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.
A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm. Attending is free, but registration is required.
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.
There is no cost to attend this event, but registration with NYAS is required.
October 7-10, 2013
Tel Aviv University
In recent years a growing body of evidence regarding human recycling, reusing and resharpening activities in Paleolithic times has accumulated, and there is a growing awareness among scholars towards these aspects of research in Paleolithic studies. It is our intention to gather together scholars in the new field of Paleolithic Recycling and establish, for the first time, coherent lines of inquiry, data analyses and interpretation of recycling behavior in prehistory. The workshop will be focused on presenting new data regarding stone recycling and bone reusing from Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic sites from the Old World, as well as relevant case studies from contemporary pre-industrial societies. The publication resulting from the workshop is intended to demonstrate the scale, intensity and characteristics of Paleolithic recycling; provide a methodology for studying evidence for recycling and reusing activities and discuss the adaptive role of recycling and reusing in Paleolithic times.
November 7-10, 2013
Jesus College, University of Oxford
The Indian Ocean has emerged as a major topic of interest amongst scholars across a range of disciplines in recent years. Researchers in fields as diverse as archaeology, genetics, history, linguistics and palaeoenvironmental studies have all explored evidence for precociously early coastal and transoceanic movements of goods, people, ideas, plants and animals in the region. The ‘Proto-globalisation in the Indian Ocean world’ conference provides an opportunity for these scholars to gather and to critically evaluate the evidence for and implications of long-distance contacts and exchanges in the pre-1000 CE Indian Ocean. It will consider the goods, technologies and ideas that moved across the ocean in this period, evaluating the possible existence of early globalized commodities, exploring object biographies, and considering the role of cosmopolitan Indian Ocean contacts in transforming societies on the littoral and beyond. It will look at how cultural transfers were intertwined with extensive movements of plant and animals species both domestic and wild, considering the ecological, agricultural and disease impacts of species translocations, and their implications for the contemporary world in terms of biodiversity and food security. Finally, it will explore the axes, processes and agents of early Indian Ocean interactions, critically rethinking in particular traditional notions about the drivers and agents of early exchanges and commerce, and drawing attention to the important role of smaller, less centralized and/or more mobile societies in the early Indian Ocean. The gathering of scholars from a broad range of regions, disciplines and projects will enable discussion, debate and the exploration of synergies, as well as consideration of larger questions about the degree to which the Indian Ocean represented a globalized space in the pre-1000 CE period, the role of data from earlier periods in transforming Eurocentric notions of globalization and the ways that studies of the past might inform our understanding of contemporary globalization.
Monday evening marked the first event in the New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series for the 2013-14 academic year, as the Wenner-Gren Foundation and CUNY Graduate Center welcomed Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Sahlins, an eminent scholar in the field and author of such works as Culture and Practical Reason (1976) and Islands of History (1985), presented his paper “The Alterity of Value and Vice Versa”:
On the external origin of riches. Money (“magical property”) as the means rather than the antithesis of extended kinship. Scarcity as a function of value rather than value of scarcity. And other such contradictions of the deceived wisdom.
(apologies for the hum appearing throughout the recording; due to logistical constraints, we were unable to secure a better recording.)
Tom Widger is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. In 2005, while a student at the London School of Economics, he received a dissertation fieldwork grant to aid research on ‘The Youth Suicide Epidemic in Sri Lanka: Causes, Meanings, Prevention Strategies,’ supervised by Dr. Jonathan Parry. Coming off recent publication of his research in South Asian Studies, we asked Dr. Widger about his project and his experience with the Wenner-Gren grant.
How did you first become interested in questions surrounding suicide, and what drew you to look at Sri Lanka specifically?
Well actually I was drawn to anthropology first, then to Sri Lanka and finally to the study of suicide. During my undergraduate degree in archaeology I’d taken a course in archaeology and anthropology, and read Jean Briggs’s Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, which simply fascinated me. Then I read a very different book, Anthropology, Development and the Post-Modern Challenge, by Katy Gardner and David Lewis. Both books together showed how long-term ethnographic fieldwork can produce extremely detailed descriptions of day to day life while still offering a rigorous method for addressing real-world problems – and it’s that approach I’ve tried to use in my own work.
After graduating in 2000 I applied to the MSc course in social anthropology at the London School of Economics. At the same time I joined a youth development programme run by Voluntary Services Overseas, a British charity. They’d partnered up with national youth organisations in Sri Lanka, Thailand and South Africa, and I just happened to be posted to Sri Lanka. I lived with a family in a village 70 kilometers north of the capital, Colombo, and worked alongside social workers. One of the issues they engaged with was youth suicide. What struck me at the time was not just the sheer prevalence of suicide in the local community but the ways in which it was so taken for granted. Having only read a bit of Durkheim by that stage I knew very little about social scientific, much less anthropological, theories of the problem. My acceptance letter for the LSE came through during this time and from that point I pretty much decided what my MSc dissertation would be about, as well as subject for a PhD!
The 148th Wenner-Gren Foundation International Symposium is about to be underway in Pasiano di Pordenone, Friuli–Venezia Giulia, Italy. Read the organizers statement from Veena Das (Johns Hopkins University) and Shalini Randeria (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva) below.
