An interview with Daniel Ruiz-Serna
Our guest this week is Daniel Ruiz-Serna, a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and the University of British Columbia, Canada. Daniel trained as an anthropologist in Colombia (Universidad Nacional), Belgium (Université Catholique de Louvain), and Canada (McGill University). Over the last 15 years, Daniel has been working with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities from the Colombian Pacific coast, an important biodiversity hotspot. Daniel’s main interests are human and non-human relationships and the always porous borders between nature and culture. In his doctoral dissertation (When Forests Run Amok: Violence and its Afterlives in Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Territories), Daniel explored how decades of armed conflict have transformed the way indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples relate to their forests and to the animals and spirits that live there. Daniel's PhD thesis was awarded the LASA/Oxfam America Martin Diskin Dissertation Award 2019, the Prix d'excellence de l'ADÉSAQ 2019, the Governor General's Academic Medal Gold 2019, and the CALACS Outstanding Dissertation Prize 2019 (Honorable Mention). Daniel is now exploring the politics of peace, justice and reconciliation between ethnic communities and environments comprised of non-human, sentient beings.
Hello, Daniel, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-environment relations and the kinds of methods and theories you deploy in researching this theme?
I’m glad to be here and I feel amazed by the opportunity of sharing this cyberspace with people whose work I admire so much. Everything started when I was an undergraduate student. I was studying anthropology and I decided to take a break because I felt that what I was learning was somehow disconnected from what I wanted to do. I decided to do an internship with an environmental NGO working in a protected area in Northwest Amazonia. The region is inhabited by mestizo peasants. Scholars used to call these people colonos (settlers) and they have often been depicted by environmental authorities and some ethnographers as predators of natural resources. Due to the precarious educational system in this region, the NGO asked students like me to teach reading and writing in rural schools. The NGO hoped that, in the process of teaching, we would also be able to educate the kids and their parents about biodiversity and its protection. It was a four-month internship, but I stayed more than a year. Living in the Amazonian forest was an experience that assaulted all my senses and I was captivated by what I found there: essentially that these so-called "predators", even if they didn’t have indigenous ancestry, had woven a very complex and rich relation with the forest and the animals and spirits that live there. Living with these peasants, I learned that the animacy of the forest is not just a question of people imposing their beliefs onto the world. Rather, the vibrancy of this place arises out of the relations of reciprocity and care that people engage in.
Since then, I became interested in forests and human-animal relationships, as well as in how spirits and other kinds of non-organic beings shape such relations. After I received my Bachelor’s degree, I started to work in another tropical forest located in the lowlands of the Colombian Pacific coast. This is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, but also a region that for many years has been in the shadow of armed violence. There I saw that, besides the usual environmental impacts associated with war (for example, the plundering of natural resources and the transformation of land use), armed violence had disrupted the relationships between people, spirits, and animals, to the point that the forest had become a source of new diseases and the birthplace of evil beings capable of provoking a lot of harm. Most of this kind of damage resists the spectacularity and immediacy so often associated with war. I came to understand that good ethnographic research would require a lasting commitment working alongside the local peoples. Having lived with, witnessed death, and shared my dreams with peoples that don’t necessarily conceive of the environment as a mere physical setting, a background for human action, or a domain disconnected from one’s inner self, I started to wonder about the conceptual and legal means to understand and stop the violent ecological legacy of war. That is the kind of anthropology I’m committed to, and ethnography has been my tool to help me with this work - not so much as a method of fieldwork but rather as a collaborative endeavor with local communities.
In a recent article, you examine how the recognition of territory as a victim in Colombian legislation opens space for thinking about the more-than-human effects of armed conflict among indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. Could you explain the concept of “political ontology” that you deploy in this article and what insights this concept can offer for notions of multispecies, transitional, and/or restorative justice?
