An interview with Kristina Lyons

Our guest this week is Kristina Lyons, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences. Kristina’s anthropological research is situated at the interface of socio-ecological conflicts, transitional justice, community-based forms of reconciliation, science studies, and legal anthropology in Colombia. Her manuscript, Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics (Duke University Press, 2020), moves across laboratories, greenhouses, forests, and farms in the capital city of Bogotá and the Andean-Amazonian department of Putumayo. It weaves together an intimate ethnography of two kinds of practitioners – state soil scientists and rural communities– who attempt to cultivate alternatives to commercial coca crops and the military-led, growth-oriented development paradigms intended to substitute them. In 2015, Kristina directed a popular education documentary film project based on farmer-to-farmer alternative agricultural practices called Cultivating a Bien Vivir (Living Well) in the Amazon. She was recently awarded a Fulbright Award (2021) to support the work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) – the transitional justice tribunal in Colombia – in a macro criminal case with interethnic communities that investigates the territory as a victim of the country’s armed conflict.


       Hello, Kristina, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. How did you become interested in the intersections of socio-ecological conflicts, transitional justice, and community-based forms of reconciliation in Colombia?

Thank you for this wonderful invitation to share and reflect on my work in dialogue with you, Sophie.

This particular conjuncture of issues– conflict, transitional justice, and community-based forms of reconciliation – emerges out of my long-term fieldwork in the Andean- Amazonian foothills and plains of Colombia. Most of the seventeen years I have spent working in this area were times of official armed conflict. In 2016, a Peace Accord was signed between the guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), and the national government. This created a window of great expectation and hope in terms of what the peace accords described as the implementation of “peace with a territorial focus ” in areas that had been the epicenters of conflict.  However, in many of these regions, the official demobilization of the FARC-EP has left local communities vulnerable to the presence of (re)configured groups of of armed actors, intensified forms of extractivism, and increased socio-environmental conflicts. The window of opportunity for real transformations has narrowed, and that conflict and violence is being perpetuated at the same time that components of a peace accord are being implemented and a national transitional justice process is unfolding.

I was inspired by several environmental coalitions in Colombia (Censat Agua Viva being one of them) that argued that there needed to be an environmental truth commission and not only a human rights and international humanitarian rights framework in the country’s transitional justice process. These coalitions were talking about the need to reconstruct what they call the biocultural or environmental memory of the war. I had the opportunity to attend several of their events, including workshops with communities who were engaging in a practice of reconstructing or elaborating what I call “the socio-ecological memory” of the armed conflict.

For me, the elaboration of this memory is a very important exercise, not only because it focuses on the violence directly inflicted upon territories by various armed actors, but also because it unveils the political economic model that the war perpetuated and enabled, including the conditions for extractive activities that were created – skyrocketing rates of deforestation, and the expansion of plantation agriculture, monoculture illicit crops, extensive cattle ranching, mining and energy projects, land grabbing, displacement, and dispossession. This permits a much more integral analysis of the political economy of war – one where the impacts continue during official times of peace and that also moves beyond a humancentric understanding of violence, reconciliation, and justice. I found the perspective that these environmental movements were promoting to be very inspiring.

In the municipality of Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo where I started research in 2014, deforestation rates are intensifying. Reconfigurations of armed actors and narcotrafficking structures have influence over the territory, and rural communities are particularly vulnerable to further environmental degradation and human rights violations. A social leader and activist, who was later murdered in November 2020, confided in me about the conflicts occurring in a particular watershed where she lived, specifically the sedimentation of the river due to illegal gold mining and the deforestation affecting the quality and quantity of water. Our conversations made me think deeply about the proposal for territorial peace as framed in and beyond State discourse – How does one reconcile, build peace in and with a territory, that has been ravaged by warfare and that continues to be immersed in conflicts? For rural communities, whether they identify as indigenous, campesino, or Afro-descendants, it is very clear that the war was not just a human-centric experience. War happens in places, to places – ecosystems, ecologies, and territories that are both actors and victims of conflict. War impacts and ruptures socio-ecological (and more-than-ecological) relations – daily practices, food production, modes of knowledge transmission, relations with “sacred” places (for lack of a better word), spiritual and affective balances, and people’s ability to flourish and remain in their territories, lands, and homes. In this regard, legal and administrative categories conceptualizing dispossession and displacement need to broaden their understandings beyond the frameworks deployed in human rights and international humanitarian and criminal law. Given that the implementation of the peace accords has not been successful or coherent, conflict and violence is being perpetuated, and transitional justice processes include only a certain number of macro-criminal cases, I began to wonder: how do we go about reconciling with territories, building peace with territories, not only in or from a territory, but with territories?

