Last week, the Wenner-Gren Foundation hosted the second session of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section lecture series, welcoming anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum of the City University of New York and a panel of discussants to re-examine her landmark ethnography Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands on the occasion of its 35th anniversary.
The Wenner-Gren Foundation awards the Engaged Anthropology Grant to former grantees in order to allow them to return to the field and share their work with the community that hosted them. In keeping with the grant’s purpose of breaking contemporary anthropological research outside of the confines of one’s home institution and the English-speaking academy at large, we require those awarded to write a guest blog post describing their experience, as an accessible way to learn about the ways anthropologists and the Wenner-Gren Foundation are supporting engaged, equitable scholarship. In today’s entry, we welcome Kristina Lyons, UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California-Santa Cruz in Anthropology and the Center for Science & Justice, who originally received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2007 while a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Davis to aid research on ‘Science, Storytelling, and the Politics of Collaboration: Advocacy against Aerial Fumigation in Colombia,’ supervised by Dr. Marisol de la Cadena.
“Make sure the right anthem is going to sound off,” jokes Profe Miguel, provoking a loud round of laughter among us. “Not the national anthem, but el himno del pueblo [the anthem of the people]!”
The crackle of the loudspeakers brings three thousand small farmers to their feet. Some lightly tap the beat, others mouth the lyrics meditating behind closed eyes or sing aloud in low voices. The commission of government representatives attending the meeting this morning also stands tall. I search their eyes wondering what kinds of emotions are veiled behind a row of stoic faces.
“And now the pueblo that rises up in the struggle
with the voice of a giant shouting: forward, forward!
The pueblo united will never be defeated…”
Originally composed and taken up as the international anthem of the Chilean resistance movement after the September 11, 1973 military coup, this song can be heard celebrating the spirit of hope, unity and struggle in mass rallies, marches and demonstrations around the world. Today, on the 17th day of the National Agrarian and Popular Strike in Colombia, we are at the negotiation table between regional small farming leaders and state officials in Villagarzón, Putumayo. The national government has arrived to request that protestors unblock Putumayo’s highways in exchange for the negotiation of regional-level reforms to agrarian policy, infrastructure and social investment. Small farming leaders, however, argue that they will only lift the strike if and when President Santos recognizes and agrees to negotiate with the National Working Group of Dialogue and Accord (MIA) that gathers together the demands of all the sectors participating in the strike: the country small and medium farmers, small miners, and health and transportation sectors. The MIA is calling for the suspension of the free trade agreement with the United States in order to address crisis in the nation’s agricultural sectors; the participation of small miners in mining policy and an end to a national development model fueled by extractive industry; the recognition of the political and territorial rights of rural communities; alternative legislation to combat the increasing privatization of health and education; and a reduction in the exuberant cost of transportation and fuel. An evident tension exists between the State’s desire to contain the strike by promising regional-level reforms, and the MIA’s intention to achieve deep structural transformations in the nation’s political and economic model. No agreement can be reached this morning. The strike continues compañeros.
Agricultural practices in southwestern Colombia have been a site of contention since the 1980s when illicit coca production soared and provoked military-led state and foreign policy responses (i.e. the U.S.-Colombia “War on Narcoterror”) aimed at its eradication. My dissertation fieldwork between 2005-2011 was set in a region where the “securitization of development” not only attempts to eradicate illicit crops, but to discipline the productive capacities and contested governance of tropical forest ecologies in ways that forcibly equip them to become “modern” and “moral” landscapes of licit capitalist worlds. Though USAID export-oriented strategies to substitute coca prove attractive to many rural families, my research explored the way a growing network of farmers and soil scientists have begun to counter these official “solutions”, arguing they foment extractive practices that subordinate Amazonian ecologies to profits; exacerbate the scarcity of local food and markets; and ultimately, fail to eradicate coca and its deriving violence. Thus, my dissertation fieldwork not only followed the material practices of farmers and scientists, but also tracked how in both their projects, albeit differentially, rather than an entity from which production can be extracted, soils take on new meanings and capacities as what I conceptualize as “partners in/for life”. This provision leads to struggles between farmers, technocrats, politicians, aid workers and scientists over the meaning of “peace”, “productivity”, “rural development”, “sustainability”, and what constitutes a “good and healthy life”.
