Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes

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In Territories of Difference, Arturo Escobar, author of the widely debated book Encountering Development, analyzes the politics of difference enacted by specific place-based ethnic and environmental movements in the context of neoliberal globalization. His analysis is based on his many years of engagement with a group of Afro-Colombian activists of Colombia’s Pacific rainforest region, the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN). Escobar offers a detailed ethnographic account of PCN’s visions, strategies, and practices, and he chronicles and analyzes the movement’s struggles for autonomy, territory, justice, and cultural recognition. Yet he also does much more. Consistently emphasizing the value of local activist knowledge for both understanding and social action and drawing on multiple strands of critical scholarship, Escobar proposes new ways for scholars and activists to examine and apprehend the momentous, complex processes engulfing regions such as the Colombian Pacific today.

Escobar illuminates many interrelated dynamics, including the Colombian government’s policies of development and pluralism that created conditions for the emergence of black and indigenous social movements and those movements’ efforts to steer the region in particular directions. He examines attempts by capitalists to appropriate the rainforest and extract resources, by developers to set the region on the path of modernist progress, and by biologists and others to defend this incredibly rich biodiversity “hot-spot” from the most predatory activities of capitalists and developers. He also looks at the attempts of academics, activists, and intellectuals to understand all of these complicated processes. Territories of Difference is Escobar’s effort to think with Afro-Colombian intellectual-activists who aim to move beyond the limits of Eurocentric paradigms as they confront the ravages of neoliberal globalization and seek to defend their place-based cultures and territories.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] wonderful, demanding, and courageous book. . . . It offers a theoretically informed perspective on social movements in the global South, anchored in questions specific to these actors and in dialogue with them. With his book, Escobar contributes an innovative method to the study of social movements.” - Pierre Hamel, American Journal of Sociology

“This book, magisterial in its command of an impressive range of theory and literature, is a provocative and cutting-edge guide to thinking about place, capital, nature, development, identity, and networks. . . . [I]n the sheer power, depth, and complexity of the analysis and in the author’s ethical engagement and belief in the possibility of ‘worlds and knowledges otherwise,’ the book is a superb achievement.” - Peter Wade, Hispanic American Historical Review

Territories of Difference will become a classic . . . . [I]t is a mesmerizingly ambitious and provocative inquiry into social, cultural, biological, and economic life in the 21st century. It is also a highly original approach to the study of contemporary forms of domination and resistance that challenges Eurocentric conceptions of capitalist globalization and calls for alternatives to modernity.” - Ulrich Oslender, American Ethnologist

“A wonderful, massive tour de force by one of today’s leading anthropologists. Arturo Escobar links his ethnography to a series of larger pressing debates about globalization and development, biology and nature, and social movements and network theory. The result is a book of astonishing virtuosity, range, and insight. It is nothing less than a model for the dense, interdisciplinary, polyglot theoretical analysis needed to understand experience anywhere in the world today.”—Orin Starn, author of Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian and co-editor of The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics

“Books, like wines, take time to mature and develop their full strength. Then they are a delight, and not just for specialists. Arturo Escobar’s eloquent, engaged, and extremely well informed narrative of the Afro-Colombian movements in their struggles to defend their territories and ways of life is, to my mind, the best book on social movements to have appeared in years. It combines, in a unique way, the minutely traced complexity of the struggles and their evolving contexts with much broader issues that appeal to and impact all of us, such as biodiversity, alternatives to development, sustainability of life on earth, and social and cognitive justice. We, academics, students, activists of social movements, cannot but be powerfully interpellated by this landmark book, and can only honor it by reading it attentively, as one savors a good wine.”—Boaventura de Sousa Santos, editor of Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies

“Books, like wines, take time to mature and develop their full strength. Then they are a delight, and not just for specialists. Arturo Escobar’s eloquent, engaged, and extremely well informed narrative of the Afro-Colombian movements in their struggles to defend their territories and ways of life is, to my mind, the best book on social movements to have appeared in years. It combines, in a unique way, the minutely traced complexity of the struggles and their evolving contexts with much broader issues that appeal to and impact all of us, such as biodiversity, alternatives to development, sustainability of life on earth, and social and cognitive justice. We, academics, students, activists of social movements, cannot but be powerfully interpellated by this landmark book, and can only honor it by reading it attentively, as one savors a good wine.”—Boaventura de Sousa Santos, editor of Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies

“The product of a lifetime of work on the pitfalls of development, Arturo Escobar’s new book is an engaging and engaged effort to bring together knowledge from Western academia and from Afro-Colombian activists. Through his own blend of discursive theory, he makes academia listen, in the words of one of his local interlocutors, to the ‘drumming’ of a place subjected to capital but resistant to it, brightly illuminating at once the geopolitics of knowledge and of modern empires.”—Fernando Coronil, author of The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela

