Podcast Episode 4: Economies of scarcity and abundance

In the 4th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews a professor of English, Candace Fujikane, on how ideas of abundance and scarcity are forged under capitalism. Professor Fujikane’s research uses cartography as a methodology to map Kanaka Maoli’s knowledge and relation of abundance with lands, seas and skies. In doing so, Fujikane’s work raises fundamental concern about the capitalist economies of scarcity, which have devastating consequences for the planet.


SP: Today I am really hoping to learn how ideas of abundance and scarcity are forged under capitalism. Your book, Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future starts with an interesting provocation that capitalism fears abundance. Could you please elaborate on this?

CF: Thank you. I went to a critical studies ethnic conference in 2012 and my former dissertation advisor gave a talk. This is David Lloyd. He gave a beautiful talk about how capital fear abundance because abundance promises the just redistribution of resources. At that time, I had been working on restoration projects in Hawaii, restoring waterways, restoring fishponds, and Kalo Loi, which are the local Taro Pond fields. Basically, we were working to restore what Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpu calls structures that feed us. I was seeing the ways in which restoration projects built on each other.You talk to restoration program directors about climate change; they all talk about how this is actually a chance for people to turn climate change events into greater possibilities for abundance. So, I was thinking that if capital fears abundance, then why not strike at capital where it is most vulnerable by mapping the abundance it fears, i.e., mapping these restoration projects and how they built upon each other. I began to see the ways that rather than seeing climate change as apocalyptic, we can see climate change events as bringing about the demise of capitalist economies of scarcity, making possible or making way for indigenous economies of abundance. So, indigenous economies that focus on production of food and water shows that indigenous people can survive what capital cannot. It fits into this larger problem where I would talk to my students about climate change, they just want to turn away. It was too depressing for them. So, I argue in my book that mapping abundance is a refusal to succumb to capital’s logic that we are past an apocalyptic threshold of no return. That’s where a lot of theorems of climate change comes from—the idea that it is already a foregone conclusion. But Kanaka Maoli, and their allies in Hawaii and the indigenous people around the world are on the frontline of climate change and they are providing us visual and textual illustration of flourishing indigenous economies of abundance. So, it is a way of getting at climate change through an indigenous viewpoint that sees the element around us as elements of energy and understanding those elements in relation to each other. It is so exciting to learn about the ways that Kanaka Maoli ancestors approaches climate change and I think that’s one of the lessons that we are learning through climate change i.e., that we need to cultivate a closer relationship with elements around us. Kanaka Maoli had an amazing practice of kilo; keen observation of the natural phenomena in order to understand how they worked with each other. Our ancestors did that, I know mine in Japan did that, there is the Shintō religion but when we move to other countries and become settlers in settler colonial systems, we are taught in the educational systems to identify with settler colonial power. Anyway, very long way of saying that abundance and scarcity is a way of thinking more generatively about climate change and what it can be.

SP: One of the things I enjoyed reading in your book is how knowledge about abundance is created, and you describe this process as abundant-mindedness. I am curious about this process of mapping abundance and if you could help our listeners understand how you thought through it

CF: Yes, that came out in an interview that I did with a restoration project manager and director, Puni Jackson. She said that as Kanaka Maoli who have been dispossessed, the population of Hawaiians collapsed from a million down to 40,000 after colonial contact. She says that everyone says that “poor Hawaiians, they had this taken from them and that taken from them” that creates a kind of victimization that really takes from Kanaka Maoli their agency as active agents who are determining their own futures. So, she says that what she cultivates amongst her students who come to volunteer in her programme is abundant-mindedness. She says that we always have so much around us, our relationships, our children, we have the abundance that is here in the natural world. No matter what or how the state tries to represent that abundance as wasteland, which the settler state is always doing, trying to condemn lands as wastelands so that they can be ceased and used for highways or telescopes or other kinds of things that native communities have had to fight against. That abundant-mindedness is what she grew up with. Some people think that in the era of climate change to talk about mapping abundance is a luxury—I talk about how it is not a luxury. Rather it is an urgent insistence on life. That shows us what indigenous people are fighting for—their future; the lives of their children; The elements in the natural world they see as their family members. That’s the abundant-mindedness that we all should cultivate in this era of climate change. These project managers talk about how these changes in climate bring about opportunities for abundance. So, how do we transform the way we see climate change events as not just acts of devastation but what forces us to think about other ways of producing abundance. For example, fishponds are facing seas-level rise in Hawaii along shorelines. When I have talked to project managers there, they say that if sea-level rise continues, they will build the fishpond walls higher to the point where it makes no sense anymore, they will then move inland to cultivate freshwater fish ponds. It is that kinds of ability to adapt. One of my teachers says that the three magic words are: assess, adapt and activate. We need to focus on learning to activate ourselves to act in ways that help us adapt to change. And this is not a resignation to conditions that are beyond our control. I think we should continue to fight against corporate devastation of the earth. Right now, in Hawaii we are fighting against the military, which has planted 187 million gallons of jet fuel underground, which are not contaminating drinking water. It’s turning out to be worse than the conditions in Flint, Michigan. There is a comparison there. How do we activate ourselves? We do so at multiple levels in response to and against the settler state action and the actions of the military. But we also see a future beyond settler colonialism by working on our capacity to feed ourselves.  

SP: Often we notice that there is a tendency to essentialize indigenous knowledge, where it is made into an alternative category of capitalism. How did you avoid slipping into that trope in your research?

CF: I love that question. You are absolutely right. I read other books that to kind of romanticize indigenous knowledge. So, how I tried to avoid essentializing that is by focusing on specific struggles. I engaged in struggles on different levels. We fight against the settler state in court rooms. What we have to do is provide evidence of what the state is doing and evidence that there is another way to do things. So, I think it is through concrete praxis that we avoid essentializing. It is the fact that the kind of work that I am calling for is very embodied. It is not just about theorizing about change. It is about those of us who are not indigenous, those of us who are settlers taking our places on the frontline so that we get to speak with people, and we get to learn from them. How they are viewing an abundant-mindedness that gives them the courage to stand up against police armed with tear gas and sound canons to protect water. In the case of Hawaii, I was standing up against (and I know this sounds ironic) giant wind turbines. Now, wind power is very important as a renewable source of energy but what these corporations do is that they place the turbines too close to homes and schools. These are 1500 feet in height, and they were trying to place it near schools. We were trying to stop the developer of these wind farms from putting that up. So, these are coming from an understanding of how corporations manipulate renewable energy for their own purposes in ways that exploit indigenous communities. It is very embodied, and I didn’t realise, and I wouldn’t understand this about renewable energy—that sort of greenwashing corporations do that can be damaging or harmful but it is only when you are standing on the frontlines and talking to people and getting their firsthand account that you begin to see the struggles that they are facing. So, as a writer I have access to publications and so in my book I’ve sort of opened up a space for the people on the frontlines to tell their stories of struggle, stories about why they are standing up to protect these places and lands and waters, and how their stand gives a different understanding to ancestral knowledge. And ancestral knowledge was also about being guardians of water and guardians of the land. So, they are fulfilling their responsibilities in multiple ways. You can see that only through the embodied practice of being in those communities and working with them and really making it a part of your lifestyle. 

SP: On the one side, we have this economic and extractive logic that we follow that everything is for the market to grab, historically wetlands were treated as wastelands, dry arid landscapes were considered devoid of life, so on and so forth. There are then these limits to spatial mapping where things are fixed and concretised in landscape, but they are in fact fluid. So, in this embodied practice that you mentioned I see a feminist interpretation of that which is always in abundance, not being under control, unmanageable, leaking its abstract boundaries. I was wondering if this kind of thought process was in fact behind reclaiming the space of abundance.