Rather than waiting for State actors or environmental regulatory agencies to intervene, I wanted to think about how to achieve reconciliatory processes with communities who are facing socio-ecological conflicts; conflicts that affect their everyday lives and the health of their territories –  life write large and small. The proposal in Puerto Guzmán to support the community recovery and ordinance of a watershed was precisely along these lines – peace-building with the cuenca (watershed).

The political conjuncture in Colombia has also provoked me to think about justice in a plural sense. What does pluralizing justice look like? How does one go about it? If justice is aspirational, then when can we say that we have materialized justice – that justice has been achieved? Justice for whom or what? Justice when and how? The fact that justice is understood differently for diverse communities foregrounds the plurality of justice as concept and practice. Working towards justice from and with a territory is an extremely situated and more-than-human process. 


        Your first book, Vital Decomposition: Soil Practitioners and Life Politics (Duke University Press, 2020), examines possibilities for life and thriving in the face of the violence, criminalization, and poisoning produced by militarized, growth-oriented development. What insights and challenges did you encounter in writing this “ethnography of human-soil relations” – methodologically, empirically, and/or theoretically?

As I describe in the introduction of the book, I initially set out to explore the chemical warfare component of the U.S.-Colombia war on drugs in the western Amazon and the public health and environmental impacts of this policy. During preliminary fieldwork and visits to Putumayo, however, I became aware of the risk that the project could fall into a denunciatory space that focused on the failures and wrongdoings of a geopolitical intervention. Of course, we need to study why it is impossible to transform policies, such as counternarcotic strategies that rely on chemical warfare, even when such policies are neither ethical or even efficient in eradicating illicit crops; however, I felt frustrated by the advocacy limits embedded in human rights and humanitarian frameworks as well as the limits to activism in toxicology and epidemiological fields.   

During preliminary fieldwork, I had an opportunity to meet an amazing group of campesinos and to visit a farm school where it became very apparent to me that other stories needed to be told – stories that were not circulating in the news or NGOs reports – stories about life-making practices.  I became interested in these propositions, and realized that my research, too, had to be critically propositional. My book is very much about potentialities, the desire to transform, taking risks to transform one’s relationship with a territory. I focused on processes of unlearning, decolonizing one’s self, and attempts to decolonize soil science along with dominant taxonomic frameworks and industrial and extractive relations with soils.

It was the opportunity to visit this farm school, called La Hojarasca (meaning “litter layer” or “composting layer”) and through meeting campesino and indigenous students from neighboring municipalities that I realized that my project needed to shift. The project became about what was trying to germinate from damaged and chemically degraded grounds. The soil became very important, and more than soil, la hojarasca – this litter layer and the recycling relation of selva and soil that cannot be ruptured, a constant relationality and interplay that allows for life to flourish in the Amazon from what is often a five-to-ten centimeter layer.

Thinking with soils was a real challenge. I had to become a quasi-soil scientist and then unlearn

dominant or conventional teachings of this science in order to understand how the rural communities

I was accompanying relate to what scientists call soil. These communities are recovering Amazonian

agricultural practices with their situated genealogies and millennial forms of wisdom and knowledge

production. During my fieldwork, I tried to learn how to converse with soil scientists, to learn the

sciences of soils (as it is formally taught in textbooks, laboratory work, and soil sampling) and also to

learn Amazonian-inspired relations with hojarasca that differ may dialogue with, but also differ from

these scientific practices. I was doing fieldwork in both urban and rural areas, moving between spaces

that are  often not explicitly in conversation or contact with one another.

