This juicy news summary from the Guardian may be the least accurate thing you will ever read about quinoa in Bolivia: “Bolivian and Peruvian farmers sell entire crop to meet rising western demand, sparking fears of malnutrition.” Here’s why:

  • Quinoa farmers (a tiny regionally concentrated minority of Bolivian farmers) have traditionally and continue to set aside a percentage of their quinoa crops for personal use. If they are consuming any less, it’s because they can now afford to buy more fruit and meat than ever before. Source: Los Tiempos, June 2012.
  • Despite the #QuinoaGuilt narrative that “Fewer Bolivians can afford it,” domestic consumption of quinoa in Bolivia tripled in the four years to 2012  Source: La Razón.  Consumption in 2013 was even higher, up by 66%, to 20,000 metric tons due to heavy investment and promotion. Source: La Razón. Bolivian urbanites are eating more quinoa because of diminished stigma around it being an “Indian food.”
  • The government is actively promoting quinoa consumption among the poor, by including it in pre-natal nutrition and school lunch programs.
  • Prices in the domestic market are a public policy issue, prompting government investment to increase supply, as well as the free distribution programs mentioned above. While prices continued to rise in 2013, they hope the much larger cultivation area will lower prices this year.
  • Extreme poverty has plummeted from 38% to 22% of the Bolivian population. Heavy malnutrition once affected 32.7%, but not it affects 24%. Source: La Prensa and the FAO. These gains are driven by faster growth and stronger redistribution of wealth.
  • Compared with other major export crops, quinoa production is carried out by smaller, more sustainable farmers whose lives are more improved by the increased income. These small farmers’ associations capture more of the sale price than do farmers in more mechanized sectors like soybeans and oils.

See also: Further information from the Andean Information Network.

 

In the second week of February, the federation of street vendors (or Gremialistas, which literally means “guild members”) in Bolivia’s capital La Paz carried out a brief campaign against a street redesign project that would rework the busy intersection known as the Garita de Lima. In the course of this struggle, elderly vendor Teodora Velasco de Quispe died.

The Garita de Lima is a congested intersection in central La Paz (a photo search for the site yields an image titled “vehicular chaos”). It’s also a workplace: over 200 people sell food and goods from stalls on the sidewalks, streets, and central island, while the municipality counts 299 different transport routes, most of them served by vans or small buses, that pass through the intersection. Under two administrations led by a center-left political party, the La Paz municipality has combined  concrete, traffic engineers, architects, and savvy searching for funds to solve “problems” like the Garita de Lima. Their proposed redesign continues this strategy, remaking the current oval into a bridge between two plazas. The logic of the redesign is simple and clear: reduce travel delays and uncontrolled pedestrians crossing into the street while maximizing public space. To do this, they used the vertical dimension for crossovers while expanding open space horizontally.

Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia

Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia

The gremialistas are one of hundreds of sectoral organizations in La Paz. A trade unions for workers without an employer, they mobilize collectively in much the same way a union does, although they must use vigils, shop closures, blockades, and building takeovers where employees could use strikes and pickets. Solidarity and compulsory collective action are the backbone of their influence. The ghostly absence of their working-class presence—the tarps they string up, the blankets they sit on, their large pleated skirts, and gregariously space-taking bodies —from the architectural rendering shows the social distance that separates them from those who organized the project. Like many poor Bolivians, the gremialistas are accustomed to fighting for the marginal space on which they eke out their living. No wonder that they looked at this project with suspicion. As organizer Julia Manuela Hilarión said, “It is by fighitng that we have won our vending posts and now we are surprised that they are kicking us out of this place. [Luchando hemos conseguido nuestros puestos de venta y ahora nos dan esta sorpresa en la que nos están botando del lugar].”

