An interview of an activist or researcher whose work or viewpoints ought to be shared with the world. Often people are too busy to write their own pieces or may not feel comfortable writing. To address this, we will often feature interviews of people whose opinions deserve to be broadcast.
It’s been two weeks since Rob Wallace conducted an interview on the underlying causes of the coronavirus that has since been read hundreds of thousands of times. Since then, also, the world has changed. As Wallace puts it, “What I noticed only after hitting the send button is that two weeks after the original interview, my answers here are taking a sharper tone. While before I addressed the outbreak with appropriately radical structural analysis, now, as the pandemic approaches, I’m beginning to feel the pinch of a gap in radical tactics.”
When translating his piece for Italian audiences, Luca de Crescenzo asked Wallace two more questions to account for the gap in time since the interview was first conducted. Here is their exchange, posted with permission.
I would like you to add a comment about the recent proposal of the UK authorities not to take drastic measures to contain the virus and to bet on the development of the herd immunity instead. You wrote: “this is a failure that pretends to be a solution.” Can you explain that?
The Tories are asserting joining the U.S. in effectively denying health care is the best active cure. The government is looking at parlaying its late response into letting Covid-19 work through the population to produce the herd immunity it says will protect the most vulnerable.
This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.
This is the utter opposite of “do no harm”, as the doctor’s oath goes. This is let’s do maximum damage.
Herd immunity is treated in epidemiological circles as at best a dirty collateral benefit of an outbreak. Enough people carry antibodies from the last outbreak to keep the susceptible population low enough that no new infection could support itself, protecting even those who haven’t been previously exposed. It’s often no more than a passing effect, however, if the pathogen in question evolves out from underneath the population blanket.
We do better in inducing such immunity by campaigns in vaccination. Typically such an effect requires a wide majority of people vaccinated to work. Which, outside market failures in producing vaccines, is routinely no problem as nearly no one dies from them.
Given the trail of dead of a deadly pandemic, no public health system would actively seek out such a post-hoc epiphenomenon as an instrumental objective. No government charged with protecting a population’s very lives would allow such a pathogen to run unimpeded–whatever handwaving is made about “delaying” spread as if a government already a step behind in responding can exercise such magical control. A campaign of active neglect would kill hundreds of thousands of the very vulnerable the Tories claim they wish to protect.
Destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire.
But destroying the village to save it is the core premise of a State of the most virulent class character. It’s the sign of an exhausted empire that, unable to follow China and other countries in putting up a fight, pretends, as I wrote, that its failures are exactly the solution.
In Italy despite the quarantine and apart from the few who are working from home, a lot of workers still go to work everyday. Many shops are closed but most of the factories are open, even those which don’t produce necessary goods. Recently, the trade unions and the federation of the Italian employers have reached an agreement about safe and security measures at the workplace, which gives to the companies only “recommendations” about distance, cleanness, use of masks, without much specification. There are strong reasons to believe they will not be respected. What’s your take on that? Is workers’ strength an epidemiological variable?
Working people are treated as cannon fodder. Not only on the battlefield, but back home. Here you have a virus ripping through the Italian population at a rate that exceeds that of the pace it went through China, and capital is pretending it is business–their business–as usual. Negotiating a detente that permits this work to continue without biolab-level precautions is destructive to both workers’ standing–you’re signaling you’ll eat any bowl of shit they serve up–and to the very health of the nation.
If not for your unions’ very legitimacy, then for your very lives, and those of your most vulnerable co-workers and community members–shut those factories down! Italy’s spike in cases is so dizzying that self-quarantine and negotiated working conditions won’t be enough to quash the outbreak. Covid-19 is too infectious and under a medical gridlock too deadly for half-measures. Italy is being invaded by a virus that is kicking the country’s ass, with street fighting door-to-door and home-to-home.
What I’m getting at is that Italy needs to snap the fuck out of it already!
Yes, workers routinely hold up the sky during dark and dangerous days, including during a deadly outbreak. But if the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down. As in countries around the world, the government must then be held responsible for covering the salaries of the workers who have walked off the job in service of the nation’s public health.
If the work isn’t a matter of the day-to-day operations required during communal quarantine, shut it down.
It’s not my call, and my own country is totally botching its response to the pandemic, but should capital resist such efforts to protect the lives of millions, then working Italians, as working people elsewhere, should consider tapping into their proud history of labor militancy and find a means by which to wrestle operative command from the greedy and incompetent. If factories producing non-essential goods are still running, that means management and the moneybags behind them don’t give a fuck about you. Even now the chief financial officer upstairs is proving himself more than happy to fold in dead workers into the costs of production if he can get away with it.
It wouldn’t be the first time the people of the region pushed back during an outbreak. Historian Sheldon Watts noted one unexpected reversal in early disaster capitalism:
“In their rush to save themselves [from plague] by flight, Florentine magistrates worried that the common people left behind would seize control of the city; the fear was perhaps justified. In the summer of 1378 when factional disputes temporarily immobilized the Florentine elite, rebellious woolworkers won control of the government and remained in power for several months.”
Several months today might save many thousands of lives. With many countries ten days out from finding themselves in Italy’s predicament, working Italians can offer an example for the rest of the world that everyday people’s lives matter more than somebody else’s profit.
In 2013, Rob Wallace, a professional epidemiologist and expert on big agriculture wrote, with some defeatism, “I expect it will be a long time before I address an outbreak of human influenza again other than in passing.” It wasn’t that he didn’t think it was serious, or that he thought nothing bad would happen soon. On the contrary, he was just exhausted by the certainty that something obviously would happen. He continued, “While an understandable visceral reaction, getting worried at this point in the process is a bit ass-backwards. The bug, whatever its point of origin, has long left the barn, quite literally.”
Those studying infectious disease have long said that it’s not a matter of if, but when will a big virus hit us. From swine flu to SARS, every five years or so we’re sitting on the edge of our seats, wondering: is this the big one?
By all measures, Covid-19 is already a big one. Upgraded to pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, it has infected at least 127,000 people (but likely many, many more), killed almost 5,000, and is present on all continents but Antarctica. The bug seems to have left the barn.
Beginning 2020, when reports of a new virus were emerging from Wuhan, China, Rob Wallace has been in overdrive. His prediction that it will be a long time before he gets embroiled in the debate again obviously didn’t hold up. Since then, friends and acquaintances have been coming to him for advice, proposals, reflections, and interviews. His posts on the subject have been shared widely. At this point, who else should we listen to but a progressive, activist scholar, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu(Monthly Review Press, 2016) who has been studying this issue closely for decades?
Accordingly, we are here republishing a crucial interview with Rob Wallace by Yaak Pabst for the German socialist magazine marx21, with permission from the magazine.
In the interview, Wallace, with his usual incisiveness and expansive knowledge, talks about the dangers of Covid-19, the role of agribusiness in the crisis, the importance of mending humanity’s broken relationship to ecosystems in order to get to the roots of the crisis, and what kind of demands people can, and should, make of their governments. Read a follow-up to this interview here.
How dangerous is the new coronavirus?
It depends on where you are in the timing of your local outbreak of Covid-19: early, peak level, late? How good is your region’s public health response? What are your demographics? How old are you? Are you immunologically compromised? What is your underlying health? To ask an undiagnosable possibility: do your immuogenetics, the genetics underlying your immune response, line up with the virus or not?
So all this fuss about the virus is just scare tactics?
No, certainly not. At the population level, Covid-19 was clocking in at between 2 and 4% case fatality ratio or CFR at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan. Outside Wuhan, the CFR appears to drop off to more like 1% and even less, but also appears to spike in spots here and there, including in places in Italy and the United States.. Its range doesn’t seem much in comparison to, say, SARS at 10%, the influenza of 1918 5-20%, avian influenza H5N1 60%, or at some points Ebola 90%. But it certainly exceeds seasonal influenza’s 0.1% CFR. The danger isn’t just a matter of the death rate, however. We have to grapple with what’s called penetrance or community attack rate: how much of the global population is penetrated by the outbreak.
Can you be more specific?
The global travel network is at record connectivity. With no vaccines or specific antivirals for coronaviruses, nor at this point any herd immunity to the virus, even a strain at only 1% mortality can present a considerable danger. With an incubation period of up to two weeks and increasing evidence of some transmission before sickness–before we know people are infected–few places would likely be free of infection. If, say, Covid-19 registers 1% fatality in the course of infecting 4 billion people, that’s 40 million dead. A small proportion of a large number can still be a large number.
These are frightening numbers for an ostensibly less than virulent pathogen…
Definitely. And we are only at the beginning of the outbreak. It’s important to understand that many new infections change over the course of epidemics. Infectivity, virulence, or both may attenuate. On the other hand, other outbreaks ramp up in virulence. The first wave of the influenza pandemic in the spring of 1918 was a relatively mild infection. It was the second and third waves that winter and into 1919 that killed millions.
But pandemic skeptics argue that far fewer patients have been
infected and killed by the coronavirus than by the typical seasonal
flu. What do you think about that?
I would be the first to celebrate if this outbreak proves a dud. But
these efforts to dismiss Covid-19 as a possible danger by citing other
deadly diseases, especially influenza, is a rhetorical device to spin
concern about the coronavirus as badly placed.
So the comparison with seasonal flu is misplaced?
It makes little sense to compare two pathogens on different parts of
their epicurves. Yes, seasonal influenza infects many millions worldwide
each other, killing, by WHO estimates, up to 650,000 people a year.
Covid-19, however, is only starting its epidemiological journey. And
unlike influenza, we have neither vaccine, nor herd immunity to slow
infection and protect the most vulnerable populations.
Even if the comparison is misleading, both diseases belong to
viruses, even to a specific group, the RNA viruses. Both can cause
disease. Both affect the mouth and throat area and sometimes also the
lungs. Both are quite contagious.
Those are superficial similarities that miss a critical part in comparing two pathogens. We know a lot about influenza’s dynamics. We know very little about Covid-19’s. They’re steeped in unknowns. Indeed, there is much about Covid-19 that is even unknowable until the outbreak plays out fully. At the same time, it is important to understand that it isn’t a matter of Covid-19 versus influenza. It’s Covid-19 and influenza. The emergence of multiple infections capable of going pandemic, attacking populations in combos, should be the front and center worry.
You have been researching epidemics and their causes for several years. In your book Big Farms Make Big Flu
you attempt to draw these connections between industrial farming
practices, organic farming and viral epidemiology. What are your
The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure or—better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary.
Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so.
When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even
most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate
emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving
multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after
Who is to blame?
I said industrial agriculture, but there’s a larger scope to it. Capital is spearheading land grabs into the last of primary forest and smallholder-held farmland worldwide. These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities. In short, capital centers, places such as London, New York, and Hong Kong, should be considered our primary disease hotspots.
For which diseases is this the case?
There are no capital-free pathogens at this point. Even the most
remote are affected, if distally. Ebola, Zika, the coronaviruses, yellow
fever again, a variety of avian influenzas, and African swine fever in
hog are among the many pathogens making their way out of the most remote
hinterlands into peri-urban loops, regional capitals, and ultimately
onto the global travel network. From fruit bats in the Congo to killing
Miami sunbathers in a few weeks‘ time.
What is the role of multinational companies in this process?
Planet Earth is largely Planet Farm at this point, in both biomass and land used. Agribusiness is aiming to corner the food market. The near-entirety of the neoliberal project is organized around supporting efforts by companies based in the more advanced industrialised countries to steal the land and resources of weaker countries. As a result, many of those new pathogens previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.
What effects do the production methods of agribusinesses have on this?
The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases.
Agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.
Growing genetic monocultures of domestic animals removes whatever
immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger
population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission.
Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High throughput, a
part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply
of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence. In other
words, agribusiness is so focused on profits that selecting for a virus
that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk.
These companies can just externalize the costs of their
epidemiologically dangerous operations on everyone else. From the
animals themselves to consumers, farmworkers, local environments, and
governments across jurisdictions. The damages are so extensive that if
we were to return those costs onto company balance sheets, agribusiness
as we know it would be ended forever. No company could support the costs
of the damage it imposes.
In many media it is claimed that the starting point of the
coronavirus was an “exotic food market”« in Wuhan. Is this description
Yes and no. There are spatial clues in favor of the notion. Contact tracing linked infections back to the Hunan Wholesale Sea Food Market in Wuhan, where wild animals were sold. Environmental sampling does appear to pinpoint the west end of the market where wild animals were held.
The focus on the wild food market misses the origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing capitalization.
But how far back and how widely should we investigate? When exactly
did the emergency really begin? The focus on the market misses the
origins of wild agriculture out in the hinterlands and its increasing
capitalization. Globally, and in China, wild food is becoming more
formalized as an economic sector. But its relationship with industrial
agriculture extends beyond merely sharing the same moneybags. As
industrial production–hog, poultry, and the like–expand into primary
forest, it places pressure on wild food operators to dredge further into
the forest for source populations, increasing the interface with, and
spillover of, new pathogens, including Covid-19.
Covid-19 is not the first virus to develop in China that the government tried to cover it up.
Yes, but this is no Chinese exceptionalism, however. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil. U.S. public health officials covered for agribusiness during the H1N1 (2009) and H5N2 outbreaks.
This is no Chinese exceptionalism. The U.S. and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared a pandemic. Is this step correct?
Yes. The danger of such a pathogen is that health authorities do not
have a handle on the statistical risk distribution. We have no idea how
the pathogen may respond. We went from an outbreak in a market to
infections splattered across the world in a matter of weeks. The
pathogen could just burn out. That would be great. But we don’t know.
Better preparation would better the odds of undercutting the pathogen’s
The WHO’s declaration is also part of what I call pandemic theater.
International organizations have died in the face of inaction. The
League of Nations comes to mind. The UN group of organizations is always
worried about its relevance, power, and funding. But such actionism can
also converge on the actual preparation and prevention the world needs
to disrupt Covid-19’s chains of transmission.
The neoliberal restructuring of the health care system has
worsened both the research and the general care of patients, for example
in hospitals. What difference could a better funded healthcare system
make to fight the virus?
There’s the terrible but telling story of the Miami medical device
company employee who upon returning from China with flu-like symptoms
did the righteous thing by his family and community and demanded a local
hospital test him for Covid-19. He worried that his minimal Obamacare
option wouldn’t cover the tests. He was right. He was suddenly on the
hook for US$3270.
An American demand might be an emergency order be passed that
stipulates that during a pandemic outbreak, all outstanding medical
bills related to testing for infection and for treatment following a
positive test would be paid for by the federal government. We want to
encourage people to seek help, after all, rather than hide away—and
infect others—because they can’t afford treatment. The obvious solution
is a national health service—fully staffed and equipped to handle such
community-wide emergencies—so that such a ridiculous problem as
discouraging community cooperation would never arise.
As soon as the virus is discovered in one country,
governments everywhere react with authoritarian and punitive measures,
such as a compulsory quarantine of entire areas of land and cities. Are
such drastic measures justified?
Using an outbreak to beta-test the latest in autocratic control
post-outbreak is disaster capitalism gone off the rails. In terms of
public health, I would err on the side of trust and compassion, which
are important epidemiological variables. Without either, jurisdictions
lose their populations‘ support.
A sense of solidarity and common respect is a critical part of
eliciting the cooperation we need to survive such threats together.
Self-quarantines with the proper support–check-ins by trained
neighborhood brigades, food supply trucks going door-to-door, work
release and unemployment insurance–can elicit that kind of cooperation,
that we are all in this together.
Conservatives and neo-Nazis like the AfD in Germany have been spreading (false) reports about the virus and demand more authoritarian measures from the government: Restrict flights and entry stops for migrants, border closures and forced quarantine…
Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense. At this point, given the virus is already on its way to spreading everywhere, the sensible thing to do is to work on developing the kind of public health resilience in which it doesn’t matter who shows up with an infection, we have the means to treat and cure them. Of course, stop stealing people’s land abroad and driving the exoduses in the first place, and we can keep the pathogens from emerging in the first place.
Travel bans and border closures are demands with which the radical right wants to racialize what are now global diseases. This is, of course, nonsense.
What would be sustainable changes?
In order to reduce the emergence of new virus outbreaks, food
production has to change radically. Farmer autonomy and a strong public
sector can curb environmental ratchets and runaway infections. Introduce
varieties of stock and crops—and strategic rewilding—at both the farm
and regional levels. Permit food animals to reproduce on-site to pass on
tested immunities. Connect just production with just circulation.
Subsidize price supports and consumer purchasing programs supporting
agroecological production. Defend these experiments from both the
compulsions that neoliberal economics impose upon individuals and
communities alike and the threat of capital-led State repression.
What should socialists call for in the face of the increasing dynamics of disease outbreaks?
Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. Highly capitalized production of food depends on practices that endanger the entirety of humanity, in this case helping unleash a new deadly pandemic.
Agribusiness as a mode of social reproduction must be ended for good if only as a matter of public health. We must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.
We should demand food systems be socialized in such a way that pathogens this dangerous are kept from emerging in the first place. That will require reintegrating food production into the needs of rural communities first. That will require agroecological practices that protect the environment and farmers as they grow our food. Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.
At some point during the Quebec student strike of 2012, I found myself in an enormous protest in downtown Montreal. We took up the street as far as the eye could see. All of a sudden, a mass of people dressed in black stormed down the other half of the road. The anarchist contingent, going the wrong way.
The effect was incredible: here we were, in the thousands, all walking together in one direction to demand tuition subsidized by the state, and simultaneously, thousands of others were calling for an end to the state, walking the other way. I climbed onto the concrete divider in the center of the street separating the two lanes, unsure of which side I should join.
One protest, two directions: a neat metaphor for the tension in the Left today. We are trying to choose between supporting welfare programs and rejecting the top-down nature of the state itself. Just as education, health insurance, and welfare need to be protected, the state plays a key role in environmental destruction, securitization and policing, and international wars. How can we resolve this tension?
If you try to figure out what role the state should have, you’ll inevitably be led to a list of great thinkers: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and, for a more contemporary twist, Thomas Piketty or Amartya Sen.
Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market.
Rarely does Elinor Ostrom appear on that list—but she certainly deserves to be included. Ostrom spent much of her life trying to figure out how people solve problems of distribution amongst themselves, and why some communities are able to share resources while others are not. Her work sought to think political economy beyond both the state and the market—something that many of those giants of political theory had not, thus far, been able to do very well. In other words, she could think in two directions, at the same time.
I’ve always thought that, for people interested in social progress, engaging with Ostrom’s work is crucial. Unfortunately, she’s not very well known. It’s not that Elinor Ostrom’s work is hard to get hold of; her relative obscurity is probably more related to the fact that it’s not that easy to figure out the wider implications of her research. Her work can help us think about austerity, state welfare, the market, local democracy, and environmental issues. But how it would do so is rarely made explicit.
As its title suggests, the book is directed at people on the left (‘radicals’). Wall describes this book as a bite-size take on his more serious and dry PhD-thesis-length tome, The Sustainable economics of Elinor Ostrom: Commons, contestation, and craft. There is little dryness here, though, as Wall peppers the book with little detours and passionate reflections on subjects as diverse as Occupy Wall Street, Rojava, and the TV show The Wire.
Throughout the book the main sense I got was a wholehearted excitement about and admiration for Elinor Ostrom’s work. Apart from its very necessary contribution to leftist strategy and thought, it is this enthusiasm that propels the book forward, making it an enjoyable and light read.
With a nod to Saul Alinsky, Wall starts the book with 13 very short ‘rules for radicals’, which include ‘be specific’, ‘collective ownership can work’, ‘map power’, and ‘no panaceas’. These may not make much sense at first, but as you read the book, they form the basic threads of his argument and help to create a coherent picture of Ostrom’s work and how it can inform the left.
I was able to attend the book launch in London this past November, and we had agreed that I could ask some questions after. During the talk, Wall—wearing a Kurdish scarf and expressing solidarity with his friend Mehmet Aksoy who has recently passed away—talked more about the stories he knew about Ostrom than the contents of his book itself. He referred to her as ‘Elinor’, as if talking about a dear friend, and the audience laughed along as he told us about her meeting with the political economist Garrett Hardin, and Wall’s own encounter with her shortly before she passed away.
Later, over drinks at the pub across the street, we huddled together to talk about Rojava, Marxism, ecosocialism, and today’s new social movements—not at all in the right state for a serious interview. So we decided to leave it to an email later. The following is the result of our email exchange, edited lightly for brevity and flow.
Say I’m a socialist unfamiliar with Ostrom’s work. What’s your 1-minute pitch? Why should I care?
Socialism, someone said, is about sharing. Marxists argue that means of production need to be owned by the whole community. Elinor gives us the tools to do the job, a hard-nosed, flexible approach to communal ownership based on science, research, and pragmatism. Her insight that collective ownership is possible makes the apparently radical reasonable.
What kind of person was Elinor Ostrom? How do you think that shows in her work?
She was a fun open human being, she would talk to anybody, and was known to take care to answer questions that came in emails from across the planet. She was interested in practical problem solving and opposed any kind of dogma. She was not that kind of elitist ivory tower academic but respected others and sought to learn from the grassroots.
In the beginning of the book you have a list of 13 rules for radicals. One of them is ‘pose social change as problem solving’? What do you mean by this?
In politics we tend to think in terms of conspiracies and slogans. Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient. I am not fundamentally against electoral politics in a liberal context but they are limited. The Ostrom approach is about participation, creating a deeply democratic society instead of replacing ‘bad people’ with ‘good people’ at the top of a structure.
Politics is too often seen as replacing an elite with an alternative set of leaders. This is at best insufficient.
In turn, we too often have a kind of magical and ideological thinking where we are for ‘good things’ and against ‘bad things’, promoting broad slogans or writing manifestos with sets of demands. Instead we need to view the good things we would like to achieve such as ecology, equality, and freedom as challenges to meet. The history of the left shows that whether we are talking about reform or revolution, practical problems and entrenched power structures can transform good intentions into restoration of oppression.
Specifically, Elinor Ostrom looked at ‘commons’ as a matter of problem solving. She didn’t believe that commons were either doomed to failure (the so-called tragedy of the commons) or a universal solution. Instead she noted that some things were inevitably held in common—for example, its difficult for an individual to own a river or the seas—and then looked at how to solve the problem of overuse. I think this is a good approach!
What do you think explains the paucity of awareness about Elinor Ostrom’s work?
Ostrom’s approach is difficult to place, she was often inspired by thinkers on the free market right like James Buchanan and Hayek but in doing so challenged market based notions of purely private property and the market. Her uncanny ability to upset those who seek to summarise her ideas as simple slogans means her ideas can be challenging. However interest in the left is growing, for example, the Indigenous leader and revolutionary Hugo Blanco cites her and her approach seems to describe much of what the Kurds and their allies are trying to achieve in Rojava.
How do you think Ostrom’s work relates to Marxism?
For a start, Marxism has stressed class struggle and macro change. Marxists have argued that revolution will transform society and provide a break from old oppressive structures with the introduction of communism. Ostrom’s micro analysis about how you build practical institutional structures to promote more ecological, equal and diverse societies, can be rejected as irrelevant by the left. Constructing these structures is a waste of time in capitalism because Marxists might argue capitalist systems will destroy them. Indeed it is good to be critical of Ostrom from this perspective because she didn’t focus on the real tragedy of the commons, the fact that commons were enclosed and commoners expelled by the rich and powerful. However if you don’t think about the nuts and bolts of governance in a post capitalist society, revolution, in my opinion, will fail to produce institutions that genuinely promote liberation.
When we talked the other night you mentioned that the left often thinks in terms of revolution, but has little plan of how to set up resource management and governance systems afterwards. Could you explain what you mean by this? How do you think Ostrom’s work can be helpful in that regard?
Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures.
Getting there by destroying repressive power structures is the task of revolutionaries and remains essential. However revolutions can only be the start. Any post-revolutionary society is in danger of reproducing the previous ways of doing things. Therefore thinking carefully about institutional decisions to make sure that post-revolutionary structures work to promote participation and genuine democratic control is essential but too often forgotten. Ostrom was fascinated by the practice of participation and looked in some detail at how to build alternative structures, in doing so she provides both radical inspiration and practical suggestions. You can see how the best of the Latin American lefts thinkers, for example, Marta Harnecker, both advocate commons and a more nuanced understanding of institutional factors if we are to transform society in a direction which is sustainable (in both ecological and social terms).
You mention the Kurdish struggle in Rojava. How do you think Ostrom’s work can help us understand the situation there? Have you had any conversations with Kurdish activists about her work?
Yes many times. The Kurds and their allies in Rojava are putting forward the ideas of Ocalan and Bookchin, based on ecology, feminism, diversity, and self-management. Ostrom’s work fits with this and I often talked to Kurdish activists about her work. Sadly my friend Mehmet Aksoy was killed by ISIS in Raqqa in September, Mehmet was a journalist and filmmaker from North London. His loss is huge to all who knew him. He commissioned me to write an article about Elinor Ostrom and Rojava, you can find it here.
