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Author Archives: Derick Alden Fay
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.