A&E Panels and Events at the 2014 AAA

AE_flyerThe 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.

Continue reading

Posted in At The Meetings, Section News | Comments Off

Molly Doane’s “Stealing Shining Rivers”: Transnational Conservation meets a Mexican Forest

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently caught up with Molly Doane to discuss her recent book, Stealing Shining Rivers: Agrarian Conflict, Market Logic, and Conservation in a Mexican Forest (2012, University of Arizona Press), and its broader contributions to debates over communal lands, forest conservation, and neoliberal policies. The book recently won “Best book on Mexico in the social sciences” from the Mexico section of the latin American Studies Association (LASA). This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.


MR: What is the theme of your new book?

MD: My book looks at an attempt to establish a nature reserve in one of Mexico’s most biodiverse forests, the Chimalapas Forest in southern Oaxaca. At the most basic level, this is a story of transnational environmental social movements connecting a remote forested community in Oaxaca to powerful U.S. and EU funders and conservation organizations (most notably the WWF). Can forest communities, with their particular set of social justice concerns, make common cause with mainstream environmentalists? I treat transnational conservation as an ideological commodity chain, following how environmental values travel.

Chimalapas (translated as “Shining Rivers”) is located on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca within two agrarian communities, Santa Maria Chimalapa and San Miguel Chimalapa. Agrarian communities are communities that were reserved for indigenous peoples in colonial times, and have not been affected by changes to the Mexican Constitution that allowed for the privatization of ejidos. Thus, up to the present, the forest here has been “reserved” as “common” hinterlands, off-limits to private sale or development under Mexican law. The major threats to the forest are national development projects, illegal logging and ranching organized principally by politically connected ranching and timber operations, and illegal settlement by land-poor indigenous people from neighboring Chiapas.

At the community level, I summarize the past few decades of direct action against logging, ranching, settlement, and other actions that are perceived as environmental theft of communal lands. At the institutional level, I trace three types of conservation interventions: starting with an Integrated Conservation and Development Program (ICDP), a later Community-Based Conservation program (CBC), and more recently a market-based conservation program, or Payment for Ecological Services. I show how, as environmental interest in the region took off in the 1970s, the region was recast from an agricultural backwater to a global ecological asset. I focus on one attempt by a Mexican NGO to merge mainstream environmentalism with local social justice goals, why it failed, and the ultimate convergence of mainstream environmentalism with authoritarian politics.

This attempt was a Community-based Conservation (CBC) project that aimed to fuse local political desires for secure communal lands with a nature reserve model that encoded environmental regulations within local law and practice, as well as national law, in a “Campesino Ecological Reserve.” The Campesino Reserve was formulated by Maderas del Pueblo, a local NGO funded by the WWF to institute a CBC model. It appealed to community members because it incorporated an agenda of regional political and productive autonomy that shored up local control of the territory. It appealed to funders because it fit into the CBC model being promoted at that time, and resonated with the goal of compromise among multiple stakeholders—in this case, ranchers, loggers, settlers, and community members from Chimalapas. For community members, however, a Community Ecological Reserve could not be implemented by compromising with the more powerful stakeholders in this equation—in particular the politically connected timber and ranching interests and major global infrastructure projects.

At the same time that environmentalists emphasized Chimalapas’ wild assets (jaguars, orchids, and butterflies), they attempted to defuse the rebellious image of local inhabitants, who were famous for periodically resorting to banditry—such as kidnapping– in defense of their communal resources against invasions of various kinds. These direct actions had been quite effective in stopping illegal logging and illegal settlements. Once working under an international WWF project, community leaders were enjoined to avoid these types of activities, and to cooperate with federal and state environmental and agrarian agencies to achieve their goals. However, a local development agency and the state environmental agency in Oaxaca viewed community-based conservation in Chimalapas as a political threat. The nearby Zapatistas were a constant reminder of the disruptive potential of campesinos.

Local agents insisted that conservation be severed from any social justice goals reminiscent of the Zapatista agenda. What ensued was a fierce political battle over conservation in Chimalapas. No conservation rubric (park, biosphere, campesino ecological reserve) was ever achieved.

Hand-drawn map of Mexico South, 1946, by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf).  The map is featured on the cover of the book, and shows features of several current conflicts: oil wells, wildlife, and indigenous villages. Chimalapas is located at the center of the map.

Hand-drawn map of Mexico South, 1946, by Miguel Covarrubias (Alfred A. Knopf). The map is featured on the cover of the book, and shows features of several current conflicts: oil wells, wildlife, and indigenous villages. Chimalapas is located at the center of the map.

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

MD: Based on ethnographic and historical material from Chimalapas, I develop two major concepts: accumulation by conservation and decentralized authoritarianism. These concepts build on a literature on neoliberal conservation, and on scholarship that looks at environmentalism as a form of governmentality. Using rich case material I look at how environmentalism and authoritarianism become entwined. In response to environmental NGO activity in the area, local state agencies created their own “environmental” projects in the region, using them as opportunities for state penetration and political surveillance. Ultimately, the local environmental NGO actively promoting a local autonomy/social justice agenda was routed by the state, and the WWF began to work directly with the new state environmental agencies instead. Environmentalism provided an opportunity for state intrusion, and environmentalists opted for an unsavory alliance in the hopes of instituting some sort of conservation rubric in Chimalapas.

