Research Grants Fund Summer Fieldwork for Two MCC Doctoral Students

Angela Arias-Zapata and Colette Perold received grants from the Tinker Foundation for travel to Latin America to conduct pre-dissertation research. The intent of the Tinker funding is to “allow students to familiarize themselves with information sources relevant to their studies, conduct pilot studies and preliminary investigations, and develop contacts with scholars and institutions in their respective fields.” Both Arias-Zapata and Perold spent much of the summer planning and conducting their research in Colombia and Brazil, respectively. We spoke to both via email about their research interests and summer activity. —Editor’s Note

Angela Arias-Zapata’s destination was La Chorrera, a village located in the Colombian Amazon, an area rich with the Hevea trees whose latex-like sap is the main ingredient in rubber. La Chorrera houses Casa Arana, once the headquarters for the former Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company. Here, tens of thousands of indigenous inhabitants experienced mass enslavement, torture, and killings during the rubber boom of the 1900-1930s.

Arias-Zapata is researching initiatives within the country to memorialize traumatic periods in Colombian history; the rubber boom and the thousands of civilian deaths resulting from the past 30 years of armed conflict serve as two prime examples. She is seeking to understand how attempts to define the past are shaped by the storyteller—the state’s official discourse and the counter-discourse advanced by numerous community-led initiatives across the country. These endeavors involve negotiating the contested narratives about Colombia’s past and reaching consensus on how best to commemorate them.

Arias-Zapata stayed with a local family in La Chorrera who helped facilitate her introduction in the tight-knit community. While there, she blogged for NYU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies website.

Your visit this summer was your first time conducting fieldwork. What proved to be the most useful part of this experience? 

This was my first time conducting fieldwork for a project of my own design. I had been a research assistant in 2007 for a project on education in a neighboring region. The most useful part of this new experience was being able to see how my planned methodology worked in practice. This forced me to be flexible and modify the ways in which I collected information. This experience also showed me how important it is for researchers to be open to unexpected information, which may change the focus of their interest or even the very questions of their inquiry.

Can you share examples of narratives you encountered during your research this summer that were in tension with one another?

One way of thinking about the tensions between narratives in historical memory is to assume that they are based exclusively on opposition. However, in the particular case of La Chorrera, in the Colombian Amazon region (my fieldwork site), the character of these tensions proved to be much more complex than that. Official policies on memory and the projects that emerge from them are motivated mainly by two elements: one is a desire to bring reparations to communities that the state failed to protect from violence carried out by illegal armed actors. The other is a desire for reparations in communities in which it was the state that carried out the violent acts. The idea of creating a museum next to the Casa Arana building (the place where thousands of indigenous peoples were enslaved and tortured during the rubber boom in the 1930s) is, then, part of attempted reparations to the descendants of those victims.

However, in the case of the indigenous communities that inhabit the region, the period of slavery was not as devastating as the religious rule that came after. The survivors (most of them orphans) were placed under the responsibility of the Capuchin monks, who forced them to forget their spiritual beliefs and their language. For the community of La Chorrera, what is important about the museum project is that, on the one hand, it allows them to negotiate official narratives of memory directly with the state. On the other hand, it could be incorporated in their own attempt to recover their culture from the imposed oblivion that they were subjected to.

Last month Colombia brokered a (likely) end to its decades-long civil war. How might the efforts to memorialize past suffering be impacted by the possibility of reconciliation? 

Official efforts to memorialize past suffering in Colombia are part of the current reparation and reconciliation policies. These policies originated in the context of previous peace agreements with armed groups other than the FARC. Mainly in the one that took place in 2007 with the paramilitary armies known as AUC. That process was not the end of the conflict, because there were other illegal armed groups still active (the FARC and the ELN guerrillas). Since then, efforts to memorialize past suffering on the part of the state have taken place at the same time as new violent events.

Real peace is not on the table yet, since the ELN guerrillas and an important number of gangs created by ex-paramilitary combatants are still active. However, an atmosphere of relative peace after the agreement with the FARC would mean that institutions, social movements, and communities would be able to work on memorialization projects with a lower risk of being threatened or associated with a specific side of the confrontation. Nevertheless, since the FARC will become a legitimate political and social actor after the peace agreement, their version of the past and their own memorialization initiatives will be part of the public debate. The ethical challenge that Colombians will face is huge in this sense. Decades of an anti-communist political landscape, as well as the damage that the FARC has done to the country, will make it difficult for the citizenry to listen to these new narratives. New outbursts of violence could emerge from the right wing political groups as they refuse to accept the existence of those narratives.

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Embarking on a study of the critical history of Brazil’s 10,500-mile border, Colette Perold spent six weeks this summer in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Central to her investigation has been the country’s increasing preoccupation with border defense, its attempts to monitor migration and trafficking, natural resource oversight in the Amazon—and how these converge in the name of climate security and the drug war. The state-sponsored SISFRON project is a primary source of interest for Perold. A $13 billion virtual “wall” of technology (drones, satellites, sensors) devoted to monitoring everything from drug and arms traffickers to CO2 emissions and deforestation, the project launched in 2011 and was originally slated for completion in 2023. Since its federal funding dried up toward the beginning of Brazil’s recession, it is now being financed in piecemeal form at the local level. SISFRON is a joint military and police infrastructural program packaged in environmental and humanitarian planning; embedded fiber optic cables in the Amazon’s estuaries are advertised to bring high-speed internet to millions in the poorest areas of Brazil’s western Amazon as the army builds out the connectivity base of its operations.  

