Performing sustainable agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon

Faure notes from the field

Agathe Faure
MRes Social Anthropology
University College London

I conducted ethnographic fieldwork from May to July 2015 in villages of cacao farmers along the river of Alto Huayabamba, Peruvian Amazonia. Employed by an international company providing environmental services, I was to observe environmental programmes through their local implementation in the area. I quickly realised that the Alto Huayabamba had been the arena of complex dramaturgies.

First covered by cornfields, providing just enough to cover farmers’ basic necessities, the region became a red zone of coca production in the 1960s. According to the U.S. State Department (1991), 200,000 acres of coca were cultivated in the region in 1990, being 40% of the world coca crop. Under growing pressure from the United States, the Peruvian government began a series of U.S. funded coca eradication in the region (Kawell 1995: 405). Alto Huayabamba was left completely depleted, socio-economically and environmentally. National and transnational environmental organisations, orchestrated by USAID, decided to re-construct a profitable space to grow another plant, cacao[1], setting up a new production scenery, in response to global trends of neoliberalised nature. Environment was then built as what Dasgupta (2007) calls “natural capital”, i.e. a resource base for wealth to grow through the dynamics of extracting from, polluting and conserving.

During my fieldwork, I could observe the evolution of environmental conservation towards neoliberal concerns. Environmental programmes there approached conservation as being potentially achieved through the sustainable development of economic markets that are based on in situ biological diversity. These markets were seen to enable the flow of income to reach “poor people” living in biologically diverse places (see West 2006: xii). In turn, these people were to conserve the biological diversity on which the markets they now rely on are based.

Consequently, environmental programmes there created what West (ibid.) calls “conservation-as-development projects”, which assume that environmental conservation can engender economic development for rural peoples, and that what the latter need and want in terms of development is to be met by biodiversity on their lands. The script was clear: in exchange for modernisation and good cacao production, farmers had to take on the role of conservationists in order to justify the market of environmental services now recruiting them.

I first feared that farmers were taking their new parts too seriously, as, during my first weeks there, they seemed to be shaped beyond their discourses, i.e. in their own subjectivities. The analysis of everyday practice in lived experiences however revealed that farmers were actually re-enacting themselves in a place they were themselves actively producing. Fieldwork allowed me to nuance my first judgements. I now agree with Mohan (2001: 164): if inequalities of power in spaces exist, they create hybrid places that those viewed as powerless can actively contribute to produce. Intersections of spaces allow new possibilities for challenging hegemonic power relations (Gaventa 2004: 39). In Alto Huayabamba, the opening of previously closed spaces (corn and coca) has indeed actually contributed to new mobilizations and critical consciousness. Environmental programmes did provide possibilities for transformational change. Environment was then used to construct a socio-political and ecological place, seen as a place of “tranquillity”[2]. Slowly growing, cacao trees allowed farmers to benefit from a socio-economic rebirth and re-create a space of support and security. Farmers were often comparing the strength of trees, the difficulties in growing them and taking care of them through time to how strong they were feeling socially in a new environment of union and cohesion. Cacao trees were depicted as the emblem of “stability”[3]. As opposed to coca plants, growing quickly and easily everywhere, impoverishing soil, giving what people described as “quick money”, cacao trees were environmentally and socially constructive.

Far from merely parroting discourses or acting as ventriloquists, farmers were actually playing their own role in order to benefit socio-economically from a new opened environment. They were using neoliberalised power relations to construct their own place of tranquillity and locality of agricultural communities.



Dasgupta, P. (2007) ‘Nature And The Economy’, Journal of Applied Ecology,
44 (3), pp. 475-487.

Gaventa, J. (2004) ‘Towards participatory governance: assessing the
transformative possibilities’. In S. Hickey and G. Mohan (eds) Participation: From tyranny to transformation, London: Zed Books, pp 25-41.

Kawell, J.A. (1995) ‘The Cocaine Economy’ In O. Starn, C. Degregori and R. Kirk (eds) The Peru Reader. History, Culture and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mohan, G. (2001) ‘Beyond Participation: Strategies for Deeper

Empowerment’. In B. Cooke and U. Kothari (eds) Participation: The New
Tyranny? London: Zed Books, pp. 153-67.