“This book invites us all into alternative projects of world-making. Never losing sight of the forces pushing back at us or the colonizing power of Western thinking, Arturo Escobar marshals an extraordinary array of intellectual resources and social networks to galvanize hopeful action. He grounds his honest yet truly inspiring vision in the place-based knowledge and global activism of his longstanding collaborators, the and resilient and resourceful Afro-Colombian activists of the Pacific region.”—J. K. Gibson-Graham, authors of A Postcapitalist Politics and The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy

“Arturo Escobar brings his signature commitments—a focus on the materiality of place, nature, and environmental politics, and a recognition of difference and the inescapable histories of coloniality—to an analysis of regional ecological and cultural struggles in Colombia. It is a singularly original contribution, both empirically and theoretically, which forces us to confront the real complexities of capitalism, identities, and political struggle. This book should be required reading for everyone interested in contemporary forms of globalization and economies, as well as the social movements organized against them.”—Lawrence Grossberg, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Arturo Escobar is the Kenan Distinguished Teaching Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is the author of Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, winner of the Best Book Award from the New England Council of Latin American Studies, and Más Allá del Tercer Mundo: Globalización y Diferencia. He is a co-editor of World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power; Women and the Politics of Place; The World Social Forum: Challenging Empires; and Cultures of Politics/Politics of Cultures: Revisioning Latin American Social Movements.

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Read an Excerpt


place, movements, life, redes
By Arturo Escobar


Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4344-8

Chapter One


Esta tierra es nuestra Aquí hemos sido árboles y pájaros Hemos aprendido El ritmo de las olas Para convertirnos en hijos del agua ... Esta tierra es nuestra Como la felicidad Que hemos inventado

Esta es nuestra tierra La hemos fundado con dolor y sangre Es lecho de nuestros sueños libres Cuna de nuestros anhelos Y tumba de nuestros viejos Aquí el agua tiene sabor a nosotros -From the collection Esta Tierra es Nuestra, by the Tumaco artist and popular communications activist Jaime Rivas, produced by Fundación Habla/Scribe, Cali, 1993.

[This land is ours Here we've been trees and birds And learned the rhythm of the waves And become children of the water ... This land is ours As is the happiness We've invented

This land is ours We founded it with pain and blood It is the bed of our free dreams The cradle of our desires And the tomb of our elders The water here tastes like us] -Translated by John C. Chasteen

Introduction: The Pacific as Place, "Then and Now"

It seems long ago that Sofonías Yacup mentioned in the preface, the liberal politician from Guapi, one of the main towns in the southern Pacific, described the Pacific as a "lethargic and recondite littoral, an absent place entrapped in its own isolation," abandoned by the national government to its own destiny, and in dire need of redemption and progress (1934). Being a nationalist, Yacup had in mind a style of development grounded in local and national conditions. Like most treatises of the period, Litoral Recóndito contained a disjointed mixture of scientific observations, ideological injunctions, incipient use of statistics, defense of the ideal latino with the concomitant critique of North American materialism, and a catalogue of unclassifiable prescriptions, all of which could be said to constitute, in today's language, a call for an alternative modernity. If one had visited the Pacific in the 1960s or 1970s, one might say that little had changed since Yacup's passionate words of the 1930s; less recondite perhaps, the littoral was still seen by most as lethargic and cursed by its own history, and the era of development had yet to arrive. This situation changed drastically in the 1980s. As a well-known anthropologist eloquently put it,

New times are announced for the lands of the Pacific corridor. From the tempest are born the new ideologues who, like demiurges, no longer summon the idiom of geographical determinism as the obstacle to the region's development. Again the Mar del Sur [the Pacific Ocean] awakens the amazement of the colonizer; this time, however, it is not Balboa who with his feverish dreams of golden particles contemplates the region in awe from the height of the Darin mountains. Now, it is the [scientific] gaze that has quantified the landscape, inventoried the forests, classified the species, measured the depth of the bays and which, in doing so, has seemingly lifted the veil that in an illusory manner portrayed this territory as a world populated by jungles, insalubrious places, rivers where the heaviness of heat made thinking impossible, and where only indians and blacks could dwell in their primitive spatiality. (William Villa, cited in Vargas 1993: 293)

In short, if for most of its history the Pacific was imagined as a faraway place doomed to backwardness by its very natural conditions, a place where only the extraction of resources by outsiders was practicable, the situation was to change dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. What did this sudden change represent in the making of this region? For truly the new scale of concern and action did not erase overnight the natural and social dynamics of yesteryear. The question at stake is the steady incorporation of a given region into modernity, the nation, and the globe. The main processes of incorporation have changed, with development and technoscience occupying a prominent role today. So have the scale and intensity of the transformation. How did the unprecedented conditions of the early 1990s result in the ensemble of processes and practices that transformed "the Pacific"?

