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MORETHANHUMAN MATTERS

An interview with Alyssa Paredes

Our guest this week is Alyssa Paredes, LSA Collegiate Fellow in the University of Michigan’s Department of Anthropology between 2020-2022 and Assistant Professor of Anthropology beginning 2022. Alyssa is a socio-cultural anthropologist with research interests in the human, environmental, and metabolic infrastructures of transnational trade. She uses multi-sited, multi-scalar, and multi-lingual methods to carry out immersive and socially engaged fieldwork in the Philippines and Japan. Alyssa holds a PhD in anthropology from Yale University. Alyssa’s first book project tracks the dramatic shifts that occur between the Philippine region of Mindanao, where export bananas are among the most resource-intensive of all agricultural industries, to Japanese urban centres, where they are ubiquitous items that sell for cheap. Her work identifies the conventions of crop science, agrochemical regulation, market segmentation techniques, and food standards as arenas where actors contend over the commodity chain's production calculus. In chronicling how local actors reinsert themselves into the calculations that efface them, she ties together approaches from within and beyond anthropology. Recognizing that disparities often emerge in the course of ethnographic research between the global North and South, Alyssa has used her work to inform the advocacy of NGOs in the Philippines and Japan. In the interest of tackling social and environmental issues, she has supported projects between academic, civil, and corporate institutions, and has aided in the production of public-facing publications, seminars, and a documentary film.

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        Hello, Alyssa, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the intersections of environment, food, and resource extraction in Southeast Asia, and what theoretical or conceptual frameworks you deploy in exploring these themes?

I’m thrilled to be a part of this conversation, Sophie, thank you for inviting me into the fold! 

Serendipity is behind so much of what comes to define anthropological work, and I’m certainly no exception. After graduating from college and spending a year in Japan, I worked in a New York City-based Japanese multinational food and beverage industry. I often describe the company as the “Pepsi-Co of Japan.” I was fascinated by the inner workings of the vast network of exchange of which I was a part, but being at the very bottom of the corporate hierarchy, I had limited access or ability to reflect on them. I didn’t realize this as it was happening, but that experience became the first seeds of an interest in the production and transport of food in long-distance chains.

I knew only two things for sure in the earliest years of my Ph.D. education in anthropology: from my previous employment, I knew I wanted to explore the food production-consumption nexus, and I knew I wanted to do this between the two countries I cared about most deeply, the first being the Philippines, the country of my childhood, and the second Japan, the country I had dedicated many years learning about. As I would come to learn from friends in civil society circles, export bananas is one, if not the most important and most politicized commodity that passes between these two places, so my research led me to the southern island of Mindanao, where they are predominantly grown.

Conceptually, my work draws from branches of anthropology, science and technology studies, human geography, and critical food studies. Bringing these fields together has helped me think about what I understand as a paradox at the heart of the transnational trade in bananas. In the Philippines, where bananas are grown, the industry is incredibly cost-intensive, more so even than closely related agricultural sectors. When the bananas arrive in consumer markets in Japan, however, they’re the cheapest fruit available, sometimes selling for less than $1 per 5-piece pack. This discrepancy is often explained in the economic terms of “externalized costs,” the indirect effects of production that are considered “external” because they are not accounted for in the ways that production costs or the final price of a product are calculated. But the mechanisms that dictate what is accounted for and what isn’t has everything to do with non-economic factors. In a way, you could say that while the research question I posed was economic in nature, the answers I found were environmental, epistemological, juridical, and deeply social.

        Your first book project explores the multi-sited career of bananas from the Philippine region of Mindanao to Japanese urban centers. Can you speak a little bit more about working between two connected locales?

One of the biggest surprises during my fieldwork “following bananas,” so to speak, between these two connected places was how disconnects, miscommunications, and fall-outs are totally endemic to transnational trade. Many people tend to imagine the commodity chain as a thick rope that ties zones of production to spaces of consumption. So much of present-day, neoliberal consumer politics relies on the notion (even hope) that what we do here affects what happens there, and vice versa. There is some truth to that, but it is entirely contingent on the structure of the commodity chain we’re dealing with.

To give one example from the plantation banana context, Filipino laborers often chop down banana trees as a form of popular protest, thinking that damaging harvest volumes will send a powerful message to their Japanese importers abroad. In reality, however, those importers rarely even notice a change in their supply.

There’s a similar dynamic that operates in the other direction: Japanese consumers who want to do something about the social and environmental injustices they hear about from Mindanao commit to buying organic or ethically-sourced alternatives in the spirit of “voting with your dollar” (or in this case, with your yen). What they often don’t realize—and what few ethical sourcing companies are willing to admit—is that these small, individual acts rarely add up to any perceptible or decipherable difference as far as big retailers are concerned. A corporate representative from a big banana importing firm once told me that there needs to be a 5% shift in consumer patterns before the shift is even “felt.” I’m generally skeptical of statistics like these, but I think the gist is clear. Voting with your dollar also certainly doesn’t fix any of the problems of the plantations either, which continue to go about business as usual regardless of increased interest in organic or fair trade.

