Environmental Studies

Q&A with Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi

AuthorsTania Murray Li is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, also published by Duke University Press. Pujo Semedi is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Universitas Gadjah Mada and author of Close to the Stone, Far from the Throne: The Story of a Javanese Fishing Community, 1820s–1990s. In their new book, Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, Li and Semedi examine the structure and governance of contemporary palm oil plantations in Indonesia, showing how massive forms of capitalist production and control over the palm oil industry replicate colonial-style relations that undermine citizenship.

What led each of you to plantation research?

Pujo Semedi:

Well it is basically a continuation of my previous research on a fishing community in the north coast of Java where in a matter of decades fishers were able to destroy the natural stock of fish in a fertile marine ecosystem. A precious opportunity to obtain welfare from the richness of mother nature sunk into an abyss. The fishers were living in poverty, the government failed to obtain a sustainable supply of protein to feed its people, and the sea was stripped of its fish.  I found the destruction of the fishery a perfect illustration of what Garret Hardin (mistakenly) called a “tragedy of the commons,” which is more accurately described as a tragedy of open access: anyone could access the resource hence no one took responsibility for protecting it. Both fishers and government officials dreamt of a fish stock cornucopia while in fact living the sad consequences of an open access situation.

My research in the fisheries led me to pose a new question: what happens when resources are highly privatized, owned by a single person or institution? Is privatization a sure way to avoid destruction of resources, as Hardin proposed? A plantation is a large and highly privatized institution in which people make a living from hundreds of hectares of land and an array of machinery that belong to a single company. So I did research on a coffee/tea plantation in Java in 2003-6; the book is not finished yet. And then came this project in 2010.

Tania Li: 

For me the interest started with crop booms which bring dynamism to rural economies. I had studied a spontaneous, farmer-driven cacao boom in Sulawesi and wanted to see what happened in a boom that was driven by corporations. I also became aware that since 2000 the plantation format, which had been in decline, was again expanding massively in the Indonesian countryside. I wanted to understand what that meant in human terms.

How does the contemporary plantation compare to and differ from colonial-era plantations? How does the rise of global capitalism/corporatization affect the ways in which plantations operate today?

Semedi:

The first difference is scale. In the heyday of colonialism there were around 2 million hectares of plantation in Indonesia. About half were located in Java where labor was relatively easy to obtain and the rest were in the east coast of Sumatra, the infamous Deli plantations supported by indentured labor mostly from Java and China. Now there are more than 10 million hectares of plantations and new concentrations in Kalimantan and Papua.

The expansion began in the 1980s when the Indonesian government facilitated capital owners to invest in the countryside, based on the idea of increasing the country’s productivity and the wrong assumption that the area was unoccupied. Now the government knows the land is occupied but implicitly assumes that the people who live there are people of low value whose livelihoods can be sacrificed without compensation or recognition. Officials also assume that plantations grow oil palm more efficiently than local farmers, but that is unproven.

The second difference concerns the actors involved. In the colonial period plantations were sites for European capital; a century later at least half the plantation corporations are owned by Indonesian capitalists, and transnational corporations also have a heavy component of Indonesian ownership. A dozen Indonesian oligarchs are firmly in control. So colonial-era plantation-style capitalism has become Indonesianized.

Li:

At one stage in our writing we made a diagram in which we attempted to identify common elements and differences between colonial and contemporary plantations. The labor regime is an obvious place to start. Colonial plantation labor in Sumatra was indentured but in Java plantation workers were always free to come and go, as they are in the plantation sector today, so the difference is less stark than it seems. Plantation infrastructure, technology, layout, housing and hierarchy are almost unchanged.

The most significant difference we identified is in the political milieu. In colonial times plantation owners and managers expected government officials to facilitate their ventures. This is still true today but now government officials and politicians expect to profit from plantation presence, so a much larger set of actors have an incentive to support them. Sadly this expansion of the political field does not make plantation presence more democratic; quite the opposite. It brings the political, administrative and corporate regimes into new kinds of alignment and leaves citizens unprotected. In colonial times Indonesian villagers did not have the rights of citizens; the shocking part is that they do not have these rights now either because the people whose job it is to protect citizens are busy protecting corporations.

We argue that plantations are intrinsically colonial. Not only do contemporary plantation corporations rely on the racialized, colonial “myth of the lazy native” to justify appropriating land and importing workers; they continue to create colonial situations not just economically, as resources are extracted and sent overseas, but politically and socially as well.

The title of your book indicates a focus on plantation “life,” even though plantations, as you argue, operate as machines (a word usually associated with the non-biological) and cause a great amount of destruction and death. What led to your decision to emphasize “life” even so, and how does that shape your project?

Semedi:

This machine of production is operated by people—real people, not theoretical and abstract ones—whose life is structured and shaped by relations set in place by plantations.

