This talk was presented on 25 June 2019 as part of the Australian Museum's 2019 HumanNature series.
HumanNature Series: The occupied forest
Venture into the forest with Macarena Gómez-Barris (Pratt Institute, Brooklyn) as she considers its historical, Indigenous and potentially regenerative narratives.
The forest is being emptied – of the trees and other plants that comprise it, the animals that enliven it, and of the myths and meanings that animate it. Macarena Gómez-Barris (Pratt Institute, NYC) explores militarisation, resource extraction and other corporate and state projects of expanding colonialism upon Indigenous territories in the Americas.
Will anything we might call “nature” be left intact?
Sue Saxon: I'd like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which the Australian Museum stands. They are the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, and I pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
So we're just over halfway through this fascinating Human Nature Lecture Series, which we proudly present in collaboration with our five major university partners, who enable us to bring academic scholars in environmental humanities from around Australia and the world to our audiences.
So having viewed the Capturing Nature I think you really do get a sense of how the past and the future intersect at the museum, and where our understanding here is inspired by the research of our scientists and cultural specialists, by our exhibitions and by events like this very important Human Nature Lecture Series, through which we strive to investigate and communicate the relationship between people, culture and the natural environment—and in doing so, promote understanding of some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges in our region, including of course climate change and the assertion of cultural identity.
So tonight we have a very special guest that we're delighted to welcome, Macarena Gómez-Barris, who is professor and chairperson of social science and cultural studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. To introduce her and her keenly anticipated presentation, The Occupied Forest, I'd like to call on Associate Professor Juan Francisco Salazar of the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. He's an anthropologist and filmmaker and is currently research director of the Institute for Culture and Society, and he's be gracing the Human Nature stage next month. So please welcome now with me Juan Francisco Salazar.
Juan Francisco Salazar: Thank you very much, Sue, and thank you to the Australian Museum for hosting us all in this very exciting lecture series for the last 18 months. Thank you to all of you for coming along on this beautiful rainy night in Sydney. We were talking with Macarena before we came in and I remembered that cheesy song from the '90s, 'I'm Only Happy When It Rains'… so it's lovely to have a rainy night for Macarena.
We're delighted to be hosting Macarena Gómez-Barris, who arrived from Europe-New York this morning, so we are very thankful for the effort of travelling for over 24 hours and being with us tonight. As Sue was saying, Macarena is the chairperson of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and she is the founder and director of the Global South Centre, a very exciting place with an interest in aesthetic practices and experimental forms of social living.
Macarena's work is very exciting and many of us here in Sydney have been following her work for some years. That work has focused on a range of very important topics and themes, including a rethinking of the notion of the Anthropocene, and she has been inviting us all to think about the notion of the Colonial Anthropocene; and also questions about cultural memory, inequality and, very interestingly, about race, queer theory and decolonial theory.
Her latest two books are most thought-provoking and beautifully written. One is Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and politics in the Americas, 2018; and the other one, The Extractive Zone: Social ecologies and decolonial perspectives, 2017.
In these two works she invites new thinking and debate on how climate change can not be thought of or engaged with outside of the history of and present of colonialism. She writes about how the destruction of worlds, particularly indigenous worlds in the Americas but not only, is the operating principle of colonialism; and I'm sure she would agree if we also talk about the coloniality of power to turn to the term by Anibal Quijano, the very well known Peruvian theorist and sociologist.
The other interesting notion in her work besides the Colonial Anthropocene is the extractive gaze, or the extractive viewpoint that she developed in her beautiful work The Extractive Zone. In that work she brings into visibility the political aesthetics and performative practices that emerge in opposition, not only to the devastating effects of extractive capital but also to the form by which neoliberalism as an ideology and as a practice has over the past four decades normalised what she calls an extractive viewpoint, which reduces the representation of living things and entities to commodities, and legitimises the power of the state to oversee the management of nature from above, so a gaze from above.
On that note, welcome Macarena to Sydney and to the Human Nature environmental humanities lecture series, and we're delighted that you're here with us.
Macarena Gómez-Barris: So, good evening. How's everyone doing? Thank you for coming out tonight on this rainy night. I'm excited to be here. If there's a glitch at any moment it's my jetlag, so excuse me, but I jumped in some cold water this morning, and hopefully…I definitely feel animated to be here and this is a beautiful setting, so thank you for the invitation.
Thank you, Juan Francisco Salazar for that beautiful introduction, and to Sue Saxon and the rest of the team for hosting me. To Scott (is that correct?) always thank your techie person; and Astrida Neimanis for the original invitation to be here.
So today I want to talk with you about a couple of different books, ideas, extensions of work that I've been thinking about, and hopefully open up conversation as well, because I do believe we're in a moment of deep…we know, not just I believe, we know there's evidence we're in a moment of deep political environmental crisis. I think it's important in these kind of formats not to just be, you know, unilateral about it, but actually to create spaces for dialogue. So I hope we'll have a fleshed-out time for Q&A and engagement from you all.
