Dissertation

My dissertation project, ‘The River Is My Teacher’: a Political Ecology of Development in the Brazilian Amazon, focuses on the displacement caused by the construction of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil to explore how development discourse and practice overlooked the local populations’ relational ways of living, which tend to regard the natural world as a living agent. This project is inserted in the context of the sense of urgency brought about by the prospect of climate catastrophe, which has highlighted the importance of the relationship between humans and nature as an object of study in the humanities and social sciences. My project complements this emerging scholarship not only by interrogating the division between humans and nature in modern thinking, but also by reflecting on how this division is not fundamental to some groups of humans. While critical development scholarship in Latin America has often relied on explaining this fact by connecting relational ways of living with indigenous cosmologies, I show that this does not elucidate the fact that much of the population at hand is not indigenous nor have lived in the Amazon for several generations.

In the project, I first address a contemporary debate in the social sciences that has been dubbed the ontological turn, which regards the existence of multiple worlds as not simply a matter of local or cultural beliefs. The main question I ask is: what changes when we move from the idea that there are different cultures to the idea that there are different worlds? According to this debate, shifting social inquiry from questions of epistemological differences to ontological differences between human groups is important because at stake are the ways people live and enact their world, and not simply how they know and represent it. I analyze the discourse in three works of Anthropology that are central to this debate in order to suggest that, just as scholars of the Anthropocene seek to problematize the modern duality between humans and nature, we must also scrutinize the distinction between belief (or myth) and reality; a distinction that I argue cannot accommodate non-modern traditions and ways of living. I then revisit the clashes between local populations and the Belo Monte project to reflect on the significance of this inquiry for this context.

Second, through an in-depth study of compensation paid to people displaced by the Belo Monte dam, I show that the primary locus of tension is not the impossibility of calculating the value of lost property, but rather the inability of compensation to account for what is most at stake for the people being displaced: their relationship with land and nature as living beings. That compensation cannot replace one’s life and world might be obvious to many (especially to the people affected) but in unraveling the practice of valuation on which compensation is anchored I seek to show what this logic disavows. At stake in this process is not solely the fact that people are being unfairly compensated. I also suggest that parallel to the struggle for better monetary compensation is the incommensurability between different practices of valuation. On the one hand, the primary practice recognized by the authorities carrying out the construction of the dam ascribes monetary value to land as an object that is measurable in size and ability to produce marketable crops. On the other hand, there are local practices that ascribe value to one’s co-constitutive relationship with land, where land is a living subject. In part two of this paper I suggest resonances between the disavowal of local ways of living and settler colonial practices of recognition. The discussions proposed in this part have as a guide the following question: how can the relation people have with place be honored?

Last, I reflect with the population displaced by the Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian Amazon to ask: how do people who do not claim a relationship to ancestral knowledges come to embody a relational way of living? While relational ways of living have commonly been attributed to indigenous cosmologies or ancestral traditions, the context at hand complicates this view due to the fact that some of the local population does not identify as indigenous nor have they lived in the Amazon for several generations. When calculating compensation for the displacement caused by the dam, authorities placed a large emphasis on measuring the monetary value of a lost house and the belongings within it. For most people who were displaced however, “home” included their proximity to the river and a rich relationship with it, at times that of a mother and child, at times a teacher or a sibling. Inspired by local forms of resistance to the dam and displacement, such as poetry—which are usually overlooked by scholarship critical of development—I suggest that a poetic sensibility, and not only (or perhaps in addition to) the connection with ancestral knowledges, enables a relational disposition toward what some call the natural world. I then trace parallels between the Amazon and the Caribbean as a region, and the thought of writer Édouard Glissant in particular, who has reflected on what it means for the descendants of enslaved Africans to forge a relationship with a land with which they did not have ancestral ties.

In sum, my project highlights tensions between modern reason and alternative ways of living in contemporary development practice in order to shed a new light onto the climate change debates that continue to put into question modern dualities. Drawing from diverse disciplines as Anthropology, International Relations, History, Philosophy, and Science and Technology Studies, I expect it to play an important role in emerging scholarship in the humanities and social sciences in the fields of Development, Political Ecology, and Postcolonial Studies.

My project is supervised by P.J. Brendese, and Robbie Shilliam.