to working at Mexico’s National Institute for Respiratory Disease, I did fieldwork with conservationists eradicating invasive species on Mexico’s islands, and with ecologists at the National Institute of Ecology who were involved in regulating the use of genetically modified organisms.

Emily Wanderer

MRD: One of your most interesting findings is that the history of HIV/AIDS in Mexico, by comparison with the U.S., is seen by Mexican and U.S. scientists alike as an ‘asset’.  Crucial differences – Mexican doctors tends to not see HIV/AIDS patients until much later in the progression of the disease; on the other hand Mexico’s relatively late arrival to establishing a national HIV/AIDS treatment program means that it did not repeat the U.S. history of treating patients with suboptimal anti-retroviral therapies – means that Mexico has many patients with personal illness histories that are rare in the U.S. As one American doctor visiting the INER said, “It’s a fantastic opportunity”, for research.  Can you say more about the significance of this perceived time-lag in disease treatment between developed and late-developing countries, which in a way is reminiscent of another purported time-lag currently in the news, namely that between early industrializing countries that are now curbing their carbon emissions and late-industrializing countries that are loathe to do so?

Emily: This question gets at something that was difficult for me to grapple with, which was how to think through my interlocutors’ tendency to articulate difference in terms of temporality or a time-lag. As Johannes Fabian writes, ethnographic narratives have often placed their subjects outside of the time of the anthropologist writing them. I didn’t want to replicate that kind of temporal relationship, but I was quite interested in the ways that the physicians and other scientists I talked with proposed various gaps in times between different places, and in thinking through how people in other disciplines view time, and see various people or places as located in different times, or make reference to different historical periods to ground their work.

For example, determining whether a species is native or invasive often entails choosing a particular temporal reference point for an ecosystem. The Mexican National Strategy for Invasive Species, an important planning document developed by the federal government’s National Commission for the Study and Use of Biodiversity gives definitions of key terms. The strategy defines native species as “those naturally found in a region as a result of a long process of adaptation to the existing environmental conditions,” while alien species, on the other hand, are species occurring outside of their past or present natural range. So, whether a species is native or alien is in some ways a question of the duration of their presence in a place.

I did fieldwork with conservationists from the Grupo de Ecología y Conservacíon de Islas, an NGO that works on islands in Mexico, eradicating invasive species in an effort to restore a past natural order. Islands have long been imagined as utopian spaces where the social and natural order can be rethought, and where the past has been preserved. Following the work of GECI scientists, I found that while they did not see islands as places out of time or where the past had been precisely preserved, they did represent a more recoverable past than the mainland, and places where it would be possible to undo some of the homogenization of the environment brought about by processes of globalization and capitalism.

I’m hesitant to frame the question of carbon emissions and industrializing in terms of a time-lag, which to me implies that industrialization in all countries should follow the same path and that some countries are merely further behind on this path. I suppose I’m an optimist, in that I hope that late-industrializing countries might be places in which a better path can be found. Further, I believe that ultimately it is the responsibility of early-industrializing countries like the U.S. to radically curb their carbon emissions, regardless of the activities of other countries.

MRD: Another major finding of your’s concerns the link between disease and national identity and boundaries.  You demonstrate that the Mexican medical establishment believes in a uniquely Mexican biology and so, contra the prevalent idea that “disease knows no boundaries”, they see the particular manifestation of HIV/AIDS there as a specifically Mexican problem, one moreover that unites the populace in facing a shared national risk.  This contrasts starkly with the recent U.S. stance toward the Ebola outbreak in Africa, which was seen – albeit with some exceptions within the U.S. political establishment – as a shared global risk.  Your case seems to be another example of how the processes of globalization that were until fairly recently seen as rolling uniformly over the globe, can encounter locally opposing tendencies, in the most unexpected places and topics – as Mexican HIV/AIDS surely is, yes?

Emily: Yes, definitely. The rhetoric of disease knowing no borders has been very powerful in public health, and there’s been a push to move beyond state-centric or nation-based health projects towards treating health and biology as a global system. Part of the argument for this change is that globalization has transformed the nature of health risks and essentially dissolved the borders between nations, at least in terms of disease.