For instance, policies are designed in the center of the country, but they have real-world consequences for people living in rural, frontier regions, where soil scientists are generally not in direct contact with local communities. As an ethnographer, I was able to move between these worlds.  I struggled with how to write partially connected worlds that both ignore and are in friction with with one another, but that I could travel across and place in conversation. One of the book’s protagonists, Heraldo Vallejo, had read articles published by specific soil scientists, and he considered these individuals to be possible allies for rural communities who wanted to learn how to stop engaging in extractive practices and rethink their relations with Amazonian ecologies and territories. So, I started tracking these scientists (who were mostly all men) – going to the capital city, Bogotá, to find them. This is where I came across the natural resource campaign, the Year of Soils in Colombia.  I also began to track this campaign, do fieldwork in labs, learn aspects of soil science, read soil science textbooks, and take “classes” at 5 am with soil scientists who were generous enough to give me crash courses before the work day in the lab.  However, in Putumayo, I was actively unlearning many of these very practices with small farming and indigenous communities.

There was also the challenge of not allowing myself to be colonized by the concept of “soil.” I was trying to understand an entity that is not only an entity – hojarasca is a relation, not an object. And yet soil scientists talk about soil as an entity that they are “making” through processes of sampling (a kind of extraction), classifying through measurements, such as fertility and Ph levels, naming, and then determining a vocation and use value. Throughout the book, I try to questions the limits of this conceptualization of soil – reflecting on both “object” and processual relation. I move between object and relation, and between relations that make objects and relations that do not make objects and that remain relational in particular ways. This was both conceptually and methodologically challenging.

In writing, too, I found it stylistically challenging to capture processes in words that articulate objects while also writing in modes that maintain a relation. The hyphenated lists in my book, for instance (urine-butterfly-shovel-piss-shit-microbe-and…) speak to this effort not to sever or compartmentalize life. The farmers I worked with were constantly trying to avoid this and to escape stigmatizing state classifications, which included taxonomic systems that make “poor, senile” soils.  For them, the soil does not exist as an entity. Which then raises the question - What cannot be captured by the concept of soil, and therefore becomes an enigma for certain soil scientists and agronomists? What is at stake in this resistance of capture?

        Alongside your academic scholarship, you are actively involved in the production and dissemination of engaged outputs and activities. What has been your experience in interweaving activism and research, to what extent do you see this as a responsibility of anthropologists in a decolonial climate, and what conceptual insights can such a practice generate?

Engaged anthropology for me is about collaborative, creative, public engaged, trans-disciplinary practices. I think there is a balancing act between how we go about our research and how we integrate the different products that come out of our research. This balancing act in turn depends a lot on the communities that one is working with. We need to think about the multiple languages we write in, but also the multiple kinds of materials we can produce – academic articles and book manuscripts, but also popular education materials and creative and scientific genres and mediums. Each research project requires different methodological proposals and different transdisciplinary collaborations.

In the first ten years of my research, my collaborative work was very much focused on engaging with rural communities and multiple natural sciences, including ecological, agrarian, agrological, and Amazonian soil sciences. In the last few years, I have been working more in collaboration with interethnic communities and lawyers, judges, magistrates, and general attorneys. Even more recently, with peri-urban residents and engineers and watershed management folks.  These collaborations have obliged me to engage with different methodologies and to reflect on the different roles that ethnography can play across different sets of actors in rural and urban contexts. I think about research akin to what Kim Tallbear has referred to as “standing with” – in other words, research that builds a shared conceptual field in conversation with our interlocutors, friends, and allies in the field. Part of this process includes collectively asking: what kind of research needs to be done, for whom, in which “places”, and across which temporalities? Who will this research be in alliance with? And how will the research itself become an alliance-building practice – through its transdisciplinary framework, community-oriented approach, and participatory-action research-oriented methods?

My projects are generally emergent in that they arise from ongoing processes and contemporary contexts – they come into being “in the thick of it.” I am interested in projects that are conceptually propositional and in conversation with practitioners who are enacting alternative ways of being and living – individuals and collectives who are trying to flourishing differently, transform current conditions despite the odds, and without guarantees.

I think public-oriented work among the social sciences is extremely important. In

conversation with many other colleagues,  I understand the “social” beyond liberal

conceptions of the human. We have been invited to question what “community” is

and might communities can become. For me, there is really no other way to be an

anthropologist than to do engaged work. I am very lucky that UPenn offers a

wonderfully supportive space for me to do this kind of research as a public engaged

anthropologist – in my home department of Anthropology, the Penn Program in

Environmental Humanities, Latin American and Latinx Studies Program, and Center

for Experimental Ethnography.  