On February 11, over a hundred vendors protested outside City Hall. They vowed, as per Bolivian tradition, to “go forward unto to the final consequences” in their protest, and put forward the maximum demands as their first bargaining position: no seller should be moved from her (or his) post. A conflict broke out with the local neighborhood association, who requested and backed the project; the local neighborhood association leader was injured. Vendors put up signs rejecting the project and sellers went on hunger strike at their posts. One of them was Teodora Velasco de Quispe. Early on the morning of February 13, she died of a heart attack.

Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)

Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)

Fourteen associations of gremialistas from across La Paz marched on City Hall, carrying forward the struggle and memorializing Teodora Velasco (video). Forty of them began a sit-in demanding negotations with the municipality. Some city officials were unable to leave and pledged they wouldn’t hold talks under such pressure. Nonetheless, four days later they met with Mayor Luis Revilla himself. He pledged none of them would lose the ability to sell in the zone, and the city’s markets coordinator offered to explain the logistics involved. They also agreed to a new process of public comment (or “socialization”) of the project before it was implemented.

This is not the first such project to occasion temporary displacement of vendors in La Paz, or to cause them to fear for their livelihoods. Two downtown markets (the Central and Camacho markets) were built in the last decade, both bringing about conflicts and city-funded temporary housing for shops during construction. These experiences do not seem to have made the city sufficiently proactive or the vendors more patient or less strident in their initial demands. Even now, their opposition to the new Garita de Lima has not been dropped, although history suggests they will get along with the planners and reopen for business during and after construction.

Was Teodora Velasco de Quispe’s death necessary? Almost certainly not. The question of who is responsible for this loss is more complex. Her passing in the middle of the night is one of a significant number of deaths that accompany Bolivian protest without being caused by violent or consciously lethal actions, but which are nonetheless an inseparable part of protesters’ experience. Others have started vigils and marches their bodies were not prepared to survive, or been trapped on the wrong side of a blockade from the medical assistance they needed, or died of cold, exposure, or disease while their community was mobilizing. Such losses of human life stand alongside deaths that provoke outrage and generate cries for official investigations. They do, however, galvanize the commitment of those who lived and struggled beside them. Almost like martyrs, but different, the burden of their deaths is carried by their comrades who struggle on.

This is an expanded and hyperlinked version of an article I contributed to Bolivia Information Forum’s News Briefing service. Please support BIF’s appeal for funds to continue its valuable work.

Bolivia’s record on human rights came up for review by the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee* during its October session. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Bolivia submits a report on its performance every five years. The Committee looked at that report and submissions from numerous human rights organizations in drafting a series of recommendations (Concluding Observations [es] | all documents from the process). In the UN committee’s view, the state of political freedom and social equality in the country is an uneasy balance between ambitious new legislative protections and inadequate practical implementation of national and international norms.

The Bolivian government has passed new laws to guarantee rights and combat discrimination, including norms against racism and other forms of discrimination (2010), violence against women (2013), and gendered political harassment (2012). While some regional commissions on racism are operating, the regulations to protect women from violence are still pending. A law on consultation with indigenous communities is also pending. The Committee criticized Bolivia for failing to respect the right to free, prior, and informed consent on projects and laws that affect indigenous peoples and their territories.

The Committee’s strongest criticisms refer to Bolivia’s overwhelmed criminal justice system. Investigations and prosecutions are slow, while prisons are overcrowded to 230% of their capacity. Four out of five people in Bolivia’s jails are awaiting trial, and the Committee suggested that alternatives like house arrest and location monitors could see many of them released. It said that those who remain should have the right to be housed separately from convicted criminals. A government amnesty plan is underway, but progress remains slow. Delays in prosecution are also creating a situation of impunity for those responsible for racist attacks perpetrated in 2008, the murder of two women council members in 2012, and police repression at Chaparina and Mallku Khota, among others. The Committee also urged further action to combat lynchings, as well as corporal punishment carried out in the family and traditional spheres of the justice system.

