Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 1 – Het Pand

Blog 2

Blog 3

On a warm September evening in 2021, we joined a group of residents, researchers, and activists at the centre for contemporary art Kunsthal, which is part of the 13th century Caermersklooster, the old Carmelite convent in Ghent’s historic city centre. On the trail of plundering iconoclasts, poor working class families, young artists and the monks once shuffling through these corridors, we attended a “therapeutic Townhall Meeting”, convened by artist Grace Ndiritu. The meeting concerned the fate of the neighbouring building, the second monastery courtyard dubbed het Pand. Since the mid-19th century, the galleries of het Pand were reorganized into tiny houses for poor families. When the Province of East Flanders acquired the property in the late 1970s, residents were threatened with eviction to make way for real estate developers. However, the Province dropped its plans in the face of the Pandinisten, an activist collective successfully advocating social housing. 2020 saw a renewed push for privatisation, with the Province and the social housing company WoninGent announcing their intention to sell part of the building complex. This once again triggered fierce opposition from activists and squatters, this time going by ‘Pandemisten’ in reference to their predecessors and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participating in the Townhall Meeting made us reflect on the global dimensions of the ongoing dispute over het Pand. Our enquiry was framed and nurtured by Ndiritu’s A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, which ran from September to December 2021 as part of her art project Ghent: How to Live Together (Ndiritu, 2021a). Informed by the site’s rich history and contested sites elsewhere, particularly involving indigenous people, Ndiritu’s “season” included a movie night, a reading group, a public debate, sharing local knowledge and assembling a community archive (see below). An international ‘truth and reconciliation’ perspective on the conflict over het Pand guided all events, drawing as well on Ndiritu’s ongoing project Healing The Museum and her work on non-rational healing and radical pedagogical methodologies (Ndiritu, 2021b; 2021c). Collaborating with legal specialist Julie Van Elslande of the Brussels-based artists’ initiative Jubilee, A Season of Truth and Reconciliation is also one the art trajectories of Jubilee’s collective research project Emptor, which interrogates the concept of “property” in the quest for an ecology of practices on the field  of visual arts (https://caveat.be/pages/about.html). A Season of Truth and Reconciliation deliberately goes beyond the Caermersklooster, examining what the situated dispute in this historical, European urban place can teach us on practices of “living together” in contested sites.

Ndiritu’s international lens on het Pand facilitated a framework for us in this blog series to critically reflect on our own research on indigenous people and their ongoing struggles to access and/or assert rights over heritage sites in South Africa (Rafael) and the Andes (Hanne): What happens to a place-related community’s identity and their way(s) of life, as well as the place itself and its identity, when that place is being (re)claimed as heritage? How do (re)claimed heritage sites become the object of      community dispossession, displacement, and revitalization (Cottyn, 2022; Verbuyst, 2022)? Tackling cases that might at first sight have little in common, we identify topics, questions and challenges that can inform future research and policy regarding contested heritage. Broaching topics such as indigenous rights, property law, commoning and the role of ‘archives’, we are particularly interested in the relationship between heritage, belonging, and community and their relationship to what Laurajane Smith famously called the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’, i.e. Western/conventional management, assessment and conservation perspectives about ‘heritage’ (Smith, 2006). As Smith and others remind us, ‘heritage’ is always subject to ‘heritagization’: the process of defining, valorising and contesting something as ‘heritage’, which usually encompasses tangible and intangible features and involves various stakeholders (Harvey, 2001). With recent decades bringing heritage issues sharper into focus, resulting in new conceptual proposals including “heritage from below”, “heritage otherwise”, or “decolonial heritage”, many have argued that we need to think more outside the box and explore heritage’s relation to social struggles, local heritage knowledge, decolonial epistemologies, property regimes, and (a lack of) community participation (Arregui, Mackenthun & Wodianka, 2018; Ginzarly, Farah & Teller, 2019; Bigenho & Stobart, 2018; Robertson, 2016).