So in my talk I really want to outline today the importance of the forest and really think about the forest, not only as a frontier and what I'm calling an extractive zone that powers capitalism, but as a geography that's long been occupied, right? In the era of climate change it's been proven that protecting tropical forest is among the quickest and most affordable ways to decrease carbon emissions. And we know of course, this is nothing new, but from a range of studies and disciplines that standing forests contribute to food, water, health, energy, human safety and biological diversity.
We also know that forests are occupied by a scientific gaze, by technocratic management, by settler colonial laws and by the deepening encroachment of state corporate alliances that clear cut forests upon indigenous territories. And if you've been paying attention you also know that there is a tree genre that is re-emerging. A spate of recent books on forests and their behaviour in the aftermath of clearing have described the living forest as much more than a historical artefact of human representation.
We know that the forest in fact possesses its own logics. It interacts as a system in concert with the atmosphere, the soil, the sun, other trees, and within non-human arrangements. But in many of these books—and this is the argument I want to pose here—it seems as if there are well-meaning forest rangers in the mix, or critical anthropologists, and they're the only ones who truly understand the forest. And I guess my question is, what about indigenous peoples who live there? Where are they in these narratives? So how to think about aboriginal global indigenous peoples and write them back in?
We often think much less about who lives in the forest, who maintains it, who maintains its biodiversity. We're also thinking about the forest as a space of social movement. I know there's some professors of social movement in the audience. What does it mean to think about the forest as a site of social movement, and also of artistic practices?
So by invoking the term 'occupied forest' I want to bring forward the idea that forests themselves are territories of struggle over biodiversity, and they're literally occupied as territories of theft and also of bereavement and I will make that argument today about how the forest itself is not to be emptied out of its kind of human affect in relationship to it, as a site of witness, potentially, of clear-cutting.
So these are the spaces that are filled with the long hand of the corporation and the state. But for my own ecological memories, I grew up and spent a lot of time in the forest, and I spent time in forests in northern California, I spent time in the Sierra Nevada, and I've also spent time in the places I'm going to talk about today. And thinking with and studying and working alongside indigenous peoples to think about what the forest does and does not do in terms of representation.
So today I want to think very specifically from the southern hemisphere. I know we are also located in the southern hemisphere, across the Pacific in the trans-Pacific space, and from the global south, del Sur Global, especially within South America, Latin America.
Given that the consequences of forest clearing and monocultural are disproportional, writing colonialism back in into the long arc of the war against the Earth is essential to our scholarship and activism. So how do we narrate that long war? What is that long war…what's the texture of that long war? How would we describe that?
I'd also want us to consider the non-degradable impact of the refuse of the war against the Earth. And as Juan mentioned, it's important to think about how to track colonialism or the coloniality of power in this context, or the matrix of colonialism. Lots of ways to describe that, but basically to think about a much longer arc of coloniality, to make visible how the planet and local human and non-human communities are dramatically reshaped by the war against the Earth in the foreseeable future.
So just to give you a sense of where I'm going then, I'm going to outline in three parts the kind of condition of the colonial modern forest. So the first piece is really to think about the tree, its representation, to locate you in a series of important literatures around this, and also to talk a little bit about the research I did in the book The Extractive Zone.
Next I want to turn to the work of Francisco Huichaqueo, a Mapuche filmmaker and artist who I think is quite central to understanding connectivity and a way to think about not only a Gaia, say, but a way to think about parallel universes in the morning of the ancestors, and I'll show you some of that work.
I'm not sure if people are familiar with the film The Law of the Forest [Forest Law]. I'm not going to talk about that today but I would, if you're interested, I can give you more references of Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares's work. This also becomes another chronicle for thinking about geographies of contemporary occupation and how to archive the future, and I'll describe what I mean. Usually we think of an archive as a kind of past or present oriented, but how to scramble that kind of timescape of the archive itself in relationship to landscape.
So that'll be the second part. And then the third part I want to just really think through the question of land recuperation. What does it mean to recuperate land? What does it mean in this moment of indigenous resurgence to think about anti-extractive activisms? Now that's a mouthful. It's a mouthful in English, it's a mouthful in Spanish. But I think we need that terminology of the anti-extractive organising in activisms to help us there.
I also want to suggest that part of the work I'm doing is within a kind of decolonial praxis and thinking through the art of decolonisation. Now we have to be careful with this terminology, because as you've noticed, decolonisation is a kind of overused term at this point, without a lot of specificity. So I want to think with the work of Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang. If you haven't read that piece you can get it online very easily. It's a PDF, it's Tuck and Yang's work, 'Decolonisation is Not a Metaphor' where they really try to think through the idea of dispossession and tie it into land.
So if we're not thinking about land, what does it mean to use the term 'decolonise' or 'decolonisation'? So that's part of the practices that I'm going to talk about today in relationship to indigeneity, connected to grounded spaces, that are also sometimes spaces of Afro-descendant peoples throughout the Americas.
So the question I'm really interested in is what are these practices of refusal, what are these forms of decolonisation, and how can we think through non-indigenous spaces—myself as a light-skinned, mestizx, queer woman located in the US, originally from Chile—and be in relationship to these spaces that I study in and forms of solidarity as well.
