Political Ecology

Santos-Granero, Fernando, and Frederica Barclay. Ordenes y desórdenes en la Selva Central: historia y economía de un espacio regional. Instituto de Estudios Andinos, 1995.

Federica Barclay and Fernando Santos Granero treat the Selva Central provinces of Chanchamayo, Satipo and Oxapampa as constituting a “regional space” subject to the constant ordering and disordering of its ebb and flow from the influence of coastal and highland markets. Using cadastral data on tenurial regimes and land use, Barclay and Santos argued that production of export-oriented crops—namely coffee and fruits—operated as a model for increasing waves of migrants despite the fact it was often done on unsuitable land slated for other extractive pursuits like logging. For Barclay and Santos, deforestation in the Selva Central was the product of the region’s unruly status as hinterland, where extraction and demographic pressure met with ecologically sensitive lands with disastrous consequences. As but one example of the devastating effects of road colonization, Barclay and Santos analyzed SAN photographs from the Kivanaki region of the Perené Valley. They concluded that between the years 1977 and 1983—while La Marginal was in construction through the area—annual deforestation rates rose to more than twelve percent of the land surface. (229-247)

Martinez-Alier, Joan. “Ecology and the Poor: A Neglected Dimension of Latin American History.” Journal of Latin American Studies 23, no. 3 (October 1, 1991): 621–639.

After having read the The Environmentalism of the Poor the theoretical contribution of this essay seems repetitive. The argument in favor of ecological economics and the need for an historiography of political ecological economy in Latin America are covered in substantial detail in that book, so I would argue that the benefit of this article comes from the brief empirical accounts it deals with and the identification of historiographical holes that could be filled with an ecological economic approach.

In the opening sections Martínez-Alier defines the ecology of the poor, admitting that poverty does contribute to environmental degradation (interestingly he cites the consumption of crop seeds, negating the possibility of future production, as an extreme example; what about short-fallow-period swidden ag?), but not to anywhere near the same extent as affluence. Framing things in market terms, he argues that social movements that defend the survival of tribal, peasant or urban poor economies often assert a conservation agenda, though it may not have been explicitly stated. (Folchi, of course takes issue with this being unique to the poor.) Thus, by challenging export-oriented resource depletion, he argues, social movements of the poor contribute to the internalization of externalities. (622)

Two important and interwoven cases in which a socio-political consciousness did not result from ecological exploitation are those of guano extraction (1840-1880) and fishmeal production around 1970.

In his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” Carl Sauer launched an impassioned appeal for geographers to return to a classical phenomenological approach to areal study. In the wake of nineteenth-century positivist specialization, in which the natural sciences became a stand-in for chorology and geography, and causality was reduced to a simplistic environmental determinism, Sauer questioned the very essence of his field. Arguing for more integrated, social science-based approaches to geography, he stressed that landscape be treated as both a natural and cultural phenomenon. He lamented the degree to which the natural sciences of geomorphology and physiography had penetrated his field and in response he advocated a static treatment of landscape. For Sauer, landscape was seen as defining the range of possibilities for historical succession, but as far as he was concerned causality and change with time came from cultural processes, not natural ones.[1]

Sawyer, Suzana. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Discussions I’ve had about this book tend to orbit around how bad it is. I don't think it is that bad, but I do see some shortcomings. So rather than simply summarize it, as I would usually do in a post like this, I want to examine a few of its strengths and weaknesses.

I think that as a study of environmental justice its merit lies in the idea that Sawyer develops of the mosaic of alternative nationalisms that are at play in the OPIP struggle against Texaco and an Ecuadorian state that increasingly abandoned its representative role and took on the role of fiscal manager. I think that her analysis of Oswaldo Guayasamin’s mosaic in the presidential palace becomes her metaphor for the idea of plurinational space that was espoused by the indigenous movement in Ecuador (and I would say uncritically embraced by Sawyer). Yet unsurprisingly, Sawyer’s personal commitment to the indigenous struggle poses a problem for her critical engagement with important concepts at play. I think is is very difficult—and commendable—to tread that thin line between political commitment and scholarly distance, but it will almost inevitably raise critical concerns.

For instance, Sawyer fails to problematize race. Sundberg has struggled to point out how Latin American environmental justice literature has failed to look critically at race and I think Crude Chronicles is a case in point. While Sawyer does take race as something that is constituted and masked through official spatial discourses, what she centers on is the negation of identity (50-51).

Folchi, M.

Folchi, M.  “Conflictos de Contenido Ambiental y ecologismo de los pobres: no siempre pobres, ni siempre ecologistasEcología Política No. 22, Ed. Icaria, (2001) pp. 79-100.

In this piece Folchi takes on the prevailing tenets marking the “environmentalism of the poor” frame, especially as Chile is concerned. He begins with a brief literature review in which he demonstrates the tendency of the ecologismo de los pobres school to locate the origin of Chilean environmental conflicts at the shift to the neoliberal model ushered in under Pinochet. Folchi argues that these studies neglect: 1) the long history of environmental conflict that goes back far beyond the 1973 coup; 2) the “ideological impurity” of many so-called environmentalist mobilizations (here he weaves ecological concerns into a fabric of social, material and traditional issues); and 3) the fact that environmental conflict can be generated by any kind of transformation, not necessarily degradation.