In this vein, our three cases demonstrate diverse questions of legal ownership (this blog), colonial legacies (the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, blog 2), and environmental change (Lake Poopó in Bolivia, blog 3). In each blog, we situate the contested land, and the historical trajectory of the property or use rights over it. We sketch a brief history of “belonging” and community formation at the site, survey the contemporary problems, and discuss the tensions and protagonists, as well as the strategies and potential creative solutions that have been put forward, with an emphasis on the theme of ‘truth and reconciliation’. In the remainder of this post, we engage in this exercise by expanding on the case of het Pand and Ndiritu’s A Season of Truth and Reconciliation.

A history of belonging

Caermersklooster, 2011. Wernervc, Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout history, the Caermersklooster complex has been drawn intimately into the rhythms of diverse projects of community making, religious worshipping, housing, artistic creation, and capital production. This history of belonging starts with the Carmelites procuring the property in 1287 (see Vandamme, 2021). An strong bond emerged between the monks and the wider neighbourhood as they built more structures on the site from the 14th century onwards. The monastery was plundered during the Reformation in the second half of the 16th century, but Catholics eventually regained control of the city. A long process of recovery and expansion of both the building and monastic life ensued. However, the Order of the Carmelites was abolished in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution and the monastery was declared private property. The “kerkfabriek”, the institution overseeing the Church’s assets and property, eventually assumed ownership in 1841. In 1881, the City of Ghent acquired the church and restored the site in neogothic style. Thecomplex hosted an archaeological museum, later the Museum of Folklore and it was eventually used for storage. The church was declared a protected monument in 1943, encompassing the entire complex by 1980. In 1977, the Province of East Flanders assumed ownership of the rest of the monastery complex.

Impoverished labourers had meanwhile settled in the former monastery hoping to find employment in Ghent’s booming textile industry. The galleries surrounding het Pand were restructured into tiny houses in the mid-19th century. While participating in Ndiritu’s ‘Local Knowledge’ event, Norbert, a former resident, described a fairly closed community with strict rules and strong social and religious traditions in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from his family, only unmarried women lived between the walls of the building, whose concierge reportedly locked the outside doors every night by 10 pm: “It was something between a prison and a beguinage [housing for lay religious women who lived in community]”. The space opened up in the 1970s, when mostly poor students from the nearby art school began occupying rooms on the top floor of het Pand. While het Pand had been repurposed for social housing to support the neighbourhood’s poor residents, it became an eyesore to politicians and investors. In the late 1970s, the Province revealed plans to sell its stake of the complex on the private market, dismissing pleas by tenants to maintain the housing function of the site. While these kinds of evictions were later declared unlawful, various people, such as the parents of Norbert, were forced out in the 1980s.

Others stayed behind and resisted. A coalition of poor residents, students and artists, mainly youngsters without domicile, formed an organization, mischievously called Pandinistisch Verblijvingsfront [Pandinist Residence Front], after the Nicaraguan Liberation Front. The Pandinisten sought to safeguard the right to housing, juxtaposing “erfgoed” (heritage/patrimony) with “vastgoed” (real estate/property). The group had their own pirate radio and newspaper and received support from locally renowned artists. Luc recalls how their often radical tactics were infused with playful and artistic elements, which helped win over the public opinion in Ghent. Authorities eventually opted for a “revaluation” of the site as well as an overall gentrification of the neighbourhood into a picturesque, touristy district. Now in the hands of the municipality, het Pand retained its social housing function and restoration works followed in the 1990s. The Province meanwhile restored the church hall.

Het Pand between community and market

As het Pand entered the 21st century, it continued to be occupied by people looking for social housing, and a tree, which had been planted by the Pandinisten. Since 2018, most of the Caermersklooster is owned by the City of Ghent, which includes the Kunsthal in the church hall since 2019, but a large portion of the complex remains under control of the Province. Towards the end of 2020, the City, Province and the social housing company managing the site, WoninGent, announced their plans to sell their property on the private market, arguing that there are no possibilities to use the building for public purposes. A group of (non-)squatting activists swiftly joined the sole family remaining at het Pand in response to this announcement. Inspired by their predecessors and the COVID-19 pandemic, the arguments, demands and tactics of the ‘Pandemists’ resonated strongly with those of the 1970s and 1980s. Advocating for social housing, the constitutional right to a dignified life and greater participation in decision-making, the activists claim the municipal government disregards its (in)tangible heritage by selling off historical buildings and forgetting about ‘people’ in its ‘development’ agenda (De Pandemisten, 2021; see also https://hetpand.noblogs.org/english/). These sentiments grew even more prominent when a judge ordered the evacuation of the site in December 2021.