CF: Ya, I really like that question. When I was testifying in front of state agencies, I saw that it doesn’t work to keep reiterating the same kinds of arguments that state makes so you get into this kind of mode where you are responding to their cartographies. And their cartographies are cartographies of death. They are trying to show you that their land is a wasteland, that there is no future on this land and that the people who are fighting for these lands are themselves vestiges of lives that no longer exists. It is just kind of ridiculous. And so I had to learn more about indigenous ways of knowing the world that exceed beyond corporate or capital cartographies. Cartographies of capital are constantly instituting these kinds of false constraints. So, they will say you cannot do this, for example, commission for water resources management to this day will say that water stops at the shoreline. It is these kinds of ridiculous constraints. Whereas in Kanaka Maoli waterways are at the outer edge of the reef because all of that estuary is part of that waterway. Mapping differently instead of the ways in which cartographies of capital fragment land into smaller and smaller manageable pieces that can evade environmental protection and I see that kind of way that maps of capital that map pieces of land that alienate them from its history and the larger context of the communities around it. Indigenous ways are much more expansive, again, exceeding beyond the limitations of cartographies of capital. In a feminist kind of way, I have been very influenced by French feminists who talk about how body exceeds beyond the limitation of your body. So, I did have that kind of training in grad. school. But I think indigenous knowledge takes it in a different direction in terms of the question of how we have these kinds of genealogical relationships with the elements around us. You know, I hesitate as a settler to talk about the reign being part of my genealogy but on a molecular level the rain becomes part of my body. So, those kinds of divisions between self and the natural world are actually so much more porous now. I still call myself a settler and I think in a settler colonial system it is important to maintain those distinctions and that settlers realise that they should not be making those decisions about lands that are being stewarded for thousands of years by indigenous people. That happens in Hawaii all the time where settlers are trying to make these decisions but rather understanding that having that stewardship allows them to have a more expansive understanding of the natural world than settlers do. A concrete example, the army core of engineers has been so bad at Hawaii. The army core of engineer, what it does is that it brings in work that they have done elsewhere as if you can just plug that model of restoration in Hawaii without understanding the factors around it. So, we have had so many incredibly damaging projects. The army core of engineers will create a concrete channel for waterways that prevents water from going back into the aquifer. It prevents waterways from taking nutrients from uplands to the estuaries. These concrete channels destroy estuaries. They were put into place to prevent the flooding of home. But there are other ways of doing it by breaking the concrete and putting a wired mesh over a rock so that there can be both a feeding back into the aquifer and a carrying of nutrients into the estuaries. This is just one of the many examples about the ways in which the army core of engineers technically takes the things that have been done elsewhere and try to import them into Hawaii without that kind of expansive system of observation and forecasting that Kanaka Maoli have done of natural phenomena.

SP: Finally, I was hoping you could help our listeners understand the distinction between capitalist modes of manufacturing scarcity and how indigenous people respond to it

CF: Capital functions by creating needs. Capital is actually in the business of creating the illusion of scarcity. It has to create in you a sense of need or desire. And capital can only survive by opening market. So, the difference between that and indigenous economies, indigenous economies focus on—like for Hawaiians it is Āina Momona, flat and fertile land—make you full or satisfied. Indigenous economies of economies are about the production of food and the cultivation of relationships. So, those are two things very commonly we find in the alienation under a capitalist system. Capital creates scarcity, it creates the illusion of scarcity and also the material conditions of scarcity. And so often times, for example, in Waianae there was a plan for a late-industrial park, basically a trucking yard for corporations. And they were planning to put that on top of a land that was historically involved in agricultural production. But you know, they make this argument that these lands are not culturally productive, and they bank of the land use commission without knowing the history of the land but instead what happened was that the indigenous communities, Kanaka Maoli communities came forward. They had the photographs of the land in active agricultural production. I gave testimony and my argument was that in order to produce the perception that the land being a wasteland the developer evaluated the land unirrigated. If you don’t put water in a land of course it is a wasteland. But what I found that they do have a designation I—so lands that are not irrigated could be something like D64, once irrigated those lands become B64I. When irrigated the lands improves to B quality land, which is the second highest category of productivity. But the developers tried to state that these are D64 category because they were not irrigated. Ya, you do have to water the land! It is kind of funny that this particular site that they were trying to develop was surrounded by farmlands with the B64I designation. I don’t mean to take it lightly, but it is ludicrous the way capital manipulates rhetoric in order to get its projects passed. And that is what we see all the time in Hawaii, that the argument they make are ridiculous. Mauna Kea, the mountain that we have been fighting to protect for it the maps actually say “no vegetation, wasteland”—to describe the summit of Mauna Kea. But the reality is that all mountains are receptacles of water. Mauna Kea collects the water that feeds the islands, that feeds the aquifers that goes up to all of the residents of the island. And how is that water collected is not through rainfall but through fog drip. So, what capital will do is calculate rainfall. “Oh, there is very little rainfall up there.” But what is happening is that they’re obscuring the other sources of water such as fog drip. Mauna Kea is most of the time under cloud cover or there is fog every day, what they call Lilino, which is the deity of the fog or mist, the lands are always draped in mist and water condenses on rocks and plant life and feeds into the earth. As in any desert, how do animals survive? If you scratch the surface of a desert, you eventually come across to a wet spot where it is saturated with water. Maona Kea is basically saturated with water. Far from being a barren wasteland it’s a receptacle for water—that is what Kanaka Maoli scientists […] have argued that it is actually a repository of water.     

Public Anthropologist Award 2023 (PUAN-A)

PUAN-A is awarded to a social and cultural anthropologist who has published an outstanding contribution that addresses – in innovative, engaging and compelling ways – key societal issues related to one or more of the following topics: violence, war, poverty, social movements, freedom, aid, rights, injustice, inequality, social exclusion, racism, health, and environmental challenges.

A contribution can be any published research output – for example a book, peer reviewed article, documentary, etc.

Application: submit your research output together with your CV (2 pages) to Public Anthropologist’s Editor-in-Chief, Antonio De Lauri: antonio.delauri@cmi.no

Write PUAN-A + “Title of the research output” in the subject heading.

Prize: A committee chaired by the Editor-in-Chief will select one research output for the Public Anthropologist Award. The author will receive a prize of 500 €.

Deadline for PUAN-A 2023: 15 January 2023 (for outputs published in 2021 and 2022).

For more information on the journal, please visit brill.com/puan. For the blog, visit Public Anthropologist – Journal Blog (cmi.no)

Prize Winners

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2022 is Catherine Besteman for her book Militarized Global Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2020). Catherine Besteman is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. Throughout her career, she has worked on issues related to power dynamics that produce and maintain inequality, racism, and violence, as well as collective efforts for social change. Militarized Global Apartheid effectively addresses key instances of exploitation, inequality, and division in the contemporary world. The book is a lucid and nuanced exploration of the global hierarchies that, whether we are aware of it or not, have a devastating impact on the lives of many while creating privileges for a few others.

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2021 is Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (University of Washington Press, 2019 & Zubaan Publishing, 2020). Ather Zia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the Indian military occupation, settler colonialism, and women’s collective political and social challenges in the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir. Resisting Disappearance is a powerful narration of the effects of oppression and political disputes on people’s everyday life. The book is engaging and shrewdly written. It effectively summarizes the broad and committed scholarship and research behind it. An excellent example of anthropology’s capacity to both inform and inspire.

Suggested by Public Anthropologist: Love and Liberation

Public Anthropologist‘s suggested reading today is Love and Liberation. Humanitarian Work in Ethiopia’s Somali Region by Lauren Carruth.

Shifting the focus from international humanitarian workers to Somali locals caring for each other, Carruth develops a rich ethnographic analysis of interdependence, kinship, and ethnic solidarity in Ethiopia’s Somali region.

The book is an important contribution to both humanitarian studies and the anthropology of care.

Podcast Episode 3: Colonial dispossession and heroin use in northern New Mexico

In the 3rd episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Anthropologist Angela Garcia on the endless dispossession, inequality, and heroin use etched in the history and memory of northern New Mexico. Professor Garcia’s avant-garde scholarship combines apparently isolated moments of intimacy, addiction, care and abuse to shed light on the impacts of a colonial past that is eating up the landscape inside.


SP: Your research ethnography tells a very intimate story about love, care, bond and kinship among heroin addicts in northern new Mexico. There are several contradictory elements of life that you share in great depth: for example, I was struck by how drug addiction was an emotional obligation towards family; any release from it was only possible through it; and in another instance, hope for life was encountered in near death experiences. In the context of your fieldwork, at what point did it become important to interweave stories about care and love with addiction and abuse?