You seem excited about the new book you’re writing, a biography of the Indigenous leader, Hugo Blanco. Could you tell me a bit about it?
Hugo is perhaps the most important ecosocialist leader on the planet. In 1962 he led an uprising for Indigenous land rights, when he was a member of the Fourth International in Peru. This was successful and brought land reform but he was imprisoned until 1970. Aged 83, he is still an active militant and publishes the newspaper Lucha Indigena (Indigenous struggle). I am in the happy position of getting emails from him nearly every day. Elinor Ostrom was about cooperation rather than political militancy and revolution, and yet they are very similar individuals—committed to ecological matters and friends to Indigenous people. He has lived through prison, exile, being a Senator, and is still very busy. In recent years he has been supporting communities opposing destructive mining projects in the North of Peru. The Zapatistas in Mexico have been a big influence on his thinking, which has shifted from more traditional Leninism to a more horizontal and anarchist approach. He is a very inspiring person and astute political thinker, so I want to spread both his words and wisdom and Elinor’s.
This is a question for the New Year. You’re a Marxist, a Green Party candidate, you ascribe to Zen Buddhism, and your work now is focusing on Hugo Blanco, Elinor Ostrom, and Louis Althusser. What are some common questions, concerns, ideas, or passions that will drive you in the next year?
I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others.
Its sounds quite disparate when you put it like that. My key focus is how to challenge the ecological crisis that threatens both humanity and other species. This is a crisis of economic growth, we can’t produce, consume, and waste at increasing levels without challenging basic biological cycles on planet Earth. So Marx’s analysis of Capitalism remains to me vital to understanding the cause of ecological crisis in terms of an entire social and economic system based on growth. Marx once noted, ‘Accumulate, accumulate is Moses and the Prophets’— the secular religion of capitalism puts economic expansion and profit at the centre of everything. Louis Althusser, a highly controversial figure, remains to my mind the most sophisticated reader of Marx. So, yes, I have a passion for thinking about green politics and acting to further green politics but I am keen to be flexible in what I do. While from Trump and climate change the outlook seems bleak, there is an upsurge of enthusiasm for radical politics, so in the coming year I hope to support and empower the emergence of political alternatives. I am not a believer in one political organisation being ‘correct’ to the exclusion of all others, so amongst other things I am excited, on the one hand, by efforts to green Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and on the other within the Green Party work of a new generation of activists, for example, Aimee Challenor in promoting LGBTIQ politics.
Politics is endless struggle. Both Elinor Ostrom and Hugo Blanco have made me rethink how I do politics, making it more radical and practical, so spreading the word about their work will continue to be significant to me. And, yes, once I have finished writing the Hugo Blanco book, I will start writing Althusser for Revolutionaries.
Aaron Vansintjan is a PhD student researching food and cities, and a co-editor of Uneven Earth. He recently edited the book by Giorgos Kallis, In defense of degrowth, which is now available in print.
Elinor Ostrom’s rules for radicals: Cooperative alternatives beyond markets and states by Derek Wall is available from Pluto Press.
There are eighty of us sitting down, linking arms, blocking the gates of a US military base. Private security guards are lined up behind us, while men in uniform film us from behind barbed-wire fences. Suddenly, Japanese police officers pile out of their vans in their dozens. They grab a protester, a woman in her seventies. She goes limp and screams “US bases out of Okinawa!” as they carry her away. Anguish is written on her face. We desperately hold onto each other, knowing that we’re also about to be grabbed. We try to resist the police prying our arms apart. One by one, we’re removed from the gates and put into a police pen. It takes forty-five minutes to remove us all.
As anti-militarist activists, we visited the Japanese island of Okinawa in August 2017 to join the protests against US military bases. Over the course of the week, we join these sit-ins three times a day, every day. The number of people at the protests ranges from 20 to 200. Many activists are in their seventies or eighties. People chant and sing Okinawan protest songs as they wait for the police to drag them away. We get bruises and sore arms from the force of the officers.
In July 2014, the people of Okinawa began blockading the gates of Camp Schwab, a US military base situated in Henoko village, to try to prevent its expansion. Since then, activists have come from all over Japan, and occasionally from around the world, to join locals in preventing construction materials and vehicles from entering the site. Many protesters have been arrested, and several have been imprisoned for anti-base activities.
The plans for Henoko include the relocation of an existing US military facility to Camp Schwab and the building of a runway and helipads on the ocean, directly on top of a coral reef. The runway will have disastrous consequences for Oura bay, a fragile aquatic ecosystem home to many unique species. The population of endangered dugong and green turtles will also be threatened. The costs of the construction at Camp Schwab are paid for by the Japanese government.
In 1997, a referendum found that the majority of local people opposed the plans for the base. In 2007, a survey indicated that 85% of the population of Okinawa were against the new construction. Despite this, the Japanese government and US military are pressing ahead with their plans.
Towards the end of the Second World War, the US invaded Okinawa. One in four Okinawans were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. After the war, the US military took over the Japanese military bases on the island. They have had a presence there ever since.
After Japan surrendered in 1945, the US began a military occupation of the whole country. When power was handed back to the Japanese government in 1952, it was on the condition that the occupation of Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu islands continued. The US military wanted Okinawa as a strategic base to dominate China and Southeast Asia. Okinawa had been under US military rule for 27 years, until the island was brought back under Japanese control in 1972.
Although the US occupation had officially ended, its military personnel never left Japan. There are approximately 50,000 US military personnel in Japan, over half of whom remain stationed in Okinawa. Okinawa houses 70% of US military bases in the country, but covers only 0.6% of the country’s landmass. US bases occupy a massive 18% of the land on the island.
Since the occupation of Japan, Japanese governments have followed a policy of strategic alliance with US militarism. This means that the government will not oppose US bases on Japanese soil.
The US military has made its presence felt. Islanders are subjected to daily Osprey helicopter flights, which cause stress, sleep deprivation, and noise pollution. Forty-five Ospreys have crashed on the island since 1972. Military vehicles are a regular sight on the streets and soldiers use the north of the island, including the places where people live, for armed jungle training. US marines have been responsible for over a thousand violent crimes on the island since 1972, including rapes and murders. The US havetested the chemical toxin Agent Orange on Okinawa.
The demonstrations outside Camp Schwab would not exist if it weren’t for the older population of Okinawa, some of whom attend the sit-ins three times per day. 71 year old Hiroshi Ashitomi is a respected elder of the campaign. He makes enthusiastic speeches over the microphone, giving courage to those who are about to be removed by the police. Ashitomi agreed to talk to us about what it’s like to live with the military presence in Okinawa, and about the opposition to the base. He speaks to us in Japanese as an activist friend translates for us.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I was born in 1946, just after World War Two. My father went to university in Tokyo and he couldn’t return to Okinawa during the war. So I was born in Tokyo. When I was fifteen years old I came back to Okinawa. The US military was here.
How did the military occupation affect your family?
Under US occupation all of Okinawa was poor. Okinawan people were farmers but lots of land was taken by the military. The US military have a big base, Camp Hansen, in Kin, where my family lived. More than half of my father’s land was taken by the US army base. The US military compensated us for the land but it was not good money.
Can you tell us about the seizures of land by the military?
The Japanese military took Okinawan people’s land during the Second World War. After the war, the US military took control of the Japanese bases. During the Korean and Vietnam wars the US military took more and more land for their bases. They took it by force, using bulldozers and bearing arms. The people didn’t have any choice but to give up their land. There was no democracy and they colonised Okinawa. There were no rights for the people. That’s why Okinawan people have always protested against the military.
At that time the idea of Okinawan independence wasn’t very common, so we were fighting for Okinawa to return to Japan.
During the Vietnam war some US soldiers ran away from the US military, and Okinawan people supported them.
What happened when the occupation ended and Okinawa returned to Japan?
When Okinawa was returned to Japan the situation didn’t change at all. The US miltary bases remained. Now the Japanese government is against us, too. The Japanese government will never say no to the US military.
Can you explain the effects of the continued US military presence on the people in Okinawa?
The military have been responsible for rapes, murders, road-traffic accidents and drunk driving. One small example of the behaviour of the military is that sometimes soldiers don’t pay taxi drivers. They get out of taxi at the gate and run into the base without paying.
The military also causes environmental pollution, and there is noise pollution from helicopters. At night, after 10pm, they fly over our houses while people are trying to sleep.
In 1995, three US soldiers raped a 13 year old girl. People were very angry and the anti-base movement got bigger and bigger.
Two and a half years ago a female US soldier was raped at Camp Schwab. Afterwards she committed suicide.
In 2016, a 20 year old Okinawan woman, Rina Shimabukoro, was raped and killed by a former US marine. It was really terrible. Many more rape cases are happening in Okinawa and are not reported. As long as the US military is here it will keep happening again and again.
Could you tell us about the resistance to the expansion of the US base at Henoko?
After we heard about the new plans, in 1997, people in Nago city organised a residents’ referendum to decide whether they would say yes or no to the new plan. More than half of the people voted no. That referendum was very confusing for the people because many of them worked for the company that would get the base construction contract. It was hard for the workers and their family to say no because they might have lost their jobs and also because the base construction would have given them work. But still over 50% voted no.
Since then, what strategies have people used to oppose the new base construction?
We have to show the US government that we don’t agree. The Okinawan governor has visited the US government to send the voice of Okinawan people many times.
In 2004, activists began using kayaks to monitor the military base from the sea. A tent was set up by the beach where people came to learn about peace, and about the history of Okinawa.
Three years ago, when they started bringing the construction vehicles in, a protest tent and sit-in at the gates of Camp Schwab started. Police come and take us away but we sit again and again. We try to show the world and the government that we’ll never give up. That’s our motto: never give up.
Our protest is based on non-violence. The network of people in Okinawa against the US military includes local businesses and conservative people, not only activists but ordinary people. If we didn’t have mainstream support the police would destroy the protest very quickly. Non-violent tactics are important to get more people to support the protest in Henoko.
How do you keep going?
We try to come up with new ideas for the protests and keep doing it. It’s very hard protesting every day. But if we gave up, nothing would change.
It must be very stressful for the older people to be physically removed by the police every day, yet they make up the most numbers at the protests. Can you explain why?
Older people, even older than me, experienced the Battle of Okinawa during World War Two and they know how terrible it was. Under the US military occupation we suffered a lot of abuse and discrimination. So we know how to survive in this situation. That generation of older people have more passion than the younger people because they don’t want to see the same situation ever again. That’s why they sit there every day.
Do people in Okinawa want international support at the sit-ins?
We have to unite internationally otherwise we cannot win against the power of the US. We also need foreign media to come, interview people and spread information.
I just heard that the network of groups against the US bases in Okinawa received an international peace prize in Germany. So we know that international people are watching what happens here.
It’s good if international people can come and join us on the demonstrations, but please arrange a translator!
Would it be good for people internationally to hold solidarity demonstrations outside US embassies and consulates?
Yes, this would be very welcome. Donations would also be welcome. We need money to organise transport for the demonstrators and to pay for lawyers when people are arrested.
There are daily shuttle buses from Naha city, close to Okinawa’s airport and port, to the sit-in at Henoko. If you are interested in joining the protests in Okinawa, and would like to know more, email firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Here is a list of some of the Japanese websites with information about the protests in Okinawa:
https://henokoblue.wordpress.com/ – The blog of the kayak team monitoring the base in Henoko.
http://takae.ti-da.net – for info about the movement against helipad construction in Takae, in the North of Okinawa.
http://apjjf.org/ – Has some interesting articles in English about Okinawa.
Eliza and Tom are both part of Shoal Collective, a new cooperative producing writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. Follow Shoal Collective’s writing on Twitter @ShoalCollective
There are people who don’t think twice about throwing something away that others might think very valuable. There are also people who are willing to give society’s discards value once again. Martin is one of those people. Martin collects trash for a living. He also runs the popular blog, Things I Find in the Garbage, which has 1,167,429 hits and 5,940 followers.
One winter night Martin drove me around the super-rich Montréal neighbourhood, Town of Mount Royal (TMR). We talked in the car—Martin shared some (dumpstered) tea from his (found) Thermos—and, once every so often, stopped at a promising pile of trash. We had to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the security. It was two days before Christmas but there was no snow on the ground, and there was an occasional sprinkle of rain. After rooting through some trash bags and tossing anything we liked in the trunk we would hop back in the car, picking up where we had left off in the conversation. The following are excerpts from that discussion edited for clarity and flow, with some changes suggested by Martin.
Why did you pass that pile?
Ummm. It just didn’t have a good vibe for some reason. It just seemed like, cardboard, or maybe they’re working on a new bathroom and bought some new shit. Renovation kind of stuff.
So you’re looking for the small things.
Yeah. Small things are good. Well, it’s also just the look of the pile. It’s hard to explain. If you see kind of vintage-ey stuff, that’s good. For sale signs, that’s very good. Because those people are moving, or whatever. There’s a lot of cost-benefit analyses going on my head. Trying to figure out what’s worth the time, you know?
What distinguishes you from others doing this kind of work?
The trash bag. That’s the thing that really makes me a pro, I guess. It’s the fact that I’ve realized that most of the good stuff is in trash bags. A lot of people when I tell them most of the stuff I find is inside bags, are very surprised. And then I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I wouldn’t be able to make a living just picking from open boxes.
I love the bag system. The bags give off a lot of information. You can tell by the shape of them, by the color of them, the quantity of them. But when you have these giant dumpsters, there’s not much information you can glean from that.
What are some things you’ve learned from doing this?
I feel like I kind of know these people in a weird way. Even though I don’t really but I know parts of their story. Often times they’re passed on or whatever. It’s kind of a strange thing. To develop attachments to garbage or people who provide it. (There’s a long pause.) That’s the most interesting part about it, learning these stories and finding this cool old stuff. Because I’m also interested in history, and the history you find when trash picking is pretty interesting.
I’ve learned a lot about how much privilege rich people have. How much different the lifestyle is between rich and poor. Especially when I’m going through this kind of neighbourhood. The kind of things that rich people casually toss away is unbelievable for someone in my position. I remember when I was growing up we needed this special calculator for this high school class, the TI-83+.
They were so expensive!
Yeah. It was actually a stressful family expense, to buy these calculators. Then at a place in Westmount, I found two. Just thrown out. Just another world. The craziest thing to me might be the guy in Westmount who threw out a jar of change, of 56 bucks. This jar of change. This guy just didn’t have the time to… He worked at the bank, actually. He was a banker. At a certain point that’s just junk change to you. And I just can’t, it’s so hard to imagine a situation, where I would even throw out 50 cents. 50 dollars is just insanity.
It’s like we live in a world of disposability.
And privilege. I can spend a dollar on something and not worry too much about it. If you’re making $2 million a year, you can spend $100 and not worry about it. It’s just different, a totally different scale. (A pause.) The only difference I guess is that I’m spending a dollar on candy instead of throwing it directly into the garbage.
[We pass by a street sign I recognize.]
That street is called Algonquin.
They used to live around here, didn’t they?
[We both think about the Indigenous people who continue to fight against the colonization of their unceded land, and how strange it is that a street was named after them in this rich neighbourhood.]
Why do you think there aren’t more people who do this kind of thing?
I think anyone can do what I do, it’s just that there’s a lot of obstacles. A lot of it is social obstacles too. I guess for some people, it’s sort of a social stigma, people don’t want to be seen looking through trash bags at all.
Are you not concerned about that?
I’m not too concerned about it. [But] its pretty much the symbol for undesirable material. The black garbage bag. With some stink lines coming out. Like basically, I’m looking through the actual symbol for all that’s disgusting and filthy and all that. I’m sure there’s more to it, but people definitely get caught up in the symbol.
Are there moments when you do dig through stuff and are just like… oh my god this is the absolute worst.
(Laughs). Oh yeah. Once in a while people decide to mix in the good stuff with just kitchen waste or kitty litter and I’m just like “oh god.” If it looks interesting enough and I can clean it off then I’ll look through pretty much anything. I remember one person dumped a jewelry box into some kitchen waste and chicken bones so for the next half hour I was looking between the chicken bones and all that trying to hopefully find some gold.
Ummm. I don’t think I did from that bag. I found some jewelry in a different bag that didn’t have chicken juice in it. That’s why I was so dedicated to that bag. I found some really nice gold cufflinks actually. But that particular bag wasn’t that great. (Long pause). Yeah you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. A lot of people don’t really want to get dirty at all. But I feel connected to it for whatever reason.
Have you had any narrow escapes with the police or security?
There was this one time. I was checking out some trash and this security guard stopped. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m looking through the trash.” He was like, “I’m going to give you a ticket.” I was like, “Whatever, fuck you.” I just got into my car and drove away but he followed me and I left Hampstead and I’m pretty sure he can’t follow me out of Hampstead. (Laughs). That was my moment of badassery. I didn’t face any repercussions for that. I stopped going to Hampstead during the morning. Then I started going at night. Just to avoid that guy, who most certainly hates me now.
I think that’s the only reason why there’s not many trash pickers in TMR. One time I saw a guy. He was an Indian-looking guy, probably from Parc-Ex, on a bike. I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure TMR security takes care of them. (He laughs.) Anyone who doesn’t look like they belong. You know. You know all about power and all of that stuff.
Do you think doing this has kind of influenced or changed how you see those things?
Not too much. I already had kind of a picture. I think more I’ve just come to see the, uh, differentiation between rich and poor is more vivid in my mind now. Before I knew. But now I feel. I guess that’s the difference. I guess I always knew that authority was a weird thing. (He laughs.)
What did we find, you ask? In an email, Martin broke down the proceeds from that night’s trash run:
“I didn’t have the cords for the PSPs, and the Gameboy had a pretty dark screen but I sold them ‘as is’ on eBay for a profit of 65$. The Expo 67 pamphlets (from that spot with the old books) sold recently for 50$ + shipping. The old books await yard sale season, though I did barter a few on the Bunz Trading Zone Facebook page for beer / food. All in all, a solid if unspectacular night (I find about 80$ worth of stuff on an “average” night, but sometimes I’ll find much more or nothing at all).”
(He doesn’t mention the electric can-opener, the solid metal vase, and the in-working-order brand-new stereo system I took home that night.)
Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.
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On a short but eventful trip to Cuba Eliana recently took – her first – she met José, an American researcher of Cuban descent. They met up several times that week and found themselves caught in engrossing conversations every single time. Because such conversational chemistry with strangers is both exhilarating and rare, and because both Cuba and the US have been experiencing fast political change in the past few months, they decided to recreate parts of their exchange in interview form. What follows is the result of their experiment.
EM: Can you tell me a bit about the way your family talked about Cuba and theRevolution as you were growing up? In what ways has that background shaped your interest in Cuba as a young researcher as well as your personal identity? Does your experience resonate with that of other Americans of Cuban descent1?
JC: I am not a fan of generalizations, and maybe this does not actually count as one, but I feel like the Cuban diaspora experience can be summed up with two seemingly paradoxical ideas: each family’s story is simultaneously completely distinctive, and yet, there is something specifically shared among them all. Cuba’s relation to its diaspora community is unique and has been for a long time in the sense that Cubans who have left developed a strong tradition of remaining intimately involved in the politics on the island. It seems like many of the Cubans I meet (and this is true of those who left before the revolution in 1959 and after) never planned on leaving forever. Whether exiled or voluntary (or somewhere in-between), the various periods of alternatively intense or trickling exodus has, throughout Cuban history, always been intended on a temporary basis. This is true of José Martí and the independence generation, this is true of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary generation, and it is also true of the modern generations that have left since the 1960’s.
For my family in particular, it was just that. My grandfather was born into a poor carpenter’s family from Santa Clara, one of 6 siblings (4 brothers, 2 sisters). He was born during the dictatorial years of the Machado era of the 1920’s and raised during the authoritarian age of Batista in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When he moved to the United States for an education in 1946, it was certainly not with a mind to leave forever. Then, history unfurled in a certain way and my grandfather eventually found himself coming home from serving in the US Army during the Korean war for a visit to Cuba in 1955–it was the last time he would visit home and see his parents alive, though no one was aware at the time.
When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable.
When the revolution triumphed in 1959, there was no sense of its full geopolitical implications. For decades, Cuban governments had come and gone with such regularity that, up to that point in history, the notion of any particular regime lasting for 60 years would have been relatively unfathomable. But for my grandfather and his two brothers who had left for the states, there was a moment when they realized that they would perhaps never return home. I have heard at least two of them (my grandfather and his youngest brother) recall that moment: it never entailed despair, but it did contained a profound sense of loss. The half of the family that remained in Cuba was never forgotten, but it seems for those who now made it to the US, that loss would have to be compensated for by investing heart and soul into family in the US.
Perhaps something else that seems an undercurrent in the story of my family is how intimately our lives have been tied to specific historical junctures and events, both things within our control, as a family and individuals, and things that were completely out of our control. For Cubans, this seems a particularly poignant reality. While my grandfather and his brothers realized that the US was now their home by default, it was always seen through the prism of being distinctly and undeniably Cuban.
Growing up, the stories I heard of Cuba from them imbued me with this almost mythical appreciation of the island. To me, Cuba was some amazing anti-paradise/paradise of a tough life but containing infinite beauty. Perhaps this is typical of Cuban culture–the paradox of life as being simultaneously both sides of a coin. The stories I heard of Cuba often contained plenty of strife–for instance, my grandfather’s story of the first girl he ever dated who lived a few kilometers out of town but whom he had to split up with because he was losing too much weight walking to and from her house–but always ended with humor and laughter. It was an attempt, through stories, passion and humor, to cope with the trials, uncertainty and absurdity of life. It is almost Sisyphean, in a way. I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather and inheriting the incredible, informal oral history of our family while also reading books from my father’s bookshelf about the revolution and Cuban history.
Which leads me to today: I have begun work as an adult doing research in Cuba. It seems inevitable now that I reflect: while I have travelled and lived abroad in many different places for much of the past decade, I have always gravitated back to Cuba. On one hand, it has been a great way to reconnect with family here, whom I see every time I visit. As my grandfather’s generation of the our family has gotten older, I feel this sort of familial responsibility–maybe keeping in line with generations of the Cuban diaspora before me–to maintain connections with my family in Cuba and with Cuba as a country. Just as well, it is also just such an incredible privilege to be able to show up in a country that, before 2012, I had never visited and to be treated like family, to be welcomed with such love and open arms.
Part of my Cuban family still lives in the same home my grandfather was born and raised in; they even use some of the same pieces of furniture my grandfather built with his brothers and father in the 1930’s. By working in Cuba and maintaining these connections, it is as if I can actually be a part of my grandfather’s life and through that, put images and memories to the stories I have been told that were otherwise just pieces of my imagination. It is a way for me to connect with him as much as the rest of my family.
Despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.
I had the amazing opportunity to bring my grandfather back to Cuba a few years ago as well. I really cannot begin to describe what that meant to me or what I learned from that experience, but it was another important chapter of this incredible puzzle that is my understanding of Cuba. No doubt, it is a puzzle that will never be complete, but it is also one to which I realize I am one small part. One could easily say that to understand contemporary Cuba, you must understand Cuban history, and to understand Cuban history, you must really understand the history of the world. Which is not to fall into the trap of a sort of Cuba-centric view of the world, only to illustrate the point that, despite being on the periphery of many global events, Cuba has always had a way–through its own audacity and determination, and a sort of irreverence towards the pecking-order of global hierarchy–to force its way onto the world stage.
Since we first met, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, which is certainly going to cause some radical changes in US trade and diplomatic relations. Fidel Castro, a hero of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s leader for many decades, passed away on November 25th 2016, and it seems unclear what will happen to Cuban leadership after his brother Raúl dies or gives up power. What outcomes do you anticipate as aresult of these changes? For instance, what do you think are the possible effects of the end of thedecades-long US embargo on Cuban farmers?
Certainly, for better or worse, it is an exciting time in Cuba. I remember standing in the airport when I got the news alert on my phone about Fidel. It was like a light had been turned off. But not because I idolize Fidel, but because this was like the ultimate way to punctuate a reality that has been confronted slowly by Cubans for the past decade or so: that the revolutionary generation will soon have passed away, literally and figuratively. This is underwritten even more by Raul’s announcement that he will formally turn over power to Manuel Diaz-Canel in 2018. Because time passes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while now, but these recent developments (perhaps initiated by Fidel turning over power to Raul in 2008) including the Obama administration’s change of stance on Cuba in 2014 are all elements of potentially great change.
It would be naïve to try and predict what will happen in Cuba–if Cuba has been anything, it has always been surprising and unpredictable. So to try and think of what this brave new world might look like in the future, I am of the opinion that it is best to look at the way things are right now. The reality in Cuba is that the population is very young and well educated–you have an entire generation of Cubans who are getting access to uncensored information (although this has always been true to an extent), made all the more widespread because internet and cell phones are becoming more common place. These are young people, full of energy and potential, and they want to see the world and travel and have a voice and express themselves. They are pushing against the boundaries of the cultural policing of the revolution and have been for some time now, especially in places like Santa Clara. They are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image. I find this a useful place to start when thinking about how things will begin to unfold in the next few years.
