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An interview with Dr. Laura Rival


Our guest this week is Dr. Laura Rival, an Associate Professor in Anthropology and Development at The University of Oxford. Laura’s research explores Amerindian conceptions of nature and society; plant knowledge and plant symbolism in the Americas; indigenous rights and oil development; schooling and culture; and social and community forestry. Drawing from long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Ecuador with the Huaorani and the Chachi, and in Guyana with the Makushi, Laura has made major contributions to the theoretical development of Amazonianist anthropology, historical and political ecology, and ethnobiology. Laura’s publications include Huaorani Transformations in 21st century Ecuador: Treks into the Future of Time (University of Arizona Press, 2016), Trekking through History: The Huaorani of Amazonian Ecuador (Columbia University Press, 2002), Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerindianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière (Oxford University Press, 2001), and The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism (Berg, 1998).


       Hello Laura, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds. Your anthropological work explores indigenous conceptualizations and uses of the Amazon biome, including the mechanisms by which indigenous peoples know, symbolize, and participate in making the forested landscapes they inhabit. You have also contributed to political economic analyses and discussions surrounding policymaking and development. How do you conceive the relationship between your academic and applied engagements, and what opportunities and/or challenges does this relationship entail for reconfiguring environment-society relations?

This has evolved over time. The Huaorani are typical of the situation lived by most indigenous peoples around the world. When I started working with them in the late 1980s, their homeland was far from the centres of state power, coveted by resource extractivists, and under conservation mapping. They accepted me in their midst as someone who could help them figure out the best productive articulations between their world and the cohuori world, especially the world of petroleum development and environmental rights. While happily engaging in the bridging role they had bestowed upon me, I got increasingly immersed in the abundance of their forest life. It’s not just in Huaorani territory that the modernist discourses of nature, society and development (NSD) twist and twist around indigenous models, becoming irremediably entangled in the process. So, I decided to follow these ‘NSD’ intricate patterns elsewhere, including within anthropological theory and other scientific discourses. Whatever else I was researching or looking at, though, I have never ceased to harbour the Huaorani ways of knowing the forest. Ironically, academics are now called to actively practice relevance; their research must have ‘impact.’  Today, the illusory distinction between ‘academic’ and ‘applied’ is challenged by officialdom itself. We are facing a climate and ecological emergency, so reconfiguring environment/ society relations is not a blue sky or armchair question.


How to engage anthropology in such a dire situation? Certainly, no through nostalgia, gloom, or apocalyptic fear. The white man’s burden, the tears of the white man, or any form of heroism won’t do either. Anthropology has yet to become a passion shared worldwide: a universal desire to cultivate the unexpected and to understand what is not alike. It has yet to win the battle against hierarchies of knowledge. Such a battle can only be won through wonder. I was invited recently to give a series of lectures in the department of anthropology in Mandalay (Myanmar). I learnt horrified that anthropology in this extraordinarily diverse and culturally rich country is at the bottom of the hierarchy of knowledge, just above philosophy. In Myanmar, university entry exams result in disciplinary ranking, with the students who have obtained the best results doing medicine and law, while those who have done poorly end up reading anthropology or philosophy. Foreign visitors to the department are usually South-East Asian specialists. I decided to speak about the Huaorani and more generally about Amazonian cultures.


I started my talk with a slide on which there were two photographs, one of a swidden in upper Myanmar, the other of a swidden in the Ecuadorian Amazon. No one could tell apart the two systems of shifting horticulture, which, of course, may say more about the lack of agroforestry knowledge in the audience than about similarities between the two tropical gardens. However, a little Q&A exercise showed that university staff and students were quick at identifying the main plant species in both photographs (bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, etc), proving once more that academics in ‘developing countries’ are never as ignorant of the land as academics in the west can be. People were unaware of the Columbian exchange, though, and no one could say which plant had originated from which continent. The audience was amazed at the fact that bananas are Asian and pineapples American, for instance. I am convinced that the fascination my Mandalay audience felt as I shared with them my knowledge of Huaorani animism is not unrelated to the agroforestry exercise, which had awakened their curiosity in the first place. Young students bombarded me with questions long after the end of the session. Only language barriers somewhat tempered their desire to know about Huaorani death rituals or about their ideas on the attachment of the soul to the body, which they so much wanted to understand through comparison with their own Buddhist ideas.


        You are currently working on a monographic study of agroecology movements and their power to innovate. Could you tell us a little bit more about this project and how it relates empirically and theoretically to your earlier work on plant-human relations among Huaorani?