In both cases, the political message is lost along the way! Part of what I hope to do while working between the Philippines and Japan is to think seriously about how and why that is the case. 

        What insights and challenges did you encounter in researching and writing about plant-human relations–methodologically, empirically, and/or theoretically?

This is an excellent question that gets to the heart of what I do. Allow me to begin by saying that one of my central intellectual projects is thinking about the links between human-plant relations and political praxis. Traditions of agrarian scholarship have long focused on social mobilization around export crop industries. But I think it’s fair to say that those traditions generally took the plant-in-question as incidental to the forms of protest around it. The plantation, too, was construed primarily as the ground on which “real” politics happens.

The problem was that this approach simply could not explain why the activists I met in and

around banana plantations of Mindanao were adopting the particular strategies that they

were - why they decided to protest this and not that, why they adopted certain kinds of

political rhetoric over others, even to their campaign’s own detriment. This came to a head

most powerfully in researching Davao City’s Anti-Aerial Spray Movement, and I talk about

this more in a piece I wrote for Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene and in a

chapter called “We Are Not Pests” in The Promise of Multispecies Justice (Duke University

Press, under contract). In essence, I felt compelled to reimagine environmental and agrarian

politics through ecological configurations of the plant and plantation itself—that is, as

profoundly, even tragically, shaped by multi-species affordances and impossibilities.

Theoretically, this space is somewhat tricky. This is not an argument for environmental determinism—I’m not suggesting that banana plants dictate the contours of (human-driven) agrarian politics in ways that would differ entirely from how, say, sugarcane would. Neither do I mean to argue that plants have “agency,” or that they have “politics” all on their own, though a handful of thinkers have made compelling arguments in that direction, suggesting that those categories need to be opened up. I am somewhere in between, and just beginning to really work out the tendrils of these thoughts. One other place I’ve experimented with this is in an article in the Journal of Political Ecology called "Weedy Activism," for instance. This was a side project based in Japan, and the idea was to think about “weeds” and “weediness” as a conceptual heuristic to describe the women-driven environmental mobilization that I saw developing around them. Needless to say, these are intellectual directions that might not have been thinkable a few decades ago; it’s an exciting time to be thinking and writing in these spaces, indeed!

        Your research is driven by an ethos of engagement with marginalized voices. Could you tell us how you have put this ethos into practice in your scholarly and non-scholarly endeavors, and what insights you have gained from your applied approach to anthropology?

I believe Gramsci was the first to refer to the figure of the “organic intellectual.” Taking that idea to heart, it’s always been crystal clear to me that the people I meet in fieldwork are their own theorists. Because the ways they narrate their experiences are borne of the exigencies of the ground, they constantly challenge the intellectual commitments of academic scholarship. In my writing, I try to center those ground-up theorizations and maintain their three-dimensionality in the face of what can often feel like the two-dimensional flatness of academic prose. A piece coming out soon in Ethnos called “Experimental Science for the Bananapocalypse” is one of my more recent attempts to put this to practice. It’s about how a backyard scientist goes against the grain of the conventional agricultural sciences to find a cure to a fungal disease called Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4. This is a man who finds inspiration not in the secular protocols of industry, but in the non-secular (and, as far as scientific management is concerned, marginalized) realm of God-given dreams. This isn’t so much about “applied anthropology” as it is about “engaged anthropology”; my hope while working with the scientist was that we think together, and bring our separate epistemic frameworks into conversation.

        Finally, Alyssa, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?

Allow yourself to be transformed by fieldwork. If you happen to be in a graduate

program at the moment, recognize that so much of that experience will try to get

you to narrow down your interests and become an “expert.” Certainly, it’s important

to have a strong sense of your identity as a scholar, just as it’s important to be able

to situate yourself an existing body of scholarly “expertise.” But you can allow yourself 

to be capacious while you’re at it! Conducting fieldwork in more-than-human worlds will demand as much, even “pull you” in the different directions of the environmental humanities, ecology and evolutionary biology, science and technology studies, and so on. Through it all, don’t lose sight of power, where it is concentrated, and how it moves through and across species lines. And when it comes time to put your thoughts to the page, never lose the story-telling quality of your writing.

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“I felt compelled to reimagine environmental and agrarian politics through ecological configurations of the plant and plantation itself - that is, as profoundly, even tragically, shaped by multi-species affordances and impossibilities."

“Through it all, don’t lose sight of power, where it is concentrated, and how it moves through and across species lines.”

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