Collectively reflecting on these grievances during A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, international parallels surfaced alongside a strong emphasis on the relationship between (in)tangible heritage and belonging. Both tend to get lost in the more managerial and utilitarian discourse on heritage and its emphasis on the material and financial sustainability, which the City and the Province at times promulgates. As Emilie, the last resident of het Pand, argued during the ‘Local Knowledge’ event, the site has incredible historical value, but this value is intrinsically linked with its social, housing, and artistic role in Ghent. The Pandemisten indeed explicitly engage broader critiques on social crises around housing, gentrification and citizen participation across the Ghent region, Europe and beyond (Grazioli, 2021; Neven, 2021). Different generations of residents also expressed a strong sense of unrecognized belonging performed through communal or customary practices. During A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, (former) residents argued that practicing ‘property’ through ways of commoning was explicitly/implicitly constant across the history of the Caermersklooster: from the 13th century Carmelites to the social housing tenants today.

Het Pand Community Archive, Kunsthal Gent. Grace Ndiritu and Jubilee vzw, 2022.

From the interweaving of materials and people, het Pand thus emerged as a “meshwork” of relationships of belonging in which knowledge and meaning is enmeshed (Lefebvre, 1991; Ingold, 2015). Articulating het Pand as a threatened fabric of intimate associations, residents argued during A Season of Truth and Reconciliation that you cannot subdivide the space of het Pand. It must be taken as a whole, as “inextricably” connected with the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. This form of life that sustains the meshwork that keeps het Pand together is what they want to safeguard and celebrate. As former Pandenist Luc put it, het Pand allows for “a form of dwelling (wonen), and in that sense a kind of heritage.” A kind of heritage that exceeds the definition and practices of heritage management currently proposed by public authorities and private investors, and whose revitalisation relies on interpersonal rather than monetary agreements. 

As part of their response to the contestations over het Pand, Grace and Julie aimed to document this (conceptualization of) living and dwelling through the curation of a ‘community archive’, which was on display for several months. Informed by Jubilee’s research, the input from various community members and the public, and efforts to involve all stakeholders invested in the site and its future, the archive traces the many historical users of the building, its changing property status, and shifting institutional management of the place over time. In line with Ndiritu’s overarching project of Healing the Museum, the initiative demonstrates how collaborative artistic projects can generate productive spaces of dialogue with institutions around creative resistance and alternative practices of heritage (Serafini, 2022). This initiative in the spirit of truth and reconciliation is partially responsible for the fact that residents feel there is greater room for participation in the ongoing negotiations, even if tensions still regularly run high. A report looking into possible design for het Pand was ordered by the City in the meantime (Miss Miyagi, 2021), and venues for dialogue were facilitated by public institutions, activists and artists. While city officials and WoninGent usually did not respond to invitations to engage in dialogue, the municipality recently organised a series of “city debates” about the Caermersklooster in direct response to A Season of Truth and Reconciliation – the results of which will be presented in September 2022 (Personal communication Grace Ndiritu; see also https://stad.gent/nl/binnenstad/bouw-mee-aan-de-binnenstad/stadsdebat-caermersklooster). Meanwhile, the use and purpose of the site is everchanging, with the Province announcing plans to host refugees at the site in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and programmes for troubled youths being organized by youth organizations and networks (Schouppe, 2022; Van Waeyenberghe, 2022).

When the building’s ownership passed from the “kerkfabriek” to the Province, the former owner explicitly expressed its trust in the new owner’s intentions and capacities to maintain the building’s historical purpose. Whether the site of het Pand remains true to its history, if chequered, of community building is yet to be seen. While the possibility of a sell off on the private market remains, several innovative options have been identified to do this in coordination with public authorities, under certain heritage arrangements, and/or the community, so as to ensure their right to their own kind of heritage.

References

Arregui, A., Mackenthun, G., & Wodianka, S. (2018). DEcolonial Heritage: Natures, Cultures, and the Asymmetries of Memory. Münster: Waxmann Verlag.