This move, however, has generated tension in Mexico between international goals and expectations and local needs. For example, in the case of HIV/AIDS, the scientists I worked with argued that it was essential to understand the epidemiology and viral diversity of HIV in Mexico. The argued that HIV was different from other places as a result of the genomic characteristics and immune responses of the human population of Mexico, as well as the political, social, and economic history that shaped trajectories of access to antiretroviral therapy in different countries. Standard reference strains used in HIV research that come primarily from U.S. patients may miss important aspects of viral life in Mexico. Conducting research similarly requires scientists to analyze and reckon with the way local biology is different – how the microbial and viral ecology around the lab and the state of the immune systems of lab workers are not the same globally and must be accounted for in analyzing the risk of various lab procedures. So, while organizations like the WHO seek to implement global health systems and regulations, scientists in Mexico are dealing with biology that refuses to be global, and instead remains idiosyncratically local.

MRD: Your research clearly also contributes to ongoing discussions within anthropology about the sense of place.  As you point out, attitudes toward air within the Mexican medical establishment complicate ideas of place – by expanding boundaries (of those affected by pollution and disease) outwards; at the same time as the aforementioned notion of a uniquely local, Mexican biology contracts boundaries (viz., of a unique HIV/AIDS threat) inwards.  Can you expand on these divergent tendencies and on what you think you can contribute to current theorizing regarding place in anthropology?  

Emily: My sense of one way that these divergent tendencies are linked is that they both tell us something about the politics of scale. Both air and HIV are in this case abstractions or incorporeal elements that people are using to understand their connection to one another. The borders around air or biology could be drawn in myriad ways. I’m interested in the particular connections that people see in the movement of air or patterns of viral infection. The scale at which the boundaries of care or concern could be drawn is flexible, and in this case it tended to be drawn at a national level, encompassing the entire population. In this way I see echoes in current scientific practice of historical political and social projects to unite the entire nation through the process of mestizaje, or the mixture of indigenous and European populations to produce a homogenized national body.

Regarding place in other sense, I’m also interested in places of science, particularly the lab and field. Historian of science Robert Kohler outlined the divide between lab and field, identifying them as two distinct cultural domains with different languages, customs, material, and moral economies. I suggest, however, that this dichotomy did not hold for the scientific practices I observed. Neither the lab nor the field in Mexico were purely lab or purely field. Instead, both represented hybrids. Laboratories, even those that specialize in containment, were not separated from the city in which they were located, and the scientists I studied did not think of the lab as placeless. Similarly, field sites were transformed into laboratories in which large-scale scientific experiments were conducted. The work of ecologists was not simply to characterize natural places but also to intervene in them. I also argue for the importance of a third scientific space, the office. The office was distinct from but also entangled with the lab and the field, and was where scientists engaged with bureaucratic processes and paperwork and shaped the administration of Mexican ecosystems and agriculture.

MRD: You speak of your research, in part, as a study of the way that “biosecurity projects” contribute to the production of Mexican science and nation.  For a decade and more, many anthropologists have drawn on Foucault’s concept of ‘biopolitics’ to analyze similar sorts of issues.  How does your research contribute to – or move beyond – this literature on biopolitics?

Emily: One thing that I hope to contribute to the extensive literature on science, nation, and biopolitics is an understanding of how biopolitics and biosecurity have been extended beyond the reglation of human life to encompass animal, plant, and microbial worlds. In my dissertation I bring together accounts of scientists working on lab safety, urban air quality, viral ecologies, biotechnology and bureaucracy, and island laboratories in order to analyze what happens when biology becomes the subject of security practices.

By analyzing these wide-ranging security practices, I can show how the nation is being defined in scientific work, as people establish who or what is within a group and who is excluded from group membership. In these practices, scientists make claims about how biology has been shaped by history, culture, and environment. They define which life forms are to be protected, which constitute a threat or danger, and they make arguments for how to adjust human behavior to improve the health of people and the environment more generally. I argue that Mexican biopolitics have become multispecies projects, and as a result, disciplining and regulating the health of the nation entails thinking about many kinds of life forms and their interactions.

