A small earth wall separates the tiny village of Lützerath from the enormous diggers operating in Garzweiler II, one of three opencast lignite coal mines operated by energy company RWE in the German Rhineland. Lignite is a type of heavy coal that is extracted and burnt locally.
The mine is 235 metres away and coming closer every day. A number of houses in Lützerath have already been torn down, the area covered with gravel, grass, and some wildflowers. It is hard to imagine that people lived here just a couple of years ago. Other houses are fenced off, with RWE security in front, twenty-four hours a day. Most people have long left the area, have been resettled, or moved away.
But one farmer is holding out. Eckhard Heukamp is challenging the imminent eviction from his farm in the courts, arguing that the coal mining plans from the 90s should no longer allow for continued extraction, in the light of climate change and coal phaseout. He was already displaced once, 15 years ago – his farm in Borschemich demolished, the land long dug up. Now he is fighting for his parents’ house and farm, which dates back to the 18th century.
He is not alone – citizens initiatives and groups are organising regular demonstrations, events, and a permanent vigil at the edge of the village facing the mine. Activists set up a permanent occupation on Heukamp’s land – the ZAD Rhineland. The term ZAD comes from the French Zone à défendre – a militant occupation to stop big development projects. The most well-known ZAD is probably the ZAD de Notre-Dame-des-Landes that stopped a new airport being built near Landes, France and famously resisted militarised eviction by the French state.
The ZAD Rhineland was set up to defend Lützerath against RWE and police, and to stop coal extraction in the Rhineland. People are ready to put their bodies in the way in what might be the final showdown, the decisive battle. “If Lützerath stays, they won’t be able to get to the next five villages”, someone tells me. “But it will be hard”.
We spend all day building defence structures. Treehouses, barricades, lock-ons, and towers are popping up everywhere. People are giving climbing workshops and sharing blockading skills, discussing police repression and state violence, building up solidarity structures and a new kitchen, plotting and planning for day X – when RWE come to cut trees or police show up to evict the camp.
The last big eviction in the Rhineland – the eviction of Hambacher Forst in 2018, which was recently declared illegal –lasted 5 weeks before it was stopped by the courts. Thousands of police officers were brought in, but many more people came to defend the forest. Police were heavily criticised for the brutality with which they treated activists and the little regard for their safety. One journalist died during the police operation, many activists ended up in precarious and unsafe situations.
Brutal repression of protests is happening all over Germany– only last year, during the eviction of the Dannenröder forest in central Germany, a protester was seriously injured when he fell four meters from a tripod after police officers had cut the safety rope which held the tripod in place. The occupation was set up to stop another ecologically destructive infrastructure project – the new A49 motorway. Another protester, Ella, was sentenced to over 2 years in prison for allegedly injuring a police officer during the eviction – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The collaboration between police and private security services in the Rhinish coal mining area has been well documented; repression, criminalisation and violence go hand in hand. Few companies are as powerful as RWE, structurally entrenched in the local political economy, and protected by German police forces who frequently act as private security. Many villages and towns are themselves RWE shareholders, and numerous politicians on RWE’s payroll. Already in 1979, the German news magazine Spiegel warned: “Unrivalled and barely manageable, RWE is ruling over one of the largest monopolies of the Western world”.
Today, Europe’s largest emitter continues to lobby for continued lignite coal mining, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Successfully – the German government’s coal phase-out is set for 2038, much too late. Meanwhile, RWE is suing the Netherlands for 1.4 billion euro compensation for phasing out coal by 2030.
As the COP negotiations in Glasgow have ended, with a final agreement that allows for the continued extraction of coal, people in the ZAD Rhineland know that it’s up to them – to all of us – to stop climate catastrophe.
It might well be that this time, too, the courts will rule that the eviction of Luetzerath is illegal – the court ruling might come any day. But by then, and even if Eckhard Heukamp’s land is saved, thanks to his action and the fight of so many people who have stood up against RWE for decades, many trees will have already been cut, land dug up, too many villages destroyed.
It is windy at the edge of the mine where I’m sitting – ever since RWE cut down the trees that once protected the village, I am told. And yet, the windmills next to the mine are not moving – the power grid is overloaded, they continue – too much wind, and coal power stations take too long to switch on and off.
The digger keeps moving towards us, ruthlessly. The power stations in the background keep burning coal, generating electricity for a system that requires abundant cheap energy to power endless growth, to generate profit for those in power, at enormous ecological and social costs.
The ZAD Rhineland shows that a different system is possible – a system that operates on the basis of solidarity, not competition; of degrowth, not growth; on climate justice, not green capitalism. It gives hope and motivation to keep fighting against coal and for abolishing the mechanisms that protect coal. True sustainability needs not just an end of coal, but the abolishing of the mechanisms that enforce coal interests – police, security, prisons – and of the economic and political system they are part of. Joining the ZAD Rhineland is a good place to start this fight. Whether you want to build barricades, defend a treehouse, or cut veggies – please join, if you can. Everybody counts. More infos here.
The outcome was striking not only for the ease with which the court dismissed the case, but also for the unprecedented requirement that the Bunong plaintiffs pay Euro 20,000 in reparations to Bolloré and its Cambodian subsidiary. In light of recent discussions on the potential and constraints of legal activism, we aim here to highlight entrenched structural factors that can hinder communities in legal challenges to corporate land grabs.
The political and economic power of corporate actors like Bolloré and Socfin run deep. Established in the early 1900s, Socfin (Société Financière des Caoutchoucs) played a key role in mobilising European capital to French Indochinese frontiers to develop rubber plantations. As a holding company, Socfin then designated these lands to various subsidiaries for development – a pattern that served to complicate regulation of these corporate actors and their landholdings even in colonial times. The Compagnie du Cambodge cited in this court case was one such subsidiary and shares Socfin’s colonial origins. The high-level connections of companies like Socfin were central to their economic success. In one example cited by French economist Charles Robequain (1944), when Socfin’s Adrien Hallet arrived in French Indochina 1910 he quickly gained agreement from the Colonial administration to mark off ten square kilometres of forest on the Cochinchina-Cambodia border for future development into rubber. In a mark of Hallet’s influence, “the border was pushed back a little” to accommodate this land grant.