So one of those ways I think is through a practice of citation and thinking through the work of Carol White that you may or not be familiar with. One of the things that Carol White does is to introduce us to this idea of anthropogenic climate change as being an intensification rather than a new condition of environmental change that's imposed on indigenous peoples by coloniality.
So the centring here is of the indigenous condition, that it precedes the kind of current urgency of the idea that there'll be a kind of global moment of dystopia. So that first point is pretty essential. The second thing that Carol White points us to is how to think about renewed indigenous knowledge and traditional forms of ecology. I think in Australia the kind of ongoing conversation around indigeneity is really, really important, to think from a space of 'develop or overdevelopment', say, in the global south, and what it means to have those conversations here, but also to bring together indigenous communities, as Carol White says, to strengthen their own self-determination in their planning for climate change. So again, not thinking that land and water defence is a new strategy, but putting it in the context of a much longer genealogy of essential practices.
And then third, this idea of indigenous peoples thinking about climate change futures from their perspectives. What are these deep collective histories, what does it mean to adapt to environmental change, what can we learn from these environmental adaptations, and what are the ways in which these societies must reckon with the disruptions of historic and ongoing practices of colonialism, capitalism and industrialisation?
So there's nothing that new there, but I wanted to at least create a base line through Carol White's work, because I think what he's trying to suggest is how important and how much we have to pay attention in this moment to indigeneity. So hopefully for a lot of you that's not new information, but certainly I think quite essential.
So what are we thinking about here? So how to think about the tree in extractive zones? So in my book I really was interested in what it means over the past 40 years to think about something like intensified extractivism. Companies like the United States, Canada, China, lots of state-led initiatives in terms of increased theft upon territories. In the Americas in the last 10 years there's an experience of what Eduardo Galeano, the great Hawaiian writer, called the 'open vein of Latin America' with a kind of new intensification that's accompanied by militarism in the Americas.
So that's what I mean by the extractive zone. And here I'm really thinking about the effects of fracking, of hydroelectricity, of mining, of tourism. And I talk a lot not just about tourism writ large, but also spiritual tourism, so how the indigenous body itself becomes a site of supposed wisdom that becomes extracted upon. Petroleum extraction, forest monoculture. So not just the ransacking of territories but a direct expression of anti-indigenous and anti-black violence through dispossession. So here, as I mentioned, policing and militarisation, as you'll notice in some of the examples, are pretty central.
So, put simply, extractivism reveals the inverse relationship between wealth and resource-rich spaces of primary, non-renewable resources in the global south. A lot of scholars have dubbed this the 'resource curse', the problem of having many, many resources—Nigeria, Africa, Kuwait—you can basically map global histories of war and imperialism in a relationship to resource extraction.
So in my book I'm interested in five particular regions to show how ecocide, genocide and feminocide are actually intimately linked. We often think about these things as separate, but how could we think about these three linkages between ecocide, feminocide and genocide as processes of state, corporate and military violence, and that they have an origin point in franchise and settler colonialism?
I think it's really important to note that a lot of the early scholarship on what is now a pretty fleshed out settler-colonial studies actually started here in Australia. So that's an important contribution to thinking about indigeneity and it makes sense that it started here, but I just wanted to note that. There's a journal, et cetera and the work of Patrick Wolfe and others.
The spaces that I study in particular are the petroleum industry in the Yasuni area in Eastern Ecuador, upon Kichwa territories, spiritual tourism in the sacred valley of Peru, upon Q'eros and Aymara territories; hydroelectricity in Cauca, Colombia, upon mestiza, mestizx and indigenous territories; pine plantations, which I'll talk about some today; the Mapuche and the Pehuenche, Huilliche territories, and silver and tin mining contexts of highlands Bolivia, Quechua. And one of the things I am doing, it is ambitious, but I believe that we're in a moment where we need to think comparatively. We need to look across strategies; we need to look beyond a single nation state. We need to think intra-regionally. So what it means to think at the level of geography in terms of space and time coordinates, for me it made a lot of sense to compare across a number of regions.
So we have to now turn a little to the kind of European, continental tradition and think with Deleuze and Guattari, since they have considered this metaphor, the idea, the symbol of the tree. So the tree, you know, in terms of the history of ideas, is really a kind of representative of thought processes themselves, right? So in 1987 these authors famously wrote, in A Thousand Plateaus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia that 'Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree.'
And that kind of quote led to a number of theorisations. In the same work Deleuze and Guattari discuss how 'Now there is no doubt that trees are planted in our head: the tree of life, the tree of knowledge, etc. The whole world demands roots. Power is always arborescent.'
So in relation here to the vertical structure of the organisation of knowledge, they're making a statement about how there are few disciplines that don't go through what they call the 'schema of arborescence'. So Deleuze and Guattari argue here for a kind of de-territorialisation of the social strata, moving away from homogeneity. And I set that up not because this is going to be a talk about capitalism and schizophrenia and Deleuze and Guattari, but I wanted to show here that there's a long arc of social theory and critical theory, meaning-making and representation that are sometimes dependent upon a kind of unmoored relationship to trees, right? Or to the tree. And certain theoretical claims, without attending to specific sites of occurrence that I'd like to do today.