I argue that there is an overarching market logic to this relationship. Conservation zones are key components of the neoliberal state portfolio of assets, ready for branding by conservation labels, and organized at various levels via market logic.

Market logic assumes a certain equality of claims. We think about crucial and difficult questions like: How do we manage competing goals and controversies that arise over the proper or desired use of land? How do we balance economic, social, development, and cultural heritage issues? In Chimalapas, as elsewhere, such problems are neatly encapsulated within stakeholder language. Stakeholder language is ubiquitous in the development world—including within environmental initiatives. It tells us that if we listen to individual concerns, give them their due, weigh and balance them, we can come up with mutually agreeable and fair solutions to most problems. But stakeholders really do not have equal weight. Cattle ranchers—because they were from politically connected families and essentially were the “establishment”—had much more weight in the balance than community members from Chimalapas. Development projects coordinated by state, federal and global corporate interests had more weight than communities in Chimalapas. This extra weight on the deforestation side of the scale does not ultimately benefit either the community or the environment. In win-win stakeholder scenarios, conservation areas are essentially the green median strips of the global industrial park.

MR: How did you engage with different communities as you were doing the research for your book?

MD: My research was multi-sited geographically, socially, and professionally. I did research within activist NGOs attempting to implement a community-based campesino reserve—including an NGO dedicated mainly to biological and ecological research and another dedicated mainly to social justice agendas, within various government agencies, and with officials from international conservation NGOs. Campesino leaders involved in conservation efforts were also central to the study.


A march on Oaxaca to bring attention to Chimalapas

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

MD: Forest conservation happens in places where the legal, land tenure, and corresponding socio-cultural systems encourage forest conservation—most notably, common property regimes. We should really think about that. Right now, the main strategies for forest conservation are payments for environmental services schemes of various sorts. These require less community consensus to implement, and in concept could result in long-term contracts for communities to provide environmental services like watershed management. BUT privatization is central to market logic; and common-lands are perceived by investors as barriers to market development. We should think about communal logic and market logic before we make deep commitments to the commodification of environmental services. Maybe not all situations can be win-win. At some point we have to confront the reality that business as usual and conservation are not in fact as compatible as we might like them to be.

Related to this, there is a tendency for environmental problems to be defined in terms of wilderness or pristine environments, and to incorporate indigenous peoples as either part of the problem or part of the solution. Most of the world’s intact forests are located in common lands managed by indigenous people. So this is understandable. But too often environmental conservation is cast as a problem for indigenous people—how will we prevent them from deforesting these lands or help them save these lands—rather than a problem for non-indigenous people. How do we make this coincidence of forest with communal, indigenous territory a learning opportunity for the majority of us, rather than a problem for indigenous people?

This conservation problem is largely addressed as though it is a certain kind of technical problem that can be addressed with the proper GIS systems, maps, and land management plans to be implemented by individual indigenous people. Is conservation really a technical problem? I don’t think so. It is a political problem, an economic problem, and a problem at the nexus of production and consumption.

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

MD: Environmental justice and social justice are linked and must be understood as linked. In rural and urban areas alike, the world’s poorest and most powerless people have been left holding the bag for the environmental problems created by the industrialization of our societies. Environmental problems affect us all and are everybody’s problem.

The Chimalapas River

The Chimalapas River

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

MD: It’s too early to say. I know that some of my earlier published work contributed to a rethinking of WWF strategy in the area—the link to the government proved embarrassing. More generally, my work joins a subset within environmental anthropology that interprets engagement more broadly. For example, our work may influence journalists and other popular writers, or help to shape future projects. The type of scholarship I have engaged in here IS being noticed. There is a rising tide of criticism of mainstream environmentalism. Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book on climate change suggests that mainstream environmentalism is a part of the problem—not the solution—and she has used the work of environmental anthropologists to support her assertions. I am part of an editorial collective called Critical Green Engagements, with Jim Igoe, Tracey Heatherington, Bram Buscher, Melissa Checker, and Dan Brockington (University of Arizona Press) that, through the books we are bringing out, asks how anthropologists can contribute to a sea change in how environmental stewardship is understood and carried out.

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

MD: Environmental conservation cannot be separated from social justice goals and requires actual political change. My sense is that most people who care about conservation and donate to such causes are also fans of democracy. Mainstream conservation as practiced is, unfortunately, not necessarily promoting democracy.

Molly Doane is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She is currently finishing a book concerning organic, fair trade coffee that is produced in Chiapas, Mexico and sold in the Midwest and the UK.


Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Veronica Davidov Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist Monica Salas

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.

Posted in Featured Research | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

Global Environmental Winds: The Chinese legacies of an ostensibly North American creation

By Michael J. Hathaway

In 2002 Greenpeace opened a Beijing office, surprising many who imagined that the Chinese state, in its zeal for absolute rule , would not allow Greenpeace on their soil. Many people regard environmentalism as a Western export and China as a country especially antagonistic to the environment. Greenpeace’s confrontational style was seen as untenable in a nation known for its intolerance of dissent. I, however, saw the development as somehow fitting; an ironic recirculation, albeit in different form, of Greenpeace’s radical sixties origins, deeply inspired by China’s own Cultural Revolution.