The Bolivian armed forces and police were singled out in a number of observations.  A series of revelations of brutal treatment of conscripts and of beatings of prisoners have generated controversy, but there have been few successful prosecutions.  The Committee also urged opening military records from the dictatorship era (between the mid 1960s and early 1980s), and the creation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Finally, the UN Committee urged expanded protection of rights on several fronts.  It argues that the current obligation for women seeking a legal abortion (in cases of rape, incest, and medical necessity) to get a judge’s backing contributes to maternal mortality and should be eliminated. It also urged new action to free hundreds of Guaraní families still trapped in servitude, and to criminalize violence against sexual minorities and transgender people.

* This Human Rights Committee is a body established by article 28 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

MaidanBarricade01

This post will differ from most on this blog in being more of a pure log of links than an a formulated story or opinion.

I’ve been loosely following the protests in Ukraine and its capital Kyiv since they began in November. No surprise there since my main research topic is how protest movements use urban spaces. The EuroMaidan movement is happening just a bit north to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, but the ability of the rolling waves of antiglobalization, antiwar, Occupy, Arab Spring, take the square, anti-austerity movements to see it as an extension of or parallel to themselves is much more complicated. Like these protests, EuroMaidan raises questions about how politics is done in the street, the rights (or wrongs) of protesters occupying public buildings and interrupting public life, the ways that mass movements involve an interplay between mass calm gatherings and (smaller) mass confrontation, the tactical interplay between unarmed and armed forces, and the quickening and fracturing of political coalitions. These sorts of questions seem pretty similar across different nations, and there are lessons to be learned from each mass movement for all.

While tactical affinities are obvious, the evidence of the presence or absence of political affinities is contradictory. Is an encampment that began with a defense of a European Union agreement comprehensible to those occupying squares against EU austerity inside the Union itself? Is this a movement for democracy, and is democracy being rethought from the street, as Occupy-ers found? Or are politicians “engineering” the occupations and clashes for their own ends? Is the threat of foreign domination in this case represented by Russia and Putin or by NATO and John McCain? Is this a challenge to corruption and concentration of wealth, or the opportunism of a right-wing and its merely ecstatic allies?

I don’t feel close enough to the situation to sort out all the answers to these questions, but the protesters are not just occupying the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, they’re occupying my thoughts. Here are some sources of insight if they are of interest to you as well:

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.

Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:

Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.

For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830′s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.

Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.

Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.

Martin Luther King, 1968:

There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.

In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.

This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.

See also: Martin Luther King on Riots and Property Destruction.

Challenging Oppression without Making New Enemies

2013 was something of a breakout year for the wider distribution of social-justice oriented cultural critique. The line between the online world of Twitter, tumblr, and feminist, queer, and antiracist blogging on one hand and nearly-mainstream and mainstream pop culture and celebrity coverage became noticeably thinner. Time and GQ ended up questioning Robin Thicke about the connections between his song “Blurred Lines” and sexual violence. Blog posts charging Lorde’s “Royals” (a song that was itself a cultural critique) with racism for focusing too much on hip-hop culture became a story on CNN. Rather than taking place in an alternative zine scene, our voices are now part of a global cultural conversation, capable of being amplified before millions of readers and viewers.

And yet this conversation isn’t just broadcasting insights, and opening minds. It’s arousing more than the inevitable level of defensiveness. And it has led many people, to question the ways that anger, vitriol, self-righteousness, shaming, and identification of enemies can be facets of activist culture. An amazingly perceptive version of this view is offered by Quinnae Moongazer in “Words, Words, Words: On Toxicity and Abuse in Online Activism.” She puts out a call for a more expansive and hopeful activism:

It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have.

Similarly, Camille Hayes wrote back in November:

Too often in social change movements we take what could be opportunities for education and turn them into occasions for censure, and I think that’s a shame. How many potential allies do you think we’ve alienated this way over the years? Thousands? Tens of thousands? At any rate, more than a mass movement can afford to spare.

Leaving aside all my disappointments and frustrations, which echo theirs, I want to offer some proactive and hopeful ideas for the continuing work of critiquing and remaking our flawed, all-too-oppressive culture.