[Young Cubans] are the revolutionaries within the revolution; they are the ones making the revolution today and it will be done in their image.
Another reality, which will have more to do with the question on food and agricultural futures, is that Cubans have spent decades surviving hardship in spite of the US blockade (it is not called the embargo in Cuba, but instead, el bloqueo–the blockade) and economic crises. In a very Guervarian sense, there are strong cultural traditions of solidarity and community that have been the result of such strife (although, as my grandfather would say, this is as much if not more of a Cuban thing then it is a communist one). Far from the hyper-individualism of the capitalist economy more evident in places such as the US, Cuba’s sense of social capital and informal economic tradition will lend themselves very imperfectly to any model of an economy that any institution might try to impose. I am thinking specifically of places like the World Bank, IMF and WTO. Cuba’s economic heterogeneity–hardship is the mother of ingenuity, after all–will frustrate any attempts to manage the economy from the top-down (just ask the Cuban state, they have been trying to do so for 60 years). While this makes Cuba hard to predict, it might be safe to say that Cuba will continue to be unpredictable.
One area in which these dynamics are on full display is within the agricultural sector. For many years, Cuban agriculture happened along Soviet-style industrial models that were incredibly unsustainable by virtue of huge petroleum- and input-dependency. Their focus was on producing massive quantities of sugarcane for export in exchange for other goods and food stuffs. In the 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba entered a phase of economic crises now called The Special Period in Time of Peace during which food availability on the island plummeted. Out of necessity, the government opened up the agricultural sector and turned to agroecological and organic models of food production. Such a shift on a national scale has since made Cuba a pioneer in these techniques, which have huge social and ecological implications, while also contributing to food security on the island.
Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce.
Should the US blockade fall tomorrow, agriculture in particular will be one of the sectors most profoundly affected. Already, as my time in the conference circuit in Cuban has made all too clear, the forces of large agri-business, mostly corporate-owned, are already lining up on the US side of things, waiting for the day to pounce. Not only would this threaten the great accomplishments of agroecology in Cuba in regards to food security, but it would entail massive social and ecological ramifications as well.
This is not to say that the Cuban food system does not have issues: of course it does, as do food systems everywhere. But it seems that this alternative form of agriculture, in all its heterogeneity, would come into direct conflict with the priorities and understandings of the agrobusiness sector. In the end, it is my sincerest hope, that Cuban agroecology may continue to flourish and improve in the years ahead, no matter what happens geopolitically. In reality, however, it would be naive to ignore the serious threat posed by companies and interests that would seek to reform the agricultural sector to resemble the plantation-style production methods and exploitation that once made Cuba a sugarcane factory for the world.
As for Trump, he will try to do what he can to inflate his own ego and compensate for his own insecurities, perhaps reversing course on Cuba although he has made no indication of his intentions with Cuba as of yet. Ultimately, however, since the humiliation of the US imperialism that stole independence from Cubans at the turn of the last century, Cubans have insisted on being masters of their own destiny. Despite recent geopolitical changes in rhetoric and posturing, the changes that have been occurring on the Cuban side are still very slow, weary and cautious. Cuba has been down this road before with the US and they are well, well aware of where it can lead.
I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.
The fear many people have is that Cuba might potentially run the risk of becoming some retirement community for wealthy retired white people from the US, like some dystopic Caribbean Florida. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard recite something along the lines of, “I want to visit Cuba before it changes forever,” which implies a few really frustrating things.
First of all, it implies that foreigners feel as if, simply because Cuba has been isolated from the West for 60 years, that it somehow has not changed. That just because there are old cars in the streets, that Cuba has somehow been stuck in time. Perhaps change in Cuba looks quite different from the paradigms set forward by other post-independence colonies in the 20th century, but it has certainly changed radically, reinventing itself many times over. ABMTR should be the Cuban mantra: Always Be Making the Revolution. Not necessarily because of revolutionary fervor–there are not a lot of ideological Marxists out there plowing the fields–but because of the necessities of life. The “revolution” in whatever way you interpret that, must always be made and re-made as conditions change and time passes.
[Some people] feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives.
Secondly, it also implies that people recognize the craven fallacies and gross contradictions in their own models of capitalist social and economic life, and feel Cuba represents some sort of saving grace from those fundamental flaws. Instead of addressing these issues within their own society, they instead project their idyllic anti-capitalist fantasies towards the island and see what they want to see instead of what really is. They feel, almost like conservationists look to National Parks as the refuge for wilderness in an age of unholy capitalist environmental destruction, that as long as Cuba can remain “as an alternative” in the world, there might still be hope for those alternatives. Few are willing to let those alternatives into their own lives. And most will be unwilling to stand up for Cuba’s right to continue to be alternative in the coming years. As has traditionally been the case, however, Cubans will continue forging their own path in the world, as imperfect and difficult as it may be, the US and any other imperial power be damned.
Cuba is not some pure utopia or ideal alternative. It is messy and complicated place. It is always changing in distinctly Cuban ways that are often illegible to outsiders (myself included). Whatever happens in the coming years, it will at the very least be exciting and interesting. All of which is not to say there are not real threats to Cuba from external forces that would seek to remake Cuba in certain ways to facilitate the siphoning of wealth and the capitalize upon the vulnerability of these transitions. But never underestimate Cuba’s potential, or I should say, never underestimate the Cuban people. Just as most Cubans who, even when not identifying as communistas, still identified as fidelistas after Fidel Castro’s death, it is the sense of national pride and anti-imperialism that is shared commonly more universally by Cubans than any political ideology. That is a powerful thing against any potentially domineering force.
We met in Varadero, which is in your own words a bubble within Cuba. The place is indeed mainly known for its high-end tourist resorts where Europeans and Canadians spend their winter holidays and whose luxury is unavailable to Cubans. A large percentage of the city’s working population has a job at a resort or hotel, or in the transportation industry, and many others offer rooms for rent and meals for sale in their private home. As Cuban people receive very small food rations from the government and salaries are low, you mentioned all kinds of exchanges, non-monetary trade and barter goes on behind closed doors as people try to get theirhands on food items and everyday items. When I visited Havana, I also noticed a large part ofthe economy revolved around tourism and selling an „authentic“ image of Revolutionary Cubato Westerners, which is pretty ironic given the Marxist ideology all of this officially operatesunder. Can you tell me more about the tensions and overlaps between dependence on capitalisttourism / foreign capital, Marxist state ideology and what we could call „Cuba’s secret anarchisteconomy“ in these places? How are things in other areas of the island that are less dependent ontourism but overall poorer – for example Santa Clara, where you mentioned you have family?
While my family straddles the Cuban-US divide, the half that remained in Cuba also straddles the economic divide within Cuba itself–perhaps somewhat of a contradiction in the nominally-classless Socialist country.
I was sitting on a park bench in Santa Clara one morning a while back having a coffee and smoking a cigar for breakfast when I was approached by a middle-aged black Cuban who asked to sit down on the bench with me. He did and we began the most interesting and intense conversation, especially for 8 in the morning. It was a conversation about the, “7 socio-economic classes in Cuba” during which he described each class in great detail. The short version of this conversation was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism. This divide is both geographic, with certain parts of the country having more tourism and therefore, more tourist money and investment, and also personal/familial with certain people having jobs in the tourist sector while others do not. In tourist areas, there is more flow of external capital, in no small part thanks to the implementation of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), whose value is roughly pegged to the dollar (the CUC is called fula by Cubans) and the Cuban Peso, which is theoretically and typically only available to Cuban citizens.
The short version of this conversation [about social stratification] was that Cuba had class lines drawn along different contours, the most prominent of which is perhaps the divide between tourism and non-tourism.
Cuban citizens that have jobs in the tourist industry or who live in tourist areas have more contact with this form of external capital in the form of dollars and CUC. It is not uncommon to find fully licensed doctors driving taxis in tourist areas because they earn better money from tips than they do for practicing medicine.
Additionally, Cubans who work in the tourist industry can also conseguir (get their hands on) food and goods from hotels and restaurants, which are better stocked and have better quality items than the state run stores or markets. This is illegal of course, but it is also part of the economic lifeblood in certain areas. Illegal as well is the black market and various informal forms of exchange, including lots of direct bartering and gift-giving, which exists in parallel with all these other economic practices.
I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state.
Of course, the government has tried to clamp down on these informal, illegal practices at various points throughout the revolution’s history, but the fact remains that, given the material limitations of the Cuban state, these alternative practices have kept the ship afloat for decades and underwritten much of the successes, solutions and triumphs in Cuba over the past 60 years. In fact, I don’t think that it would be even remotely an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons that Cuba and the revolution have been able to survive the hardships of the past half-century has been directly because of all the diverse, informal, and illegal things that Cuban citizens have been able to do for themselves in spite of the regulations of the state. In many ways, like all economies but particularly pronounced in Cuba, is the existence of this economic anarchy in a very Emma Goldman sense of the word. No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.
No state can completely colonize all spaces, physical and psychological, within its own territory; this is even truer for a centralized state such as Cuba.
As such, in those spaces that are left, the Cuban people have learned to take advantage of and utilize their resources, particularly their social resources, to navigate the difficulties of life. Regardless of the ubiquity of these informal institutions of economics and exchange, however, serious socio-economic disparities still exist. For part of my family living in tourist areas, life is much more comfortable and manageable. For part of my family living elsewhere, such as Santa Clara, which has been traditionally poorer, especially when compared to nearby Havana, life is lived much closer to the chest.
1According to the 2010 US population census, there are roughly 1,8 million people of Cuban descent in the US, mostly living the Miami area.
José Cienfuegos is a researcher, freelance writer and consultant based in the US. He works on agriculture and development issues in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
Eliana Musterle is a feminist researcher based in Germany. She works on Latin American food sovereignty movements and is involved in the climate justice movement.
The Uru-Chipaya territory is an autonomous indigenous municipality of the Plurinational Republic of Bolivia. The region stands 3876 m. a.m.s.l., located 194 km southwest of Oruro city, northeast of the Coipasa salt flat—the second most important in South America (2500 km2). Currently, the municipality counts with a permanent population of about 1814 people. The main productive activities are subsistence agriculture (quinoa, potatoes and kañahua) and livestock (sheep breeding—approximately 86%, and camelids—approximately 14%) also intended for self-consumption. In December 2015 Lake Poopo dried up and now the Lauca river is facing a similar fate, forcing Chipaya people to flee their territory due to water scarcity.
However, other factors cumulative to the stress occasioned by drought are as well relevant when inquiring how the continuance of the Chipaya nation is challenged. To explore the issues at hand, a skype interview with Leonel Cerruto, Founder and Director of KAWSAY-Centro de Culturas Originarias, was conducted. As an institution, Kawsay has the main objective of strengthening indigenous originary campesino organizations through projects that include La Escuela de la Madre Tierra (The Mother Earth School). The conversation started with a discussion about tourism.
I wanted to start off by asking you about the tourism initiative in the Chipaya territory. When I was there I remember hearing from our brothers about an Italian man coming in and incentivizing the overture to tourism. Are you aware of how that is going so far?
Leonel Cerruto: A few years ago the community built an albergue in Chipaya, but it is not doing very well. To my understanding, an organization is currently doing some work financed by the European Union, but [Kawsay is] not working with them. [Kawsay’s] strategy is more community oriented. They [the organization] want to promote tourism in general. However, it is up to the autonomous indigenous government to decide in the end. The autonomy was voted ‘yes’ with close to 80% of the votes. We are happy because it was the last step to confirm the indigenous autonomy. We will enter a process of transition to formalize [the Chipaya’s] own government. A bigger challenge will come about, such as where will the community get resources from, because people go to Chile to work and make money so they can sustain themselves. In that sense, tourism is a good choice because it does not require a big investment.
The organization Leonel referred to is GVC Italia—Gruppo di Volontariato Civile (Civil Volunteer Group). As he stated, the European Union is financing the project, which was named “Qnas Soñi (People of the Water): CHIPAYA, between tradition and technology, towards a resilient municipality”. It is an intervention plan that aims to assist the Chipaya people in adopting a strategy that pretends to help them reclaim their cultural identity and ‘treasure’ their ancestral inheritance. It pretends to do so by implementing four processes associated with the construction of a resilient community, one of which is developing services for tourists and promote it as a cultural destination nationally and worldwide.
It appears to be a good idea, but there is something missing. In their website, the organization [GVC] overlooks the importance of conducting an impact assessment. The Chipaya territory is located in a zone with pandemic flora and fauna species. Considering the Poppo Lake dried up not long ago, introducing an initiative like the one [GVC] is promoting would be adding more pressure to the ecosystem. For example, tourism requires sanitary services and food. It could also bring more garbage in the area like plastic water bottles and snack packages. What do you think?
L. C.: We are not too informed about [GVC]’s project. We’ve been more focused on the indigenous autonomy aspect. We are assisting the community in mobilizing to spread their own statuto because there were some people opposing to the indigenous autonomy. [GVC] is separate from us. However, things are about to change. For example, now that the indigenous autonomy has been adopted, the governance structure will change. So, tourism will be discussed in a participatory manner.
The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.
To my understanding the state is supporting [GVC]’s project.
L. C.: The state is interested, yes, but the problem I see is that they are not looking at it from the Chipaya perspective. They label it as ‘community tourism’, but they are misunderstanding it for rural tourism, which is not community tourism at all.
What comes to mind is the experience of my hometown Tepoztlan in regards of tourism in general. Back in the early 1900s Robert Redfield, American anthropologist and ethno-linguist, published a study about the campesino community in the village, which attracted sociologist Oscar Lewis whose research in the village revolved around poverty. Since then, the village underwent a process of urbanization as it became a hotspot for academic tourism. Then rich people were drawn to live there seasonally because intellectuals and artists were also living there. The pyramid and customs made Tepoztlan a mystical village that to this day receives thousands of visitors every year without any sort of control or regulation.
L. C.: What you are saying is true. We have to be careful when integrating tourism. What worries me, which I imagine is similar to what you just mentioned, is that the Chipaya is an ancient culture not only in Bolivia but in the continent. So tourism is a threat. It is valid what you were saying. This reminds me of the Taquile island found in the Peruvian side of the Titicaca Lake. It is a community that self-started tourism and yet did not change their everyday activities, which are all tourist attractions. Each family gets a tourist, and the community has a common fund they collectively administer and also redistribute between the families. This is a good reference of how community tourism is organized and administrated. I know many instances in Ecuador that are more diverse in this branch. In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.
Yes, I agree. In Tepoztlan, for instance, people are turning their backs on agriculture and prefer to sell their land, land they inherited in most cases, as it is a faster source of income. This is problematic because the territory is fragmented and has become vulnerable to privatization.
L. C.: Right. This is also observed in Cusco. It is a very important point, indeed. Once a territory is fragmented, cultural identity is also fragmented. Indigenous autonomy is important because it integrates the political and especially the spiritual aspect. The latter should be reincorporated.
Putting this in the Chipaya context, what would you suggest as a strategy? Considering that globalization is already changing the lifestyles of teenagers.
L. C.: One way is by recuperating the ancestral view to regain spirituality. This is key. For example, last month I was at a meeting with a group of elders who were saying the importance of seeing the earth as a living being. Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive. This vision needs to be retaught to young people. We are working with youth to help them integrate in the community life.
In other words, there are many forms of community tourism that are more controlled and the flow of tourists is regulated. The problem is when money dominates the situation.
Once nature is seen as someone who is alive, it is treated as if it were alive.
Don’t you think it’s a bit complicated with the internet and mobile phones?
L. C.: That is a reality and we need to embrace it. The internet cannot be eliminated. Most young people have cellphones and they spend most of their time chatting on it. The goal is to help them give the internet a different use. It is not a matter of prohibition, it is rather a matter of switching the use they make of this technology. We are producing videos with them, they are coming up with their own presentations with their own communities. It has been working positively so far, as participants are getting more engaged with their culture and identity. They are integrating in the communal activities more and more.
Are ancient rituals such as capturing the wind and harvesting dunes still practised?
L. C.: Yes, although I am not specifically sure about those two. But, we are working on reincorporating traditional practices into the spiritual and ritual activities. It is a slow process because not all participants accept it right away. It also depends on their families and community. In Charagua, a community where we are undergoing a similar project, we are doing pretty well. Participants are very active and actively integrate in the community.
In regards of food sovereignty and drought…
L. C.: That is serious. Especially in the Andean part, which includes the Chipaya territory, and the Chaco region. It is a desperate situation because, for example, the potato seeds that were cultivated could not germinate as it has not rained.
There is a study online stating that the drought of the Poppo lake is due to water mismanagement.
L. C.: On the one hand, as you say, it is due to water mismanagement. There seems to be a lack of communal management of the resources and a lack of prevention measures. On the other hand, one cannot ignore that drought and el Nino are effects of climate change. The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative. Another thing I am realizing is that some news are manipulated with political intent. What is true for Bolivia is that, according to official reports, 40% of our glaciers have been lost in the past years. This means that our mountains have less snow, resulting in less water supplying to the rivers and springs. It is undeniable. We have many snowcaps that have lost snow, thus there is no water running from those places. Consequently, there are less volumes of water feeding the rivers. So this is what has been going on. There is no prevention, the proper measurements have not been taken to come up with a contingency plan, for instance. Our water resources continue being used as if nothing was happening. It is a complex matter, and climate change is a key cause.
The absence of rain is not necessarily because the little water available is mismanaged. Climate change plays a big role in all of this. Both things are cumulative.
The following is something that I have been noticing (since my childhood) in communities deemed ‘poor’ in the capitalist sense. It is a dependency on the government for help, or an expectation to be helped from above. While conducting an interview in the Chipaya nation, the interviewee asked for financial aid to the government for the construction of a diversion canal, as if a bureaucrat would watch the video. His colleague told me that the money had already been approved and they were just waiting for the government to hand it out.
L. C.: Absolutely. More than the government it would be the state, though. This government has been giving out more resources, and it is up to the municipality to manage those resources according to the needs of the population. If the municipal agents do not allocate the resources properly, neither will the communities. In the last couple of years this has become a generation of dependency. For this reason, local authorities need to be strengthened, especially in the area of communal organization. This is something we are working on permanently. With the indigenous autonomy they should as well strengthen their organization so it is less dependant on the central state.
Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.
I noticed that car trafficking is another threat to the territory. What is your opinion on this matter?
Indeed, trafficked cars are driven into their territory, but the Chipaya people are not involved in it. It is up to them to build barriers that will keep [car traffickers] from crossing. Territorial control has been a struggle that the Chipaya people have not been able to do to these days. Car traffickers don’t respect the borders and the municipality was not capable of keeping them away either. The indigenous autonomy now allows the local authorities to fairly manage their territory.
Let me pause to briefly explain what the indigenous autonomy is about. Back in 2007, with 4 states against (Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia)—and the abstention of 11 states (which included Colombia and the Russian Federation)—the United Nations’ General Assembly passed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) by a majority of 143 votes in favour. Two years later, President Evo Morales made the official launch of the indigenous autonomy process with the Decree Law 231. As it is recognized in Article 2 and Article 290 of the constitution, indigenous peoples have the right to self-govern their ancestral territory in harmony with law and constitution as long as it is done within the structure of the unitary state.
I read a UN report that says that the health issues [Chipaya] children and women are more prone to get are anemia and malnutrition. What I found concerning is that during my visit I did not see any health centres.
L. C.: Presently, there have been some incentives from the state in this regard. However, as we were saying before [about depending on the state], as indigenous nations we had always had our own systems, not just in regards of health. We have ancestral wisdom. School teaches other ideas about culture.
Is the content taught at public school designed by the state?
L. C.: It is one thing that it is provided by the state, which should be the case anyway, and yet it should be the community who creates its own education system. Resources should be provided by the state because it’s part of a country; but, in this case, communities should have more capabilities to maintain their own education system.
Do you think this could be done in the indigenous autonomy?
L. C.: Yes, relatively because the educative system is centralized by the state. It will be more attainable as [the Chipaya people] get their own system, which needs further strengthening. In the instance of Bolivia, there are three curriculum levels: one is central, another is regional, and the third, which has not been effectively developed, is local. Therefore, it is possible to continue working on regular education. On the other hand, there is the need to continue working on our own community education, which is what indigenous nations have always had for thousands of years. Yet, since these themes are no longer researched in depth, it is as if they did not exist. All cultures have had their own education or formation systems that are actually meant to attain wisdom, including health and any other system. It is important to clarify which are our own systems.
All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.
To conclude, would you say the Chipaya nation is under threat of disappearing?
L. C.: Yes. However, the indigenous autonomy can facilitate the Chipaya people the possibility of recuperating their culture. The Urus are in the process of going extinct, though. A segment of the Uru population lived near the Poppo Lake. Since the lake dried up, they lost their livelihood because they are essentially fishermen. They were forced to migrate. For this reason, their territorial structure is scattering. They are moving to urbanized regions because they no longer have a means to survive. This is happening in a different region of Oruro. It is happening to other cultures, too, and the process is similar: it disjuncts, scatters, and then disappears. There has been progress in the case of the Chipaya nation because the indigenous autonomy will allow them to develop their own life model by strengthening their ancestral culture. At least that is what is hoped. All indigenous cultures have their own ecological principles, or cosmovision. When these principles are forgotten the ecosystem is destroyed.
Paula Monroy is an undergraduate student at Concordia University majoring in Urban Studies.
The European core nations have colonised the world. This system is not only based on the unequal exchange of land and labour—as the anthropologist Alf Hornborg has shown inGlobal Ecology and Unequal Exchange—it is also on the verge of making the planet uninhabitable. So the world must be decolonised. But what would it mean to decolonise Europe? How do we decolonise the core of the world system—the area of the world that gave birth to colonialism itself?
Another world exists
In the north of Scandinavia, there is an Indigenous culture that has persisted against colonisation. The land is called Sápmi. The Sámi, like all Arctic Indigenous peoples, are experiencing the severe effects of rapid global warming and decolonisation is now more than ever a matter of survival.
Sofia Jannok is a songwriter, yoiker (yoik is a traditional Sámi vocal style), and pop singer; activist, environmentalist thinker, and reindeer owner. Through her words, melodies, activism, and existence, Jannok pushes for decolonisation. The title of the last song on her latest album ORDA: This Is My Land is “Noaidi,” a Northern Sámi word that means shaman but that she also translates as “Decolonizer.” The noaidi drives out the colonisers and their mentality. The noaidi reveals another world, a story that has been silenced in the history of the Swedish nation state.
For me, the encounter with Sofia Jannok’s music and stories opened the door to a new world-view. I am an urban middle-class Swede brought up to think that industrialisation is necessary and that this mode of production combined with better welfare distribution means progress for all. I have always had a nudging feeling of something being wrong with the story I have been told but other narratives are rarely given space in the media, nor in the academic contexts or political organisations I have been part of.
I was able to interview Jannok to explore the connection between her music, the decolonisation of Sápmi and of Europe, and the necessity of Indigenous rights and Indigenous peoples’ perspectives for all of humanity. This article tells the story of the other world that already exists in Jannok´s Sápmi. I weave a pattern of our conversation, her songs, images of what her stories make me feel, and examples of colonisation past and present.
Jannok and I begin by talking about music. I ask her about the role of music in Sámi decolonisation work and she emphasises that the increased focus on Sámi musicians and artists in the Swedish media often misses the historical ties between artistic expression and political struggle in Sápmi:
The national media in Sweden are only now opening their eyes to what is happening in Sápmi, because music is bringing these things to the fore. But music has always been an essential part of the decolonisation work that Sápmi has undertaken for as long as I have lived and long before my time.
She tells me that she sees her voice as a continuation of the voices of the past. Some of her influences, or precursors, are the yoikers, musicians, and activists Áillohaš (Nils Aslak Valkeapää) and Mari Boine. She also mentions all the music that came out of the action in Alta in Norwegian Finnmark in 1981—a manifestation, Jannok says, that made Norway take Sámi politics seriously, leading them to open a Sámi parliament and sign ILO 169 (the UN convention on Indigenous peoples’ rights, which Sweden still has not signed).
I continue what previous generations started: mirroring the contemporary world—as art always does, or at least I think it should.
Indigenous art can be an important mirror: it reveals parts of reality that are obscured or distorted by the colonial mirrors that dominate many people’s view of the world:
It’s through art and culture that we can look back on what another time was like. From my perspective, neither history books nor the media are impartial. With regard to us in Sápmi, an efficient way of obscuring and oppressing is to say that we don’t exist at all. And because of that I think that art and culture and music gives a more fair and true image of reality, because it is told through the eyes of the ones who experience it. All over the world, the history of Indigenous peoples has mainly been told by the colonisers and of course that yields a pretty slanted image and a very short-term perspective too because the time that colonisation has been going on is only a second if we compare it to how long we have existed on the earth.
