Panel 8: Indigeneity and Extraction

Hilary Faxon, Cornell University, (chair)

Abstract: Walking the Line: a digital political ecology of Myanmar’s ethnic territory

Territorialization today occurs not only in government offices, paddy fields, and beer halls, but also across virtual worlds. Scholars have examined the production of ethnic territory in relation to historical state policies and new neoliberal governance regimes, but paid less attention to how increasing mobility and connectivity shape these processes. This paper examines these processes in Kalay valley, an agricultural frontier and ethnic confluence in Northwestern Myanmar that holds disputed borders between India, the ethnic minority Chin State and the lowland Burman Sagaing Division. By historicizing settlement patterns and tracing contemporary boundary debates, I investigate the relationships between environmental change, ethnic politics, and digital media. In doing so, I argue for understanding the production of territory as a set of interlinked political, ecological and virtual processes, and highlight how what happens online is increasingly important to the land control. Drawing on oral histories, document and map review, I first consider how colonial and socialist policies shaped land use and control in the valley. Over 150 years, migrant populations and military troops cut teak, planted rice, and laid claim to state forests, agri-business plantations, trade posts and religious sites. This political ecology shapes contemporary debates over Chin and Burman territory, which are entangled in the country’s aspirational transformation from authoritarian rule to democratic federalism. I then draw on ongoing ethnographic work to ask how contemporary boundary debates are articulated, and what is at stake for farmers, political leaders, and members of a growing global diaspora who call this place home. By exploring how Facebook and other digital tools allow new collective imaginations of territory alongside an examination of the valley’s socioenvironmental history, I show how land remains a persistent source and symbol of ethnic difference across interlinked physical, political, and, increasingly, digital terrains.

Sophie Pascoe, University of Melbourne,

Abstract: Frictions and Inequalities Around Rendering Technical Land and Trees in Suau, Papua New Guinea

Environmental governance regimes render technical land and trees to recognise and exclude certain forest uses and users. Processes of rendering technical, including making landownership static and inscribing boundaries around land and trees, generate frictions between different ways of being and knowing and reproduce livelihood inequalities. This paper focuses on how land and trees are rendered technical in the Central Suau REDD+ Pilot Project and the Cool Earth conservation project in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Such environmental governance regimes use tools like Incorporated Land Groups (ILGs), maps, satellite imagery and GPS to define legitimate and illegitimate landowners and land use practices. Through ethnographic fieldwork, this paper explores how people in Suau perceive and enact their environments to complicate the flattening and bounding of land and trees in environmental governance regimes. In Suau, customary land tenure systems and land use patterns are complex, contested and contextual – the environment comes into being through relations between people, land, trees, sorcery and death. This relational way of being and knowing is increasingly excluded, however, by more categorical frames that cannot account for the ways that people in Suau use and engage with their land and trees. The increasing fixity and rigidness of landownership and land use under environmental governance regimes undermines relational sociality and threatens fluid matrilineal land tenure systems. As people in Suau depend heavily on subsistence agriculture, processes of excluding certain people, limiting claims to landownership and restricting land use can produce significant livelihood implications and inequalities.

Cameo Dalley, Deakin University,

Abstract: Encounters in the Death Space: Cattle, Capitalism and Indigeneity in Remote Northern Australia

