ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Anthropological knowledge, technologies and the critical analysis of contemporary rural transformations in Latin America

Contact Convenor: John Gledhill

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester, M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 3998

Panel abstract

The analyses offered in this panel draw on case studies from Latin America that reflect a range of contemporary social struggles over the future of rural spaces and the local and global forces which are shaping contemporary developments. They include discussion of issues that are particularly associated with indigenous communities which now find themselves negotiating relations with a variety of external actors ranging from transnational biotechnology companies to a plethora of conservationist NGOs in addition to agencies of national states, through non-indigenous peasantries transformed by the appearance of low-wage domestic industries and extensive migration to the United States, to ‘post-peasant’ projects of reconstructing small-farmer communities equipped to survive under conditions of globalization through the re-ruralisation of people born in cities. Some of the contributions focus directly on the role of anthropological knowledge in the politics of these situations, discussing both its appropriation by grassroots movements and its deployment (or non-deployment) in public debates by other actors, including state actors. Others focus on the responses of local groups to various kinds of global forces, including the transnational agro-food and biotech complexes, the heritage and conservation industries, and NGOs that promote alternative development projects. In surveying a broad range of highly contradictory and often paradoxical situations, the papers highlight the continuing value of ethnographic research sustained by critical and self-critical perspectives on the kind of anthropology that can meet the challenges of confronting such situations and the ways in which they are represented by other actors, analytically and politically.

Chiapas: anthropology and political imagery in Mexico

José Luis Escalona Victoria, Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas

For Mexican social scientists it has been highly difficult to grasp totally the unexpected and extremely uneven social transformation that has taken place in Chiapas throughout the twentieth century. I argue that this reflects the long-term influence and legacy of the indigenismo policy in Mexico, a central element in the nation-formation process, and of the impact of the knowledge-claims made by social scientists in such a political milieu. The idea of the nation being conformed by two separated cultures and hence the necessity of an “integration” process, or the conformation of a “multicultural nation” in the most recent indigenist perspective, has shaped anthropological studies over an extended period. As indigenismo has so powerfully influenced political thought as well as scientific effort in Mexico along with other Latin-American countries, the latest social science has vacillated between, on the one hand, an updating of the indigenists ideas about culture and social organization, albeit reinterpreted, and, on the other hand, an insightful criticism of the way such ideas are still embedded in the scientific perspective. Anthropological perspectives on Chiapas at the end of the twentieth century have continued to express this vacillating movement very clearly, in the course of efforts to explore and understand the current social and political transformations. The paper documents the way these changes have affected anthropological views and models, arguing that this scientific questioning could and should be highly relevant in politics, since such a revision has radical implications for the central bases of national political imagery.

Contested representations: the case of Mexican migrant workers in the US

Eva Villalón-Soler

This presentation is based on part of the findings of the fieldwork for my PhD thesis, for which I worked with people from the town and rancherías of Moroleón, Guanajuato, whose lives span the Mexico- US border. Fieldwork was conducted from September 2000 to December 2001, both in Mexico and the Southeast corner of Pennsylvania in the US, where many people from Moroleón live and work. The rapid growth of the migrant population and several sparks of labour movements in this area of Pennsylvania are two of the factors that have caught the attention of many social scientists, local media, social workers, labour advocates, religious groups and NGO’s of diverse political stances, which include claims of ‘neutrality’. All of the latter have had a role in representing Mexican migrant workers, albeit in many different ways and with different implications as their voices are embedded in wider power relationships. In the context of the labour struggle, where categories of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are entangled in ‘class’ and ‘membership’ inequalities, representations of Mexican migrant workers as deserving or undeserving ‘others’ are a ground for contestation between workers and employers. Furthermore, migrants who have chosen to remain outside such struggles or are depoliticised, are also faced with their many representations, when, for example, they are criminalized for being undocumented. The paper analyses these multiple and contested representations and the ways in which they are experienced and re-invented, appropriated or contested by Mexican migrants in the search of a dignified social position for themselves in the US in this particular case. I will also try to evaluate the extent and limits of the influence of social sciences and the media in the dialogue between Mexican migrants and other social actors and between migrants themselves.