AG: Thank you for that question. It became apparent to me early on in my fieldwork that one of the key undercurrents to addiction was love. What I encountered in the field is that this is a region where family bonds are so central to everyday life—to both economic, and cultural and linguistic relationships. When heroin entered into the realm of the family it was absorbed into the sorts of intimate bonds that already existed within families. Rather than being something that tore families apart I saw heroin and addiction (the experience of addiction) as solidifying certain kinds of dependencies that were not just dependencies in terms of a physical dependency that addiction necessitates or incurs but actually the kind of emotional dependencies that existed between parents and their children, specifically between mothers and daughters. Rather than imagining those dependencies as inherently negative or something that should be unraveled as a typical discourse in addiction medicine, I saw them as something that implied and was built on a kind of a deeper sense of longing and connectedness that had long existed (in this region); well before drugs became endemic in the region. In a way what I was encountering was how drugs and addiction became conduits of deep relationality and deep sense of care and sense of responsibility that existed within families, particularly from an intergenerational perspective. So, caring for each other, caring for addicted kin, using drugs with each other became a gesture of love and care—a way of expressing a kind of ethical commitment to the other and I think that is a very different perspective from the standard idea that drugs ‘break’ these ethical bonds, and bonds between parents and children, But in fact they strengthened them. Now, whether they strengthened them in a way that was healthy is something that I would go on to query but I felt very strongly and had a very clear sense that the bonds that were enabled through addiction were bonds of emotional, physiological, historical and ethical connectedness. I sort to understand those more deeply for my fieldwork.

SP: Thank you for that, I think your work radically upturned my understanding of emotional wellbeing and drug use. So, in your research, institutions come to play a major role in creating a biomedical discourse about alcohol and drug addiction. Could you share a little about the clinical language of addiction? In the process, if you could also explain why was it preferred over seeing substance abuse as embedded in history of dispossession, inequality, and violence in the Espanola valley?

AG: Yes, thank you. Well, the clinical language that surrounds substance abuse or what is now referred to as a ‘substance abuse disorder’ back in the day one would just call it addiction, but the language is continually changing. The standard way in which it is imagine and described in the setting of medicine is that addiction is a ‘chronic relapsing brain disorder.’ The language of chronicity was something that I latched onto in the field because one of the tropes people used when talking about their experiences is of loss—of land loss; of loss of language; of loss of economic security; also most importantly, the loss of loved ones to addiction was the language of the chronic, this sort of endlessness of what was often described in Spanish as sin fin, without end. So, I began looking at the overlay in the intersection of language of biomedicine and the notion of addiction as being chronic and relapsing with the very deeply entrenched experience of long-term loss, and how those intersected in a way that exacerbated a lot of the experiences and perceptions of a kind of endless form of dispossession.

When I speak of dispossession here I am speaking about not only the dispossession of oneself through the experience of being high, and through experiences that addiction enables but also the dispossession of land and culture. There is a deep connection between those two experiences of dispossession that the long history or what one might call the chronic history of land and livelihood was deeply embedded in the drug narrative and when people would talk to me about their experiences of drug use and loss, losses incurred through drug use, they often talked about their family homes, the land that their family had lost over generations and those narratives were in many ways seamless, (without)discussing drug use more explicitly. So, there were two forms of dispossession—dispossession of oneself and what I describe as a desire of kind of escape from reality and memory which drugs enable with the deeply entrenched embodied memory of land loss. I was interested in how those two things were embedded and entwined in the lives of the people I worked with, my interlocutors but also in the way they talked about not only drugs but also their family life, their history, and communities. And there was no way for me to tease out the idea of a chronic ‘disorder’ of addiction from the chronic disorder of continual dispossession of land. To me they were deeply entwined. So, lot of the stories that are in my book really demonstrate I think the embeddedness of these two forms of loss, of the phenomenon of land loss and the phenomenon of losses that are incurred through the use of heroin.

SP: Thank you, this gives us a geographical context of the region you were focusing on. You mentioned chronicity and you have spoken about experiences of drug overdose and chronicity in you work, which also made me think about the methodology. You have shown how these lives were in an endless loop, which was much like the geographic and economic landscape that they were inhabiting. Field ethnography and bearing evidence too, in many ways, has a vocation for spilling over expectations or what the researcher initially set out to study. I really wanted to learn from you if this understanding of overdose or excess then shape your methodological approach in the field?

AG: That’s so well put. I went into the field thinking that I was going to study addiction and strictly speaking, I was going to study the experience of overdose. I should say that that was not initially my project in graduate school, I had intended to work on something very different. But when I was in graduate school, I would get phone calls from my family and friends back home in New Mexico because I am from that region on which I worked and I would hear stories about relatives and friends, people I went to school with who had overdosed. So, I am in graduate school preparing to do an entirely different project and yet I am called back continuously to New Mexico through these interruptions, which were these phone calls. I realized that I needed to change course, I needed to go home and understand what was happening. When I returned to New Mexico, which was a place I was very eager to leave when I was a child but when I returned as an adult, as a graduate student working on my PhD project, I initially went in simply trying to understand the phenomenon of heroin overdose in the region, which is one of the worst in the United States but it’s often overlooked in conversations about drug addiction in the US. I went to try to understand this and began working in a drug detox clinic. My vision was quite focused. But as I began to really listen to people and as I spent time back to what was really my own land I was overcome with this memory and knowledge of the histories of loss; the histories of colonialism; the histories of land dispossession that saturate the landscape. I realized that I really had to open my lens to incorporate the broader geopolitical landscape, to incorporate the very terrain upon which the heroin overdose crisis was taking place.

When I started to look at the land what I really saw is its scars. Both scars in the sense of recognition of certain sites of loss. Land grants had been taken away or some area in the landscapes were memorials to people who had died of overdose. I began to connect these sites, these signs, the broader terrain of heroin use and overdose itself. So, really what you have described as this excess—from the moment that I began receiving calls in graduate school to the moment I returned to New Mexico and began driving around and spending time with people and their memories, there was this overflow of affect in a way. I realized that in some way I needed to engage with that. The way I engaged with that was not only in the field with the kind of my method of fieldwork which remained very close to my interlocutors, to spend time with them, to participate in their care, to listen to their stories, to travel with them to the clinic where they received care and sometimes to the prison where they had family members were incarcerated. I was constantly driving people around, driving around the landscape of loss, I was listening to their stories. It was an overwhelming experience. It took me considerable amount of time to digest it in a way I digested it and then to understand it was through the process of writing about it. So, writing itself became instrumental in terms of the methodological tool for me.

My nights were spent working in a detox clinic; I worked the graveyard shift. My days were spent trying to make sense of what I had encountered in the night. So, my days in a sense had turned upside down: I worked at night, and I wrote during the day, and I slept very little. So, there was this sense of excess, this sense of overflow throughout my entire experience in the field and throughout my experience of writing the book. I basically decided early on that I am going to let this project in a way take over my life for a period of years and indeed it did. It became in a sense my life. It’s a little bit difficult to talk about because when now I reflect on it, I realise that it was before I returned to new Mexico to do the actual research. This was the place where I grew up and these narratives were not unfamiliar to me. I had a deep knowledge of addiction before I went home. But my anthropological lens, the tools that I brought back with me to the field or returned home with enabled me to see things in a way that I couldn’t see as a child or without the toolkit that I brought with me into the field and part of that tool kit was to simply sit with patience and hear stories that were overwhelming. To sit with them and spend time with them and to ruminate over them and to write them over and over and over again. There was an excess to that experience that I think can be sort of surmised or felt by the reader—some people have described to me a feeling of being overwhelmed when they have read my book. They have been overwhelmed by the sadness and despair that exists. I think that is a true reflection on not only how I was perceiving the experience but also the way in which the experience of land loss and loss related to overdose exists in this particular region, and I wanted very much my work to reflect that. And that required the willingness to be overcome myself.

