Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: James Beveridge

Fri, September 7, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: James Beveridge

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student James Beveridge, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

You are conducting your fieldwork in Ecuador at the moment, can you tell us what you are working on, and what you hope to accomplish?

At its most basic my research focuses on Buen Vivir/Sumak Kawsay in Ecuador and Bolivia. About a decade ago, both nations formulated new constitutions and national decolonial projects based on these indigenous concepts of well-being. This involved unprecedented rights for the environment and indigenous territories. The goal was to realize a vision of development that seeks to overcome the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism. Basically, these concepts of well-being are emphasized to meet the needs of the citizenry and state while protecting cultural (human) and biological (environmental) diversity. This is all problematic, especially since both nations are intensifying mega development projects and natural resource extraction to fund these national decolonial development projects. Ecuador, in particular, is expanding petroleum extraction and mining in protected areas such as indigenous territories and national parks, the very places that received rigorous legal status and protection under the 2008 constitution.

You are conducting your fieldwork speaking Kichwa, why did you decide to use this language over Spanish?

I conduct my research in this nexus of protected areas and extraction, in two adjacent indigenous territories in the Pastaza province of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The communities in the two territories are native Kichwa speaking, and the majority of people also speak Spanish, especially the younger community members. Methodologically, I have made the commitment to learn Kichwa and conduct my fieldwork speaking Kichwa. It would be possible to get by conducting research only in Spanish, but I think this would be severely limiting in a number of senses, and I think it also contributes to the current overall (although not irreversible) trend of native language loss. This is a no-brainer for linguistic anthropologists, but sociocultural anthropologists sometimes limit themselves to colonial languages. The good thing is that for my research area in Ecuador, there is a significant genealogy of anthropologists learning and working in Kichwa language. Certainly for understanding Sumak Kawsay and Kichwa perspectives of the world, speaking the language is essential…anything else is translation.

Have you encountered any issues of indigenous perspectives literally being lost in translation?

This has been precisely the problem with Sumak Kawsay. First, let us go ahead and approximate the translation as “good life” or “beautiful life”, which does not capture the meaning with any sense of accuracy, and no translation could. It has been argued that this concept originates in the Pastaza province of Ecuador where I am working. While I am not particularly interested in locating a point of origin, either time or place, it is important to consider how Sumak Kawsay may never have been a “concept” as much as an understanding of what a quality life means to Amazonian people. Moreover, how this has traveled over time, from the Amazon, to a pan-indigenous (including highland indigenous) mobilizing discourse, to now being inscribed as ‘Buen Vivir’ (Spanish translation of Sumak Kawsay) in the Ecuadorian national constitution by a multicultural mestizo-led assembly.

Through this translation and travel, Sumak Kawsay and Buen Vivir are ubiquitous in everyday Ecuador, in schoolbooks and billboards. These terms take on a broad range of meanings, used to justify about anything, from an anti-western hegemonic national development vision discourse to consumerism (I’ve heard it said that having a cell phone is Buen Vivir!). In the constitution itself, there are lots of references to harmony, equality, sustainability, Mother Earth (Pachamama), etc., all of it very vague and abstract with no concrete references to where this might actually and specifically exist.

Can you walk us through your intellectual genealogy and how you have arrived at your current place of scholarship?

I received my undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Latin American Studies from UT-Austin, so I have a long trajectory of working with UT faculty. I was fortunate to be able to have Shannon Speed and Charlie Hale supervise my undergraduate senior honors thesis, and I also spent a lot of my undergraduate time simply going around and bothering graduate students such as Tane Ward, Giovanni Batz, and Christina Gonzalez for advice. For the honors thesis I knew I wanted to examine the Bolivian government’s plan to construct a highway through the TIPNIS Indigenous Territory and National Park in the Amazon, but I had no idea how to actually conduct research. The graduate students were extremely helpful in orienting me in what to look for and how to think about megaproject/resource extractivist development such as highways, dams, oil extraction and mining. I have always been appreciative of the time they took to speak with and give advice to a mere lowly undergraduate.

In those years the Latin American Studies department under Hale’s direction was a locus of first class scholarship. It was an exciting time to be a part of Llilas. I immersed myself in indigenous rights and resistance in the Americas. Even as indigenous groups gained collective land titles, the legal frameworks these territorial rights were enshrined in compelled indigenous groups’ participation in political institutions and economic state and corporate development initiatives. FPIC, or the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent or Consultation functioned in many cases as a mechanism to extract indigenous groups’ consent for extractivist and megadevelopment projects. Not only were such rights sometimes apparently working against the collective interests of indigenous groups, consultation processes and negotiations fomented and intensified conflict within indigenous groups, fragmenting their unity and weakening their sovereignty. This was true of the TIPNIS case in the Bolivian Amazon, and was precisely what I focused on in my senior honors thesis.

