Dissertation

My dissertation project, ‘The River Is My Teacher’: a Political Ecology of Development in the Brazilian Amazon, focuses on the human displacement caused by the construction of the Belo Monte dam in Brazil to explore how some populations have relational ways of living which regard the natural world as a living agent. In light of the sense of urgency brought about by the prospect of climate catastrophe, the relationship between humans and nature has gained renewed importance as an object of study in the humanities and social sciences. Much of this scholarship attempts to rethink the modern “split” between humans and nature: while some scholars argue that humans have become geological agents that affect climate, others contend that modernity is inadequate in that it cannot properly account for non-human agencies. My project complements this emerging scholarship not only by scrutinizing the modern split, but also by reflecting on how this split is not fundamental to some groups of humans. While this has commonly been explained through a connection to indigenous cosmologies or ancestral traditions, 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.

First, I 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, politically, 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 development projects in the Brazilian Amazon to reflect on the political significance of this inquiry.

Second, I elucidate how some contemporary development projects—despite sometimes being well intended attempts to reduce CO2 emissions in some cases—maintain at their core the modern duality between humans and nature. Through an in-depth study of compensation paid to people displaced by the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon, 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, or measure, what is most at stake for the people being displaced: their dialogical relationship with land and nature as living beings. Many Amazonian communities, for instance, understand the river as a living interlocutor—an agent with whom one engages. In villages located at the margins of rivers, houses are commonly built on stilts or on boats to accommodate the fluctuating levels of the water. In sharp contrast, modern developmental projects for the region continue to follow the premise that the river can be controlled by human intervention, as in the case of dams, landfills, and channels, which in many instances have resulted in irreversible damages to eco-systems.

Third, I combine scholarship in regional history, literature, and postcolonial studies to ask how people who do not claim a relationship to ancestral knowledges come to embody a relational way of living. As I explain in my analysis of 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, “home” included their proximity to the river and rich relationship with it, at times that of a mother, at times a teacher or a sibling. I began to better understand the depth of what was at stake only when I visited the area and became familiar with the cases of people who had moved their old palafitas—the typical Amazonian house built on stilts to accommodate the fluctuating regime of the waters—to the backyard of their new houses in urban settlements. Others painted the walls of their new home in blue so that they felt closer to the river that was now distant. Inspired by these cases and other forms of resistance to the dam, such as poetry—which are usually overlooked by scholarship critical of development—I suggest that a poetic sensibility, and not only (or in addition to) the connection with ancestral knowledges, is what enables a relational disposition toward the so-called 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.