Through a decolonised picture of reality—this is how we can see the other world that is possible.
Colonial blindness and Indigenous grief
On her latest album ORDA: This is my land, Jannok has a song that contrasts these two reflections of reality—the colonial and the Indigenous one.
Not grieving the loss of you home sweet home
Not grieving your walls that for all times are gone
Not grieving, because they were already gone
Your house was built on an old woman’s home
I’m grieving the wide open wound that I see
When will they understand when to let be?
I’m grieving for her because she lost it all
Under your kitchen floor buried is her soul
The first time I heard this song, all illusions about the goodness and soundness of my society started to melt away. I felt that it spoke to me; that I was the “you” that this song is directed to:
I—the grieving Sámi.
She—our mother, the earth.
The kitchen—the food, energy, of the colonising world, which has buried our mother’s soul.
You—the blind people in the colonial state, who do not see what they have lost.
They—the core of the Swedish state, which colonised Sámi land and whose colonial project is ongoing.
Like the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (North America) who are right now protecting their home and the earth from the Dakota Access Pipeline and the expansion of the Tar Sands, Jannok and the Sámi see that the colonising industry wants to “steal our mother”—a line from Jannok’s song “We are still here”—and so they are protecting the land, water, air that we all depend on. Jannok was in fact part of a Sámi group that went to Standing Rock in North Dakota to show their support for the activists there.
But the core of colonial society in Sweden contests the parallels between the Sámi and other Indigenous cultures. On ORDA: This Is My Land, Jannok shows this very clearly by including excerpts from a hearing in a court case between the Sámi reindeer herding community Girjas and the Swedish state—a case that Girjas won, though the state has appealed and a new trial will be held in 2017.
In the hearing the State calls a witness, a non-Sámi resident of Finnish Sápmi, who voices the opinion that the Sámi are not an Indigenous people and that the colonial theories that have been developed “for North America and Australia” do not apply to “Lapland” (or Swedish Sápmi). Jannok explains why she contests this claim on her album:
I draw parallels to other Indigenous peoples precisely to debunk the opinion that Sámi people aren’t Indigenous. As if that was an opinion when it’s fact, and facts are facts and can’t be overlooked: the Sámi are an Indigenous people. The opposite is to claim that the earth is flat and try to discuss from the starting-point of the earth being flat when we have already agreed that the earth is round. Let’s start the discussion from there. We are an Indigenous people. Grant us our rights, that we have maintained for ourselves for thousands of years.
This fact does not stop the Swedish state from telling its own story about the Sámi. In one of Jannok’s samplings from the hearing, the state attorney questions the concept of ethnicity and its relevance to the description of the situation in Sápmi. Listening to this, I remember the music video to Jannok’s song “Viellja jearrá” (“Brother asks”) where the history of racial biological studies on the Sámi is shown. In the light of the history of Swedish eugenics, we can begin to understand the degree of disrespect shown by the state when it now refuses the Sámi the right to define themselves as an Indigenous community. The state in the past studied the Sámi as a “lower race” and now instead wants to do away with the concept of ethnicity. It is hard to find a better example of how Sámi politics are reframed to suit the political agenda.
The state attorney also says that “the State has done its utmost to regulate the reindeer husbandry trade in a generous way” and that “the Sámi have not been subjected to discrimination by the State”. These types of statements can feed widespread prejudices in Sweden about the Sámi as privileged—prejudices claiming that the Sámi both receive special privileges to keep reindeer and benefit from modern infrastructure and technology. What these claims entirely leave out is that the Sámi did not choose to be incorporated into this modern industrial society. The state never asked the Sámi if they would like to abandon a subsistence lifestyle for a professional, regulated reindeer trade.
Part of the decolonisation work is to confront this racist discourse about Sámi privilege. An example of this in Jannok’s music is one of her most fiercely political songs, “I Ryggen på min Kolt” (“In the back of my gákti”—gáktibeing the Sámi word for a traditional regalia) which is directed at the Swedish state and its double standards; when it wants to use Sámi culture for advertising in the tourism industry but not grant Sámi people their rights. She sings:
Du söndrar mellan grannar som lärt sig leva bredvid varandra
Sprider lögner om min familj, mitt folk
Dina ord en dolk
Rakt i ryggen på min kolt
You’re sundering neighbours who’ve learnt to live next to each other
Spreading lies about my family, my people
Your words, a knife
Right in the back of my gákti
The song reveals how, in a classic case of “divide and conquer,” the idea of Sámi privilege is used by elites to play out oppressed groups against each other. There are numerous examples of what this sundering of neighbours has led to today—ranging from racist comments on the internet, verbal harassment, and vandalisation of Sámi language road signs, to hate crimes such as assault and battery, killed reindeer, and arson of lávvu (the Sámi equivalent of the North American tipi).
But “I ryggen på min kolt” tells us that this racism was not always there, that we are all being told lies about the Sámi and the history of Sweden and that this is creating enmity. Decolonisation requires retelling history.
The slanted colonial story of the past and present has been and is motivated to a large extent by the mining industry which has fed the modern Swedish economy, although colonisation through farming settlements goes back several hundred years before this as well. The “golden age” of social democracy and the welfare state was funded by the unequal exchange of land and labour between the core and periphery in the Swedish territory. Jannok, in her work, unearths this inconvenient truth:
“Snölejoninna: Snow lioness”
Antirasist my ass,
när du inte ser från vem du snott all din cash
Han, hon, hen “son”
av oss stal du landet en gång
Urfolkskvinna, snölejoninna, jag är regnbågen på din näthinna
jag är allt det men jag är mer, “mon lean queer”,
har funnits här i tusentals years
An outspoken anti-racist, my ass
You don’t even recognize the people from whom you’ve stolen all your cash
“Son”, he, she and ze;
Once you stole this land from me
A native empress, the rainbow you see, a snow lioness; well, all that is me
All of it, yes it can all be found here, yet I am something more, as I am queer
Residing here for thousands of years
(“Son” is the Northern Sámi third person singular pronoun, which is always gender neutral.)
This song shows the reality of the resource flows in the colonial-industrial economy, but its focus is on the Sámi as dynamic, as queer—without even a grammatical gender divide—and diverse. It is about telling her own story about who she is and can be, or could be. Jannok says:
“Snowlioness” is partly about how the box that society wants to squeeze me into doesn’t have to be a box. Instead I can be all of this and still have the right to be Sámi.
“Diverse” is a good word to describe both Jannok’s Sápmi and the history of northern Scandinavia. The nomadic Sámi population and the settlers of the north coexisted in the past and both groups benefited from their cooperation. Some non-Sámi people had reindeer and many farmers housed Sámi families on the move between summer and winter pastures.
This decolonised story of the past is slowly gaining space in mainstream media because of the music and activism of people like Jannok, and finally also in some history books. One of these books is Urfödan: Om självhushållets mat hos folk i Lappland (Ancient food: On the food of self-sufficiency among people in Lapland) in which Lillian Ryd interviews people from the last generations of both settlers and nomads who lived traditional, self-sufficient lives in northern Sweden before industrialisation all but erased these livelihoods. Through such stories about the past, we can begin to see that the people who benefited from the exploitation of land and labour in the north of Sweden were responsible both for the colonisation of Sápmi and for taking the land away from farmers through the 19th century enclosure movement (“Laga Skifte”).
What has happened to people’s livelihoods in this process is that they have been incorporated into the industrial structure of big society. This is true for both the Sámi and the settlers. One example of this that Jannok mentions in our conversation is the state’s regulation of reindeer herding:
The term “renskötsel” (reindeer husbandry) alone is a very clear example of how society has wanted to label a lifestyle to enter it into its laws and regulations, and then deciding who can do reindeer herding and not. To have zero experience, not even having seen a reindeer or visited a reindeer herder’s everyday life, and still regulate and make decisions that don’t match reality. So you only see the tip of the iceberg if you see a privilege.
The traditional lifestyle of the Sámi has in modern history been undermined by the establishment of national borders, mines, the forest industry, hydroelectric dams, military test ranges, and wind parks. It has also been attacked culturally through eugenics, boarding schools,forced sterilisation, and forced Christianisation—which among other things entailed a ban on yoik. Then, after these atrocities, the state came up with the term renskötsel—a word that, Jannok says, doesn’t even exist in Sápmi traditionally—in order to incorporate this lifestyle into an industrial-professional economy. Reindeer-owning Sámi people became professionals in the reindeer food business. Sámi people who did not own reindeer lost their legal right to be Sámi, Jannok adds:
This led to internal conflicts and differences between Sámi people and Sámi people, which has severe consequences even to this day.
If we look beneath the surface, what we see instead of privilege is the attempt by a colonial state to eradicate an Indigenous population:
For the Sámi, the equation doesn’t add up, and it will be the death of us unless someone listens soon. That’s the way it is. This is an Indigenous culture and it depends on the right to land and water and the reindeer and our settlements. Every day that you infringe on these rights it becomes a little harder for us to survive. We have nowhere to go anymore. That’s just how it is. And it doesn’t add up. It doesn’t add up.
Hearing these repeated words, I feel the grief that Jannok sings and yoiks in “Grieving”. I feel called on to share a decolonised story of our past with all those who still take out their sense of loss and their anger on the Sámi. Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, or the world market should be the target of everyone’s anger, and we should work together to build other ways of living with the land—our mother.
Another world through consensus-based decision-making and Indigenous knowledge
There are alternative ways of living—we do not have to sabotage the home we live on in order to live good lives. In fact, if we exploit and pollute the earth, then none of us—like the Sámi now—will have anywhere to go. Colonial society is blind to this. Jannok explains that it is much clearer to her than to many others since she has had the benefit of growing up in a family that is entirely dependent on what nature gives.
The relationship to the earth, Jannok says, gives Indigenous peoples an insight that is lost in the industrial core countries of the West. So, as one decolonisation strategy, could we perhaps imagine a Sámi council in Sweden that advises on environmental issues and pushes back colonial-industrial values from decision-making?
Absolutely. We even have an example of this in the management of the Laponia world heritage area which is located in a very large part of Swedish Sápmi. Sápmi has fought seven hard years to get a majority on the board. Now every decision has to be reached through consensus, which is a typical way to reach decisions in reindeer herding communities.
Majority rule doesn’t work if you are Sámi you know, we’ll lose every vote. We are so few. There are alternative ways of solving it. I really believe in a council where Sápmi actually has the right to say something. Because as it is today there is supposedly consultation and dialogue around every infringement on Sámi land—with LKAB for instance, a large mining company, if they want to prospect for minerals, then the Sámi community is supposed to have a say—but that’s not how it is in reality.
You can voice your opinion but no one takes it into consideration. And that’s not dialogue. That’s information. So I think an influential Sámi council is a great idea. I don’t understand why it isn’t already like that, with Sápmi having an obvious role in saying how things affect life, nature, the water, the air, the earth. We are dependent on it and for us it is extremely clear but it’s actually for the benefit of everyone. We can’t drink poisonous water, that’s just how it is.
Jannok goes on to describe what has been lost to a great part of the world’s population, and to show that Indigenous rights are important not only for Indigenous peoples but for humanity and the earth itself:
A big part of the world’s population has lost the connection not only to the earth but also with the elders and the knowledge that generations before us had built up. People have been cut off from this, because of industrialism, individualism, egoism, greed. But it is still here, we are still here. Indigenous peoples exist all over the world and we have still got that connection, not least with the elders, the old generation. And with animals and the places we live in. We see how they change. I mean, it is not a coincidence that all the research reports that indicate evidence of climate change and that the gulf stream is changing, these are things that Indigenous peoples have already confirmed decades before. So there is already a lot of evidence that it can be for the good of all to actually listen to these people. This competence that you can find among Indigenous peoples should be used, and it doesn’t have to be proven in accordance with Western methods to be valid. We see, we listen, we feel, we can remind others about how you do this, because we all come from the earth so of course everyone has this ability. To listen.
Singing yourself and the new world into existence
To get more people to listen and reconnect with their own ability to see, hear, understand the earth and other living beings, Jannok has moved from singing primarily in Northern Sámi to singing mainly in English, and some Swedish as well. And the soundscape, production, and rap-inspired vocal style on her latest album also contribute to a sense of her music being more confrontational:
It is a more direct rhetoric. I have moved away from writing more poetically—I’ve always been critical in my songs but allowed art to be art, giving the listener a chance to interpret it in their own way. Now, on my latest album, I don’t want to do this, I want to be as direct as possible. I want to say things that for me have been like saying that the sun rises or something: It’s that it’s light all summer; it is that we are still here. For me it is self-evident, but it apparently isn’t to the ones who always go, ”hey, but, what do you mean with Sámi, do you even exist?” I also want to say “This is my land,” because the focus is always on something other than the fact that this is Indigenous land. Though it is described on every single map—there isn’t one map of Sweden that doesn’t have almost all names in Sámi in northern Sweden. So these self-evident things are what I want to write and I don’t want to leave any space for misinterpretation. It should be clear as daylight what I mean.
Jannok and others like her, from Sápmi and other parts of the world, are giving a voice to alternatives. These stories have the power to change people’s minds and dreams—and so they can also change the society we all build together.
Hope. But there will still always be doubt. Anxiety. We can never know if it will be enough. To find the will to live can be a struggle. All we can do is listen, understand, act, and pass the torch, the fire, on to the people who come after us:
What else can I do but to sing all these songs,
to sing and to hope that we’ll always belong?
I sing to the healing of ancestors’ soil
For future sisters I’m singing this song
What else can I do but to sing all these songs?
For future sisters, I hope they keep strong
To support these future sisters (oappáide means “to the sisters”), to help Sápmi stay strong, Jannok has donated money to the Sámi youth choir Vaajmoe—a choir that developed from the need for a meeting-space after the suicides of several young Sámi. And, of course, Jannok’s own music is part of that same movement of singing yourself into existence, making a place in the world for yourself and the people who walk with you. Jannok’s song “Áhpi: Wide as Oceans” is also about suicide; a tribute to those who have left and a comfort to the ones left behind.
Áhpi sheds light on a reality that exists and that has a taboo on it: mental health issues. To simply shed light on things that are real but invisible is to acknowledge people who live that life. To be seen.
Light, life, love—a land for everyone
Light. She constantly returns to this—to the bright summers with the midnight sun and to the fire that lights your way in the winter:
It’s not in the fight for my own existence that my fire has its source. It’s in life. And life is so beautiful, rich, full of laughter, hustle and bustle between bare mountains, forest lakes and cities. With strong ties to my people, both the ones who have passed and the ones who are and the ones who shall come. My inspiration for everything comes first and foremost from all the colours of life. From the riches of Sápmi; pride, power, and the indubitable fire of existence; from love for people and my beloved hoods. Everyone who claims that we’re a minority, on the verge of extinction, a disappearing part of world history, haven’t been to my world. Anyone who has seen it could never claim such a thing. We are fully alive as long as the earth breathes, because we are connected to our land and we will protect it as if it were a matter of protecting our own lives. Because that’s what it is.
Indigenous people are survivors, and they must survive for all our sakes—they are at the forefront of the struggle against the accelerating industrial-colonial society that would rather drive us all into the darkest abyss of collapse than to degrow, decolonise, scale down at a controlled pace and find the way back to the land. To survive, the Sámi gain strength through the yoik, through the words and melodies and stories of another world that is possible, a world that is not dead and must not be reinvented because it still lives in these people. Jannok’s yoik is the sound of the noaidi driving out the colonisers from the land and from people’s dreams.
Sápmi is the norm, power, beyond doubt. I sing about what I know. I sing about truths that have been censored, removed. But music, language, culture wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the human beings. Us. Human beings keep fires alive. And fire in its turn keeps humanity alive. So I can but show respect and gratitude to those who’ve given me the chance to live with pride, all my forefathers and foremothers who have gone before us and shown the way. Mum, dad, family and sinewy ancestors. Without these people we wouldn’t exist, and the music wouldn’t exist. It comes from us. I honour the people who’ve clung to the tundra as the windswept mountain birches, and who never let go no matter how hard the wind blew in times far harder than these.
Sápmi as the norm is an alternative to the slanted, short-term perspective of colonial society. Through Jannok, the noaidi’s voice comes to bring a new world to both the minds of Indigenous peoples and the minds of the people in settler societies who may not even understand their own role in the world system. It tells the story of a diverse world where there is room for everyone and where we all know the land. I long for that world, for a place where I can exist. Jannok describes a home that I have been denied by my colonial-industrial culture.
Listening to this story of another world, looking at the world through the grieving eyes of Sámi people, we can find ways to decolonise everyone’s minds and the land we are part of—in Sápmi, Sweden, Europe, and the world.
Another world is not only possible. It already exists.
“This is my land: Sápmi”
This is my land, this is my country
and if I’d be the queen you’d see
that I’d take everyone by hand and sing it so it’s out there
that we’ll paint this land blue, yellow, red and green
If you say that this girl’s not welcome in this country,
if she must leave because her face is brown
Well, then I say you go first, ‘cause frankly this is my land
and here we live in peace, I’ll teach you how
This is my pride, this is my freedom,
this is the air that I breathe
and you’ll find no kings, no queens, here everybody’s equal –
men, women and all who are in between
This is my home, this is my heaven,
this is the earth where I belong
and if you want to ruin it all with big wounds in the mountains
then you’re not worthy listening to this song
This is my land, this is my country,
these lakes, rivers, hills and woods
If you open up your eyes you’ll see someone is lying
I’ve always been here, welcome to my hoods
Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a songwriter, musician, writer, and PhD student in literature and environmental humanities who thinks a lot about environmental justice, degrowth, and the mythologies of contemporary Western society.
Sofia Jannok’s new album, ORDA: This Is My Land, is available on Discogs, Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify. You can buy other merchandise on her website, www.sofiajannok.com.
Abdullah Demirbas was born in 1966 in the city of Diyarbakir (or Amed), Kurdistan. From 2004 until 2012, he served as mayor of Diyarbakir central Sur District, which has been largely destroyed in recent months by Turkish military assault.
While news of Sur’s destruction spread globally via social media, its profound cultural and historical significance is less widely known. For thousands of years, Diyarbakir has stood as the cosmopolitan heart of the Mesopotamian region. Sur is the city’s oldest neighborhood, with official records dating the city back over 3,000 years. However, local experts suggest that it is far older. Before its destruction, Sur was a lively and colorful place with narrow streets, cool shade, thick stone walls, narrow passageways, and luxuriant gardens. As a richly articulated living history, Sur shattered the stereotype of the Middle East as intellectually backwards and culturally empty.
During his tenure, Demirbas led social and cultural projects to renew Sur and preserve not only its material and architectural legacy, but also the livelihood and culture of its inhabitants. He helped establish the Council of Forty, a multi-faith forum across Amed’s religious communities, as well as a civil monument to the Armenian genocide, the only one of its kind in Turkey 1. In 2012, Demirbas was forcibly removed from office and arrested for using the Kurdish language in a municipal proceeding. Earlier this year, he relocated from Amed to Istanbul, where he teaches philosophy and politics in a local public school.
In the following interview, Demirbas and I discuss the history of Sur, as well as the recent waves of state violence, repression and the threat of civil war in Turkey. This was conducted remotely over two sessions and with the help of a translator. The text is edited in some places for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about Amed before 2004?
When we (the BDP) took over in 2004, Amed was not in very good shape. It was actually a devastated, abused place. But during those ten years time, we did much restoration of churches, mosques, and synagogues for example; including an Alevi mosque and a Yazidi temple. We made plans to preserve Sur as a whole, which had never been done by any previous governments or mayoralties. Our plan was to rebuild Sur as it was before the 1930’s, with close resemblance to the original. As part of this merging of Diyarbakir’s many cultural roots, we also constructed multicultural institutions.
While we were doing all of this planning and reconstruction, we also paid close attention to our own democratic values and made sure that people were joining in and giving their opinions on these issues. We asked the people, we asked the NGOs, as well as the architects’ chambers and stakeholders in related fields. So we went to the Council of 40, and we made the plans in full consultation with them.
Say more about the Council of Forty? This is a religious council?
Yes, that’s right. This is a unique council in Turkey. Gender equality and ethnic and religious equality are its ruling principles: so there are Armenian, Syrian, Kaldani, Alevi, even Turkmen representatives among its different contesting views. If we have to summarize, we were trying to make Sur reflect its own historical roots, because it is estimated that Sur is historically over eight or nine thousand years old and that over thirty-three different cultures have thrived there. Sur is the largest part of Diyarbakir, making Diyarbakir a multi-cultural, multi-identity, and multi-vocal city. But this remarkable diversity was denied at the foundation of the Turkish Republic, which consists only of a single nation, with a single language, and a single religion. So we wanted to rehabilitate all of these diverse fragments which have been under the shadow of destruction and keep them alive for the future.
It is estimated that Sur is historically over eight or nine thousand years old and that over thirty-three different cultures have thrived there, making Diyarbakir a multi-cultural, multi-identity, and multi-vocal city. But this remarkable diversity was denied at the foundation of the Turkish Republic.
The philosophical aspect to this is the belief that the world is a flower garden; and that there are different flowers, different colors, different shapes; that we have to “live and let live” in that world. That’s our perspective, and we wanted to make it a reality. We also wanted to give a model of peace to the Middle East, because the Middle East is constructed of different linguistic, religious, and racial groups. We plan to make Diyarbakir, and especially Sur, the center of Middle Eastern peacemaking.
How did the monument to the Armenian Genocide come about?
We constructed a monument marking the genocide for the first time ever in Turkey, in 2013. In our opening speech, we declared that we are sharing in the pain of the genocide, to ensure that it won’t be lived ever again. In order to rule, the Turkish state has pushed different religions and different ethnicities one against the other, in an approach based on divide and conquer. However, our view is that there have been mistakes in the past, and we have to face up to these mistakes, apologize for them, and look forwards together.
We know that some of our ancestors, Kurds, during the Armenian genocide, were used as tools in these massacres by the Turkish state. We apologized by constructing this monument, and we asked the Turkish state to apologize to Christians, Armenian Christians, Assyrian Christians, Yezidi Kurds, Jews and Alevi, and also Muslim Kurds as well. If we can face the past correctly together, we can face a true future together, and we can live together. That’s the reason why we built the genocide monument.
How did the municipality address the liberation of women?
For the first time in Turkey, we introduced female management and a Council of Women as well within the municipality. As we say, women are half of life, so we want to have women joining in life in their freedom. Because women are half the population, we want them to take their rightful place.
For the first time in Turkey, we introduced female management and a Council of Women as well within the municipality. As we say, women are half of life, so we want to have women joining in life in their freedom.
While I was running the administration of Sur, in 2005, we made a decision that if a worker of the municipality is abusing his wife, the city will cut the salary of the man, giving that sum directly to the female partner. If he then continues to abuse his wife, we asked him to vacate the job, replacing him in that post with his wife. If the man has two wives, we fire him and give the position to the first wife. We also gave salary bonuses to parents who educated their daughters in school.
We believe that in order to fully achieve women’s freedom, they must also have their own economic freedom, so we launched projects that brought women into the labour force. One of these projects is the Tandoori house project. In houses constructed by the municipality, women were making Tandoor bread, and they were making a living selling this bread to the market and shops. We also promoted the cultivation of tomato, peppers, and eggplants on the rooftops of people’s houses, where women could harvest them once they were dried in the summertime. We did this in order to introduce a system of organic agriculture, using the original seeds of these products as the basis for a seeding program.
What is happening now in the war that is raging in Turkey?
The ‘peace process’ came to an abrupt end last April, and as a result there is a huge conflict going on right now. Turkey is on the verge of civil war. Erdogan plans to be not only president but sultan in Turkey, and because the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) 2 crossed the election threshold on June 7, this impeded Erdogan’s path toward the presidency and the sultanate. So he began a war of vengeance. The bombing of the Diyarbakir meeting just before the June election, the bombing of Suruj, and the murder of the two (Turkish) police officers, these were the triggers of the war. Because there were no third-party observers, the two sides do not trust each other and a civil war has broken out in the streets.
But we are now discussing the answer more than the question, and it is worth talking about the question. This is the century-old Kurdish question and the whole challenge for democracy in Turkey. The government’s main strategy for Sunnizing the country, for creating a Sunni Muslim state, depends on expanding the war. Because of his dream of dictatorship, Erdogan has started a civil war.
But we are now discussing the answer more than the question, and it is worth talking about the question. This is the century-old Kurdish question and the whole challenge for democracy in Turkey. The government’s main strategy for Sunnizing the country, for creating a Sunni Muslim state, depends on expanding the war. Because of these dreams of dictatorship, they have inflicted great suffering on the people, on society and the environment. Already, over 300,000 people have had to relocate. Most of the cities’ structures and infrastructure have been destroyed. In Cizre and Diyarbakir, many world heritage sites have been totally demolished. The socio-economic balance, which was already very out of kilter, has been totally upended again. We can sum up: that because of his dream of dictatorship, Erdogan has started a civil war.
