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Amelia Moore (Assistant Research Professor, University of Miami) Interviews Dana Graef (Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology & Environmental Studies, Yale University)
“Red and Green: Hues of Environmental Contestation in the Americas”
In this paper, Dana asks what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, two nations that are internationally recognized as paragons of sustainable development: Costa Rica for its forest conservation, and Cuba for its sustainable agriculture. She argues that the complex nature of color—encompassing both perception and physical being—makes it an ideal lens for examining environmentalism, which varies between nations and among individuals. Through her paper, she examines how ‘red’ dimensions of environment and development—crises, communism, fire—give green forests, fields, and nations new contexts and distinct meanings.
1) What initially drew you to your field sites and how did you come to conduct research in both Cuba and Costa Rica? This seems particularly challenging, logistically, and other graduate students might be inspired to hear how you managed this multi-sited investigation.
I was first drawn to my field sites for different reasons that predated graduate school. I lived in Costa Rica for a year after high school and spent some time there growing up. As a result I began college with interests in environmental and indigenous issues in Latin America. I took an Organization for Tropical Studies Field Ethnobiology course in Costa Rica after my freshman year that sparked my interest in large-scale development projects. Over consecutive summers I examined potential impacts of a hydroelectric project and historic impacts of the Inter-American Highway on a Costa Rican indigenous community. I also had the opportunity to go to Cuba for a 10-day research trip through the Princeton-in-Cuba program. I was originally planning a research project on Ernest Hemingway and José Martí, but my grandfather sent me a magazine clipping about urban agriculture in Havana. I re-read it on the plane, and it changed my trip.
When I began my doctoral program at Yale, I expected to pursue research solely in Costa Rica—but having already spent a fair amount of time there, I was also looking for ways to freshen my perspective and see my research in a different light. Thinking about Cuba and Costa Rica in a comparative perspective was intriguing, and eventually led to my dissertation research on how agricultural practices change and why in relationship with environmentalism in both nations. My dissertation research has followed many twists and turns over the years. I had to be flexible in my project; I’ve been fortunate to have a committee that supported my flexibility. I ultimately conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Costa Rica, while considering Cuba as a comparative counterpoint.
For other graduate students interested in comparative and multi-sited research, I would offer a few thoughts. It is worth considering ways that comparative and multi-sited research are not necessarily the same thing. My research was driven by a geographic comparison, and to be remotely ethnographic in such a comparison, you need to do multi-sited research. That said, it is also possible to be multi-sited without adapting a comparative framework, or to be comparative without being multi-sited. For a doctoral project, making the connections between your sites as clear and concrete as possible is a good thing. (I say this in retrospect, of course!) It’s definitely challenging, but because of that, I’ve enjoyed the sense of discovery that multi-sited and comparative research brings.
2) Many of this year’s Rappaport papers were coincidentally about unconventional comparisons in some way. How did you manage the multiple levels of comparison between Cuba and Costa Rica and red and green, etc. in this article and did you encounter any comparative pitfalls that you had to avoid?
Hearing different ways that the Rappaport finalists were making comparisons was one of the unexpected highlights of the panel. To manage the comparisons in my paper, I established a narrative structure through iterative trial and error. I opened with the theoretical concepts and approach, and followed with a section on Costa Rica, a section on Cuba, an integrative section on both countries, and finally, an analytical section. I wrote the sections on Costa Rica and Cuba to mirror one another. Stitching together Costa Rican and Cuban voices respectively, I touched on representations of their environmental movements to audiences abroad, as well as internal debates within each nation and pieces of my own observations. It was my goal to give the reader a sense for how environmentalism in each nation has particular vocabularies that both vary and speak to one another at the same time. On one level my paper was about what it means to be red and green in Costa Rica and Cuba, while on another level this was a paper about the different socio-political meanings we ascribe to landscapes and to environmental change.