Greenpeace-China protesting at a Chinese power plant. Recent Greenpeace campaigns point out that vast amounts of energy are consumed in running, heating and cooling the data centers that make up “cloud computing.” In the year 2012, NRDC estimated that in the U.S. alone, 75 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were consumed, some of it by coal power. (http://www.nrdc.org/energy/files/cloud-computing-efficiency-IB.pdf) Image from: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/china-polluting-power280709/

This connection between China and Greenpeace suggests that we might understand “the global” and “globalization” somewhat differently. In environmental anthropology, we often view the global conservation as largely Western, from the Yellowstone-style imposition of wilderness to neoliberal conservation. Although true in many ways, environmental organizations and social movements owe far more to transnational events and engagements than we tend to realize. I explored this topic in my recent book, Environmental Winds: Making the Global in Southwest China (University of California Press). My ongoing research with Chinese experts, officials, and villagers as well as expatriate conservationists examines how environmentalism China emerged as a social force since the mid-1980s. Many accounts of international conservation projects cast these as an imposition, resisted by local people. In China, I found less resistance and more engagement with environmentalism, which was more diffuse than a few projects, but part of a larger social change often described as a “wind.” This wind was metaphorical, not one that happened regardless of human presence, but a force created and shaped by human actions. Winds travel, and they can grow strong, transform and dissipate. The wind metaphor was applied to domestic events, such as the Cultural Revolution or other social events that swept people up and shaped their lives.


Auto repair class at Breakaway: A Women’s Liberation School in Emeryville, California, 1973. The teacher is still an auto mechanic in San Francisco. Photograph by Cathy Cade/Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Only when I returned to the U.S., however, did I understand how winds offered a way to understand transnational social change. One day in Michigan, a 55 year old Euro-American radical feminist told me that the idea of China was absolutely critical for her work. Some of her friends chimed in, talking of Chinese female tractor drivers and scientists. One said, “China created a divorce law in 1950, but we were in New York and you couldn’t even get legally divorced until after 1966, unless you could prove your spouse cheated on you.” Another added, “We borrowed the term “liberation” from the Chinese, who were always talking about it, even naming their army the People’s Liberation Army.” Many of the activities that feminists employed, such as study circles, consciousness-raising groups, and “speaking bitterness” (speaking about one’s difficulties) were borrowed from China. Women sought to grasp the difficulties of being women, the “problem that has no name.” Many feminists sought to understand this problem as patriarchy, and move from individual experience to theorizing it as a social institution, which would then be capable of being named and transformed.


Cultural Revolution woodcuts of a female scientist and a tractor driver on stationery used by Redstockings, a socialist feminist organization based in New York. Courtesy of Redstockings.

Carol Hanisch, who coined the expression, “the personal is political,” told me that she was strongly influenced by Maoism. She and her peers read Mao’s Little Red Book, and used many references to China in their pamphlets and posters. Hanisch’s expression catalyzed new forms of political protest. Although a massive corpus of writing now exists on this movement, I only found several articles analyzing China’s indirect yet powerful role. Ironically, many contemporary Chinese feminists also see feminism as a Western invention: these transnational histories are little known even in China itself. This phenomena is broadly true of this time period. Alice Echols writes that American scholars tend to produce “histories of … ‘the sixties’… [as] a primarily American phenomenon” (2009:487). Her observation instantiates a tendency to view nations as sealed containers—where important events happen domestically and not through international affairs—and to focus on the West, or in particular America as the origin of international dynamics, not only for feminism, but also civil rights and environmentalism.


Black Panthers studying Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong. The Panthers initially raised funds by selling copies of the Little Red Book on campuses and roadsides. The book was required reading for all Panthers. From: http://fuckyeahmarxismleninism.tumblr.com/post/49773032994/black-panthers-studying-quotations-from-chairman

In terms of civil rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s contributions are better known than the Black Power movement. Each was inspired by “Third World Revolutionaries:” King more by Mahatma Gandhi and Black Power groups more by Mao Zedong. King employed Gandhi’s civil disobedience and non-violence whereas others drew on Mao’s confrontational style. Before Nixon traveled to China, several Black Panthers had already returned from China, buoyed by support and inspiration. Robert Williams promoted the Black Panthers’ dramatic use of guns to gain media attention and perform black masculinity. Williams left the U.S. for Cuba and later China. He died in Michigan the year I arrived, working at the Center for Chinese Studies. A documentary film about his life, Negroes with Guns, is available.

We also need to question stories about the origins and spread of environmentalism. Richard Grove has argued against seeing global environmentalism as an American invention stretching from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir (1992). We can see different genealogies, distinguishing conventional groups like the Sierra Club from Greenpeace with origins in grassroots activist environmentalism, which emerged from a Chinese-influenced counter-culture movement. Before working to “save the whales,” Greenpeace focused on stopping nuclear tests. They used confrontational tactics and staged dramatic events, drawing from techniques used by feminists and civil rights activists. They were influenced by new winds of change from China and elsewhere, which continue to shape how Greenpeace-China carries out its work today. This brief story, I suggest, hints what we know as conservation today is both transnational and diverse in form as well as influence.

