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.

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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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Jim Igoe Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Scott Freeman

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Jim Igoe interviews Scott Freeman about his research and writing on soil conservation, labor, and environmental awareness in Haiti.

Scott Freeman was a finalist for the 2013 Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section.  Scott is completing a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology at Columbia University Teachers’ College and a dissertation entitled, To Conserve and Protect: Soil Conservation and Environmental Awareness in Haiti.  He is currently a visiting scholar in the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) Scott was selected as one of five participants in the Rappaport Prize panel at the 2013 AAA meetings on the strength of his paper: Conserving the Project: Labor, Development, and Environmental Government in Haiti. The paper engages long-standing concerns with soil conservation in Haiti. His rich ethnographic analysis reveals the ways in which the economy and logic of funded projects shapes and directs labor practices and environmental awareness. His insights have relevance not only for soil conservation in Haiti, but for conservation and development generally, and in many different parts of the world.

CroppedPortrait

JI: Could you begin by talking a bit about your background. How did you become interested in anthropology in general, and soil conservation in Haiti in particular?

SF: After college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I lived in an agricultural town in the mountains where I worked with youth, the environment, and sexual health education. There were a number of Haitian migrant workers living in the sprawling barrio where I lived, and we would trade English for Kreyòl lessons. I think that the more time I spent in the DR, the more I was aware of how necessary it was to understand the island as a whole.

I actually never took any anthropology during undergrad (I was pretty interested in comparative literature). During my years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I happened to run into an applied anthropologist. By that time, I was fed up with the absurdities of development that I saw unfolding around me, and he thought I might find some helpful perspectives in anthropology. After I did some reading and spoke more and more to him, I realized that the questions I wanted to ask were already being asked by anthropologists.

My interest in soil conservation is far more recent. It was one of those unforeseeable fieldwork moments. I hadn’t set out to study soil conservation, but I kept seeing these ditches dug along hillsides, and came to realize that they were the work of the organizations I was interested in. They seemed to be everywhere; I really couldn’t get away from them. Farmers I spoke to started telling me they would never build them, because it was the job of the NGOs and projects to do so. It went from an odd side topic of conversation to becoming my primary focus of research. As I learned more about the structures and their history in the country, these canals seemed to be the clearest way to really study how environmental development aid was unfolding.

JI: I remember reading about soil conservation in Haiti back in my Development Anthropology seminar in graduate school back in the late 1980s. What makes this topic such a long-standing topic in environmental anthropology do you think?

SF: Supposedly, soil conservation was considered the first ‘global environmental movement’. Right after the Dust Bowl phenomenon in the 1930s, people in the United States were startled. Even Washington DC was getting dust storms. Seeing all of this in the US, other countries (particularly British colonial administrations) wanted to figure out how they can continue to extract resources from the land without having some sort of environmental catastrophe. So soil conservation became this global concern.

Political ecology makes a pretty important intervention into all this. The premise for these interventions was largely that farmers were doing things wrong, and that populations were growing too fast. Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield looked at soil degradation and started pointing out that actually degradation has far more to do with broader systems of accumulation and dispossession.

Since then, this back and forth has continued. Is soil degradation the fault of ‘negligent’ farmers? Or is there something more insidious going on in terms of extraction and accumulation? Anthropologists love to get at these questions. They involve global movements of ideas and commodities, and revolve around knowledge production, representation and inequality. I think it was essential that anthropologists played a role in these debates, and I really hope that we continue to do so into the future.

JI: One of my favorite parts of the article is your discussion of collective labor, ritual feasting, and a postive post-colonial identity. Could you talk about that a bit and how it relates to some the arguments you are making about soil conservation?

SF: I think one of the most amazing parts of this research has been getting to think about the different ways that people work together in adverse conditions. Cooperative work groups are a prominent part of Haitian life. The strategy is, ‘we’ll work your land one day, my land the next’, and so on. The really fascinating part comes when the groups sell their labor to another person. When they collect payment for their work, they don’t distribute the money. Rather, they hold onto it until the end of December. At that time, they’ll buy a goat or cow to slaughter, and will divide the meat among the members. So rather than individual and immediate cash compensation, there’s delayed, non-cash compensation. On January first then, everyone gets some of the meat to eat. January first is Haitian Independence Day, and this activity comes as an assertion of freedom and humanity, remembering the day that the slaves won their freedom and for the first time could eat what they wanted.  Even if meat is scarce for the rest of the year, on that day everyone can meat- there’s this profound assertion of dignity with independence.