1. The bigger the cultural criticism conversation gets, the better; but also the more it’s geared to actual listening and transformation, the better.

One way of looking at oppression is a combination of institutionalized injustice and normalized cruelty. What separates oppression from just plain meanness, unfairness, and abuse is the way it becomes normal for certain classes of people to hurt, dismiss, and undervalue others. It’s routine, sometimes accompanied by an explanation that sounds like common sense, too often accepted even by those it victimizes, and usually unremarkable to those who are advantaged by it. Every oppression is a cultural problem.  So to challenge racism, (cis)sexism, class and state power, and other exclusionary systems in the domain of culture is natural and necessary.

Oppressive “normality” doesn’t reside in any one place, or in one small set of people. It’s created and expressed and passed on across all of society. Rolling back rape culture will only prevent rape when it happens in every community, when it alters the expectations at every party and the dynamics of every date. There will only be acceptance of queer love and trans people in their bodies when that acceptance lives in every family, social space, and venue where queer and trans folks are born, live, love, and work.

Cultural critique that unmasks and overcomes oppressive dynamics needs to reach everyone in the end. Everyone who might have their prejudices reinforced by a work of art, its archetypes and tropes, should be part of the desired audience for critiques of that art. Beyond that, the ability to see oppression and resistance at work in our culture, including pop culture, is a skill to be cultivated in everyone.

2. One key to promoting actual listening and transformation is to present the critique in a way that assumes an intelligent, well-intentioned audience, who is uninformed on the particular issue being addressed.

My favorite example from 2013 is Jeff Yang’s deconstruction of Katy Perry’s performance of ”Unconditionally” dressed as a geisha: Geisha A-Go-Go: Katy Perry’s AMAs Performance Stirs Debate (reminder: authors in newspapers, magazines, and syndicated web publications rarely write their own headlines). Yang narrates the performance, explains why the artist chose the problematic route, and lays out the consequences for real people beyond the work:

”nothing can remove the demeaning and harmful iconography of the lotus blossom from the West’s perception of Asian women — a stereotype that presents them as servile, passive, and as Perry would have it, ‘unconditional’ worshippers of their men, willing to pay any price and weather any kind of abuse in order to keep him happy.”

(See also the personal impact as described by Ravi Chandra: “Sounds wonderful. Until the image tangles with my own history and experience as an Asian American, as I’ve watched our cultures misappropriated and commodified time after time. Frankly, many of us feel used as props to glorify White artists.”)

3. The point of cultural criticism is not to decide which artist is the oppressor, but to reveal oppressive dynamics in the larger culture.

Most of the work of transforming oppressive culture is in the audience, not on stage. It is out here, in ourselves and our communities, in our psychic attachments to power and privilege, in our unexamined acceptance of oppression and our ability to perpetuate it. What’s more, the difference between a character and a stereotype is to some degree repetition, likewise the difference between a personal slight and an oppressive pattern.  When people use a pop culture controversy to explain how power works, and how they are made to feel over and over again, they’re facing the right direction.

Re-stated, my proposition is that for every finger pointed by a cultural critic at an artist, three more should point out to the larger culture and the meme, metaphors, stereotypes, and patterns it reveals. Pop culture has done us the favor of bringing a phenomenon into the public eye and the national conversation, why not use that spotlight not just to talk about a single song, but about an ongoing problem. Por ejemplo, Sezin Koehler’s exploration of  “From the Mouths of Rapists: The Lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines” went far beyond the debate about whether it was a “rape anthem” to convey in a compelling way the tropes of rape culture that were shared by the song and actual rapists (Koehler spells out the process of writing it here.).