Any agroecologist will tell you that they’re part of a worldwide movement involved in reconfiguring agri-food systems, and that what they do with the land is part-science and part-practice. The book focuses on what agroecologists mean by ‘science,’ ‘practice,’ and ‘movement.’ The book is thus about ways of knowing nature, and, provocatively, about knowledge. I say ‘provocatively’ because knowledge has had such a bad press in anthropology. Much of contemporary social theory (post-humanism, ontological turn, relational sociology, etc) conveys a negative view of knowledge as a western mantra associated with rationalism, mentalism (or cognitivism), universalism, and so forth. More, contemporary social theory is contemptuous of everything biological and ecological. In the book, I illustrate empirically how different ways of knowing are combined in practice and diverse modes of thought put to use. I discuss the ethical and political implications of thinking about plants and animals ecologically, and of relating biologically (should I say ‘wildly’?) to properties intrinsic to living organisms. I also document agroecologists’ views on innovation and creativity. The book is also fundamentally about cultural knowledge, its unity, and its diversification.  In that sense, the book profoundly questions some of the emerging ‘Anthropocenic’ certitudes - for instance, that anthropologists are ‘done with ethnos,’ at last.


How did I become interested in this topic? As with any good anthropology project, it all started serendipitously. In fact, and without realizing so before embarking on the study, I had already encountered several agroecologists in the Amazon. For instance, one day while visiting a colleague in Manaus (the book tells the story of that encounter!), I met a group that had helped the Huaorani demarcate their territory in the 1990s. They called themselves permaculturists, one of the branches of agroecology they told me. Once I was aware of the movement in all its dynamism and diversity, what caught my interest was how agroecologists pluralize science in ways that are perfectly in tune with indigenous knowledge practices. As I explain in the book, agroecologists act as knowledge holders by actively engaging in knowledge systematization. At once ‘natives’ and ‘anthropologists,’ they become indigenous to the places they care for - and with.  I am still struggling with the conceptual language that will best convey the movement’s mobilised understanding of nature, society and development. Lynn Margulis who beautifully said once that ‘life is matter that chooses’ is definitely a strong inspiration for agroecologists. The cultural choices they are wrestling with are not dissimilar from those that preoccupy my Huaorani friends, whose reluctant gardening I have awkwardly put into words by speaking of ‘landscape domestication’ in terms of ‘natural abundance.’ In both cases, the anthropologist witnesses an anti-hegemonic passion for co-habitation with the other-than-human; in both cases, an ecological space akin to a ‘forest’ or a ‘wilderness’ is allowed to exist as concrete materialisation of a non-domesticated natural world. Here ends the similarity!! Tragically, much of current anthropology, caught in the webs of globalisation since the early 1990s, has failed to recognise the multiple ways in which movement and place interact. Huaorani mobility in the Amazon rainforest and agroecologists’ cosmopolitan place-making both allow for a fixity of care that remains blinds to much contemporary theorising.


       Over the years, you have specialized in interdisciplinary research and teaching, using anthropology to create bridges between the natural and the social sciences. In your view, how does interdisciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-humans?​

Interdisciplinarity is the grand master trope of globalised metaknowledge. We need to resist its facile appeal and engage it anthropologically, that is, critically and analytically. Let me give you an example not directly related to the methodological creativity via interdisciplinarity I am most familiar with, the environment/ organism nexus. Some of my former research students decided recently to respond to a ‘global challenge research fund’ call launched by the British Academy that proposed to support policy-oriented research into ‘early childhood development.’ After having defined the concept and outlined its policy relevance, the call states: ‘This interdisciplinary research programme will fund the evidence that will inform the policies and interventions that will transform the life chances and destinies of children in their early years in low- and middle-income countries,’ before providing additional information: ‘Research will be problem-focused and interdisciplinary, bringing together relevant disciplines to tackle the problem for maximum impact.’


The young researchers boldly decided to apply as a team of anthropologists who through their respective specialisms (medical anthropology, anthropology of education, anthropology of childhood, Amazonianist anthropology, pedagogy, nursing, etc) can claim familiarity with current scientific and policy controversies about human biological immaturity, the causal links between nutrition and cognition, catching up growth, recovery and remediation, and psychosocial skill development. They argued that the impact of economic development and political change on children’s lives is best approached through a holistic study of multiple dimensions of child wellbeing, including children’s aspirations and the stated preferences of their parents and carers. They further argued that a focus on childrearing practices and human plasticity offers the best vantage point to examine the welfare of children growing in disadvantaged communities, as well as their long-term welfare prospects. As the beautiful book written by Alma Gottlieb and Judy DeLoache (A world of babies. Imagined childcare guides for seven societies, 2000) illustrates so well, they remarked - knowing full well that such arguments are unconvincing to non-anthropologists, the human desire to safeguard the wellbeing of young children is necessarily embedded in deeply-held ideas about the nature and nurturing of infants.