So the native tree falls out of this kind of genealogy. It's not only a metaphor of the organisation of knowledge or of psychoanalytic cognition, but of living, right? So how can we think of the native tree, and how is that an interconnected form of life that's under attack since the onset of colonial capitalism? And of course we can measure this back to the ice cores that date back to the 15th century, when you see by 1610 the impact of deforestation in the Americas.
So here what I'm trying to say is that what A Thousand Plateaus presume is that the metaphor of the tree returns us to a hierarchical tree, right? An hierarchical centre. All of the branches of the tree emerge from the locus of the trunk, and depend upon the structure of roots—for instance, the hierarchies of disciplines and sub-disciplines, or in relationship to the organisation of knowing itself.
In the place of the tree—and here's the movement out to other forms of thought—we then get the rhizome; that's what these authors offer us, where the blade of grass relationally reaches out as a metaphor for knowledge that thrives on lateral connections and that lacks a point of origin.
So we move from the tree to the rhizome, as that becomes part of Glissant's theorisation in his poetics of relation, that many authors are really working deeply with, this idea of the poetics of relation, which is really important. I'm trying to question this whole kind of genealogy, and consider why have we made this movement, right? So for me, what would it mean if we were to begin with the tree of knowledge from a different genealogical story, one that was not only concerned with disciplinary knowledge, but that instead was grounded within submerged perspectives, or southern theory?
So closer to home, we might consider the work of the critical sociologist. Do people know Raewyn Connell's work? How many of you know this work? Can you raise your hands? A few of you. Okay, great. So this contribution, which is quite important and often gets left out of the idea of southern theory, which is really how to include plurality, how to think beyond a Eurocentric canon, how to think with social dynamics, a global dynamics of knowledge. And this becomes I think really important in considering the kind of dominance of certain European traditions in relationship to knowledge production. So for me this is part of the work that I'm interested in. How can we proliferate forms of knowledge? How do we think about things that fall out, say, of an urban global north view?
So also, as I'm talking about forests, maybe some of you know this work, and, if you don't, I highly recommend it: How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. And here again, what I'm doing is trying to centre a southern view, a southern genealogy, another way to think about forests that doesn't pass through a kind of well known, well-trodden, Eurocentric genealogy.
So this is a work of Eduardo Kohn. Like my own work, Kohn writes about eastern Ecuador and he shows how the indigenous Quichua and the many creatures of the forest inhabit one of the world's most complex ecosystems. What How Forests Think does is address the pluralistic and unexpected modes of the living world that can not be reduced to human representation or to moral solutions, which often is the way in which we think of the Anthropocene, that there's just a moral solution here, or other forms of reductionism.
So digging more deeply into the work what Kohn does is raise the insights of Brazilian anthropology in something called perspectivism. And he states himself, 'I use the insights, the scheme, to rethink our assumptions about the nature of representation, and I explore how this rethinking changes our anthropological concepts. I call this approach an anthropology beyond the human.'
So this is what I'm after, a kind of anthropology beyond the human, that seizes the representation of the natural world, that it thinks about its relationship to the non-human as central to the project of pluralistic meaning. These may be for some of you familiar insights in the environmental humanities, but what I think he's doing is actually creating the basis for us for a new kind of forest methodology, another way to think about the forest itself.
So I'm not going to go too much into Kohn's work, but I do want to suggest that this point of departure is radically a non human-centric one, and it constructs the category of human as not only a racial category but thinks with the trees and the forest as repossessable. So what does it mean to 'repossess' a metaphor, then, of the tree, to take it back, as it were?
And this is work that is not…it's translated here, but most of the work is not translated. We were talking earlier with a couple of us the meaning of translation, how that circulates in particular ways. And I would just like to draw your attention to the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. What they did was theorise alternative modes of perception, and they did that also in 1984. This was three years before Deleuze and Guattari in El arbol del conocimiento (The Tree of Knowledge).
What they do is do a profound dive and deal very complexly with human and non-human predicament of no future as presented to us by extractive capitalism. But they do it by inserting themselves in the forest. And they go in the Bio Bio region in Southern Chile that I'm going to show you images from in a minute, where the ancient pehuen tree, the sacred tree to the Mapuche, served as model for them to map the human hermeneutics and forms of perception. So then it's a different tree that we begin with, it's the sacred tree, the pehuen, that's the centre of Mapuche life. What does it mean to begin with that tree and then extrapolate? And I would say that Maturana and Francisco Varela is a really important starting point for that project.
Of many aspects of the work that I might highlight, a signature insight is a concern for all organisms as constituently and autonomously reproducing circuits of living systems. So these systems are both autonomous and later give way actually to the ones and zeros and systems for computational aesthetics which is really interesting. I don't know if you know this, but kind of the paradigm of Allende, then later the kind of work done by Maturana and Varela, some of it lays the groundwork for computational connections later.