Li:

Pujo’s response opens towards the ethnographic aspiration of the book. There are many studies of the death and destruction that accompany plantation presence, but so far not much attention to the new sets of relations or what we call the forms of life that emerge in a plantation zone. Plantation presence shapes not only landscapes and livelihoods but also communities and subjectivities, law and government, aspirations and claims. We estimate that around 15 million Indonesians are now living a plantation life, whether as workers on plantations or as residents of the residual nook and cranny spaces between plantations. So what kind of life is it?  Our ethnographic approach is designed to address that question.

What are some of the unique, theoretical concepts your book offers for understanding modern-day plantations?

Semedi:

For me the theorizing followed from an empirical puzzle. I found from my study of plantations in Java that some of them ran at a loss for multiple decades, yet they did not fold. So what kind of entity is a corporate plantation, and what kind of cultural, political and economic relations enable it to persist and replicate?

Li:

Theorizing the corporation is one part of our conceptual tool kit. Another is the concept of occupation, and specifically corporate occupation. Again, we devised this theorization inductively from our ethnographic research. I noticed that in the margins of my fieldnotes I had written many times “this is a war zone; these people are at war.” But talking it through with Pujo we came to the realization that war was not quite the right term. It suggests armed conflict, which we did not encounter; indeed we did not see any guns anywhere, as security guards do not carry them and we did not witness any direct confrontations involving armed police. The violence was real but it was built into the infrastructure: the presence of a plantation on customary land; roads designed to transport palm fruit not people; credit schemes that entrap and impoverish; laws that favor corporations.  Violence was also ambient. An early draft had a chapter we called “an uneasy feeling” where we described an atmosphere of strain, resentment, frustration, anger, and anxiety about the future. These are the structures of feeling of an occupied population. Villagers and workers know that the presence of massive corporations in rural spaces produces an unjust situation, but they cannot change it and have to find ways to live with it. This often means collaborating with the occupying force, which leaves a bad feeling. 

Plantation Life draws on collaborative research involving around a hundred students from your two institutions, Gadjah Mada and the University of Toronto. (You speak to your collaborative practices in the appendix to your book, but perhaps you’d like to say a bit for our blog readers.) What was the greatest reward of this collaboration, and what was the greatest challenge?

Semedi:

As a teacher, the greatest reward is seeing how the students learned about plantations as a form of life on site.  They obtained knowledge that I cannot simply teach in a classroom. Some of the students continued further to write their master’s thesis about the plantation; and three students wrote PhD dissertations on palm oil in Kalimantan. The training opportunity was really valuable.  Challenges? It takes some energy to organize a good number of students to work in several villages at the same time. But the students were good in supporting each other, especially in dealing with language barriers.

Li:

The big plus for me was collaborating closely with Pujo. We had a partnership in both the fieldwork and the writing, which I found very enriching. As I read the book now, I can reconstruct how we came up with the ideas, the fieldnotes we drew on, and hundreds of discussions, decisions and most of all, revisions! We took the text to pieces and reconstructed it several times, something I’m used to doing with my own writing but I wondered if Pujo would have the patience. It turned out he was equally determined not to settle for something that wasn’t quite right.

Who do you hope will read your book? That is, who is it for?

Semedi:

I hope this book will be read by scholars in agrarian/plantation studies, either for teaching material or input for further research, that in effect will spread critical knowledge on plantations and help us to decide what we are going to do next. I also hope this work will be read by agrarian policy makers for more or less the same reasons, that they will take the message in this book as serious consideration for their further policy in Indonesian agriculture; that they should not see agriculture in a cost-benefit calculus but as a world lived by people, by their own fellow countrymen.

Li:

The book addresses topics currently under academic and public debate including new and old forms of capitalist globalization, racialized landscapes, and our changing planet. In addition, I believe the political stakes of the book are quite high. In Indonesia plantation corporations and their government allies endlessly repeat the message that plantations are necessary for agricultural productivity and that they bring development and jobs to remote regions. Transnational development agencies like the World Bank echo this mantra on a global scale. Yet none of them provide credible evidence to support their claims, as if the necessity for corporate domination in agriculture is self-evident.

Our book counters the corporate narrative by exposing the distorted form of development that emerges in a plantation zone: the losses are huge and the gains are not as advertised. It also counters the sustainability fix—the notion that massive mono-crop plantations can be certified “sustainable.”  Even a virtuous corporation that obeys all the rules is still a giant, occupying force. In Indonesia, not only is the domination of plantation corporations over a third of all agricultural land harmful, it is unnecessary, as farmers have shown for three centuries that they are capable of highly efficient production.  We hope that our work will be useful to activists who have been mobilizing against plantation corporations for decades without making much headway. 

Read the introduction to Plantation Life for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon code E21PLTNL.

 

New Journals in 2022: Agricultural History & Trans Asia Photography

This coming year, we’re thrilled to welcome two journals to our publishing program: Agricultural History and Trans Asia Photography. Both journals will begin publication with Duke University Press in the spring.