It’s a remarkable experience to do research on home, and I think that kind of work is poorly understood. I am writing a new book now where I am much more explicit about what it is to work at home and with memory. I was a little bit more cautious at The Pastoral Clinic when engaging with some of these concerns in part because it was my first work, which was emerging out of my dissertation. I feel a sense of freedom right now to engage with some of these ideas fully and with more transparency. The pastoral clinic was my way of dipping my feet into this project with the willingness to be overcome by something which we both want to know and understand and yet accept that there will always be something in excess of our understanding in part for me because I was not using drugs. So, there was fundamentally some kind of experience that I could not enter into and yet I felt that the knowledge that there was something fundamentally that I could never understand was also sort of indicative of something about the human experience in relationality that I also wanted to work with. My hope is that the book gestures through all of these issues in a way that first and foremost puts the narratives of my interlocutors, brings them to the fore and makes them central to the project.

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.   

Podcast Episode 2: History and geography of a city soaked in water

In the 2nd episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Anthropologist Nikhil Anand on the concept of wet cities. Professor Anand focuses on Mumbai, a city built in and out of the Arabian Sea. He encourages us to think about the long history of engineering cities as dry lands devoid of wetness, and how that is contributing to the current climate events.  


SP: Can you tell our listeners about your ethnography of ‘wet cities.’ I was wondering how did you become interested in the concept and what do you really mean by the term?

Professor Anand: I recently finished my fieldwork for a new book project called Urban Sea and the primary provocation for this project was to rethink cities and urban processes from the sea and from the ongoing work that’s taking place everyday by fishers and scientists in and around Mumbai seas. I came to this project inspired by Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur who in 2011 had an exhibition in Mumbai called Soak. The exhibition has since become a book, Soak: Rethinking Mumbai in an Estuary, where they called on not just planners but also city residents to reimagine Mumbai not just as a series of seven islands but as an estuary—a city that is in the sea. It was tremendously influential in my thinking about this project.

The project is focused on the work of fishers and scientists as they encounter various urban material in the sea but also fishers and scientists who are already seeing a climate changed sea in and around the sea. So, the project is very much focused on trying to learn–not just trying to see and work with fishers and scientists—how to inhabit cities, many of which are actually in wetlands and the seas.   

SP: The idea of amphibious places and terraqueous places has become very prominent in the environmental humanities, which talk about land that was taken away from water bodies such as sea and rivers for building roads, bridges and for rapid urbanization. I was wondering if this idea of wet cities and reclamations of land from sea then peculiar to your research site, Mumbai, and if not, how do we come to understand the historical geography of these wet environments?

Professor Anand: That’s a great question. So, you know all cities are wet. But cities may be more wet or less wet. But they all have and hold water. So Mathur and da Cunha like to say that, “water is everywhere before it is made somewhere,” and I think it is a very generated provocation because many of our cities have been made dry through different kinds of projects that are cartographic, representing the city as dry land but also through engineering, of making cities dry land. Perhaps in Mumbai this is a very extreme case but to an extent it is true of many other cities around the globe, especially coastal cities, and cities built on flood plains and rivers where the project of drying cities is always already an ongoing operation—one that is more and more difficult to do today because rivers and seas and lakes don’t act as planners would like them to, they don’t stay in their place; the place that planners and governments have made for them. So, in some ways to start with that provocation that cities are already wet, as you say amphibious—and if it is, how can we imagine inhabiting gradients of wet cities, and the gradients of wetness in cities becomes the project. And so, in the work of Kohli fishers it was especially exciting to see the ways in which they live in dry homes but also navigate these intertidal spaces using them for different purposes at different times of the year where wetness is a condition and not something to be avoided or cast aside—wetness is the very possibility of life. So, how is that place navigated and associated is something that I was especially interested to follow.

SP: I am also thinking about how we increasingly find ourselves in such situations where climate change has become so visually obvious. In November, for example, the Delhi government announced a “pollution lockdown” where schools were shutdown to protect students from the toxic smog in the air. I am also thinking about the recent discussions about rising sea level, flashy floods and in the context of Mumbai, there was a storm in the year 202. Keeping all of this mind, how do you locate your own research with the challenges of contemporary society, which in the context of climate change are global in nature and not just a problem of South Asia?

Professor Anand: You think about the problem in cities as multiple and manifold. Some are long-standing problems. So, for example, because Mumbai has been built in and out of the sea, it has a long history of flooding. Growing up in Mumbai I cannot remember a year when the city did not flood—it was just a part of the [landscape]—you have a snow day, you have a flood day. It was very much part of being in the city. I think what has changed now is that floods are taking place more frequently and in different locations not just what were wetlands but in other spaces in the city. And that is of some concern. That is a direct consequence of the more intensive rain events that are happening in the city on account of climate change. The recent spade of flooding events in the city are a result of very heavy rain events which are the consequences of climate change. So, there is an intensification, here, of what people have long seen in the city. But to think of environment as city is that these are anthropogenic environments made with and through humans living in the city and generating waste in the city. You talk of air pollution in Delhi and that’s a direct consequence of the choices that the government and citizens have made about prioritizing certain kinds of living over others. But the desecrated waste of the Anthropocene are now bearing down heavily on not just cities in India and South Asia but more broadly around the world. In Mumbai the work we are doing is focusing particularly on accretion of plastics in the sea around Mumbai. Plastics that are frequently returned by the sea to the city through a phenomenon that is being called a garbage tide. So, in some sense these are challenges of living in and on desecrated waste of anthropogenic waste—that is also becoming a problem in cities. It is entangled in other climate events even if they don’t have some same direct line to them that great events have or cyclones are having now, in cities of western in India, and all of western coast of India.

Transcending identities: Narrative reflection on the ritual of coming out

The term ‘coming out’ is still unfamiliar to many Indians. It is safe to say that it is a new term known mostly to the urban, English-speaking world of India who are familiar with gender and sexual minorities. Coming out of the closet can mean different things to different people; it can be an emancipatory act for some, forced upon for others. The timing of coming out and to whom is a matter of careful evaluation of consequences and trust. It is a self-learnt process born out of an inevitable need and a survival tool to overcome mental health issues. With this background in mind, this blog revolves centrally around my own coming out experience, which I have analysed as a ritual. I attempt to explain the coming out process that I have developed over the years through reflexive learning. I use autoethnography to narrate how my identity transcends contextual spaces while navigating in and out of the closet.

I hail from a fast-growing metropolitan city in South India where there are safe spaces such as support groups and NGOs, which my rural friends do not have. As is the case in most countries in the world, criminalising laws on homosexuality have colonial origins. Despite having a rich history and queer tradition in India, homosexuality is heavily frowned upon in Indian society. Awareness about sexual health, let alone homosexuality, is still a far dream. For example, men who identify as gay are thought by society at large to become transgender in the future. Although the supreme court of India decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, it will be a long time before there is complete societal acceptance, and there are no explicit anti-discriminatory laws in India that will legally protect an individual based on their sexual orientation. However, post-2018, some multi-national companies in India have initiated diversity and inclusion policies.

From the outset, it appears that I have a dichotomous life, taking up different identities as and how the situation demands. Privately, I am chiefly a gay man (of late, I am questioning this identity, too). Yet for the outer world, I am a middle-class, polyglot, backward caste, urban-raised, English-educated clinician and public health professional, with little exposure to world travel due to work, and with varied interests including philately, Indian philosophy, pottery, among others. I use the word ‘transcend’ instead of ‘transform’. In my understanding, transforming is a superficial change physically visible to others. In contrast, transcendence involves an enormous shift in personality, which is susceptible to quick changes, involving a distinct private and public self (p 57) where the two are related.

The idea of coming out is an exhaustingprocess, often with both negative and positive consequences. I have come across friends who have been ostracised by their highly conservative religious families and friends in India, causing severe mental health issues ranging from depression to suicidal ideations. The thought of coming out makes me highly anxious. Growing up, I didn’t have any resources to help myself deal with bullying and the self-awareness that I am different from others. The socio-cultural conditioning of my personhood in the heteronormative society led to the othering of myself to the extent that I believed something was wrong with me and my behaviour. Personhood (p 57) is ‘acquired gradually from birth onwards as the child becomes increasingly familiar with the shared customs and knowledge of society’. The fear of rejection and ridicule has led to lower academic and work performance, and I also developed psycho-somatic conditions such as fibromyalgia. The social fears I have developed are linked to clinical health conditions. General prejudice in society, minority stress, lack of accessible help and stigma related to rejection and discrimination all lead to excessive stress resulting in a range of mental and systemic health and behavioural issues among the queer community that are largely unnoticed.