But one of the things I want to highlight here is their invitation to openness and to reflection and what it means to open up a kind of crucial nexus point of perception. For Maturana and Varela that is never far from the embodied act of thinking that requires representation, so it also requires language. It's not of a second order or epiphenomenal of the living world but actually constitutive of it and interlinked to affective responses of human activity. So here I would just suggest that we can't see how they're theorising outside of the sociality of cognition from their observations in Southern Chile.
So here there's a kind of piece that I want to highlight that's about interrelationality between the human and the non-human world. And also the importance that they stress of experimenting with indigenous cultural production. So this is very different again than the kind of view that we get again of either hierarchies of knowledge, verticality, they're much more about the horizontal but they're not thinking in rhizomes here, they're thinking again with the tree, its roots, and all its parts.
So what does it mean to actually do that? Part of what I want to do is actually think about occupation in relationship to this work. One of the things they say is we must realise that together we bring about, through our coordination of actions, a world that constitutes language and emotion through the conspicuous or unconscious realisation of our desires. The world depends on our desires, not on our reason.
So you can see there how they're moving away from a kind of merely rationally organised way of thinking. So how to apply this work? I know it's been pretty abstract up until now. I brought in a lot of different authors that I think we should be thinking with, not just the popular literature and genres on the forest, but really trying to bring another kind of textural and citational practice to the foreground.
How do we apply that? What do we do with that information? Where do we go from here? For me this is about the kind of work that I want to show you, and especially in relationship to the kind of grounded political and social realities of Southern Chile. And for those of you who don't know, you may be more familiar with Chiapas example and the example of the Esio land and the Zapatistas and the uprising in Southern Mexico in relationship to extractivist practices in the long history of colonialism. and you may not know what's happening in Southern Chile.
What's important to think about is these are territories that are criss-crossed by Waimapu or Mapuche, Pehuenche, Huilliche original territories and they exceed, of course, the original container of the liberal and republican nation state. So Waimapu itself is a kind of counter-mapping, or a different kind of mapping, or a pre-mapping to the colonial mapping.
In this southern geography, then, the ancestral tree that I mentioned very briefly already, the monkey puzzle tree—I don't know if you have them here around (thank you for letting me know that). The araucaria pehuen tree had been brought all over the world because of its interesting root system and also its branches. They've been almost all but eradicated in Southern Chile and they're replaced now by radius pine and eucalyptus forest.
So what happened was land enclosures in the 19th century first took place through the invitation of European settlement from Poland, Italy, Germany and Sweden, through selective immigration laws. And that led way to the kind of domination of this particular landscape. And it also took place through a war called the Occupation of Araucania, and this is the image that actually started a lot of my research. I found it while I was doing research on the mothers of the disappeared in Chile and Argentina, and I didn't quite know what to do with this image of women and children who were basically survived genocide, the occupation of araucania, a military operation that kind of produced this haunting image of survivors and prompted my project.
So really to consider the kind of occupied forest, we have to think from this moment, or even a couple of decades earlier, to this present moment, to think about a long term and ongoing permanent war and condition against indigenous peoples. So this longer arc in the history of war is definitely at the foreground of what I'm interested in talking with you and sharing with you today.
Mapuche filmmaker Francisco Huichaqueo's 32-minute independent film Mencer: Ni Pewma, which actually literally means the current dystopic nightmare, draws attention to what's going on in the southern territories of Chile. And this of course is a nightmare that stretches from the colonial endeavour to the republican nation state moment, through neoliberalism and into the current monocultural condition. This bad dream, as he calls it, is one interpretation of his use of the term in the title.
Huichaqueo's filmic perspective here combines elements of re-enactment, of experimentality, of non sequitor edits, of long takes of performance art, of footage from other documentary films. The Mapuche world here can be accessed through visual and sound bridges that connect to the realm of the supernatural. It is also conjured through the use of the elements of fire, of earth, of the land, of air, the wind and water. And all of these become a kind of symbolic anchor for a new sensorium and imaginary that combines indigenous practice with state terror.
So what I want to do is show you just a piece of the opening of the film. Think about what you're seeing there. We can talk about it later. I'll talk a little bit after I show you the clip. Not many audiences have seen this. When he screened it himself it was quite a small audience. So part of the work I believe I'm doing is also trying to circulate what is a powerful experimental document.
I've never played it that loud before. And I think there's something about the confused space that actually is really important to hear it that loud. It produces a discomfort, kind of an embodied discomfort. So what it means sonically to actually have to sit through that space—of course what you're doing here is visualising the radius pine and eucalyptus plantations themselves and kind of conjuring the vastness of these monocultural pine plantations in the Bio Bio region. The camera tracks through row after row as this kind of strange voice-over echoes in the background. And here it's really the ancestors mourning because they can't find the trees that anchor in their knowledge. So there's no way to kind of find—there's this permanent search for and lack of finding anchors for cultural memory.