I think that for comparisons to really work, there needs to be a kind of productive tension between the concepts you are examining. There needs to be enough commonality that they speak to one another, but also enough difference to keep a sense of reality. At least for me, the greatest challenge in writing comparative work is not to be overly simplistic or overly wedded to your analytical categories and their attributes. In analysis and writing, my goal is to maintain a sense of possibility. It’s very tempting to establish a neat binary, ascribe certain qualities or attributes to each side, and follow that thread through your work—but this would ultimately not represent the true complexity of social interactions. Writing a faithful narrative that evokes some sense from the messy complexity is the greatest challenge of this kind of work, and it takes some honing. For me, a lens into this complexity is color. Beyond ideas of Costa Rica and Cuba as green nations, it was the juxtaposition within color itself—of green and red—that helped me think my cases through from a new perspective.
3) Your paper is very creative and dynamic. The greatest innovation is that you begin to outline what you call “chromatic anthropology” in order to ethnographically investigate the life of color in relation to environment and development. How did you come to focus so specifically on color?
My focus on color came about for a number of reasons. First, the juxtaposition of The Green Republic (Evans 1999) and The Greening of the Revolution (Rosset & Benjamin 1994) on my qualifying exam reading lists in 2009 led me to consider distinct meanings of greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba. The idea that Costa Rica and Cuba are both green for different reasons became a major theme of my dissertation research. While in a practical sense Costa Rica and Cuba’s environmental reputations for conservation and sustainable agriculture can be studied independently of color, a common thread between them is chromatic: it is a question of greenness. Second, I was encouraged to think about color more broadly when I presented an early draft of a dissertation chapter on indigenous agrarian change in a graduate colloquium a couple of years ago. One friend in the Anthropology Department, aware of my interest in greenness, commented on the multiple colors present in this particular chapter. He encouraged me to read Taussig’s book What Color is the Sacred (2009), and suggested that I might consider broadening my perspective on color beyond green. I made a mental note of this suggestion, and eventually returned to it when I was conceptualizing the framework for my Rappaport paper. A third source of inspiration came from a visit to the Yale Art Gallery in 2012. I saw some striking abstract paintings by Josef Albers—large blocks of color on different backgrounds. As I recall, the museum’s description of Albers’ work noted that you will see a block of the same color differently, depending on the background. This resonated with my thinking about greenness in Costa Rica and Cuba: similar concepts or practices appear different depending on their context. I suppose in addition to all of this, I’m a visual thinker. Color makes sense to me, from both an ethnographic and an ecological perspective.
4) How does this focus open a window for you into events in environment and development in your sites in the Americas specifically?
For me, color—in particular, red and green—became a way of re-thinking ideas of sustainable development as they are applied and understood in Latin America. A major challenge of my dissertation has been the fact that greenness is, at least in my experience, very hard to analyze. It means so many different things at the same time—many of them contradictory. The fact that Costa Rica and Cuba are both called green nations for different reasons is a delightful expression of that. The idea that Costa Rica is recognized as a green nation for its forests, while Cuba is recognized as a green nation for its sustainable agriculture has influenced the trajectory of my research, as well as my writing. Among other things, the pairing of Costa Rica and Cuba led me to think more concretely about the social and political associations with forests and fields.
While I had originally envisioned the Costa Rican dimension of my research taking place almost exclusively in the indigenous territories where I had previously worked, the questions of greenness and the comparison with Cuba also led me to broaden my fieldwork in different directions. In an attempt to balance my research and provide a more solid basis for comparison, I ended up conducting research on organic agriculture in Costa Rica as well. So by pursuing the different meanings of greenness, I was able to see how chemical-free agriculture exists under radically different conditions in different places, and responds to different needs. These include prioritizing local subsistence, national and international markets, attempts to be ecological, and goals of productivity.
5) In your opinion, what can a chromatic anthropology reveal about the world in general? What else would you like to see happen with this orientation?