Socfin-KCD’s lease of the three Mondulkiri concessions at the heart of the current legal case similarly gained easy government approvals, given KCD’s connections with Cambodian political leaders. These include the concessions known as Varanasi (2,705 ha, granted in 2008), Sethikula (4,273 ha, granted in 2010) and Covyphama (5,345 ha, granted in 2008). In Cambodia, government approvals for plantation investments by domestic companies routinely avoid the consultation, environmental and social assessment requirements of the Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concessions, as well as the national environmental impact assessment guidelines. The involvement of European finance might have invoked international safeguards if investors had sourced funds from the IFC or from banks that subscribe to the Equator Principles, but Socfin’s annual reports suggest that it used other sources of finance for this purpose.
With Cambodian due-diligence procedures by-passed and in the absence of formal international safeguards, Socfin’s operations were only subject to ‘soft laws’ such as the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and to the company’s own voluntary corporate social responsibility principles. Socfin explains onits website that the company voluntarily follows a range of international performance standards (World Bank, RSPO Principles, and the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative) and also “adheres scrupulously” to national land ownership and environmental legislation. Yet many countries where the company invests, Cambodia included, are settings where land rights, environmental laws and human rights are routinely flouted.
Socfin has become a visible target for community anger, but there are complex financial relationships between companies at play in this case, echoing the opaque colonial financial networks mentioned earlier. Socfinasia is the key company in the Socfin-KCD joint venture. Registered on the Luxembourg Stock Exchange, Socfinasia is a subsidiary company owned by Socfin (58%) and the Bolloré Group (22%). The Bollore group also owns the Compagnie du Cambodge mentioned in this case, and 39% of the share in Socfin. These intricate corporate relationships can serve to muddy the lines of accountability.
The French legal case addresses this corporate accountability issue. Rilov observed that the Bunong case would be the first in France against a parent company for actions overseas by a subsidiary, although such cases had been heard in the US and the UK. In reflecting on the challenges of mounting such a cross-jurisdictional legal case, he noted the important facilitating role of international and Cambodian actors such as Global Witness, British legal firm Leigh Day, the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA) and Cambodian lawyer Sek Sophorn. It was through these connections and relationships that Rilov ultimately developed the case with a group of 80 Bunong farmers against Socfin-KCD and the Bolloré Group for their loss of vital income and sacred forests.
The court ruled the Bunong case inadmissible on the grounds that none of the plaintiffs held title documents to prove their personal right to use the land, and for their alleged delays in submitting documentation. This emphasis on individual land titles is at odds with the customary and collective land tenure system that governs land access in Bunong communities. Yet, the Cambodian legal framework does recognise Indigenous Peoples’ rights to possess land and to use forest products (Civil Code; the 2001 Land Law and the 2002 Forestry Law). In particular, the 2009 sub-decree #83 under Cambodia’s Land Law enables formal recognition of lands where Indigenous people have cultural ties and that they have traditionally used for forest products and shifting cultivation.
The court might have been satisfied if the Bunong plaintiffs held a communal land title (CLT) for the contested areas under the 2009 sub-decree mentioned above. However, the process of formalising CLT is known to be complex, costly and time-consuming, with only 33 titles registered so far around the country. Furthermore, the 2009 sub-decree came after the ELCs had already been allocated to Socfin-KCD and clearance work commenced. Although the Cambodian Ministry of Interior has recognised Indigenous community bodies, meeting the second step in the land registration process, titling has been complicated by the existing land allocations. A community leader explained in 2016 that many of the areas they could potentially claim in a communal title application were already occupied by Socfin. Thus, the Bunong community has been unable to secure Indigenous communal title.
The option of gaining private land titles has also bypassed many Bunong families around the Socfin-KCD concessions. The Cambodian government’s fast-tracked private land titling campaign in 2012-2013 aimed to address land conflicts between economic land concessions and smallholder farmers across the country. The focus on individual private titles rather than communal lands caused friction within Bunong communities, but some families were keen to gain land security on these terms. Gaps and inequities in implementation are well documented with this intervention. Here too, a 2020 study found that some 26 percent of their studied land plots were titled during this process, of which around 71% went to Khmer migrants rather than Bunong people. A key constraint was that company did not permit the measurement and titling of land inside the concessions. The Bunong community thus lost out both on private titles and communal titling, further weakening their legal standing in the French case.
Notably, other non-judicial processes have been mobilized by the company and non-state parties to compensate the villagers and address their grievances. The company has offered to address the conflicts through monetary compensation, land swaps for other locations or leasing of some concession lands as smallholder rubber plantations. The implementation of these options was problematic in many respeccts, however some community members accepted the small cash compensation (150-200 USD/ha) offered to them (Chan et al. 2020 and FIDH). In 2016, the company and three groups of villagers (not those involved in the trial) agreed to use an independent mediation process. The process is a locally contested, however, and concerns a limited section of the disputed land.
As far as the trial is concerned, the Bunong representatives and their French supporters are appealing the decision on the grounds of their ancestral ties to land. Yet, it is difficult to see how the case can progress through a system that is so heavily swayed towards politically and economically powerful actors, who can position themselves favourably within legal systems that disenfranchise Indigenous groups for their lack of formal property rights.
The case points to larger challenges for Indigenous communities in using judicial processes to counter corporate land grabs. Here, legal activism has forged important alliances and community action, but also exposes a highly unequal playing field both within Cambodia and Europe and the associated challenges in seeking land justice across jurisdictions.
What you might not know, is that the environmental impact of cars doesn’t just come from driving them. The industrial processes that bookend a car’s lifespan—its manufacture at the plant, and its disposal —have a disproportionate impact on the environment, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.
While we can decrease our miles traveled along the margin, it will be a long time before the built environment in countries like the US renders cars unnecessary. But, we can mitigate the impact of other sources of our cars’ pollution by recycling them.
Why recycle cars?