But what is startling is also the poem here that is rife with Mapuche symbolism and the director's take on recent political events. [Reads poem in Spanish]
And they imprisoned my brothers, the cross, that curse;
The fire that feeds all of our dead;
You have the fear that is my Brown conscience, because your richness is my death. With the fear of the tree, drying in the sun, we are interwoven with the past,
Steps that are marked by the ash layered with ash.
Your blood cries layered over blood.
The elders die alone.
Roble huacho, solitary laurel. Extinguished, extinct pehuen.
Pine, pine, pine, pine, pine, pine.
How the burning plain wind cries! How they count their millions!
So here what Huichaqueo is doing is actually narrating through the figure of the machi, the figure of the woman who is the centre of Mapuche life, and you'll see images of her in a minute. But the film itself is a confused space, a world turned upside down, a [Spanish language] space, a dystopic world. The blocked views, the partial and opaque views are all necessary to kind of producing this sense of confusion.
Now, I'd hardly say that this is easy viewing or blockbuster kind of filmmaking. This is about material that's difficult. Technically the quality is low resolution, and the imagery is hard to discern or even understand. But for me, the more I viewed the entire film that you can see on Vimeo, although his site has been crashed and re-uploaded several times, the more obsessed I've actually become with this film itself.
I'm concerned that the film actually only screened in public once, part of which I think is pointed to eschew the capitalist logic of circulation for film. He wasn't bothered by the fact that at its world premiere in Bolivia there were only five people in the audience in 2014. As he put it to me, 'The film was made to illuminate to Mapuche of the future the terrible conditions that we live through now. I use the symbolic language of our ancestors to help us shape, live and act in the world as if occupation had cared about what it ravages.'
So he gives us these scenes of charred landscapes and re-occurring symbols of fire as an anti-colonial weapon, because indeed part of the work that Mapuche have done is move in and burned the plantations, both for reasons of resurgence, but also as a kind of anti-colonial weapon.
So what is this archive of the future, then? Part of it is to kind of force us to confront and consider and perceive the violence of settler occupation and extractive capitalism. But part of the work here is also to steer us away from the oft used human rights narratives, the paradigm of testimonial or direct address, or limited renditions of the political. Instead he's interested in a kind of surrealism, and he invokes dreams and prophetic visions, swapping formal linearity and, why not say, expository clarity, for more fragmented content.
So what do we do with those fragments? How do we think about those fragments? And part of it I think is also that—and some people have asked me about this—well, of course he's also drawing upon European traditions, the kind of pre-Raphaelite image there of Ophelia and the kind of global preoccupation with water, with land, and the tragedy of Ophelia that's used in European critical contexts. But he's using it differently, I think, to draw attention to Spanish colonialism, to draw attention to British and US empire, and to think outside of the fetishistic relationship that Chile has with English culture itself, and also to insert this immobile Ophelia figure as a kind of fabulation of the melancholic that many of us are experiencing in relationship to the ecological.
So this idea of the ecological degradation upon indigenous territories as also the dystopic future everywhere and for everyone. So how do we then read this image as a part of a kind of break with European representation which I think he's interested in doing. That's part of the extractive zone that I wanted to bring forward, this kind of break with representation, the forms of experimentality, how to think about death and mourning from the realm of the ancestors, and then what do we do towards a kind of constructive project as well in relationship to that.
So to me, moving towards the third part of my talk, and I'll move through this quickly because I realise that I'm a little bit over time, but I want to also give you an example of social movement, uprising, connection, and what I think is really important for us to think about as ways to de-occupy or re-occupy, or think differently about the space of the forest.
I want to move to the example of Eastern Ecuador and this also is to say this is what political struggle looks like upon those territories, as well. It's not just the kind of state of mourning, but it's also a moment of political discussion where people are being imprisoned, seen as terrorists by the state, but what it means to seek justice and freedom for the political prisoners of Mapuche in this particular moment.
So moving now to Eastern Ecuador and the Yasuni area, what's important here is really the kind of work that's been done by social movements to make Yasuni the centre of a kind of global symbol for the radical reduction of biodiversity and what can be done now.
This sliver of land is broadly considered—the one that's highlighted there, Yasuni National Park—to be one of the world's most biodiverse regions. Literally thousands of species can be found there. And this is also an area, a forest area, the Amazonian Basin, forest basin, where the Shuar and Kichwa land defenders are literally the only obstacle course to the desperate companies who are trying to reach the below-surface deposits of petro-extractive reserves.
So there's more than a billion barrels of oil that Chevron, Exon, Petro-China, Petro-Ecuador amongst dozens of other oil companies have converted and would like to continue converting into hydrocarbons. This is another kind of mapping, to continue that thread in the talk where I'm thinking about visuality and mapping, this is what it looks like to divide up that kind of territory into oil blocks as part of the extractive view and indigenous territories become oil blocks, and what it means to reduce that view.