However, these frameworks of indigenous rights and resistance, especially in the context of global neoliberalism, and the work cultural anthropologists were doing in Bolivia, could not fully explain what was going on in the indigenous led, anti-imperialist Bolivian state project. While ensconced in cultural anthropology and indigenous studies as an undergraduate, I was simultaneously getting trained by Anthropology faculty working in the fertile nexus of the social and natural sciences, such as Kim TallBear, Debra Bolnick, and John Hartigan Jr.  These scholars were examining the interplay between the social, genetic, and environmental. Through Kim TallBear in particular I was introduced to STS (Science and Technology Studies) and Feminist Science Scholars such as Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and numerous others. This was an incredible influence on my thinking of science, not only in puncturing the illusion of science as it is assumed to be objective and apolitical, but also how social and cultural analysis all too often ignores natural science and the material. I also spent some time moonlighting in geography classes taught by cultural geographer Greg Knapp and others where I became really interested in political ecology. Political ecology’s focus on the social-environmental, as co-productive, cohered with what I was learning with TallBear, Bolnick, and Hartigan, as well as with my own research I was conducting in the Bolivian Amazon.

Two key frameworks have emerged in recent years, multispecies studies and ontological politics, and this is I where I situate my current research. Both of these frameworks come out of the theoretical landscapes I mentioned above: Political Ecology, STS, Feminist Science, etc., and concern theorizing beyond key binaries that undergird western epistemology such as nature/culture and human/nonhuman, a concept of the human that is separate and exists outside of nature and the environment. Cohering with my research, there has been a call in both ontological politics and multispecies studies to bring them into conversation with indigenous studies, in particular indigenous ontology, epistemology, and indigenous science.

So, with your academic background, how does your research differ from other indigenous studies scholarship?

My master’s thesis examined attempts to realize Sumak Kawsay/Buen Vivir through development projects that drew on both western science and indigenous knowledge. I examined the renovation of an indigenous university in the TIPNIS, a project that was counterpoint to the Bolivian government’s plan to impose the highway: something that has been completely overlooked in scholarship on the TIPNIS.

And now for my doctoral research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I have really concentrated my research more and more into multispecies studies and ontological politics. Rather than investigate Sumak Kawsay/Buen Vivir and development through indigenous knowledge/western science, I am plumbing the depths of Amazonian Kichwa relational ontology and philosophy. The broad range of meanings that Sumak Kawsay and Buen Vivir have taken on, as I mentioned in question 3, is what has led me to try to understand Amazonian Kickwa ways of being and knowing in the communities in Pastaza, Ecuador. Generally, Amazonian indigenous ontology falls under what scholars have named perspectivism (Viveiros de Castro) or a relational ontology. I think a lot of the scholarship on indigenous ontologies, especially from within the ontological politics/ontological turn debates in anthropology have asked the wrong questions and begin their conversation from problematic assumptions.

I am trying to understand the logic of Amazonian Kichwa relationality through companion species. Specifically how the Amazonian Kichwa communities I work with make relations with certain nonhumans (multispecies) to mediate the world. I am examining the specific practices of Amazonian Kichwas to maintain relations with the forest, in three realms: animals, plants, and supays (spirit owners). They make relations with certain animals such as dogs, coatis, and primates to alert them of dangers such as other potentially threatening animals, including humans, and weather changes. They also make relations with certain individuals of plant species through cultivation and harvesting, and restrict others through clearing forest and selection. I argue that relation-making with animals and plants is a way of establishing territory, of negotiating space and privacy between Amazonian Kichwa folks and other humans, the forest, animals. There is hierarchy and power and othering in play in negotiating the world. This clearly is quite different from any conception of relational ontology or Sumak Kawsay that is predicated on harmony or balance or equality. In contrast, Amazonian Kichwa logic of relations is not based on harmony, equality, or sustainability as concepts in the way they are deployed by the Ecuadorian government or indigenous rights and environmental conservation NGOs. Rather, these relations are fundamentally hierarchical, impermanent, and always potentially dangerous.

This research seems very personal. Why is this research important to you?

Well, I think understanding Amazonian Kichwa relationality is fundamentally about negotiating danger, and understanding the specific practices employed by the Kichwas to mediate those relations has a great deal to teach other societies about how to set boundaries and mediate differences between human groups and between humans and nonhumans. At the heart of the matter is care and ethics. This relationality does not only function in the Amazonian forest, but it is a hyper-concentrated set of relations. Again, there is much to learn and I believe Kichwa philosophy needs to be valorized, and for me it is not a jump to say the Kichwa philosophers themselves need to be valorized. This doesn’t mean unquestioningly accepting their ontological truth claims, as many of the ontological politics/turn scholars problematically do, but the Kichwa philosophers need to be sitting not just at the table where development plans for their territory are being decided, but at the epistemological table as well.

I’m not naïve about this, and I know it might seem unrealistic, but the group of Pastaza Kichwas where I am working are about to launch a Kawsak Sacha (‘Living Forest’) proposal for life based on the tenets of their philosophy. They are active participants in world-making, not at all just objects of anthropological and scientific inquiry. Awareness of climate change hazards has been a huge wake up, providing incontrovertible evidence that humans cannot continue on the same path that sees nature as endless resources to be exploited (among other follies). The Kawsak Sacha proposal for life should be taken seriously not just as a means of protecting their territory, but as an doorway to rethinking our own relations between ourselves as groups of humans and between humans and our multispecies relatives.

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