This chapter is concerned with what could be termed the making of a socionatural world. By this I mean an understanding of the complexity of relations between the biophysical and human domains (physicochemical, organic, and cultural, broadly speaking) that account for particular configurations of nature and culture, society and nature, landscape and place, as lived-in and deeply historical entities. Anthropology, geography, and ecology have been the disciplines most concerned with this question. In the 1950s and 1960s, cultural ecology approaches saw this complexity in terms of adaptation between humans and the environment. This view was criticized for its functionalism and because it saw the environment as an inert background to which organisms and humans adapt. It gave way to a dialectical view of the relation between organism and the environment, according to which each shapes and produces the other through continuous interactions. In the 1970s, the dialectical relation between humans and the environment was further complicated by setting it in the context of the political and economic forces in which they are immersed. Adaptation became a more encompassing concept entailing biological, social, and political processes, all of them mediated by culture (e.g., Whitten 1986 [1974] for the case of the Colombian Pacific). In the 1980s and 1990s, a new biocultural synthesis spearheaded by biological anthropologists provided an elegant theoretical framework for this view of adaptation, opening the door for infusing the study of nature/society relations with poststructuralist concerns with knowledge, power, gender, and identity (Goodman and Leatherman, eds. 1998; Hvalkof and Escobar 1998; Rocheleau, Thomas-Slater and Wangari, eds. 1996). In some cases, as in the Pacific, the notion of adaptive strategies was used in the 1990s to signal this complexity. In this synthesis, culture and nature are treated as fully historical and constructed, and socionatural worlds become the result of human action even if conditioned by particular environments.

This historicized view of the relation between nature and culture constitutes a further critique of modernity's view of nature as an inert background for the unfolding of the human saga. Worldwide, societies have been ceaselessly constructing bridges between nature and culture (Latour 1993). As we shall see, what types of bridges are built, and how, makes all the difference (see chapter 3). Modern capitalist societies link nature and culture in ways that contrast sharply with how black and indigenous communities do it. But this is getting ahead of the story. In this chapter, I am interested in building a view of the region called "Chocó biogeográfico" by biologists and planners and "Pacífico geográfico" or "region-territory" by social movement activists as constructed through geobiological, human, and technoscientific processes operating at many levels, from the microbiological to the geological and from the local to the transnational. Above all, I am interested in elaborating a view of the region as a place. Why place? Because place continues to be a crucial dimension of the making not only of local and regional worlds, but also of hegemonies and resistance to them. The tendency today is to state that globalization has rendered place irrelevant, meaningless, or at least secondary in the constitution of places and regions. But is this so?

If anything has characterized social science debates since 1990 it is the concern with globalization. These debates have been characterized by a pervasive asymmetry by which the global is equated with space, capital, and the capacity to transform while the local is associated with place, labor, tradition, and hence with what will inevitably give way to more powerful forces (e.g., Dirlik 2001; Escobar 2001; Harcourt and Escobar, eds. 2005). This marginalization of place has had profound consequences for our understanding of culture, nature, and economy, all of which are now seen as determined almost exclusively by global forces. It is time to reverse this asymmetry by focusing anew on the continued vitality of place in the creation of culture, nature, and economy. Place continues to be important in the lives of most people, if by place we mean the engagement with and experience of a particular location with some measure of groundedness (however unstable), boundaries (however permeable), and connections to everyday life, even if its identity is constructed and never fixed. There is an implacement that counts for more than we might want to acknowledge, which suggests the need for "getting back into place," to use the philosopher Edward Casey's expression (1993). This seems to be, indeed, an increasingly felt need of those working at the intersection of environment, culture, and development. Scholars in this field are often confronted not only with social movements that retain strong attachments to place, but also with the realization that any alternative course of action must take into account place-based (although not place-bound) models of culture, identity, nature, and economy.

I have found it useful to think about the production of a region such as the Pacific in terms of six distinct, although interrelated, historical processes. This chapter will be mostly devoted to the first two processes. Subsequent chapters will focus on the remaining four.