Then, they laid out the comparative framework for investigating practices, prescriptions and mobilisations around childrearing in the Latin American communities and organisations they work with. In answer to the ‘ODA Justification Statement,’ they drew a DAC list of ‘ODA-eligible’ LDC, LMIC and UMIC Latin American countries. Translated in ordinary language, this means that their proposed co-research with the families and the children they know so well had to be framed in terms of the list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Low Middle Income Countries (MDCs), and Upper Middle Income Countries (UMICs) provided by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to support its Official Development Assistance (ODA) activities. As requested, they also provided sociological, political and economic justifications as to the assistance needs of the governments of the countries selected (Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala, and Peru).


Finally, after having elaborated on childrearing as a human activity filled with zillions of emotional dilemmas and projective possibilities, they described local conceptions of pregnancy, birth, infant and maternal care, and skill acquisition, which together shape the implicit pedagogies guiding actions to ready a child for life in the world. Most innovatively, they proposed to explore the childrearing practices and the beliefs about parental care comparatively within a number of indigenous and Afro-American communities.


Forgive me for having dwelt so long on this example, but to me it illustrates perfectly what I mean by ‘anthropology and interdisciplinarity,’ that is, an approach which allows anthropologists to contribute to the reformulation of the goals of interdisciplinarity so that due attention is paid to hermeneutic considerations while fully considering the urgencies of problem-solving. This is as true of relations between humans and other-than-humans as it is of relations between carers and babies. Culture matters not only for development interventions, but also for enabling the making of worlds in which national scientific production becomes deeply informed by local realities and forms of knowing. Only then will we achieve global science as a fully decolonised project.


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

First, become an anthropologist, for anthropology remains by far the best discipline to root one’s interest in more-than-human worlds. Then, acquire or develop lasting, embodied skills, that is, listen to your own embodied self as it relates to its surroundings. Enhanced sensory capabilities are what makes us better humans, and by the same token, better students of non-human worlds. We can learn to be anthropologists and musicians, dancers, healers, pilots, cooks, zoo keepers, hunters, gardeners, lab technicians, horse riders, fishers, botanists, weavers, and on and on. The possibilities are infinite as long as we remind ourselves of what is worth celebrating: life in its concrete, empirical, and experimental manifestations. Anthropologists are first and foremost ethnographers, and ethnography has to start as fieldwork. On-going observation and guided practice are key to skill development; it is what turns us indigenous, that is, helps us belong to a particular place, rather than float endlessly into virtual, detached ether. Anthropologists study more-than-human worlds from a grounded, embodied, and implicit intelligence. I have given it a name: indigenous intelligence. We need a whole new vocabulary (conceptual and otherwise) to speak about the concrete, the empirical.


Once you know what kind of skilled human you are, you will get a better idea of what kind of other-than-human world you’d like to study. You will not do this alone; the era of one observer participating within a bounded community and then reporting on her interpretable experience is by-gone. Whatever collective you insert yourself in, the study will be a shared endeavour, and the success of the research will depend on the purpose and quality of this sharing, a sharing I still prefer to call ‘culture.’ Despite all its shortcomings, we do not have a better term yet, as the whole ontological turn saga has demonstrated so clearly. In any case, what matters the most once the study of a shared practice is under way is to be able to engage it comparatively with other shared practices. And this is the other reason why more-than-human worlds are best studied anthropologically. We are interested in diversity, the spice of life; we look for all the surprising, unexpected, wonderful differences that make the world worth inhabiting. More-than-human worlds in this sense are no different from human worlds. It’s not where you’re coming from that matters; it’s where you settle, and how you come to care for others in this particular place.





"Anthropology has yet to become a passion shared worldwide: a universal desire to cultivate the unexpected and to understand what is not alike. It has yet to win the battle against hierarchies of knowledge. Such a battle can only be won through wonder."


"[Anthropologists] are interested in diversity, the spice of life; we look for all the surprising, unexpected, wonderful differences that make the world worth inhabiting. More-than-human worlds in this sense are no different from human worlds. It’s not where you’re coming from that matters; it’s where you settle, and how you come to care for others in this particular place."

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