I suppose that for me, chromatic anthropology is a reminder that there are so many different ways of seeing the world. So often, we see through others’ eyes. Sometimes, this is by design—we try to see things as others would see them in our field sites, we try to understand distinct perspectives. But often, it is unconscious, a result of habit. We see things as we saw them yesterday, or as we were trained to see them. For me, chromatic anthropology is also a reminder to be present: to observe, to really see what is before you, to write it down, and then, to try to capture some of that vividness in your writing.
When I was preparing for this paper, I began to casually browse a number of ethnographies on my bookshelf, looking for color. I was surprised by how hard I had to look even for simple color terms in many works. I think this may be associated with an aversion to description. Early in graduate school, I realized that when ethnography is called “descriptive,” it is said with a particularly deprecatory tone. Description can be tolerated if it is followed by an appropriate degree of explicit analysis, but lacking that, it is not sufficiently analytical. The implication is that analysis and description are two different things. If I had my druthers, there would be a greater appreciation for description in anthropology and an acknowledgement that careful description is analytical unto itself. Descriptive writing—writing that does not shy away from what the ethnographer sees—does not have to be flowery filler. Through careful description, all kinds of new questions present themselves.
6) How does this article fit into your larger dissertation project?
This paper provided an opportunity to tackle the theme of color, which is more implicit in other parts of my dissertation. The chapters of my dissertation examine what it means to be green and the shifting relationships between environmentalism and agrarian change from different perspectives. I consider cases including indigenous agriculture, organic agriculture, conservation, a mine and a dam, and broader ideas of environmentalism. I alternate between in-depth case studies on Costa Rica and comparative chapters that juxtapose Costa Rica and Cuba. My dissertation begins with a chapter that examines processes of agrarian change in an indigenous community in southern Costa Rica, with a particular focus on the transition from fire to herbicides. In the second chapter, I examine multiple origin stories for organic agriculture in Costa Rica and Cuba, considering the roles of crises and history. In the third chapter, I look at the origins and history of a biological field station in southern Costa Rica where there was an emphasis on agroecology in the late 1980s. An expanded version of my Rappaport paper is the fourth chapter of my dissertation. I conclude with a chapter that examines changing memories of protests against a formerly proposed Aluminum Company of America mine in Costa Rica, published last year in Development and Change. As a whole, I am interested in ways that environmentalism means different things in different places, while also invoking certain common interpretations and ideas.
As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Derick Fay interviews Heather Swanson about her research and writing on salmon fisheries and comparison in Hokkaido, Japan.
The 2013 winner of the Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section is Heather Swanson. Heather recently received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is currently Assistant Professor, Aarhus University and Postdoctoral Fellow, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA). Her prize-winning paper, “Fishy Comparisons: Similarity, difference, and the making of salmon populations,” probes how (human) comparative practices shape the making of multispecies landscapes. Focusing on salmon fisheries management in Hokkaido, Japan, she demonstrates that neither the island’s watershed ecologies nor its fish population structures can be understood without attention to comparison-making. Since the mid-19th century, natural resources management in northern Japan has been profoundly shaped by how people both within and beyond Japan have compared Hokkaido’s landscapes and fish to those in other parts of the world.
Derick: In your paper you had mentioned you had previously worked in salmon hatcheries and fisheries research in the Northwest – could you talk about the trajectory that led you to anthropology?
Heather: I grew up in a salmon fishing town at the mouth of the Columbia River, a small place called Astoria. Salmon were everywhere there – including on my dinner plate. From the time I was a kid, it was clear to me that fish and fisheries really mattered. Our local high school even offered a three-year program in salmon biology. Normally, it was for boys who were going to go into fisheries-related careers, but I was very passionate about science, and I wanted to take every science class that was offered. I had no idea that I was going to fall completely in love with the fish, but I did. As part of this class, I worked at our school’s on-site fish hatchery, and the experience of caring for the fish was transformative. It’s weird to think you can fall in love with slimy fish, but I really did – so much so that it changed my life.