Posted in Featured Research, New & Notable | Comments Off

Call for Posts: Conversations on Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything:” Intersections of Teaching and Activism

The recent conversation on the EANTH listserv surrounding Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate brought to light important differences regarding how anthropologists engage with and teach the subject of climate change. We invite contributors to submit posts that focus on the intersection of teaching about climate change, particularly Klein’s work, and environmental activism. Questions that arise at this intersection include: What roles can anthropologists play in climate change education and activism? How do we educate students about global climate issues in an academically sound and informed manner? Is it possible to teach on climate change, especially Klein’s book, and also provide uplifting ethnographic accounts of communities working for positive change? What other lessons can be learned from teaching climate issues and environmental advocacy on a broad scale?

Potential directions of posts include:

  1. Methods: a discussion of particular teaching and/or research methods relating to climate change education and/or specifically Klein’s work.

  2. Narratives: accounts of personal experiences teaching on climate issues and/or environmental activism – how do you engage in teaching and activism in your institution and/or community? What challenges have you faced when dealing with these complex issues, or what are some educational experiences you could share?

  3. Photo essays: a collection of photographs with captions that describe successes or challenges in combating the effects of climate change – perhaps of a particular activist campaign or classroom experience.

Submissions can take the form of 1,000-word essays; short photo and video essays; poetry and experimental prose; audio recordings; and other forms in consultation with the editors. Please indicate your interest by email to the Engagement co-editors:


Theresa Miller: theresa.miller@anthro.ox.ac.uk

Colin Hoag: choag@ucsc.edu

Chitra Venkataramani: chitra@jhu.edu

Posted in Engagement Blog, Section News | Comments Off

ANNOUNCEMENT: Julian Steward Award

The Anthropology and the Environment Society of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) awards the Julian Steward Award biannually for the best monograph in environmental and ecological anthropology. The prize was awarded in 2013 to Erik Mueggler (University of Michigan) for his book The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (Univ. of California Press).  This year’s prize will be awarded during the AAA annual meeting in Denver, CO. The deadline for entries is May 1, 2015. Entries must have been published within the last two years. For those interested in providing book entries for the 2015 Julian Steward Award please send one copy of the book (total of 3 copies) to each of the following members of the review committee:

Jeffrey C Johnson
Department of Anthropology
University of Florida
PO Box 117305
1112 Turlington Hall
Gainesville, FL  32611-7305

Michael R. Dove
Department of Anthropology
Yale University
134-136 Kroon Hall, 195 Prospect Street
New Haven, Connecticut 06511-2189

Erik Mueggler
Dept. of Anthropology
University of Michigan
204-A West Hall, 1085 S. University Ave.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1107

If you need further information or have any questions please contact Jeffrey Johnson (johnsonje@ufl.edu).

Posted in Section News | Comments Off

Shafqat Hussain Interviews Jerry Zee, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Winner

Shafqat: Please tell us something about yourself and why you chose environmental anthropology (political ecology) as a subject for your PhD?

Jerry: I grew up in California, did my bachelor’s in linguistics and a master’s in anthropology, and I’m currently finishing my PhD in anthropology at UC Berkeley. After graduating college, on something of a whim, I moved to China to work as a program manager at an environmental non-profit in Shanghai, which was my first real education into environmental politics as well as my first education on China. Both were disorienting to me, in the most exciting way. And what was clear and fascinating to me was that both thinking with Chinese politics and thinking with environmental problems would demand the assembling of a critical and political vocabulary that could be glimpsed in things I’d learned as an undergraduate and yet was still yet to come. Because of my job at the time, I was confronted with the feeling that thinking with environments would open something about politics and life in China that couldn’t be pinpointed in any other way, which is what brought me to political ecology, which was an opening into a lot of the other things that populate the analytic and ethnographic landscape of my dissertation. The work has emerged in conversation and encounter across many ways of knowing and acting with environments; my committee is half anthropologists and half geographers, my fieldwork brought me in contact with forestry administrators, ecologists, and Aeolian physicists, all of which have left a stamp on my thinking.

Jerry Zee

Shafqat: What is your dissertation about and what interests you in this particular issue?

