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The Intangibility of the Yasuní
In Eastern Ecuador's Intangible Zone, the Napo River headwater tributary blends with the aguas negras, a small river that flows away from the apocalyptic movement of extractive capitalism. Where the vegetation thickens and the temperature of the water cools, the humming of the oil barges and motorized canoes ceases. Along the fifty-kilometer stretch of river from the oil boomtown Coca en route to the Yasuní, one transits on the Napo through intense industrial activity. Bright orange flames from oil refineries spike above the horizon; a myriad of floating riverboats that house petroleum company workers sit empty along the riverbank, while barges travel up and down the river carrying petroleum. Though invisible from the river, dozens of oil workers hack through long swaths of rain forest with machetes to make way for petroleum extraction.
Ten miles past the houseboats, the river divides again. Turning toward los ríos negros, or "the black waters," and away from the Napo River, the accelerated pace of extractivism disappears into protected Indigenous Shuar, Huaronani, Quichua, Tagaeri and Taromame territories marked only by a tiny sign that reads "Yasuní National Park." Unlike the raucous commotion that moves oil up and down the main part of the Napo River, on this smaller artery a single leaf falling into the water from the canopy above becomes a major event. Here, perception slows down where the frenetic timescape of extraction is not the sole temporality, and where the elongated sense of geological time enables a different perception to the intricate unfolding of the natural world. In the two meters of murky water that lap against our motored canoe, a million years of evolution is contained. As we sit silently in the boat, someone spots a river caiman, an animal that glides effortlessly through the water. The caiman is a useful guide for the multiplicity of seeing that we need in such a space: with its eyes positioned just above the line of water, its sight hovers above as easily as it dips below the shadowy, fertile waters.
In 1998, UNESCO declared the Yasuní region, located between the Napo and Curacay rivers in the southern provinces of Napo and Pastaza and encompassing 982,000 total hectares, a world heritage site worthy of international patrimony. Long considered the most bio-diverse region in the world, Yasuní National Park harbors millions of insect species, hundreds of bird species, and the greatest variety of tree species anywhere on the planet. Spaces of high biodiversity such as the Yasuní swirl away from full capture, despite the fact that teams of Western and Ecuadoran scientists constantly enter the forest to classify its plant and animal species and Indigenous populations. Given the contrast between the expanding extractive activity I describe above and the patches of forest that contain immense biodiversity, is it possible to imagine an alternative future to the elimination of planetary biodiversity? If the extractive matrix engulfs resource-rich spaces into global capitalism, what exists beyond the reduction of heterogeneity into sheer destruction? I follow biologist William Sacher to ask "what life forms will exist in the future if we continue to devalue and eliminate?" As the visible flames of oil toxicity burn outside its perimeter, what alternatives support another relation to the multiplicity of life that resides within the territories of the Yasuní?
To pursue these questions, and against late capitalism's absorption of language, intangibility names for me the capacity of life otherwise to reroute commodification and scientific classification. The intangibility of the forest metabolizes, grows, multiplies, and escapes the condition of monoculture, whose complexity forces consideration, as Eduardo Kohn asks, can forests think? What do they remember? And, as Deleuze and Guattari explore in A Thousand Plateaus, engagement with molecular biology allows for a model of radical ecological agency that describes the coproduction of living systems with adaptive potential. Their idea of novel becomings is another way to conceptualize emergence. Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari's ecophilosophy builds upon Southern theorists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela's notion of "autopoesis," or the ability of a biological system to sustain and reproduce itself. In line with these concepts, intangibility reaches beyond reductionist models of representation toward enlivened social ecologies that shift, adapt, and extend normative categories of biological life.
In this chapter, I attend to intangible and autonomous life through an analysis of the Andean-Amazonian geography, its representation, and the modes of land and water defense that take place in relation to the Yasuní region of Eastern Ecuador. Specifically, I address the Yasuní-ITT Treaty, the radical conservation plan for the biosphere known as the Yasuní Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT), as an important and profound, if contradictory, alternative to the exigencies of extractive capitalism. Like other alternative forms of representing the forest and land that emerge from within the Yasuní, the treaty contains within it the surprising acknowledgment of Indigenous sovereignty, the imperative to reverse the extractive view, and the practice of el buen vivir that gives primacy to Afro-based and Indigenous worldviews. Even as the Yasuní-ITT Treaty has recently come under grave threat by national and multinational oil companies, Indigenous, Afro-Ecuadoran, LGBT, eco-feminist, and labor union assemblages challenge its dissolution by enacting social ecologies that live beyond the colonial divide.