Automotive recycling has several key environmental benefits. It diverts waste from landfills—importantly, both a large quantity of waste (10-12 million vehicles a year, according to Argonne National Laboratory, a leading institution researching car material recovery), and a disproportionate share of the hazardous waste that poisons our land and our communities’ water supplies. It allows parts to be reused further reducing environmental impact. It also decreases the demand for mining, preventing significant environmental damage associated with resource extraction. And it substantially decreases the carbon footprint associated with making new cars.
According to SellMax in San Jose, every year, car recyclers in the US and Canada produce sufficient steel to make 12,000,000 cars, recover parts that would have taken the energy equivalent of over 85,000,000 barrels of oil to replace, salvage100,800,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel, 45,000,000 gallons of washer fluid, and 8,000,000 gallons of engine coolant. That’s a lot of hazardous liquids that could have otherwise ended up in American watersheds.
By 2010, according to Argonne National Laboratory, recovery of ferrous metals (iron and steel), from car recycling, constituted the largest source of scrap for the iron and steel industry. Producing recycled steel uses 74 percent less energy than steel made from scratch (remember this energy would still come from burning fossil fuels).
The Hidden Hazard: Tires
Few symbols of decaying cars are more emblematic or familiar than a tire fire—after all, one has featured prominently in the opening sequence of the popular cartoon The Simpsons for decades. And this fascination is somewhat justified—as a report by the municipal government of Lehigh County, PA summarizes, tire fires are incredibly dangerous They burn incredibly hot and produce toxic gases. , When put out with water, they leave behind a toxic slurry that contaminates groundwater and farmland.
When not ablaze, abandoned tires still threaten public health. When holding water, they provide habitats for mosquitos that carry West Nile Virus, Zika, and other diseases.
Once recycled, tires have many uses. They can be made into new roads, clean-burning fuel to replace dirty oils, and incorporated into liners for garden beds.
The Classic: Aluminum
Few materials for recycling are as familiar to the everyday consumer as aluminum. And there’s a reason that the image of tossing cans into blue bins has become so intimately linked with the process of recycling itself: aluminum recycling is one of the most efficient landfill-diverting processes.
Aluminum recycling also saves enormous amounts of energy. According to the same review in Light Metal Age, recycling post-consumer aluminum saves up to 95% of the energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from mining, refining, and smelting aluminum by 95% as well. This is even more important than it sounds, because, as the Environmental Protection Agency reports, aluminum smelting releases large quantities of incredibly strong, long-lived greenhouse gasses known as perfluorocarbons. Each pound of these compounds released into the atmosphere has the same impact as releasing 9,200 pounds of carbon dioxide—and will remain in the atmosphere for over 10,000 years.
Aluminum was one of the first and most important metals to be recycled from cars. As early as the 1980s, SAE International, a leading professional organization for engineers predicted that automotive recycling projects focused on reclaiming aluminum from car frames would come a critical means of “decreasing disposal problems” associated with environmental contamination from used cars while “lower[ing] demands on material resources” to produce new vehicles.
Most aluminum in cars are now recycled, providing a significant boon to the environment.
As noted in a 2006 journal article by Muhamad Z. b. M. Sama and Gordon N. Blount, many other materials can also be economically recycled from cars—including resins, foam, glass, copper, and rare earth metals in catalytic converters. All of these require tremendous amounts of energy and pollution to produce, and are not biodegradable—that is, when placed in landfills, they will not decompose.
Despite their polluting effect, we’ll have to keep living with cars for a while. But at least we can provide a future for our rivers and atmosphere with auto recycling until they are obsolete.
The IPBES Global Assessment has made clear that the causes of biodiversity loss are located outside of protected areas, yet this remains the focus of much of conservation policy. Addressing this blind spot is challenging, but necessary for effective and just biodiversity governance and nature conservation.
Throughout the years, much has been written about the image of ‘indigenous’ peoples as ‘authentic’ people of nature (Garland and Gordon 1999, Carrier and West 2004, Comaroff and Comaroff 2009, Koot 2017a, Hüncke and Koot 2012, Gordon and Douglas 2000, Fennell 2008, Sylvain 2014, Butler and Hinch 2007, Carr, Ruhanen and Whitford 2016). This image is often presented as if these people are still living in tune with nature, while often they have become marginalised under colonialism and past and present processes of the spread of neoliberal capitalism, including the rise of global cultural or indigenous tourism. In today’s sustainability discourse, indigenous people are often characterised as the authentic ‘natural ecologists’ or the wise protectors of the land. As such, they can function as an example for non-indigenous people who can begin to live in harmony with nature just like them (Fennell 2008, Koot 2017b). In marketing campaigns, they are often ‘naturalised’ for tourist consumption and are shown in photographs, for example, in traditional dress with the local flora and fauna (Chambers 2000). And consumers, such as Western tourists, see the progress of modernity as a state that depends on modernity’s own inauthenticity, which creates the belief that authenticity is always elsewhere: in the past or in the ‘simpler’, ‘purer’ cultures far away (MacCannell 1976). Thus, driven by consumer culture, “the 21st century is an age that hungers for anything that feels authentic” (Banet-Weiser 2012, 3), and today, branding reflects and affects our cultural and social relations on a daily basis. Marketers acknowledge the power of authenticity as an essential aspect of branding. This is an area where we, ‘the inauthentic’, search for genuine affects, ideas, and emotions in our consumer culture (Banet-Weiser 2012).
Indigenous tourism, based on branding indigenous people, thus creates an important contradiction in which Western ideals about nature and the people living there are enacted through the free market, creating products based on the tourists’ consumptive needs. In this way, tourists spread ‘inauthentic’ capitalist values and the market system, instead of supporting authentic indigenous practices (Carrier and West 2004, Koot 2016). In fact, ethnic commodities are contradictory in the sense that, seen from the conventional assumptions about value and price, the appeal of such commodities lies in the idea that they resist the rationality of such ordinary economics.
The Bushman brand in tourism
One example of such ‘branded’ indigenous people are the Bushmen (or San) of southern Africa. They are often still considered part and parcel of nature, an image that can be viewed in the wider context of romanticism about Africa. The tourist sector in southern Africa has typical branding strategies that tap into the image of a wild Africa and portray the continent as spectacular, thriving with wildlife, and sparsely populated by some western explorers and exotic people (Ellis 1994). To give just one example of a text by a tour operator: the Bushmen “have much to offer our modern ways of living in terms of a sustainable existence with nature” (NAAT 2019).