1. Historical processes of geological and biological formation. Geologists and paleoscientists discuss the region's specificity, particularly its high levels of endemism and biological diversity, in terms of geological and evolutionary processes. Following theories of complexity, this geological and biological history can be seen partly in terms of self-organization of nonorganic and organic forms of life. Only the most basic elements of this history will be presented in this chapter. 2. Historical processes constituted by the daily practices of the local black, indigenous, and mestizo groups. This is the domain of history and anthropology. Through their daily practices of being, knowing, and doing, local groups have actively constructed, though in the midst of other forces, their socionatural worlds for several centuries. This chapter will highlight the contribution of the black river communities to this process. 3. Historical processes of capital accumulation, from the local to the global. Capital is doubtless one of the most powerful forces constructing most rain forest regions of the planet. Nevertheless, the construction of the Pacific cannot be explained solely in terms of capital. Indeed, it could be posited that forms of noncapitalism exist and are actually being created today out of the dynamics of place-based cultural and ecological practices, even if this occurs in the engagement with capital, modernity, and the state (see chapter 2). 4. Historical processes of incorporation of the region into the state, particularly through development and conservation representations and strategies. In the early 1980s, the Colombian Pacific was represented for the first time by state discourses as an entity susceptible to development. In the 1990s, this representation took the form of an ambitious sustainable development strategy, still under implementation today. Capital and development constitute a two-pronged strategy for the reterritorialization of the Pacific as a modern space of thought and action (see chapters 3, 4). 5. The cultural-political practices of social movements. After 1990, black and indigenous movements became important players in the representation and construction of the Pacific as region-territory. These movements set into motion a cultural politics which operated chiefly through the ethnicization of identity in close connection with ecological and alternative development concerns. By positing the notion of the Pacífico geográfico as region-territory of ethnic groups, the social movements of black and indigenous communities made visible the cultural, ecological, and economic place-making strategies of the communities (see chapter 5 and this chapter; chapter 6 for supra-place strategies).

6. The discourses and practices of technoscience, particularly in the areas of biodiversity conservation and sustainability. Since the early 1990s, biodiversity has become a powerful discourse in environmental and international development circles; it originated a network of sites that embraces significant domains of cultural and ecological action. As a network, biodiversity exemplifies the role of technoscience in the making of socionatural worlds. This network is confronted by networks of heterogeneous actors that include ecosystems, social movements, and NGOs; all of these networks became an important element in the struggle over the Colombian Pacific as territory (see chapters 3, 6).

In very schematic fashion, these processes can be further divided into two overall strategies, strategies that are not bounded and discrete but overlapping and coproduced:

1. Strategies of localization by capital, the state, and technoscience. Capital, state, and technoscience engage in a politics of scale that attempts to shift the production of locality in their favor. Nevertheless, to the extent that these strategies are not place-based (even if locally articulated), they inevitably induce a delocalizing effect with respect to places. This effect is in keeping with the overall thrust of modernity of sundering place from space (Giddens 1990) and deterritorializing social and ecological life (Virilio 1999).

2. Subaltern strategies of localization by communities and social movements. These are of two kinds: place-based strategies that rely on the attachment to territory and culture; and network strategies that enable social movements to enact a politics of scale from below. In the Pacific, this entails engagement by local movements with biodiversity networks, on the one hand, and with other place-based actors and struggles, on the other. In this way, social movements develop a political practice that can be described as place-based yet transnationalized (Harcourt and Escobar, eds. 2005; Escobar 1999b, 2001). There are localization strategies by other groups that do not fit easily into these two categories, such as those of armed groups and drug cartels. I will end the chapter with a brief discussion of the devastating effects of strategies of displacement and deterritorialization by armed actors.

The first part of the chapter provides an overview of the physical and economic geography of the Colombian Pacific. This is continued in part II with abroad discussion of the history of the region's settlement and change, particularly by black groups. In these two parts, I take the existing geographical, historical, and anthropological literatures as the material to be analyzed. Part III starts the discussion of the strategies of social movements for the defense of the Pacific as place. This initial discussion, to be continued throughout the book, introduces an important conceptual innovation produced by the social movement of black communities in the second half of the 1990s, namely, a political ecology framework articulated around the notion of the Pacific as region-territory of ethnic groups. Part IV, finally, discusses the current situation, particularly the impact of forced displacement on the strategies of place. The conclusion restates the notion of the politics of place and points toward chapters on capital, nature, development, and identity that will examine these dimensions of place in greater depth. As an exercise in political ecology, the aim of this chapter will be, as Dianne Rocheleau well put it, "to incorporate multiple past and present stories of places and peoples before attempting to 'solve' their 'problems'" (1995a: 1047). This goes against much ahistorical development and conservation intervention today and speaks of the value of place-based political ecologies.


Excerpted from TERRITORIES OF DIFFERENCE by Arturo Escobar Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


about the series....................vii
1 place....................27
2 capital....................69
3 nature....................111
4 development....................156
5 identity....................200
6 networks....................254
references cited....................381
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