Jerry: My dissertation is titled “States of the Wind: Dust Storms and a Political Meteorology of Contemporary China.” Broadly, my dissertation is about dust storms and politics in northern China. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese state has redoubled its programs for combating dust storms which, on the wind, connect desertification and exposed sand in inland, upwind places, with many places downwind along the wind’s path. These include Beijing, but also, over days, Seoul, Japan, and even the US. These programs of ecological construction against the movements of sand on wind have aimed essentially to transform the social and physical topographies of upwind China through environmental engineering, forestry, and new forms of social management oriented toward something called ‘environment.’ I became interested first in how the trajectories of dust storms also suddenly became the template of a political zone for intervening in strange weather, and then, in how the demand to control dust storms worked especially at controlling the relationship between the earth and the wind. My fieldwork tried to replicate this movement, and different fieldsites are arranged as moments in the airstream of a possible dust storm. Dust storms are fascinating as an environmental problem because demanded an attunement to the capacities of sandy earth to become roving atmospheres. So in each chapter I tried to think with sand, wind, and environments as elements in configuring particular political experiments, and then asked how the governing of human life – politics – is given when the focus is not ‘society’ per se, but the ways in which human, botanical, geological, and Aeolian things configure an ‘environment’ which in some way demands a rethinking of some political formation, either at the level of those governing, or for the anthropologist trying to make sense of a politics attuned to entanglements of environmental things.

In the Rappaport paper, “Groundwork,” the problem I wanted to think with was how to grasp a ‘becoming-environmental’ of power in desertifying Inner Mongolia. I was especially interested in how the entanglement of two roots could become taken up as a template for a political understanding of the relationship between human behaviors – which could be adjusted by the configuration of an economic environment – and ecological and geophysical conditions, which could be at least partly controlled by calibrating human behaviors with the demands of a desired ecology. In the meantime, as I wrote it, I realized that anti-desertification politics with a stage for a rethinking of many ideas that you pointed out in your comments: agency, economy, environment.

Shafqat: In your work you argue that the Chinese state achieves an ecological outcome (stop desertification) by manipulating the response of its subjects to economic conditions, created in the economic sphere, thus bypassing the need to target its citizens’ subjectivities. How is this model of neoliberal conservation approach different from other such approaches which use economic incentives to alter behavior? I guess what I am asking is what is specific about the Chinese case here? Also, an implication of such an analysis is that there is no room for individual agency or consciousness. If so, where does your work stand in relation to conventional political ecology, which proclaims to be mission oriented?

Jerry: You’re certainly right to note that there isn’t anything exceptionally novel about thinking about the market as a corrective to environmental degradation. In the chapter what I was more interested in doing was to think about how the creation – through economic subsidies, manipulation of demand, etc. – of an economic environment to ‘catch’ ex-herders after grazing bans raised a certain question of how what the market is and what it does, not as a force of its own, but as part of a theory of human action and its amenability to conditions in an economic ‘environment.’ I’m interested here in coming into a conversation about what ‘marketization’ in China has meant, that has argued that market economics have been deployed as a way in which the state bolsters its own sovereignty, instead of a kind of post-Cold War hope that markets will somehow topple ‘socialism’ and drive political change.

What I really wanted to say is that in these programs the economic sphere becomes one ‘environment’ through which an ecological environment can be managed. They are entangled in such a way that politics aims to transform one to transform the other. And at the center of this is a new conception of the human subject as ‘environmental,’ in two ways. First, insofar as they act in an economic ‘environment,’ their behaviors can be conditioned as the desired response to stimuli. ‘Economic motivation’ becomes an interface between political plans and ecological change. So this is a second sense in which we can think of an ‘environmental subjectivity’ in its intimate relationship with power – manipulating behavior which has physical effects rather than teaching people to, say, care for the environment, becomes a way in which their status as being in a physical environment becomes operationalized politically. And if these programs are neoliberal, it won’t be in the sense of a pull-back of the state against the powers of a market that yearns to be free, but instead, following Aihwa Ong, neoliberalism will be a mobile strategy and logic of intervention, wherein a certain kind of subject is presumed in power.

So while agency or consciousness in a classical sense of an intimate governing of how people feel or experience themselves as subjects takes a different form, but it doesn’t go away. In ‘environmental’ programs, so posed, the agency of individuals that’s at the very center. I argue that ‘agency’ is anticipated and manipulated as the desired response to changing environmental conditions – it’s already presumed, but in the form of a controlled reaction to a well-calibrated economic environment. Agency therefore isn’t somehow outside of these programs. Rather it’s the very condition in which they can operate.
Shafqat: The ethnographic details of your paper focus primarily on one source: Mr. Li. Can you please talk about sources, and how are people coping with this transition from commercial livestock raising to commercial medicinal plant farming?