U.S. State Department (1991) International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

West, P. (2006) Conservation is our government now: the politics of ecology
in Papua New Guinea. Durham: Duke University Press.



[1] a small tropical evergreen tree, which bears cacao seeds, from which cocoa, cocoa butter and chocolate are made.

[2] “tranquilidad”

[3] “estabilidad”


Climate Change: War Footing or Peaceful Solidarity?

In recent years, prominent voices in the public sphere have drawn an analogy between climate change and warfare. This has led, for example, to calls for massive, coordinated interventions akin to the Manhattan Project[i] – the Second World War era project which led to the development of the first nuclear weapons – or drawing on British wartime propaganda calling for a ‘war footing’[ii] among the general public to deal with climate change. While not all of those drawing this analogy have explicitly claimed that a Hobbesian ‘Leviathan’ approach is necessary to force cooperative action, the link between State power and climate change was clearly articulated by US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who recently promised supporters that, if elected, she would “make America the clean energy superpower of the 21st century”[iii].

The increasing trend to militarise environmental and common pool resource problems has also been criticised from multiple corners[iv]. Some environmental and indigenous rights activists see top down government intervention as an aggressive imposition of the will of those most responsible for climate change upon the lives of those least responsible[v], while conservative voices (at least those who admit the science behind climate change), voice skepticism regarding the efficacy of governmental or inter-governmental institutions to broker and administer a truly global effort. Looking beyond climate change specifically, the militarisation of conservation has been shown to have perverse human rights implications, and in some cases may even cause more ecological harm than good[vi].

On the one hand, the application of military analogies in policy making carries its own risks, misconstruing and simplifying the nature of the problem[vii]. On the other hand, the scale of the problem is such that any real solutions leading to the mitigation of carbon emissions, as well as adaptation to the changes already under way, cut across such a broad array of facets and domains of human affairs[viii] that dealing with them individually may be impossible. As much as the decentralisation of decision-making may appeal in procedural terms, it can be difficult to imagine disconnected, individual initiatives ever leading to a common solution. Further, one could provocatively argue that the exclusion of governance favours ‘the market’ as an inevitable mechanism for resource allocation decision-making.

Authors are invited to engage with the question: Does the challenge of climate change warrant a war footing? If so, who is the enemy?

Read the responses:


Continue reading “Climate Change: War Footing or Peaceful Solidarity?”

If A War Is The Answer, What Was The Question?

Dr Samuel Randalls
Department of Geography
University College London

The notion that climate change should invoke security-laced rhetoric and a military-style response is not new (de Goede and Randalls, 2009). To give just two examples: Claims of crisis were made in the Impact Team report ‘The Weather Conspiracy’ published in 1977. Here the threat, a new ice age, required ‘crusaders’ to go out and encourage energy efficiency to prevent the enemy (ice) from destroying civilization as we know it. In 1989, Al Gore stated that climate change would challenge nations strategically and that the USA would, in a military parallel, deal with climate change at the point at which the ‘nuclear option’ would be invoked. The idea that climate change demands a war footing therefore has historical precedents, but these arguments have been couched in the different concerns and contexts of the time (ice, cold war politics). Continue reading “If A War Is The Answer, What Was The Question?”

The Dangers of the Manhattan Model for Fighting Climate Change

Professor Merrill Singer
Department of Anthropology
University of Connecticut

Asserting the Manhattan Project, the effort that developed the first nuclear weapons, as a model for addressing global climate change1, suggests the need for environmental activists to closely examine the lessons of the model in question.