Under the Hapsburgs, the “common” status of the palma chilena was often a source of heated conflict that forced the colonial administration to choose between community access and the private property rights of landowners.

For instance, conflicts over fuel wood in early republican Chile were often played out between mine owners and hacendados, The issue over prohibition of the fraguas—or artisanal foundries—in mid-nineteenth century Santiago was one in which the poor artisans fought to continue contaminating the city’s air.

A community fought to get legislation passed that would regulate containment standards and require the neutralization of relaves de cobre to avoid toxic spills.
Environmental tension (tensión ambiental), to overcome Manichean approaches, and conflicts of an environmental nature (conflictos de contenido ambiental) to avoid the implication that tensions arise from a strict ideological defense of nature.

Asdal, Kristin.

Asdal, Kristin. “The Problematic Nature of Nature: The Post-Constructivist Challenge to Environmental History.” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003): 60-74.

Asdal is advancing a post-constructivist, value-nuanced conception of science that confronts the subject-object dichotomy. By raising the question of “which nature and which conceptions of science should be brought in?” (61) she challenges the foundation of environmental history in the natural sciences.

To begin she lays out what I think is a false dichotomy. She opposes Donald Worster—supposedly deeply rooted in a baseline notion of nature—with Anna Bramwell, whose work is used as representative of a camp that holds all ecology to be the product of culture. Worster is held up as the posterchild for natural science-based environmental history. The problem is I don’t think that Worster does represent such a natural science-based pole. He pays a lot of attention to the significance of discourse. Asdal, in trying to pose a critique of Worster, makes the point that ecology itself has a history. (63) Yet that history was told by Worster himself in a book that Asdal writes off as inconsequential and no longer representative of his views: Nature’s Economy. Instead she resorts to two articles—one in an undergraduate textbook—as indicative of his work.  

I’ve harped so much on this introductory section because Asdal needn’t have wasted so much time building this dichotomy simply to place Haraway and Latour in the middle of it, as neither treating nature as the positive base, nor an entirely ideological construction. This is a review of Haraway and Latour and she could have just set it up as such, without resorting to caricatures.

Martínez-Alier, Joan

Martínez-Alier, Joan. The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2002.

For Martínez-Alier it all seems to boil down to a kind of economic determinism. That is, for him the incommensurability of natural capital seems to be at the end of his chain of analysis. He draws a lot from Otto Neurath’s theory of incommensurability to fuel ecological economics (this echoes the view already established in "From Political Economy to Political Ecology," and explains the notion that the environmentalism of the poor may be considered a new form of class struggle in Guha). Ecological economics focuses on problems of ‘taking Nature into account,’ (i.e. the valuation of natural capital). Given the incommensurability of resources, monetization (or valuation in general) of natural capital inevitably leaves externalities. It is in the space of externalities, the question of who pays those costs, where political ecology emerges to study ecological distribution conflicts.
The way Martínez-Alier ties political ecology to ecological economics has its worth in that it foregrounds the question of “who has the power to impose particular languages of valuation.” However, I do not see much emphasis on the process by which that power is constituted.

Hvalkof, Soren.

Hvalkof, Soren. “Outrage in Rubber and Oil: Extractivism, Indigenous Peoples, and Justice in the Upper Amazon.” In Charles Zerner, ed. People, Plants, and Justice: The Politics of Nature Conservation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. pp. 83-117

Perhaps one of the more conventional works of this volume, “Outrage in Rubber and Oil,” suggests a continuity of injustice that straddles the temporal boundaries of successive export booms in the Upper Amazon. I say conventional because in the end it posits collective land title as the “key to control” (106), a crucial mechanism by which indigenous peoples can transcend debt bondage. In this sense he reiterates the conclusions of most who deal with the region (Varese, Chirif, García, Gray, etc.) without acknowledging the myriad nuanced ways that tenure can give rise to other sets of problems (see Sawyer chapter 1, García and Chirif, or the critique Benavides and Chirif make of the De Soto brand of tenure). Morover, Ribot’s piece in this same volume shows how property rights do not necessarily translate into justice.

Hvalkof opens with a vignette of Siona Indians of Puerto Bolívar (Ecuador) resisting the arrival of Chinese oil company. He explains how the Siona political awakening was nourished in two major ways: their struggle with the administrators of the Faunistic Reserve of Cuyabeno brought them together in a collective effort to delineate their territory and marked yet another crucial moment in their struggle against extractive activities, as immediately after signing a treaty with INEFAN in 1995 INEFAN turned around and granted an oil concession on newly legalized Siona land. Hvalkof uses this story and a conversation with locals to demonstrate the continuity of experience that Cuyabeno area Indigenous have had with extractive activities since the seventeenth century.