I think this intersects with soil conservation as conservation projects come in with cash-for-work type wages. Many of these projects assemble labor groups to dig ditches. These groups look the same, but there are completely different in terms of the types of relationships that are imposed. Unlike the cooperative work groups, soil conservation group payment is individual, immediate, and in cash. There’s a monetization of the social relationships in group labor. Not that wage labor hasn’t existed before in Haiti, but there’s something really quite different going on here with the way that particular labor forms become coopted for the purpose of cash distribution. Farmers too discuss the wage labor done for soil conservation as something qualitatively different, something they, without a project, would never attempt.

Digging

JI: The central focus of your analysis is what you call “the projectification of soil conservation.” What do you mean by this and what do you regard as some of its primary topical and theoretical implications?

SF: What I’m referring to is the way that projects slip into the everyday parts of people’s lives. For example, space starts to be defined in terms of beneficiaries, time becomes regulated by the entrance and exits of projects. Grassroots organizations continually seek legal recognition in order to obtain projects. However slowly all these processes occur, they start to alter the everyday.

Development aid has become remarkably dominated by ‘the project’. There are graduate school programs in ‘project management’, and aid workers have described to me their lives as hopping from project to project. I realized that this intense prevalence of the project calls for attention to how aid is  terms of the project. It forces us to consider what are the properties of the project itself—how does a project assert certain logics as it becomes more and more a part of life in both development and in the Haitian countryside.

JI: How would you describe this work fitting with your larger dissertation project?

SF: Funny enough, I now wince when I think of my dissertation as a project! But I think that this intersection of an examination of the project and of soil conservation is really at the heart of what I’m doing. I try to take a very historical perspective in understanding how problems get defined, and how they oblige particular solutions. Soil conservation as an institutional response then becomes this package of technical expertise and strategies that gets moved throughout the world to solve ‘environmental degradation’. I think the larger dissertation research really starts to show how profoundly projects work, and how they become this very intense and diffuse type of government.

JI: What kinds of questions and concerns still remain for you? What kinds of research would you like to do next?

SF: There’s still some conceptual work to be forged on the project for me. I think this means trying to reach out to other disciplines, scholars who are thinking about this in perhaps slightly different ways. In regards to soil conservation, there’s interesting work being done on infrastructure that I think aligns nicely with what I’m doing.

I’ve got another project in Haiti I’m excited about continuing. I looked at the vetiver industry in Haiti a few years ago. This is an industry that takes the roots of the vetiver plant, digs them up, distills them, and sells the oils to perfume houses. The oil is in a lot of widely distributed (and expensive) perfumes. I’m interested in the way the perfume industry conceptualizes Haitian vetiver as compared to the Haitian farmers’ understanding of the uses and movements of the oil. This has a lot to do with soil degradation (ripping roots out of the ground is a very real threat to the soil), and processes of extraction and accumulation. I think it will build off the current project really nicely, and hopefully add a important perspective to a very sparsely studied industry

 

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Cynthia Fowler’s “Ignition Stories”: Anthropological explorations of fire ecology and social justice

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently spoke with Cynthia Fowler to discuss her recent book, Ignition Stories: Indigenous Fire Ecology in the Indo-Australian Monsoon Zone (2013, Carolina Academic Press), and its broader contributions to fire management and social justice debates in Indonesia and around the world. 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.

The Author Walking Through a Recently Burned Grassy Field on the Coastal Plains_Photo taken by David J. Cook_180 dpi

Author Cynthia Fowler Walking Through a Recently Burned Grassy Field on the Coastal Plains (Photo taken by David J. Cook)

MR: What is the theme of your new book?

CF: The theme of the book is that fire is a product of social relationships as much as ecological relationships, that fire produces life and life produces fire.

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

CF: Broader questions in environmental anthropology are related to interdisciplinarity – that is one of my big goals here, to bring together fire ecology and anthropology. I was on the side of fire ecology for a while, and thought, ‘anthropology could bring so much to the table here.’ So I was trying to do something for fire ecology at the same time that I was trying to do something for ecological anthropology.

Some of the other issues that it addresses in ecological anthropology have to do with the role of people in environmental change, so the role of anthropogenic change in long-term environmental change, and short-term as well. The book addresses some of the ways that ecological anthropologists try to think about the dynamic processes of ecosystems, ecologies, or environments by grabbing hold of the concepts of succession and disturbance and trying to see how human perceptions of the environment, or human interactions with the landscape, play into what seem like – from an ecologist’s point of view – very ecological processes.

