Indigenous Resource Governance in Latin America



Christine Hunefeldt, (History),

Faculty Group Members:

Leon Zamosc (Sociology)

Abigail Andrews (Sociology)

Matt Vitz (History)

Paul Goldstein (Archaeology/Anthropology)

Nancy Postero (Anthropology)

David Mares (Political Science)

CILAS visiting scholar John Andrew McNeish, Professor of International Development and Environmental Studies at Norwegian University of Life Sciences- NMBU


Since the time of the European conquest of Latin America, indigenous communities have born the brunt of natural resource extraction. Extractive development such as mining, dams, and oil and gas extraction continues to threaten indigenous lands and livelihoods across the continent. Scholars and activists have described how this development model has exacerbated racial inequalities, fomented socio-environmental conflict, and, more recently, contributed to climate change. This faculty collaboratory takes another tack: rather than reinforcing the stereotype of indigenous peoples reacting to changing circumstances through acts of resistance, this group analyzes how indigenous communities have and continue to respond proactively to the challenges of governance of their territories. We will bring together scholars from across UCSD as well as visiting scholar John Andrew McNeish to think about this issue from a variety of disciplinary perspectives: history, archaeology, anthropology, political economy, and environmental studies.

Throughout time, indigenous peoples developed strategies of survival, responding to environmental challenges and/or altering environmental givens. For instance, in the Andean/Amazonian region, one of the most diverse demographic and environmental regions in the world, with altitudes ranging from below zero to more than 5,000 meters above sea level, indigenous groups developed a vast range of demographic and technological possibilities, from the “vertical archipelago” Murra described in the Andes to the dispersed hunting and gathering technologies of Amazonian nomads. The Aztecs of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) turned islands in a lake into a booming metropolis. Research about these topics was initially based on classification systems like those of Alexander von Humboldt’s iconic research in the 1800s, which catalogued the region’s peoples, animals, plants, geographies in service of colonialism. It was only by the mid-twentieth century that researchers began observing indigenous ways of cataloguing and managing natural resources. More recently, scholars turned to “folk taxonomies”, “ethnobotany”, and “ethnoscience” to understand the complexities of indigenous resource management.  Over the course of these studies, Western ideas about “sustainable” indigenous practices, which often essentialized the ways in which indigenous peoples perceive and interact with their environment, gradually gave way to more complex understandings. Scholars now understand that indigenous forms of resource management do not guarantee sustainability, but are instead complex relations with political economic processes that change over time.

In the contemporary moment, it seems ever more urgent to bring natural resource management strategies to the forefront of research, by asking how indigenous management strategies have changed over time and why, and the ways indigenous/traditional forms of management co-exist and conflict with non-indigenous technologies. As extractivist development continues to threaten indigenous peoples’ lands, they face pressing issues of loss of control over local resources, migration, loss of biodiversity and indigenous languages, pollution and toxins, and climate change with melting glaciers.

Yet, during the last decades of political organizing, indigenous peoples have also sought and gained legal title to significant areas of land. McNeish and colleagues characterize this as "resource sovereignties"—where local communities not only express concerns about environmental destruction, but also match them with claims for territorial rights and autonomy. In addition, as Postero has documented, new forms of indigenous autonomy have started to expand local indigenous communities’ possibilities of self-government. In many such cases, indigenous organizations are faced with daunting questions of how to bring extractivist policies into synch with local needs and beliefs.  Do they use the profits from gas exploitation to fund their self-determination efforts? Thus, we want to consider the larger political and social dialectic in which local indigenous communities are engaged in what we are calling "indigenous environmental governance".

The group will spend the year reading together some of the ever-growing literatures on indigenous studies, political ecology, environmental studies, and political theory. We will also invite three to five speakers to campus next year, choosing scholars whose work will assist us in drafting our proposal.  Suggested scholars are: Marcus Taylor (Dept of Global Development, Queens University, UK, resilience and climate change); Marie-Therese Gustafson (Department of Political Science, Stockholm University, indigenous governance, who will be at Harvard this coming year); Bret Gustafson (Anthropology, Washington University St. Louis, geopolitics of extractivism in the Amazon), Susanna Sawyer (Anthropology, UC Davis, extractivism and indigenous politics), John Cameron (Department of International Development, Dalhousie, CA, indigenous autonomies), Tom Perreault (Department of Geography, Syracuse University, geographies of extractivism), Charlie Hale and Rosamel Millamán (Anthropology UTexas, and U Chile, collaborative research on forestry certification in Chile) and Julio C. Postigo, and Kenneth R. Young, authors of "Naturaleza y sociedad : Perspectivas socio-ecológicas sobre cambios globales en América Latina".

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