Book review: John-Andrew McNeish (2021) Sovereign Forces: Everyday Challenges to Environmental Governance in Latin America. Berghahn Books.

In Sovereign Forces John-Andrew McNeish, an anthropologist based in Norway, offers a fresh perspective on “resource sovereignty,” identifying sovereignty, at various scales and in different spaces, as a vital analytic concept for understanding land, territory and energy development in Latin America and beyond. Reflecting on more than twenty years of ethnographic engagement and research projects in and on Latin America, McNeish constructs a rich, historically grounded, account of the region’s economic and political development and how it is inextricably bound with sovereign claims to territory and resources.

The author begins his new book by figuratively plunging us into the cold waters of everyday violence against indigenous environmental defenders in present-day Latin America. He recounts the case of Hector Jaime, an indigenous community leader, from the Chocó region of Colombia, who receives a telephone message that an assassin has been hired by a criminal organization to kill him and his family. Jaime, who has been working with other community members to block mining and other extractive activities from entering their legal territory, reaches out for assistance to McNeish and others via a signature campaign, urging that national authorities protect him and investigate the threat to his and his families’ lives and livelihoods. No direct police protection results, although Jaime is given a bulletproof vest and an investigation is begun.

McNeish’s opening narrative device, recounting this personalized account, powerfully reminds us that the themes he deals with are not merely scholarly preoccupations. These are urgent practical challenges daily confronting citizens, families, activists and authorities. Indeed, this sense of urgency is sustained throughout the volume, as it expertly unpacks contestations around resource landscapes, mainly in Bolivia, Guatemala, and Colombia.

A particular strength of the book is its situating of Latin American experiences of resource contestation within the global political economy, drawing on historical sources and analysis to explain the multiple forces and actors, both within and outside the region, at play in shaping its developmental trajectories. McNeish’s basic thesis, which extends from his earlier published works, is that sovereignty practically matters at multiple scales: it is crucial in explaining national, regional and local decisions on the ownership, use, protection and management of natural resources. From his perspective, Latin American conflicts over land and resources are “conjoined economic and ontological conflicts regarding the equivalence of knowledge and value” (p. 22).

Taking aim at the top-down readings of state-building and resource contestation often found in the resource curse literature, McNeish draws on debates in the cognate fields of social anthropology, political economy and political ecology to further develop the concept of “resource sovereignty.” What are found in the Latin American cases examined are not straightforward manifestations of the classic idea of supreme authority in a defined geographic territory. Rather, multiple attitudes to territory, identity, capital and resources co-exist, compete and conflict – ultimately helping explain empirical outcomes. In this story, indigenous and peasant peoples have been victims of colonization and, frequently, of annihilation, but also agents whose everyday encounters with the state, the market, and politics have left distinctive marks on the geographies and institutions of Latin American states.   

The author builds his argument using a series of “ethnographic fragments” drawn from his years of engagement with Latin America. In Chapter 1, two major events in Bolivian politics (the gasolinazo fuel subsidy backlash and TIPNIS roadbuilding protests) are used to explore the broader relationships in Latin America between the politics of natural resources, territory and sovereign claims within and beyond the state. The second chapter uses the example of fuel and resource smuggling along the Bolivian and Guatemalan borders to discuss contrasting visions and definitions of sovereignty, but also to demonstrate how classic accounts of resource politics pay insufficient attention to sovereign claims beyond and beneath the state.

The intertwining of the politics of sovereignty and natural resources is further explored in Chapter 3, with cases from Colombia and Guatemala of new political and legal spaces actively created, despite risks of violence, through community engagement with state entities. The fourth chapter focuses on the politics of establishing lithium production in the Bolivian Highlands. This Salar de Uyuni case shows that contests around resource sovereignty are not limited to fossil fuels but are also manifest in what are conventionally thought-of as “green” resources. Chapter 5, the final case-based chapter, returns to McNeish’s normative claim, with which the book begins, that resource sovereignty matters for peace and governance goals. Reflecting on the land rights case of the Embra Chamí community of the Cañamomo Lomaprieta in western Colombia, he shows how the state can sometimes directly enable the illegal circumvention and abuse of rights. Technocratic avoidance of certain features of contested resource sovereignty thus requires attention if environmental governance is to deliver on its aims.

Finally, the concluding chapter succeeds in pulling together in one place the various concepts and cases expounded upon in the earlier, empirical sections of the book. This is a helpful addition since the volume can sometimes feel a little bewildering in the breadth and depth of its scope and examples, especially to non-Latin America experts. McNeish views contestations around resource sovereignty as arising from the efforts of citizens and communities to secure a future without constant fear of violence or the actual experience of insecurity. He further suggests that a significant match can be made between the concept of contested resource sovereignty and critical institutionalism. The latter’s recognition that institutions are the outcome not just of acts of design, but of long-term acts of “bricolage” whereby indigenous and peasant communities write themselves back into the history of state-formation, shows that the engagement of these communities has, put bluntly, a direct impact on the success and failure of environmental governance.

In conclusion, Sovereign Forces is a fascinating, multi-disciplinary and historically grounded account of the contested resource politics of Latin America. It makes an impassioned plea for critical engagement with resource sovereignty as a crucial aspect of environmental peacebuilding, that resonates far beyond the country contexts examined here. The book is a must-read for anyone wishing to engage with the complexities of everyday environmental governance in Latin America and elsewhere.   

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