Borders have featured consistently in Perold's work. Her undergraduate thesis "Facing Tijuana's Maquilas: An Inquiry into Embodied Viewership of the U.S.-Mexico Border" received Harvard University’s Hoopes Prize for outstanding scholarly research. As a first-year doctoral student, Perold made use of summer fieldwork to narrow the scope of her dissertation topic: conducting interviews with Brazilian scholars and delving into national archives.   

Climate security is a fairly new concept. How do you define it, and how does your research engage with this topic?

After the Cold War, and with increased coordination in the mid-2000s, military strategists in the global North began to see climate change as a threat to national security, and churned out numerous influential reports for near- and long-term military strategy in preparation for the associated instability. The military embrace of climate change as a security threat—or “threat multiplier,” in military parlance—responds to the effects of climate change, not its causes. It envisions containing the impact of extreme weather events and climate-related conflict in vulnerable areas, predominantly in the global South. At the same time, it aims to preserve access to natural resources for the people and nations with the capital to maintain their status quo in the wake of environmental degradation and disaster. As such, we can consider “climate security” to be the militarized response to the threat climate change poses to sovereignty and human vitality.

Some use the concepts “climate security” and “environmental security” to raise the impending prospect of runaway climate change to the level of military concern in order to rally support for issues that have historically fallen on deaf ears or met corporate censorship. Within this framing, to “secure” is to preserve or nurture. But this use has significant limitations due to the ease with which “security” concerns give way to military oversight.

Terminology aside, at stake in the climate security debates is the central role that armies play in exacerbating climate change. Militaries (along with the militarization of government activities, police, and commerce) are widely believed to be the world’s largest institutional crude oil consumers and play a definitive role in securing extraction projects that accelerate global carbon emissions—and their own ongoing operations. Militaries and small-scale or private security forces must make themselves less relevant, not more, if we are to take seriously the task of climate change mitigation.

In my work moving forward, I will be demonstrating the ways that opposition to climate security is more than mere pacifism; that it is intimately woven into the ongoing war on drugs (with a focus on the U.S. and Brazil); and that it has a prehistory in military preoccupation with what is often understood as the “natural” environment.  

You describe the Brazilian government’s portrayal of SISFRON as an “all-seeing, all-knowing component of Brazil’s high-tech modernizing agenda.” How is this communicated to the public and how is it received by the Brazilian people?

Something that initially surprised me when I started looking into SISFRON, well before this research trip, is the extent to which the Brazilian public has been unaware of the government's increased spending on border monitoring over the past decade. While Brazilian news consumers may hear about danger and trafficking on the border through government speeches and media hype, they are by and large unaware of the costly infrastructural and intelligence-integration efforts deployed to tackle the threats said to be emanating from the region. The lack of awareness was initially striking to me, coming from the U.S., home to one of the most trafficked and hysteria-provoking borders in the world.  

The reasons for the lack of awareness are many (from the size of the border to its location in the Amazon to its comparatively low level of migrant traffic) but here's what's key: I went into the project thinking a discourse-analysis approach to the study of the Brazilian defense sector's PR would be a worthwhile contribution to critical studies of militarism, but it's now clear to me how removed from reality a project based in assumptions about the power of security-sector PR would be. Both embrace and aversion to militarism are always historically rooted in their immediate social contexts, so studies that claim new findings by analyzing isolated PR documents tend to have a limited impact. I'm glad to now be refocusing on the heart of the issues I was first drawn to in studying SISFRON: impediments to demilitarization, the root causes of state violence, and the military logic connecting climate security to the drug war.  

You conducted substantial archival research in Rio’s National Archive. What kind of material were you seeking? Any particular item that surprised you, or influenced the trajectory of your future research?

I became interested in the initial response to drug trafficking in Brazil in the 1970s and early 1980s. The military dictatorship was at its height in the 1970s and financing a massive colonization program to increase human settlement in the Amazon. This story is well known—it was a period of mass deforestation, road-building, and military expansion. But it was in the mid-to-late 1970s that the trafficking of coca-derived illicit drugs from the Andes began to enter through the Amazonian borders into Brazil, facilitated by this military-sponsored development, new transport routes, and free trade initiatives in the Amazon (e.g., the Zona Franca in Manaus). For several reasons, and unlike other South American countries (Colombia most notably), Brazil ultimately rejected the heavy hand of the U.S. militarized response to trafficking in the region.

Likely because of both the Amazon colonization program and, later, inflation caused by the debt crisis, the dictatorship's response to drug trafficking in the Amazon during this early moment in the trade was either stifled or censored, and to this day remains understudied. But it’s an important moment for understanding today’s drug war in Brazil, particularly the military programming linking natural resource depletion, climate change adaptation, illicit drug commodity chains, and urban poverty. I found rich archival material on the regime from this period: some on government censorship, some from the Amazon development authority SUDAM, some on specific infrastructural projects. While I have to go back to the existing literature on this period to assess the significance of this material, I can say for now that I caught a major case of archive fever while there, and I’m so looking forward to picking up this part of the project again as soon as I can get back.