       You’ve just moved to the Colombian Amazon and will be out there for the year and a half, partly supported by a Fulbright scholarship. What new research directions do you plan to explore in the near future?

My current Fulbright project is with the JEP, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in Colombia. As part of this project, I am working on a macro-criminal investigation with the legal team of Magistrate Belkis Izquierdo Torres, an Indigenous Arhuaco judge. I was invited to collaborate on this investigation, which is the first transitional justice case in the world that is  seeking to both sanction and provide reparative sentences for socio-environmental destruction and territorial harms provoked by armed conflict.  The research includes developing methodologies for evidence building with interethnic communities, thinking about legal pluralism (Afro-Colombian, indigenous and campesinos jurisprudence and justices), and exploring how community-based concepts and practices of justice enter into dialogue and friction with institutionalized transitional justice and rights of nature frameworks.

In Putumayo, I am also part of an effort to build a citizen’s collective that we are calling, “Collective for the Care and Reconciliation with the Watersheds of the Andean-Amazonian Foothills”. There are twenty-three micro-watersheds that form part of the Mocoa River macro-watershed and there are different problems impacting these bodies of water; the most urgent situation being a series of mitigation projects that include open dikes and other damming structures after a 2017 landslide and torrential rains that destroyed a large part of the capital city of Mocoa.  Our collective is organizing to attempt to transform these mitigation projects and to reorient how we conceive of reconstruction after a socio-natural disaster. This engaged research project analyzes citizen science efforts and legal activism, watershed level thinking, community participation in risk management, and post disaster reconciliatory strategies.        

       Finally, Kristina, what advice would you give to students and scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?

This response is not specific to multispecies projects, but I think passion is extremely important – falling in love with our research and following what we are passionate about rather than be too concerned about what the “hot” topics in the field are, or what we think will be fundable. You make a project fundable when your passion comes through and the energy of the project becomes contagious in a way that makes other people believe in what you want to do, how you are thinking, what the objectives of the work are, and why you think it is important.

The endurance required to complete a PhD and undertake research really demands that we be in love with the worlds we immerse ourselves in. That being said, it is also okay to have different levels of empathy with one’s interlocutors. It is difficult to study issues or with people that one does not agree with in ethical and political terms. It is difficult to remain open and responsive to ontologically destabilizing scenarios and encounters.  Here again, the invitation is to embrace processes similar to what Helen Verran calls epistemic disconcertment. Allowing ourselves to sink into these moments instead of looking for solid ground, asking ourselves how to resist quick moves to certainty or consensus.  Ethnography provides an opportunity to follow the kinds of embodied disconcertment that lead us to unlearn and relearn, question our assumptions, move outside our comfort zones, and take analytical and methodological risks.

Studying more-than-human relations, conflicts, and communities requires trans-disciplinarity, the need to be open to not knowing and to experience vulnerability.  It is a wonderful opportunity to think and do otherwise than what our disciplines have taught us –  to renegotiate disciplinary compartmentalizations and to better understand complex socio-ecological issues. Ethnography provides an opportunity to learn, unlearn, and relearn. Every project offers different possibilities for alliance building and trans-disciplinary collaborations across the social and natural sciences, arts, law, and community practitioners.  All of these encounters can be very complex, imply diverse vocabularies, and ontological and epistemological premises. How can we embrace this overwhelmingness even when we feel uncomfortable? How can we remind ourselves to sink into these moments of disconcertment?

Finally, I think it is crucial to think about how we relate to the theory we read and the theory that the world is producing outside of academic conversations. We need to allow breathing room for our ethnography to produce concepts through our empirical work. Students struggle with this because they often feel fenced in by the need to cite and reference, recycle conceptual assemblages that they have inherited or that are popular in current scholarly debates. We often drown the ethnographic theory that becomes in our empirical and analytical process. When this happens, “theory” can create foreclosures rather than imaginative and analytical openings.

“I move between object and relation, and between relations that make objects and relations that do not make objects and that remain relational in particular ways."

"I am interested in projects that are conceptually propositional and in conversation with practitioners who are enacting alternative ways of being and living – individuals and collectives who are trying to flourishing differently, transform current conditions despite the odds, and without guarantees."