I am a sociocultural anthropologist who studies how people use different strategies to participate in environmental and political conflicts. The ways people engage in conflicts raise questions about what information they produce or have access to, how they determine what is true or false, who they share their opinions with, why and how they share those opinions, and who listens to them.
In my dissertation research, I look at how people strategically use a variety of media (newspapers, documentary videos, photo essays, print and radio advertisements, emails, blogs, social media, science reports, and legal affidavits) as well as contexts (public protests, court hearings, community referendums), and discourses (universal human rights, environmental conservation, indigenous autonomy) in order to participate in debates about transnational mining projects. The ways people draw on different media, contexts, or discourses provides insight into how the conflict in question developed, how it affects the people involved, and the wider impacts it has on society.
In Guatemala, where I have spent 26 months doing field research, indigenous activists have used debates over mining and the environment to renegotiate their relationship with the state and other publics following 36 years of civil war. The complex narration of these debates shapes the relationship those involved have with the environment, and ultimately impacts who is allowed to define and control the meaning of “the environment”.
For more information on my research, please see the links below.
Economies of Representation: Communication, Conflict, and Mining in Guatemala
My dissertation is based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the capital and highlands of Guatemala. To begin, I examine how the historical context of civil war and state-sponsored violence has shaped present-day conflicts between the national government and corporations on the one hand, and indigenous groups and international activists, on the other. Many Maya activists refer to the influx of transnational mining projects as the “third colonial invasion,” and view the violence associated with mining conflicts as a continuation of historical violence.
I then analyze the ways that different actors frame mining conflicts as either social or environmental issues through the production of expert knowledge such as ecological studies of water quality and human rights impact assessments of the communities neighboring the mine. The mining company tends to define the conflict in terms of “sustainable development,” which affords them certain economic and political benefits. Anti-mining activists’ claims for a holistic classification of mining, in which environmental and social impacts are inseparable, are equally politicized and serve their own strategic purpose.
A large part of my research focuses on grassroots referendums on mining licenses. I describe how activists use these referendums to protest mining development. Community activists draw on discourses of universal human rights as well as indigenous or collective cultural rights in organizing these votes, demonstrating the ways that transnational discourses are adopted and adapted as political strategies at the local level. The performance of voting, and the subsequent textual and video documentation of votes, supports anti-mining social networks across the Guatemalan highlands and internationally. As communities around the highlands organize votes, they share the documents that shape the events: municipal accords, scripts, ballots, registration sheets, and posters. Each community modifies these documents to fit local needs and practices, and they come to embody the collaborative networks that shape mining resistance in the region.
I discuss the ways that rumors and testimonial narratives (testimonio) often intersect in people’s accounts of their experiences with mining, transforming truth claims as these media circulate through social networks. Rumor was a “hidden transcript” in the testimonies provided by anti- mining protesters after an incident in which local authorities detained, threatened, and assaulted them. These protesters blend rumor and testimonio in the process of collaboratively narrating their experiences, demonstrating the fluidity of these two genres not only as modes of communication but as practices of knowledge production.
Finally, I argue that the translation of analog media to digital forms during mining debates disrupts certain commonly held conventions about genre and authorship. The roles of media producer and media consumer are fluid, allowing individuals to assume each at different points in time. What is clear in my research is that the Internet and other digital media have facilitated this kind of fluidity, emphasizing the increasing hybridity and overlap of media consumption and production in the digital age.
My doctoral research was supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant (#1123650), the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, a Rackham International Research Award from the University of Michigan, and funding from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan.
Since 2002, the consulta comunitaria, or community referendum, has gained immense popularity in Latin America as a mechanism for opposing extractive industry projects. First used in Tambogrande, Peru to reject a Canadian mining project, the method has spread to Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, and Guatemala in response to growing investment in transnational metals mining projects. Communities in Guatemala have organized more than 60 such votes involving over 500,000 participants, all resulting in the rejection of potential mining projects. Despite the requirement of free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous peoples directly affected by these projects, the Guatemalan state has refused to recognize these referendums as anything more than an expression of minority opinion. In response, Guatemalan indigenous movements, community governance bodies, and international activists have sought to redefine the bureaucratized process of voting in terms of ancestral rights and practices, refusing to allow the referendums to be subsumed by the national electoral system. Community referendums are one example of the actions through which indigenous activists articulate their demands for sovereignty, challenging the state’s monopoly over territory, resources, and democratic practice.
A grant made to Stuart Kirsch through the Rackham Spring/ Summer Collaborative Research Grants Program in 2010 supported this research.
For three months in 2007 I facilitated a collaborative photography project in San Mateo Ixtatán, Guatemala, roughly following the Literacy through Photography and Photovoice models. San Mateo is characterized by a dramatically unbalanced representational economy. While community members are the subjects of much visual and textual media—ranging from brochures promoting Guatemalan tourism to images in U.S. periodicals—the production and dissemination of these media take place almost entirely elsewhere, in the metropolitan centers of capital and exchange. The main goals of the project were to foster local image production and to help students develop the critical analytical skills needed to interpret media produced both in the community and elsewhere. This project resulted in my undergraduate senior thesis, as well as an article in the journal Collaborative Anthropologies.