There are many ways of understanding the predicaments indigenous peoples face when they try to convey to non-indigenous people the drastic consequences of war on their lives and lands. A common approach is to posit that indigenous peoples have different ideas about nature and about the beings that comprise it, and that when their explanations about phenomena differ from ours, it is because we don’t share the same culture. The underlying principle here is that we all share the same reality and that we approach this reality through different cultural frameworks. I follow in the footsteps of many anthropologists –the most influential of whom have been ethnologists in the Amazon who have engaged philosophically and politically with the tenets of indigenous cosmologies and practices– who have proposed that the difference we perceive between radically different people is not so much the result of different cultures apprehending the same reality but a function of the existence of different realities per se. The kind of anthropology I have opted to practice allows me to see that what indigenous cosmologies do is not just to form intellectual representations of the world but rather to actualize, mainly through their practices and through the tenets that guide such practices, different properties of the world - properties that many of us have a hard time accessing or cannot access at all because of the nature of our own upbringing. These are not just philosophical questions, because what is at stake is the nature of the world that can be experienced and the kinds of beings that people it. This resounds powerfully in my ethnographic quest because I don’t want to interpret the terms people use to describe the damage that war has provoked in human and non-human worlds in terms of their own traumas or damage to their cultural representations of the world, but in terms of the kinds of realities and beings that have been affected by war.
All this serves to explain the ontological component of the concept of political ontology,
a framework developed by anthropologist Mario Blaser. I think Blaser does something quite
remarkable here as this framework allows him, and rookies like myself, to find connections
between, on the one hand, what ethnographers of non-human worlds and some continental
philosophers have been saying for a while (mainly that we humans emerge not in opposition to,
but in co-production with, non-humans) and, on the other hand, the struggles of indigenous
peoples in the Americas and in the global South to defend their lands and modes of being.
And here is where the political component of political ontology comes into play. The idea that there are radically different peoples actualizing different properties of reality and making possible through their practices and engagements the emergence of different worlds is not something that happens in a void but rather in contexts of profound structural violence. In the name of economic development, but also disguised behind other apparently benevolent concepts such as liberalism, modernization, or, in prior times, Christianity, the erasure of the worlds and lives of indigenous peoples is underway. Indigenous peoples have been resisting this erasure for centuries, and erasure constitutes the driving force of what many Latin American scholars, including Mario Blaser, identify as coloniality or the colonial matrix of power. Briefly, coloniality refers to a matrix, which originated in Europe during the so-called Enlightenment period and that coincides with the vast and violent colonial enterprise in the Americas. The management and control of knowledge, economy, authority, and subjectivity, and the consequent erasure of indigenous modes of being, is not just incidental but rather a pre-condition of coloniality itself. Scholars who have established the modernity/coloniality research program have convincingly argued that this colonial matrix of power constitutes the dark side of Western modernity and that an analytic decolonial task must unveil the assumptions and beliefs that have naturalized modern forms of seeing and interpreting the world.
While the ontological turn allows us to be open and sensitive to non-human worlds, the modernity/coloniality research program allows us to be aware of the deep structures of power in which these worlds are embedded. In my view, political ontology captures what scholars of the ontological turn and multispecies ethnography have been saying and what the modernity/coloniality program has been denouncing: we need to provincialize modern ways of thinking, feeling, and engaging with the world. To try to answer your question, in the context of the bloody Colombian conflict that has violently dispossessed indigenous peoples, and in the current quest to deliver justice in a post-conflict scenario, political ontology sheds light on the predicaments that indigenous peoples face when attempting to address the fact that violence has threatened not only humans but also the organic and non-organic beings with whom people weave their lives, to the point that war has left a set of lasting and deep consequences that are engraved upon indigenous territories themselves. So, what is at stake is the veritable destruction of radically different worlds, composed of and co-produced by human and non-human entanglements. Political ontology reveals how the inclusion of non-humans makes a huge difference in the way we conceptualize war and how the measures to redress damage might be understood differently. Those, I think, are the first steps towards a form of justice capable of challenging the anthropocentrism of current legal systems.