Upon returning to Bogotá and Putumayo with the support of the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology grant between June and September 2013, I was able to contribute to national and regional debates about local alternatives to “illicit” coca cultivation, the historical social abandonment of rural frontier zones, and resistance to ago-industrial development during a time when “agrarian issues” have emerged at the core of the national peace process between the Colombian State and FARC guerrillas to end the country’s fifty-year armed conflict. While in Bogotá, I circulated my dissertation among soil scientists with whom I conducted fieldwork, and forged new collaborative initiatives with other academics working in the Amazon, as well as contributing to a research project at the Center for Historical Memory that was established through the Law of Victims and Land Restitution. In Putumayo, due to the particular conjuncture of the national strike, my dissertation was able to contribute to community training workshops on the Plan for Integral Amazonian Development proposed by and for small farmers in the region, as well as joining the technical team accompanying strike leaders in their negotiations with state officials. I returned dissertation materials to the farming families that are the protagonists of my research, and received their feedback and selection of photographs, stories and designs to be included in a future book manuscript. Furthermore, the socialization of my dissertation material this summer served to propose and fund a documentary film project that will transmit Amazonian-based farmer-to-farmer agricultural knowledge and practices among an extensive network of small-farming associations in the department of Putumayo. This continued engagement project will draw out the potential collaborations that can emerge between two kinds of local knowledge – science and non-science – in order to highlight the cultural stakes of the rural life-worlds struggling to emerge in a geopolitically contentious agricultural frontier.
Come join us for the third installment of the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series at Wenner-Gren TONIGHT at 7:00 PM, when we welcome environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Political Ecology.
Environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston discusses methods, findings, ethical quandaries, and political outcomes from her work documenting the consequential damages of nuclear disaster and advocating for the human right to a healthy environment. This talk is illustrated with case-specific examples from her service as an expert advisor to the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal, a civil society advisor supporting a UN Special Rapporteur investigation into nuclear testing, toxic waste, environmental contamination and continuing human rights abuse, and a civil society delegate at the UN Human Rights Commission 21st session.
Rosana Pinheiro-Machado is lecturer in Anthropology of Development at the University of Oxford. In 2005, while studying at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sui in Porto Alegre, Brazil, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Made in China: Commercial Practices among Chinese Immigrants in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay,’ supervised by Dr. Ruben G. Oliven. We spoke to Rosana to learn more about her work and her journey from Brazil to Oxford.
How did you originally become interested in anthropology and your area of specialization?
I come from a left wing Brazilian family and this directly influenced my academic choices. Social Sciences was the course I chose to enhance my knowledge for a career in politics that I had planned (in Brazil anthropology belongs to social sciences; it does not integrate the 4 fields). In the first year of college, I received a scholarship to be a junior researcher in a project in urban anthropology. This engagement with anthropology changed the course of my life. I then focused on my academic life and distanced myself from political career. I was increasingly incorporating ethnography and anthropological theory as a way of perceiving the world.
The choice of my research object was affected by the Marxist education I had received since childhood. In my 20’s I was interested in the study of labor, class inequalities, and the informal economy in Brazil. I then began to do ethnography among a group of street vendors who trade fake goods and/or cheap goods “made in China”. I carried out ethnography in this context for many years; not only in the street markets, but also following the trades on their trips to Paraguay, from where they smuggled their goods. So I began to follow a long thread, which would lead me to follow the commodity chain from Brazil to China, through Paraguay. This task took almost ten years; and it was not therefore only a research project, but equally a life commitment.
What role did Wenner-Gren play in your success as an Anthropologist?
I studied in a public school in Brazil, meaning I received one of the worst education possible, suffering from a shortage of teachers, among other problems. I left the school with learning gaps. After some time, however, I was enrolled in one of the best public universities in Brazil (UFRGS), where I received a top training in social anthropology. At both undergraduate and graduate level I received the grade suma cum laude, which allowed me receiving scholarships from the Brazilian government. This support was fundamental, but only enough for my livelihood. It was not enough to boost my project. I needed to expand my research internationally and track commodities globally: from a street vendor’s stall in Brazil to its factory in China. It required studying languages, importing expensive books on China and, mainly, travelling from west to east in the world. Thus, I had to fulfill not only my personal gaps, but also the lack of a field of Chinese study in Brazil. I started to compile information on China all by myself, from scratch, groping blindly in the dark.
