Jim Igoe interviews Veronica Davidov

As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2012 Anthropology and the Environment Junior Scholar Award, Jim Igoe interviews Veronica Davidov about her research and writing on the eco-tourism-extraction nexus.

Veronica Davidov

Jim: Can you talk a bit about your dissertation research in Ecuador and your more recent project in Russia, how they relate to each other, and how they both relate to your conceptualization of an eco-tourism extraction nexus?

Veronica: My dissertation was about ecotourism in the Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador. I studied how indigenous Kichwa communities in the Amazonian provinces negotiated involvement with the ecotourism industry. I examined what kind of cultural space was produced on these tours, between the tourist fantasies and expectations of wildness and primitivism and Kichwa aspirations of being “modern” and participating in the global economy.  I soon realized, however, that it was not possible to study ecotourism without also looking at oil extraction in the region.   Although the imaginaries and representations of the Amazon generally posits these industries as having mutually exclusive trajectories, my ethnographic perspective revealed that they were actually entwined in a variety of ways.  For one, it was the oil roads into the rainforest that made the ecotourism infrastructure possible at all.  Secondly, indigenous resistance to oil development, and related global lobbying, played a part in the World Bank allocating funds for what were called indigenous ethnodevelopment programs, which is how funding for many ecotourism initiatives came about.  Most clearly I could see how the two were entwined in Kichwa life histories—many of my informants engaged in ecotourism after years of working in the oil fields, and for them the two industries were connected through their bodies and their labor.  Although I was not thinking in terms of an ecotourism-extraction nexus at this point, I had become cognizant of a discrepancy: these two industries were entangled through local geographies and life experiences but decoupled from each other in virtually all knowledge production about the area.

I became more clearly aware of a nexus in my second project, which focused on the impacts of privatization of nature on indigenous Veps of Karelia. If in Ecuador both oil extraction and ecotourism were “modern” industries, Russian Karelia was a place where both ecotourism—or a prefigurative version of it—and mining have existed side by side for a very long time, dating back to the reign of Peter the Great.  The nexus there encompasses a long history of the region being simultaneously a leisure destination, famous for its nature, and a source of several rare, elite minerals. These minerals were utilized by the Russian royalty, then the Soviet state, and now by private transnational companies.  So both industries have been a source of stable, desirable livelihoods for local communities for a very long time. The mining industry was a particular source of pride, as you had multiple generations of miners and stoneworkers extracting raspberry quartzite, an extremely rare decorative mineral that was quite cosmopolitan in its circulation, and used exclusively for prestigious objects and landmarks—from Napoleon’s sarcophagus, to Lenin’s mausoleum, to the Moscow metro.  For the local Veps, there was no contradiction between these two identities of their region, and they viewed both industries as categorically similar, rather than different—and today they feel similarly vulnerable as a result of both industries simultanesouly being deregulated and privatized.  So that was a very different incarnation of the nexus, but one that also challenged the narrative that ecotourism and extraction cannot possibly co-exist.

Jim: You have described the eco-tourism extraction nexus as part of a larger conservation-extraction nexus. Could you say a bit about the conservation-extraction nexus and then why you have chosen to focus on an eco-tourism extraction nexus?

Veronica: I think the conservation-extraction nexus is a concept that comes out of the literature on neoliberal conservation, that recognizes the false dichotomy between conservation, specifically neoliberal conservation, and extraction.  This literature shows how neoliberal conservation and resource extraction are ontologically similar –they both ways of rationalizing and financializing nature.  But much of the literature that looks at this broader conservation-extraction nexus is about the macro-level—recognizing the ideological convergences, the neoliberal foundations, and even the large-scale monetary flows and institutional alignments that enable both kinds of interventions. And at the same time, I think sometimes people still often think of conservation/ecotourism projects and extraction projects as taking place in different locales and at different sites within those larger scales. So, for me, the ecotourism-extraction nexus re-scales and concretizes the larger framework of the conservation-extraction nexus by showing that the same communities can be affected by extraction and ecotourism industries, and can participate in both, at various times, or even at the same time. So it’s a way—one of many—to study the conservation-extraction nexus empirically.

Jim: You have brought together an interesting group of scholars working on eco-tourism and extraction in an called The Ecotourism-Extraction-Nexus: Political Economies and (un)Comfortable Bedfellowsco-edited with Bram Buscher. Could you talk a bit about that process, what kinds of themes emerged from it, as well as telling us a bit about the collection and what readers can expect from it?

Well, Bram Büscher has been a total kindred spirit and wonderful collaborator on this topic.  A few years ago I sent in an abstract for the Nature Inc. Conference he was co-organizing in The Hague, and the abstract was on the E-E Nexus, and he really liked the concept, it resonated with the work he was doing in South Africa, so that started a conversation. Then, when I presented on it at the Nature Inc. Conference, the same thing happened that seemed to be happening whenever I would talk about that research—I had people come up to me afterwards and say “oh, that is happening in my fieldsite!”  So through such encounters, I kept getting the sense that there are all these places around the world, where increasingly ecotourism projects arise in close proximity to oil transport, mining, and other forms of extraction—but that no one was studying it!  So Bram and I decided to reach out to scholars who were already working in these zones, and with our call for papers push them to say something on the topic.  We put a call out for a European Association for Social Anthropologists meeting workshop, and we got great responses.  For the most part, we got abstracts from people who were already working on some component of this—either the ecotourism part or the extraction part—but were inspired by the CFP to think through how these things co-existed in their fieldsites.  So many of the volume contributors were also conference participants, and then some other people joined in, like Andrew Walsh, who was already working on ecotourism and sapphire mining in Madagascar, and Rob Fletcher, and Jamon Halvaksz.  So we pitched the idea to Routledge, and they were very enthusiastic about it, and now, almost exactly a year after EASA, in August, our volume is coming out.

