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