In my research over the years I have investigated the marketing of this touristic image and shown some of the Bushmen’s responses to such marketing. I found that their ‘authentic’ image itself has now become a financial asset in tourism and therefore can be considered a brand: the ‘Bushman brand’. In the end, a brand can be regarded as “a process of attaching an idea to a product” (Walker 2006), which is exactly what the Bushman image has turned into: a product with (romantic) ideas attached to it. Even broader, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a brand as “a particular identity or image regarded as an asset” (Oxford Dictionaries 2019). Seen as such, static representations of indigenous identities, based on the authentic image, are brands in today’s neoliberal political economy; in tourism especially, the Bushmen’s image is commodified within the free market system as a particular product with financial value, and as such can be regarded an asset based on the many ideas attached to it. However, in this process it is often assumed that Bushmen “do not participate in visual discourse, they are always represented as different and other: a silent minority who show no resistance to the identity which has been historically created for them” (Bester and Buntman 1999, 58). Although I do not deny power relations through branding (Koot 2016), to consider Bushmen a ‘silent minority who show no resistance’ does not do justice to reality. In fact, in many cases they have shown agency to engage with contemporary (tourism) projects, and with the Bushman brand, for their own benefit (Koot 2017a, Koot 2018).
Commodification does not necessarily mean that those who commodify their identities and/or image will always remain victims of market forces, although it might appear this way at first. Numerous examples show that indigenous groups set up their own entrepreneurial activities based on their authentic ethnicity. In this, there is a good level of tactical and critical consciousness (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009). As such, various groups of Bushmen have shown to use the Bushman brand to their advantage. For example, the ≠Khomani Bushmen in South Africa have shown themselves in the media as the authentic people of the Northern Cape Province to successfully gain back land (see, e.g. Koot and Büscher 2019). Today, some of them perpetuate the usage of the Bushman brand, mostly in tourism. For example, the first thing that catches one’s eye when arriving in their reclaimed land are the craft makers along the road side where they sell souvenirs to tourists, dressed up ‘traditionally’ at their road stalls, or stalletjies in Afrikaans. However, commercial operators of course also benefit from this brand and throughout history more powerful parties have created this brand in the first place (Koot 2016). Commercialised usage of the brand is widespread and highly supported by consultants, private enterprises and NGOs, often promoted as a ‘competitive advantage’ in neoliberal development strategies. For example, the NGO the African Safari Lodge Foundation (ASLF) believes that the ≠Khomani need their “own brand identity” to be able to survive in today’s competitive tourism industry (ASLF 2011, 3), and a marketing company has supported the ≠Khomani in acquiring (free of charge) their own website (http://www.khomanisan.com/). Notably, the company supported the ≠Khomani in developing “their new identity” (FOTK 2015), although it remains unclear what exactly they mean by this. Becoming a ≠Khomani brand, it seems, means that the Bushmen are becoming part of the neoliberal capitalist system predominantly as a brand, and not as ‘authentic’ hunter-gatherers.
Further North, in the Namibian Nyae Nyae Conservancy, a Tourism Development Plan was developed by consultants to prepare for funding (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009). They wrote about the local Ju/’hoansi Bushmen as
universally known to be ancestors of “the world’s first people” and continue to live in harmony with the environment […] It is recommended that the above message be provided to visitors entering the area through the design and construction of regional gateway points (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009, 88).
This recommendation resembles an amusement park for tourists, something that was long ago already described by the famous Ju/’hoansi filmmaker and activist John Marshall as a “plastic Stone Age” (1984), in which tourists enter a geographical area where one can gaze at wildlife and ‘authentic’ Bushmen. Such commodification at times leads to uncomfortable situations, as an employee of an NGO that operates in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy explained:
Within the Conservancy [Ju/’hoansi] people think every tourist that comes, they should make money out of it. They’re starting to make their culture become like a whole business thing […] If anybody wants to take a picture it’s money, money, money, money.
And it is exactly this discomfort that demonstrates the contradiction described above: once Bushmen start to adapt to neoliberal capitalism and capitalise on their own brand, the values and ideas on which the brand is built make the people ‘inauthentic’. On the one hand, the capitalist value of profit maximisation is continually promoted in tourism, based on the economic idea that individuals want to gain financial benefits. On the other hand, this can ‘make their culture become like a whole business thing’ (‘inauthentic’), based on the idea that they should stay authentic and not hanker for money.
But just as with the ≠Khomani and their stalletjies, the Ju/’hoansi also want to benefit from the Bushman brand, as the self-made logo meant to attract tourists near the settlement of Mountain Post, inhabited by Ju/’hoansi, shows:
The global indigenous brand beyond tourism
The idea that a particular group of indigenous people can be seen as a brand, or defines itself as a brand, is certainly not unique to the Bushmen of southern Africa or to tourism only. Recently, the Maasai of Kenya started a legal procedure to protect their ‘cultural heritage’ legally, which has been used by more than 1,000 companies, including Calvin Klein, Jaguar Land Rover, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, while a group of aboriginal Australians are struggling to create protocols that oblige companies who use their images or ancestral lands for marketing or other commercial purposes to pay a fee to them (Pilling 2018). And in the U.S., native Americans performing at Euro-Disney at a ‘Wild West Show’ do not view tourist performances as perpetuating the image of a ‘native savage’. Such performances can create a sense of taking back ownership of native representation through their participation, providing them a chance for cultural exchange, education, cultural pride, and accomplishment (Scarangella 2005).
In all these cases, the indigenous people have not only been exploited under colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, they have also actively responded to and tried to benefit from it. It seems as if indigenous people’s first response to the encroachment of the capitalist world is to selectively transform the usage of commodities for themselves. Therefore, they often have not merely entered the capitalist world economy as passive objects of exploitation; they are also active agents continually engaging in their environment (Sahlins 1992). If they embrace their image as people of nature, indigenous people can use their agency creatively; they commodify their own ‘spectacularisation’ as people of nature (cf. Igoe 2017). It is important to be wary though, that such agency and engagement are derived based on a conformation with dominant values in contemporary society and that they often do not have many other choices.