We propose a symposium on the modalities of politics in the lives of the poor with specific reference to the urban form. The literature on the urban poor has been strongly shaped by and connected to public policy interventions that generated such internal divisions as those between the deserving and the undeserving poor, or between the proletariat seen as the engine of history and the lumpen proletariat, who are seen as those who are unable to engage in politics at all. Concepts like social capital moved from academic theorizing to the policy world in the context of framing of policies to help the poor move out of what was called the “poverty trap”. One of the consequences of this way of seeing the poor is that while agency is given to some kinds of poor, others are seen in policy discourses as populations to be managed through both policing and paternalistic interventions by the state. Though theoretical interventions such as subaltern studies did much to reclaim collective agency on behalf of those who are defined as subordinate, there was a concentration on moments of rebellion. As far as everyday life is concerned, there seems an implicit agreement with Hannah Arendt’s position that the poor are so caught in ensuring basic survival that they cannot exercise the freedom necessary for collective action that she calls the domain of politics. Thus following this kind of a conceptualization problems relating to the poor are seen confined to studies of administration. However, we also do not wish to romanticize the poor but rather in recognizing that poverty might corrode the capacity for collective or individual action, we are interested in more realistic accounts of the functioning of politics in the everyday lives of the poor.
We propose a symposium on the politics of the poor in which both categories – that of the poor and that of politics – are put under pressure conceptually and ethnographically. Inviting anthropologists and scholars from related fields who have who used ethnography in their own research on the urban poor in South Asia, Africa, Middle East and Latin America, we pose the following questions in order to generate comparative ethnographies that can foreground the relation between urban transformations, poverty, and modalities of democratic politics.
First, what is the relation between governmentality and politics in relation to basic amenities such as water, sanitation, electricity, and housing? Can we speak of a politics of need contra Arendt and many others who assume that need belongs to the realm of administration and not politics?
Second, what lines of solidarity and antagonism run within the communities of the poor defined by locality, kinship, and work? Instead of posing a dualism between the poor seen as unitary collective subjects and another subject (state, market), which stands out and is marked as the oppressor, we might ask how differences internal to the poor are implicated in the forging of political action?
Third, are there forms of inaction that might also count as politics, especially if life has been experienced as continually marked by violence? What kind of theory of action do we need to account, for instance, for political subjectivities that have emerged after civil wars, riots or experiences of displacement? How does decay urban decay and the complete corrosion of institutions, lead to either a negation of politics or forms of collective action (protests, gang violence) that become ends in themselves?
Finally, what kinds of traces are left in the languages that circulate in communities engaged in the kinds of politics that are assumed in the first three questions? How do material traces link with linguistic traces? We want to go beyond such issues as politics of representation and instead ask what kind of affective geographies of communication and expression can we discern in the everyday life of the poor. We are interested in asking whether regional histories and geographies as well as the diversity of intellectual traditions, leads to important differences in the very conceptualization of these issues? In what way do conceptual and political commitments as well as the artifacts through which facts are made visible shape the questions we ask, what questions get asked and what issues get eclipsed? Do regional comparisons generate new questions? We are not committed beforehand to establish that the poor exercise agency or that the lines of conflict are clearly drawn between state and community; or that democracy has failed; or that the poor are so caught up in survival that the only forms of politics available to them are forms of clientelism. These are open questions and we hope that the symposium will show many pathways through which such issues can be addressed with innovations in how we collect empirical data and how conceptual innovations might be made in relation to the pressure of the conjoining of facts and values. Since the ethnographic method is now used across disciplines, the symposium would also give us an opportunity to reflect on potential contribution as well as the limitations of this method.
AL-MOHAMMAD Poverty beyond Disaster in Postinvasion Iraq: Ethics and the ‘Rough Ground’ of the Everyday
AMARASURIYA “With That, Discipline Will Also Come to Them”: The Politics of the Urban Poor in
& SPENCER Postwar Colombo
AUYERO The Politics of Interpersonal Violence at the Urban Margins
BAYAT Plebeians of the Arab Spring
CALDEIRA Social Movements, Cultural Production, and Protests: São Paulo’s Shifting Political Landscape
CAMMETT Sectarianism and the Ambiguities of Welfare in Lebanon
DAS & WALTON Political Leadership and the Urban Poor: Local Histories
DE BOECK “Poverty” and the Politics of Syncopation. Urban Examples from Congo-Kinshasa.