Appropriated Technology and its use in sustainable development projects in Chiapas

Niels Barmeyer

The contents of this presentation are based on my 2000-2002 fieldwork in various Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico where I participated as a volunteer worker in two NGOs which have specialised on "water projects". These water projects consist in the construction of drinking water systems in rural communities with the active participation of the local population. The guiding philosophy behind these projects goes by the name of "Appropriated Technology" (AT). This term refers both to the type of system to be built  and the kinds of materials that are used in the construction as well as to a philosophy of sustainability characterising the NGOs' approach to development. Thus, AT aims at improving peoples lives and environments employing technologies and techniques on a low budget with locally available materials.  AT is defined as reducing the amount of hard work and long hours of manual labour needed for life-sustaining tasks. AT projects range from fuel-efficient stoves saving precious forestlands, sand filtration to purify water, compost latrines and drinking water systems operating with the force of gravitational pull.

In theory, AT is community-initiated and -controlled, collectively run, participatory, small-scale, easily replicated, and low-cost. Existing skills and knowledge of the local community are incorporated into the training in order to foster self-reliance, local autonomy and community initiative. In my presentation I will try to evaluate the results of AT NGO involvement in rebel controlled territory reflecting both on the successes of non-commercial knowledge and technology transfer as well as on the effects of outside input in remote rural and indigenous communities, albeit the "sustainable", "gentle" and "community-controlled" one of AT projects.  

Social noise: within the social web of cooption, cooperation and exclusion

Maria Sanchez Vazquez, University of Manchester & and Roberto Melville, CIESAS Mexico

From an ethnographic description this paper will explore how people hindered in the advance of techno-scientific projects interact and articulate social relations of exclusion and inclusion. Our case is the construction of the first radio telescope in Mexico (1998-2002). We will disentangle the ideas and worries that the development of a techno-scientific site and a protected natural area raised for astronomers, peasants and statesmen. Cautious speeches, individual interests, and a constant threat of manipulation defined a new arena of negotiation of social relationships. As understood by the participants, the advancement of science needed consent and cooperation but it did not secure local development. New relations were defined, marginal groups became central, low economic layers found ways to go up, politicians legitimised their role and their dominating tasks by means of using science. Here we will show how this new relatedness, in an environment of inescapable social change, raised awareness of exclusion, cooperation and cooption, and how tactics of inclusion were re/defined over prevalent structures. This paper will explain why exclusion or cooption do not derive mechanically from authority or influence; rather they are the result of certain abilities of human agency.

Do scientists get what they expect from the anthropologists they consult on sustainable development projects? Some experiences from Uruguay

Javier Taks, Universidad de la República, Uruguay

Since the Rio Summit in 1992, public and private organizations have agreed to work towards sustainable development, whatever it might mean. In this context, anthropologists have been called to work in multidisciplinary research-teams in Latin America and elsewhere. These research-teams are normally led by natural scientists, who ask anthropologists to explain such matters as (indigenous) peoples’ representations of the environment; to mediate between the project proponent and the public; and to identify cultural heritage to be preserved. Drawing on three experiences from Uruguay -- the Environmental Issues University Network; a rural extension project among family dairy farmers; and a E.U. co-operation project on navigation -- this paper aims to show that anthropological knowledge is recognised as valuable for sustainable development only so far as anthropologists do not contest the traditional divide between natural (material) and social (symbolic) realms. Anthropologists are not expected to include “scientists” as part of the social domain to be studied. In other words, anthropologists are expected to reproduce the most negative aspects of the practice of anthropology in the 20th Century: idealism and the constitution of the primitive Other vis-à-vis scientific knowledge. In the final section, this paper attempts to present a few guide-lines for escaping from this division of scientific work and evaluates the potential contribution of a different kind of anthropological knowledge to rural sustainability.