Did the PKK set out to break with the peace process and what role did Abdullah Ocalan play in the ensuing conflict?
From the beginning, because there was no third party observer, neither party trusted the other. Now that the process seeking a solution has not only unravelled but become an “un-solution” process, the PKK has increased its attacks and its violence.
Mr. Ocalan has been in solitary confinement since April 2015, such that not even his lawyers can visit him. So he’s out of the picture. And this is one reason for the violence, because he cannot intervene to stop it in its tracks. When Mr. Ocalan was included in the negotiations, all of the violence was stopped. When the Turkish state ceased meetings with him, and isolated him, violence with the state increased. We might well conclude that if he were still involved in the solution process, this violence would not have happened. So it is our wish to see him involved in this process again.
How do the EU and US regard this isolation of Öcalan?
Currently they have not objected to it other than very feebly. Because of public pressure, the CPT delegation (the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Council of Europe) met with him at the end of April, but there has been no press announcement to that effect so far. And they only went to see his conditions, not to involve him once again in the peace process.
The US has not acted as a mediator in this process, yet the US is the only actor who can be effective in this role. The US should step forward, because the development of peace and democracy in Turkey will initiate stability in the Middle East region as a whole, and things will go much better for the different ethnicities and beliefs trying to live together in harmony in the Middle East.
The Kurds and Mr. Ocalan advocate diversity and multiculturalism, multi-racialism, multi-religious-ism, and real secularisim. But the current state in Turkey is radically Islamicized and Turkified. They have supported at various times, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other Islamic extremist groups. This scares the Shia, Armenians, Jews, Christians, and Alevi, who only number 600 of those who are left, as well as other ethnic and religious minorities, because the current Turkish state does not tolerate difference. So our wish is that the EU and US should pressure Turkey into restarting the peace process again.
For the past century, Turkey has had this problem. And the reason for this is Turkey’s official ideology, which holds that everybody in Turkey is a Turk; their language is Turkish, their culture is Turkish, and they are all Sunni Muslim, so that all cultural and racial and religious differences must be obliterated. In the last period of the Ottoman Empire, even Iranians and Assyrians were targets of genocide. After that, in the Republic, they started on Kurds in Dersim and the Republic of Agur, because these were the people who were rejecting this monocultural, unitarian identity. They had to be destroyed, even without any open rebellion, just because they declared that they were not the same. None of these problems have ever been solved.
In your view, what is the solution to the current situation?
First of all, we should have a new constitution which is liberal, democratic, and for universal civil rights in Turkey. In this constitution, all the different ethnic and religious and gender-based differences should be accommodated. Everybody should have the right to be educated in their mother language. All the religions and beliefs in Turkey should have the right to be represented openly. The protectorate system, which is only deployed in Kurdistan, should be abolished, and the state should face up to its past, its bloody history, and apologize to the Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Kurds, Jews and Yazidi, as well as the Alevi Turks. In fact, such a new constitution would also be seen as meeting the EU’s constitutional demands.
We ask the intellectual community, academicians, and the whole of international public opinion to pressure Turkey both institutionally and culturally to stop this violent process and return to peace. .
The final thing to say is that we ask the intellectual community, academicians, and the whole of international public opinion to pressure Turkey both institutionally and culturally to stop this violent process and return to peace. We invite them to support our policies of environmentalism and gender and sexual equality, because it is our firm belief that especially female independence is the main bulwark of freedom in society. Moreover, multilingualism should find favor in every state.
Eleanor Finley is a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology. She has a background in feminist activism and was a participant in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Eleanor is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where her research focuses on social movements, environment, and energy in Europe. She is currently conducting action-research within the Spanish anti-fracking movement, and interns with Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade (EJOLT) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
I’m an open kind of person and I don’t mind sharing stories. I love stories. I think it’s so interesting to collect stories. Often at an art opening, somebody will read a story in one of my books and they’ll say, “that reminds me of…” and then people tell me more stories—their own stories! I collect stories. I collect stories, I collect garbage, I collect fabrics, I collect art: I am the ultimate collector.
Lise sits in her living room and proudly points to a large oil canvas that she traded for two of her handsewn cushions. I am captivated. A soft-spoken woman, Lise becomes extremely animated when reading from her treasure trove of books. Amidst the piles of fabrics and refuse, I lean forward to listen to Lise recount stories about dishwashers and used teabags and shockingly sexist nursery rhymes.
There’s something luxurious about being able to touch her books, feel the fabrics, and immerse yourself in the story. As Lise reads me her stories, I am fingering pieces of her old garbage that she has collected into a series entitled Garbage and More Garbage. Sewing her garbage into small mesh bags, Lise has created tiny time capsules that show her life in 2007 and again in 2010 when she was drinking Rice Dream, cooking chicken (she assures me that the bones were triple washed before being sewn into the book) and applying for a new passport (having decimated her old passport into a makeshift cover for the book).
The tactile experience of touching (but thankfully not smelling) her waste-books feels like you’re breaking a taboo—oftentimes waste is meant to be out of sight and out of mind. But Lise is not the type to keep anything hidden: her art is deeply personal and complex.
Oftentimes waste is meant to be out of sight and out of mind. But Lise is not the type to keep anything hidden: her art is deeply personal and complex.
I first met Lise at an art gallery in Ontario, where I was giving a talk on waste transportation in conjunction with an environmentally-themed art exhibit. As my talk ended, a willowy woman rushed up to me and said she was an artist who loved garbage, and that I should call her sometime to talk trash. She pushed a rather plain-looking card into my hand and quickly scurried off, leaving me in a stunned silence. If she told me her name at the time, I can’t recall.
But I held onto that card for several years, fascinated by the strange encounter. Having thought of Lise after seeing a particularly artful bundle of trash on the street during the winter thaw, I looked her up on her website and was pleased to see that she loved more than just garbage. One of her pieces, There Once Was A Little Boy/Girl, consists of handmade paper outfits for that are rubber-stamped with nursery rhymes about girls and women, and boys and men. The final nursery rhyme for boys says:
Tommy Trot, a man of law
Sold his bed and lay upon straw.
Sold the straw and slept on grass,
To buy his wife a looking glass.
In contrast, the nursery rhyme for girls reads:
See-saw Margery Daw
Sold her bed and lay upon straw
Was she not a dirty slut
To sell her bed and life in the dirt.
I was shocked when Lise read me the rhyme—in part because of the language (they let children read these rhymes?) but also because of the shamefulness of a woman getting dirty in her environment. I asked Lise why she thought it was commonplace or noble (in the context of the rhyme) for a man to lie on the ground and what made the same action unclean for a woman. She said that there is a stark contrast between what is acceptable for a woman to do in her environment—how she is able to relate to nature and her surroundings—and what a man can do in his environment. We sat quietly, pondering this dichotomy. That is what’s so special about Lise’s work—she reveals the complex factors and processes that shape women’s lives and their interactions with the environment, while also challenging the audience to question their opinions and beliefs about how individuals experience nature. In exploring these ideas, Lise tells an accessible and engaging story that you just can’t help but put your hands on.
Could you speak a little bit about how your relationship with the environment has influenced your art?
The series about the relationship between environment and human health started when I got breast cancer. I went out to British Columbia to see a naturopath who had a live-in program—I went for 10 days. He did a medical history, a life history and found out that I had grown up in a mining and smelting town in north-western Québec and then attended high school in Copper Cliff1, Ontario—another smelting town which has the Inco Superstack2. As soon as he found this out he said, “I’m going to do a heavy metals test”. And I did indeed have very high levels of lead and mercury and all kinds of heavy metals. So he believed that the heavy metals in my body were quite possibly the cause of my breast cancer.
So then I thought that there must be other people who are being affected by the environment too, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon a residency at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario—so I spent four months as an artist in residence at Queen’s through the Principal’s Fund. I didn’t actually make any art; I just did research in the libraries! I found out as much as I could about how our environment is affecting our health. And so one of the things I came across was the garbage. I did garbage first.
As a waste researcher, I am absolutely obsessed with waste. I am the person that you’ll see on the sidewalk stooping into people’s trashcans to get the perfect garbage picture. How did you start thinking about integrating garbage into your art?
My garbage series began with a piece that I made in 2007 called Garbage, where I put all of my daily garbage into individual mesh bags. Each bag contains one day’s worth of garbage. Now, this obviously does not include personal wastes with any bodily fluids. And it’s nothing that I could compost or recycle—so this is what is left, what remains. Mostly it is plastics. There are some bones that were washed carefully and bleached—even though that’s maybe not necessarily all that environmentally friendly in itself.
These purple plastic mesh bags that I used—one of the grocery stores in North Bay had just started carrying organic produce and when I bought the organics, they were putting it in these mesh bags! I didn’t throw any of them out; I saved a whole bunch of them and gave them to my friend who was a weaver because she thought she could try using them to weave grocery bags.
But then I was collecting more and more of these plastic mesh bags, so I thought they would be the perfect vessel for even more plastics. I made these bags—it’s an edition of five. For five weeks in the summer, I had all of these little plastic bags scattered around my studio floor. And then, as you can see, I’ve quilted the waste with a sewing machine to keep the contents together. Then I’ve hand-sewn the text on.
What does the text say?
The text is about what we’re doing with our garbage and how it’s impacting us. One text says that:
Unmixed streams of plastic can actually be refashioned into bottles or containers. But there isn’t much demand from their makers for recycled plastic. Virgin is so much cheaper.
I took that text from Elizabeth Royte’s book called Garbageland. Another of the texts says that:
Canadians produce more garbage than anyone else. Each of us generates a staggering 383 kg of solid waste annually, according to Statistics Canada. In 2006, we created 35 million tonnes of trash (up eight per cent in two years).
So those are two examples from some of the text that I sewed into these garbage pieces. The concept of the garbage came first—before/then? the text—and then the collection of the garbage came after. Not that it was very difficult, there’s so much garbage. More Garbage in 2010 was just garbage that I had collected on the sidewalks, in intersections—and mittens. I found this fabulous mitten in the spring; everywhere in North Bay after the snow melts there are mittens.
If you were to do this garbage series again, do you think you would have similar things in your mesh bags almost ten years later?
Well, probably not bones and probably not the Rice Dream containers. Here in Kingston we can recycle them—Kingston says “all plastics”. So it would probably be less.
You’ve said that your garbage series was inspired by your personal health crisis—finding out you had lead toxins and other hard metals in your system and suspecting that it had caused your breast cancer. Were there any other pieces that came out of your experience with cancer?
The first book I showed to the committee to become an artist in residence at Queen’s—I was doing an art exchange with a gallery in Toronto and somebody had picked the theme of ‘landscapes’. And I thought, “I don’t do landscapes”. But I wanted to be in a show on Queen St. West in Toronto, so I had to come up with something! I ended up doing this book—this is a rock cut because I love the rock cuts along the highways up north. People do often put graffiti on the rock cuts, so my graffiti on this ‘rock cut’ is all the heavy metals that are in my body and the size of the lead and mercury are much bigger because I had a much higher concentration of those than say, tin.
I am part of these rocks, these rocks are a part of me. This is my personal landscape and it’s my body and its intersections with the environment, with nature, with rocks, with metals.
To visualize—this book is cut out in the shape of me lying down on my side, with my leg stretched out. It connects to the quote down at the bottom, which is: “there is no separation. We are the environment. So whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves” and that’s David Suzuki. So I am part of these rocks, these rocks are a part of me. This is my personal landscape and it’s my body and its intersections with the environment, with nature, with rocks, with metals. The rest of the garbage series came out of my research.
There’s another in the series that demonstrates this intersection of environment and bodies. And this one is not environmentally friendly at all because it’s computer printed—although the original was on handmade paper. My then-husband photographed me and then I blew up the photos and cut them out and glued them onto the handmade paper, wrote the text, and then had the whole thing scanned and printed in one piece.
It’s called Body Map. The text on my body discusses specific things about my body or things that I was doing in my life. The text outside of my body is more general environmental information—so, like, the text by my chest shows the environmental factors that might relate to breast cancer. Mercury vapour in the air—mercury is linked to food allergies, impaired immune systems, and thyroid malfunction. Well, I have an underactive thyroid, so I wrote this close to my thyroid. There are connections with the environment and me. Some of them are just funny—like, in 2005 I wrote that I “began to get old lady wrinkles on my knees”. I don’t think I can blame that on the environment!
So this is your gendered experience of the environment. Thinking about environmental contaminants that are impacting bodies, they don’t impact all bodies equally.
Yes, absolutely. Women have more body fat and so the contaminants affect us more because a lot of things go to the fat. There is a difference. And then things affect children differently because they’re so much smaller, so contaminants are more impactful. I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda in Québec with the smelter belching out smoke for my entire childhood. There were days where we weren’t allowed out for recess because… well, we never had snow days or rain days. We had bad air days.
I grew up in Rouyn-Noranda in Québec with the smelter belching out smoke for my entire childhood. There were days where we weren’t allowed out for recess because… well, we never had snow days or rain days. We had bad air days.
Anyways, since I was thinking about the environment, that made me think more about the materials I was using in my art. And so I began to make a conscious effort—at least in some of the pieces—to recycle or use up materials that I already had in my possession or that I could find at charity shops. In some of the pieces, I used materials that were left over from previous art projects.
Can you show me an example of one of your recycled projects?
I had been using tablecloths for another project, so I made a meander book [a meander (or maze) book gets its name from the way the paper is cut and folded to make the pages] called What’s For Dinner? It was a tablecloth and it opens up for display into the whole tablecloth in a spiral sort of way. Each place-setting on the napkin, I’ve hand-printed something that concerns me in my environment, in our environments.
Like, this place setting talks about factory farming and antibiotics. This place setting discusses genetically modified crops. This one is about fish farming and this one in the center has to do with colour, fake colour in foods. Another place setting deals with produce that has pesticide residues.
This was really fun to do. I did several copies and they’re all different—they are all tablecloths that I’ve found and reused. Quite a bit of the stuff that I used on the place settings is things that I had around the studio. I didn’t actually have to go out and buy too much material. I’ve been keeping plastic utensils for years. If I’m travelling and I end up eating out, I’ll bring the plastic utensils home.
You’ve obviously made a conscious effort to recycle and reuse your materials—especially fabrics like the tablecloths. You must be very adept with a sewing machine!
I separated from my husband about five years ago and we had been living in North Bay until that time, it was much cheaper to live up there. We owned our house outright so we didn’t need a lot of money. I just worked as an artist. But once I was on my own, I needed more income so I was searching around for different ways to make a living. And somebody gave me a serger, which is a sewing machine that does a double-stitch.
So I started making these t-shirts—used t-shirts that I was cutting up and repurposing them, rejigging them. I really liked them, but it wasn’t really making money for me. It was pointless. I wasn’t making any art because I was spending all my time repurposing t-shirts and they weren’t making much money anyway, so I thought I might as well make art and not make any money.
Anyway, I gave away any t-shirts that I hadn’t cut up yet. But I had lots of pieces and so I started making The “Re” Books and I’m playing with the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle. All the books have just three words in them and they all start with re. All of the words are made out of recycled t-shirts and they’re so much fun to make—like balloon animals! Except for some of the stiffening in the letters, I didn’t have to buy anything to make these pieces.
I will be having a show at Modern Fuel, a local Kingston gallery, next spring and I hope to have an entire room filled with these books. I also do sewing for homes—I make upcycled cushions. I’ve been making these cushions from leftover pieces of upholstery fabric because I have done some upholstery for people—sewing slipcovers and cushions. I have lots of fabric and it’s all just small pieces. Perfect to reuse! I’ve been having fun with the fabrics. It grew out of thinking about recycling and how recycling has become the medium.
Even though there is a range of topics that you tackle in your art, there always seems to be some sort of repurposing and recycling of materials. And the theme of memory is often recurring. How do you think memory and remembering fits in with the environment, with your environment?
That’s a good question, I’ve never thought about that! I suppose if we remember a bit more we might be more conscious about what we are doing. Of course, it’s also thinking about the future maybe in a way more than the past. Thinking, “if I do this, how is it going to affect someone down the line?”.
I always feel that—especially with garbage—there is a conscious forgetting that happens. A reactive forgetting that as soon as you disavow something as ‘garbage’—as soon as you finish with your apple or no longer need your coffee cup, it goes out to the curb and it becomes forgotten. Maybe not for others and maybe not for others who have to deal with the garbage where it ends up—but for you, it’s gone.
It’s gone and it’s wiped away. On the other hand, just looking at someone else’s garbage is a memory right there. Garbage can tell a story. And I love telling stories.
Lise Melhorn-Boe has been working with books as an art medium for over forty years. She is especially drawn to women’s political and personal experiences and environmental concerns as they relate to human health. Lise plays with humour and adopts a playful visual aesthetic to explore more serious feminist and environmental issues.
Cassandra Kuyvenhoven is a doctoral candidate in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Her interests include waste management, governance, knowledge controversies, and sustainable alternatives to waste transportation.
I met Michael* in the city of Tangier, on the northern coast of Morocco, where many West Africans try their luck to reach Europe. They risk their lives daily in flimsy, overcrowded boats on the Strait of Gibraltar and the razor-wire fences that divide the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. If you can scale these fences, survive the beatings and the push-backs of the Moroccan Border Guard Units and the Spanish Guardia Civil, you can touch Europe.
Morocco has always been a transit point, hosting many people coming from East, South, and North throughout its history. In the 1960s, it became one of the biggest emigration countries, with Moroccans emigrating to European countries, such as those of former colonisers France and Spain, in search of work and a better life. Since the 1990s it has increasingly become a transit country for people from Sub-Saharan Africa, escaping abject poverty, political unrest, civil wars, and economic downturns in their home countries of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Niger—some from as far as the Congo.
In the past, these migrations were tolerated, but since the 1990s a series of agreements between Spain and Morocco have led to an increasingly harsh reality for those attempting the journey. Spain has attempted to seal off its borders through a complex array of high-tech surveillance equipment, huge razorwire fences, and militarised border guards. Meanwhile, EU countries began to effectively “externalize” border controls to countries like Morocco, Libya and Turkey, pressuring them to clamp down on irregular migration and sign readmission agreements in return for huge sums of money, military equipment, and improved visa conditions for their citizens. Morocco is now essentially paid to keep the migrants from the border, and none of the European governments are watching how they do this. Those who do call attention to the pervasive human rights violations are liable to be deported—or worse, if they happen to be West African.
At the time I met Michael in December, 2015, he had been in Morocco for a year and five months, and had survived—on occasion very narrowly—twelve failed attempts to reach Europe.
Michael is from Gambia, a former British colony, and so we were able to communicate easily with English as a shared language. After leaving his home in Gambia in search of a better life for his family, Michael has been beaten unconscious by border guards, almost drowned in the Mediterranean, and seen many friends die, or simply disappear. This is his story, one of many thousands like it.
What brought you to Tangier? I left my city when I was studying. I was working in a hotel part-time, and it wasn’t working very well because the money there, it’s not as powerful as even thedirham [the currency used in Morocco].
My dad is no more. He died like five years ago, so my mum was struggling a lot paying my school fees. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers. They are very young. My mum struggled to pay for me, pay for them, and then bring foods in the house. It was going very tough for her, and as we grow, our educations are getting more expensive. My last examination that I took, only me, her and god knows how she get the money to pay for me. She sold even her clothes, everything, took her best clothes and sell them in the market, to pay for me to go and do these exams. Then I pass the exam to go to another level she cannot afford. If at all she did [that] for me, she will not be able to take care of the kids’ education, the younger ones. So I took this decision that I will just forego school, and then let her continue paying for my younger ones, because it really hurts me a lot if I see her struggling to bring food in the house. It pains me a lot, because I am the first child. I know that my mum cannot be young and strong forever to take care of us. I know that one day will come she will not be able to do all this, so by then I will want to be there to take care of her, you know? So that’s why I leave. I thought if I come here, if I work here, things might be better.
I know that my mum cannot be young and strong forever to take care of us. I know that one day will come she will not be able to do all this, so by then I will want to be there to take care of her, you know? So that’s why I leave.
I was in Casablanca for like three, four months. I worked there, but the things were not changing. All the salary that I have there was enough for food for me, maybe for house, and that is the end of it. I cannot do no changes for my family, and I thought that if that is the case, it’s better I stay back and be with my family.
My friends told me about Tangier and how close it is to Europe, “Maybe you can have the chance to get to Europe and maybe something else can change.” I said okay, I will come and try the chance. That’s how I came to Tangier. The first week, we were six people. I met two in Casablanca, so we came three of us. We met three other friends here. So we six, we were living together. In the first week, we hear about the Ceuta fences and we see on the Net how it’s just a fence that you can jump. We were all brave, thinking that we are going to do it. This is a fence. If the soldiers cannot run faster than you, or you have a plan once you hold the fence… We thought it was that easy.
We arrived, six of us. We arrived at the garage at midnight. I said to them, “Do you see how clear the lights are? The soldiers before the fence will not be sleeping by now, they will all be awake and at work. So we have to make a hide somewhere in the bush until maybe at two, three o’clock. By then, maybe many of them will be sleeping, or the dogs in the bush will be sleeping”—’cause you have lots of dogs in the bush to take people.
At one o’clock we start walking toward the fence. One kilometre before the fence, it’s a military zone on the Moroccan side. You have all the soldiers living there and protecting the fence, so you have to hide from the soldier camps, from the soldiers and from the dogs. We did that. We really struggled, like almost two hours, up to like three o’clock. We were like 100 metres close to the fence. Then, unfortunately, the fence start alarming. Maybe we were detected by the Spanish machines. The fence start alarming, whee whee whee. That’s how they caught us.
When they caught us, they tie our hands at the back, and then our legs—and tie very strong—and then laid us down on the floor. It was very cold by then. That was my worst punishment that I have ever experienced in my life. From that time, like around three o’clock, we were beaten up to nine o’clock in the morning, in the soldier camp, where everybody can beat you however or whenever they feel like. At the end, I was just lying down there. I shouted. I cried until a voice cannot come out of my mouth again. I cannot even feel anything if they beat me again. It was like my body was already dead.
A friend of mine got up then and asked them to kill him. He was tired. He was begging them to kill him so that he could just relax once and for all. He was discouraged. We were bleeding. In the morning, they took us in the police station, without food, to register our names and they detained us there up ’til eight o’clock in the evening.
They drove us on the highway, where we could walk to get to the forest where the migrants live, in Fnideq at the border [with Ceuta]. We walked, six of us, we struggled until almost five kilometres inside the woods, where the other migrants live.
We thought that we were going to relax, but unfortunately we met the migrants organising themselves in groups, wanting to make an attack [on the fence]. We were all weak, it’s true, [but] I told my friends that honestly I am not going to stay in the forest alone, because if they go, [whether] they make it or not, the soldiers will come to the forest to fetch more people, and I will not take that risk to sit here. I am going to follow this group again. I was already half dead.
My friend says okay, he’s going to come with us. His name was Mohammed. The other four wanted to come, but they cannot. They were so tired, it’s true. So me and Mohammed joined the group.
We were almost 270 people. At night we took the way toward the fence. We went up to where the lights were before the fence. The soldiers were already waiting for us. I think they knew that we were coming. We met almost three times our number of soldiers standing at the fence, armed and waiting for us, with their helmets and everything.
At the other side you have the [Spanish] Guardia Civil, who were with their cars, you know, making whee whee whee, waiting for whosoever they catch.
We said okay, there are three ways out: one, you make it; two, you die; or three, they catch you and you are seriously injured. So when that decision was taken, nobody have to go back, no single person. We go as one voice. And they start running to us then.
We faced them. We talk among ourselves that we have already come up ’til here and there is no way we can go back in the forest and sleep peacefully. No way. If we go back, these soldiers will come in the forest, and it’s going to be a massive torture there, and nobody will be free. We said okay, there are three ways out: one, you make it; two, you die; or three, they catch you and you are seriously injured. These are the three things that are there, the three results you expect that moment. So when that decision was taken, nobody have to go back, no single person. We go as one voice. And they start running to us then.
We ran toward them. We were all shouting, “Boza! Boza! Boza!” Boza means victory. It’s a general language that all the migrants here use to say victory. So we were shouting that, running toward them. When we ran toward them, they started throwing stones on us—big stones. When they started throwing stones on us, they were expecting us to open, to spread so that they can catch us easily. So we did not spread. We all came in a bunch and then run toward them. The soldiers opened up, we all rushed to the fence, hold the fence to try to climb. That’s where they surrounded us and that was the day I saw people lying down on the floor. That day I had to walk or run on top of human beings who were lying down on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. You know, they beat people to death that day. When I held the fence, there were blades already. I had gloves. When I held the fence, the glove will remain there, ’cause of the sharp barb-wire. So I held one, two, it all get off there. I said, there is no way I can climb here. There was no way. And if I’m late one minute here, I will be beaten here to death.
