Sofia Zaragocin, Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador
Published in 2018 in Antipode – A Radical Journal of Geography
Available at: doi: 10.1111/anti.12454
In 2019, I participated in a workshop on “Contested Territories” at Leeds University. The workshop’s goal was to bring together research on the contested creation and appropriation of territories in Latin America. Dr Sofia Zaragocin was announced as the keynote speaker in order to de-centre Anglophone discourses about territory by bringing in a decolonial and feminist perspective. Unfortunately, and I assume due to her citizenship, the British government denied her the visa.
Sofia Zaragocin’s talk – then online – motivated me to read one of her articles, “Gendered Geographies of Elimination: Decolonial Feminist Geographies in Latin American Settler Contexts”. Drawing on the perspective of Epera women, Zaragocin describes how the Indigenous settlements of Epera (or Eperara Siapidaara) are experiencing the threat of disappearance as a distinctive ethnocultural group, with regard to both physical and cultural registrars. According to Zaragocin’s research, this dynamic of annihilation is induced by territorial changes related to the encroachment of agribusiness and violent non-/state actors, as well as the pollution from mining activities and oil palm plantations. These factors increase the number of thefts and acts of violence, contaminate land and water, reduce arable land for subsistence farming and worsen the already precarious nutrition and health situation – leading to the “slow death” of the Epera people in general, and the women (and children) in particular. These dynamics are in part due to the geographical location: the Epera are a trinational ethnicity in the Ecuador-Colombian borderland, which has seen recurrent immigration by different social groups. The settlements are located at the “crossfire of geopolitical and non-state militarized disputes over territory and resources” in light of the Colombian conflict (p. 5). Further, as in the case of many if not all peripheral (Indigenous) regions in Latin America, there are no infrastructures or services provided by the state.
The paper is both refreshing and shocking. Refreshing, because it is written from the perspective of actors (Epera women) facing territorial changes and thus fulfils claims of decolonial feminist geography. Via different ethnographic methods built on the involvement of precisely these actors, Zaragocin explores how women of the Epera describe the space they live in. For instance, she considers maps the women had drawn, which clearly show how Epera women perceive their surroundings and how they demarcate violent spaces; the omnipresence of pollution and contamination of the land and river from oil palm trees, mining activities, and rubbish; disease (e.g., dengue fever); the encroachment of agribusiness; the related delinquency and the presence of armed forces (state and non-state); and the places where the youth migrate to the cities.
The paper is shocking because it reminds the reader of the tragic situation faced by many communities, especially in the Global South. Zaragocin notes – and these cases stand for a number of similar tragic cases – that “[t]hroughout the 12 months of research, four children and two adults died of preventable diseases, while severe and prolonged illness was a common event” (p. 12).
Epera women themselves interpret their slow elimination partly with reference to ethnic and bodily purity. For them, it is the cultural assimilation and mixed marriages with non-Epera that make Epera bodies (mostly women and children, since they are more vulnerable for reproductive reasons and age) more susceptible to illnesses and death. A strategy to protect the “pure” Epera from cultural assimilation is, for instance, the imposition of strict cultural regulations for marriage. This notion of “purity” as a local interpretation for the roots of slow death leads to friction among the Epera and “weaken and undermine a collective indigenous response to the threat of disappearance” (p. 15), since others attribute the structural violence and elimination the Epera face to the territorial changes described above and the abandonment by the state.
What makes Zaragocin’s approach so interesting not only for geographers but also for social scientists interested in researching territorial changes, resource conflicts, and socioecological inequalities related to race/ethnicity, gender and class, is that she brings together a critical decolonial feminist perspective on territory and gendered/racialised peoples and their bodies with the theorisation of settler colonialism in Latin America. Settler colonialism refers to processes and narratives to secure settlers’ claim to Indigenous land and thus displace Indigenous peoples. Looking at dynamics of territorial change through the lens of a convergence of settler colonial studies with a decolonial feminist perspective draws attention to “gendered geographies of elimination”, revealing spatial processes of destruction and dispossession of Indigenous peoples.
The paper reminds scholars working on resource politics and conflicts in Latin America, as well as those analysing so-called development projects and sustainability policies, to look more closely at hidden forms of violence and danger perceived by actors facing territorial changes, be they induced by agribusiness or climate change mitigation projects. Crucial here is the notion of slow death or “slow violence” (Nixon 2013) – a common diagnosis in environmental justice movements and research, referring to the invisible and deliberately overlooked elimination of livelihoods of racialised and subaltern communities due to pollution and other forms of environmental hazards, but also in light of the increasing number of green and development projects.
Moreover, the article shows how ambivalent and contested the interpretations of social groups facing these severe threats to their existence can be. This makes it imperative to closely analyse cultural and historical contexts and to consider the role of Indigenous narratives on identity and cultural change. Zaragocin’s work further reminds us to pay attention to place-based and re-scaled dynamics of racialised, gendered and sexualised forms of violence, and to how these forms are linked to the appropriation of nature and space.
In many, mostly peripheral regions of Latin America, resource conflicts are triggered by the intrusion of agribusiness and the mining industry, the entanglements of state actors with organised crime, as well as the militarisation of peripheral areas important for resource extraction and other forms of the appropriation of nature (such as conservation and bioprospecting). Those groups of Indigenous peoples who resist these economic projects because they do not really benefit from them, who want to protect their cultural heritage, who suffer from the growing presence of violent actors, and who are dependent on land for subsistence are in danger of facing “slow deaths” – physically and culturally, as Zaragocin outlines in the case of the Epera. Her methodological and conceptual inputs provide helpful tools for a context-sensitive analysis. If in the future visa bureaucracies (as well as pandemic regulations) do not prevent her from entering the EU, perhaps there will also be the possibility to discuss Zaragocin’s research with her in person in the future. I certainly look forward to it.
Reviewed by: Rosa Lehmann
Works cited: Nixon R. 2013. Slow violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press .
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Foto: ©Cynthia Matonhodze, Harare, Zimbabwe