It seems like there’s a lot of space to explore how human culture reflects succession and disturbance. If they are such critical processes in the environments where we live, then it seems like our mythologies, our rituals, our systems of knowledge would reflect those changes in environments that humans partly create.

Green Alang Grass Sprouting Post-Fire Next to the Previous Season's Dessicated Alang Grass

Green Alang Grass Sprouting Post-Fire Next to the Previous Season’s Dessicated Alang Grass

MR: How did you engage with different communities, such as local people, or fire scientists, as you were doing the research for your book? How has your research sparked lasting collaborations and/or engagements in your field site?

CF: The book was based on more than a decade’s worth of engagements with this specific field site, and that period of time is going to continue as I write future projects and gather additional data. I’ll be interacting with the community by doing more fieldwork, and hopefully also eventually taking students there and doing research projects with students from Wofford, which is an undergraduate institution. We have some really strong initiatives now, which would include doing study abroad projects.

I was definitely trying to engage the fire ecology community. What I’d like for them to take from this is a broader conceptualization of the kinds of technical issues that they’re looking at with fire, for example things like defining fire regimes. I’ve gotten a little bit of push back from some fire scientists who say: ‘well, you know fire regimes, that doesn’t include anthropogenic fires.’ So my idea is, why not? Maybe it could. How interesting would it be if we opened it up to that?

Also with regard to the fire ecology community or fire science community, I’d like them to think about how fire is handled in the non-Western world, outside of the U.S. I think that Australians might have more awareness of indigenous fire ecology practices and have incorporated this in their national practices, strategies, and policies more than Americans. A lot of fire managers in the U.S. also think about Native American burning practices, for sure, but maybe this book will help them think about it a little bit more, push themselves in that direction a little bit more.

I think that fire ecologists could think about the practices of indigenous peoples who live near where they work. Not only in terms of how to design their own fire management practices or design their own ecosystems – which our fire managers do, and they do it pretty well, along with loggers, horticulturalists, and agronomists, plant biologists, et cetera. I’m thinking of public lands specifically here.

But also, more critically, I think there are really some interesting issues related to what our fire managers in the U.S. are doing (and maybe elsewhere in the world too) with regard to referencing Native American burning practices as a means for justifying what they want to do with fire. I don’t think they’re thinking about it critically like anthropologists do. What are they accomplishing by saying that they want to recreate the ecosystems that Native Americans created? And what do they mean? What knowledge do we have about those ecosystems? What knowledge do they have and where does that knowledge come from, and how incomplete is it? Because the science is still in development.

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

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

CF: The biggest conversation I was having in this book related to policy was addressed to policy makers in Indonesia. That was true in the beginning of the writing process, but by the end I was also trying to talk to policy makers at the international level, who are dealing with climate change and REDD+ projects. The main issue in Indonesian fire, from an anthropological point of view from the past 15 years, has been related to the catastrophic fires that have occurred periodically on some of the larger islands of Indonesia. These seem to be resulting from landscape management policies that aren’t really good for indigenous peoples in those areas, and aren’t really good for the kinds of ecosystems that ecologists might want to see. For example, many of these fires that have gained the most attention on Borneo and Sumatra in the last two decades seem to be resulting from land clearing for plantations.

So there are a lot of social justice issues wrapped up with that, because indigenous people are being displaced to make plantations, for one thing. For another thing, indigenous people a lot of times are blamed for the fires, because of their subsistence practices. They’re using fire in clearing gardens and so forth, but it seems that there are other places where the blame deserves to go, rather than to indigenous people.

Another justice issue is that because the idea is that indigenous people are starting the fires, their subsistence practices need to be outlawed. And in fact they are: burning is outlawed in Indonesia. It’s tolerated to a great degree, even though it’s illegal. But in a hypothetical world, if that policy were enforced, it would have devastating implications on people’s nutrition and survival. That issue is definitely forefront in this book.

Part of the argument involves trying to recommend to any policymakers who might ever read this or hear about what I’ve written that they not make blanket policies to cover all ecosystems and all communities in Indonesia. It’s such a vast and diverse place, culturally and ecologically, that the role of fire in Bornean and Sumatran ecosystems – well, that varies because there are a lot of ecosystems on those islands, but it’s not always the same as the role of fire in ecosystems in other parts of the country. Like the dry, extremely seasonal places like Sumbo, which is one of the driest parts of the country, fire has a very different role there.