Works cited

Bier, Laura. “Feminism, Solidarity, and Identity in the Age of Bandung.” In Making a World After Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives, edited by Christopher Lee. Pp. 143–72 Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010.

Echols, Alice. “Across the Universe: Rethinking Narratives of Second-Wave Feminism.” In New World Coming: The Sixties and the Shaping of Global Consciousness, edited by Karen Dubinsky, Catherine Krull, Susan Lord, Sean Mills, and Scott Rutherford, 406–10. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2009.

Grove, Richard H. “Origins of Western Environmentalism.” Scientific American 267, no. 1 (1992): 42–47.

Michael J. Hathaway is associate professor of anthropology at Simon Fraser University.

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due: How Local Experts are Already Active in Conservation Efforts and What We Can Do to Recognize Their Work

By Nora Haenn and Birgit Schmook

Around the world, conservation programs appear to be in conflict with local people, but what if this story isn’t quite true? What if local people are contributing to conservation programs but not receiving credit for doing so?

Popular depictions of national parks describe them as under threat from poachers, slash-and-burn-farmers, and other nearby residents. Popular tales often contrast these residents with scientists bent on saving the environment from harm. In our recent article, “Improving Conservation Outcomes with Insights from Local Experts and Bureaucrats,” published in Conservation Biology, we took a closer look at how conservationists and some local people actually interact with one another. Along with our co-authors, we found that people living in an around protected areas not only contribute to conservation programs, some conservation endeavors could not exist without their expertise. For anthropologists, this story is a familiar one. By publishing in an interdisciplinary journal, we hope to reach across disciplinary boundaries and speak to the larger group of conservation researchers and practitioners, some of whom may not affirm the importance of local expertise in their work. In the paper, we call on conservation researchers and practitioners to do a better job of publicly acknowledging the role of local experts and other non-scientists in conservation biology.

The paper uses two examples from the rainforests of southern Mexico to show this hidden contribution to environmental protection and how the work of resident experts gets erased in conservation reporting. In the first example, these experts help Ph.D. biologists train their graduate students. In the rainforests, scientists cannot even begin to research without guides. Between snakebites and the threat of getting lost on meandering paths, the forests are too dangerous for outsiders to venture in alone. So, researchers rely on the in depth knowledge of guides, people who tend to be hunters with significant experience in the woods.

Guides tutor students in detailed ways. Here’s the advice one researcher said he would give to students new to working with guides: “You need to trust this person. You are going to be following him. Learn everything you can from the guide. Ask about everything you see.” Student research often gets translated into academic publications. Despite the guide’s primacy in the research of students and professors alike, they are almost never listed as co-authors, and often are not listed in a paper’s acknowledgements, the section where researchers thank the most important contributors to a study.

 Researchers enter the dense forests of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with expert guides who protect them from snakes, meandering paths, and other forest dangers. (Photo: Sophie Calmè)

Researchers enter the dense forests of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve with expert guides who protect them from snakes, meandering paths, and other forest dangers. (Photo: Sophie Calmè)

The second example shows how the Mexican government itself relies on residents’ expertise to collect information on biodiversity in the region of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, the country’s largest protected area for tropical ecosystems. One Reserve program requested that area communities hire biologists to report on endangered species. These biologists conduct research in the same manner as graduate students: they work with local people whose knowledge gets translated into scientific accounts, this time as demanded by park service reports. The biologist writing the report receives credit for the research.

Why don’t local experts get full credit for their work? We argue this is because resident experts are campesinos, not members of the middle class. They do not have the social and educational pedigree expected in the scientific community. To protect the perceived value of their research findings, and their status in the field, scientists are hesitant to highlight the important role these experts play in data collection and the training of professionals in the field.

By failing to highlight the role of local people in conservation research, observers get a skewed perspective on people’s relationship to conservation efforts. Because locals are not acknowledged as part of the conservation effort, they are perceived as obstacles to conservation. This makes it more difficult to identify partners for conservation efforts, since outsiders are often unaware that locals already play a crucial role in conservation. The failure also makes scientists appear as the only people capable of environmental protection, when, clearly, today’s challenges require the participation of many different social groups.

This failure to fully acknowledge the role of skilled guides also has serious repercussions for the guides themselves. A lack of formal credit in the science community means that these guides don’t get the status – or the salary – that comes with being a recognized expert. Campesinos earn about $10 a day, or half of what would be a middle-class salary in the region.

While our focus was on tropical Mexico, our conclusions are relevant for conservation biologists doing fieldwork around the world. In many places, social hierarchies encourage a separation between conservation practitioners and local people. This means the environmental knowledge that often makes conservation workable goes unrecognized.

Nora Haenn is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at NC State University. Birgit Schmook is Faculty in Conservation and Biodiveristy at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico. The paper’s additional authors include Yol Reyes of ECOSUR and Sophie Calmé of the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada. This article was written with Matt Shipman of NC State University.

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

Engagement as Life Politics in the Colombian Amazon

By Kristina Lyons

On August 19, 2013, small farmers and miners, healthcare and transportation workers, educators and students, indigenous communities, afro-Colombians, and popular sectors at large mobilized across seventeen departments of Colombia in a National Agrarian and Popular Strike that was temporarily suspended in September.  After failed negotiations with the State, the strike continues, and centers around the following demands:

March for the Hoe and Seed in Valle de Sibundoy, Putumayo in support of the National Agrarian and Popular Strike.