Agricultural History, edited by Albert Way, is the journal of record in its field. As such, it publishes articles that explore agriculture and rural life over time, in all geographies and among all people. Articles in Agricultural History use a wide range of methodologies to illuminate the history of farming, food, agricultural science and technology, the environment, rural life, and beyond. The journal includes innovative research, timely book and film reviews, and special features that unite diverse historical approaches under agriculture-related themes.

Trans Asia Photography, edited by Deepali Dewan, Yi Gu, and Thy Phu, is the first and only open-access international peer-reviewed journal devoted to the interdisciplinary exploration of historic and contemporary photography from Asia and across the Asian diaspora. The journal examines all aspects of photographic history, theory, and practice by centering images in or of Asia, conceived here as a territory, network, and cultural imaginary. Bridging photography and area studies, the journal rethinks transnational and transcultural approaches and methodologies. By centering photographic practices of Asia and its diasporas, the journal foregrounds multiple ways of seeing, knowing, and being, which are distinct yet inseparable from other regional formations. The journal brings together the perspectives of scholars, critics, and artists across the humanities and social sciences to advance original and innovative research on photography and Asia, and to reflect and encourage quality, depth, and breadth in the field’s development.

Check out our full list of journals here.

The Most Read Articles of 2021

As 2021 comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the most read articles across all our journals. Check out the top 10 articles that made the list, all freely available until the end of January.

Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy” by Alice E. Marwick
Public Culture no. 75

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” by Donna Haraway
Environmental Humanities volume 6, issue 1

Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival” by Dean Spade
Social Text no. 142

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)” by Shamus Khan
Public Culture no. 91

Necropolitics” by Achille Mbembe
Public Culture volume 15, issue 1

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983)” by Manu Goswami
Public Culture no. 91

Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” by Cathy J. Cohen
GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies volume 3, issue 4

All Power to All People?: Black LGBTTI2QQ Activism, Remembrance, and Archiving in Toronto” by Syrus Marcus Ware
TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly volume 4, issue 2

Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times” by Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese
Social Text no. 142

Young Adults’ Migration to Cities in Sweden: Do Siblings Pave the Way?” by Clara H. Mulder, Emma Lundholm, and Gunnar Malmberg
Demography volume 57, issue 6

“The Eye of Fire” in the Gulf of Mexico: Yet Another Warning from the Ocean | A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

What’s more impressive than a long, elaborate fireworks show? 

The OCEAN ON FIRE!

When that happens, it looks like the cauldron of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mount Doom.

An unprecedented phenomenon that was quickly dubbed “The Eye of Fire” formed in the Gulf of Mexico over the Fourth of July weekend, when a gas line ruptured and managed to catch fire underwater

How does that happen?!

Watching the video of raging flames spouting from the Ocean was like staring down a Satan/Cyclops.

The undersea gas line, stemming from a nearby drilling rig, operated by the national Mexican petroleum monopoly Pemex, burned for five hours. That is much, much longer than any fireworks spectacle, but not nearly as loud. 

Not loud in a literal sense, that is. It probably hissed like a gas grill heating up for an Independence Day cookout. But in a figurative sense, it was a deafening warning shot from the future of the Ocean.

“The Eye of Fire” is further proof, if such were needed, that the Gulf of Mexico is a mess. And by extension, so is the Ocean.

The Gulf of Mexico is where the first “Dead Zone” formed, a vast area so anaerobic that organisms other than algae cannot survive there. Annual inundations of fertilizer runoff from the sprawling Mississippi River watershed created the original Dead Zone. It has grown steadily, as years of farming and lawn care keep flushing petroleum-based nitrogen products from the brown water of the rivers into the blue water of the sea. 

Now, Dead Zones are forming, or very likely will form soon, in all similar embayments around the world: The Persian Gulf, The Bay of Bengal, The Mediterranean, Black, and Yellow Seas… Also, big estuaries, where freshwater meets salt, are actively deteriorating as marine environments: The Chesapeake, San Francisco Bay, the Guayaquil River in Ecuador, the Pearl River in China…

But the “Eye of Fire” phenomenon is more closely related to a different debacle in the increasingly dystopian Gulf of Mexico: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. The benthic zone in the region around that catastrophe continues to suffer its consequences—weird mutations and population reduction among our crustacean friends, for instance. The same is true of the littoral region, where beach-walkers must beware oil blobs in the sand.

As the nation’s terrestrial infrastructure erodes and collapses (most recently, condos in Miami; not long ago, an Interstate bridge in Minneapolis), the disintegration of the subaqueous bones of the energy economy do the same.

The cause of the “Eye of Fire” is unknown at this moment, but it is likely to follow the pattern of the myopic over-reach of the Deepwater Horizon operation, drilled at a depth too far. Pipelines everywhere face the same prospect of failure. A freshwater example is the decrepit and accident-prone Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac, which is facing long-overdue scrutiny and causing U.S.-Canada tensions that are ongoing at this very moment.