And so to kind of counteract that there's been groups of people trying to create counter-mappings; other showing the new ways in which road blocks, roads are coming in to create interlinked spaces of oil territories, and doing this counter-mapping with satellite images becomes quite important. But what I really wanted to point to was the kind of work of Yasunidos, and I believe this is how we might think about the future of the work that we need to do more of together. By that I mean scholars, activists, artists, coming together, a group of middle class young professionals, anarchofeminists, all kinds of ecofeminists; indigenous land defenders from across Ecuador that have come together to really say that we must fight together to create a physical sanctuary, a psychological space of respite from a climate change world. And how can we do that where questions of biodiversity can thrive rather than be increasingly threatened?
So part of that coalitional movement is really to think about Yasuni as our archive of the future. And our archive of the future is also about a really strong political statement. So I want to read the statement that Yasunidos have crafted, because I think it's pretty powerful in relationship to these questions of how to build trans communal solidarity? How do we build these kind of spaces of trans geographical relations that work alongside indigenous rights and forest defence? Part of what they say then is:
'For us, the initiative to leave the oil in the ground indefinitely should not respond to the whims of international community or those of a government that has failed us by unidirectionally discarding the possibility of a serious public debate about the alternatives for conservation. We Yasunidos demand respect for the human rights of the uncontacted peoples, as guaranteed by Article 57 of the Constitution. We demand that our ancestral natural heritage is not sacrificed, and we opt for post-oil alternatives. We urge for a truthful and transparent debate about our economic model in our energy base, and we demand that the government let us show our disagreement through the legitimate exercise of protest without repression and criminalisation.'
And I'm telling you this because it's not really translated online, so if you go looking online it's hard to get it. But I do think it's important to say part of what they're suggesting also is, 'We are aware that more than one person has attempted to use our platform to their own advantage, so we want to clarify it for ourselves. We fight for life and an alternative to the extractive model. We are citizens. Not only urban citizens. We are aware of the disasters that oil extraction generates for nature, humanity and the economy, with the strong belief that this is the moment to take the debate to the streets. With the participation of everyone we hope to overcome the oil dependency imposed on us, that moreover further aggravates global warming, environmental destruction, puts the lives of peoples in voluntary isolation at risk, and threatens not only the future of Ecuadorans but also that of humanity.'
So there's a way in which there's a real kind of sense of the seriousness of this moment of criminalisation that they're experiencing, the kind of legitimate exercise of trying to protest without repression as they suggest. And what it means to be engaged in acts of radical land defence. So the social movements of our inland defence become pretty central here. So I want to bring this example because, like I mentioned, I think it's pretty essential for us to think with successful examples rather than just assume that everything has already been done, and to think about what Paulo Freire first called critical hope, and to think about engaging modes of perception and social movement and mobilisation again from the south that can't be captured by a singular logic, that actually needs different modes of thinking with it.
So for me, this kind of proposal for alternatives is part of that. A social revolution that challenges the values of energy consumption, the idea of thinking of post-extractive futures. And we have to do it very quickly, as many of you know we're beyond the kind of tipping point in a lot of ways, so what it means to enliven critical hope as Paulo Freire puts it in these particular times.
So on that note I just want to leave you with one final kind of powerful blessing series of images by the machi who actually guides Francisco Huichaqueo in all of his work, and this I think is a powerful example of another kind of visual archive to locate the shards of dystopian disaster and re-centre it through her own embodied and cultural mediation. So let me show you that clip now.
So when I show this clip to my undergraduate students, they say to me, 'But Professor, nothing really happens here.' And that's the point. Nothing happens. A temporal lag is there. This idea of the machi mediating and situating us in the river, allowing us to kind of form a haptic connection, an embodied connection to the surrounds. And this idea of kind of wading into the water and flowing to the other side of the colonial divide with the machi figure.
So part of this work is to live with extreme conditions of violence and still think about the kind of healing practices or arts of land and water defence that include trying to shift our perspective, trying to slow down our perspective into non-capitalist time. What does it mean to think about this kind of archive, and to provide us with these kinds of images from deep within the heart of the occupied forest?
And I'll let the river and the machi have the last sounds before Q&A.
So I'm happy to also talk more about that clip if you all want to ask, but thank you for listening. That's the end of my presentation.
So comments, questions…open to any impressions, parallel situations, maybe.
Audience question 1: Thank you so much, Macarena. You mentioned it very briefly, but I wondered if you could say a few more words about this idea of archive of the future or for the future. It's such an interesting concept and in relation to that the film clip you showed us, the dystopian one, I just would love to hear you speak a few more words, sort of explaining what that is and how we can use that and to sort of…not rejection but a sort of counter to the sorts of times and…
Macarena Gómez-Barris: Thank you for that. I've spent a lot of time in the book on this concept of the archive of the future, and I think part of it is really thinking about an experimental archive, and what it means to actually experiment rather than put…you know for Huichaqueo's work he's not interested in going through the machine, running his films, say, through the machine of either human rights testimonials, as I mentioned, or a particular genre of what it means to be in a militarised state and that kind of documentary that we know are out there and they're important ones on the Mapuche issue, and lots of anti-indigenous and kind of war practices.