Ester and Pua Walking Down the Road to Kapapa

Ester and Pua, two main characters in Ignition Stories, walk through a landscape where evidence of anthropogenic change is apparent in the new road and the burned garden.

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

CF: I don’t have any sense that it is being used that way, not yet. I would love for that to happen. It would be really exciting, but the possibility of it happening really scares me too. I don’t know how it would be received by policymakers or land managers in Indonesia. It’s hard to imagine because fire is so wrapped up in so many legal issues, and, as I said, it’s tolerated. Many policymakers are practical; they know that subsistence farmers need to use fire to produce food. But if they ever considered enforcing the law, and they had all of these fires documented by me, the potential for how they would use them is scary to me. Which is why I use pseudonyms for every person and place in the book.

I would love to see the Indonesian fire service or other land management agencies want to talk to me about this book, or even the US forest service, who work to train Indonesian fire fighters and land managers. I would love to talk to them about how they could use this information to adjust their policies, or about the problem of unwanted fires vs. the fires that are necessary or good for people, and good for places that are fire-adapted or fire-dependent.

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

CF: One key message would be that people’s relationships to fire, and the relationships people have with one another—with things in their environments and with landscapes—can be really intimate, can involve very personal, very emotional, and very intimate kinds of things. And that that intimacy is the kind of thing that I think ethnography is especially skilled or able to pull out of a study about people and fire. So many things you read about fire are so technical, and ethnography is so great at pulling that whole human story out of something that has been really submitted to the scientists.

Cynthia Fowler is an Associate Professor at Wofford College, Secretary of the Society of Ethnobiology, and Co-Editor of Ethnobiology Letters.  Cynthia conducts transdisciplinary research on society and nature with a special interest in the social relations of fire ecology and of mapping. In her fieldwork in Eastern Indonesia’s dry monsoonal tropics, she studies the materialization of fire; that is, fire as a creative expression of social relations and ecological perceptions. 

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2014 Rappaport Student Prize Competition

The Environmental and Anthropology (A&E) section of the American Anthropological Association is pleased to announce the 2014 Rappaport Student Prize competition.  To apply, interested students are invited to submit an abstract by 21 March 2014 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.

All submitted abstracts will be reviewed by an expert panel consisting of A&E officers plus distinguished outside members, focusing on the originality of the research and analysis as well as the contribution to the field of environmental anthropology, and a maximum of five (5) will be selected for participation in the Rappaport prize panel at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (to be held this year 3-7 December 2014 in Washington D.C.).

The five semi-finalists will be invited to develop an article-length paper based on their abstracts, not exceeding a maximum of 8000 words, including notes and bibliography, to be submitted to the A&E on or before October 15 2014.  All five semi-finalists will receive partial support for travel to the AAA meetings, where they will be expected to present their papers during the Rappaport Prize panel and participate in the panel discussion.  These five papers will be reviewed by the same A&E expert panel, judged for their originality, contribution to the field, and writing style appropriate to a journal manuscript for submission, and one will be selected for the 2014 Rappaport Student Prize, which consists of a $250 cash award, to be announced at the A&E Business Meeting which will be held during the AAA meetings.

The Rappaport Prize and Panel is part of an effort to improve the mentoring process for graduate students as they pursue A&E related careers.  Participating provides an opportunity for students to receive constructive feedback on their work by junior and senior scholars in the A&E community.  In addition to the feedback received during the panel presentations, one panel judge will be assigned to each semi-finalist, to provide detailed feedback and guidance on publication of their papers.

The deadline for the initial paper abstracts is 21 March 2014, to be e-mailed to the organizer of this year’s competition, Michael R. Dove, at <michael.dove@yale.edu>.

**NOTE: A&E award committees follow NSF guidelines regarding potential conflict of interest between applicants and reviewers.**

 

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Derick Fay interviews the 2013 Rappaport Prize winner, Heather Swanson

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Derick Fay interviews Heather Swanson about her research and writing on salmon fisheries and comparison in Hokkaido, Japan.