The fiery eye in the Ocean over the weekend sends the same message as the other disasters that preceded it, and which will follow: We H. sapiens must stop relying on chemical fertilizers and quit burning fossils, or the planet will not be able to sustain our species much longer.

Don’t take it from me; let the Ocean tell you!

Eric Paul Roorda is editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics and Professor of History at Bellarmine University. A recent review in World History Connected called The Ocean Reader “a wonderful supplement for a global or maritime history course or an interdisciplinary course that explores the Ocean on its own terms.” Save 30% on the book with coupon E20RORDA.

Q&A with Max Liboiron, Author of Pollution Is Colonialism

Max Liboiron

Max Liboiron is Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University. Their new book is Pollution Is Colonialism, which models an anticolonial scientific practice aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.

 

You incorporate Indigenous theory and first-person ethnography into your multi-genre book; at the same time, you hold that your book is a guide for settler and non-Indigenous scientists and readers as well as Indigenous ones. How did you write your book with both audiences in mind, and why is it important that your book be understood as such?

At first, I didn’t. Many young(ish), Indigenous, and gender minority people in academia will be familiar with a set of interactions characteristic of “general” academic audiences: gas-lighting, being called biased, having work stolen and not cited, grandstanding, and other wild rudeness. That’s the audience the book originally anticipated, so the writing was often defensive. The first draft even ended with a manifesto called a “mani-no-no” that essentially told the audience not to steal or appropriate the content, which is an acute problem I have with my lab’s methodological work.

But Reviewer 2, who is definitely an Indigenous aunty, was like, “Honey, why did you invite me into this book if you were going to tell me to fuck off?” (not her exact words). With her guidance and with insights from other senior colleagues, I started to talk directly to Indigenous and other not-White, not-settler audiences that I wanted to be generous with, share jokes with, think with. The tricky part is that those different audiences share the page.

So, I decided to do two things. First, I explicitly address the issue of multiple, incommensurate audiences in text. For example, there’s a footnote in the introduction that talks about definitions of de/colonization, and how the one I use is oriented towards a general academic audience characterized by many white, settler audiences. Then I say hello, literally (“hello!) to those folks. It’s a stylistic strategy meant to show that some of the decisions in the text are because of specific audiences, and the greeting is a way to invest in those audiences and welcome them into the text.

The second move is to flag moments of refusal, make in-jokes, and use code-switching, code-meshing, and other techniques to signal different things to different audiences using the same words. Some readers will be fluent in those backroom conversations, while others will read things more literally. Some audiences will see where there is a moment of refusal and a direction not taken, while others will appreciate the many signposts. All are correct readings. Now it’s a more generous book without giving everything away. Thank you, Reviewer 2!

Like most scientists, you talk about methodology as an important part of your practice. However, in your case, you stress methodology as an “ethic.” What does that mean to you, exactly?

Pollution is ColonialismThe argument that methods are always an ethic isn’t my own argument—it’s an ancient concept that I’m just reminding folks of. People like Shawn Wilson and Linda Tuhiwai Smith say it best in their works, Research is Ceremony and Decolonizing Research, respectively. It’s actually odd that some cultures think epistemology (how you know the world), ontology (what the world is like), and axiology (being good in the world) are separated. That takes a lot of work! In one of my all-time favorite articles, “Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans,” Vanessa Watts has written wonderfully about the weird method of separating those out in Western knowledge systems, which “removes the how and why out of the what,” leaving the world empty and ready for inscription as if it were born that way. Science and technology studies (STS) thinkers like Lorraine Daston write about objectivity as a key technique that tries to pry these things apart. I pitch in to this existing tradition.

You assert that colonization is about relations to land, and so “decolonization” is about transforming that relation to land. In your view, the appropriation of this term in other contexts, especially in revising university courses and syllabi, is itself colonial. Assuming that some thinkers might be resistant to this point, why is it nevertheless important that you make the point, and that your fellow thinkers be open to it?

Yes and no, but mostly yes. Colonization is a land relation, and land has place-based relations. That means there are many types of colonization, so there are many types of de/anti-colonization. In Canada, Métis are in a different set of colonial relations than Inuit. Indigenous people in Canada are in a different set of colonial relations than people in Africa, or those who were stolen from their lands in Africa and forced to the United States. So, it’s a bit cheeky to think there’s a stable and sorted definition of colonialism (or anti-/decolonization) that works across places.

But I do settle on a working definition that frames the text—that colonialism is about settler access to Indigenous land (which includes Indigenous ideas, cosmologies, and life) for settler goals, including benevolent ones. This definition comes out of the places I work and live, including white, settler-dominated academic spaces. It’s a definition that calls out entitlement to Indigenous lands, and establishes that if land relations aren’t changing then decolonization isn’t happening. Including more Indigenous people in an academic syllabus is a form of inclusion, and perhaps it is lovely on those grounds (or not—see Alison Jones and Kuni Jenkins’ “Rethinking collaboration” on this point). But that inclusion leaves colonial land relations in place. I think this is why Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s text, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” is one of the touchstone articles for so many of us. They talk about when all the bad stuff—imperialism, racism, exclusion, sexism, being a jerk—is conflated with colonialism, then all the good stuff—inclusion, anti-racism, taking off your shoes at the front door—is conflated with decolonization. Which means “decolonial” actions rarely involve giving land back or addressing genocide. This, among other reasons, is why specificity is one of the core ethics of the book. It’s why I differentiate between anticolonialism (a whole host of things that don’t reproduce entitlement to Indigenous land and life) and decolonization (giving land back).