March for the Hoe and Seed in Valle de Sibundoy, Putumayo in support of the National Agrarian and Popular Strike.

1) suspension of the free trade agreement with the United States; 2) participation of small miners in mining policy and an end to a national development model fueled by extractive industry; 3) the recognition of the political and territorial rights of rural communities; 4) constitutional reforms to combat the privatization of health, education, and fuel; 5) a radical transformation of U.S.-Colombia antidrug policy, and 6) peace with social justice that commences with a long-awaited integral agrarian reform, and national constitutional assembly.

Strike Encampment in Villagarzón, Putumayo.

Strike Encampment in Villagarzón, Putumayo.

The stables of the town fairground in Villagarzón were selected as one of five points of mobilization for protestors in the southwestern department of Putumayo.  Black plastic bags slung over clotheslines protected the small farmers from intermittent tropical rain. Hammocks crisscrossed the horse stalls. Clothes hung to dry over the rails of the pigsty and trough.  The steam of boiling pots of yucca left makeshift tents dripping with humidity. Farmers crouched down under the shade of the pavilion to rest between their rotating work duties: highway blockades, security patrols attentive to the encroachment of anti-riot police, cooking and collection of firewood, logistical coordination, and attendance of popular education workshops. It was this latter activity that had Heraldo, an animal husbandry technician and small farmer, and I at the strike encampments that day.  Strike leaders had asked Heraldo to lead a workshop on alternative Amazonian agriculture among a group of farmers whose main economic sustenance is provided by “illicit” coca crops.  Nowhere are the consequences of antinarcotics policies – aerial fumigation, forced manual eradication of coca plants, and failed USAID “alternative development” programs – more visible than in Putumayo, a focal point of the militarized agricultural interventions that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2001 vis-à-vis Plan Colombia.

A coca leaf asphyxiated from the inside out after exposure to aerial fumigation with Monsanto’s commercial herbicide, glyphosate.

A coca leaf asphyxiated from the inside out after exposure to aerial fumigation with Monsanto’s commercial herbicide, glyphosate.


Hand Wraps: Protective measures taken by to avoid blisters from the friction of scraping coca leaves off the branch during harvest.

The National Agrarian and Popular Strike profoundly shifted my political engagement with small farmers in Putumayo.  My previous research had been attentive to the alternative (often covert) life politics emerging along with relational ecological practices in gardens, forests, and fields.   In August, I was propelled into the oppositional politics occurring on streets, across negotiation tables, and in regional meetings and mobilizations. When my dissertation was reviewed by the Cultural Division of the Bank of the Republic of Colombia looking to fund projects on soils, seeds, plants and “local knowledges,” a unique opportunity arose to support an initiative articulated among protestors in Villagarzón.  Both coca and non-coca growing farmers in Putumayo have long demanded state support for the development of a regional small farmers’ integral life plan (today known as the Plan for Integral Andean-Amazonian Development PLADIA 2035). In other words, a viable and community-designed and implemented process that will gradually shift rural livelihoods away from their dependence on not only commercial coca cultivation, but all extractive-based economic practices. This is a political struggle to address the structural inequalities that lead to participation in “illicit” economies, and starkly contrasts with the repressive antinarcotics policies that have cost the lives of human-plant-microbial communities over the last thirty years.

The lack of agro-ecologically appropriate and Amazonian-based technical assistance places serious obstacles on farmers who want to learn how to cultivate what I refer to in my research as selva [tropical forest] life projects. When they do have contact with agricultural extension technicians, farmers are most often directed to “correct” the pH levels of their soils, conduct chemical tests of soil fertility, switch to marketable varieties of seeds, and clear rather than incorporate tropical forest into their family farms.  Heraldo on the other hand shared the reasoning and simple method for conducting biological homemade soil tests: comparing the sounds of livingness between animal feces and the soil where one plans to sow a plant or tree after hydrogen peroxide is applied to both.  He contrasted this with laboratory-based chemical testing.  The farmers in Villagarzón were enthusiastic.  How could they learn more about agro-ecology, and more importantly how could they share these practices with other members of their communities?  Our collective conversation that day led the group to conclude that perhaps documentary film techniques might be the best way to multiply an Amazonian-based, farmer-to-farmer pedagogy that not only explores options beyond monoculture coca, but also its official substitution by licit export-oriented crops.