On the other hand, coming out to a few friends strengthened our relationships, and there was mutual growth and understanding of differences in sexuality and sexual orientation. It also helped me to overcome my internalised homophobia. So far, I have come out only to friends and to two cousins in my family. I come from a joint family which is holding onto traditional Indian family values and customs. Since my family is unaware of my sexual orientation, the pressure to marry a girl is always there. I have learned to dodge the topic by giving excuses such as studying further, sometimes telling my family that I don’t find marriage interesting, pointing to the failed marriages in family and friend circles, or sometimes quoting the Hindu monkhood as an ideal way of living. Despite changes in contemporary Indian society with rapid urbanisation and Western lifestyle influences, the family institution plays an important role in India. Though there is an intergenerational change in the marriage system in India where inter-religious and inter-caste marriages are on the rise, one survey revealed that middle-class Indian youth favoured the legalisation of same-sex marriage, but were still not attracted to homosexual marriages. Every time I manage to dodge the marriage topic, I am aware of the pricking lies that I tell. Deep within, I crave a boyfriend, possibly moving where there is no discrimination against homosexuality and gay marriage is legalised. Therefore, sometimes, coming out is an answer to those close and trusting friends concerned about my well-being and showing genuine interest in my personal life.  

The ritual of coming out is a step-by-step process, complex and not always linear. It is like working out the maths to find an answer based entirely on assumptions. Every coming out ritual is a rite of passage to that person. Gennep’s description of rites of passage finds familiarity here. Rites of passage (p 148) is an event in a person’s life such as divorce, retirement, and so on, where an individual goes through separation, trial, and reintegration, marking progress through life stages. Eichler has used an autoethnography tool to illustrate his coming out using vignettes ranging from materials to places. Garrick has analysed the coming out act of self-disclosure using the ritual theory and the rites of passage and offers a generalisation that ritual can be protective and act as a guide for self-disclosure.

My coming out ritual involves three stages: a preparatory phase that happens in my mind, the actual coming-out event, and the post-coming-out engagement. The first stage is the most challenging part for me. It involves answering an algorithmic pattern of questions in my mind. I deal with many uncertainties of ifs and buts. A slight doubt could cancel the ritual. It begins with a person in mind to whom I could come out and then follows a barrage of mind-numbing questions. Why should I come out to this person? What is the necessity? Is there a threat to my life, work, or future that necessitates an outing? What is it that I am getting back in exchange? Will I face any threats from this person later? If yes, what is my safety net? Are there any secrets of this person I know which would prevent them from putting me in a fix?

Once I have convincing answers that fulfil the criteria of the first stage, the ritual preparation begins. How do I come out? Should I do it in person, write an email, or send a text? The first time I came out to my closest friend, I took more than four hours of talking to speak the three words that have defined my life – ‘I am gay!’. Nowadays, it has downgraded to a simple text message. The timing of coming out is another essential aspect of the ritual. It involves a lot of homework about the chosen person’s daily routine that leads to other questions about the selected person. For example, is this person going through any stressful situations at the moment? Will this person be able to handle this information that they might not have known? Do I have to inform anyone else and be prepared for any untoward outcome as a safety measure?

Once these questions are all resolved, then comes the second stage: the actual coming-out ritual. I have always preferred doing it in person. It gives me more confidence. It leaves me with a comfort that I have confronted my projected fear. It is also about providing a chance for them to clarify any questions about homosexuality in general and specific questions about myself, setting a stage to enter the third phase. While I come out, I take a deep breath, directly look into the other person’s eyes, smile and say the three golden words. In the beginning, I would prepare a speech describing how good a person I am (and so should not be discriminated against based on my homosexual inclination), and how this relationship is so significant to me that I cannot hide it.

The third phase is a continuation of the second with a self-imposed obligation to engage. I take the responsibility of helping the person understand my coming out. I have deduced that coming out is not a mono act since I involve the other person. I have realised that everyone, whether queer or straight, has to metaphorically come out of the closet.

Who better than me to answer questions on who else have I come out to, how sex works between two men, and so on? They only knew me as a façade. I also have to patiently listen to anyone’s unsolicited advice. All of this subsequently reduces any future awkward encounters.

After the ritual, I might not be reintegrated back into the person’s life. There is a risk of exposing one’s vulnerability to exploitation and to losing loved ones. The ritual is similar to the exchange of a gift except that there are no materials exchanged, only emotions. Coming out is sharing important information about one’s sexual orientation to gain support and solidarity, seeking a stronger allyship, overcoming deep layers of inhibition, shame, and guilt. For this is necessary to build a kinship network, a ‘chosen family’ of those who are accepting my sexuality, yet also open those who disagree.

I will illustrate this process using two examples. I confessed my sexual orientation to one of my closest friends, Shaantha, in 2016. I planned to meet her at a restaurant over lunch. We sat down over the table, ordered food, and were catching up about our work and other things. I had planned my conversation in detail. At one point, I mentioned my new project at work where my team were involved in developing a community health programme for queer folks. I mentioned it nonchalantly to observe her reaction. Knowing her personally for many years, I knew she would not judge me. Yet I wanted to be assured. The conversation moved to relationships and marriage. I brought up the issue of marriage not being an option to many individuals and she responded that it was unfortunate. I asked a follow-up question about what her feelings were about homosexual people. She said, without taking any time to think, that she would accept them for what they are. Taking advantage of the moment, I asked her how would she feel if anyone came out to her, to which she replied she would feel very happy that someone thought of her as trusting enough to share such personal information. At this moment, I revealed it to her. There was an instant shock on her face, but she got up from her chair and came towards me to give a tight hug. This was very assuring. She had many questions afterwards about my dating scene, personal journey, and so on. Throughout this conversation, I was on my guard and testing the waters slowly. I had to check every move, reassure myself that I was doing well, and be ready to abort the procedure if I sensed any red flag.

Almost three years later, I was visiting on one of my cousins who was going through a rough time and quit his job abruptly. He was visibly uncomfortable with my arrival. Sensing this, I prepared to leave, but he asked me to stay for a little longer. I obliged; yet the awkward silence continued. He suddenly popped the question and confronted me, asking if I was gay. He caught me off guard and I froze. I was speechless. I took a deep breath and just answered ‘yes’. By this time, I had performed many coming out rituals and I started to realise that it was a tiring process. A simple yes was easier than to carry out the laborious procedure. My cousin appeared flabbergasted. He told me to see a doctor to get rid of my homosexuality (he wouldn’t utter the word gay later in the conversation). I mustered up enough courage to tell him that I was fine and needed no treatment and then left immediately to prevent any further embarrassment. He cut off all communications with me. It did not bother me much but occasionally hurt me that a family member could stop talking to me because of my sexual orientation. I came face to face with one of my worst fears. This incident opened my eyes to the fact that people will choose to be homophobic because of the conditioning of society and I could do very little to change it.

From my experiences, coming out is a repetitive process and not a one-time event. It is an elaborate ritual involving lots of preparation and anticipating repercussions. I have found out that this technique resonates more or less with other queer individuals’ styles with whom I interacted through support group networks and random strangers on the internet. Using the language of queer people, ‘it gets better’ after every coming-out ceremony. I have become better with my choice of words, gained more confidence in uttering the word ‘gay’, and learnt from mistakes. Through this autoethnography, I have elucidated the nuances of navigating the in and out of my closet space. As I conduct this ritual often, I am at ease and perform it effortlessly, shedding the shame and guilt little by little, thus transcending to the true self. I have, over the years, broken the false sense of two lives and slowly accepted the fluid nature of life in general and, specifically, the spectrum of gender and sexual identity.