Popular perceptions on agrotechonology and peasant autonomy in a land reform settlement in the Brazilian northeast

Elena Calvo-Gonzalez

This paper examines the discourses and practices surrounding agrotechnology (AGT)(particularly the use of pesticides and genetically modified inputs) in a land reform settlement in the Brazilian Northeast. Settlers regard AGT partly as a threat that erodes their peasant autonomy, since it is seen as increasing their dependence on outside agricultural inputs, and as such is considered as part of the set of practices that power from above (Government officials, agronomists, output buyers) imposes on them. However, they also consider and make use of AGT as a way to supply the market with the products that it demands, and therefore as part of their strategy to introduce themselves as successfully as possible into local markets. Although the discourses that the settlers employ against AGT might seem at first glance to contradict their practices, I argue that this inconsistency is part of their process of re-working themselves from semi-urban dwellers into small-scale farmers, and that the contradiction arises out of their need to produce commercially and not only to cover their subsistence needs. Their re-conversion into small-scale farmers is partly self-justified as a way to avoid the uncertainties that surround city life. AGTs on the one hand provide them with more marketable products and as such are considered by the settlers as reducing the uncertainty they experienced in the cities of depending solely on the earnings from precarious employments to provide for the household. On the other hand AGTs are seen as increasing the uncertainty regarding the “safeness” of the foodstuffs they consume, seen as one of the drawbacks of city life, that of having to rely on others to produce their foodstuffs. Settlers frame AGTs as threatening to their health, in a way that links their bodies to their ideas about power and autonomy. The settlers aim to maintain their sense of “peasantness” and the social autonomy they associate with it by producing a set of separate crops for their own consumption, in which a minimum AGT inputs are used.

Conservation, people and plans: local participation in the elaboration of management plans for protected areas in the Lacandón Rainforest, Chiapas, Mexico

Tim Trench, University of Manchester

The protection of the remaining tree cover in the Lacandón Rainforest of southeastern México is a national and international conservation priority.  The region has two biosphere reserves and a number of other protected areas, but all of these reserves except one still lack management plans that identify environmental threats and specify the activities permitted. In some cases, institutional rivalries or local resistance have hampered the elaboration of these plans. Recently, however, international agencies such as Conservation International, USAID and the World Monuments Fund, have begun to sponsor workshops in the region that hope to give local inhabitants the necessary tools to participate in the definition of these management plans. Whilst such local participation can offer a formal space for the negotiation of elements of these regulatory mechanisms, it is also clear that there exist  differences of interests with regards to the use of these protected areas and the best ways to conserve them.

This presentation will use ethnographic material from a series of workshops dedicated to the formulation of management plans for two reserves, one of which protects a famous archaeological site and the other being a protected area created by the community itself. These encounters between international conservation agencies can be understood as interfaces between the science of conservation biology (in its many guises), international biostrategic interests and the concerns of semi-subsistence agriculturists. This analysis will concentrate on differential understandings of ecology, environmental risk and sustainable use.

Cultural brokers or “organic” intellectuals? The role of bilingual indigenous schoolteachers in contemporary rural conflict and change in the Tila Lowlands, Chiapas

Alejandro Agudo-Sanchiz

To understand contemporary rural transformations in northern Chiapas we need more than just looking at the consequences of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. The rebellion was a dramatic episode of Chiapas’s enduring agrarian and political crisis, which constituted the background of the factionalism and violence recently sweeping the hinterland of Tila municipality. Yet local conflict cannot be properly explained without examining both the intra- and inter-ethnic relations that underlie group formation. Bilingual schoolteachers have played a central role in such relations, often leading and mobilising support for opposing political organizations.

This paper will focus on the trajectories of some experienced teachers who, in the early 1970s, started their careers as “bilingual cultural promoters” in rural communities in Tila. By closely examining their antecedents, I hope to show that – alongside different personal and family circumstances – it is their understanding of the type of ideology, external agents, and institutions to which they were exposed in their youth that determined the contrasting political choices they made in subsequent years. My aim here is to go beyond the view of indigenous schoolteachers as “brokers” acting as agents of articulation with penetrating state institutions. The often unforeseen consequences of governmental policies at the local level point to a more complex picture in which mobilizations fostered by teachers, even when following institutional channels, have gained a different impulse by fostering the appearance of new leaders and types of discourse. In this sense, the teacher is also a figure of ideological vanguard capable of giving homogeneity to his own group, clearly expressing the reasons for adhering to such group – or for opposing others – and making its members aware of their socioeconomic function. What is in turn needed is to understand both the precise ways in which teachers articulate to people in their communities and their external connections and militancy in broader movements.