 I am aware of the contentious character of the term ‘indigenous’, but it goes beyond the scope of this blog to elaborate on this in detail.
 Both ‘Bushmen’ and ‘San’ are debatable terms. I prefer the use of ‘Bushmen’ instead of ‘San’, because most of the indigenous people whom I worked with in southern Africa—practical and as a researcher—told me they preferred this term. I am aware, however, of the colonial, patronising and derogatory connotations that the term ‘Bushmen’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘San’ too) can have (see, e.g. Gordon & Douglas 2000).
 For a debate on private sector-community tourism, the usage of the brand and the consequences of this usage in the South African Northern Cape Province, between myself and Keyan Tomaselli, please check out Koot (2016), Tomaselli (2017) and Koot (2017c).
Pilling, D. 2018. Warrior Tribe Enlists Lawyers in Battle for Maasai ‘Brand’. Financial Times 19 January.
Sahlins, M. (1992) The economics of develop-man in the Pacific. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 12-25.
Scarangella, L. (2005) Fieldwork at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Anthropology News, 46, 17-19.
Sylvain, R. (2014) Essentialism and the Indigenous Politics of Recognition in Southern Africa. American Anthropologist, 116, 251-264.
Tomaselli, K. (2017) Picking on the poor: The contradictions of theory and neoliberal critique. A response to Stasja Koot’s paper on the contradictions of capitalism for indigenous tourism in the South African Kalahari. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1182-1196.
Walker, R. 2006. The Brand Underground. New York Times 30 July.
Authors: Stasja Koot, Catie Gressier and Robert Hitchcock
A series of recent events in southern Africa reveal that the land question—and especially that related to land reform—is a long way from being resolved. There are currently no indications that these issues will be addressed quickly or efficiently. Land reform is at the top of the South African agenda at present, and this is true in Namibia as well, which had its Second Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question in October of 2018. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president after ruling the country for 37 years in November 2017. Arguably, Mugabe’s most controversial political activity had been the fast track land reform programme, in which mostly white farmers were dispossessed of their lands, obviously also having a very strong effect on the, mostly black, farm workers. However, today Zimbabwe’s next president, Emerson Mnangagwa, has announced that Zimbabwe will allow white farmers to get 99-year leases of land again. Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country should speed up the land reform process, including by appropriating white farms without payment of compensation. Likely, Ramaphosa and his party have felt the pressure of new, but highly popular, parties such as the EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters, for whom land appropriation without compensation is their ‘first non-negotiable cardinal pillar’. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the ANC-led government’s budget for land reform has never exceeded 1%, and since 2007 the process has only slowed down (Nkosi 2018). In a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, it is then not surprising that more radical groups like the EFF can easily affect high level policy decisions and national political strategies, when large parts of the population feel their needs are not being addressed and promises remain unfulfilled. All of these issues make up some of the subject matter in a (part) special issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2).
The frustration also shows when white and black farmers get attacked at their farms, attacks that sometimes also come with brutal violence, torture and rape. Of course, such violence should never be allowed, and therefore groups of both whites and blacks have protested against such attacks and asked the government for more protection. What is regrettable though, is that the focus in such protests for some vocal groups remains only on white farm attacks (even white ‘genocide’), and not on violence more generally (see, for example, the view of AfriForum and the response by Elmien du Plessis). In the end, the farm attacks, however brutal and horrific, only form a fraction of the violence in the country (Du Plessis 2018): most of the violence in South Africa (street crime, but also domestic violence) takes place among marginalised people who live in townships or impoverished rural areas. Focusing solely on the white farm attacks arguably creates more racial and economic tensions, strengthening feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’ while ignoring structural issues of racial and economic inequality, which is nowhere as apparent as it is in the land question.
Who does the land belong to? Or: Who belongs to the land?
So in post-independent and post-apartheid southern Africa two questions that are still highly relevant are Who does the land belongs to?, and the preceding question: Who belongs to the land? The answers to both questions create a large variety of contestations: Under neoliberal capitalism, which currently thrives in southern Africa, private ownership is an important anchor. However, ownership of land is not necessarily congruent with the question who belongs to the land. Many instances show that the latter question continues to lead to heated debates and a large variety of political dynamics, of which we will only highlight a few here. ‘To belong’ is to have a sense of connection; it implies familiarity, comfort and ease, alongside feelings of inclusion, acceptance and safety. The way people belong to place is often informed by political strategies, conscious and unconscious, through which access to various rights and resources are sought and contested. Land has long been among the most highly valued of resources, and nowhere has this been more evident than during the liberation struggles across southern Africa. Claims to belong frequently invoke unique relationships to the land and nature (Gressier, 2015), which, in neoliberal contexts, are simultaneously constructed as highly commodified resources, in different ways by various ethnic groups.
A diverse set of ethnic groups is white southern Africans, who remain the most powerful set of ethnic groups from an economic point of view and who have always strongly identified with nature (McDermott Hughes, 2010). Take, for example, how white Namibians who work in the tourism industry and construct belonging through articulating a strong connection to the mostly essentialised local indigenous San people as people of nature (Koot, 2015). Or what about the coloured and white farmers of the highly commodified famous rooibos plantations in South Africa? Both groups struggle to express an ‘authentic’ sense of belonging, but have creatively, and in somewhat different ways, been able to identify more with the plant than with the land (Ives, 2017). These examples are important reminders not to reduce the politics of belonging to place as only a politics of land. And neither is it solely a positive politics; it is mobilised just as frequently in processes of exclusion that are shaped, more often than not, by dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. Take the key issue of labour and its consequent processes of (rural–urban) migration (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019), which keenly demonstrate that ‘inherent to belonging is always the potential for its opposites: insecurity, alienation and exclusion’ (Gressier, 2015). Xhosa people working in Cape Town often keep a strong sense of belonging with their rural homes in Centane in the former Transkei, a phenomenon which is referred to as Ekhayeni (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019). Labour in particular demonstrates how the politics of belonging are integrally related to a variety of economic push and pull factors, with immigrants stereotypically regarded as a threat to an often already limited pool of work; economic migrants, temporary workers, asylum seekers and illegal migrants are then seen as those who do not belong and, as a consequence, are all too frequently confronted with xenophobic violence (Mosselson, 2010).