The 2013 winner of the Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section is Heather Swanson.  Heather recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and  is currently Assistant Professor, Aarhus University and Postdoctoral Fellow, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA).  Her prize-winning paper, “Fishy Comparisons: Similarity, difference, and the making of salmon populations,” probes how (human) comparative practices shape the making of multispecies landscapes.  Focusing on salmon fisheries management in Hokkaido, Japan, she demonstrates that neither the island’s watershed ecologies nor its fish population structures can be understood without attention to comparison-making.  Since the mid-19th century, natural resources management in northern Japan has been profoundly shaped by how people both within and beyond Japan have compared Hokkaido’s landscapes and fish to those in other parts of the world.

Derick: In your paper you had mentioned you had previously worked in salmon hatcheries and fisheries research in the Northwest – could you talk about the trajectory that led you to anthropology?

Heather: I grew up in a salmon fishing town at the mouth of the Columbia River, a small place called Astoria.  Salmon were everywhere there – including on my dinner plate. From the time I was a kid, it was clear to me that fish and fisheries really mattered. Our local high school even offered a three-year program in salmon biology.  Normally, it was for boys who were going to go into fisheries-related careers, but I was very passionate about science, and I wanted to take every science class that was offered.  I had no idea that I was going to fall completely in love with the fish, but I did.  As part of this class, I worked at our school’s on-site fish hatchery, and the experience of caring for the fish was transformative. It’s weird to think you can fall in love with slimy fish, but I really did – so much so that it changed my life.

Heather Swanson

After growing up in a rural area, I went to college at Princeton University, which was a huge culture shock for me. I didn’t come from an “intellectual” background at all.  I went from a high school with a fish hatchery and no AP courses to Princeton.  When I got there, I had no idea what planet I had landed on. Nothing made any sense to me. I had no idea how I could still be in the same country, speaking the same language, yet I couldn’t understand anything. Based in part on my interest in salmon, I was planning to go into some sort of scientific discipline. My first semester, I took physics, chemistry, and calculus, along with an anthropology class that fulfilled a writing requirement.  It was an incredible course that helped me develop ways of thinking about the world that were incredibly helpful in dealing with the cultural differences between small-town Oregon and an Ivy League school. Anthropology resonated with me so much that I decided to completely change my trajectory and major in it.

However, at the same time that I came to be deeply passionate about anthropology and my new academic life at Princeton, I still felt profoundly connected to my hometown and its fish. There was a giant wall map of the United States in one of the hallways at Princeton. I would often sit on a bench in front of it and contemplate the cognitive, the emotional and physical distance between New Jersey and Oregon. They were totally different worlds for me, yet I also yearned to bring them together in some way. In an attempt to do so, I wrote an anthropology bachelor’s thesis on salmon-human relations along the Columbia River.

Derick: How did this early experience growing up in a fishing community in Oregon shape your fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: It drew me into all kinds of comparisons in Japan. As soon as they heard about my background, everyone in Japanese fisheries wanted me to make comparisons between the salmon fishing and management practices I knew from the U.S. and those I encountered in Japan. My experiences growing up in a fishing community elicited comparisons. I became an opportunity for the fishing industry people with whom I worked to engage in and enrich their own comparative practices. While my embodied presence as a white American elicited all kinds of comparative conversations in general, my experiences with salmon led to more specific salmon-focused comparisons.

My experience of growing up in a fishing community also shaped my research in Japan by inspiring it in an unusual way. I never contemplated studying in Japan until my second year of graduate school at UCSC, when I opened up a newly-published book called The Atlas of Pacific Salmon. For the first time, I saw salmon mapped in a trans-Pacific perspective as a species ranging from California to Japan. I had studied salmon quite a bit in high school, and after I finished my bachelor’s thesis, I had also worked at a salmon-related non-profit for three years. But until I opened that book, I had never even known that there were salmon in Japan. It had been possible to be seriously involved in salmon management in the U.S. without even knowing that Japanese salmon existed. When I encountered these maps, it was this moment of double reflection: I became intensely curious both about the salmon in Japan and about how I had managed to not know about them. What were the structures and power relations that allowed me not to know such a basic thing when I was pretty enmeshed in fisheries issues? I tried to find some English-language sources about salmon in Japan, but I found surprisingly little, which piqued my interest even more.

I’d never been to Japan, and my Japanese vocabulary consisted of “tsunami” and “sushi,” but somehow it seemed like an utterly reasonable idea for me to study salmon in Hokkaido. I felt that I needed to know about salmon from a place other than the region in which I grew up – and that I needed to know the salmon world in which I grew up by going somewhere else. I had to take two years off from the regular graduate school trajectory to learn Japanese.  It was at once a crazy and wonderful idea, and I am so happy that my dissertation committee encouraged me to do it.