One aspect of privilege is not knowing what behavior of yours is a pattern, not knowing how that pattern affects other people, not having access to the feelings generated or the hidden impact. So, reactions like Ravi Chandra’s above can change people. While I’m not saying that its an obligation of the cultural critic, revealing one’s own experience can offer surprising insights. You can see that dramatically in Tressie McMillan Cottom’s When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland, the reaction to Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance that stayed with me the most, out of a very large crop of articles. McMillan weaves her own embodied, raced and gendered experiences to offer insight on a range of behaviors, from drunken dance-floor encounters to Cyrus’ (and her directors) selection of back-up dancers.

4. “People who defend” a given artist or their work is not a coherent category. 

Defensiveness, ignorance, and the blinders imposed by privilege are some of the reasons that people react negatively to anti-oppressive cultural critique. Predictably, each episode of cultural criticism will elicit reactionary behavior in the form of comments and denial that are even more egregious than the original object of critique. But people also disagree due to honest differences of interpretation. What’s more, we can’t overlook the possibility that a critique can be simultaneously anti-oppression and just plain wrong.

If the goal is to make cultural critique a society-wide practice, we must expect honest disagreement. The people who wrote these defenses of Lorde and Macklemore, and Lily Allen, are not adversaries of anti-oppressive cultural critique, they’re part of the conversation.

Using Anger Wisely

Anger can motivate awesome work and can motivate toxic and destructive work. It can be clarifying and illuminating, or convince us that our closest friends are just out to get us. But in expressing our anger about pop culture (that is, about people who made art that reinforces our (or others’) oppression, rather than directly oppressing us), I would suggest these propositions:

5. Strategically deployed anger ultimately seeks to enlarge the community seeking social transformation, not to split it. 

6. Publicly expressed anger depends on establishing that it is justified to make it strategic.

7. Even justified anger needs calm, patient work of educating current and potential allies.

Short of those who hurt us directly, we probably get the most angry at those from whom we expected more. If anger has the capacity to illuminate, then one vital goal is that those who have failed us the most learn from that anger. So, if you’re a critic, you’re also on your way to being a teacher. When your writing can go viral in an afternoon, you have to expect that some of your students will need clarity, and even an orientation to the workings of oppression.

However…

8. These jobs of educating, explaining, and justifying should not fall on those relying on anger to survive violent oppression.

Anger is among other things a powerful and necessary defense mechanism. And there’s a lot for people to defend themselves against. The solution isn’t to shame those who are angry, or exclude their critiques but to take them seriously, and make them a basis for conversation and learning. Accordingly, those of us who join conversations begun around others’ pain should do more of this educating, explaining and justifying work, so it doesn’t always fall to those who experience oppression the most personally. We should add our voices to make anger within the movement strategic and transformative.

Lastly, 9. Let’s try to assume good faith on the part of others: flawed execution or naïve ignorance is usually more likely than malice.

One of the advantages of living now (in many places, including where I sit), and not say at the high points of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy is that the moral struggle to de-legitimize oppression and prejudice has largely been won. Don’t get me wrong: Racism hides behind colorblindness and ignorance. Sexism is normalized and naturalized at every turn. But the idea that these and many other -isms represent some eternal truth about humanity is thoroughly discredited. Our lives are blessed, and complicated, by the fact that calling someone a bigot is a genuine insult in polite society.  If you explain how a certain cultural practice reinforces an age-old oppression, you can connect with most of your audience’s sense of self and their desire for dignity and righteousness. Getting that far took a lot of argument and a lot of struggle. I’m so grateful to the people who won us that inheritance.

While facing an election next year, Bolivian President Evo Morales is thinking about his legacy. As the strong front-runner in national politics, his governing party, the Movement Towards Socialism—Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, feels confident it will be in power for a long time to come. This self-confidence is driving the drafting of a 2025 Patriotic Agenda. Alongside the formal process, the president has spoken off the cuff of his desires for the future. And like any dreams, they provide an insight into the mind and orientation of the dreamer. In his oratory, Morales long seemed to equally embrace two visions: sovereignty through claiming natural resources for the nation and reorientation of society towards ecological harmony with Mother Earth. Now, however, he has discarded the Pachamama-centered rethinking of exploitation and dreams of technologies long criticized for their environmental destructiveness.