Veronica: The thing I am really happy about is that first of all have a broad geographical range represented in the volume, which shows that this nexus is really something global in scope—we have case studies from Madagascar and Ecuador and Russia and Papua New Guinea and Belize and Swedish Lapland and Costa Rica, to name just a few.  The other thing that is really nice is, we ended up having a mix of more senior scholars, who have been working in their fieldsites for years –and saw how the gradual dynamics of these convergences evolved over time—and contributors who were finishing or had recently finished their PhDs, and wrote their chapters from the perspective of having just completed long-term fieldwork.  So, I think the readers can expect a really diverse mix of perspectives, and they can learn about the different ways in which ecotourism and extraction co-exist—whether as compatible and flexible livelihoods for the locals, as Tim Smith writes in a chapter on Ecuador, or with ecotourism being politicized and mobilized to oppose extraction, as Elisabet Rasch describes happening in the Philippines, or with ecotourism projects even literally merging with extractive ones, with certain kinds of “artisanal” mining, becoming a part of ecotourism packages, as Luisa Rollins shows happens with larimar mining in the Dominican Republic.  I hope that through showing these very different configurations of how ecotourism and extraction coexist, the volume problematizes the pervasive idea that they are “opposites,” this fiction of incommesurability.

Jim: Your article “From a Blind Spot to a Nexus: Building On Existing Trends in Knowledge Production to Study the Co-presence of Ecotourism and Extraction” was a finalist for last year’s Junior Scholar Award. What would you do you consider the key points and/or arguments that you make in that article?

Veronica: I think in many ways the article can be thought of as the companion piece to the volume.  The volume is largely about theorizing and showing empirically the different ways in which such a nexus can arise and function, through case studies.  And the article was for the journal Environment and Society: Advances in Research, which is an annual review journal.  So, framing this topic as a literature review gave me the opportunity to think through the question of why people don’t study ecotourism and extraction together, even though there are increasingly more and more places where the two coexist.  Not only is this convergence understudied, people are resistant to it.  Early on in pursuing this topic, I wrote a grant proposal to do a comparative study of the nexus in Ecuador and Cameroon, of ecotourism initiatives along the oil pipelines in both countries, and one of the anonymous reviews I got said: I am rather dubious about this project. I find it hard to imagine that landscapes ravaged by extraction of oil or other sub-surface minerals are commonly being selected as sites for ecotourism development. This response helped convince me that even among academics, certain assumptions about what extraction or ecotourism “do” to landscapes contribute to the seeming impossibility of contemplating them as co-occurring practices.  So, in the article, through critically engaging with ecotourism literature and extraction literature, I was able to look at the trends and conventions in production of knowledge in these two bodies of scholarship.  The argument I make is that certain epistemological frameworks and study designs currently used in scholarship of ecotourism and extraction create and reproduce blind spots, where one of the industries remains obscured.  I also make recommendations for how study designs can incorporate a nexus perspective, looking at the two phenomena together.

Jim: What do you see as the potential contributions of the eco-tourism extraction nexus to theoretical and applied anthropology? Where do you see your research going next?

Veronica: Well, theoretically I think the ecotourism-extraction nexus contributes to what I think is an important task of anthropology—which is critically looking at how the spaces and convergences where familiar dichotomies become blurred.  Clearly demarcated oppositions usually become much less clear, and much more messy—productively so–through an ethnographic lens, and the ecotourism-extraction nexus provides a new framework for problematizing these oppositions that are still so prevalent in most discussions of both “nature” and “development.”  And in terms of applied anthropology, I think there are a number of ways this approach can have practical implications.  For example, applied anthropologists are often involved in assessing the impacts of ecotourism, whether it works in meaningful ways, whether it achieves these different things it is supposed to achieve, be it conservation of biodiversity or environmental sovereignty of local communities.  But applied anthropologists work in a political context, where ecotourism is generally treated as indicative of a paradigm shift from “wild nature” to sustainable development, or as a vehicle of rehabilitating previously “mismanaged” nature, while minimizing the scope of ecotourism projects expected to coexist with resource extraction activities. So there is this ideological framing bias, and it actually skews what kind of applied work, or policy research gets done, and the impact of ecotourism in areas concurrently affected by extraction industries, remains understudied. So the nexus concept, and the study design possibilities it entails, can reframe ecotourism as a subject of inquiry in a way that recognizes its structural dependence on global ideologies and institutions that often promote “unsustainable” development.  And that, I think, can lead to empirical research that will procure data that is often located in the “blind spots” of academic and policy debates on sustainable development and efficacy of ecotourism.

As for where my research is going next—I have a number of projects in various stages of development, but specifically building on this topic, I plan to study other nexuses, where extractive industries co-exist with either institutional initiatives or livelihood strategies that are commonly imagined to be incompatible with extraction.  Basically, I am interested in looking at situations that are not “supposed” to exist, and thus either get understudied or framed in this kind of sensationalist “isn’t it unusual?” way, and figuring out how to approach them as an anthropologist interested both in natural environments and in the production of knowledge about natural environments.

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