Derick: Your paper on Hokkaido develops some really interesting ideas about comparison – that salmon bodies are constituted through comparison, and that as anthropologists we should attend to our informants’ practices of comparison. Could you talk about how these ideas grew out of that fieldwork in Japan?

Heather: When I arrived in Japan, I was almost physically struck by comparison. It was everywhere. You can’t order breakfast in Japan without being asked to choose between a “Western” and a “Japanese” breakfast. But comparison became even more important when I began living with the vice president of a fisheries cooperative and his family. They were constantly making all kinds of comparisons in which “modernity” mattered (or, one might say, in which “modernity” emerged). For example, they were constantly comparing their business practices to those of the U.S. and Russia, comparing their lives as fishermen to those they might have had in Tokyo, or comparing their own pasts and presents. Comparison and the ability to “compare well” were so important to them that it became a real theme for my fieldwork.  I also started tracing landscape histories while I was doing this ethnographic fieldwork with the fishermen’s cooperative, and I realized that I couldn’t understand either Meiji-era Japanese history or the actual changes in salmon bodies without understanding the same kinds of practices of comparison toward which the fishermen were pointing me. My Rappaport panel paper focuses largely on historical comparisons, but my attention to comparison primarily emerged from my work with the fishermen’s cooperative.

salmon from Swanson paper

Oncorhynchus keta, a species often referred to in English as “chum salmon,” just after being harvested by a fishing cooperative along Hokkaido’s northern coast.

Derick: That leads nicely to the question of how this article fits into the larger dissertation project.

Heather: Comparison is what structures the dissertation as a whole. This article is a version of a chapter that comes near the beginning of the dissertation.  While this article focuses largely on relations between Hokkaido and the Columbia River, the other chapters explore comparisons that connect the island and its fish with other places. For example, in another chapter I look at comparisons that Japanese officials and scientists make between Hokkaido and Chile. From the 1960s to the early 80s, the Japanese government was interested in both developing international aid programs and in expanding their access to salmon. At that time, Japan was losing access to high seas salmon fishing as new international laws and treaties came into effect. I trace how people from Hokkaido travelled to southern Chile, and the comparisons they made there as they helped to build a salmon farming industry. Other chapters look at comparison in the context of conservation and science, and in the context of Ainu indigeneity, all in relation to salmon.

Derick: You’re currently at Aarhus University in Denmark, on a project that’s headed by Anna Tsing.  Could you talk about the aims of the project and the work you’re doing some more?

Heather: I’m very fortunate to be part of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene project, or AURA. The Anthropocene is a term that is cropping up everywhere right now, and different people are doing different things with it.  The AURA project explores the Anthropocene by focusing on the jointly natural and cultural histories of anthropogenic landscapes. We bring together environmental history, anthropology, and the natural sciences. Our project team is interdisciplinary, with scholars from those fields and more, and we focus a lot on collaborative practices.  Instead of starting with questions of epistemological difference, we try to focus on cultivating common curiosities. Our assumption is that everyone on our team, whether a biologist or an anthropologist, is curious about landscape in some way. So one of our methods is to go out and walk through a landscape together, asking each other questions about how we’re seeing and thinking about the landscape and about what’s interesting and exciting to each of us. Our hope is that starting with the curiosity and working slowly will allow us to build long-term conversations. We often lament how natural scientists call up an environmental anthropologist after a project is basically already designed to add the “social perspective.” Similarly, in the social sciences, we’ve too often either turned scientists and their work into objects of study, or we take snippets of their data as background “facts” in our own projects. But here, in the AURA project, we’re trying to build meaningful collaboration where we can be in dialogue from the start so that we are shaping the very ways that we conceptualize and design our research. The project is still in its beginning phase – it just started in September 2013 – but I am incredibly excited about how it’s developing.

Derick: Following up the paper, are there ways that your interest in comparison is travelling with you to this new setting in Denmark?

Heather: I certainly notice when and how I do comparison in a way that I didn’t before I started my dissertation work. This is the case both in academic contexts and in everyday life. On the most mundane level, the challenges of trying to build a life in a new country have certainly led me to make all kinds of comparisons! I’ve tried to pay attention to them. One thing I have noticed is that there is undoubtedly something very different about comparison-making in Denmark versus Japan. Living in Denmark has convinced me even more that being situated in Europe or being situated in Japan makes a difference that matters when it comes to one’s practices of comparison.