At the end of October, Morales declared nuclear power to be a long-term goal of the Bolivian state. Speaking at a government-organized summit called Hydrocarbon Sovereignty by 2025, he revealed that he had asked the governments of Argentina and France for assistance in launching a Bolivian nuclear power program. “We are going to advance, dear students,* we are not far off, we have the raw materials. It is a political decision that has to be made. [Vamos a avanzar queridos estudiantes, no estamos lejos, tenemos materia prima (el óxido de uranio es la principal materia prima utilizada en los procesos radioactivos), es una decisión política que hay que tomar.]” Soon after, he called it a dream: “Bolivia has all the conditions to exploit this form of energy, there are raw materials and studies, and I want you to know that alongside our brother Vice President, I am already dreaming of having atomic energy, and we are not so far from it. [Bolivia tiene todas las condiciones para explotar esa energía, hay materia prima, hay estudios y quiero que sepan que con nuestro hermano vicepresidente ya soñamos contar con energía nuclear atómica y no estamos tan lejos.]” (El País) By the middle of November, Morales had convened thirty scientists to sketch out a Nuclear Energy Commission.

In fact, the road to nuclear energy is a very long one. France has clarified that it has done no more than listen to Bolivia’s aspirations. The Argentine cooperation so far consists of scholarships for students of nuclear medicine. The country lacks both adequately trained scientific and technical personnel and the necessary infrastructure. Bolivia’s uranium remains in the ground. The complex network of processing facilities, construction capacity, and minimal safeguards would have to be built from the bottom up. Luis Romero, director of the Bolivian Institute for Nuclear Science and Technology (Instituto Boliviano de Ciencia y Tecnología Nuclear; IBTEN) estimates the process could take thirty years. Meanwhile, solar power is practical over 97% of the tropical country’s surface and renewable generation could overcome the country’s biggest energy limitation: the lack of reliable electrical connections to vast rural areas.

Meanwhile, Bolivia is set have its first communication satellite this month. Named Túpac Katari, after the late eighteenth-century indigenous rebel, it will be launched by China and controlled from Bolivia. Its transmission capabilities will save the country tens of millions of dollars a year in expenditures. Like the Hydrocarbon forum, this launch has set the Bolivian president to dreaming “of the next one”:

Some developed countries seem to have a x-ray image of our territory. They know what we have but they never tell us. And why shouldn’t we be able to have a prospecting satellite to know what we have in this Mother Earth who give us so many resources? [Algunos países desarrollados parece que hacen como una radiografía a nuestro territorio. Saben qué tenemos, pero nunca nos informan. ¿Y por qué nosotros no podemos tener un satélite de prospección para saber qué tenemos en esta madre tierra que nos da tantos recursos?] (infolatam)

While satellite imagery can be used to assess surface minerals, this x-ray idea is a fantasy.** What’s revealing about it, however, is the idea of making the entire country’s minerals, oil, and gas immediately visible to the state. Today’s Evo Morales still dreams of Mother Earth, but she always gives up her resources for the good of the economy. Those who put protecting their ancestral lands on the agenda have a different vision of territory, in which the right to preserve environmental integrity sometimes conflicts with accelerating extraction.

* The event highlighted the French oil giant Total’s awarding scholarships to future petroleum engineers.

** Much, if not all, of the NASA data is freely available.

I wrote the following comment in an online discussion during the Egyptian protests in early 2011. I’m reposting it here to ask questions of continuing importance for political ethnographers, and other social scientists.

In the wake of the American Anthropological Association’s release of a letter expressing concern about Egyptian artifacts (for 150 words) and Egyptian people (for 30 words), the AAA blog has allotted more space to the issue of the protests themselves.

The piece is called “We Are All Egyptian,” and begins “There are tens of thousands of Egyptians in Tahrir today. And there are millions of Egyptians who are not.” The writer, Yasmin Moll, is doing fieldwork in Cairo and devotes the piece to people’s changing and conflicted attitudes to the protests.