The starting point for this endeavor is determining the role of the Project in the ending of WWII, on which is based its claim of success as a technological, scientific, and military initiative. It has now been thoroughly documented, as affirmed in Dwight Eisenhower’s personal memoir The White House Years, that with American aircraft attacking Japanese cities at will in 1945 the Japanese wanted to surrender prior to the use of nuclear weapons. They felt, however, that they could not accept the stark terms demanded of them in the Potsdam Proclamation, most notably the total elimination of Japan’s royal house. As expressed in a memorandum sent by General Douglas MacArthur to President Roosevelt, high ranking Japanese officials agreed to practically all of the other terms specified in the Proclamation2. American policy makers maintained, none the less, that only the dropping of an atomic bomb would convince the Japanese to give up. Some critics, however, argue that with the Soviet Union declaring war on Japan the bombing was in no small measure intended as a message about U.S. military superiority, and hence Hiroshima might reasonably be called the first shot of the Cold War. At the time of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan had already began negotiating with the Soviet Union for a peace treaty, something well known to American leaders because of the breaking of Japanese military codes. Moreover, in his farewell speech upon leaving office, President Eisenhower warned about the dangerous rise of the military industrial complex, and surely the Manhattan Project was also a significant step in the making of that powerful and still thriving entity. Continue reading “The Dangers of the Manhattan Model for Fighting Climate Change”

Should This Not Be A War Against Ourselves?

Professor James Fairhead
Department of Anthropology
University of Sussex

As a coalition builds to escalate war in Syria and neighbours, several of our princes and politicians have been drawn to see this maelstrom as somehow caused by climate change, and so to fight it, we should presumably open a second front on hot air.

We must remember, however, that there is more to ‘climate and security’ than worrying whether people fight more in increasingly bad weather. Policies addressing climate change are driving major transformations in access to global land, forests and water as they create new commodities and markets for carbon, biofuels, biodiversity and ‘climate-secure’ food. And now the emergence of these new ‘climate change commodities’ is reinforcing and attracting the financial grid and its speculators. Perhaps we should more properly ask: how might the advent and expansion of these new commodities and their markets generate or prolong conflicts. ‘Climate conflicts’ become manifest in the new economic and political orders that arise around these markets, driving ‘land grabs’ and ‘green grabs.’ So will the Paris COP be fair? Or will it facilitate nature to become a form of natural capital that can be ever more accumulated by the ‘less-than-one-percent’ in our increasingly unequal world? Continue reading “Should This Not Be A War Against Ourselves?”

The Climate Emergency Mobilization Framework: A Critical Review

Professor Hans A Baer
School of Social and Political Sciences
University of Melbourne

Various scholars and climate activists have proposed a framework for climate change campaigning based on the argument that climate change mitigation is so urgent and immense that it requires emergency measures like those adopted by the Allied powers during World War II. For example, Jorgen Randers and Paul Gilding maintain that a climate emergency plan is likely to emerge prior to 2020 when global society finally more fully recognises the threat of climate change to humanity. They maintain that their action plan can keep global warming below 1oC above pre-industrial levels. Randers and Gilding envision three phases in their plan:

  • A climate war (years 1-5) which would launch global society to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent within five years.
  • A climate neutrality phase (years 5-20) which would lock in the 50 per cent emergency reductions, and move the world to net zero climate emissions during this phase.
  • A climate recovery phase (years 20-100) which would entail stabilization of the global climate system and the creation of a sustainable global economy.

Continue reading “The Climate Emergency Mobilization Framework: A Critical Review”

Without Attachment or Fear

Professor Dominic Boyer
Director, CENHS, Rice University

Even if one were the sort who believed that war solved anything, there would still be the issue of identifying who or what was the enemy in the “battle” against climate change. Is it the upstream and downstream industries and infrastructures of Big Carbon? Is it the governments who rely upon carbon fuels as the cheapest route to economic development? Is it anyone who eats meat given that greenhouse gas emissions of livestock production alone exceed those of the transportation sector? Is it simply anyone who flips a light switch or plugs an appliance into an outlet and expects immediate gratification in the form of abundant affordable electricity? All of this makes a turn toward martial discourse sound rather hollow. Who exactly are we meant to be fighting? To my ear, war talk is displaced self-hatred about one’s own investment in an accelerationist culture of energy excess. Does anyone really aspire to participate in a diffuse and endless War on Climate Change that—like the War on Terror before it—would simply demonstrate once again violence’s remarkable talent for begetting itself? Continue reading “Without Attachment or Fear”