Your book offers a critique of some texts on plastic pollution and aligns with others. What are you trying to correct and align with? Why?

Some plastic pollution texts and activism align with anticolonial goals and impacts, and some align with colonial goals and impacts. When I started the book years ago, I assumed there would be lots of scientific case studies I would align against because of inherited colonial methods and values in science, and that I would align with more of the grassroots activism against plastics. I was surprised that the reverse was true.

While the book critiques dominant scientific concepts like assimilative capacity and “mismanaged waste” as reproducing colonial land relations, I also found that endocrinology studies led by white, settler scientists had good land relations that refuted an entitled access to land, bodies, and life. At the same time, I found myself aligning with the #SuckItAbleism movement that argues against banning plastic straws, since they show that universal eradication of any type remakes the world in a single image that never fits everyone and will always dispossess. I talk about how benevolent environmental goals like cleaning plastics off shorelines often assume access to Indigenous land without permission or consent. This work aligns with other Indigenous thinkers like Kyle Powys Whyte and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, among many others, who show that mainstream environmentalism foregrounds access to Indigenous land and its ability to produce value for settler desires and futures.

One of the characteristics of dominant systems, like colonialism, is that what it takes to be true, good, and right becomes so naturalized, so normal, that it is inherited as common sense. One of the reasons I think it’s important to analyze research and activism through the lens of colonialism and land relations is because things that can seem good in one register can still enact a single form of life to the eradication of others.

In addition to your position as an academic researcher, you’ve also been a university administrator, an artist, and an activist. Can you tell our readers more about how these roles relate to your research, if at all?

I’d like to focus on the administrator role. University admin, especially executive admin (what people mean when they say “the university”), is often assumed to be the opposite of activism and anticolonialism; but as someone who has been a professional activist for my entire adult life, I found admin to be the absolute best place to do lasting, systemic, and impactful anticolonial work. One premise of Pollution is Colonialism is that there is no blank slate, no terra nullius, no purity politics from which to do anticolonial work. The book takes up dominant environmental science and plastic pollution activism as its “compromised field,” but it works equally well in university administration. La paperson’s A Third University Is Possible is all about the uneven, not-fully-colonial spaces in universities, and it was one of the most useful activist texts I read as an administrator.

I was the Associate Vice President of Research at Memorial University for two years while I was finishing writing and revising Pollution is Colonialism. The everyday work of that administration not only used the main frameworks in the book, but actually led me to more nuanced understandings of those frameworks, including lessons of accountability, specificity, generalization over universalization, and the idea that all things have land relations (including paperwork). In fact, I would say that the new policy I headed on Indigenous research (which eliminated settler entitlement to do work on Indigenous land/spaces), the creation of the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Agreement (which brought good land relations into data management), and many of the funding priorities, terms of reference, and evaluation frameworks we put in place during that time do the work called for in Pollution is Colonialism far better than any of my science. My admin work was more place-based, more accountable, and more attuned to complex and competing ethics of land relations. As a researcher with academic freedom, I still get to pick through the problems I deal with, even if I opt for hard ones and important ones. As an administrator, things are hurled at you that are impossibly tangled and on fire, and you are accountable to them whether you would choose to deal with them or not. That makes for some acute learning, and some nuanced ethics.

It’s not a coincidence that Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Decolonizing Methodologies) is a Vice-Chancellor, or that K. Wayne Yang (“Decolonization is not a Metaphor”) is a Provost, or that Chris Andersen (Métis) is a Dean. There are many critiques from Black and Indigenous thinkers that the work of anticolonialism and antiracism is not the labour of working on yourself, but the work of changing and reimagining systems. Administrative work is systems work.

Read the introduction to Pollution Is Colonialism for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21LBRN.

 

The Most Read Articles of 2020

As 2020 (finally!) comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the most read articles across all our journals. Check out the top 10 articles that made the list, all freely available until the end of January.