Heraldo indicates a polyculture design for sowing an Amazonian creeping plant garden. Mocoa, Putumayo

Heraldo indicates a polyculture design for sowing an Amazonian creeping plant garden. Mocoa, Putumayo

During the month of January, with the funding of the Bank of the Republic, we initiated a collaborative documentary film project called, Cultivando un Buen Vivir en la Amazonía [Cultivating ‘Living Well’ in the Amazon].  This audiovisual project is conducted in collaboration with a UCSC filmmaker who is completing his M.A. in the Social Documentation Film and Digital Media program, as well as a group of farming leaders in Putumayo.  It aims to transmit Amazonian-based farmer-to-farmer agricultural practices among small-farming associations, networks, and unions in order to provide alternatives to current state-led militarized development paradigms. The project consists of thirteen short videos, photography and popular education manuals that present both the daily life-politics and the political life of PLADIA on farms and among rural communities. More than an attempt to influence public policy, this project aspires to multiply what I conceive of as “agro-vital spaces,” or the relatively autonomous life-making strategies that work to build an Andean-Amazonian territory – in the midst of social and armed conflict – one farm at a time.  Whether it is conceptualizing the distinction between land and territory, food security, sovereignty and autonomy, learning techniques for composting, seed and soil conservation, or the design of Amazonian gardens, no new “agricultural model” exists; only seeds, stories, and experimental practices to be shared and refashioned (or not) from one farm to the next.

Fruits and vegetables cultivated in Nelso and Elva’s Amazonian garden.

Fruits and vegetables cultivated in Nelso and Elva’s Amazonian garden.

The 5 to 10 centimeters arable layer that is characteristic of the Oxisol and Ultisols of the Amazon.

The 5 to 10 centimeters arable layer that is characteristic of the Oxisol and Ultisols of the Amazon.

In our project, engagement means not only following the teachings of farmers, but being attentive to the ways that diverse elements and beings engage us: solar and lunar patterns, nutrient cycles, delving rootlets, and plant-microbial communities as they quietly creep, bud and decompose back into the selva.  Engagement leads us to not only question what it means to define a ‘soil’ as “productive,” but also market-oriented and ultimately human-centered notions of productivity itself.  More than anything perhaps, this documentary film project engages with tenacity; a tenacity shared by the thousands of Putumayo farmers whom, since 1996, have marched to denounce the devastating impacts of aerial fumigation on local economies, staple foods, and public and environmental health. However, rural communities also march to defend the dream of creating an alternative territoriality with its corresponding economic, political, and environmental, or better yet, life possibilities and limitations. Engagement may allow for articulating diverse kinds of political work and action that are not mutually exclusive – the kinds of politics that compose public spheres where direct opposition, power struggle, and debate occur, and the unassuming political work involved in recuperating hojarasca [litter layers or dying and falling leaves] on a farm – this thin and ephemeral layer that renders all life, and hence selva agri-culture possible.

Small farm in the Andean-Amazonian foothills.                                    Serranía de los Churumbelos, Putumayo

Small farm in the Andean-Amazonian foothills.
Serranía de los Churumbelos, Putumayo

It is not that farmers are ashamed of being cocaleros [coca growers] or condemn those who are.  Rather they are tired of being criminalized by the state for residing in what are classified as coca-ridden “red zones,” while remaining on the losing end of a long commodity chain that provides growers with minimal benefits – albeit more than a neoliberal state guarantees its citizens – and highest risks.  Most coca growers have been pushed into marginal, rural frontier zones by historical cycles of structural and armed violence in the country’s Andean interior and Coastal regions.  Colombia is currently the second most unequal country in the world according to a recent Bloomberg study. As many cocaleros describe it, the capitalist system “eats away at you and pushes you out,” leaving people on the fringe of urban centers fighting tooth and nail to make a living doing just about anything including turning to coca fields in remote regions of the country. Other small farmers become cocaleros due to the historical social abandonment of rural areas, the lack of markets, fair prices and subsidies, access to fertile land, and democratic participation in agrarian policy and public life.

After conducting fieldwork in Putumayo since 2005, I have witnessed innumerable poorly planned, ecologically inappropriate, violent, and undemocratic development initiatives associated with the “War on Drugs” that further disillusion, criminalize, and impoverish rural communities hoping to transform their life conditions and livelihoods.  Since 1996, the agrarian and popular sectors of the southwestern Amazon have struggled for the opportunity to determine their own life projects and processes with all the risks, creativity, potential failures, and critical reflection that this entails.  Our documentary film project is one more seed planted among these many.

Kristina is a UC President´s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Anthropology Department and with the Center for Science and Justice at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is an advisor for the Regional Working Group of Dialogue and Accords (MIA), and the Regional Alliance of Small Farmer, Indigenous, Afro, Union, and Youth Social Movements in Putumayo, Colombia.    

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

Amelia Moore Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Dana Graef

Amelia Moore (Assistant Research Professor, University of Miami) Interviews Dana Graef (Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology & Environmental Studies, Yale University)

“Red and Green: Hues of Environmental Contestation in the Americas”

In this paper, Dana asks what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, two nations that are internationally recognized as paragons of sustainable development: Costa Rica for its forest conservation, and Cuba for its sustainable agriculture. She argues that the complex nature of color—encompassing both perception and physical being—makes it an ideal lens for examining environmentalism, which varies between nations and among individuals. Through her paper, she examines how ‘red’ dimensions of environment and development—crises, communism, fire—give green forests, fields, and nations new contexts and distinct meanings.

Dana Graef

Dana Graef

1) What initially drew you to your field sites and how did you come to conduct research in both Cuba and Costa Rica? This seems particularly challenging, logistically, and other graduate students might be inspired to hear how you managed this multi-sited investigation.