The construction of an internal humanitarian border: the case of Puebla, Mexico


The October 2018 migrant caravans prompted migration to be reconfigured as a political issue in the Central America–Mexico–United States region. Described as a forgotten crisis by the European Commission (European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, 2021), transit and settlement migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to Mexico had until then been invisible to regional and international institutions (Coutin, 2005) and migrants were primarily assisted by networks of shelters and associations overseen by the Catholic Church. However, in October 2018, the situation changed radically when thousands of people mobilised in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to migrate collectively to the United States in migrant caravans, defying the region’s securitarian apparatus. Within a regional geopolitical context dominated by the United States, these mobilisations were framed as a national security concern and, in January 2019, the US government launched the “Remain in Mexico” programme. This restrictive migration policy remains in place and forces people seeking asylum in the United States to wait for a decision on their application on Mexican territory (Homeland Security, 2019; WOLA, 2019). As a result of this measure, Mexico was obliged to take responsibility for supplying humanitarian aid to the waiting migrants, while militarisation spread across the national territory in an attempt to limit the number of people reaching the northern border. The consequences of these changes are highly concerning: today, thousands of people are trapped at Mexico’s northern border in poor conditions and their human rights and rights to asylum are being violated.

As well as mobilising the security apparatus, the hypervisibility of the migrant caravans prompted the declaration of a regional humanitarian crisis and led many local and international humanitarian organisations to take action to meet the needs of people in transit or waiting at the borders. Media and humanitarian attention has focused particularly on Mexico’s northern and southern borders, which have become geographic and symbolic spaces of violent dispute over the right to mobility. However, Mexico’s interior states have been frequently overlooked as areas structurally traversed by migrants and shaped by tensions between securitarian and humanitarian concerns. What is happening in the states located far from the country’s borders? How is the migration issue constructed and what is the response to it? This post reflects on these questions in the context of the state of Puebla in Central Mexico, which has been identified as a key transit area for migrants where securitarian and humanitarian dynamics are reproduced and extended. It is based on ethnographic research conducted in Puebla between July and September 2019 with three non-governmental organisations (two international and one Mexican) and an international humanitarian organisation involved in providing migrants with humanitarian assistance. This fieldwork was carried out as part of the research project ‘Reinforcing the Permanent Seminar on Gender and Migration’ (2019) coordinated by the Institute of Feminist Studies at the Complutense University of Madrid in Spain (INSTIFEM-UCM) and the Centre of Gender Studies at the Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico (CEG-BUAP).

These reflections are framed within the existing debate on humanitarian borders, which are defined by Walters (2011) as a complex, contradictory assemblage comprising humanitarianism and the securitarian dimension of migration control and management. Humanitarianism is a cultural model of assistance involving intervention at borders as spaces of migration management, with the aim and mandate of alleviating human suffering through a coordinated network of different stakeholders. According to De Lauri (2019), the expansion of humanitarianism in these spaces is redefining borders not only as basic components of migration control and containment, but also as areas affected by humanitarian crises, giving rise to new approaches to migration governance grounded in an acknowledgement of suffering, compassion and aid. Against this backdrop, it is important to conceptualise borders not only in terms of their securitarian dimension but also as cultural products, “invisible or ostentatious boundaries used to create ‘different’ groups of human beings” (Juliano, 1998). The borders shaping Mexico’s migration scene are culturally constructed and reproduced in multiple ways. The hypervisible process whereby migration is constructed as a humanitarian issue in a context of ongoing crisis (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021) is culturally redefining the migrant population in terms of otherness and foreignness. Migration is pinpointed as a regional issue requiring legitimate intervention and presented simultaneously as a depoliticised humanitarian object and a threat to national security. The dynamics and tensions inherent in the humanitarian border extend and are reproduced beyond territorial borders in the overlooked migration transit area of the state of Puebla.

The ethnographic context

The state of Puebla is located in the southern part of Central Mexico, approximately 130 km to the south-east of Mexico City. It has traditionally been a migrant-sending region, with migrants travelling to the United States in particular (Cortés, Forina & Manjarrez, 2017). Internal migration remains a priority on the local political agenda, which is currently focused on responding to return migration in the state. However, Puebla is also a destination for international migrants, especially those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. According to the Migration Statistical Bulletin, Puebla received 2,804 migrants in 2019 and returned 1,883, most of whom came from Central America (Unidad de Política Migratoria, 2019). Meanwhile, in 2021, 3,521 people arrived in the state and 2,266 were returned (Unidad de Política Migratoria, 2021). In their study of Central American migration in Puebla, Cortés, Forina and Manjarrez (2017) show that the state is a key stage in Mexico’s main migration routes. Firstly, it lies on the route taken by the Beast: the train used by many migrants to cross Mexico. Secondly, the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan for the Southern Border in 2014 and the increasing militarisation of the cargo train have transformed Puebla into a transit region, with migrants taking alternative, unnoticed routes on foot, accompanied by people smugglers or using motorised transport when their financial resources allow. Puebla is also a stage on the route to Mexico City, which is the departure point for the main routes leading to the northern border.

International migration in Puebla has been identified as transit migration, so it has not been labelled a political issue on the local public agenda. Although their institutional invisibility can facilitate their transit towards the north of the country, it also leaves migrants more vulnerable to dangers such as kidnapping, mugging, abuse, detention and deportation as they move (Cortés, Forina & Manjarrez, 2017). Indeed, migrants are only invisible on the local public agenda to the extent that their status as individuals with rights goes unacknowledged. Puebla has drawn increasing attention from the security apparatus as a stage on the migration route: the state is home to one of the 29 permanent holding centres used to detain irregular migrants that have opened in Mexico (Global Detention Project, 2021) and are coordinated by the National Institute of Migration (INM). In the words of Sánchez Gavi (2016), this institutional invisibility also contrasts with the visibility afforded to migrants as “delinquents” and their construction as objects of suspicion and peculiarity among some political groups and the local population. Amid these tensions, the Catholic Church has traditionally been responsible for providing migrants with humanitarian assistance in Puebla through the Human Mobility Pastoral Program and a network of five shelters. These are supplemented by impromptu aid initiatives (Sánchez-Gavi, 2016): a mobile Red Cross surgery on the Beast train route at Ciudad Serdán and groups of women known as Las Patronas led by Doña Luisa (Moncó, 2021).

Reconfiguring migration in Puebla

An analysis of the ethnographic data collected in 2019 shows how the arrival of the first migrant caravans in 2018 brought about major changes in humanitarian assistance for migrants in Puebla (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021). Firstly, one of the most significant impacts of the emergence of the caravans as a new form of regional mobility was a dramatic increase in scrutiny of the routes used by migrants to cross the country. In this context, Puebla has been publicly recognised as a stage on the migration route to Mexico City, where migrants continue towards the northern border (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021). Secondly, the emergency situation in October 2018 prompted a number of public and private stakeholders to mobilise to respond to the needs of the migrants in transit. The public authorities, coordinated by Claudia Rivera Vivanco from the left-wing National Regeneration Movement as municipal president (2018–2021), introduced measures to accommodate the migrants on a temporary basis, providing shelter, medical care and basic necessities. Civil society associations, local and international non-governmental organisations, and international organisations also played a part in managing the reception of the migrants.

Puebla’s increasing visibility as a transit region for international migrants has resulted in the emergence of a new political issue for the organisations covered by our 2019 ethnographic fieldwork. Despite traditionally being involved in preventing internal migration, they were obliged to reorder their priorities in response to the emerging migration problem. In the narrative they present, the political context of crisis and its tensions made it difficult to establish a clear stance and structured working agenda. Their humanitarian work was shaped by two tensions in particular. Firstly, the highly mobile nature of the population impeded longer-term planning. The extent to which migration is temporary varies across Mexico, ranging from high levels of mobility to long waits at the northern border or in detention centres (a consequence of policies intended to contain migration). In 2019, Puebla continued to receive large numbers of migrants travelling northwards, which led to prolonged uncertainty for humanitarian stakeholders.

Secondly, a clear tension emerged between the political stance held by humanitarian stakeholders and the contextual need to negotiate the security-focused law governing migration management in Mexico. Broadly speaking, the humanitarians’ political approach to migration revolved around the right to asylum and human rights (Benincasa & Cortés, 2021). However, this stance and the search for political responses were undermined by Mexico’s inconsistent official discourse, which wavered between concern for protecting migrants’ rights and restrictive measures used to detain, imprison and deport them, violating these rights and creating an ambiguity that has yet to be resolved (París Pombo, 2019). Moreover, the construction of a prolonged humanitarian crisis fuelled the notion of instability in relation to Mexico’s migration and political situation, legitimising and reinforcing humanitarianism as the only possible response to migration.