In addition, Japanese comparisons are also still with me in Denmark. This summer, I’m planning to return to Japan to continue working on questions of comparison and landscape-making in Hokkaido.

 

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Press Release: Julian Steward Prize

Univ. of Michigan anthropologist Erik Mueggler awarded Julian Steward Prize 

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Julian Steward Prize to Erik Mueggler for his 2011 book The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (Univ. of California Press). Erik Mueggler is professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.

The Julian Steward Prize is given only every second year to the most outstanding book in the arena of environmental anthropology.  The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made in December at the annual convention by president Glenn Davis Stone.

The Prize committee commended Prof. Mueggler for his lyrical account of the journeys of two early twentieth-century botanists who explored the borderlands between China, Tibet and Burma, and their collaborative relationships with Yunnan villagers.   The book presents colonial science as an intimate, personal affair, and shows the effects of local knowledge.  The text beautifully infuses biography, ethnography, botany and geography with captivating tales of daring adventure.

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at stone@wustl.edu.

Links:

Anthropology & Environment Society

Prof. Erik Mueggler’s website

 

 

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Press Release: Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

Press Release: Oregon State Univ. anthropologist Drew Gerkey awarded Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Junior Scholar Prize to Dr. Drew Gerkey, who recently joined the Department of Anthropology at Oregon State University.  The AES Junior Scholar prize is given annually to an early-career scholar for an exemplary article in the area of environmental anthropology.

Dr, Gerkey won for his 2013 article “Cooperation in Context: Public Goods Games and Post-Soviet Collectives in Kamchatka, Russia” which appeared in Current Anthropology 54(2):144-176.

This innovative article combines ethnographic research with economic experiments to investigate cooperation among salmon fishers and reindeer herders on the Kamchatka Peninsula.  His research uncovered connections between the abstract structure of economic games and naturally occurring contexts of cooperation in Kamchatka, illustrating how cultural norms, values, and institutions shape expectations and frame strategies for solving dilemmas inherent in cooperation.

Dr. Gerkey shared the 2013 Junior Scholar prize with Dr. Jessica Barnes of University of South Carolina.

The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made at the annual convention by president Glenn Stone (Washington Univ.).

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at stone@wustl.edu.

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Press Release: Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

Press Release: Univ. of South Carolina professor Jessica Barnes awarded Junior Scholar Prize for 2013

The Anthropology & Environment Society has awarded its Junior Scholar Prize to Dr. Jessica Barnes, Assistant Professor in USC’s Department of Geography.  The AES Junior Scholar prize is given annually to an early-career scholar for an exemplary article in the area of environmental anthropology.

Dr. Barnes won for her 2013 article “Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink: The false promise of virtual water,” which appeared in Critique of Anthropology 33(4) 371–389.  This article provides an insightful and timely examination of the concept of virtual water, which now plays an important role in as a tradable commodity in environmental management, and explores how key agro-environmental functions of water are being ignored.

Dr. Barnes shared the 2013 Junior Scholar prize with Dr. Drew Gerkey of Oregon State University.

The Anthropology & Environment Society is a major section of the American Anthropological Association.  The announcement was made at the annual convention by president Glenn Stone (Washington Univ.).

For further information, contact Glenn Stone at stone@wustl.edu.

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Engagement in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

By Felipe Montoya-Greenheck

Sometimes engagement in the field grabs you when you are busy grading papers at your desk, and then it doesn’t let go, or rather, because of the urgency of the matter, one cannot let go. My recent post as director of the Las Nubes Project at the Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, put me in charge of a research, education, and community action program centered in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor in southern Costa Rica. In 1998 a tract of rainforest, the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, bordering the Chirripó National Park was donated to York. While emailing and Facebooking with community members, researchers in Costa Rica, and my own Master’s students to plan participatory research projects in the corridor, communications began to pile up confirming the dreaded news that ten new hydroelectric dams were being planned for the watersheds on the Pacific side of the Chirripó mountain, two of which were located on the river that runs through the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor.