Bigenho, M., & Stobart, H. (2018). Grasping Cacophony in Bolivian Heritage Otherwise. Anthropological Quarterly, 91(4), 1329–1363.

Cottyn, H. (2022). The More-than-human Histories of a Dying Lake. The Uru-Qotzuñi and Lake Poopó, Bolivia. Paper presented at the POLLEN22/3 conference, 27 July.

De Pandemisten (2021, May 29). Stop de verkoop van ‘t Pand (Caermersklooster Gent). De Wereld Morgen. Retrieved from https://www.dewereldmorgen.be/artikel/2021/05/29/stop-de-verkoop-van-t-pand-caermersklooster-gent/

Ginzarly, M., Farah, J., & Teller, J. (2019). Claiming a role for controversies in the framing of local heritage values. Habitat International, 88 (101982). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.habitatint.2019.05.001

Grazioli, M. (2021). Housing, urban commons and the right to the city in post-crisis Rome. Lonon: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harvey, D. C. (2001). Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7 (4), 319–338. https://doi.org/10.1080/13581650120105534

Ingold, T. (2015). The life of lines. New York: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. New York: Blackwell.

Miss Miyagi, (2021). Eindrapport – Caermersklooster. Retrieved from https://sogent.be/sites/default/files/20211018_NO_CAERKL_eindrapport.pdf.

Neven, B. (2021, December 9). De Gentse krakers van ‘Het Pand’ zetten de wooncrisis op de agenda.Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/nl/article/y3vpnm/de-gentse-krakers-van-het-pand-zetten-de-wooncrisis-op-de-agenda

Ndiritu, G. (2021a). Ghent: How to live together. Retrieved from https://kunsthal.gent/en/development/invoer-29787

Ndiritu, G. (2021b). Healing The Museum. Retrieved from https://www.berlinerfestspiele.de/en/gropiusbau/programm/journal/2021/grace-ndiritu-healing-the-museum.html

Ndiritu, G. (2021c). Being Together: A Manual For Living. Hasselt: KRIEG.

Robertson, I. J. M. (2016). Heritage from below. London/ New York: Routledge.

Schouppe, W. (2022, March 11). Oost-Vlaanderen maakt noodopvang voor vluchtelingen uit Oekraïne in Caermersklooster in Gent.VRT NWS. Retrieved from https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2022/03/11/provincie-oost-vlaanderen-plant-noodwoning-oekraiense-vluchtelin/

Serafini, P. (2022). Creating worlds otherwise. Nashville: Vanderbildt University Press.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. New York/London: Routledge.

Vandamme, G. (2021). Het Caermersklooster te Gent: een (bouw)historische benadering. Retrieved from http://geertvandamme.blogspot.com/2017/10/het-caermersklooster-te-gent-een.html

Van Waeyenberghe, S. (2022, March 3). Nu de krakers weg zijn, heeft Caermersklooster nieuwe tijdelijke functie: “Een ontmoetingsplek voor jongeren”. HLN. Retrieved from https://www.hln.be/gent/nu-de-krakers-weg-zijn-heeft-caermersklooster-nieuwe-tijdelijke-functie-een-ontmoetingsplek-voor-jongeren~ad46ecfc/

Verbuyst, R. (2022). Khoisan Consciousness: An Ethnography of Emic Histories and Indigenous Revivalism in Post-Apartheid Cape Town. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Episode 6: Are we in the age of Anthropocene?

In the 6th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews environmental historian and historical geographer, Jason W. Moore. Moore’s work radically upsets the Nature-Society dualism of capitalism both materially and symbolically manifested in the logic of Anthropocene. We discuss the periodization of history, its framing, and the kind of role it played in shaping our interpretation of climate change and the inanimate world.

