Public Identity and the Headphone Hegemony

I started writing this post at the CBD meeting in Nagoya last October. Since I hate to leave my ‘drafts’ folder cluttered, I’m pushing it out the door–ready or not.

Institutions, broadly defined, are those rules that prescribe what counts as acceptable behavior. They may be formal laws or procedures or informal rules–like “you should stand in line and wait your turn to get to the cash register.” Institutions help to define our identity in certain contexts. They form the background for the types of social interactions that are possible in a certain setting.

At the CBD CoP in Nagoya, Japan informal institutions were in full effect. The clothing of choice is determined by the group with which an actor identifies and their role at the COP, including power skirts, suits-and-ties, business casual, indigenous attire, student chic, and rumpled academic. Within any one room, however, the key speakers were often dressed alike. In one workshop, a gentleman from Canada was talking about the planetarium in Montreal: “when you prepare to enter,” he said, “there has to be a cutoff. You take off your shoes and everybody lies on the floor. Everyone is at the same level, having the same experience.” What a wonderful metaphor for the scene in a UN contact group or assembly. Of course, people don;t all have the same experience–at the CBD or in the planetarium–but the institutional structures in place try to produce homogeneity.

Walking through metal detectors en masse was the beginning of a daily ritual that marked the CBD conference space as a type of sacred ground: where some types of speech were encouraged and others were considered profane or nonsensical. Whatever the outward clothing of an attendee, the simultaneous translation headphones perched on top of their heads marked them as members of a group. The institutions at work here–in passing through security, wearing headphones (whether or not participants were actually listening), or making clothing choices–may seem mundane, but they served to sever one portion of the attendees lives from their lives as homemakers, mothers, fathers, cooks, musicians, or amateur athletes. In doing so, the resulting discussions were constrained to an abstraction of the very visceral reality of biodiversity loss. Good, possibly, for the production of policy. My question is: does the inevitable institutional constraint in these meetings lead to policy that is as divorced from the daily bodily lives of people as the places where the policy is produced?

Life in Harmony

I thought I’d throw out some thoughts on the idea of harmony. This is something I may develop more in the next few weeks.

At the 10th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10), the theme for the event is “Life in Harmony, Into the Future.” Harmony is everywhere in the discussions: objectives are harmonized, initiatives work in harmony, biodiversity conservation and development work together in harmony. Sounds great.

“Harmony” is something I’m going to call a “yielding word.” Social scientists and lawyers have recognized fighting words for some time–those key words and phrases that, by their use, constitute an aggressive act. The use of fighting words is an example of performative speech: the speaking of these words constitutes an action in and of itself. Saying “the sky is blue” is a different type of action from saying “you are ugly,” even if the description is accurate. While fighting words typically mark conflict or social tension, yielding words as I am defining them are also performative, but do the opposite: they are anti-conflictual, and are, therefore, hard to speak against. Wait, you may say, why would you want to speak out against harmony? Which makes my point exactly. Other yielding words may be things like “happiness,” “peace,” “justice,” “love,” etc.. It is an idea in need of further development, but I’ think it is useful here.

Why, then, would I like to argue against harmony? I’m an Aikido practitioner, and we are supposed to love harmony, right? I’m not specifically arguing against harmony, but against the uncritical use of the term to drive specific agendas forward. Here it is useful to look at some of the ways that the term is being used.

At the COP10 in Japan, “Life in Harmony” uses the term “共生” which translates as “living together in health” or “symbiosis.” This is different from the harmony in Aikido, “合気道”, which refers to aligning energies. It is also different from “調和” which means peace, balance, or calm. All of these are potentially read as harmony. Harmony is being used at the COP in the symbiosis-of-all-life sense, but also in the sense of “harmonizing” agreements so that they do not conflict and, rather, build synergies. Harmonization in this context implies a win-win outcome. While this sounds great, win-win outcomes are notoriously difficult to achieve. Using the idea of harmony as a tool to silence argument against specific agendas echoes Laura Nader’s idea of “coercive harmonization.” Her idea is that conflict avoidance, rather than justice, is often the underlying goal of political processes. A conflict avoidance approach tends to favor the interests of the most powerful. Harmonizing with the interests of large governments and transnational corporations can lead to a redefinition of rights: away from things like the right to self-determination, and toward things like the right to engage more in the global economy. In the same way, use of other yielding words makes participation difficult by silencing contesting voices.

Aikido, mentioned above, is a form of understanding and attempting to resolve conflict. Perhaps the most difficult part of the art is learning to engage or turn away effectively without devolving into either simple conflict avoidance or the use of aggressive force. Harmony in this sense is a potential outcome of applying a goal: non-harming engagement. When harmony itself becomes the goal, both full participation and considerations of justice can be lost.

Shanusi, Biofuels, and Conservation Trade-offs


At the end of last year, I arrived with two colleagues at the village of Nueva Italia near the border of the San Martin and Loreto regions of the Peruvian Amazon. After traveling three hours from Tarapoto, then half an hour down a rough logging road past small rainforest farms, we found almost forty people, with machetes, ready to march into the nearby palm oil development to fight against what they saw as an encroachment on their land. After convincing them to abandon their plans for a fight, we walked together to the site of clearing for the new palm oil plantation. With the sound of chainsaws echoing through the trees and uncertainty about what was going to happen, we were nervous about the possibility of being shot. Arriving at the plantation, armed security forces approached us. When the head of security arrived, recognizing that we were not all local farmers, a debate began that led to accusations from both sides. In many ways, that debate is continuing today.

The contested site is a 10 thousand acre palm oil monoculture, run by  Palmas del Shanusi,  of the Romero Group. The project has generated conflicts over deforestation, insufficient compensation to the state per hectare (5.5 dollars per hectare for 7000 hectares), and conflicts between local settlers and recent migrants of the district of Barranquita. The settlers accuse the company of confiscating them of their lands, destroying their forests, and convincing the state to block their entitlement procedures. The company accuses the farmers purposly settling in the borders of the monoculture to establish land rights which can then be sold to the company. The dispute between the company and the farmers for the usage rights of the forest occurs amid the state promotion of private investments and a generalized lack of governance of the territory.

The case of the Shanusi project and the conflict in Barranquita is helpful for understanding the socio-environmental conflicts related to biofuels. These conflicts are becoming more common with the increase in the demand for biofuels and policies that promote monocultures in the Amazon region. The act of selling large tracts of land in the Amazon region is already conflictive. If they were already deforested, it implies that there are peasants on those lands with some type of right over them. If there is still primary forest, it implies an attack on nature. In this case it is a combination of the two. Earlier interventions in the primary forest had left most of the forest standing: only the most valuable trees had been taken out by illegal loggers. We are not talking then about deforested and degraded lands, nor secondary forests, but a vital forest that actively provided environmental services. This puts into question the act of cutting down the forest to plant oil palm . The root of the problem lies in the strange administrative decision to change the use of land from forest to agricultural, which led to the sale by the Ministry of Agriculture of the land at the absurdly low price of 17.90 soles per hectare.

Despite the environmental discourse from the opponents of the monoculture, all evidence points to the fact that the motivations of the farmers are distributive rather than environmental. That there is deforestation is not the central preoccupation, but rather who carries it out and who benefits from it: the local population or an outsider company. Meanwhile, the interpretation of the incident by the Manager of Palmas del Shanusi is that with farming in the area all the forests are destined to turn into grasslands, which means that the oil palm plantations of the Romero Group will be the “lesser evil” of the two, in environmental terms. This conflict is not over. This is the  kind of situation that happens when primary forests and the livelihoods of local people are traded off in Amazonia for establishing large-scale monocultures.