Drawing on research undertaken on a remote Aboriginal pastoral station (the Station) in northwest Australia, this article explores the encounters and after-effects of the arrival of a new form of expansive capitalism (agribusiness). In a region all but abandoned by traditional forms of state support, the gloss of the neoliberal capitalist ideal is the empowerment of a small group of emplaced but hyper-marginal Ngarinyin Aboriginal people, through the provision of capacity and resources by a powerful Aboriginal company. However, the promise of empowerment hides the predatory nature of the encounter and the lateral structural violence that it entails. This structural violence is propelled by what Amit (2015) calls ‘exceptional disjunctures’, which here I take to be moments that punctuate the social fabric of pre-existing forms of indigeneity. As a means of understanding the predatory practices on which a space of terror was created at the Station, the death of a central figure in the local Ngarinyin community, the perceived torture and senseless burning of cattle and the use of force to occupy land are considered. These apocalyptic scenes become enmeshed with Ngarinyin people’s visions of the development and capitalism, but also entangled with emergent forms of indigeneity that arise out of the dislocation and mobility of Aboriginal persons from land. Here the ‘death space’, to borrow Taussig’s (1987) notion, is not only occupied by the colonial settler-state, but also by Aboriginal people and Aboriginal organisations themselves. The impacts of encounters in this space are compound in that they involve the wresting of land, and the control of commodities (cattle) away from a small group of people who have had their rights recognised through successive legal processes. What is at risk in these encounters then is the expansion of hyper-marginality via the diminishment of claims to particularised forms of autochthonous identity. The paper follows Taussig’s (1987:5) call to ‘think- through-terror, where as well as being a physiological state [it] is also a social one’.

Diego Melo, University of Colorado,

Abstract: “Rights of Nature” in Colombia: Legal personhood of rivers and rainforests caught between extractivism and geo-ontology

While constitutional assemblies were effective in codifying the “Rights of Nature” in Ecuador and Bolivia in the late 2000s, since 2015 environmental litigation has been the primary mechanism to this effect in New Zealand, India and Colombia. In Colombia, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Justice granted legal standing to the Atrato River (2016) and the Amazon Region (2018) in response to lawsuits from grassroots social movements and environmental justice NGOs. In a country highly praised for its progressive jurisprudence, but also questioned for the large number of killings of environmental rights defenders, how can we make sense of these emerging “Rights of Nature”? The paper begins with a critical overview of the multiple discourses surrounding the “Rights of Nature,” arguing that legal innovations cannot be detached from the historical conjunctures from which they emerge and the specific actors involved in their mobilization. The conjunctural analysis frames the “Rights of Nature” as an emerging type of development discourse, in which the material interests of states, corporations, academics and NGOs give currency to the idea of “more-than-human” rights in order to advance their views about environmental governance. This includes the legal personhood of rivers and rainforests, as well as the (a)political ecology of alluvial gold mining and deforestation. The empirical evidence draws from the author’s participant observation in one of the cases, the two court rulings, the two lawsuits, and interviews with practitioners actively involved in the implementation process of both rulings. The main argument is that the “Rights of Nature” are vectors of nation-state territorialization rather than epistemological ruptures in the way legal discourse understands the world. In that light, “Rights of Nature” are uncomfortably squeezed between extractivism and geo-ontology (Povinelli, 2016): environmental governance seeks to extend neoliberal extractive activities using the logic and political technologies of late liberalism. 

Elisa Maria Lopez, Uppsala University,

Abstract: The Politics of Snow: Contested natures, indigeneity, and the production of space in the Swedish Ore Fields

Extractive industries have long played key roles in the articulation of advocates and activists as political actors in resource conflicts (Kirsch 2014, Golub 2014). In Sweden’s largest active mining region, the northern Ore Fields, overlapping national interests (Riksintressen), including mining, indigenous Sami reindeer herding, and outdoor recreation become sites of encounter and conflict. In this paper, I examine how local ethnopolitics underpinned by the presence of the mining industry are being articulated through the ongoing conflict over snowmobiles in the subarctic alpine mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes of Kiruna Municipality. Both tools for Sami reindeer herding and the non-indigenous recreation of highly paid mine workers, each spring the prohibition of their recreational use - intended to protect newly born reindeer calves - generate vicious conflicts, as non-Sami residents attack Sami indigenous authenticity (Raibmon 2005), and rights to land as violations of contemporary Swedish moral value of equality as sameness (Mack 2018). This paper, therefore, examines indigenous articulations of the snowmobile conflict and Kiruna Municipality’s policy responses as claims and counterclaims to the social production of space (Lefebvre [1974] 1991), nature (Smith 2010), and territory in a part of the world seen as one of the last global frontiers remaining (Haley, Klick, Szymoniak, et al. 201), and where, in the words of my indigenous interlocutors, “snow is a resource”.