After growing up in a rural area, I went to college at Princeton University, which was a huge culture shock for me. I didn’t come from an “intellectual” background at all. I went from a high school with a fish hatchery and no AP courses to Princeton. When I got there, I had no idea what planet I had landed on. Nothing made any sense to me. I had no idea how I could still be in the same country, speaking the same language, yet I couldn’t understand anything. Based in part on my interest in salmon, I was planning to go into some sort of scientific discipline. My first semester, I took physics, chemistry, and calculus, along with an anthropology class that fulfilled a writing requirement. It was an incredible course that helped me develop ways of thinking about the world that were incredibly helpful in dealing with the cultural differences between small-town Oregon and an Ivy League school. Anthropology resonated with me so much that I decided to completely change my trajectory and major in it.
However, at the same time that I came to be deeply passionate about anthropology and my new academic life at Princeton, I still felt profoundly connected to my hometown and its fish. There was a giant wall map of the United States in one of the hallways at Princeton. I would often sit on a bench in front of it and contemplate the cognitive, the emotional and physical distance between New Jersey and Oregon. They were totally different worlds for me, yet I also yearned to bring them together in some way. In an attempt to do so, I wrote an anthropology bachelor’s thesis on salmon-human relations along the Columbia River.
Derick: How did this early experience growing up in a fishing community in Oregon shape your fieldwork in Japan?
Heather: It drew me into all kinds of comparisons in Japan. As soon as they heard about my background, everyone in Japanese fisheries wanted me to make comparisons between the salmon fishing and management practices I knew from the U.S. and those I encountered in Japan. My experiences growing up in a fishing community elicited comparisons. I became an opportunity for the fishing industry people with whom I worked to engage in and enrich their own comparative practices. While my embodied presence as a white American elicited all kinds of comparative conversations in general, my experiences with salmon led to more specific salmon-focused comparisons.
My experience of growing up in a fishing community also shaped my research in Japan by inspiring it in an unusual way. I never contemplated studying in Japan until my second year of graduate school at UCSC, when I opened up a newly-published book called The Atlas of Pacific Salmon. For the first time, I saw salmon mapped in a trans-Pacific perspective as a species ranging from California to Japan. I had studied salmon quite a bit in high school, and after I finished my bachelor’s thesis, I had also worked at a salmon-related non-profit for three years. But until I opened that book, I had never even known that there were salmon in Japan. It had been possible to be seriously involved in salmon management in the U.S. without even knowing that Japanese salmon existed. When I encountered these maps, it was this moment of double reflection: I became intensely curious both about the salmon in Japan and about how I had managed to not know about them. What were the structures and power relations that allowed me not to know such a basic thing when I was pretty enmeshed in fisheries issues? I tried to find some English-language sources about salmon in Japan, but I found surprisingly little, which piqued my interest even more.
I’d never been to Japan, and my Japanese vocabulary consisted of “tsunami” and “sushi,” but somehow it seemed like an utterly reasonable idea for me to study salmon in Hokkaido. I felt that I needed to know about salmon from a place other than the region in which I grew up – and that I needed to know the salmon world in which I grew up by going somewhere else. I had to take two years off from the regular graduate school trajectory to learn Japanese. It was at once a crazy and wonderful idea, and I am so happy that my dissertation committee encouraged me to do it.
Derick: Your paper on Hokkaido develops some really interesting ideas about comparison – that salmon bodies are constituted through comparison, and that as anthropologists we should attend to our informants’ practices of comparison. Could you talk about how these ideas grew out of that fieldwork in Japan?