Indigenous peoples and their many court cases surrounding protected areas
Despite a lack of formal recognition of the unique histories of the region’s indigenous people, the governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are attempting to assist indigenous (mostly San or ‘Bushmen’) communities as ‘marginalised’ or ‘historically disadvantaged’ through various state-sponsored programmes (Sapignoli and Hitchcock, 2013). The San, who are often considered the ‘real’ indigenous people of southern Africa, continue to endure the region’s highest rates of impoverishment, landlessness and political alienation. While material resources are far too frequently scarce, as Richard Lee pointed out, indigenous people have “what migrants and the children of migrants (i.e., most of the rest of us) feel they lack: a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in place” (Lee, 2003, p. ).
Indeed, the San often articulate themselves —and are often articulated by others—as having a special relation to the land and nature. For the last few centuries, they have been among the most prominent victims of evictions for the sake of nature conservation. This is still visible today, when a large variety of San groups are in the middle of a court case or has won court cases already to get (access to) land. The Hai//om of northern Namibia, for example, have filed a collective action lawsuit in 2015, to be able to receive a share of the benefits from the highly profitable tourist gem Etosha National Park and from an area called Mangetti West. However, the Namibian government continues to push those Hai//om who still live in the Etosha park out, under the banner of ‘voluntary’ resettlement. Large donors and the Hai//om traditional authority (who was appointed by the government and not democratically elected) support this process (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Such problems with traditional authorities seem to be widespread over southern Africa, from Namibia in the West all the way to northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in the East, and it does not seem to be restricted to indigenous people only (Aardenburg and Nel, 2019). Meanwhile, the Hai//om at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, to the east of Etosha National Park, experience a high level of in-migration, which leads to a variety of social problems, including the rise of shebeens (where the sale of alcohol leads to many socio-cultural problems, such as prostitution, violence and ethnic tensions). Ironically, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 the land reform programme has predominantly favoured those with good connections in the government instead of marginalised groups, showing new elitism based on the privatisation of property. And further to the north, impoverished Hai//om at Mangetti West are today denied access to large tracts of land where they used to gather for food because cattle farmers from far away have now illegally fenced off large parts of the area (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Other San groups have also experienced difficulties with illegal fencing in northern Namibia, such as the San of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy. Despite winning a court case against the illegal fencers in 2016, so far the fences have not been removed and no pressure seems to have been put on the illegal fencers, despite the Minister of Environment and Tourism himself stating that the government will “ensure that the rights of the San are protected” (Namibian Sun, 2016, see also Van der Wulp and Koot, 2019).
Furthermore, in neighbouring Botswana, the G//ana and G/wi San and Bakgalagadi of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) continue to be cut off from most government services. This is the latest strategy in the Botswanan state’s sustained campaign to evict residents from the protected area, despite the San having won four (!) court cases affirming their right to continue to reside within the CKGR (Sapignoli, 2018). Such strategies, as well as the land reform programme in Namibia, make you understand why many San in southern Africa consider the ‘new’ governments just as bad as, or at times worse than, colonial governments. Moreover, in South Africa, where the ≠Khomani San have received eight farms back based on past evictions from the current Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is not always a given that receiving land ‘back’ automatically also accounts for ‘development’: throughout the years the meaning of land has essentially changed from a ‘total environment’ that was taken away from hunting and gathering people under colonialism, to land as a purely commodified resource today, meant for the development of people who are identifying as hunter-gatherers, but who are first of all people of contemporary society where there is hardly any space for a ‘real’ hunting and gathering lifestyle (Koot and Büscher, 2019).
Aardenburg, E. and Nel, A. ‘Fatalism and Dissidence in Dukuduku, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Ongoing Contestations over Land, Resources and Identity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Gressier, C., At Home in the Okavango: White Batswana Narratives of Emplacement and Belonging (Oxford, Berghahn, 2015).
McDermott Hughes, D., Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Ives, S., Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea (London, Duke University Press, 2017).
Koot, S. ‘White Namibians in Tourism and the Politics of Belonging through Bushmen’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(1–2), (2015), pp. 4–15.
Koot, S. and Büscher, B., ‘Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Koot, S. and Hitchcock, R., ‘In the Way: Perpetuating Land Dispossession of the Indigenous Hai//om and the Collective Action Lawsuit for Etosha National Park and Mangetti West, Namibia’, Nomadic Peoples, 23, (2019), pp. 55-77.
Koot, S., Hitchcock, R. and Gressier, C., ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Lee, R. ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa’, in B. Dean and J.M. Levi (eds), At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 80–111
Mosselson, A. ‘“There is no Difference between Citizens and Non-citizens Anymore”: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3) (2010), pp. 641–55
Sapignoli, M., Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Sapignoli, M. and Hitchcock, R., ‘Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa’, The Round Table, 102(4), (2013), pp. 355–65.
Van der Wulp, C. and Koot, S., ‘Immaterial Indigenous Modernities in the Struggle against Illegal Fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Namibia: Genealogical Ancestry and ‘San-ness’ in a ‘Traditional Community’’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Jessica Hope is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Momentum is gathering behind bids to make academia more diverse and equal. Part of this is about better recognising care responsibilities, which for me personally is about childcare. Since having my two year old, I have been increasingly involved in work to better recognise the challenges facing academics with children, for example how to negotiate career breaks or do fieldwork. In this blog, however, I want to write a personal and positive account of how good fieldwork with children can be, when well supported. I hope that this offers some support and encouragement for those wondering what they can manage or ask for and that it contributes to widening conversations about academic lives.
I have now been to Bolivia twice with my child. First, during my maternity leave when she was 9 months old (for 2 months) and secondly, in April when she was two (for a month). Both trips were great and I would deem them a success, both in terms of collecting data and as family time. In this brief blog, I’ll focus on the most recent trip and write about three key things – being supported economically; the practicalities of travel with a toddler; and the positives for my child.