I was first drawn to my field sites for different reasons that predated graduate school. I lived in Costa Rica for a year after high school and spent some time there growing up. As a result I began college with interests in environmental and indigenous issues in Latin America. I took an Organization for Tropical Studies Field Ethnobiology course in Costa Rica after my freshman year that sparked my interest in large-scale development projects. Over consecutive summers I examined potential impacts of a hydroelectric project and historic impacts of the Inter-American Highway on a Costa Rican indigenous community. I also had the opportunity to go to Cuba for a 10-day research trip through the Princeton-in-Cuba program. I was originally planning a research project on Ernest Hemingway and José Martí, but my grandfather sent me a magazine clipping about urban agriculture in Havana. I re-read it on the plane, and it changed my trip.

When I began my doctoral program at Yale, I expected to pursue research solely in Costa Rica—but having already spent a fair amount of time there, I was also looking for ways to freshen my perspective and see my research in a different light. Thinking about Cuba and Costa Rica in a comparative perspective was intriguing, and eventually led to my dissertation research on how agricultural practices change and why in relationship with environmentalism in both nations. My dissertation research has followed many twists and turns over the years. I had to be flexible in my project; I’ve been fortunate to have a committee that supported my flexibility. I ultimately conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Costa Rica, while considering Cuba as a comparative counterpoint.

For other graduate students interested in comparative and multi-sited research, I would offer a few thoughts. It is worth considering ways that comparative and multi-sited research are not necessarily the same thing. My research was driven by a geographic comparison, and to be remotely ethnographic in such a comparison, you need to do multi-sited research. That said, it is also possible to be multi-sited without adapting a comparative framework, or to be comparative without being multi-sited. For a doctoral project, making the connections between your sites as clear and concrete as possible is a good thing. (I say this in retrospect, of course!) It’s definitely challenging, but because of that, I’ve enjoyed the sense of discovery that multi-sited and comparative research brings.

2) Many of this year’s Rappaport papers were coincidentally about unconventional comparisons in some way. How did you manage the multiple levels of comparison between Cuba and Costa Rica and red and green, etc. in this article and did you encounter any comparative pitfalls that you had to avoid?

Hearing different ways that the Rappaport finalists were making comparisons was one of the unexpected highlights of the panel. To manage the comparisons in my paper, I established a narrative structure through iterative trial and error. I opened with the theoretical concepts and approach, and followed with a section on Costa Rica, a section on Cuba, an integrative section on both countries, and finally, an analytical section. I wrote the sections on Costa Rica and Cuba to mirror one another. Stitching together Costa Rican and Cuban voices respectively, I touched on representations of their environmental movements to audiences abroad, as well as internal debates within each nation and pieces of my own observations. It was my goal to give the reader a sense for how environmentalism in each nation has particular vocabularies that both vary and speak to one another at the same time. On one level my paper was about what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, while on another level this was a paper about the different socio-political meanings we ascribe to landscapes and to environmental change.

I think that for comparisons to really work, there needs to be a kind of productive tension between the concepts you are examining. There needs to be enough commonality that they speak to one another, but also enough difference to keep a sense of reality. At least for me, the greatest challenge in writing comparative work is not to be overly simplistic or overly wedded to your analytical categories and their attributes. In analysis and writing, my goal is to maintain a sense of possibility. It’s very tempting to establish a neat binary, ascribe certain qualities or attributes to each side, and follow that thread through your work—but this would ultimately not represent the true complexity of social interactions. Writing a faithful narrative that evokes some sense from the messy complexity is the greatest challenge of this kind of work, and it takes some honing. For me, a lens into this complexity is color. Beyond ideas of Costa Rica and Cuba as green nations, it was the juxtaposition within color itself—of green and red—that helped me think my cases through from a new perspective.

3) Your paper is very creative and dynamic.  The greatest innovation is that you begin to outline what you call “chromatic anthropology” in order to ethnographically investigate the life of color in relation to environment and development.  How did you come to focus so specifically on color? 

My focus on color came about for a number of reasons. First, the juxtaposition of The Green Republic (Evans 1999) and The Greening of the Revolution (Rosset & Benjamin 1994) on my qualifying exam reading lists in 2009 led me to consider distinct meanings of greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba. The idea that Costa Rica and Cuba are both green for different reasons became a major theme of my dissertation research. While in a practical sense Costa Rica and Cuba’s environmental reputations for conservation and sustainable agriculture can be studied independently of color, a common thread between them is chromatic: it is a question of greenness. Second, I was encouraged to think about color more broadly when I presented an early draft of a dissertation chapter on indigenous agrarian change in a graduate colloquium a couple of years ago. One friend in the Anthropology Department, aware of my interest in greenness, commented on the multiple colors present in this particular chapter. He encouraged me to read Taussig’s book What Color is the Sacred (2009), and suggested that I might consider broadening my perspective on color beyond green. I made a mental note of this suggestion, and eventually returned to it when I was conceptualizing the framework for my Rappaport paper. A third source of inspiration came from a visit to the Yale Art Gallery in 2012. I saw some striking abstract paintings by Josef Albers—large blocks of color on different backgrounds. As I recall, the museum’s description of Albers’ work noted that you will see a block of the same color differently, depending on the background. This resonated with my thinking about greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba: similar concepts or practices appear different depending on their context. I suppose in addition to all of this, I’m a visual thinker. Color makes sense to me, from both an ethnographic and an ecological perspective.