Heather: When I arrived in Japan, I was almost physically struck by comparison. It was everywhere. You can’t order breakfast in Japan without being asked to choose between a “Western” and a “Japanese” breakfast. But comparison became even more important when I began living with the vice president of a fisheries cooperative and his family. They were constantly making all kinds of comparisons in which “modernity” mattered (or, one might say, in which “modernity” emerged). For example, they were constantly comparing their business practices to those of the U.S. and Russia, comparing their lives as fishermen to those they might have had in Tokyo, or comparing their own pasts and presents. Comparison and the ability to “compare well” were so important to them that it became a real theme for my fieldwork. I also started tracing landscape histories while I was doing this ethnographic fieldwork with the fishermen’s cooperative, and I realized that I couldn’t understand either Meiji-era Japanese history or the actual changes in salmon bodies without understanding the same kinds of practices of comparison toward which the fishermen were pointing me. My Rappaport panel paper focuses largely on historical comparisons, but my attention to comparison primarily emerged from my work with the fishermen’s cooperative.
Oncorhynchus keta, a species often referred to in English as “chum salmon,” just after being harvested by a fishing cooperative along Hokkaido’s northern coast.
Derick: That leads nicely to the question of how this article fits into the larger dissertation project.
Heather: Comparison is what structures the dissertation as a whole. This article is a version of a chapter that comes near the beginning of the dissertation. While this article focuses largely on relations between Hokkaido and the Columbia River, the other chapters explore comparisons that connect the island and its fish with other places. For example, in another chapter I look at comparisons that Japanese officials and scientists make between Hokkaido and Chile. From the 1960s to the early 80s, the Japanese government was interested in both developing international aid programs and in expanding their access to salmon. At that time, Japan was losing access to high seas salmon fishing as new international laws and treaties came into effect. I trace how people from Hokkaido travelled to southern Chile, and the comparisons they made there as they helped to build a salmon farming industry. Other chapters look at comparison in the context of conservation and science, and in the context of Ainu indigeneity, all in relation to salmon.
Derick: You’re currently at Aarhus University in Denmark, on a project that’s headed by Anna Tsing. Could you talk about the aims of the project and the work you’re doing some more?
Heather: I’m very fortunate to be part of the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene project, or AURA. The Anthropocene is a term that is cropping up everywhere right now, and different people are doing different things with it. The AURA project explores the Anthropocene by focusing on the jointly natural and cultural histories of anthropogenic landscapes. We bring together environmental history, anthropology, and the natural sciences. Our project team is interdisciplinary, with scholars from those fields and more, and we focus a lot on collaborative practices. Instead of starting with questions of epistemological difference, we try to focus on cultivating common curiosities. Our assumption is that everyone on our team, whether a biologist or an anthropologist, is curious about landscape in some way. So one of our methods is to go out and walk through a landscape together, asking each other questions about how we’re seeing and thinking about the landscape and about what’s interesting and exciting to each of us. Our hope is that starting with the curiosity and working slowly will allow us to build long-term conversations. We often lament how natural scientists call up an environmental anthropologist after a project is basically already designed to add the “social perspective.” Similarly, in the social sciences, we’ve too often either turned scientists and their work into objects of study, or we take snippets of their data as background “facts” in our own projects. But here, in the AURA project, we’re trying to build meaningful collaboration where we can be in dialogue from the start so that we are shaping the very ways that we conceptualize and design our research. The project is still in its beginning phase – it just started in September 2013 – but I am incredibly excited about how it’s developing.
Derick: Following up the paper, are there ways that your interest in comparison is travelling with you to this new setting in Denmark?
Heather: I certainly notice when and how I do comparison in a way that I didn’t before I started my dissertation work. This is the case both in academic contexts and in everyday life. On the most mundane level, the challenges of trying to build a life in a new country have certainly led me to make all kinds of comparisons! I’ve tried to pay attention to them. One thing I have noticed is that there is undoubtedly something very different about comparison-making in Denmark versus Japan. Living in Denmark has convinced me even more that being situated in Europe or being situated in Japan makes a difference that matters when it comes to one’s practices of comparison.
In addition, Japanese comparisons are also still with me in Denmark. This summer, I’m planning to return to Japan to continue working on questions of comparison and landscape-making in Hokkaido.
ENGAGEMENT editors recently connected with Leslie Sponsel, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, to talk about his recent book, Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution (2012, Praeger), and its broader contributions to environmental movements and policy decisions 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.