So for him, rather than have that kind of archive that falls into certain kinds of traps of representation, he wants to suggest something more poetic, something that will actually speak to Mapuche young people and that's trying to kind of criss-cross and include symbols that would be resonant with a Mapuche audience. So the archive of the future there is for assuming and hoping that there will be a future generation of Mapuche that will at some point see the terrible conditions. So there's a kind of wish for a utopic future there; there's a wish for an outside of the colonial experience, and that's part of how he embeds—in his filmic production he's always thinking about that kind of audience. And what I think is so important there is the archive of the future—there could be an elite archive that is about assuming that you archive for a future moment to produce your sense of entitlement to history.
So the archive I guess is always future oriented, but I think this is a subaltern archive of the future, if you will, in a kind of extreme state of distress. Thank you, great question.
Audience question 2: This is a comment. I just wanted to bring the hoop pine, the bunya pine and the Wollemi pine into the room tonight They are the relatives of the monkey puzzle tree, they are araucarias, they are our Australian araucarias from the times of Gondwanaland when South America and Australia were connected. The bunya pine in particular was the focus of an Indigenous festival whenever it fruited, which wasn't every year, it was every two or three years, and eventually the bunya festival was outlawed by the white colonialists because Aborigines were using that occasion to plan resistance and carry out resistance to the invasion of Australia. So I just wanted…because the monkey puzzle tree is so important to the Mapuche, I just wanted to add its relatives into this discussion tonight.
Macarena Gómez-Barris: Beautiful. Thank you for saying so. I mean I think what's really essential there is the viewpoint of the trees themselves as ancestors. So it's not just the human ancestors that are echoing in that kind of sound bridge, but the trees that are being eradicated and their spirit also not finding their location. So that's one piece, but then also the seeds that make a kind of daily flour and bread, and so there's literal starvation by indigenous Mapuche peoples in this eradication of the tree. So I think you're bringing something forward that's really important there, to think about kind of continental interconnections and how a tree can be so central to certain indigenous practices, so thank you very much. I'll pursue that research as well and you can give me a few citations.
Audience question 3: Thank you so much, Macarena, that was amazing. I've been thinking a lot about [continues in Spanish] and sometimes I am problematised by the idea of presenting these examples outside of their context, because we avoid talking about violence at some level, and the way that we present them, idealise them in a way that they are the future, they are the change, they are the ideology that we need to bring forward. It's like not making justice to their hundreds of years of violent displacement, dispossession that indigenous groups have suffered all over the world. Something…have you thought about that? Have you engaged with this idea? We need to talk about them but we also need to talk about how much suffering that represents for the people that are leading the movement.
Macarena Gómez-Barris: Thank you for that. I think I did deal quite a bit with violence in those questions, and really wanted to show that image of agency in relationship to Mapuche mobilisation in the face of political imprisonment. I think what's difficult is even considering what images to show and not to show. I've been working in the area of state terror and memory for 25 years now, and the question of representing violence is always one that's really important and troubling, especially in relationship to indigenous peoples. But I wanted to at least show you that sepia image of the 19th century wars on those territories in occupation, because it resonates from many, many more colonial images. I won't show you that catalogue of images, but that one seemed to me, it's part of trying to unlock what it is that's really going on, and how long it's gone on in relationship to those questions that I stated as ecocide, feminicide, and genocide.
The other thing I'd say is that the representation of Latin America in an English context in—even if we're in the global south here, in the United States and Canada and the places that I've spoken and now Australia—it's complicated and it's rife with all kinds of problems of representation, et cetera. All I can say is that I try to situate myself in the work, not maximally but minimally, because it's not really about me. But of course it's also through me. And also the tenures of the field research in relationship to communities that I've done, and part of it is I do feel a certain kind of burden of representation as, you know, in the US for instance there's like I think 1.5% of the tenured professoria is Latin, even less, of Latin American origin, and even less of talking on indigenous issues. So while I'm not sure exactly…there might be an overrepresentation in certain parts of the worlds in which you travel. In the bigger world I feel like the messages that are communicated through the machi, through Francisco's words, trying to actually bring some of those techniques forward, I think is part of what I present to you humbly; and it's imperfect, but it's part of a mediation, the work I see myself doing is a mediator of sorts as well.
About Macarena Gómez-Barris
Macarena Gómez-Barris is the founder and Director of the Global South Center, a hub for critical inquiry, aesthetic praxis and experimental forms of social living. The cultural critic and author is Chairperson of the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, and works on rethinking the Anthropocene, cultural memory, race, queer and decolonial theory.
She is author of Beyond the Pink Tide: Art and Politics in the Américas (2018), The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (2017), a book that theorises social life through five extractive scenes of ruinous capitalism upon Indigenous territories and Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2009). Gómez-Barris is co-editor with Herman Gray of Towards a Sociology of a Trace (2010).
This landmark lecture series offers a range of talks by leading international and Australian scholars in the Environmental Humanities. It will draw on insights from history, literature, philosophy, anthropology and related disciplines and explore the important role humanities can play in addressing some of the most pressing environmental challenges of our day.