Jerry: In the chapter I focus on one family, partly to focus questions of ex-herding life. I’m not making a claim about representativeness, and I don’t think that there is a generalizable experience, but I will say that the ‘choice’ to become a farmer of medicinal plants (and de facto forester) is not made simply. While forestry agencies and local government aim to create economic conditions that over-determine this choice to grow roots as the natural ‘response’ of ex-herders, there remains an ongoing capacity to respond otherwise, a response-ability, to borrow from Donna Haraway. What I will say is that ecological degradation is distributed unevenly across the landscape, and this makes a big difference in whether or not people think of government programs and grazing bans as a ‘way out’ (chulu), as the Li family explained it, or as something else. Some families continue to hold onto grazing, but see it ending in coming years under political, economic, and ecological pressure, after which they will re-evaluate, while others try to cash out early to get in at the ground floor of some of these economic programs.

What I don’t discuss in the paper is that these programs are one moment in a broader ecology of economic interventions that aim to get people off the land or to hold them there as environmental actors. So, there are ecological migration villages and other real estate investments and subsidies that the local government supports, there are attempts to encourage new markets in things like stone-collecting (there is a tradition in China of loving strange rocks) or desert tourism on desertified sands. But what these programs share is that they aim to manage human habitation and behavior in a moment of ecological and economic precarity on the land.
Shafqat: At what stage of graduate work are you at right now? I guess I am asking how close are you to finishing your dissertation and what are the future plans, especially in terms of a new project?

Jerry: I’m currently finishing my dissertation, and am on track to graduate from UC Berkeley in May of this year. My future plans remain up in the air. My future projects grow out of some of the concerns in my dissertation, and especially with this haunting image of the earth in the air that I can’t shake – this is a problem that has arrested me throughout the research and writing of my dissertation. So I’ve been very interested in particulate matter, which is key problem in Chinese air quality concerns and indicate that the atmosphere has become dense. That is, it has become a problematic suspension, just as dust storms are. I’m currently thinking about what Peter Sloterdijk calls air-conditioning, the containment and management of atmospheric compositions, in relationship to a number of projects, embodiments, and problems directed toward this too-earthy air in China’s cities. I wanted to explore how particulate matter drives a series of new ways of embodying, governing, and especially air-conditioning China’s contemporary as a state of particulate exposure.

Posted in Featured Research | Comments Off

Karl Zimmerer Interviews Stefanie Graeter, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Winner

Karl: The interests in your paper weave together the cultural construction, social power dynamics, and medical and environmental dimensions of lead exposure occurring in a couple of paradigmatic places (La Oroya, El Callao) in Peru’s mining industry and its transportation network. It’s clearly a highly important topic at the intersection of major anthropological issues. What kinds of influences ‑ from fieldwork or travel experiences to certain conversations or texts ‑ led to your interest in this topic and to pursue it as your dissertation? Feel free to refer to related earlier versions of your interests and research that may have helped lead to your topic here.

Stephanie: I’ve been interested by the cultural politics of contamination and exposure for quite awhile. I studied environmental science as an undergraduate, a major at UC Berkeley which is quite interdisciplinary. I took a range of courses from traditional chemistry and biology to courses in environmental justice and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I stuck to a biological track, but my course work in the social sciences sparked my interest in the cultural complexity of environmental problems, particularly as they intersected with poverty, race, and models of economic development. After college, I worked for an environmental NGO that focused on issues of environmental health and policy. I became fascinated by the process of generating social concern around a potentially toxic chemical, most of which are incredibly difficult to study scientifically, conceive of ethically, and represent politically. In graduate school, however, I turned my focus to lead contamination, a scientifically well-established toxic material that has long-since been banned from U.S. consumer goods that come in direct contact with people. Yet, the “lead-scare” of tainted toys from China in 2007 (which gender and women’s studies scholar Mel Y. Chen has written compellingly about), or the old, chipping lead paint in U.S. urban spaces, point to the toxic metal’s persistence in certain human-inhabited spaces while it is annexed from others. The apparent obviousness of lead’s toxicity actually made it more intriguing for me to study ethnographically. How does a material get established as too-toxic for humans in one region, but continues to pollute another? Lead exposure in Peru provides a particularly compelling case to think with because of the ever-growing economic importance given to mining and the mineral industry, run mostly by companies from the U.S. or Europe where lead exposure is more stringently regulated. In addition to understanding the global distribution of lead commodities and contamination, I tried to better understand the localized political processes happening in Peru that attempted to inscribe lead as toxic and to reduce exposure to it. Given its persistence in the sites I worked at, I wanted to know what social practices in Peru resist international standards of harm and what can this tell us about the ethics of transnational mineral extraction, consumption, and economic development.