In 2006, when I received the grant, I was in my mid-20s. I still remember the precise moment when the award letter arrived in my place. It was one of the happiest moments in my life because it was not only a matter of money, but freedom. At that time, I could barely speak English, let alone Mandarin. With the grant, I spent a year in Paraguay studying the Chinese migrants who import goods from their hometown, and another year in China. In those places, I studied both Mandarin and English. An international world opened up for me! With my budget, I could equally import dozens of books on China, and then I created my own library (which will be donated to a research center in Brazil). Wenner-Gren played a decisive role in my career. Objectively, the grant provided me resources to put in practice a long, ambitious and expensive project. I think I didn’t receive only funds: I received encouragement and a good dose of self-esteem.
Beyond the grant itself, I counted on the integral support of Professor Ruben Oliven: my supervisor, a prominent Brazilian anthropologist who inspired me and propelled me forward. I would add the role of the British anthropologist, Professor Daniel Miller, who generously received me in his department in 2008 and gave me all encouragement while I was writing up the dissertation. My success as an anthropologist is a result of people and institutions that supported my path.
How has your work been received in Brazil?
The reaction to my research has been extremely positive. However, I think there is a huge difference between a positive reception and an effective policy of retaining promising scientists in the country.
My work was honored by many very prestigious Brazilian institutions: The Human Rights Prize (Ford Foundation and Brazilian Anthropological Association), the best PhD dissertation in Social Sciences (Brazilian Association of Social Sciences), the best dissertation in Anthropology/Archeology (Ministry of Education) and finally the Grand Prize, the best PhD dissertation in Brazil (Ministry of Education) in which my work competed with thousands of dissertations produced in Brazil in 2009 in 23 fields of knowledge. This recognition resulted in the book Made in China published in Brazil in 2011. I was also awarded a grant by the Brazilian government to do research abroad, which allowed me to spend a year as a visiting scholar in the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard (2012/13). Such recognition of my work is a result of an important moment of Brazilian anthropology and its internationalization process, as well as the interest there is for China in Brazil today.
On the other hand, even though there is a rising interest in China, this debate on China in the anthropological field is relatively insignificant. Due to the Brazilian nation-building, Africa, for example, is a region that attracts more anthropologists than Asia, whose bilateral ties are just beginning. I intend to remain committed to the field of Chinese studies in Brazil, analyzing the relations between Brazil and China as emerging countries in the international system. However, it will have to be done initially from outside, where I found better work opportunities.
How has it been adjusting to life at Oxford?
Outside Brazil, I applied unpretentiously for some jobs at some of the most prestigious universities in the world. I was surprised to have been shortlisted for all posts for which I applied. This was very important to me in order to measure if I had reached a desirable level of international excellence. When I saw the post for lectureship in Anthropology of Development in the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID), I prepared with body and soul. The competition was enormous, but I think that there was a natural encountering of mutual expectation. For the Department’s scope, and its focus on developing countries, one of the critical points of my work is to problematize the human costs of being an emergent nation as well as its intrinsic contradictions. Working with international development, somehow, takes me back to my own roots and political interests. In Academia, I found my way of doing politics. It is researching and teaching that I found means to pursue a more balanced world. After all, this was the means through which I changed my own world.
Now, Oxford is hiring a Brazilian anthropologist who had all her training in Brazil. This is not an isolated case, but a result of a wider process in the international system as whole, whose boundaries between the Global North and South are blurring little by little.
What are you working on right now?
I am concluding the English version of my book in which I describe how the post-BRICS/TRIPS* era is drastically impacting the global commodity chain I had originally studied in my PhD dissertation. The global enforcement policy against piracy and Brazil’s eagerness to be a powerful player in the international system are fragmenting that chain. I am also working on a paper in which I compare the development model of Brazil and China based on the importance assigned to the informal economy and intellectual property in both countries. In addition to my research outcomes, I am involved right now in an online debate on Cultural Anthropology Journal (Hot Spot session) about the Brazilian Protests of June. My main goal in the next five years is to keep publishing in English and then spreading my work for a broader audience, contributing to the understanding of Brazilian and Chinese development models from an anthropological point of view.
*Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa/ The Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
It seems like just last week that the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series began its 2013-14 season with Marshall Sahlins at CUNY Grad Center. This Thursday, October 10th, we welcome a panel of discussants to the Wenner-Gren offices to discuss Shirley Lindenbaum’s landmark work Kuru Sorcery: Disease and Danger in the New Guinea Highlands on the occasion of the release of a new and updated edition. Come join us for a reception at 6:00 PM, followed by an exploration of the impact of this influential study on medical anthropology, epidemiology and the anthropological studies of Melanesia.