ENGLUND Poetic Justice and the Proletariat that Never Was
FORMENT Plebeian Neoliberalism and the Political Practices of the Ungoverned: Buenos Aires’s La Salada and Emergent Forms of Subaltern Democratic Life
LEIBNER HaTikva Encampment – The Ambiguous Agency of the Marginalized
PERDIGON On Making Poverty Sensible. Three Sketches from the Palestinian Refugee Camps of Lebanon
PROCUPEZ The Need for Patience – Or – (The Politics of Overcoming Housing Emergency in Buenos Aires)
ROSS Residing/Resisting?: Raw Life and the Politics of the Urban Poor
SIMONE The Urban Poor and Their Ambivalent Exceptionalities: Some Notes from Jakarta
Engaged Anthropology Grant: Joshua Samuels and “‘Patrimonio S. Pietro’: The Heritage of Agricultural Reform in Western Sicily”
Joshua Samuels earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant in 2010 to aid research on ‘Reclamation: The Archaeology of Agricultural Reform in Fascist Sicily,’ supervised by Dr. Lynn Meskell. This year, he was awarded the Engaged Anthropology Grant to enable him to return to his field site in Western Sicily, where he explored how Sicilian farmers negotiated Fascist land reforms and building programs of the 1930s and early 1940s, to share his research results with the community that hosted him.
I first visited Borgo Bonsignore in 2006 when I began my dissertation research investigating land reform in Sicily under Fascism. In Italian “borgo” literally means village, but under Fascism the term was used to describe service centers, built from scratch, that were designed to serve the civic and social needs of farmers being resettled in newly built farmhouses in the countryside. In the 1930s and early 1940s, borghi and farmhouses were constructed all over Italy as part of a Fascist ruralization campaign that aimed to increase agricultural production and, in the process, encourage fecundity and allegiance to the Fascist regime.
My dissertation research had two goals: to reconstruct the agricultural landscapes of borghi and farmhouses that developed under Fascism, and to understand the process through which these buildings and landscapes have today been re-used and re-contextualized as heritage resources. I pursued the first goal in a 20 square kilometer area around Borgo Fazio, an abandoned village in middle of Sicily’s northwestern corner. For my second goal I turned to Borgo Bonsignore, located on Sicily’s southwestern coast, where I spent the summer of 2010 conducting ethnographic research. After several waves of abandonment and re-use, the borgo is now a popular seasonal destination for families from the nearby city of Ribera, who have either built second homes there or occupied the empty municipal buildings. Families generally arrive in June and spend several months enjoying the beach and nature preserve located just down the road. They also avail themselves of a series of outdoor events that take place in the main piazza, organized since 1997 by Ribera’s tourism board and the Associazione Pro-Borgo.
With the support of the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant, I returned to Borgo Bonsignore in August of 2013 to organize a public heritage event in the main piazza. My goal was to appropriately contextualize the borgo’s existence within the Fascist agricultural, demographic and colonial policies which engendered its construction, but without denying its subsequent development and the affectionate feelings its seasonal residents have for it today.
I had originally intended to stage the event at the end of July, but the president of the Associazione Pro-Borgo thought it would be most appropriate to include it as part of the local Saint’s Day celebrations held during the third weekend of August. In collaboration with a local historian from Ribera and a university student whose family summers at the borgo, I prepared a series of poster exhibits providing basic contextual information relating to pre-20th century Sicilian agriculture, Fascist colonial-agricultural policy, and Borgo Bonsignore’s specific development. In every poster I attempted to balance an appreciation for what was achieved in the area with a recognition of its underlying totalitarian logic. The posters were affixed to light poles around the central piazza, allowing participants to browse them casually without interrupting the weekend’s religious events.
I designed the event to be interactive and collaborative. Many of the posters encouraged readers to add notes of their own, and two weeks prior to the event I posted fliers asking residents if they would be willing to share photographs, personal objects, stories, or ideas. We also strung a clothes line near the center of the piazza and asked participants to reflect on what the Borgo meant to them; they wrote their responses on notecards that were then affixed to the line. About half of the cards were contributed by children, allowing them to engage the material in a creative and meaningful manner. The following are translation from among the dozens of responses posted:
- “The borgo means love and happiness”
- “Borgo means getting to know new friends”
- “Borgo Bonsignore is the place where I spent my happy and lighthearted adolescence. It preserves my soul!”
- “Borgo means history, life, and knowledge”
- “Borgo means a return to roots, to families, to UNITY”
- “The borgo means…past and future”
- “The borgo means…a point of reference with history and the past”
- “For me it means a desire to eat gelatos and pizzas”
- “Borgo means peace, serenity, love and serenity. I love you Borgo”
The event began on Saturday, August 24th and continued until the following Monday. The piazza was full during the evenings because of the Saints’ Day celebrations, allowing me to easily mingle with people viewing the exhibits. We discussed the research I had carried out, and asked each other questions about the materials presented. Most of the participants were seasonal residents, but a handful of the people with whom I spoke were passing tourists with no prior knowledge of the borgo’s unusual history.
I had hoped to display the event’s posters and other materials in a permanent exhibit housed in one of several spaces that were empty or underused when I originally conducted my fieldwork. Two obstacles conspired against this plan. First, all of the available spaces had become occupied in the intervening years; second, a sudden rainstorm on the evening of August 27th destroyed all the posters. However, the event generated a great deal of enthusiasm, and plans are already underway to stage another version next year. Since leaving Sicily I have been receiving a steady stream of old photographs and stories, and look forward to incorporating them into next summer’s event.
And what does the borgo mean to me? I will always find Borgo Bonsignore somehwhat unsettling, but it nonetheless serves as an example of how a difficult heritage can be re-qualified and used productively in the present.