I tried to find my way back. That’s the first decision I took, to find my way back to escape. And out of that like two hundred and sixty, seventy people who went attacking, only twelve people escaped from there. They escaped back to the forest. And just one person made it to Spain, who was caught by the Guardia Civil and pushed back inside. And he was massively beaten. All the others were caught. All.
Imagine that then just two buses were deported to Marrakesh in the desert, in the detention centre. Two buses. At most you have like thirty or forty places there. Where are the other people?
They all lost their lives.
It was last year, December , something like that. Here, they bury people in bunches. If six people die, they will go dig a hole, just bury these six people. Nobody will know that people died. That is how it goes here. After that you will not hear or know nothing about it. They will bury them and you will not see a body again. They have their own ways of doing things.
I will rather die in the sea and be eaten by fishes, but I will not go back to the fences again. Because if you fall down in the sea, you can die by drinking water—but it’s more painful if they beat you to death.
We twelve escaped. We went to the forest to see my other friends. That is when I last saw that friend [Mohammed] that I went with to join the group. Up ’til now I did not see or hear from him. And I know that he is not alive. If he was alive, he would be in Morocco and we would see him. We did not see him. His family thinks that he is still in Morocco, they don’t know he died.
We stayed there for like five days in the woods. We went out to the market, begged for some money, came back. We did that for five days. We made a little money, we paid transport and came back to Tangier. When we came back to Tangier, our other friends were here living in the same house that we left in Misnana [a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Tangier where a lot of migrants live].
Since then, I said I will never go back to the fences. I will rather die in the sea and be eaten by fishes, but I will not go back to the fences again. Because if you fall down in the sea, you can die by drinking water—but it’s more painful if they beat you to death.
I went to the sea several times. Two times that we went, people that I know—we have been together in the boat, you know—fell down in the sea. There is nothing that you can do about it. The only thing that you can do is to watch them die. You can’t get in the water and bring them back. The boats don’t have no machine to stop or things like that, so if they fall down in the sea, you have to watch them die. This is how my friends lost their lives.
When I fell down in the sea, I had a life-jacket, and the life-jacket just pulled me up… I saw our boat was already 200 metres away from me. I wasn’t seeing Morocco. I wasn’t seeing Spain.
I tried twelve times to cross. First was in the fence, the eleven more times were in the boat. The last time I went, I myself fell down in the sea, outside the boat. It was in the middle of the sea. When I fell down in the sea, I had a life-jacket, and the life-jacket just pulled me up. When it pulled me up, I saw our boat was already 200 metres away from me. There was no machine, the boat was rolling like this on the sea. I wasn’t seeing Morocco. I wasn’t seeing Spain. I was deep inside the international zone by then. I was just seeing big waves that are seven times taller than me.
I saw the boat very far. If it happens to anyone here, the person is forgotten. I was in the boat two times that happened to people who were on the boat with us, and they died there. When it happened to me, I was just thinking that it’s finished for me.
I said, okay, I will not be panic. I did not panic. I removed my life-jacket, because I know that with the life-jacket, I will not be able to swim. I threw it in the sea and I struggled to swim to the boat. The people on the boat stopped paddling. They stopped and the boat was just rolling like this in the sea. So I swam and swam for almost fifteen minutes before I got to the boat. I was not close.
I drank a lot of water. A lot of water entered in my eyes, in my nose. I was tired. I already give up. I give up because I cannot even rest my arm. My stomach was so full, and the water is very heavy. I was tired.
I opened my eyes again. I saw the boat was not very far from me. It was close. I continued then. That’s how I was saved. I got to the boat and was so very tired. Then in five, ten minutes, the Moroccan Marine arrived there and picked us up. They picked us up and brought us back [to Morocco].
When they saved us, they took us to the marine port here. I couldn’t even stand up. I was just lying down, and my friend carried me. So the people there knew that I was very sick. The ambulance came and took me to the hospital.
After I got back home I said, okay, I don’t want to rush now to be risking my life in the sea and things like that. I think of all my friends who died here already. I know that there is no difference between me and them. I am not better than them. If they die in the sea, I see no reason why I cannot die in the sea.
That is why and how I am here up ’til now. That’s it.
What’s the situation in Tangier now?
Even if I walk now in the streets, I am scared. It’s even worse than four, five months ago. Now people are not even free to walk around the city. People don’t feel secure to go outside to beg for food, like they used to do before. People are not free even to work. Wherever they see migrants working, they will come to you.
With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers.
Even two days ago in the restaurant where lots of migrants go and eat, they went there and arrested everybody. Even the ones who were already eating, who just bought their plate. With or without papers, they will beat you up, take you. They don’t want to see your papers. I have a friend who had the card. He have this like residential permit, called Sejour. They break his card. They tell him, “Is this a card?” They break it, beat him up, put him in a car. They will not take him to the police station, they take them to the forest where the soldiers are. They leave them there in the cold, near the sea. In the cold, the whole night. I mean, why? Why are they treating people like this?
Lots of people now have been deported to the south of Morocco [in the desert, near Tiznit], where you have less houses. Thousands of people are there now, struggling to come back to Tangier, or else are struggling to go to other cities and work, because they have given up.
Lots of people are now planning to go to Libya, to see if they can cross from there. Libya itself is much more risky than here. And to get to Libya is another problem, ’cause you have to go through the Algerian desert, and you have to fight from the Algerian-Moroccan border, which is very dangerous too. The number of people that died in the Algerian-Morocco border is uncountable. People don’t know, because no journalist or activist go around that area, because the border is in the middle of a forest, it’s not in the cities, like here, or other places.
There wasn’t a fence there, but now they have built a fence, and they dig a hole of like six metres deep. You need to get inside the hole, then climb, before reaching the fence. It’s very dangerous, and the Algerians, they shoot people to death. They make their dogs chase you and the dogs there are trained to bite and kill. Many people lost their lives in that area. And the Libya-Algeria border too is not an easy task. There’s a road in the desert that separates the two countries. Before you get there, from Algeria to that road, you have to walk almost sixteen kilometres in the desert, where you’ll have nothing but sand and wind, and if you get to that road, the other twenty kilometres that you need to walk is the same. Mountains that are full of sands, rocks. Just that you will see. People die in this area. It’s very risky. If you see people going out of here going to Libya, it’s because they are not free here, and they are frustrated. If at all people were okay here, they would want to sit and would not want to take that risk again.
Just living in Morocco is a risk. Trying to cross in boats or cross the fence into Ceuta is a risk, so if people take the plan B, it means that plan A is not working.
What do you want to say to people who are reading this?
I think people should know that this situation of migrants is not all about Syrians, because that’s what majority of the world know. If you talk about migrants, they say Syrians. We’re here, we’re dying in the borders. People don’t even know we’re here. Every week people die here, but nobody will talk about it. They tell us here, “We respect the Europeans. If any European die in Morocco, it’s big problem for Morocco. But if you people die, no problem!” They tell us that. A soldier told me that.
If you talk about migrants, they say Syrians. We’re here, we’re dying in the borders. People don’t even know we’re here…. You have thousands of migrants who live in Tangier, but you will never see them. If you come as a tourist with your camera, you will think Moroccan is a nice country, you will see a beautiful country.
You have thousands of migrants who live in Tangier, but you will never see them. If you come as a tourist with your camera, you will think Moroccan is a nice country, you will see a beautiful country. You will see one, two, three or four migrants working in the Medina, when there are thousands living here. Why are they not here? If you ask any migrant, “Did you ever think of coming and living in the woods, sleeping on the floor in the cold like that? Did you ever think of it or want it?” They will tell you, “No!” People do it because they have no other choice. If life was better, they will not even risk the sea, they would stay here and work. People cannot even take their time to look at what the weather will be, or if their weight is too much in the sea. People have to go and try, ’cause they think they are not safe here.
We really want people to know that people are here and really suffering and really want support. We really want the world to know what is going on here.
*Michael asked not to disclose his last name. Jo Magpie is a writer, a traveller, and a campaigner for social justice. She was born in England and currently lives in Granada, Spain.
Michael is a young man from Gambia. Since this interview was recorded, he has decided to return to his home country.
by Lise Sedrez, Robert Emmett, Stephanie Hood and Claire Lagier
The mine tailing dam break in Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 5 November 2015 has been described by the Brazilian government as the country’s worst environmental catastrophe. It killed at least 17 people and released a wave of toxic plume which devastated the Rio Doce river basin. The dam rupture, which happened directly after the 13th November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, was only superficially covered in mainstream international news outlets, and has mostly disappeared from media newsfeeds, although its far-reaching ecological and political consequences will be felt for decades. Robert Emmett and Claire Lagier sat down with Brazilian environmental historian Lise Sedrez at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich on 19 November and recorded the following conversation, which was originally published as a series of three posts on Seeing the Woods. On 2 March 2016 the Brazilian federal government and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo reached a deal with Samarco Mineração (the joint venture between Vale S.A and BHP Billiton which owns the dam) and the latter agreed to pay 4.4 billion reais – 1.5 billion US$ – towards a 20 billion US$ fund which will be administered by a company-managed private foundation with the official aim of restoring the Rio Doce ecosystem and supporting survivors and the local economy. While Samarco, whose activities had been suspended, is already planning its business comeback, Brazilian social movements and the Federal Public Ministry alike are denouncing an agreement that is seen as prioritizing private interests. This interview gives some important insights on the agreement, which is being finalized more than three months after the deadly catastrophe, and long after the toxic mud wave reached the Atlantic ocean.
Robert Emmett: Those of us who don’t read Portuguese have to rely on what the media in English is saying. I’m curious about the language used to describe the event. I like to think “Let’s start with the facts,” but of course that’s exactly what is up to debate. I read that some seismic activity was recorded?
Lise Sedrez: I just don’t buy that one. If we go for the facts, let’s say that Brazil is on a very old tectonic platform. We used to say “There [are] no natural disasters in Brazil,” which of course is not true. There have been very few cyclones. We had one in Santa Catarina [in 2004] and it was like “Oh my God, that never happens.” The last time something like this happened was about 170 to 200 years earlier. But there are no earthquakes. What they registered was seismic activity between 1 and 2 on the Richter scale. We had larger seismic activity in Minas Gerais in the past, with no effects whatsoever. And there is a strong possibility that this recorded seismic activity happened as a result of the breaking of the dam.
RE: So what happened?
LS: Actually, we don’t know what exactly happened to provoke the dam breaking; this is still under investigation, and that has to do with the political context. This company, Samarco, is a subsidiary of Vale do Rio Doce, or Vale for short, and the Australian mining company BHP Billiton. Vale has a particular story that makes things so complicated. It was a state-owned company until the late 1990s, and it had several monopolies guaranteed for mining—Carajas, everything in the Amazon that you can think about, was a monopoly of Vale do Rio Doce. Other companies, especially during the military period, had to negotiate mining rights with Vale. With the consensus of Washinghton and the neoliberal project carried out by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the late 1990s, Vale was privatized. There are still many questions about that process of privatization. Basically, it was sold for a fraction of its value. And that has also been part of the debate. If it was a public company, would that have happened? Would it be an appropriate penalization to nationalize the company again? There are people talking about that. On top of that, as a private company, Vale is a major employer in the region, so everybody is very concerned about the interruption of its activities because that means leaving everybody, and I mean everybody, without a job, since all the other activities in the region, like fishing, have been affected by the spill. And Vale has contributed to the political campaigns of every single politician in Minas Gerais. And both of the big parties—PSDB, which is a center-right party, and PT, which I would say is a center-left party—both parties received large amounts. So the entire debate of how we call this particular event is also tainted by this, in small symbolic things but also in more dramatic moments. For instance, the announcement of the disaster made by the governor of the state of Minas Gerais was made from the headquarters of the Samarco company. And he’s a PT governor, a center-left politician. The previous governor, who was governor for eight years, and therefore responsible for the fiscalization (the fining process) and maintenance, Aecio Neves, is also the former Brazilian presidential candidate of the opposition, the center-right. He was also one of the first ones to say [after the dam break] “this is not a time to try to place blame,” because it’s not very convenient for him. So everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.
Everybody’s really walking on eggshells because the power of the company is so big. Even nonprofits are doing the same.
RE: How are nonprofits responding?
LS: For instance, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has work in that area with the recovery of the degraded springs, water springs, which was funded by the Vale do Rio Doce, the company. So on the one hand he’s saying “look, the company has to make good to this work, and take responsibility,” on the other hand he says “well I know they are going to do that because they are a good, responsible company.” The president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, has just issued a decree allowing workers to use their mandatory retirement savings, which normally you can only take when you’re actually retired or in very special circumstances, such as natural disasters. Now there is a special decree that allows you to take that money if you were a victim of a natural disaster. She amended the decree to include, for the purpose of taking away their money, breaking of dams as a natural disaster.
RE: The decree allows employees to take their retirement savings early?
LS: Yes. So the responsibility to deal with the immediate costs [of lost income] is put on the backs of the workers. It’s even more complicated than that. Legislation for environmental damage is about 15 years old in terms of setting penalties and fines. Samarco received several fines, each of them the maximum, but the total is still really low, because each of the fines has a legal ceiling. Overall, only in the state of Minas Gerais, there are over 200 unpaid environmental fines because companies appeal once, twice, and again, and another, and another, and can go on for ten or 15 years without paying.
RE: What would a meaningful fine be for a large transnational mining venture, in proportion to their daily profits?
LS: In this case the total fine that was given Samarco I’ve read is something around seven percent of its net profit. But I would be careful about that estimate for several reasons. First, the spill paralyzes all work in the area, which means a loss of profit for the company, which is large. Second, the fine does not exempt the company from cleaning up, so the fine comes on top of the entire cost of recovery for the area. However, this is also complicated because the public ministry has just signed an agreement for one billion reais for the clean-up. That may still be below what we need, and may be putting a ceiling on the liability of the company.
CL: And there are heavy metals in the floodwater, so there are potentially much longer-lasting costs.
LS: Well, this is also a bit complicated. It’s not clear as there are several small cities affected, and one large one, Governador Valadares, in the way of the river. Some of the mayors made their own water testing. One of the cities found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.” However, the mayor of Governador Valadares showed a number of tests saying there [are] no heavy metals. Everybody is protesting that they don’t trust this kind of test. I’ve joined a group of over 2,000 volunteers including 700 scientists who are proposing to do an independent analysis of the environmental and social impact. It’s the first time that anything like this has happened in Brazil—not only the disaster but this kind of volunteer organization. The group has over 2,000 people right now, everybody from undergrad students to PhDs, and everybody wants to help, but it’s going to need lots of organization.
One of the cities [affected by the dam break] found so many heavy metals, so much above the levels of security, their experts said “oh, they threw the whole periodic table of the elements in the river.”
LS: Yes, they are organizing with that, they are making connections, although the experience of the MAB is mostly with water dams (not mining dams) and people who are being . . .
CL: . . . displaced.
LS: Yes. We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows. We are talking about a mud that is full of iron and probably arsenic and silica, and some aluminum. It’s heavy and it’s impermeable, so it passes through the river, creating a layer at the bottom where nothing can grow. On top of that all the fish are dying, since they have no oxygen. And all the animals—dogs, cattle caught by the water—are dying and decomposing. So it alters the water even if you have dilution from the river tributaries, for instance. Some cities are trying to capture the water from the tributaries, hoping to bypass the river and find a new source of drinking water. We’re talking about a city like Governador Valadares, with close to 300,000 people. Drawing from tributaries upstream means less water diluting the river. Even before the disaster the springs were compromised. If there are heavy metals in the heavy layers at the bottom, people are talking about the possibility of some of these metals getting to the phreatic water sheet. So as you see it’s a disaster of incredible magnitude, not only in terms of what happens to the ecosystem, but also in terms of political, economic, and social impacts—it goes in all directions. And it is a big question mark. We have no experience with that. And the fact that it happened just before the Paris attacks made it disappear from the public eye.
We are talking here about biocontamination. Wherever the mud passes, nothing grows.
RE: This relative lack of exposure to the dam break is definitely something I hope we can talk about. It seems like there are several durations involved and also questions of how the media has covered or not covered the spill. Some of the coverage has focused on the company and the economic impact of closing down operations and has pointed out that the price for iron has been relatively low in the last ten years, because of the decreased demand for export. There has been a shift in the conversation from describing the event in concrete, biological terms to an abstract conversation about the commodity exports, iron pellets as raw material for industrialization. There is the time frame of the cost of the good that was extracted, and there is the other time frame, which is the life cycle of aquatic life [that] has been impacted for a generation, particularly larger forms of aquatic life, like fish, which won’t recover for a full lifetime.
LS: Some species that were endemic to the area are lost, gone forever.
RE: There is a sense that there is a longer emergency of climate change and then these punctuating events, sometimes described in the sense of industrial operations. When dams or pipelines fail, the consequences are so out of proportion, in the sense that we think a dam may last another five or ten years and then the life of a stream is wiped out suddenly and permanently, with species gone. Where does this incongruity show up in media?
LS: It also is true that it showed how we have changed the way we read. I mean, ninja media and the alternative media have been very important in the process because the big newspapers are putting t the disaster on the second or third page. They found out that they can’t ignore it completely because alternative media, and Facebook and ninja are keeping it alive.
CL: I also felt this very strongly. On my Facebook feed for example, Brasil de Fato, which is a main Socialist newspaper in Brazil, and Nova Democracia, which is another alternative newspaper, are covering this a lot, posting pictures and also getting people to tell their stories on social media. People are interacting with each other outside the mainstream media, taking things into their own hands.
LS: It is also true that environmental issues had become in recent years a theme for the left. However, this disaster, in the way that Vale ed may be connected to the current administration or of PT, brought it back as an issue for the right as well. I’ve heard about the disaster from Mariana from my friends on the left as well as my friends on the right. It’s one unifying point of protest. How they are going to read the disaster is very different, but it’s there, and it’s very strong. I found it interesting because the newspapers did try to kind of [suggest that] Paris is more important and this alternative media kept [the disaster] alive. I would like to go back, however, to the point about extension. One thing that was very interesting is to see some of the disciplinary boundaries and the different views of the disaster by scientists. Thus you have engineers and geographers who are just saying “okay, calm down, the river is coming back,” while biologists and ecologists are in panic.
RE: I’ve heard that in Appalachia, where different scientists have totally different discourses around streams and tailing ponds in post-mining landscapes. I’m curious to hear how disciplinary differences in perception are working out in this case?
Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on.
LS: I find that fascinating as well. We all joined this group of 2,000 volunteers, probably 400 or 500 PhDs from all areas of Brazilian academia, who all want to help and we all want the company to pay. The geologists and geographers are going to have this idea that the river is coming back. Biologists are furious: it’s over, it’s dead. Among all this mess, I’ve read about this very beautiful initiative by the fishermen, the Noah’s Arc. It was gorgeous but absolutely useless.
RE: Taking the fish from the spill area and transporting them to small aquariums?
LS: And to lakes, which have their own ecosystems and work at the optimal level of biomass. If you’re bringing an endemic species, although you can save some genetic material, the impact is mostly negative. What was important was for the communities of fishermen to feel they were doing something. It was much more a political, social activity. What we should be looking at is a new river, probably in the next 30 years. Water is going to find other areas to go. Even for geologists, even if you don’t consider the life of the river, we are talking about a game changer. Maybe in 100 years this thing is going to be a new river, but it is not going to be the Rio Doce. And for me, as an environmental historian, this is absolutely shocking because the Rio Doce is a tributary of national history—for the gold, precious metals, and so on. The Doce was the river through which so much of this material would pass. It was also the area where traditional populations from the colonial times would negotiate the space and dispute with the settlers. Right now you still have some of the communities like Krenak that depend on the river, and they are desperate. It’s a river that is really, really important for the communities. A famous biologist, Andre Ruschi, has a famous preservation area of Colibri in the Atlantic Forest right by the margins of the Rio Doce. We are all expecting the mud to pass through and destroy it. Once arriving to the sea it’s not going to disperse easily so the marine reservation, the Parque Nacional dos Abrolhos, could also reach this platform. This particular disaster is going to pass through the heart of some of the remains of the Atlantic Forest. What are we going to do?
RE: Well, one thing you’re doing is going back to Brazil to work with SOLCHA, Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental, and I imagine this is going to be front and center for environmental historians in Latin America. Are there plans to have the 2,000 volunteers involved in citizen science, collecting data?
LS: Right. What I’m planning to do is to get volunteers from my University and organize a history of the area and of the river, and find out more about other examples of similar disasters. What we can offer to this group is the historical perspective.
RE: In May 2016 there is an event planned with Wisconsin’s Center for Culture, History and Environment focusing on the Mississippi River and the following year on the Danube. It’s a transatlantic environmental history workshop, histories of continents and nations through rivers. It’s similar to the project that you are describing and I think of these things as networked together. And the connections that scholars make who are looking at rivers and in the way you tell stories through the trajectory of a river.
[With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics.
LS: I think you are totally right. [With the Rio Doce] we are talking about something that crosses biomes, crosses cities, crosses realities, it’s huge, and it has an impact: not only on two Brazilian states but also on the economy and politics. Any step is very sensitive. Mining in the area may have slowed down, but this is an ongoing disaster. There are three dams in that particular mining area. The others are both below [safety] levels but if these two break, especially the largest one one . . . what we are seeing right now will look like a pre-disaster. They are going to have to consider the possibility of the breaking of these two other dams against the profit that they can make with a low price product. As for now, Samarco is placing itself a victim of the disaster.
CL: Mainstream media in Brazil is very much backing that image.
LS: Yes. I mean, this entire thing about a small seismic event being considered responsible for breaking the dam . . .
RE: The Brazilian media is coming to the company’s defense? Is that because the company has an economic monopoly?
LS: I think you are right in a sense, because of the power of the company in this area. I think it’s also because our media is [politically] right of center and the Vale until now was hailed as the big success of privatization. They would love to see this (privatization) happening to Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. But to see Vale lose value and be challenged as a company, as this model company, would also jeopardize the entire idea that private ownership is better than public ownership.
RE: In other words, you’re saying there is a deep public interest perceived in this single privatized mining company . . .
LS: Oh yeah.
RE: It’s hard for people to articulate the difference between what the interests of that company and the interests of the region. You see this in Appalachia for a long time, where coal companies would say “what is good for coal is good for Appalachia.” And it became difficult for anyone to actually have any space in which to critique that because to critique means you’re potentially also taking a job from neighbors or your relatives.
LS: Just yesterday there was a rally of the residents of Mariana, with the worker unions asking for the company to remain in Mariana. They had t-shirts written with slogans that said “Yes; No to Unemployment.”
RE: This is the miner’s union?
LS: Yes. But you have to understand that it’s not only the miners, it’s not only the direct workers, but everything in the region that is connected to the Vale Company. It’s like FIAT for Turin: I mean if you don’t work for FIAT, you work for the company that sells FIAT cars, or you work for the company that sells tires for FIAT cars. And I repeat: even environmental organizations. We don’t have the tradition like in the United States and in Europe of nonprofits supported only by the membership fees. I know very few nonprofits in Brazil that don’t depend on private company or government funding. Most cities like Mariana or the nearby cities can pay their employees just because of the fees and taxes paid by Vale. If Vale were to disappear from Mariana that would mean a loss of municipal taxes that would make it impossible to pay the public employees.
RE: Is Vale perceived as a company that takes risks or as a company that doesn’t value worker’s safety?
LS: I couldn’t say . . . no more or less than any other company in Brazil. People cut corners in Brazil. What is concerning, however, is that the mining code of Brazil is very strict. It’s just not enforced. Now there is discussion of a new mining code, and some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly.
RE: So the disaster is an excuse for pushing through the process?
LS: Measures that would never be accepted in normal times. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today. The government is the problem in this narrative. Environmental regulations are the problem. There are other issues like for instance there are hundreds of unpaid fines in the environmental agency in Minas Gerais, still to be processed, and there’s no way the state government can process all of them. So they’re going now to give a huge amnesty to the companies, hoping to clear up the bureaucratic mess.
Some politicians claim that the disaster is a good reason to speed up the approbation of the new mining code, which is way more industry-friendly. The big problem is that the narrative that we have is neoliberal, the narrative that gave birth to the private Vale and that’s still going on today.
RE: Is this because the agency is understaffed or underfunded?