Stephanie Graeter, 2014 Rappaport Prize Co-Awardee

Karl: The image analysis you undertake is very important to your paper. These powerful images show the people of La Oroya and El Callao, especially young people, in environmental and sociocultural spaces that you note can highlight their personal vulnerability, on the one hand, or a rather impersonal or less vulnerable view, on the other hand. I think the audience who is aware of your work already, and others who will be following it, may like to know what it was it like to undertake this image analysis and whether there were certain influences or inspirations for this work that might not immediately meet the eye. Personally I would find it intriguing to hear how this image analysis was integrated into your research methods. For example, did you go into the image analysis with a sharp idea of the general or specific sorts of depictions you were interested in, or was it a more multi-stage style of methodological engagement? (and, if the latter, how did it work?)

Stephanie: I didn’t go into my research with a methodological focus on images. What I wanted to understand was how lead became political (or not) through various forms of social mediation. Methodologically, I tracked the various ways that people related to and represented lead, which included a wide range of media, including scientific reports, informational brochures, policy documents, newspaper articles, blog entries, and so on. So alongside my ethnography, I built up an archive of lead documents too. The imagery of children grabbed my attention pretty early on, particularly how as subjects of vulnerability to lead their depictions diverged between my two field sites, the port of El Callao and the Andean metallurgical city of La Oroya. The images of children seemed to anchor the moral dimension of lead politics, but to different effects depending on the socio-historical context of each place. I began to pay closer attention to how these images linked up with other narratives I heard about lead contamination and its human impacts. The dense distillation of meaning present in these images then provided a helpful tool for bringing together various sources of information on lead’s impact on human social behavior in my writing.

Karl: Your paper is important and offers insights to many sub-fields of anthropology including but not limited to environment and anthropology. These other sub-fields include medical anthropology and development anthropology to name only a couple. Through the lens of your own view of environment and anthropology would you be able to comment briefly on how you see your paper fitting in. Perhaps you could comment too on how you see your study creating an intersection of environment and anthropology with these other anthropological sub-fields.

Stephanie: I situate my work at the intersection of environmental and medical anthropology, but it can be difficult to contain because it also speaks to issues of economy, development, and knowledge. At the AAAs in 2013, I actually organized a panel with my Rappaport co-awardee Jerry Zee on ethnographies of exposure. One of our goals of the panel was to use the theme of exposure as a potential bridge between the subfields of environmental and medical anthropology. Exposure orients one’s attention to the environment-body interface and especially to its permeability.

Karl: You create a very interesting and productive spatial design in your research that contributes a particular strength to the paper. It combines the very linked yet contrasting sites of La Oroya in the Andean highlands and the port city of El Callao in the Lima Metropolitan area in coastal Peru. While comparative case study design is not unusual, it requires the use of spatial knowledge and often spatial imagination, so it’d be interesting to learn more about your choice of these sites. I’d be interested too, for example, to know if you had considered other spatial designs to your research.

Stephanie: El Callao and especially La Oroya are considered as emblematic sites of lead contamination caused by mining in Peru, but there are others. For instance, located fairly close to La Oroya is the city of Cerro de Pasco, famous for its ever-expanding open-pit mine and comparably high levels of lead contamination and exposure. Originally, I hadn’t considered more than one field site but one of my interlocutors in Peru enthusiastically encouraged me to study the “route” or “corridor” of lead, from the mine to the port. I then thought about three field sites: one each for extraction, refinement, and shipment. Cerro de Pasco-La Oroya-El Callao presented an appealing circuit to undertake such a project because the sites connect spatially along Peru’s central highway and temporally through a shared history of mining development that spans the entire 20th and now 21st century. For me though, three sites became unmanageable ethnographically. While I’ve visited Cerro de Pasco, I decided to focus on El Callao and La Oroya, in part because of the contrast between the Andes and the Coast intrigued me and in part because the regions contained lesser explored sections of the metal commodity chain. This mode of ethnography nonetheless required me to spend a great deal of my time on buses and collective taxis. A lot of my spatial understanding came from moving across these spaces, watching the dramatic scenery change between the coast and the Andes and across urban and rural regions.