You are currently preparing a book manuscript that draws from your prize-winning doctoral thesis, When Forests Run Amok. Violence and its Afterlives in Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Territories. Could you tell us about the fieldwork experiences that undergird this book and outline some of the book’s key themes?
This book is the materialization of many years of work in Bajo Atrato, Colombia. When I first arrived in the region, I worked with a human rights organization that advocated for the return of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that had been expelled from their lands because of the war between paramilitary and guerrilla armies. There was a tremendous humanitarian crisis and my ethnographic interest was born out of the work of supporting local initiatives in protecting their territories and unique modes of being. I didn’t arrive with a pre-established research agenda. Rather, my questions were shaped by what local peoples identified as their priorities. It took me a while to learn to do ethnographic work that was aligned not so much with the pursuit of academic ambitions as with social engagement.
One of the events that struck me the most was a rash of suicides of indigenous Embera children.
The shamans of these communities affirmed that the cause for these suicides were the evil spirits
that lived in the forest and that had started to run amok after the paramilitary armies entered the
forest and disturbed the animals and other beings that live there. Shamans had a hard time trying
to contain these evil forces because their evilness was somehow exacerbated by the violent actions
of armed people. These and other similar events involving man-eating jaguars, poisonous snakes,
and spiritual masters of game animals, led me to interpret war as an experience that extended
well beyond human people.
In the book, my aim is to find ways to understand armed conflict in a larger context that is not necessarily human and to take seriously, as the Embera and Afro-Colombian communities do, the voices of animals, spirits, and even places. I discuss concrete examples of the kind of damages that challenge traditional conceptions of the socio-environmental impacts of war. I present, for instance, the case of some rivers that lost their flow because, after forced displacement, there were no people who could take care of them; the way insects and plants contribute to processes of ruination; the case of an evil, aquatic spirit that drowned people and that started to kill indiscriminately after some shamans were killed by paramilitary armies; or the events related to the spirits of those whose corpses were never buried and that are now, in local parlance, polluting the land. Considering that these impacts of war go beyond humans, I critically interrogate whether the framework of “human rights” is the best one to address the suffering and damage that war provokes in places where, like in the Bajo Atrato region, the lives of humans and non-humans are so intermingled. Ultimately, the book builds an ethnographic argument that calls into question some of the concepts and current legal tools that aim to redress the violent legacies of war.
Finally, Daniel, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
To address non-human worlds is a big intellectual endeavor. I’ve learned a great deal from ethnographers like Hughes Raffles, Anna Tsing, Stefan Helmreich, and Eduardo Kohn, who successfully establish a dialogue with researchers in the field of natural sciences. But l’m convinced that it’s not just through solid theoretical frameworks that we can better approach non-human worlds. A lot of knowledge (which for me is a kind of feeling/thinking dyad) actually passes through the body. If, in the realm of theory, non-humans have successfully helped us call into question divides between "animate" and "inanimate" or "subject" and "object", then ethnographers of non-human worlds need to challenge methodologically another pervasive divide: mind/body. So, my little piece of advice is to lend your body to these other realities - to let it become an instrument of knowledge by allowing your whole body to be affected by these other-than-human beings. We need to move beyond our tendency to prioritize some senses and instead let, for example, smell, touch, and sound gain more space. I’m now approaching war from a sonic dimension. But it’s not just about the sound of weapons. It’s also about the sounds of the non-humans that come to occupy places abandoned by people. Anyway, the key thing to bear in mind is that what you learn about a particular thing depends entirely on what your starting point to study that thing is. So. I think that new sensorial methods will shed more and new light on non-human worlds.
“I learned that the animacy of the forest is not just a question of people imposing their beliefs onto the world. Rather, the vibrancy of this place arises out of the relations of reciprocity and care that people engage in.”
“Political ontology reveals how the inclusion of non-humans makes a huge difference in the way we conceptualize war and how the measures to redress damage might be understood differently. Those, I think, are the first steps towards a form of justice capable of challenging the anthropocentrism of current legal systems.”