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

Las Nubes Forest Reserve in the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor

In 1998 the Las Nubes Forest Reserve, a tract of rainforest bordering the Chirripó National Park, was donated to York. In 2004, Las Nubes became part of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor, a collective initiative involving, among others, local communities, NGOs, and universities, including York. Since then, the Las Nubes project has sponsored over 25 Master’s and PhD research projects in and around the corridor, has taken hundreds of students there on summer field courses, and has worked alongside community members to advance initiatives to improve local livelihoods and environmental conservation. Las Nubes Coffee grown in the region is sold in Canada and part of the proceeds are used to fund Las Nubes projects. With its more than 300 bird species, we are working on a bird guide to promote the corridor as a must-go destination for birders. We are also in the midst of planning the construction of a research, education and community engagement center near Las Nubes that will serve as a local, national and international hub for activities around Neotropical conservation and livelihood improvement.

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes

Students from summer field course in Las Nubes

A few months ago, while in the field presenting some results from an ongoing research project on mammal monitoring, where we showed pictures of pumas, ocelots, coyotes, anteaters, wild pigs, and other animals that were caught on film during their mostly nocturnal amblings through the corridor, there were some mumblings about hydroelectric plants being planned for the rivers of the corridor. With the exuberant response from the community regarding the mammals that few realized were living among them, these rumors of dams were drowned out.

Puma captured with camera traps

Puma captured with camera traps

Starting in late August, however, what began as a trickle has become a flood of emails reaching my desktop computer, documenting how private enterprise is rushing forward with plans to build 10 hydroelectric dams, affecting each and every one of the rivers that runs from the highest peak of Central America down to the Pacific Ocean. These plans are endangering the last remnant of Evergreen Seasonal Tropical Rainforest in the country, threatening the survival of a number of endangered species, including the neotropical river otter, and destroying the ecological connectivity local communities have worked so hard to recover and maintain.

Ironically, community engagement, instead of thrusting me into the field, has suddenly kept me at my desk at my university: doing bibliographic research into the possible impacts of hydroelectric dams on river ecology and surrounding ecosystems; encouraging graduate students to take up research projects that will explore appropriate energy generating technologies as alternatives to hydroelectric plants, sample and describe the aquatic species in these rivers, or document environmental services rendered to local economies by the ecologic connectivity of the corridor; seeking the advice of academic colleagues who are specialists in resource management, hydrology, and environmental law; and writing to municipal governments and state ministries, as well corresponding with local activists.

In other moments and circumstances, engagement took on a more ethnographic expression, based on participant observation, collecting life histories, carrying out surveys, holding workshops, organizing festivals, and even giving back to communities information from my research in the shape of fictional (but truth-based) puppet shows, comic book stories, and video animations.

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013)

First Alexander Skutch Festival (2013)

So, engagement, more than a specific activity, I have found, is an attitude. It has to do with working together with people dialogically, like in a conversation, creating something greater than the sum of the individual parts. Circumstance will dictate the best means of engagement. Sometimes it requires walking and talking, or sharing seeds and making food. Other times it may require organizing workshops or celebrating festivals, collecting or telling stories. Often it involves holding hands and working shoulder to shoulder. But one thing it always demands is listening. Listening to local concerns helped me establish the requirements for the research, education, and community engagement center we are in the midst of constructing. Listening also moved us to create the bird guide to market the corridor as a birder’s destination, and listening is what now moves me to mobilize against the destruction of the rivers in the region of Las Nubes.

Community members of the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor increasingly express their opposition to the privatization of the water, to the destruction of their rivers, to compromising their options for community-based tourism as a complementary source of income. They express their understanding that water is vital for life, and their perspectives that consider the rights of Nature as something worth defending and fighting for. They demand to be consulted regarding infrastructure projects in their communities, and they seek to have a say over their territories, their livelihoods, and their destinies. These expressions that come from small farming communities that have been marginalized socially, economically, politically, and now environmentally, are what currently engage me in the field of environmental anthropology. Their concerns and yearnings are those of common people from around the world.

Engagement in one small region of Costa Rica is less limited or restricted than it might seem at first glance. Successful struggles here may easily translate into victories elsewhere in the world. Strategies that allow these local communities to protect their fragile environment, and that permit them to maintain their autonomy, sustainability and equity, may provide road maps or guidance for similar struggles elsewhere. Engagement in these critical times is all the more rewarding because the stakes are so high. I cannot conceive of any alternative other than being engaged. So, I don’t fret that my boots are not on the ground, as long as sitting at my desk in front of my computer involves acts of engagement.

Felipe is a Costa Rican environmental anthropologist, currently serving as Chair in Neotropical Conservation at the Faculty of Environmental Studies in York University, Toronto, Canada.

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