Posted in Featured Research | Comments Off

2015 Anthropology and Environment Society Small Grants Program

The goal of the Anthropology and Environment Society Small Grants Program is to foster collaboration among practicing and academic anthropologists, grassroots activists, and/or organizations and inspire innovative solutions to environmental issues.  The small grants program is particularly interested in projects that facilitate communication and brainstorming between groups or that lead to program or institution building necessary to form innovative solutions. Proposals may address local, national or global concerns, issues, or problems.

The deadline for proposals is May 1, 2015. Please send proposals in the following format to Jeffrey Johnson (johnsonje@ufl.edu).

Read More

Posted in Section News | Comments Off

University of Memphis and the Sierra Club Team up to Promote Education, Advocacy & Activism at Grassroots Environmental Conference

By: Kathryn Hicks, Rita Harris, Keri Brondo and Robert Marczynski

Memphis is a highly segregated Southern city with a long history of both environmental inequality and of environmental justice (EJ) organizing. A valuable resource for the city and region is the grassroots environmental conference that annually brings together academics and community organizers. Designed for “college students, neighborhood watch leaders, community activists, teachers, community groups and church leaders,” the event has always been free and open to the public, involved easy-to-understand discussion of local and regional EJ issues, and drawn in nationally-recognized presenters. This year’s conference, held at the University of Memphis, included a keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, one of the nation’s foremost environmental scholars. The conference has been organized for the last 12 years by Sierra Club Organizer Rita Harris, along with members of the Tennessee Chapter and Chickasaw Group of the Sierra Club and the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program.

Ms. Harris has been part of the EJ movement in Memphis since the early 1990s, working alongside residents to protect their communities from industrial hazards. Since she started working with the Sierra Club in 1999, she has produced an annual Shelby County “Terrible Ten” report highlighting the city’s largest polluters and related health effects, and played a major role in organizing to prevent the siting of a new hazardous waste incinerator on President’s Island. Recognizing that the issues most directly facing communities of color are largely absent from other environmental dialogue in the city has driven her long-term commitment to organizing this conference. With vast amounts of toxic air pollution from numerous industrial sources and threats from hazardous waste landfills, there was, and continues to be, a need for information on how these things affect health and quality of life in the Memphis area. In addition, the community needs to be aware of who to call about their concerns, the protections provided through regulations and laws, and how to be effective advocates; thus, the emphasis on community organizing. The conference provides an important opportunity for members of EJ communities throughout Memphis to network with each other around critical environmental problems.

Rita Harris speaks with students from two anthropology classes about industrial hazards surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. King Park on a toxic tour

Rita Harris speaks with students from two anthropology classes about industrial hazards surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. King Park on a toxic tour

Our collaboration on this conference has grown out of a decade-long relationship between the Sierra Club and the Department of Anthropology, beginning when Melissa Checker was on faculty. For the past several years, Ms. Harris has led a “toxic tour” of Memphis for Hicks’ EJ class, something she does regularly for classes and community groups. Each year on the tour we travel north from the University to the Douglass community where public housing, a high school, and a public park sit in close proximity to several active and abandoned industrial facilities, including Velsicol and Southern Cotton Oil. Ms. Harris explains to students how crisscrossing train tracks have the potential to trap residents in the neighborhood during an emergency. We then proceed to SW Memphis where majority African American neighborhoods sit adjacent to some of the county’s largest polluters, including the Valero Oil Refinery and the TVA coal-fired power plant. On this leg of the trip, students experience the oppressive smell from the sewage treatment plant, something that residents live with every day. This is an invaluable opportunity for students to hear about and discuss the history of EJ organizing around industrial facilities and waste-disposal sites in Memphis, particularly those who live in or grew up in these neighborhoods.