I’ll leave it to others (Zero Anthropology critiqued the AAA’s priorities here) to ask questions about what the AAA is not saying, about say the thousands of Egyptians who are official or unofficial detention today, or about the web of relationships between the United States and the regime.

What interests me about this piece is the quasi-political position of an ethnographic preference for uncertainty, indeterminacy, and the legitimacy of all sides. That is summed up in the following paragraph:

“From the vantage point of those of us in Cairo, however, the picture is much more complex, fluid and messy.  And simplifying it for the sake of a sexy story or a catchy headline risks marginalizing the many Egyptians from all classes and backgrounds whose political stances don’t fit neatly into one or the other of these categories.”

Strike out “in Cairo” or rewrite “a sexy story or a catchy headline” as “[insert academic or political purpose here]” and you get a handy template for justifying the use of ethnography. One I’m sure we’ve all read in one form or another. And one that many of us have used, or will have the occasion to use.

First question, though, isn’t this an argument against extracting meaning or seeking a pattern in any reality? Doesn’t this form of practice ask us to not draw conclusions from anything as complex and indeterminate as actual people? In this case, we’re talking about a reality that has electrified people across Egypt, and around the world. Would such ethnographic messiness written about Tunisia’s revolt last month have had the same mobilizing effect in Egypt as the stories that were told?

Second question, does it make sense to describe an anti-structuralist method as politically liberating? The narrative is familiar: Writers (unfairly) fit people into categories, missing what is important. But look at the political nature of the verb: “risks marginalizing.” The implicit argument is that writing about people in a way prioritizes, say, collective action over emotional uncertainty, is part of a power structure that pushes them aside. In this case, with a very visibly present power structure being shaken, the connection between the epistemological power of those writing about the uprising and the political power of those trying to suppress it is dubious, if not nonexistent.

Third, I wonder and worry about this kind of disciplinary positioning for anthropology. Having chosen to study how and when people form into collectivities (I focus on social movements, and on processes of revolution, in recent Bolivian history), I recognize in the AAA’s blog a position that says ethnography should be directed to the individual over the collective, to the messy over the galvanized, to the fluid over crystalized. I may be over-projecting my own research interests on to the AAA blog, but I also worry about a claim that “complex, fluid, and messy” is “real ethnography,” while studying large-scale social and political changes is not. Since Cairo now and Bolivia in the past decade are interesting moments precisely because of the coming together of thousands upon thousands of people, producing tangible political results, to make increasing complexity the goal of ethnography is to call for an ethnographic approach that misses the point of these transformative moments.

Day 1 of Occupy Wall Street: Political ethnographers should ask how this moment crystallized a movement, not why millions weren't there.

Day 1 of Occupy Wall Street: Political ethnographers should ask how this moment crystallized a movement, not why millions weren’t there. (photo CC-BY-SA by Carwil Bjork-James)

Further reading:

Zolberg, Aristide R. 1972. Moments of madness. Politics & Society 2(2):183–207.

Thomassen, Bjørn. 2012. Notes towards an anthropology of political revolutions. Comparative Studies in Society and History 54(3):679–706.

Honor Brabazon and Jeffery Webber have just released a new research article on the state of agrarian reform in Bolivia under the government of Evo Morales. The paper, available as a pre-print from the Journal of Agrarian Change, offers a disconcerting look at the state of land redistribution six years after Morales signed a law promising community-led “redirection of the Agrarian Revolution.” The paper is compelling because it puts the experiences and views of the Bolivian Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST; the same initials as its better-known Brazilian counterpart) alongside hard data on the redistribution of land produced by the La Paz-based research unit Centro de Estudios para el Desarollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA).

I’ve previously covered the most dramatic shift in Bolivian land tenure on this blog, the dramatic reordering of large swaths of land into “Native Community Lands,” (TCOs) collectively controlled indigenous territories throughout the country that now constitute nearly a fifth of the country. The same process of clarification of land title was promised to yield a revolution in the prospects of landless and near-landless peasants. The data presented and translated by Brabazon and Webber shows that promise was not to be.