These tensions illuminate how Puebla has become a focus of attention for humanitarian intervention in migration in Mexico. Changes in the migration situation in Puebla, which have been driven and highlighted by the migrant caravans, are transforming the state into a clear space of tension between mobility, humanitarianism and securitarianism. This ethnographic case study shows how the intersection between border dynamics and humanitarian action transcends national borders to affect Mexico’s interior states. The humanitarian border that is being constructed in Mexico is expanding and being reproduced in the state of Puebla, which is emerging as an internal humanitarian border. This process highlights the urgent need to understand these specific local manifestations of the border with the aim of demonstrating and comparing the ways in which migrants are stripped of their political and human rights (Moncó, 2021) and the influence of the humanitarian border on their mobility and immobility as they cross the state of Puebla.


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Sánchez Gavi, J. L. (2016). Movilidad humana. El fenómeno migratorio de Puebla bajo la perspectiva de la Iglesia Católica. TLA-MELAUA Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 9(39), 108–130. Available at: http://www.apps.buap.mx/ojs3/index.php/tlamelaua/article/view/94

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Unidad de Política Migratoria. (2021). 2021 Boletín Estadístico mensual.

Walters, W. (2011). Foucault and frontiers: notes on the birth of the humanitarian border. In Bröckling, U. Krasmann, S. & Lemke, T., eds. Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Trends. New York: Routledge, 138-164.

WOLA. (2019). The “wall” before the wall. Mexico’s crackdown on migration at its Southern Border. Washington DC: WOLA. Available at: https://www.wola.org/analysis/mexico-southern-border-report/

Book review: Unexpected Subjects: Intimate Partner Violence, Testimony, and the Law. By Alessandra Gribaldo, 2021. HAU Books.

This short book is an ethnographic essay on the constitution of the abused subject through testimony in the Italian judicial system. How do experiences of intimate violence get translated into legally intelligible language? How does the ambivalence and trauma of intimate partner violence complicate the articulation of experience in the court? What inadequate institutional structure renders a victim’s narration of violent experience necessary but impossible at the same time? Gribaldo refers to domestic violence as “Violence Degree Zero” in anthropological research (13) – one of those “dead zones of the imagination” (Graeber 2012) that simultaneously represents “an excess of relevance” and an area of “violent simplification” (15). Her book fills this gap with a theoretically sophisticated investigation of the encounter between women’s words and the legal system, paying keen attention to the friction between intimacy and violence in the production of subjectivity and modalities of truth-telling.

Gribaldo makes a compelling case for ethnographic knowledge in providing a privileged site to examine the complicated relationship between intimacy and violence, the conflicting demands of victimhood in legal institutions, and the potentials of ambivalence and hesitations in narrating experience of violence. Engaging with a wide range of feminist and anthropological scholarship on violence, subjectivity, and silences, Gribaldo’s analytical focus is on the different modalities of “speaking violence” (4). The domestic violence cases in the book revolves around women as victims and men as perpetrators in heterosexual relationships.

In Chapter 1 (Un)Familiar Violence, Gribaldo draws on anthropological and feminist scholarship to expound on the tensions between intimate relations and legal institutions, and the paradoxes in rendering women’s victimhood legible and legitimate. Drawing on Foucault while bearing in mind “the unresolved tension between the chance to rethink and free gender differences” (30), Gribaldo focuses our attention on the issue of experience and the possibility of conveying and verifying such knowledge. The evidentiary requirements of the court – coherent, clear, objective – is contradicted by the subjective, experience-based, and emotion-filled narratives that victims produce.

Chapter 2 Wavering Intentions illuminates the contradictions of women’s subjectivization as victims and as witness in court. Originally introduced to protect women from familial pressure to withdraw their cases, the Italian Criminal Code requires mandatory prosecution of domestic violence cases, in which the women’s testimonies are central to the trial. This juridical protection presumes women as passive subjects who could not make their own decisions but also expects them to be reliable speaking subjects. For a host of reasons, many women choose not to press charges or retract their statements during the trial. Those who do testify would be interrogated not only for the veracity of their claims, their understanding of violence, but also their own subjectivity. Their testimonies are further constrained by the modalities of judicial procedure that requires coherence and focus. For example, a woman was stopped by the judge when she lamented “I didn’t go to work because I had a black eye…love is not enough.” Domestic violence hearings do not produce a simple dichotomization of perpetrators and victims, but rather, “the proof of the crime [of domestic violence] is constituted by the intimate relationship, the experience of violence, and the consciousness of the abused victim (53).” The victim’s perception and statements crucially become such proof.

In Chapter 3, Gribaldo questions the focus on victim’s testimonial proof, and critiques the burden of confession on the victim who “must supply a meaningful framework that allows for recognition and certification, making the production of evidence possible” (86). The centrality of the victim’s testimony means that she is the main target of interrogation and questioning – “not only to verify the facts but also verify women’s capacities to understand and communicate the intimate violence experienced” (91). Furthermore, because the intention of the perpetrator could only be evidenced by the victim’s testimony, “[t]he victim is asked to speak for the perpetrator, to clarify the reasons behind the crime” (85). Any difficulty in remembering events, inconsistency in narration, or failure to comply with the judicial modality of questioning, comes to be interpreted by the defense and the judge as the woman’s unreliability as a witness. Feelings, contexts, and performance pertinent to the woman’s own communication of the experience of violence are considered excesses in the judicial proceedings.

Gribaldo’s ethnography in Chapter 4 The Gender of True-Lying helps readers see vividly how the authenticity of women’s narrated experience is always suspect. Speaking up as a victim-subject renders unreliable the woman’s intentionality in breaking the silence. It is the entirety of the victim’s act of testifying that is being assessed – down to “the appropriate emotional tone” in which she delivers her testimony, as one prosecutor said (99). Gribaldo must be credited for effectively bringing together court exchanges with the perspectives of prosecutors, judges, social service managers, demonstrating the contradictory expectations that the victim “must be subjugated, passive, and aware at the same time” (99). Reflecting on these impossible expectations in institutionalized political language, Gribaldo advocates for “the need to consider hesitations, and the unexpectedly oblique and mediating modes of testimony, action, subtraction, and resistance” (112).

Gribaldo demonstrates a dexterity with theory and ethnography when analyzing the unorthodox testimony performed by Giovanna. Her expressions departed from the expectation of coherence and clarity required by the court, and resembled the mode of self-expression called ‘la piazzata’ (open quarrelling in public). By describing how Giovanna’s declaration of love for her ex-husband allows the judge to verify the authenticity of her testimony, Gribaldo demonstrates the ways the gendered subaltern subject made herself recognizable. The significance of love captured here echoes with legal scholar Mark West’s (2006) analysis of love as a significant discourse in Japanese court decisions on love-suicide, murder, and stalking.  A brief discussion about how love is understood as an emotion both in popular culture and in legal institutions – something that West accomplished with ample room in his full-length book – would advance readers’ understanding of the role emotions play in mediating legal processes on intimate relations.

In condensing years of fieldwork into a short book that is both theoretically engaged and ethnographically illuminating, Gribaldo had to make some difficult choices. She states in the Introduction that she keeps the ethnography “suspended” (9) – not locating the juridical dynamics by setting them within the specific Italian context – in order to address specific theoretical issues. As such, the priority of Unexpected Subjects is theoretical elaboration over thick description. Therefore, readers may find ample room for reflection in Gribaldo’s eloquent exposition of concepts from Strathern, Ortner, Mahmood, Foucault, and Agamben, but may at times be left wondering how some of her ethnography fits in. For example, a woman at a shelter insisted on talking about the story of her intimate relationship, a narrative mode not accommodated by the Italian penal code. Gribaldo suggests that the resistance to speak about violence lies in the contradiction inherent in intimate violence – “[t]hese women have embodied a perception of intimacy with a liberal stress on self-responsibility and freedom. They are victims who see themselves as guilty for not knowing how to react to a context of power abuse considered to be obsolete in a society presumed egalitarian” (56). It is unclear to the readers how these ideas were articulated by her interviewees. Furthermore, readers who are not familiar with gender politics in Italy would appreciate an earlier discussion of the white woman-mother figure in the Italian imaginary (102, Chapter 4) that circulates in and behind these testimonies. For example, such contextualization may help readers understand how a woman, who was displeased with her children’s testimony exonerating her ex-partner, retracted her testimony and forgave the perpetrator when called upon by the judge (42, Chapter 2).