Intangibility counters the representational apparatus of the Yasuní as a pure Amazonian space, a territory of undifferentiated wildness, vastness, and untameability. In a surreal portrayal of colonial adventure, German director Werner Herzog's film Fitzcarraldo (1982) epitomizes this view of the Amazonian basin, where nature and "untamable" Natives are dangerous and threaten Man's domination of them. In a well-known monologue in Burden of Dreams (1982), the extraordinary documentary by Les Blank that chronicles the making of Fitzcarraldo, Herzog describes his frustration with the jungle, and suggests that the Amazon is a place of menace; a savage, fecund space where God has punished its inhabitants: "Of course we are challenging nature itself. ... I see it full of obscenity, the nature here is violent, base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here, I would see fornication and asphyxiation, and choking, and fighting for survival, and growing and just dropping away. Of course there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us, the trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain."
Herzog's rhetorical flair here, and the cinematic spectacle of the failure of modern utopian development, reproduces the colonial tropes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travel writing that rehearses the language of Spanish discovery chronicles. The Amazon has a long representation as a chaotic landscape that is constantly under threat by civilizational impulses, a central tenet of the colonial paradigm. A focus on the dangers of nature, its violence, and its presumed obscenity situates Indigenous territories in racialized and species-centric terms that imagines progress as its own end game.
In contrast to this spectacular and extractive view of the forest, a range of relational forms live with rather than "objectively" observe the Amazon. The Yasuní is not a pure space of untamed wildness, as Herzog would have it, but has maintained its biodiversity precisely because of the ingenuity of Indigenous seed selection, interplanting, and the meticulous cultivation and maintenance of biodiversity over a thousand years of systematic care; forest dwellers that live in the region, including the Huaorani, Kichwa, Shuar, and "no contact" populations, have carefully protected and cultivated plant life in ways that support its proliferation. Intangible geographies function as entropic spaces that cannot be contained by the extractive view, Western science, the commodity logic of late capitalism, or racial governmentality, but instead are managed by Indigenous peoples, cooperatives, and "no contact" populations to amplify the multiplicity of the forest's life forms.
The Yasuní Treaty
Biodiversity is not all that is found within the Yasuní region; the territory is also cursed with an estimated 920 million barrels of below-the-surface oil reserves, which represents twenty percent of Ecuador's total fossil fuel deposits. In 1967, Texaco discovered oil in the region, leading to the practice of manos pintados, or painting one's hands with oil from the open pits to celebrate the presumed riches that would come from its exploitation. By the lost decade of the 1980s, it was clear that Ecuador's increasing foreign debt and overreliance upon a single commodity further subsumed the nation into the global economy of petroleum dependency.
The Yasuní-ITT agreement, originally proposed in 1996, stated that the Ecuadoran state would refuse extractivist bidding to protect Indigenous territories and the "natural state" of nature for the relatively small sliver of land that had not been divided up by the oil economy. During his campaign for presidency, Rafael Correa promised to protect the Rights of Nature by diversifying the nation's economic portfolio. In 2005, Correa raised the possibility that the Yasuní-ITT agreement would garner funds from global entities, a plan that was touted as central to Correa's program for economic distribution. Newly sworn in president Correa asked the international community to pay 350 million dollars over ten years to the Ecuadoran state to leave the underground oil reserves alone.
Correa positioned the Yasuní-ITT proposal as a Global North responsibility that would ameliorate Ecuador's increasing position as resource and extractive dependent. The Treaty offered an opportunity from outside of Ecuador to prevent the exploitation of oil territories from within, a symbol of how the wealthier nations could right their historical culpability. However, by August 2013 Correa announced that the state's effort to attract international funding for the Yasuní had come up short, and the treaty would be terminated, recusing the Ecuadoran government from any further responsibility as protectorate of the region. Given that the Yasuní is comprised of incalculable and intangible genetic and species variation upon Indigenous territories, such news illustrated the failure of legal and political options to protect intangible zones from the calculations of global capitalism.
Though Rafael Correa was not the first president to defend the Yasuní region, the formalization of the 2008 Ecuadoran Constitution in Montecristi and the 2010 launch of the Yasuní-ITT proposal for protected territories were both actualized under his watch. In a press release on April 1, 2007, the day the ITT agreement was adopted, President Rafael Correa's Ministry of Energy and Mines made the following statement:
Se aceptó como primera opción la de dejar el crudo represado en tierra, a fin de no afectar un area de extraordinaria biodiversided y no poner en riesgo la existencia de varios pueblos en aislamiento voluntario o pueblos no contactados. Esta medida será considerada siempre y cuando la comunidad internacional entregue al menos la mitad de los recursos que se generarían si se opta por la explotación del petroleo; recursos que require la economía ecuatoriana para su desarollo.
[The government] has agreed to the first option, which is to leave the oil reserves within the earth, a result that does not affect the extraordinary biodiversity and doesn't put at risk the existence of various communities that live in the region with no contact. This policy will be considered as long as the international community gives half of the resources that would have been generated had the option been for petroleum exploitation. The Ecuadoran economy requires these resources for its development.
The "no contact" Indigenous peoples referred to here are the Tagaeri and Taromenane that live within the Yasuní region, who tellingly returned to the forest in the 1970s to avoid oil companies, the Ecuadoran state, missionaries, and other agents of coloniality. As Esperanza Martínez writes of the particularly strange phrasing of Correa's statement, "one can deduce from the declaration that from the President's perspective there was always a second option: to extract oil."