Book Review – Watershed Politics and Climate Change in Peru, by Astrid B. Stensrud. Pluto Press, 2021

In this ethnographic account, Astrid B. Stensrud explores the ways in which water is perceived and used. Based on 13 months of ethnographic work between 2011 and 2014, the book provides a vivid description of how social practices, legal frameworks, and the changing weather due to climate change and insecure water supplies influence the pluralities of understandings and practices linked to water. The book adds to the corpus of scholarly work that recognizes the ontological pluralism of water (Perreault et al., 2018) and contributes to the debates on water justice.
The ethnographic work took place in a critical period: during Peru’s implementation and adaptation of a new regulatory framework on water management, in line with the neoliberal policy adopted by the Peruvian water sector since 2000 (Harris & Roa-García, 2013). The first pilot for a river basin council implemented through the 2009 Water Law was initiated in the very region where the study took place (Arequipa), in the neighbouring watershed of Quilca-Chili. Arequipa is also a region where there are ongoing, long-lasting social conflicts over water sources (as the case of Tia Maria (Dunlap, 2019)) and a region that has litigated at the higher courts to prioritize scarce water sources in irrigation projects to expand agro-business in the desert (Majes Siguas) (La República, 2012; Ruíz, 2011).
Throughout the duration of the study, there was debate on the right to water at the national level (which the book omits). Between 2000 (the return to democracy) and 2011 there were no constitutional amendment proposals concerning the right to water. However, between 2011 and 2012, all political parties with representation in the national Congress issued bills for constitutional amendments (seven in total). But all the bills contained a limited understanding of water rights and linked the right to drinkable water to other fundamental rights. The rights mostly referenced were the rights to health and life. In 2017, Peru passed constitutional reform Article 7-A recognizing the fundamental right to water.

Within this context of regulatory changes, which also consolidated a neoliberal approach to water management, Stensrud’s book, organized into seven well-structured chapters, provides an informed analysis of the changes in the social relations in the Colca-Majes watershed, offering a detailed report on the multiple dimensions of these relations. While recognizing the transformation and resistance produced by the 2009 Water Law and the water management structures generated by the law, Stensrud’s ethnographic work shows that in these transformations climate change is also playing a role. Yet, Stensrud goes beyond describing the inhabitants of Arequipa’s perceptions of climate change (Bowling et al., 2021) and water stress, accounting for how this phenomenon is already shaping social relations and the relationship between the watershed inhabitants, the mountains and the springs, as well as the water authorities.

References

Bowling, L. C., Mazer, K. E., Bocardo-Delgado, E., Frankenberger, J. R., Pinto, J., Popovici, R., & Prokopy, L. S. (2021). Addressing Water Resources and Environmental Quality Programming Needs in Arequipa, Peru. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, 173(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1936-704X.2021.3354.x

Dunlap, A. (2019). ‘Agro sí, mina NO!’ the Tía Maria Copper Mine, State Terrorism and Social War by Every Means in the Tambo Valley, Peru. Political Geography, 71, 10–25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2019.02.001

Harris, L. M., & Roa-García, M. C. (2013). Recent Waves of Water Governance: Constitutional Reform and Resistance to Neoliberalization in Latin America (1990–2012). Geoforum, 50, 20–30. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2013.07.009

La República. (2012). En Arequipa alistan paro contra el Gobierno por proyecto Majes Siguas II. La República. Retrieved 14 August 2012, from: http://www.larepublica.pe/31-07-2012/en-arequipa-alistan-paro-contra-el-gobierno-por-proyecto-majes-siguas-ii

Perreault, T., Boelens, R., & Vos, J. (2018). Introduction: Re-Politizing Water Allocation. In T. Perreault, R. Boelens & J. Vos (Eds.), Water Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Ruíz, J. C. (2011). El mundo al revés en el caso Majes Siguas II: proteger derechos constitucionales puede acarrear sanciones. Justicia Viva. Retrieved 11 April 2011, from: http://www.justiciaviva.org.pe/notihome/notihome01.php?noti=452

Episode 5: Science and economy of selling pesticides

In the 5th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Historian Elena Conis on how risky pesticides were culturally accepted and what kind of role did science play in its acceptance. Professor Conis explains how scientific research during war and epidemics prioritized some types of scientific questions over others, and how this approach built an economy that was geared towards selling poisonous pesticides and making them socially desirable.

Science and economy of selling pesticides by Public Anthropologist Podcast (anchor.fm)

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.

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.

Prize Winners

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2022 was 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 was 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.

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.