Unexpected Subjects should be applauded for being among the few ethnographic investigations into judicial proceedings on domestic violence. Its thoughtful engagement with a rich body of feminist and anthropological scholarship opens up a crucial space for theoretical reflections on violence, testimony, and the law. To accomplish all these in such a short book is an intellectual feat. The book should be read by researchers, postgraduate students, and upper-level undergraduate of all disciplines interested in gender, violence, and the law.


West, Mark. 2006. Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Podcast Episode 1: Histories and futures in monocrop palm oil plantation

In the 1st episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Anthropologist Tania Murray Li on the history and future of palm oil plantation in Indonesia and other parts of the world. Professor Li explains what monocrop palm oil plantation may be revealing about economic inequality and why is it so important to pay attention to dominant conception of development.


SP: Could you share with our listeners a little about your research on palm oil plantation, what is the history of monocrop palm oil plantation in Indonesia, your place of research, and how did you come to write about it?

Professor Li: Okay, thank you. So, I started this research in 2010, together with an Indonesian colleague, Professor Pujo Semedi, from Gajdah Mada University. He had a history of studying plantations in Java. Indonesia has a history of large monocrop plantation going back to at least the 1870s Dutch colonial land law that enabled large land concessions and encouraged foreign investors. The main plantation site historically was in the island of Sumatra. The main crops were tobacco, rubber, and oil palm. We decided to study one of the new oil palm frontiers, which was relatively new in the island of Kalimantan. So, we chose a research site, which had different kind of plantations: one was state-owned, another was privately owned, while another area was based on contract farming and out-grower scheme. The spectrum of oil palm growing was part of our evidence. The main reason we decided to study this topic is its enormous importance in Indonesia. There was now at least 12 million hectares of oil palm in the country and most of it was under the control of corporations—large monocrop plantation style. Another 8-10 million hectares has already been leased to these corporations and they’re waiting for further expansion. It has a massive footprint: 30-40 percent of Indonesia’s farmland is now dedicated to this one crop on a monocrop basis.  Although this had become a huge element of transformation of Indonesian countryside and rural life. There had not been any ethnographic research on the topic. So, there were studies by NGOs and there have certainly been some work on the ecological impacts, forest loss. Research of different kinds have looked at this usually finding that the impacts were very troubling in terms of forest loss, species loss, environmental ruin, loss of livelihoods and so on. The focus of our research was a little different, we decided that we will not just focus on what was lost when large monocrop corporate agriculture came to dominate massive swathe of the countryside but what was installed. So, our focus was on what kind of life was it when you live in a plantation zone. So, our forthcoming book is called Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, and that’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to say what is the life, we recognized at least 15 million people now living under the shadow of this kind of corporate agriculture, whether as workers on plantation or as original landholders who are still living in this landscape but are living as residual synchronies here and there trying to eke out a livelihood with very little access to land. All of those people are living a plantation life or life dominated by corporate plantation—what is this life, is it a good life, a bad life, who experiences it in different ways, sure, its varied, some people are going to benefit profit, some people are going to lose relentlessly, what is that sort of social map, the diversity of experience of people in the plantation zone. Our discipline is anthropology, and we are trying to give a texture of everyday as well as trying to contextualise the everyday in the forces that are producing that everyday life, that’s been our focus. 

2) Plantation economy has a lot of appeal in developing countries (with the Indian government recently laying out a plan for palm oil cultivation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, threatening its biodiversity). The argument goes that if land is collectivized and brought under monocrop cultivation it will generate a lot of profits and increase employment opportunities—a “win-win” situation. How do you locate your own research in the context of such arguments?

Professor Li: Well, this is sort of the key question, and I will have to say that part of our goal has been to put that claim that this is a “win-win” that it generates jobs, that it generates development—to put it to empirical test. There has been large-scale plantation agriculture in India and Indonesia and in other parts of Asia for more than a century so if we look at the evidence in those areas where it has been long established, are they in fact, prospering? Are the workers prosperous? Do children get education and go off to universities? Is the economy diversifying? Are there lots of spin offs? Secondary forms of employment, are there little businesses? Basically, is the plantation zone a thriving zone, a zone of development not only for the crop but also for the people and communities living in and around it. Or is the plantation zone a desolate space in which workers are underpaid, poorly paid, local people are not given jobs, but migrants are because they’re easier to manage and control. India has a long history of this. Though the workers are not doing especially well, the local people may initially like the idea of a plantations when there is just one, because they see it bringing infrastructure to remote areas. But what has historically happened over time is that, and our research mainly focuses on this is that the initial pioneer plantation is followed by one, two, five and twenty more until the entire area is saturated with plantations and the people on spot have nowhere to farm. Though corporates especially benefit from the scenario, but its extremely doubtful and I would say the evidence does not confirm that you get good jobs and a livelihoods and sustainable forms of development in this plantation path—there is no historical example of it. Why should it suddenly happen now in the Nicobar Islands when it has never happened anywhere else? I think this is a really important kind of reality check, which needs to happen behind these arguments.

Another point to make about this is that the assumption is that large-scale monocrop cultivation will be highly efficient. You know, surely, all those rows of crops lined up neatly, those workers in their uniform saluting the company flag, subjected to discipline and the technical departments suggesting that surely this will be a highly efficient technically driven enterprise. But what we have found in our research, and others have found similarly including research in India is that plantations are often corrupt and leaky machines in which workers, managers and local villagers, no one is really committed to the corporate enterprise and why should they be because it doesn’t treat them especially well. There is lots of theft, there is lots of various kinds of resistance, and the level of productivity that we have found in plantations is sometimes lower than what smallholders can achieve in the surrounding site if they are given access to good quality seeds and infrastructure. So, the argument for plantation efficiency that somehow these are going to be super productive machines again must be put to empirical test and the point is that they aren’t. Small holders produce as much palm oil per hectare, and they do so at a much lower cost because they do not have to pay to administrators and managers, accountants, and security guards, and all that apparatus you need to run a palm oil plantation. Small holders need to have decent, seed, good roads, access to a mill that treats them fairly, and on that basis, they can grow this crop very efficiently at lower cost and prosperity is generated locally and it stays local, instead of being shipped out to corporate profits it stays in local areas where it is reinvested in all kinds of agricultural and other kinds of enterprises. So, the whole favoring of the plantation model in the name of development and jobs I feel is a deeply mistaken one, and it really needs to be subject to a lot of critical scrutiny. In my mind its kinds of extraordinary that the promoters of corporate plantations have gotten away with this for this long with repeating this “win-win” storyline when there is really no evidence to support it and they haven’t even felt obliged to provide this evidence because they seem to feel that a large-scale plantation with its imperial grandeur just speaks for itself—this must be efficient, this must be productive, this must be modern, actually it isn’t. Are there any conditions under which plantation style economy would be beneficial? I would say there are a couple of very limited ones from what I have seen. The initial pioneer plantation could play a role because people learn about the crop and some infrastructure is put in place but allowing entire areas to become saturated with plantations is to squeeze out the local population and the small-holder alternatives. If there’s going to be plantation, not too much, but just one or two, here and there—not too big and certainly not wall-to-wall puppet of plantations. The second thing to really keep an eye on is jobs—are the workers on plantations protected by labor laws, are they going to have stable jobs, with house and accidental benefits, pensions or are they going to be a disposable workforce, that’s in fact not protected and treated poorly, So, countries which have strong and enforced labor laws in the plantation sector those workers might just do quite well. But in Indonesia that’s not the case, because plantations have been casualizing their workforce. There’s a small workforce that has quite good condition but most of the work is done by casual workers who are not protected by the labor laws. So, there working conditions are miserable and these are not good job, there is no win-win there. Those are the two things to watch if your government is determined to go down the plantation path—ensure that the labor conditions are going to benefit workers otherwise this narrative of win-win is really misleading.