LS: They are understaffed, underfunded and in my opinion it’s a tactic from the companies to let the number of fines accumulate and then see what happens. Many of these fines are going to be amnestied because they are very close to the statute of limitation. This entire thing is a perfect storm. It shows us not only the connections between city and the countryside, but [also] the connections between environmental protection, ecosystems, and policies, national and local, the dispute between right and left in Brazil, the bureaucratic nightmare in terms of legislation and the huge lobbies for the relaxing of environmental laws. At the same time, everybody is an environmentalist in Brazil, everybody loves nature, or so they say. And these big lobby groups argue that the best way to help nature is by taking away environmental regulations. If you talk to each and every one of these guys arguing about the mining code, they’re going to say, “No, we are going to save nature.” Besides, we must remember that the lobby against environmental regulations is one of the strongest in Brazil because it’s so connected to ownership of land, and land disputes are the most common causes for which people are killed in the countryside of Brazil. Many environmentalists were killed because they were challenging the use of land. An event like this raises all these questions about media and politics without even having to go for to conspiracy theories. Why do you need conspiracy theories when reality is so much more!
RE: You described this river as at the heart of a certain national imaginary. Is it fair to say that what people have in mind when they’re saying “nature” has to do with a sense that Brazil has a particular natural heritage, biodiversity? So what you would be saving if you’re saving nature is something that’s only here, only in Brazil?
LS: It’s more complicated, as we are talking about a 800-kilometer river where there is everything from a city the size of Governador Valadares to groups of indigenous populations to areas that are natural reserves, and therefore, no large human population. It’s also one of the regions to have witnessed anthropogenic action for hundreds and hundreds of years. We’re not talking about a pristine area. Some of the images that have more impact in the media are people, fire-fighters for instance, saving a dog or a cow. It is a region where people and nonhumans have interacted in many ways for so long that is part of the identity. And that’s what I found so interesting about the fishermen trying to save the fish. They do see this connection. They are not saving the fish because they want the fish to live forever in the aquarium, but because it’s their livelihood. And I think the Krenak had it really well. They don’t differentiate so much between the river, the land, the fish. If the river is dead, we’re all dead. I know it sounds like some fake Chief Seattle story, but that’s what we are saying right now. It’s less one pristine area untouched for whatever species, it’s more this long built-up predatory relationship, if you want, but also a transformative relationship between nature and society that was going on along this river. And now it’s really threatened.
Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments. And first – addressing ourselves to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?
Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.
Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the talk Sasha Lilley gave at the Planetary Natures conference: “limits” discourse tends towards a sort of left catastrophism, a left austerity plan that says “there is no alternative”, and that whatever political agenda we are advocating is a dictate of nature. This is true of some strands of eco-Marxism that in the 1960s and 1970s picked up some of the thinking of ecological economists and environmentalists about limits, and presented a sort of survivalist argument for the transition to socialism. I think this is in fact a deeply conservative position, and I am uneasy with the idea that a survivalist politics could lead to a liberatory programme. [Note. Sasha Lilley puts her case against left catastrophism in this interview here and this video here.]
Let me probe a little more what you mean by absolute limits and relative limits. Let’s take the most important example: there is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gases that can be put it into the atmosphere over the next few decades, if the serious damage to human society already implicit in rising sea levels and other outcomes of global warming is to be contained. Of course the climatologists don’t exactly know where it is because of the inexact nature of the science. But there is no doubt that that limit is out there. People try to quantify it e.g. by talking about 350ppm [i.e. 350 parts of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere] as a safe limit.
Yes, but even that limit is still being negotiated under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The commitments made by various countries don’t seem to offer much hope for actually staying below even a 2ºC increase in average global temperature since pre-industrial times, which is what many climate scientists think is an acceptable level of risk. But at the talks last year in Lima there were still countries demanding that warming stay under 1.5º. Small island states for example were saying that 1.5º or 2ºof temperature increase doesn’t look the same all over the world, that the 2ºmark privileges the interests of Northern countries. So the limits look very different depending on where you are. There are certainly tipping points, so reference to global average temperature, parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc. is a necessary way of marking those tipping points. But what our relationship is to that limit, how we deal with it – that’s a political question. (See for example the policy of the Climate Vulnerable Forum within the UNFCCC.)
Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of.
There are limits, and some of them are absolute in the sense that, if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will experience unacceptable levels of global warming. But where talk about limits becomes problematic is when we look at that type of tipping point and suggest that it dictates a particular socio-political future. Aside from the neo-Malthusian invocation of limits, there is a leftist discourse that says “capitalism will encounter its own limits, it will have a crisis due to these intractable biophysical boundaries”. And that becomes an anti-political argument that I’m very sceptical of, and that underestimates the adaptability of capitalism at overcoming such limits. It may well be that capital can go on accumulating long after we’ve traversed certain thresholds that would make life on Earth intolerable for most humans and animals.
We therefore have to talk about what the limits are that bound our desirable conditions of existence. That’s a political question, although that doesn’t mean that humans are entirely in control of the answer to it.
You have been researching the political and social context of the 1970s, in which the Limits to Growth report appeared. Could you say something about this?
I have been doing some reading about how that report fitted into the broader conversations in the 1970s about the new international political order and what a multilateral order might to look like. One thing I have found interesting is the way that the idea of natural resources as a global commons, coupled with a notion of biophysical limits, cuts both ways politically. On one hand it can operate in a progressive register: it says that we all live on this earth and have some responsibility of stewardship. But in the 1970s, it also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources – for example the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution, which was only beginning to be discussed at that time, mainly in terms of “pollution havens” for corporations. The ability to enact environmental controls and to govern exhaustible resources was at stake for third world countries in many of those conversations.
The language of the global commons sounds very progressive. And the idea of “limits to growth” can serve to protect that vision, but it can also serve a neo-colonial purpose. Again, in the 1970s, the argument that scarce resources really belong to everyone – and so they shouldn’t be entrusted to national governments whose interests aren’t shared by the “global community” – was useful, for instance, to the industrial elite that made up the Club of Rome. The political implications of these types of ideas can therefore vary quite dramatically.
In the 1970s, the notion of biophysical limits also served a powerful political function against the interests of newly sovereign third world states that were trying to control both their conventional resources and also their environmental resources
The context was the so-called “energy crisis”, which was more than anything about a sudden increase in the price of energy sources, especially oil, for rich nations, who then had to adjust their strategy towards other nations, especially poor nations, who were producing it.
Yes. And that takes us back to the question of control. What level of control did those producing states – such as [the oil producing countries’ group] OPEC, in this example – have over their resources, vis-a-vis multinational corporations that might have different interests?
You have found some work by the Bariloche institute in Argentina, that offered an alternative to the Limits to Growth report produced by the Club of Rome. What was their approach?
Their critique of the original report, which was similar to those made by many different commentators, was that it had a very first-world-centric approach, one that located global problems in third-world population growth. The Bariloche model criticised this Western-centric and Northern-centric perspective, and the way that the Limits to Growth model was presented as a supposedly objective picture of global limits without a normative valence.
The Bariloche model was, in the words of one of its designers, intended to be a response from the South to the Limits to Growth report … to say look, modelling does not just give us an objective representation of the world; it is a technology to enact and explore the possibility for certain kinds of futures. They therefore proposed a counter-model oriented towards exploring the biophysical basis for an international socialism. However, they positioned their vision of socialism between state socialism, which was the dominant model at the time, and market capitalism, to say essentially – what would a democratic, decentralised socialist or egalitarian system look like, and what are its biophysical conditions of possibility? That is, what are the biophysical conditions for creating what they called an egalitarian world? The designers framed it as a Latin American model, but one that aspired to be a third world model, recognizing that Latin America didn’t stand in for the third world. But that was their goal – to use modelling as a technology for envisioning alternative political futures from a third world perspective.
You have looked at the emergence in the 1970s of ecological economics and resilience theory. Your conclusion on resilience theory is that it “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”. But you are not saying, if I have understood correctly, that socialists or anti-capitalists should ignore or write off resilience literature. In the conclusions of your article on resilience you say that we should ask “how the forms of control exercised under the rubric of adaptability may present new possibilities for resistance”. I took that to mean that you suggest taking as a starting point the integration of social and ecological, the rejection of a dualism, in the resilience literature, but rejecting the way that that literature normalises capitalist social relations.
There is much to say about the relationship between ecological economics and resilience, which mainly came together in the Beijer Institute in Sweden and in some workshops in Stanford as well.
Both of those fields were quite heterodox in the 1970s. Ecological economics was articulating a vision which was not neo-liberal and not even fully market-oriented, but one that demanded state control to constrain resource use and population growth to certain kinds of limits, within which market activity can operate. Within those limits it wanted to say that prices would determine the best distribution of environmental goods and bads, and resources in general, but it didn’t advocate a wholesale marketisation of everything. I think that it registered a broader crisis in the economy and wanted to re-establish economic and ecological equilibrium on a global scale through a sort of capitalist planned economy – an interesting mix of planning and markets.
Resilience theory, for its part, has been critiqued by many people as having an analogous resemblance to neoliberalism. It advocates decentralised planning and adaptive management approaches that enable systems – whether ecological, economic, or social – to move through various equilibria. It therefore doesn’t try to stave off a crisis by maintaining stability, but by increasing the system’s flexibility or “resilience” to disturbance, and even its ability to absorb and redirect those disturbances to its own advantage. Many critics have argued that resilience takes this ecological metaphor and applies it to social systems in a way that naturalizes the experience of economic and ecological crisis. They have pointed out that, in its demand for decentralised control and flexible management under crisis conditions, it looks a lot like the neoliberal imaginary.
However, what interests me about resilience is that, especially in its earlier articulations, it really is developed as a universal theory. It’s not just an ecological theory that’s later applied to other things. From the very beginning of his work on resilience in the 1970s, Charles Holling, the ecologist who developed it, is interested in asking: how applicable are these principles to industrial planning, to organisations, to economic and social systems in general? He was working at the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, exploring this.
I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.
In those conversations, which were very interdisciplinary, the relationship between planning and markets, and decentralised and centralised control, was still under discussion. I see resilience as a symptom of a broader crisis of management paradigms in both ecology and industry, and one whose basic conceptual framework does not necessarily lead to neoliberal policy proscriptions. In this way, I am interested less in locating in resilience the seed of a future neoliberal order, and more in looking at how certain pieces of resilience theory and its methodologies have been picked up and combined in different ways to create the modes of thought that are driving a lot of neoliberal environmental policy in the current moment.
You also argue, if I understood correctly, that the same driving forces that push capitalism at its current stage to disrupt and damage the ecological space in which humans live are essentially the same forces that spread into the sphere of social reproduction, and that we need an analysis that brings all these things together. In your article on Limits to Growth, you quote Suzanne Schultz, who wrote: “It is not that the boundary between production and reproduction has been effaced, but that it has been transformed, requiring new analytical approaches. Your conclusion: resilience theory “was an important part of the neo-liberal counter-revolution”.
Again, going back to the 1970s, Marxist feminists such as Silvia Federici, Mariarosa dalla Costa, and many others theorised the crisis of Fordist-Keynesianism in terms of a crisis of reproduction – among other things, a breakdown of the gender relations that ensured the reproduction of the labour force. Federici looked to the work of economists in that moment to argue that their efforts to quantify the contributions of housework to GDP [gross domestic product], alongside the expansion of the service economy, was a manifestation of this crisis of reproduction. I think we can certainly see a parallel development in economic thinking at the time concerning the environment. That is, both ecological and environmental economists are asking: how can we account for this other sphere of important productive activity – the “work” of biospheric reproduction, we might call it – that economics, in its narrow mode of looking at production in terms of GDP, can’t comprehend? We can therefore see environmental reproduction as the other side of the coin of social reproduction and the reproduction of labour power in the way that it is brought into economic thinking in the 1970s.
Much of this early work starts to describe biophysical functions such as absorption of pollution, the function of wetlands to mitigate flooding, or even the production of soils through composting, in sort of infrastructural terms – that is, as a whole array of systems whose functioning underpins the economy as it was formulated in mainstream economics.
This view I think is really the precedent for what we now think of as ecosystem services, which has become a dominant discourse in the present. Based on the idea that ecosystems perform “services” – such as carbon sequestration – that are useful to people, we have a whole generation of payment- and market-based programmes to finance conservation and, at times, to commodify these services, for instance through emissions markets. Sometimes this involves paying landowners to perform certain conservation activities based on the idea that these produce such services. That infrastructural conception of resources is being talked about in the 1960s and 1970s, in terms of “how do we account for these reproductive functions?” They don’t use those terms, but that’s my reading of it.
If we think of ecosystem services as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?
What interests me, and what I mentioned in the article, is: if we think about this as a repositioning of the division between productive and reproductive labour, such that what was devalued and made invisible as reproductive labour is coming into view in a certain way, then it changes the political questions we can ask. For instance, the Wages for Housework movement made the basic point: “It’s not enough to say just that we don’t want to participate in the wage economy and have our labour alienated. What about those of us who are precisely excluded from that economy on the basis of our supposed natural instinct to be mothers, or to do housework, or whatever?” They really posed that problem. And there is a similar problem implicit in the critique of payments for ecosystems services, or other market-based conservation schemes.
Some critics suggest that payment programmes corrupt ecological values by paying people to do this work, or are concerned with how market-based conservation is implicated in further alienating people from nature. Those critiques are not wrong; they have their place. But if we think of this as a whole field of productive activity that is precisely devalued in capitalism, to my mind the issue is: how do we find a way of valorising it in a non-capitalist way, rather than insisting on its exceptionality or its non-economic nature?
That’s where I find the work of those Marxist feminist thinkers useful, in dealing with that problem. What would a critical abstraction of “ecosystem services” look like? What would a non-capitalist “ecosystem service” economy look like? That’s not a question that the critical literature has asked, but it’s one that I think is really interesting. I don’t have any answers for it!
Maybe it’s actually happening in some places, and I think there is some emerging research on case studies that has started to point to it. For instance Bolivia is trying to develop a compensation programme for stewardship of ecological resources in non-market ways. Not that Bolivia is a perfect example. But there is a lot of heterogeneity in payment for ecosystem services programmes – programmes for compensating people for “ecosystem services”, which might be in the form of direct payment for conservation work, in kind, compensation for not farming parts of their land – and it’s worth trying to look at them and think about the differences between them. Proponents and critics alike see these as market-based programmes, but there is a great deal of difference among them.
An issue running through all these discussions on society and environment is the repeated re-appearance of different types of Malthusianism. In one of your articles you mentioned Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, advocating “transferable birth licences”, in line with this ideology of control. How significant is this?
Such ideas are hugely pervasive. In the 1970s, all these conversations were going on in the context of a real – or at least a perceived – crisis of the international order and the role of the US and Europe in that order. A big fear that came out was a xenophobic anxiety about the rise of the third world in the form of population growth as one really important vein in environmental thought. I taught a course on population in my department a couple of times, and I asked students to read the preface to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb – it is a graphic description of his drive through Delhi and his horror at the masses of poor people. It shows an incredibly visceral response to the bodies of Indian people that Ehrlich perceives as being excessive and abundant.
I know the passage you mean. How strong do you think that is in environmentalism today?
I think a lot of it comes out in discourses about climate refugees, and about the causes of climate change. For instance, the idea that in order to address deforestation, we should offer certain incentives to small farmers, as if they are the main culprit and there are not much larger drivers behind their actions. A ton of market-based conservation programmes are targeted at individuals as drivers of ecological problems – and not at structural economic drivers. These programmes ask: “How do we incentivise the poor to change their behaviour?” Which is really the same paternalistic and anti-political attitude that informed early population control programmes. It’s just not quite as targeted at reproductive bodies; it’s in this ecologically reproductive mode. In that sense Malthusianism is still quite powerful.
Getting back to Daly’s original idea, however, there actually exists a UK organisation called Pop Offsets where you can purchase a carbon credit by financing the so-called “unmet need” for family planning – the idea is that you’re offsetting the carbon emissions associated with another human life on the planet. So it comes full circle.
To what extent has the left put together a convincing alternative? I completely agree with your complaints about catastrophism that says, “if we don’t overthrow capitalism tomorrow we’re all doomed”. But how far has the left gone in responding to these Malthusian logic?
That is a hard question! And I’m not equipped to answer it. But I will say that political actions alone do not necessarily articulate a viable alternative. Scholarship and political theory can asses the conditions of possibility for other alternatives and how do we might strategically build on those. But I don’t think political theorising, or even political action, has to come in the form of articulating a coherent vision of a future political order – it comes in the form of refusing the claim that there is no alternative and insisting that there are alternatives. Again, that’s where I see Malthusianism as disempowering, as it forecloses alternatives. What those alternatives are is worked out in an emergent political process.
As a side note, one reason that Malthusianism looks different in contemporary environmental movements – and is much less pronounced today – is that many formerly third world countries vehemently resisted that discourse. In fact the emergence of the environment as a political object was really mobilised very powerfully by poorer nations, to resist the neocolonial relations that still stucture the international order. The politics of the environment today is shaped by resistance on any number of fronts. The narrative that argues that in environmental crises we simply see capitalism playing out its contradictions really obscures that resistance, in a way that is not politically empowering.
So are we talking about movements of landless farmworkers, or Bolivia’s refusal to go along with multinational companies?
There are a million examples in the past several decades: global indigenous organising, the landless peasants’ movement, and other grassroots movements. And also on the part of governments – taking seriously the internal political contradictions in Bolivia, in terms of its recognition of the “rights of Mother Earth” (Pachamama) in its constitution, while it also remains economically dependent on an extractive economy and grapples with land conflicts among various indigenous movements – Bolivia has been extremely active in international fora such as the UNFCCC and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services to use environmental discourse to articulate an anti-neoliberal agenda. Since the Stockholm Convention on the Environment in 1972, formerly third world nations have intervened in the politics of the environment in a way that has had real geopolitical implications. For instance, the Convention on Biological Diversity was something of a watershed moment for Southern countries gaining control over resources subject to biopiracy.
There are multiple logics at work in determining what the environment means as a political object, how it’s articulated, and how it’s mobilised. That’s sometimes overlooked in narratives that see only triumphant neo-liberalism doing its thing.
Sara Holiday Nelson is a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s.
Gabriel Levy is an activist in the workers’ movement from the UK. He writes the People & Nature blog that reflects his interest in the relationship of socialism and ecology. He has been visiting Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan since Soviet times.
In one article, Zoe Todd tells a story of how she, as a small child, used to go fishing. Whenever her line got caught on a weed, she would shout out to her parents in the cabin, exclaiming that she had caught a fish. An adult would then come down and untangle her line. But one day, she had actually caught one—and no one came to help her reel it in. Finally, when the adults looked out at the lake and saw the little girl trying to wrestle with the fishing rod, they ran down and her father helped her reel in a giant northern pike. Her father calls this story “Zoe and the Big Fish”, and after telling it, Todd remarks “Ever since I caught that fish I have been obsessed with prairie fish and their hidden lives in the rivers and lakes of my homeland. The way that their bodies narrate stories we, collectively, have forgotten to listen to.”
This summer, I found myself on a canoe on the Georgian Bay, Canada—Go Home Bay to be precise—with a fishing rod. I’ve heard a story that “Go Home Bay” is so-called because when European settlers arrived, the Anishinaabe people there told them to “go home.”
Go to Go Home Bay and you’ll see the raw, exposed rocks, the crooked pines bent by the hard winds and the heavy snow, clamoring for space on the rocks. You can’t help but imagine what this landscape might have looked like in its pristine form, unsullied by humans. The untouched trees, the clear water heavy with life, the rocks shot through with veins of marble and granite—they seem to carry stories that have little to do with the cumbersome wooden chalets that line the water.
Another story telling the origin of Go Home Bay is that loggers, after floating freshly-cut timber down the Musquash River, would deliver them to steamers who would then chug their way to the timber mills around the Great Lakes. After this, the loggers could finally “go home.”
These two stories might be conflicting—but they both indicate that this landscape is far from pristine. The primary forest has long been cut down—the timber industry left barely any trees standing. The fish stocks have long been depleted by colonial fishers, robbing the Indigenous people from a major source of subsistence. And there were people living here before the picturesque chalets were erected: the Anishinaabeg. This land carries their stories, stories that are still being told. There is no “pristine” nature without humans, not even here.
I have little experience fishing. But on my second cast—the first cast I caught nothing but weeds—I caught an enormous pike. I was obviously elated—it’s rare to be that lucky. But I couldn’t help thinking back to Todd’s article about her own relationship with fish and their importance to Indigenous people. In it, she describes how a history of colonialism in Canada is literally inscribed on the bodies of fish—the depletion of their populations and the toxins in their bones. As she tells it, “Fish bodies betray the damage to their habitats. Their bodies tell stories of our negligence and silence.”
Todd’s writing led me to wonder what stories that pike had carried, and what stories the Anishinaabeg had for it. I felt like an intruder—this catch wasn’t really a victory; it was more like a symbol of loss.
For Indigenous people in North America, colonialism is not a force of the past. It violently affects them on a daily basis. And they are constantly resisting and developing new ways of asserting their culture and governance systems.
I have often wondered how to carry home what I’ve learned from the struggles of indigenous people in North America. How can Europeans, who have learned to remove themselves in time and place from the horrors of colonization, learn to take responsibility and start a process of decolonization? These questions inevitably leaked in to my own research—how can I do field research, keeping in mind that colonization continues today, both in my “field” (neighborhoods facing gentrification) and within the academy?
Todd’s work offers crucial contributions to these questions. Todd is a Métis scholar who has just become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and is also completing her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Her main research revolves around human-fish relations, colonialism, and Indigenous governance and legal orders in Canada. Some of her other interests include decolonizing anthropology as a discipline, urban planning, and non-academic writing.
What first drew me to Todd’s evocative writing was her article on the Scottish independence movement. In it, she suggests that since the Scots and Irish were colonized, their struggles for self-determination should be seen from a decolonial perspective. In her own research on human-fish relationships and the legal orders that Indigenous people put in place to maintain those relationships, she helps inform the nature-culture debate. And in several other articles she suggests ways that anthropology, as an academic discipline can engage in a process of decolonization. One such article—a critique of the “ontological turn”—went viral in anthropology circles last year.
Through all this, Todd remains giving and forgiving in her writing. She writes lucidly and poetically, noting injustice while stressing accountability. And she is not content with just telling stories of oppression: she consistently offers stories of resistance and paths for transformation.
I was grateful to be able to interview Zoe Todd to further explore these topics. After a discussion that was cut short by poor Internet service on my end, we continued the conversation via email. I’ve put together these two conversations in a shortened, more legible, format.
Colonialism, past and present
Could you explain a bit how your work challenges this idea that colonization is “a thing of the past”?
Colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada. In recent years, I have worked with people who experienced the horrific impacts of Canada’s Indian Residential School System. The Residential School that many of the people I worked with attended didn’t close until 1996. There are residential school survivors in Canada who are only a bit older than me. In my own family, the impacts of colonialism are also visceral. I am two generations removed from my grandfather’s lifetime, when he and his parents were kicked off their land in northern Alberta at the St Paul des Métis settlement. But the stories, the trauma of that? Real and present. Not as direct as they were for my grandfather’s generation, but still present. In May, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an executive summary of its forthcoming six-volume report on its inquiry into the experiences of Residential School survivors. Reading that summary, which lays out the awfulness and violence of the Residential School System, and hearing Justice Murray Sinclair declare that Canada is guilty of perpetuating cultural genocide? That really makes it clear that colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada. (It’s also why my colleagues Joseph Paul Murdoch-Flowers and Erica Violet Lee and I started a video project called #ReadTheTRCReport in which people have uploaded videos of themselves reading sections of the report—there is a visceral, embodied experience in reading it aloud that makes it impossible to ignore the stories and findings within the report).
How does your own research go beyond depicting Indigenous people as victims, but rather as actively struggling against colonization?
I work in the Canadian Arctic, in a small village or hamlet in an Inuvialuit community named Paulatuuq. I’m looking at how Inuvialuit people in this community have negotiated their reciprocal and ongoing duties to the land and to fish while contending with state-imposed ideas about the appropriate ways to define animals, define the land, define how to engage with exploitative industry. People in Paulatuuq are asserting their laws, but doing it in a way that negotiates a simultaneous but contradictory sameness and difference between their legal orders and their relationship to place (and to the State). Engaging with those aspects of state law that they absolutely have to. So the word I used to describe it is they’re “refracting” colonial forces by asserting their laws in the ways that they can. It may appear that people are being co-opted into co-management but when you’re sitting in those meetings and you’re talking to people it is apparent that they are engaging actively with the scientists and the bureaucrats in a really creative way.
What’s so amazing about Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination is that people are finding these really creative ways to continue to assert their cosmologies or world-views or laws in the face of all of these competing left-leaning, right-leaning, neoliberal, socialist definitions of how people should behave.
Could the formalization of Indigenous law by a settler state contribute to the continued colonization of Indigenous people? Some people have argued that this was the case in Bolivia, where sumak kawsay (Buen Vivir), an Indigenous concept, was put into law.