Correa's petitioning of the ecological conscience of the world to make an investment in biodiversity offered a new alternative for Global South governments, resolving the burden of preservation costs by externalizing them to wealthier nations. Yet, the wording of the proposal obfuscates the fact that the surrounding territories had long been sold off to more than a dozen petroleum corporations. Maps show how the region had been carved up into "oil blocks" as early as 2009, and leaked documents reveal secret negotiations between the Ecuadoran state and Chinese petroleum companies over "Bloque 31," designating the territory of Yasuní National Park for oil extraction. In other words, the state pursued an extractive agenda even while using the rhetoric of el buen vivir to promote international support for conservation efforts.
In Correa's statement above, the Yasuní is discursively positioned in a paternalistic fashion. The development fallacy embedded within Correa's statement is conservation as a binary choice: either protect resource-rich territories, or give in to extractive capitalism as usual. Both formulations operate within the logics of colonial seeing that depict land and territory as an extractive zone: as if it is there for the taking, to be owned, and ultimately to be protected by the state with little understanding of the intangible complexity practiced by the vibrant social ecologies that reside within the forest.
Despite the obvious disjuncture between state rhetoric and action, proponents continue to argue that the Ecuadoran Constitution of 2008 and the Yasuní-ITT Treaty of 2009 produced a giant leap forward as legal protections for the natural world. Scholar Freddy Javier Álvarez Gonzalez shows that the constitutional revisions were led by an important process that resulted in a wider social consensus, and made visible a new way to relate to the natural world. Another way to read these processes, in hindsight, is that the state management of Indigenous concepts such as land protection and el buen vivir, a term I elaborate upon below, has worked to facilitate the expansion of extractive capitalism. Can the law, the very instrument of colonization, actually guide us about how to protect biodiversity in Indigenous territories? What are the alternatives to using the master's tools?
El Buen Vivir
At its most fundamental level, el buen vivir refers to the organization of social and ecological life based on Afro-Indigenous principles and the transmission of vernacular practices that maintain a deep and respectful relationship to land, place, and the natural world.
La idea del "buen vivir" se está difundiendo en toda América Latina. Es un concepto en construcción que aspira ir más allá del desarrollo convencional, y se basa en una sociedad donde conviven los seres humanos entre sí y con la naturaleza. Se nutre desde ámbitos muy diversos, desde la reflexión intelectual a las prácticas ciudadanas, desde las tradiciones indígenas a la academia alternativa.13
The idea of "good living" is being diffused throughout Latin America. It's a concept that is under creation and that aspires beyond conventional development, while based within a society where human beings live well among themselves and with nature. It is nourished by very diverse sectors, from spaces of intellectual reflection to citizenship practices, and from indigenous traditions to the alternative academy.
The idea of el buen vivir, translated as good living, decenters the importance of "the human" by focusing instead upon how the natural world possesses its own sets of rights, logics, and capacities that cannot be solely apprehended, managed, or narrated through human language or scientific technique. Rather than assume knowledge over, or exert a hierarchical relationship to, nature, el buen vivir pursues what Atawallpa Oviedo Freire terms "dynamic equilibrium" and "harmony with reciprocity" as ways of relating to the vast planetary life all around us. As an active consciousness, el buen vivir surpasses the confined vision of the developmental paradigm toward an integrated form of living in the forest.
Excerpted from "The Extractive Zone"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Preface. Below the Surface xiii
Introduction. Submerged Perspectives 1
1. The Intangibility of the Yasuní 17
2. Andean Phenomenology and New Age Settler Colonialism 39
3. An Archive for the Future: Seeing through Occupation 66
4. A Fish-Eye Episteme: Seeing Below the River's Colonization 91
5. Decolonial Gestures: Anarcho-Feminist Indigenous Critique 110
Conclusion. The View from Below 133
What People are Saying About This
“With astute precision, lyrical eloquence, and intellectual self-reflexivity, Macarena Gómez-Barris take us on a journey through Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous spaces in South America to imagine the extractive zone anew. In queering decoloniality, Gómez-Barris not only illuminates the hidden, the unseen, and that which is often neglected; she fosters an inspiring decolonial queer femme analytics. This brilliant book will make vital interventions for many years to come.”
“Extractivism and dispossession have a long history in the formation and transformation of the colonial matrix of power. Macarena Gómez-Barris provides a well-crafted theoretical and empirical update of this important dimension of coloniality hidden under the promises of modernity.”
"Macarena Gómez-Barris makes several major contributions that shed new light on the ways extractivism operates while identifying pathways for seeing, imagining, and living beyond the imperatives of coloniality. Grounded in feminist and decolonial thinking, The Extractive Zone advances a methodology that refuses to separate the fight against extractivism from the struggle against modern colonial and patriarchal relations."