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- University of Memphis and the Sierra Club Team up to Promote Education, Advocacy & Activism at Grassroots Environmental Conference
- Water in Lesotho: Contradiction, Disjuncture, Death
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- Molly Doane’s “Stealing Shining Rivers”: Transnational Conservation meets a Mexican Forest
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- ANNOUNCEMENT: Julian Steward Award
- 2015 Anthropology and Environment Society Small Grants Program
- 2015 RAPPAPORT STUDENT PRIZE COMPETITION
- A&E Panels and Events at the 2014 AAA
- 2014 Rappaport Student Prize Competition
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- Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, And Ecovillages
- Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution
- How Will New Models Shape Our Research?
- Bring heritage breeds to holiday table
- Forest and Labor in Madagascar: From Colonial Concession to Global Biosphere
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Author Archives: danieltubb
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 (email@example.com).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
The Anthropology & Environment Society has put together events and meetings at the 2014 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Continue reading for descriptions of the different sessions by theme.
1. To start with, can you say a bit about your background, what brought you to anthropology, and how did you select your fieldsite?
Growing up in Veracruz, I witnessed changes in both the material and social landscape that I wanted to develop a more complex understanding of. So I moved to central Mexico in order to pursue a degree in Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Universidad de las Americas-Puebla (UDLAP). There, I developed my interest in Mexican Agrarian History and Environmental Anthropology through a collaboration with faculty members who were conducting archival and ethnographic research at the time on the changes in land tenure and use in the Cholula Valley. This experience inspired me to pursue a doctoral degree in Anthropology. I decided to focus my project on Veracruz not only because the area was familiar to me but also because it has generated such rich historical scholarship that I wanted to engage from an anthropological perspective.
Cornell has been a great place to develop my project conceptually. I have benefited from the generous guidance of faculty in the Anthropology and History departments. I have also received support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and Mexico’s Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT), all of which allowed me to return to Veracruz in September 2012 and carry out 12 months of ethnographic and archival research.
2. Can you say a bit about your dissertation project and how your Rappaport Panel paper fits with it?
My project examines the less perceptible effects of modern state interventions in the northern highlands of Veracruz, Mexico. Specifically, I focus on the social and political afterlife of documents, artifacts, and industrial and monumental structures left by the implementation of post-revolutionary policies (such as the re-distribution of land to campesinos, the practice of indigenista policies, the implementation of major archaeological projects, and the nationalization of the oil industry) and the effects, desires, fears, and expectations that these material remnants generate. Crude Residues, the paper I presented at the Rappaport panel, is, in fact, a short version of one of my dissertation chapters, which focuses on the debris left by the oil industry in the city of Poza Rica. Both the paper and the chapter examine the ways in which, in this industrial setting, the natural and built environment has generated particular ways of seeing, perceiving, and inhabiting—of knowing—that are both generative and unsettling. Through an analysis of everyday encounters with the materialities of oil, I sought to demonstrate the ways in which crude residues alter living spaces and continue to informmodes of social and political organization in this region.
3. In your work, you engage with and draw upon new materialism, which is a relatively new terrain in anthropology. What do you see as the value of such an approach for anthropology, and how does it fit in with ethnography, which is, of course, conventionally a human-oriented endeavor?
Yes, in the paper I draw on the work of “new materialists” such as Jane Bennett as I was interested in finding a conceptual framework that could help me highlight the sensuous and material qualities of industrial debris and their implications in everyday social life. Once I paid serious attention to the unpredictability of igneous rocks, for instance, I was able to suggest that the transformation of the Papantla district into an oil region in the twentieth century was neither merely an act of political will, nor solely the product of scientific intervention and economic interest. It was rather the result of a working relation—of encounters—between a diverse array of human actors (scientists, Totonacs, foreign investors) and unstable and ‘vibrant’ material forms. The rest of the paper, similarly, followed a series of interactions (between oil residues and corporate actors, residents, retired oil workers and local scientists) that equally revealed the effectiveness or ‘agency’ of particular industrial objects, decaying structures, substances and smells. Overall, New Materialists’ conception of materiality—as always something more than mere matter: an excess, a force, or a vitality that renders matter active, productive and unpredictable, helped me think through my ethnographic and archival material. Yet, to account for the ability of ordinary material things to animate or produce dramatic and subtle effects does not mean—as Timothy Mitchell suggests in Rule of Experts—introducing in our analysis a limitless number of non-human actors and networks, all of which are somehow of equal significance and power.Rather, it means acknowledging the kinds of hybrid agencies, connections, and interactions, out of which intention and expertise in a specific context must emerge.
4. The ethnographic details of your paper are quite often harsh and represent people in difficult circumstances. Can you talk about the emotional/affective labor aspects of your fieldwork and writing process given your fieldsite and topic?
The project itself came out of my frustration with the nationalist and patrimonial rhetoric around oil in Mexico. I felt there was a need to de-naturalize oil and to turn to what people in the oil regions are left with. Insofar as I wanted to bring attention to the environmental degradation in industrial zones like Poza Rica, I was very aware that fieldwork was not going to be easy. It was in fact quite challenging as I tried to be particularly attentive to the difficult circumstances that oil in this region has generated. But while I wanted to highlight what I saw as residual forms of violence—the unacknowledged revolutionary legacies—I did not want to deny the optimism, hope, and commitment of many residents who either develop strategies to disentangle themselves from the noxious substances or have a strong affective connection with oil fields. Achieving a balance and trying to remain truthful to the diverse array of experiences I found in the field was the main challenge in this project.
5. Your work is part of the growing branch of anthropology focusing on natural resources and on oil. What do you see as the project of anthropology of natural resources today?
While the insights of anthropologists’ work on oil and resources more generally are not sufficient in themselves to guide national (or international) policies, it is nonetheless true that we can join, contribute or initiate a serious conversation around such policies—policies that will affect the ways in which both resources and people are understood and managed. In Mexico, for example, president Enrique Peña Nieto recently announced his constitutional amendments to open up Pemex (the Mexican state–owned Petroleum Company created after the nationalization of the industry in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution) to the private industry. Despite the importance of the reform, the debate around it was shockingly poor: full of mystifications around “the market”, “science”, and the “nation-state”.
On the one hand, supporters of the reform argued that Mexico’s old oil fields are depleting rapidly, and Pemex lacks both the money and technology to tap its substantial oil and natural gas reserves in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico and in the shale formations that run along much of the east coast. On the other hand, Peña Nieto’s opponents on the right blasted the plan as inadequate to attract investment. It would be easier, they argued, if Mexico could allow the type of concessions in which the United States and other countries transfer outright ownership of reserves to private companies. Meanwhile, Peña’s opponents on the left vowed to block what they termed as the “theft” of the nation’s resources. They proceeded with a discussion around “the true” meanings of the words and actions of the mythical figure of Cárdenas, responsible for expropriating oil in the 30s. Absent from the debate was the consideration of the behavior of shale formations and effects that the exploitation of unconventional oil (fracking) will generate: effects that will certainly transform—even more—not only the landscape of the oil regions, like the northern highlands of Veracruz, but also the lives of those living in them.
6. What is next for you? What are your plans for next year, and beyond?
I wrote the paper for the Rappaport Panel from the field. Now that both fieldwork and coursework are over I can devote myself exclusively to writing the dissertation. In fact, I just came back from attending Cornell’s Summer Institute on Contested Global Landscapes, which marks for me the start of this process.
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.
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.
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 <email@example.com>.
**NOTE: A&E award committees follow NSF guidelines regarding potential conflict of interest between applicants and reviewers.**
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.