The story of land reform in Bolivia has long been a regional one. The sweeping 1953 Land Reform Decree was the product of rural uprisings across the Altiplano and the central Valleys which left the vast eastern lowlands essentially untouched. There, a relatively small number of landowners built vast export-oriented monocultural plantations over the next five decades. Both the predominantly lowland MST and Evo Morales spoke of these large holdings as ”latifundio,” oversized properties that deserve to be redistributed for the common good. However, land reform requires one of two causes to take away land from its owner. Either the field is used for illegal labor exploitation, or it is failing to fulfill its “economic and social function.” The latter term essentially applies to fields left in disuse for long periods. As it turned out, neither cause applies to the agribusinesses of the east:

the types and delimitations of latifundio designated for expropriation by the MAS government through the LRCRA and official policy documents are not those that predominate in the structure of the Bolivian agrarian economy; therefore, the large capitalist landowners who obtain rent from the land, along with the agrarian capitalist enterprises that obtain their profits through the exploitation of their salaried workforce, have not and will not be affected by the ‘agrarian revolution’. (19)

A small number of farms have been expropriated ”due to the presence of bonded labour, semi-slavery, slavery or other illegal labour practices,” but just 54,734 hectares. Another 855,823 hectares owned by medium- and large-propertyholders were incorporated into TCOs. But when the government speaks of “land redistribution,” it pulls out far larger numbers. As Brabazon and Webber point out, “the overwhelming bulk of these redistributed lands were transfers from various forms of state-owned lands (tierras fiscales) to TCOs” or even the re-categorization from one form of collective ownership to another. Meanwhile, “one-third of the [national] territory will remain in the hands of the medium and large agro-industrial firms.”

Brabazon and Webber provide a sobering conclusion: “The same social class that ruled over agricultural production in 2005 continues to rule today in 2012” (21).

In honor of #NewResearchThursday / #NRTh, one attempt to increase the content to signal ratio on social media.

Peter Buffett’s “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” op-ed is notable because only rarely do wealthy people admit there’s something deeply morally wrong about accumulating wealth and the widespread existence of poverty:

As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.

But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.

While I’m happy to hear this critique and glad that it’s passed into the mainstream media so that elites are paying attention, I wish there was more of a direction here about where to go next.

What I like about it: Pointing out big problems: the classist misimpression that the wealthy know best about how to improve the lives of the poor, the idea that managerial and capitalist logic can easily be applied to problems that are essentially about public goods, the unwillingness of donors to give up control when they give their money, the notion that unconscionable gathering of wealth can be laundered by “giving back.”

What I worry about, especially among US-based radicals: The idea that simply abandoning or destroying these institutions or the flow of wealth they represent will solve things. This is why I’m resistant to naming this an “industrial complex”—something that must be destroyed.

The reality is that resources are wrongly distributed from the global South to a rich few every day, leaving behind both injustice and unmet needs. We can, and should, attack the injustice head-on, and fight the looting of the world by corporations and their corrupt associates in governments. But, we also need to build an infrastructure that provides public goods, like the eradication of polio, equitable titling of land, ambulances in rural communities, and emergency food assistance. The struggle is not to stop the institutions that distribute resources from northern donors to such ends, but to make them functional and to make them accountable to the people they serve.

Frankly, both liberals and radicals in the US are bad at putting their money where their heart is in challenging third world poverty. When I visited the Zapatistas, I saw desperately needed ambulances funded by Italian squatters. In Bolivia, left parties from Scandinavia run their own alternatives to the official aid system, while US Americans just complain about USAID without building alternatives. Indigenous and small farmer titles under agrarian reform there happened through official development assistance funds paired with a radical government.

Bottom line: change can cost money, and we need to think seriously about how to insist that it flows where its most needed.

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