Building on these collaborations, Drs. Hicks and Brondo have recruited students to attend Sierra Club press conferences and public meetings, and to introduce speakers at the annual conference. Brondo and Marczynski were able to obtain a grant for the conference from The University of Memphis Green Fee, and a number of departments and programs on campus and the Sierra Club provided additional support. This year, the four of us planned the conference with the help of Anthropology MA candidates Laura Van Booven, Taylor Arnold, and Kyle Simpson, and Sierra Club member Sue Williams.

Keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University

Keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University

The 2014 conference, entitled “Community Health, Environmental Justice and Clean Energy: The 13th Annual Grassroots Community Conference,” (brochure) was held November 1st and involved ten sessions by local activists, organizers, and academics and a keynote lecture by Dr. Robert D. Bullard. Dr. Bullard’s talk focused on disproportionate social and environmental vulnerability in the South, and the importance of grassroots organizing and building community resilience. Attendees were uniformly impressed and energized by Dr. Bullard’s talk, and several students were pleased to have the opportunity to meet him in person. In addition to asking questions, audience members rose to share opportunities for students and activists to get involved in EJ organizing in the region. One example of our wonderful breakout sessions was “Organizing 101,” delivered by Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. A number of people rated this as a particularly productive session in post conference evaluations, as it provided an opportunity to discuss strategies for advancing EJ and other social justice work in Memphis.

Rita Harris presents Dick Mochow Award to Madeleine Taylor of the NAACP for her long-term focus on environmental inequality in Memphis

Rita Harris presents Dick Mochow Award to Madeleine Taylor of the NAACP for her long-term focus on environmental inequality in Memphis

The conference attracted a larger crowd than in previous years, with 230 registered attendees. Importantly, the event drew students from a number of local schools in addition to the University of Memphis including LeMoyne-Owen College, Rhodes College, Rust College, and Christian Brothers University, along with members of the Sierra Club and other local environmental organizations. Several regular attendees approached organizers to tell us that it was the best conference yet, and expressed pleasure at the number of young people at the conference and their apparent interest in EJ organizing. Holding the conference on campus seems to have been important in attracting more students.

As Dr. Bullard noted, the Sierra Club’s annual conference serves an important role in a city and region disproportionately affected by environmental and economic inequalities. The unequal distribution of toxic hazards in Memphis has real implications for the health and well-being of city residents (E.g. Braud et al., 2010). This opportunity for networking between groups of people who might not otherwise get a chance to meet is critical for developing effective EJ strategies. This year’s conference was successful in bringing together a larger group of participants, particularly students, and providing a forum for interaction between activists from throughout the region.

For faculty, the conference fits both with the commitment to engaged anthropology here at the University of Memphis and to larger calls to critically applied, public, activist, and engaged anthropology within the discipline. The conference allowed us to express solidarity with the communities most affected by environmental injustice, and to learn from the many experienced and committed activists who have been working on these issues. Members of two anthropology classes helped design and carry out an ethnographic evaluation of the conference, contributing both to efforts to ensure that the conference is worthwhile for grassroots participants, and to knowledge building within the environmental community in Memphis. As the organizing committee, we were thrilled to see such a large turnout, and look forward to planning next year’s conference.

Works Cited

Braud, T, S Nouer and K Lamar. 2010. Residential Proximity to Toxic Release Sites and the Implications for Low Birth Weight and Pre-term Delivery. Journal of Environmental Health. 73(6): 8-13.


Kathryn Hicks is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. Her interests include biological anthropology, developmental systems theory, political economy, social justice, human-environment interactions and health inequities in the Bolivian Andes, and the US.

Rita Harris is the Senior Organizing Representative with the Sierra Club in Memphis, TN. Harris served on the Enforcement Subcommittee of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (1996-2001) and has received several awards for her leadership in diversity work and environmental justice.

Keri Brondo is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis and Executive Board member of the American Anthropological Association. Her interests include gender and development, indigenous identity politics, environmental anthropology, conservation voluntourism and applied, practicing and engaged anthropology.  Her most recent book is Land Grab: Green Neoliberalism, Gender and Garifuna Resistance (U Arizona Press, 2013).

Robert Marczynski, J.D., is the Assistant Director of the College of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Programs at the University of Memphis, which includes a minor in Environmental Studies.

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off


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.

Read More

Posted in Section News | Tagged | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off

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.


Posted in Engagement Blog | Comments Off