Instafame: Luxury Selfies in the Attention Economy” by Alice E. Marwick
Public Culture volume 27, issue 1 (75)

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” by Donna Haraway
Environmental Humanities volume 6, issue 1

Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” by Cathy J. Cohen
GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies volume 3, issue 4

Necropolitics” by Achille Mbembe
Public Culture volume 15, issue 1

Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times” by Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart and Tamara Kneese
Social Text volume 38, issue 1 (142)

Solidarity Not Charity: Mutual Aid for Mobilization and Survival” by Dean Spade
Social Text volume 38, issue 1 (142)

Twin-Spirited Woman: Sts’iyóye smestíyexw slhá:li” by Saylesh Wesley
TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly volume 1, issue 3

Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads” by Jessica Marie Johnson
Social Text volume 36, issue 4 (137)

The Digital Cloud and the Micropolitics of Energy” by Allison Carruth
Public Culture volume 26, issue 2 (73)

All Power to All People?: Black LGBTTI2QQ Activism, Remembrance, and Archiving in Toronto” by Syrus Marcus Ware
TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly volume 4, issue 2

In Conversation: Bret Gustafson and Thea Riofrancos

Our newest “In Conversation” video is a collaboration with The Baffler and features Bret Gustafson, author of Bolivia in the Age of Gas, and Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. The authors discuss natural gas extraction in Bolivia and Ecuador and the relationship between leftist governments and environmental activists. Both books are available now with discount code EXTRCT30 for 30% off.

What is the Future of Bolivia after the 2020 MAS Victory?

Last November, Bolivia experienced a right-wing military coup d’état ousting Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party based on alleged electoral fraud, with the support of the US-backed Organization of American States (OAS). Overturning the official election results, Jeanine Añez of the right-wing Democrat Social Movement party was declared interim president, and the nation burst into civil uprisings decrying the coup government and calling for the restoration of democracy through the electoral process (though mostly MAS opponents had taken to the streets previously to protest the elections). Pro-MAS protesters, many of them Indigenous, were met with violence, and Morales fled to exile in Mexico and then Argentina. Almost a year later and after much social unrest, general elections were held in Bolivia on October 18, 2020, resulting in a landslide victory for Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of the MAS party. Shortly thereafter, Morales triumphantly returned to Bolivia in early November.
What does the MAS victory mean for the future of Bolivia? In this roundtable, Duke University Press authors and Bolivia experts Mark Goodale, Thomas Grisaffi, and Bret Gustafson share their thoughts on the future of Bolivia, particularly as it pertains to the industrialization of lithium, the production of coca, and the future of the natural gas industry, respectively.
Contributors

Lithium Industrialization in Bolivia after the Coup – Mark Goodale

978-1-4780-0652-7_prWith the return to power of the MAS in Bolivia, one of the only things I’m confident in saying is that we will need many more months, perhaps even years, and the commitment of research dedicated to the question, to fully understand the contours of the last year. This past year began with a rightwing coup d’état and ended with the resounding electoral triumph of MAS at both the executive and legislative levels (yes, I analyze the mobilizations and eventual Camba takeover of October and November 2019 as a coup, even though it is a strange coup that ends with the golpistas, or coup plotters, allowing a democratic process to play out that leads to their ouster and coup leaders facing likely prison sentences).

But what concerns me here is something more specific: the likelihood that the new MAS government will re-start what was among the most important initiatives right up until the October 2019 election. This is the state project, managed by Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB), to industrialize the country’s lithium resources through an ambitious plan of vertical integration. This process that would oversee the commodity chain in Bolivia from the production of lithium carbonate and hydroxide to its refinement into “battery grade” salt to the development of lithium-ion battery cathodes and, finally, to the production—at an industrial scale—of fully functional lithium-ion batteries targeted for the booming global electronic vehicle (EV) market. 

In the months and years to come, the four-year research project I direct (now at the beginning of its second year) will be focusing on three main developments and possibilities. First: how quickly will the new MAS government resume production and construction activities at the main site in the Uyuni Salt Flat, which have been effectively paused for a year, a stoppage that took place even before the Covid-19 crisis struck Bolivia? Although a skeleton crew has been maintaining the evaporation pools, there is real concern that neglect and degradation over this period have set the process back.

Second, will the new MAS government revisit the decision taken by Evo Morales’ administration—as a late-breaking act of desperation during the social unrest in the days after the 2019 election—to annul the contract with the private German company ACI Systems? ACI Systems was acting as a proxy for Germany, which was acting as a proxy for the European Union, which is rushing to ramp up the transition to EVs and, apropos of the annulled contract, rapidly and exponentially increase the capacity to produce lithium-ion batteries within the EU. The contract with ACI Systems gave the German company the right to manage the later stages in the vertical integration process, but this contract was used by a largely Potosí-based anti-MAS civic movement to oppose the alliance and justify the threat of action against production at the facilities in the Salt Flat. Will the new MAS government reconsider the annulled contract with ACI Systems, and, if not, will the government require the state-owned company Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano (YLB), to take charge of the entire process from extraction to the production and distribution of lithium-ion batteries?

 And finally, will the new MAS government continue to structure economic policy, including lithium industrialization, based on the radical blueprint set out in the “Patriotic Agenda 2025,” a plan for national development that purports to respond to many of the critiques of the state’s reliance on traditional resource extraction, especially around gas and oil? In particular, will the lithium industrialization process remain the centerpiece of the Agenda’s concept of “productive sovereignty,” which imagines the state’s commitment to more sustainable development (although lithium is also a non-renewable resource) as the expression of both economic independence and decolonization?