This recent trip with my duaghter was much more relaxed than the first, in terms of feeling able to spend my funding on childcare costs. I have a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowship at the University of Bristol and these come with £5,000 research funds per year. This money is for my project and I secured approval to use some of it to pay for my daughters travel costs and those of my sister, who left her life in Berlin for a month to help me with Evie. Following conversations at the RGS and within DARG, this time around I felt much more justified in asking for (and spending) money on Bella and my daughters trip. The first important part of this was that I could choose the best care arrangements for my child. Bolivian childcare infrastructure is not ideal for an English-speaking foreigner, especially one moving between three fieldsites whilst there. Settling young children into nurseries is also no small thing wherever you are and the thought of putting Evie in a new nursery each week filled me with dread (I will, however, put her into a nursery when I go on fieldwork to Canada later in the year). Instead, the worries about having my toddler with me in Bolivia (and leaving her whilst I worked) was greatly reduced because she was with my sister – someone we both know and love. The second important part of being supported economically stems from uprooting Bella and my daughters lives for a month. It was a big deal for them to come to Bolivia for me but what helped make this a positive and happy time for us, and not just a productive time for me, was that I had the funding to cover our costs and live securely and happily whilst there.
For this short tip, I went to 3 field sites and carefully planned for heat, mosquitos and altitude. In terms of practicalities, my big take home point from doing fieldwork with Evie is book an apartment. Being stuck in a tiny hotel room made our first trip stressful and strange upon arrival. However, this time we had space. We could keep to my daughters routines, we could cook and, most importantly, we had a lovely home environment in each place. We could put my daughter to bed and have time to ourselves before going to sleep (20 minutes later) and our apartments offered some breathing space from all the newness and work (for everyone). Finally, I want it in print that I got strong. Really strong. I took one big hold-all for me and my child. I had a dictaphone, a tripod, my phone, some notepads and about 2 outfits. The rest of the bag was filled with stickers, books, soft toys and the clothes she needed for both the heat of the lowlands and the cold of La Paz. The bag was akin to a small garden shed. In addition to carrying a shed, I had a buggy and, ofcourse, a toddler. She was amazing during the trip but often wanted carried when in a bus station or busy airport at night. I couldn’t refuse and so would find myself carrying a huge bag and a toddler, up and down the Andes. In case my sister reads this, I should also come clean that option two was that I had the child and a smaller bag, whilst Bella carried everything else and pushed the buggy (thanks Bella).
I want to end by saying that this trip has scored high, in terms of lovely time spent with my sister and child. Some of our evenings together were magic – playing games, making masks or (endlessly) sticking stickers. I loved our breakfasts – sat together eating porridge before heading out on our separate adventures. My daughter missed her Dad (and he missed her terribly) but apart from that, I think it was a really positive experience for her. She experienced new places and worlds, she realised more about different languages and sounds. She tried new foods. She is definitely more confident as a result (not so good when she’s happy to run off at a busy market) but, most importantly, as the trip went on all that was different became less strange and more normal for her and it feels like her world has widened.
Ante la catástrofe ecológica es necesario dar vida a un cambio cultural profundo a través del decrecimiento. A nivel de movilidad urbana el vehículo eléctrico representa la defensa del dogma del crecimiento económico ilimitado.
André Gorz ya lo escribió en 1974: «La ecología es como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical: en un primer momento, todos los burgueses y todos los partidarios del orden os dicen que queréis su ruina, y el triunfo de la anarquía y el oscurantismo. Después, cuando las circunstancias y la presión popular se hacen irresistibles, os conceden lo que ayer os negaban y, fundamentalmente, no cambia nada». Cuarenta y cinco años más tarde, fundamentalmente, no ha cambiado nada. Ni las cumbres del clima (de Berlín a Katowice) ni los protocolos y acuerdos (de Kioto a París) han conseguido minar las bases de la economía neoliberal. Los partidarios del orden conceden una aparente atención hacia los problemas ambientales, sin embargo todo permanece igual. La economía neoliberal muestra formalmente interés en ocuparse de las exigencias ecológicas, en realidad absorbiéndolas en su lógica.
Así que se propone solucionar la catástrofe climática con propuestas que siguen alimentando la economía del crecimiento, sin descarrilamientos. En el ámbito de la movilidad urbana, por ejemplo, el coche eléctrico se convierte en el elemento perfecto para conceder lo que ayer os negaban para que, fundamentalmente, no cambie nada. Se añade el prefijo eco- a una producción que sigue generando beneficio y destruyendo el planeta. La anarquía no ha triunfado.
Resulta evidente, sin necesidad de ser un experto, que la implementación de un sistema de transporte metropolitano que apuesta por el vehículo privado motorizado no cambiaría sustancialmente la situación. Por un lado se traslada el problema de los combustibles fósiles a la fuente de producción de la energía necesaria para alimentar los coches, que para reducir las emisiones de CO² tendría que ser energía verde. Por otro lado el proceso de producción de los vehículos eléctricos — la energía utilizada, los materiales y las consiguientes emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero— tiene un importante impacto ambiental, debido en gran parte a la producción de las baterías, que requieren minerales y metales altamente contaminantes (nickel, plomo y cobre). En cuanto a la contaminación atmosférica, no se eliminarían las micropartículas generadas por el desgaste de frenos, embragues, neumáticos y asfalto, que representan una fuente importante de contaminación (PM10). Además, el tráfico sería el mismo, así como el espacio robado al caminante, a las exigencias de juego de los niños, a la vida comunitaria, a la naturaleza, a la agricultura urbana, a los trazados urbanos irregulares que generan perspectivas nuevas. Las muertes por accidentes de tráfico no variarían. Desde luego tampoco los beneficios de la industria automovilística disminuirían, así como su omnipresencia en la vida urbana, su concentración de poder, su injerencia en los asuntos políticos. Sería un ecoinmovilismo.