4) How does this focus open a window for you into events in environment and development in your sites in the Americas specifically?

For me, color—in particular, red and green—became a way of re-thinking ideas of sustainable development as they are applied and understood in Latin America. A major challenge of my dissertation has been the fact that greenness is, at least in my experience, very hard to analyze. It means so many different things at the same time—many of them contradictory. The fact that Costa Rica and Cuba are both called green nations for different reasons is a delightful expression of that. The idea that Costa Rica is recognized as a green nation for its forests, while Cuba is recognized as a green nation for its sustainable agriculture has influenced the trajectory of my research, as well as my writing. Among other things, the pairing of Costa Rica and Cuba led me to think more concretely about the social and political associations with forests and fields.

While I had originally envisioned the Costa Rican dimension of my research taking place almost exclusively in the indigenous territories where I had previously worked, the questions of greenness and the comparison with Cuba also led me to broaden my fieldwork in different directions. In an attempt to balance my research and provide a more solid basis for comparison, I ended up conducting research on organic agriculture in Costa Rica as well. So by pursuing the different meanings of greenness, I was able to see how chemical-free agriculture exists under radically different conditions in different places, and responds to different needs. These include prioritizing local subsistence, national and international markets, attempts to be ecological, and goals of productivity.

5) In your opinion, what can a chromatic anthropology reveal about the world in general?  What else would you like to see happen with this orientation?

I suppose that for me, chromatic anthropology is a reminder that there are so many different ways of seeing the world. So often, we see through others’ eyes. Sometimes, this is by design—we try to see things as others would see them in our field sites, we try to understand distinct perspectives. But often, it is unconscious, a result of habit. We see things as we saw them yesterday, or as we were trained to see them. For me, chromatic anthropology is also a reminder to be present: to observe, to really see what is before you, to write it down, and then, to try to capture some of that vividness in your writing.

When I was preparing for this paper, I began to casually browse a number of ethnographies on my bookshelf, looking for color. I was surprised by how hard I had to look even for simple color terms in many works. I think this may be associated with an aversion to description. Early in graduate school, I realized that when ethnography is called “descriptive,” it is said with a particularly deprecatory tone. Description can be tolerated if it is followed by an appropriate degree of explicit analysis, but lacking that, it is not sufficiently analytical. The implication is that analysis and description are two different things. If I had my druthers, there would be a greater appreciation for description in anthropology and an acknowledgement that careful description is analytical unto itself. Descriptive writing—writing that does not shy away from what the ethnographer sees—does not have to be flowery filler. Through careful description, all kinds of new questions present themselves.

6) How does this article fit into your larger dissertation project? 

This paper provided an opportunity to tackle the theme of color, which is more implicit in other parts of my dissertation. The chapters of my dissertation examine what it means to be green and the shifting relationships between environmentalism and agrarian change from different perspectives. I consider cases including indigenous agriculture, organic agriculture, conservation, a mine and a dam, and broader ideas of environmentalism. I alternate between in-depth case studies on Costa Rica and comparative chapters that juxtapose Costa Rica and Cuba. My dissertation begins with a chapter that examines processes of agrarian change in an indigenous community in southern Costa Rica, with a particular focus on the transition from fire to herbicides. In the second chapter, I examine multiple origin stories for organic agriculture in Costa Rica and Cuba, considering the roles of crises and history. In the third chapter, I look at the origins and history of a biological field station in southern Costa Rica where there was an emphasis on agroecology in the late 1980s. An expanded version of my Rappaport paper is the fourth chapter of my dissertation. I conclude with a chapter that examines changing memories of protests against a formerly proposed Aluminum Company of America mine in Costa Rica, published last year in Development and Change. As a whole, I am interested in ways that environmentalism means different things in different places, while also invoking certain common interpretations and ideas.

Posted in Featured Research | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Jim Igoe Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Scott Freeman

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

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


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


Posted in Featured Research | Comments Off

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

ENGAGEMENT Blog editor Micha Rahder recently spoke with Cynthia Fowler to discuss her recent book, Ignition Stories: Indigenous Fire Ecology in the Indo-Australian Monsoon Zone (2013, Carolina Academic Press), and its broader contributions to fire management and social justice debates in Indonesia and around the world. This interview is the latest in an ENGAGEMENT series that explores how environmental-anthropological book projects have profound and important impacts on the world around us.

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

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

MR: What is the theme of your new book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

Fire in a Coastal Plain Savanna

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

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

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

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

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

Ester and Pua Walking Down the Road to Kapapa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Engagement Blog | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off

2014 Rappaport Student Prize Competition

The Environmental and Anthropology (A&E) section of the American Anthropological Association is pleased to announce the 2014 Rappaport Student Prize competition.  To apply, interested students are invited to submit an abstract by 21 March 2014 of a paper that you plan to develop into a publication.  The abstract should present a summary of the entire paper, including a statement of the problem being investigated, methods undertaken, the results of the study, the theoretical context in which it is being evaluated, and the significance of the research.  The abstract should not exceed 500 words; abstracts that exceed this word limit will not be reviewed.

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Section News | Comments Off