The future of drug policy in Bolivia – Thomas Grisaffi

978-1-4780-0297-0_prOver the past fifteen years, Bolivia has emerged as a world leader in formulating a participatory, non-violent model in confronting the cocaine trade. The MAS victory in the October 2020 elections ensures that this innovative strategy will continue, but the Luis Arce administration will face challenges to implement it.

Bolivia is the world’s third largest producer of cocaine, a drug manufactured from coca leaf – which is central to Andean culture. Under the Evo Morales administration (2006-2019) farmers in specific zones were permitted to cultivate a small (between 1,600 – 2,500 square metre) plot of coca and were encouraged to self-police to respect these limits. 

This community-based model has proven more effective in reducing coca acreage than militarized forced eradication. Government investment has encouraged economic diversification away from coca. In Bolivia, 23,100 hectares were under coca cultivation in 2018, less than half that in Peru.

The policy has been lauded by the United Nations Development Programme as a less violent and efficient way to reduce coca cultivation, and has served as an inspiration to coca farmers in Peru and Colombia.

The relative success of the model does not mean it comes easy. There are debates over enforcement at every local union meeting, and some farmers complain that the upper limit on coca production is too low to meet their basic needs. Some farmers play the system and grow more coca than they are legally permitted.

Morales’s forced resignation in November 2019 threatened the future of the program. Despite being an interim government, the Jeanine Añez administration drafted its own five year drug strategy, which presented a hard-line stance to drug control and threatened a return to forced eradication.

Coca growers can breathe a sigh of relief. The incoming MAS government will surely continue with the community coca control model– but there will be challenges to its implementation.

Many growers supported the program out of deep-seated loyalty to Morales, who as President also headed the federation of growers. By contrast, incoming president Luis Arce, a UK-trained economist, lacks any history in the country’s social movements. He will find it difficult to convince farmers to make the sacrifices necessary for the policy to work.

The community control model relies on high levels of trust between the local coca growers’ organizations and the state, but the violence enacted by the police and military following last year’s coup – including the massacre of eleven coca growers – destroyed these foundations. Luis Arce will have to work hard to rebuild faith in the state, so that going forward coca growers are able to collaborate with the police, military and other official actors to restrict coca and curtail drug trafficking. 

The End of Gas and What’s Next for Eastern Bolivia – Bret Gustafson 

Bolivia in the Age of GaThe amazing victory of Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca of Bolivia’s MAS party comes amidst a public health tragedy and challenging economic conditions.  During the government of Evo Morales (2006-2019), the country benefited from high natural gas prices and the expansion of the public sector, policies in part overseen by Arce himself, who was Morales’s Minister of the Economy.  

As I explore in Bolivia in the Age of Gas, the period of the MAS government was nonetheless marked by contradictions. On the one hand, Indigenous and other social movements expanded their presence in government and made significant gains, especially in occupying new political spaces and state institutions long characterized by racial exclusion. On the other hand, the dependence on gas revenues led to compromises with foreign capital – and with more conservative sectors of the Bolivian society – that ran against what many hoped would be a more radical political transformation.  

In the case of the Guaraní of southeastern Bolivia, the impacts were significant. The gas industry transformed daily life in many communities, bringing new forms of labor and some material benefits, but also new forms of social and ecological violence. Many Guaraní benefited from access to jobs working with the government. Others were forced to deal with huge gas plants, large camps of male workers, disruptive seismic exploration (blasting with explosives to chart the underground), and endless efforts to eke out some compensation for damages.  

The right-wing forces that ousted Evo Morales in November of 2019 hoped to bring the MAS era to an end, and would have surely intensified these violences had they stayed in power. Yet the victory of Luis Arce has confirmed that despite the contradictions of the era of Evo Morales, Bolivians overwhelmingly wanted the MAS to return. 

Arce confronts a challenging scenario. Gas reserves are not growing, prices are low, and Brazil and Argentina – Bolivia’s main customers – may soon stop buying so much gas. Many Bolivians see lithium as the new boom, yet its prospects are complicated by national politics and global markets. If Bolivia can find a way to industrialize lithium – making batteries and electric cars, perhaps – there might be some hope there. Yet given what we know about the limits of extractivism, and the particular problems of fossil fuels, one might also hope Bolivia’s new government will deepen its turn to renewables, pursue more economic diversification, and slowly work to free itself from a longer history of being what I call “extractive subjects,” those whose own desires, for better and for worse, paradoxically align with the forces of extractive capitalism.

Through November 23, 2020, you can save 50% on books by all three authors using coupon code FALL2020.