Para enfrentarse al problema vital representado por la catástrofe ecológica es necesario cuestionar el dogma de nuestra economía: el crecimiento. Hasta que no se cuestione el crecimiento, por ende el capitalismo, éste seguirá destruyendo el planeta con su consumo ilimitado de la naturaleza. Cualquier medida que eluda el núcleo de la cuestión resultaría siendo un paliativo que mantiene el actual inmovilismo ante la catástrofe ecológica inminente, con la agravante de retrasar la implementación de las medidas necesarias a intentar salvar la vida en el planeta.
El decrecimiento, nacido de las reflexiones de autores como Ivan Illich y André Gorz en los años setenta — cuando la situación planetaria aún no había llegado a los peligrosos límites que estamos viviendo hoy en día— , ha alcanzado finalmente su momento de legibilidad. El decrecimiento representa hoy la única solución para un cambio cultural profundo cuya implementación es urgente.
Los problemas que estamos viviendo no son climáticos, sino económicos. Por ende las soluciones no deben ser tecnológicas, sino principalmente económicas y políticas. El verdadero cambio cultural sería producir las condiciones que permitan contradecir a André Gorz, para que la ecología no sea como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical.
Volviendo al ámbito de la movilidad urbana, la solución no se encuentra en la tecnología, o sea la implementación del uso del coche eléctrico. La solución consiste en impulsar una cultura nueva, una cultura, como decía Colin Ward, de la libertad de circular después del fin de la
dependencia del automóvil [After the motor age]. La sinergia entre un sistema de transporte público gratuito, la organización de la ciudad basada en distancias cortas y el uso del medio de transporte que mejor representa la relación pacífica y respetuosa entre seres humanos y naturaleza — la bicicleta, simple, comprensible, mensajera de una cultura nueva— sería la solución que impulsaría el movimiento de personas e ideas hacia la ciudad del decrecimiento, basada en una ética y unas prácticas nuevas en todos los ámbitos, más allá de la movilidad, reduciendo drásticamente el uso de energía.
La solución está en el cuestionamiento del capitalismo, desautorizando el dogma del consumo ilimitado y la destrucción de los equilibrios naturales, y la organización de una sociedad que ponga en el centro la vida, el ambiente, las relaciones humanas entre iguales y los bienes comunes, devolviendo las calles a las personas, al juego, a la naturaleza, al vivir y pensar en común.
Luego, si el género humano conseguirá proseguir su camino en este planeta, habría que ocuparse del sufragio universal y del descanso dominical.
Today’s blog comes from Dr Jessica Hope, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the upcoming Development Studies Association (#DSA2019) conference, Jessica will present on the early-career plenary panel. You can follow her on Twitter.
As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas – those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist development logics are being maintained and reworked.
Bolivia is an insightful case through which to investigate reiterations of sustainable development. With the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, himself an indigenous social movement leader, Bolivia was looked to as one of the most radical countries in Latin America’s move left. New development and environmental ideas and policies were enacted by the state, which have mostly promoted indigenous knowledges, rights and anti-colonial agendas. Particularly relevant to the environmental remit of the SDGs are those that re-conceptualised development as Vivir Bien/‘Good Living’ (replacing targets for economic growth with targets for social and environmental well-being), granted legal rights to nature and pledged significantly enhanced territorial rights to indigenous and campesino groups. Yet, since 2009, intensifying commitments to extractivism have come to dominate Bolivian politics and debates, as well override progressiveagendas. In 2015, the Morales administration set out commitments for Bolivia to be the ‘energy heart of Latin America’ – expanding hydrocarbon infrastructure and exports to include fracking, hydropower megaprojects and solar farms. It is in the context of this contested politics that the SDGs are being implemented.
In terms of thinking differently, I have found assemblage theory useful to researching and analyzing the SDGs in Bolivia. Assemblage theory foregrounds the ways realities come into being through particular (and changing) relationships and connections between, for example, objects, places, institutions, discourses and policies. Drawing on how Deleuze and Guatarri’s theories of assemblage (agencement) have been used in social science, primarily by Tania Murray Li, I have used assemblage thinking to analyse how powerful common-senses are being made, maintained and reworked. In Bolivia, adopting this approach has firstly foregrounded how the take-up of the SDGs emerges in relation to existing development agendas, actors and networks. The SDGs are primarily being operationalized by the state, by international NGOs and by their national partners. Secondly, the goals were brought into existing initiatives, rather than causing a wholesale reappraisal of development work. Thirdly, I found that, crucially, the SDGs assemblage is disciplined – with NGOs, for example, being clear that their work could not address disputes between the state and civil society. This meant the contentious politics of extractivism is excluded from sustainable development projects and discourse. A fourth finding about is that through its emergence, disciplining and holding together, progressive discourses are being “deployed to new ends”. The central government has aligned its commitments to the SDGs with their interpretations of Vivir Bien, which fall within the parameters of an extractive-led development model. So rather than providing support to those contesting extractive-led development, the SDGs are helping to consolidate its hegemony. This interpretation and deployment of Vivir Bien is contradictory to how Vivir Bien has been conceptualized and advocated by activists and scholars. In their critical reading, Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir provides an alternative to sustainable development, as it decentres growth and instead moves toward a more holistic measure of wellbeing (including how communities live with and treat nature). In summary, assemblage thinking reveals that the SDGs are acting as a form of anti-politics – rendering neutral and technical the contested environment/development politics of Bolivia.
Finally, and in answer to my second question, I have used assemblage thinking to identify a counter-assemblage that is emerging and consolidating in relation to the exclusions outlined above. This means identifying the organisations, discourses, politics, landscapes and histories that are coming together in exclusion from mainstream development agendas in Bolivia and in opposition to extractivism. What I find exciting is that assemblage thinking enables the inclusion of material components too – trees, riverways, habitats, wildlife, canoes, speedboats and roads. Following the work of urban geographers, for example Ash Amin, this opens-up interesting lines of enquiry into the sociality and liveliness of particular territories, as place, and how they are generative of reworked and progressive environment/development politics. In this new work, I am researching the generative liveliness of the hybrid spaces that partly emerge from policies for conservation, territory, collectivity and extractivism. Despite calls for academics to make a pragmatic step to get behind the SDGs, the Bolivian case has made me question this step and, instead, I plan to examine the stifled, excluded, contentious and more transformative politics of the counter-assemblage.
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