My work is really so small and nascent compared to the incredibly nuanced and ongoing work on Indigenous legal orders and legal pluralities that Indigenous scholars John Borrows,Val Napoleon and Tracey Lindberg (among others) are doing here in Canada. I think their work really demonstrates why it’s important for States like Canada to acknowledge their duties to the legal orders of the people whose ancestry and knowledge and stories of this place stretch to Time Immemorial. I think that the legal pluralistic approach that Borrows advocates for is really important. It demonstrates that Indigenous legal orders that incorporate reciprocal relationships between people, the land, the non-human constituents of the land, water and sky are incredibly important for this country as it contends with increasing pressures to extract oil and gas, mine ore, and dam more waterways.
Why would an anthropologist have a blog called “Zoe and the City?”
I started my blog in 2010 when I was wrapping up my MSc at the University of Alberta. My passion is Indigenous issues and decolonization in urban prairie contexts. (Having grown up as a Métis woman in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I had done a pecha kucha talk on ‘Edmonton as an Aboriginal City’ at a city sponsored event in June 2010 that garnered quite a bit of positive response, so I started the blog to keep writing about my observations and thoughts about how Edmonton had so thoroughly erased evidence of Indigenous peoples and history in its built form. Though my interests have expanded to other issues, I keep the name of the blog because everything for me still comes back to the land I grew up in: urban Edmonton—amiskwaciwâskahikan, pêhonan, home.
Whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen Coulthard argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’.
Many people might be surprised that Indigenous issues and urban issues are so linked. But having lived in Canada I’ve seen this play out quite directly—even just the fact that there’s such large Indigenous populations living in Canadian cities. In fact often urban spaces were designed specifically to keep out ‘loitering’ and ‘homeless’ First Nations or Northern Indigenous people. Do you think it is possible for cities to be spaces for Indigenous people, and what practical urban planning strategies could make that a reality?
Well, every city in Canada is on Indigenous land! So, by necessity, we have to address this fundamental relationship between land, Indigenous nations and urbanism in Canada. My mentor, Dr. Frank Tough, was the first to really point that out to me. He pointed out that many non-Indigenous folks were framing urban Indigeneity as a ‘recent phenomenon’, but in fact, every city in the country is built on Indigenous land. And cities like Edmonton are built in a very very old gathering place, known in nehiyawewin (Plains Cree) as pêhonan. My friend and colleague Sara Breitkreutz, an anthropology PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote her master’s dissertation on the ‘revitalization’ of Cabot Square in Montreal, wherein I understand that a lot of anxieties about race and Indigeneity came to the fore in discussions about re-designing the space. In Edmonton, there are a lot of tensions around the presence of urban Indigenous people in spaces that urban planners, architects, developers, politicians want to ‘revitalise’. Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard argues that one of the fundamental issues at play in urban gentrification in Canada is that it is an extension of settler colonialism. So, whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’. So, I totally agree with you that urban planning continues to marginalize Indigenous people. I think that in order to change that we have to re-frame cities in Canada as what they are: urban communities built on Indigenous land. And in that, we must centre the reciprocal relationships between non-Indigenous people to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous lands, Indigenous legal orders, language, and community.
Currently there is a lot of work being done, partly inspired by Bruno Latour, challenging this idea that there is a nature-culture divide, which anthropologists now call the ‘ontological turn.’ How do you criticize this from an Indigenous perspective?
The real crux of my critique of the ontological turn is not that it is wrong. They’re on the right track by acknowledging the nature-culture divide. They are absolutely correct, as an Indigenous feminist I read that as a hopeful moment. But we have to acknowledge that any movement is embedded in institutions and structures and the ontological turn itself has been developed by really wonderful Indigenous thinkers as well as non-Indigenous thinkers. However, as Sara Ahmed points out, it seems that white male scholars are often those that are cited within philosophy and the broader academy, and other people are ignored.
I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not.
My real critique is that Indigenous thinkers all over the world have been making exactly this point for decades, if not centuries (if you read or listen to the accounts of how the Historic Numbered Treaties in Canada were settled, Indigenous thinkers were asserting a view of the world that inherently disputes the Euro-Western nature-culture divide). But they aren’t often credited—for example, Val Napoleon and her colleague Hadley Friedland argue that Indigenous legal orders are not fragile, but in fact very robust. I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not. So for me, I think that the danger with the ontological turn is that it’s still coming from a Eurocentric perspective and doesn’t acknowledge, not just ideas but the laws that Indigenous people form that hold people accountable and that place the environment as a sentient thing. And so, I think we need to re-examine how we as scholars are also enacting legal governance and ethical duties toward our work.
Do you see that conversation happening in anthropology?
In Canada, with the work of Indigenous scholars, there is a direct acknowledgement that when Indigenous people are talking about their works, they’re not just talking about ontologies, they’re talking about concrete laws and ways of resolving conflict and engaging with the world. To be brutally honest, my experience in the UK really didn’t give me hope that scholars can be held directly accountable to the people that they’re speaking for.
People make claims about how they’re speaking with people, and I want to see us actually ask: how do you assess that? Why are there no Indigenous people on the panels? There were very few Indigenous anthropology students in the UK that I’ve met. For me, the proof will be in how the diversity of a department actually reflects the diversity of the people that we say we work with. The academy itself has to make a change. There are concrete ways that can happen and there are people that are already talking about how that can happen.
A new breed of environmentalists, calling themselves eco-modernists, seem to have run with ‘the ontological turn’, arguing that since ‘there is no nature’, conservationism actually won’t help, it is totally up to us to manage, maintain, and design the Earth. What would you say about these “ecomodernists” who take Latour’s argument to another level, using it to justify apolitical, technological solutions?
Frankly, that whole idea of technology saving us from our own capitalist exploitation of the environment is just wishful thinking. What Indigenous legal orders (ontologies if you must) bring to the table is an acknowledgement that we have reciprocal duties to the land, to the other-than-human. And in those duties, there are responsibilities not to destroy entire watersheds, pollute whole lakes, raze mountains for ore. Because there are real legal-governance, social, cultural, living consequences to those actions. I’m hopeful that maybe some technological solutions can help us with the immediate crises we find ourselves in. But we cannot continue to relate to one another, to the land, to the fish, the birds, the bears, the plants in the way that we have been doing since the beginning of the Industrial revolution. Indigenous legal orders, the little bit that I can claim to understand of them, orient us to a much more accountable legal-governance relationship between all things/people/beings.
On Scottish independence
How do you see Scottish independence from an Indigenous and decolonial perspective?
I was studying at Aberdeen in the Department of Anthropology. Since October 2010, I’ve been splitting my time between Canada and Scotland. I had a front seat to the independence debate and the referendum. For me as a Métis woman with Scotch-Irish roots on my Métis side of the family, it was really really fascinating and kind of amazing to be there to witness that. Particularly because of the entanglement of histories between Scottish people and Indigenous people in Canada.
As an Indigenous person from North America I think that we need to have robust conversations about how, in the case of Scotland, at least, as a group of people that were internally colonized, or who had their self-determination violated by the Enlgish, they also, in turn, came in very large numbers to what is now Canada and participated actively in the dispossession and colonization of Indigenous peoples here. So I’m a bit weary of making direct comparisons between Scottish independence and Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in North America, just because I think we also need to deconstruct that relationship between people re-visiting or re-creating their colonization or oppression upon another group. I call it the circulation of colonial violence. But I do think there’s a lot to be learned from these movements where people are pushing back against capitalist nation-state violation of people’s relationships to their own legal order and self-determination. Speaking as an Indigenous person from Canada, I do think there’s a lot that we can learn from Indigenous thinkers, activists, and philosophers.
Did you see those conversations happening in Scotland, where they link their own movements for autonomy in solidarity with Indigenous autonomy movements?
I have a complicated answer to that question. There was a lot of discourse in the Canadian media and the British media making a comparison between Quebec and Scotland, saying that Quebec independence and Scottish independence are the same thing. Or, sort of, learning from one another. But the thing with the Quebec independence movement is that it often involves a denial of Indigenous sovereignty in the province. And so I actually didn’t think the comparison in Scotland is really analogous (or helpful—because it erases or glosses over this egregious problem with the way Quebec sovereignty discourses can deny that Quebec exists because the French occupied sovereign Indigenous lands. That’s a conversation for another day, though).
The analogue, I think, for me, is that the Scots did manage to assert their own nationhood in a way by legislating and administering Canada into existence. Our first Prime Minister was a Scottish person, John A. MacDonald. This discourse of the English saying that the Scots don’t have what it takes to run a country I find really amusing. If we’re going to make really simple analogies, I think that an under-recognized discourse is how the Scots played such a heavy role in administering Canada into existence. So, in that sense, the Scots have already proven they can govern—they helped bring a whole nation state into existence! However, it’s very difficult to talk about the Scottish role or complicity in British colonialism within Scotland. I got the sense that it is a very taboo topic—it disrupts the framing of Scots as victims of the English.
I acknowledge that it’s a big ask for me as an Indigenous person to demand that 5 million Scottish people admit their complicity in the ongoing colonial realities of British Empire. But there were moments where I did have conversations with people. And people were amenable to, kind of, discussing those complicated relationships. And I found that really hopeful because colonialism is so paradoxical and complicated.
One thing I’m very weary of is when Scottish people talk about themselves as an ‘Indigenous’ people. The problem, as I learned through my time living there, is that this is a co-optation of the meaning of the word “Indigenous”, as it is defined by the United Nations. I was speaking to someone who said that some of the politicians promoting a pro-independence discourse deliberately strayed away from acknowledging Indigenous peoples (like me and other people from around the globe) who live in Scotland. This was deliberate because in Europe, Indigeneity has been co-opted by white supremacists, who talk about indigeneity as, you know, ‘Indigenous white people’ being impacted by non-white people moving in to their country. My understanding is that Pro-independence politicians didn’t want to invoke that scary xenophobic discourse, and I appreciate that. It’s so dangerous to conflate that white supremacist narrative so dominant in Europe at the moment with indigeneity of people who were moved out of the way and whose lands were taken and who were brutally oppressed to enable Europeans to colonize their nation. However, I hope we can some day talk about how Scots do have a reciprocal relationship to the peoples that were colonized by them—including Indigenous peoples around the globe.
Decolonization in Europe
As a Métis scholar who has lived in Europe, what was your experience of attitudes toward Indigenous people? How would you like to see those conversations going forward?
I think that some people really truly do care about the impacts that European colonialism has had on the world. I think that there are care-full and accountable people everywhere, and I don’t want to paint with too-broad brush strokes. However, in my time in Europe I had a keen experience of the disconnect between the visceral issues I see and experience and bear witness to at home—such as the direct and painful impacts of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Two Spirit People and Girls on Indigenous communities in Canada— and the way these issues are abstract, intellectual, distant in Europe. In Europe, I feel that the direct and visceral [ongoing!] colonial experiences of Indigenous peoples are attenuated by space and time. It’s so hard to convey what these violent, painful issues lived and experienced by Indigenous peoples mean, in an embodied and lived sense, to Europeans when people in Europe are not physically present in our diverse and dynamic Indigenous territories in North America to see the impacts for themselves. In that sense, I think it becomes easy to romanticize and distort the ongoing colonial experience of Indigenous peoples, to not see the harm in appropriating Indigenous material culture or legal orders or stories. Whereas in Canada there is an ongoing legal-governance conversation about Indigenous nationhood and peoplehood, about the ‘nation to nation’ relationship that was acknowledged in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples—in Europe there is none of this understanding of direct legal-governance accountability, reciprocity or indeed a very robust conversation about reconciliation (in all its nuances and complexities and problematics). So, I think that at the very least, the conversation needs to start with: colonialism is an ongoing imperative. We have ties that bind us across the ocean. Indigenous peoples are very much alive, to reference Thomas King’s (2013) work in his book The Inconvenient Indian. I get the sense that many Europeans simply assume Indigenous peoples are what King calls ‘dead Indians’ (King 2013:53) and I think that many Europeans only want to deal with the idea of Indigeneity. But, the reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.
The reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.
What could ‘decolonizing’ European activism look like?
I think it starts with dealing with the deeply rooted ideologies that Europe exported in its colonial work. In the UK, I see the suffering and class hierarchies and exploitation of the downtrodden as a harmful series of ideologies forced onto other peoples/nations/societies around the globe. I see the logics that Canada’s First Prime Minister, Glasgow-born John A. MacDonald, employed to send Indigenous children to residential school echoed in the ‘welfare’ (and that is really too generous a word for what the UK government is doing to the poor) policies of the UK government. So, for me, a ‘decolonizing’ European activism tackles the very intellectual and political and social theories and beliefs that were used to justify violence and dispossession around the world. It requires a conversation about what a generous, kind, caring governance and societal model would look like. It means stopping the needless suffering I saw in Europe—tackling the vicious anti-immigration rhetoric that pervades many European jurisdictions, tackling the angry anti-poor rhetoric used by the government. And dealing with ongoing racism in European institutions. Stuff like that. Loving accountability, if you will.
You are a prolific writer as well as an academic. How does your writing fit in with your academic pursuits? How do they compliment each other?
Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life. I also use my blog to write about things that do not directly relate to my research, so that I have a place to hold those thoughts while I work on other academic projects.
Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life.
How do ideas form that you want to write about? How do you start writing a piece, and what drives you when you write?
One of my friends noted in awe when something I wrote went viral—’you wrote that darn thing in an hour, didn’t you?’. And it’s true. I usually formulate ideas over an extended period of time, usually while I’m walking around. Walking is really important to me—it is when I sort out ideas and narratives. When I sit down to write something it’s usually already roughly planned out in my head and then I just put it to paper (or blog). I write because I want to contribute to conversations about issues that matter. I write because I want there to be a place for divergent voices. I know that quite often what I am writing wouldn’t make it through the regular channels. I love that blogs and social media are such a powerful medium for those not broadly represented in the physical make-up of the academy.
Looking to the future, what projects are you working on? Is there anything you’ve recently read that has inspired you?
I just started a tenure-track position so my current focus is on wrapping on the PhD and really digging my feet into my new role. I’m incredibly excited to start teaching. As for my work—I’m starting to plan out a new research project. I will be returning back to Alberta, to my home territory, to examine human-fish relationships there. To apply what I’ve learned to experiences and stories in my own homeland. So I am incredibly excited.
And the most recent thing I read that inspired me is Dr. Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie. It is about Indigenous women’s strength, power and resurgence. It left me awestruck.
Zoe Todd (@ZoeSTodd) (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
All photos in this article are by Aaron Vansintjan, photographed in Go Home Bay on Anishinaabe territory.
Recently Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University and director of their Food Studies program, was studying 19th century newspaper advertisements and cargo records of sailing ships in Belize—a major source of mahogany at the time. Wilk noticed that advertisements of luxury products—liqueurs, expensive fabrics, pickled oysters, and champagne—weren’t just targeted to the rich.
Those employed to cut down the lumber in the bush would often, when they received their pay and came back to port, blow all of their money on festivities and luxury products. Wilk calls this the ‘binge economy’: men who work in extractive industries, surviving on cheap rations designed to last long voyages, go on binges with their ‘mates’ whenever they get paid off.
The development of the binge economy, according to Wilk, is an extreme example of how colonialism brought about a change in both the food system and inter-personal relationships. On the one hand, a system based on preservatives, industrialized food processing, and rationing could support a large standing army without relying on pillaging. This system of rations was then extended to support a navy, and eventually a proletariat class sent to the New World, Africa and Asia to extract resources.
On the other hand, this change in how people eat food was also extremely gendered. Food systems in Western Europe were initially based on complex relationships of reciprocity and redistribution, where every member of the rural household contributed in some way to ensure an adequate diet through hunting, farming, or foraging.
But the privatization of common lands through measures like the enclosure movement that saw its greatest increase in the 18th century also caused the erosion of the availability of subsistence-based food. When land no longer became accessible to hunt or farm, masses of pauperized peasants filled the cities, uprooted from the social structuxre that previously sustained them. This led to a large surplus of labor, leading countless indebted European men to board ships, cross the ocean, and eventually work in extractive labor projects or on ships.
With the erosion of household structures and the advent of an increasingly industrialized and processed food system, these men were forced to take care of their own needs and rely on cheap and easy-to-prepare food.
Wilk’s work challenges two common arguments in today’s environmental and food movements. First, we often hear that our traditional food systems are increasingly becoming eroded. While this may be true, Wilk’s research, along with a growing field exploring the history of today’s food system, illustrates how the industrial-military food system has been a cornerstone of many traditional food systems.
Second, the idea that globalization has recently caused an unprecedented proliferation of luxury and exotic food products, allowing even lower-class Westerners to access foods originally reserved for the rich. In fact, Wilk’s research suggests that the proletariat has had access to rare luxury products from around the world for a much longer time than we often imagine. As a result we need to consider, not just the distance our food travels, but how a kind of ‘binge economy’ has been institutionalized.
In this interview, Wilk gives us a glimpse of how ‘binge economies’ can still define our lives today, and the kind of social delinking that continues to make this possible.
I read your article about the food system in extractive economies. You start the article putting it in context, saying that for people who are now working on food issues, we often hear this idea that we are erasing traditional food cultures, seasonal food cultures, but that actually if you look at the history of the food system, that argument goes way, way back.
Here’s one example. Native Americans have frybread [bannock]. No Indian festivity is complete if you don’t have frybread. It is traditional. That’s just basically taking a pork ration and rendering the fat and then taking your flour ration making dough with it and frying it. If you look into it, it’s the same food that was used to feed Native Americans when they were driven off their lands and could no longer get their own subsistence.
I think in some ways the global division of labor would not have been possible if we didn’t have cheap food. Because cheap food, as we know, enables a lot of other things. For one thing, it frees up money for people to spend on other things, but also it makes it possible to squeeze wage labor much harder than they ever had before. This idea of ‘ration’ became a substitute for a whole food system, a large complex network of different kinds of food where all kinds of collaboration and cooperation was involved. And instead they take the unit of collaboration, the household–often formed around a marriage–and they split it.
The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations. And at the same time women are flooding into the labor market and everybody is hiring them as maids… it becomes the great age of servitude. By commercializing the things that people have traditionally gotten from households and families and making them into commodities, it was possible to turn the proletariat into a new kind of market.
Now, rations make standing armies and large navies possible. It turns an army from a horde of people looting and raping through the countryside, stripping everything of food into a more disciplined group of people who are being fed by the military.
Once you’ve got cheap protein and cheap calories down, it’s possible to send men on board of ships for much longer periods of time.
What was life like for these early extractive workers?
If you’re on a work gang, or engaged in any kind of extractive industry–logging, mining, whaling, and things that are kind of like extractive industries like herding sheep and cattle on large open parts of the countryside–all of those things are men being self-sufficient, subsisting on a ration of food that doesn’t really require any elaborate cooking. And the work is inherently dangerous, and always badly paid, usually at the end of a season or a voyage.
This new food system also made people sick, which led to a huge industry making patent medicines. You know, if you think of any service that is provided by the household system, by the collaboration of men, women, children, and all the members of the household, you can see in this era, single men learning to do those sorts of things. Sailors and loggers are all learning to sew; some of them are even knitting. They washed their own clothes. They sometimes made their own clothes.
What else do you get from being in a family? You get companionship, you get sex. There’s a lot of disagreement of how much these men were having sex with each other, and amongst historians it’s kind of a volatile issue, because the absence of evidence can never give you evidence for abstinence. They get their companionship from their buddies on board the ship, and they form a very tight male grouping.
Today if you look at gangs, if you look at drinking cultures, there’s still a lot of extractive industries out there, a lot of mining and fishing. What you see is that the qualities and characteristics of masculine binge culture are still there. I think what we’ve done is kind of made it into a stage of life. In your late teens and early twenties, nobody’s expecting you to be particularly hard-working, and if you go out and binge on the weekends, you’re kind of excused. But then you’re supposed to grow up and become responsible.
Could you talk a bit about how these binge economies informed relationships between genders?
I think there’s a degree to which these binge economies nurture a kind of combative and competitive relationship between men and women. I saw this really clearly in urban Belize, where women are always trying to get men to support them, and men are always trying to get more sex while shirking their responsibility for children. So you’ve got this kind of game that goes on, which you also saw amongst loggers and miners when they were in town. When I was younger I hung around with a lot of Belizean men who talk about women in a hostile way. They have something we want, but they’re going to make me pay for it. And women say horrible things about men as well. That is not to say there are no functioning marriages and households in Belize, but infidelity is common too.
How do you think an extractive culture causes that kind of relationship to happen?
It tears people apart and makes them compete. I’m not so sure it’s just the extractive industries that cause that to happen. You see it in a very exaggerated way in extractive industries, but I think you see something similar amongst young people who are single. In the sense that they don’t belong to a household and there’s no obligatory relationship, there’s no contract. These are called “implicit contracts” … it’s an unspoken agreement that if you’re living with somebody, you’re going to be collaborating. It turns out that much of our life is guided by these implicit contracts. You raise kids, you send them through college, and then if you become destitute you expect them to help take care of you. And if you’re living without those kinds of contracts, itmakes you to do things in a very different way.
You don’t have to save money, why would you save money? The thing about extractive workers is that they did have relationships but mostly with other men, and they did not put their money together. You’d call that person your ‘mate.’ Which is interesting. And ‘mates’ would often stick together for their whole lives. Because they needed somebody they could count on and somebody they could trust. The lack of obligation helps people form binge cultures.
We were discussing the gendered nature of binge economies. How is our current food system gendered and how does that have reflections from the past food system?
At one level you have men and women often eating completely different diets. At a more global level, fast food and convenience foods mean you really don’t need a family in order to have a comfortable life. Personal independence shortens your time horizon so you’re not thinking so much about keeping your family going into the future.
If you have no reason to invest, why not spend it freely or run up debts on your credit card? If you think about how many Americans have no personal savings, it’s astounding 76% of the adults in the country don’t have anything in the bank for retirement. That’s really weird. It’s what I call a grasshopper logic rather than an ant logic. The ants are industrious and denying their immediate pleasures for the sake of the future.
Something I found interesting in your article was that you said that, on the one hand, people were reliant on these basic goods, like staples, that you can easily transport, at the same time you have these luxury food goods that also were developed and sold to the very same class that was extracting them across the world.
It’s kind of ironic.
So you have these luxury goods that are also made to be able to transport all across the world. It seems incredibly similar to what we have now. There’s this term, ‘food miles’, that people are using now to signify how the food we eat is more and more reliant on a global transportation system. But it seems at the same time that carrying exotic products on ships has always been a product of the extractive industry, except now we have even better technology to preserve those luxury products. It also seems to go against this idea that with the increase of globalization ‘everyone’ can now have these luxury goods… your work suggest that the proletarian class, especially the extractivist workers, has always been consuming these rare luxury products.
That’s such an interesting connection I had not made. The production of luxury goods was often done by those same extractive workers and slaves. The old money spent their money on giant houses; they were amassing durable things that were going to gain value over time. Whereas people with limited money often spend it on luxuries that have a short lifetime – what some call “populuxe” goods. They’re left with no value after they consume things.
When you look at the bills of lading for sailing ships, they’re carrying these rough fabrics, generic rums, barrels of flour and salted meat. They’re also carrying delicacies in little jars, liqueurs from all over Europe, and fortified wines, like Port. All over Europe there’s the beginnings of a popular luxury trade. They were bringing in processed foods like olives, salted tongue, cornichons. It wasn’t just the local elite that was consuming this. In Belize, when the mahogany workers who just came in from working in the bush got paid, luxuries meant a great deal to them. This is a point that I’m constantly having to make to people. People think that poor people don’t, or shouldn’t, buy expensive things. And the thing is that if you’re poor, luxury is much more meaningful than if you’re rich. If you’re rich, you have luxury all the time. It’s poor people who have to work and scrimp and save to have a big steak dinner. For those people it really means something to have a fancy meal.
During the gold rush merchants would haul these wagons full of ice imported from Alaska, oysters from the Pacific Northwest, champagne from France, and they’d carry it up the Sierra because if you struck gold you were going to take all your buddies and have champagne and oysters, and food cooked by a real French chef.
We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you.
How do you see the food system that was developed in colonialism reflected today? And how has it changed since then?
Something that I’ve been looking at in the last couple of years is that extractive industries had a tendency to destroy resources. They killed almost all the whales. Sometimes a whole industry would grow based on something like herring, but then the herring would disappear or move somewhere else. At the other end, because of fashion tastes are changing all the time. People who were hunting for alligators to make alligator-skin bags might be out of work 10 years later because tastes changed in Paris.
It’s similar now, but it’s just become more spatially dispersed and complicated. We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you. If you seek to go behind the brand and find out where things are really made, it’s really hard to find information.
Richard Wilk is the director of the Food Studies Program in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on consumer culture, past and present; gender; households; and the food culture in Belize. He has written over 140 papers and book chapters, demonstrating his ability to deftly weave together varying and complex issues—such as energy use, mass media, and local food movements—in a lucid, careful, and engaging manner.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change in Barcelona, Spain. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.