In Conversation: Kregg Hetherington, Amalia Leguizamón, and Gastón Gordillo

Our latest In Conversation video features a discussion about resource extraction in Latin America. Gastón Gordillo, Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and author of Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction, talks with Kregg Hetherington, author of The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops, and Amalia Leguizamón, author of Seeds of Power: Environmental Injustice and Genetically Modified Soybeans in Argentina. The authors discuss soybeans in Paraguay and Argentina and the relationship to governance, power, the environment, and social justice.

New Books in October

As the days cool and leaves turn so should your new book pages! This month our new book titles will go great with your favorite hot drink.

sentient fleshExamining black performance practices that critique Western humanism, R. A. Judy offers an extended meditation on questions of blackness, the human, epistemology, and the historical ways in which the black being is understood in Sentient Flesh.

In Sensory Experiments, Erica Fretwell examines how psychophysics—a nineteenth-century scientific movement originating in Germany dedicated to the empirical study of sensory experience—became central to the process of creating human difference along the lines of race, gender, and ability in nineteenth-century America.

Brigitte Fielder presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed in Relative Races with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.

The Sense of Brown, which he was completing at the time of his death, is José Esteban Muñoz’s treatise on brownness and being as well as his most direct address to queer Latinx studies. Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong′o have edited the book and written an introduction.The Sense of Brown

Lyle Fearnley situates the production of ecological facts about the likely epicenter of viral pandemics inside the shifting cultural landscapes of agrarian change and the geopolitics of global health in the timely new book Virulent Zones.

Amalia Leguizamón reveals how the Argentine state, agribusiness, and their allies in the media and sciences deploy narratives of economic redistribution, scientific expertise, and national identity as a way to gain the public’s consent to grow genetically modified soybeans despite the massive environmental and social costs in Seeds of Power.

Drawing on ethnographic research with policy makers, politicians, activists, scholars, and the public in Manchester, England, Hannah Knox in Thinking Like a Climate confronts the challenges climate change poses to knowledge production and modern politics.

Wild Things with border In Wild Things Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which the wild—a space located beyond normative borders of sexuality—offers sources of opposition to knowing and being that transgress Euro-American notions of the modern subject.

Saiba Varma in The Occupied Clinic, explores spaces of military and humanitarian care in Indian-controlled Kashmir—the world’s most militarized place—to examine the psychic, ontological, and political entanglements between medicine and violence.

With Cowards Don′t Make History, Joanne Rappaport examines the work of a group of Colombian social scientists led by Orlando Fals Borda, who in the 1970s developed a model of “participatory action research” in which they embedded themselves into local communities to use their research in the service of social and political organizing.

Vanessa Freije explores the causes and consequences of political scandals in Mexico from the 1960s through the 1980s in Citizens of Scandal, showing how Mexico City reporters began to denounce government corruption during this period in ways that defined the Mexican public sphere in the late twentieth century .

In Building Socialism, Christina Schwenkel analyzes the collaboration between East German and Vietnamese architects and urban planners as they attempted to transform the bombed-out industrial city of Vinh into a model socialist city.

Political theorist and anticapitalist activist Sabu Kohso uses the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster to illuminate the relationship between nuclear power, capitalism, and the nation-state in Radiation and Revolution, showing how nuclear power has become the organizing principle of the global order.

blackdiamondqueens In Black Diamond Queens Maureen Mahon documents the major contributions African American women vocalists such as Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton have made to rock and roll throughout its history.

Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan in The Globally Familiar examines how the young men of Delhi’s hip hop scene construct themselves on- and off-line and how digital platforms offer these young men the means to reimagine themselves and their city through hip hop.

In essays addressing topics ranging from cinema, feminism, and art to hip hop, urban slums, and digital technology, Sujatha Fernandes in The Cuban Hustle explores the multitudinous ways ordinary Cubans have sought to hustle, survive, and create expressive cultures in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In Genetic Afterlives, Noah Tamarkin illustrates how Lemba people in South Africa give their own meanings to the results of DNA tests that substantiated their ancestral connections to Jews and employ them to manage competing claims of Jewish ethnic and religious identity, African indigeneity, and South African citizenship.

Shane Denson examines the ways in which computer-generated digital images displace and transform the traditional spatial and temporal relationships that viewers had with conventional analog forms of cinema in Discorrelated Images.

Media Primitivism by Delinda Collier finds alternative concepts of mediation in African art by closely engaging with electricity-based works since 1944.

writing in spaceWriting in Space, 1973-2019 gathers the writings of conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady as edited by Aruna D’Souza, including artist statements, scripts, magazine articles, critical essays on art and culture, and interviews.

Acknowledging the difficulty for artists in the twenty-first century to effectively critique systems of power, in The Play in the System Anna Watkins Fisher theorizes parasitism—a form of resistance in which artists comply with dominant structures as a tool for practicing resistance from within.

Filled with advice from over fifty contributors, this completely revised and expanded edition of our popular book The Academic’s Handbook guides academics at every career stage, whether they are first entering the job market or negotiating post-tenure challenges of accepting leadership and administrative roles. The volume is edited by Lori A. Flores and Jocelyn H. Olcott.

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