This essay examines how environmental activists in northern Europe relate to indigenous peoples in their political activism, focusing on the role of visual culture and the performance of identity in resource conflicts. I analyze the use of images of the noble and ecological Indian in environmental campaigns, and the images help me to think more broadly about translation, imitation, and cultural appropriation in campaigning. The examples—the international Yasuní campaign aimed at generating support for a proposal of leaving oil in the ground under the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador and German anti-mining activism in the Rhine-Ruhr district—are drawn from a larger project on comparison in activism and ontological conflicts over forests in contexts of resource exploitation. My recurrent fieldwork in both Ecuador and Germany between 2014 and 2017 revealed how German anti-mining activists constantly compare themselves to indigenous peoples as part of their political strategizing, and that “caring for the land” is experienced as a common denominator. This even involves explicit claims to ontological self-determination (cf. Viveiros de Castro 1998).1
To understand what is at stake in cross-cultural translation and comparison, I discuss Viveiros de Castro's concept of “uncontrolled equivocation.”2 According to Viveiros de Castro, anthropologists have historically been guilty of conducting uncontrolled equivocations when “translating” indigenous realities into their own conceptual language, being unaware of the referential alterity that exists between referential universes in any cross-cultural comparison.3 In this light, he argues, the role of the anthropologists is to reveal the equivocation—and insert itself as a discipline into this transformative translation process.
One question evoked by my fieldwork is the extent to which an academic is fully able to reveal and control the equivocations in light of the fact that we, as the cases illustrate, are not the only ones engaged in the work of translation. Instead, I suggest that the unruly analogies4 at play in the following examples may provide productive ground for studying the articulation of social movements. As Li and Paredes Peñafiel have argued in the context of anti-mining campaigns in Peru, selected individuals and members of local communities affected by mining often become heroized and surrounded by a sensationalist aura.5 In the authors' view, the films and photographs circulated as part of the campaigns tend to convey romanticized images of indigenous peoples that gloss over local conflicts, dilemmas, and differences. This essay also discusses visual representations in campaigning, but with attention to the consumers of these images within European social movements. My—perhaps controversial—suggestion is that the unruly analogies also hold a political and analytical potential if one pays attention to the undirected re-creation of what is or the forms of “ontological anarchism” at play in the trafficking of knowledge in social movement campaigning.
The term ontological anarchism was first coined by anarchist thinker Hakim Bey, who argued that chaos, and not order, is the true ontological state of the world. He argues that one should revolt against all claims about the true “nature of things” and create one's own day in the shadow of “the dreams of order.”6 I use the idea here to denote the radical other ways of being in the world that sometimes emerge from unruly experiments with what is, for example, at play in translations across activist and indigenous realities.
MIMESIS AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION IN THE YASUNÍ CAMPAIGN
In 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa launched the Yasuní-ITT Initiative at the UN General Assembly. The initiative entailed the suspension of planned exploitation of the Ishpingo, Tambococha, and Tiputini (ITT) oil fields within the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador, leaving an estimated 846 million barrels of heavy crude (about 20 percent of the country's oil reserve) in the ground, against an international compensation amounting to $3.6 billion. The initiative was calculated to avoid carbon dioxide emission amounting to at least 410 million tons.7
The Yasuní-ITT Initiative received intense international attention among NGOs and policy makers not least because it provided an alternative to the models for payment for ecosystem services and “reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” (REDD+) that were being discussed within the framework of the UN climate change negotiations. Several environmental NGOs involved themselves in campaigning on behalf of the initiative, and the campaigns usually involved references to Yasuní as “one of the most biodiverse regions in the world” because the area served as a zone of refuge during the last ice age. The area was furthermore made known as “the home of several indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation,” who have the right to special protection under international human rights conventions.
While this is true, the images used to accompany the calls for support and action, particularly in the American and German chapters of the international campaign, involved pictures of naked Huaorani, the indigenous people inhabiting part of the Yasuní National Park, who were known as distant kin of the groups living in voluntary isolation.8 At the same time, the oil exploitation already taking place within the park was downplayed. In so doing, the campaign (deliberately or not) drew on a colonial imaginary of “the noble savage” or “ecological native”9 that cast indigenous peoples as living in a special harmony with nature.
The Huaorani had primitivity and wilderness projected onto them,10 and through this several activist networks in Ecuador such as the government-organized Guardianes del Yasuní (Guardians of the Yasuní) mobilized infants and schoolchildren in defense of the forest.11 In a YouTube video from the first encounter of Guardianes del Yasuní in 2010, the viewer can appreciate how the childhood innocence of the “infantes ecologistas” is compared with the supposed purity and innocence of the Huaorani inhabiting the Yasuní forest. The more radical Yasunidos, on the other hand, mobilized a network of people who were against all oil exploitation for environmental reasons, but the group did not work with the Huaorani inhabiting the Yasuní, because they were seen as too favorable (or not consistently resistant) to oil exploitation.
In 2011, a Danish NGO I was working for, which had supported the work of Huaorani organizations in Ecuador in achieving land and resource rights for more than a decade, considered expanding its activities within international climate advocacy. Linking up to the Yasuní Initiative was seen by myself and others in the NGO as a good possibility for articulating issues of indigenous rights, climate change, and resource extraction. Based on a visit to the Yasuní and conversations with Huaorani leaders and community members, who did not generally see mobilization of international support for the government's Yasuní Initiative as among their key priorities, we decided to take a two-pronged approach. This entailed continued support for Huaorani organizations on their political priorities, and the development of an advocacy campaign compelling Denmark to contribute to the Initiative from a newly established climate-funding scheme.
In designing the visual communication strategy of the campaign, it was decided to avoid images of naked Huaorani. Not because these images were frowned upon by the Huaorani themselves, but because it would convey conceptions of the group that did not reflect the reality of life with oil in most Huaorani communities (outside the remote corner of the Yasuní known as the ITT). Instead, the visual identity of the campaign adopted the Huaorani's tradition of red face paint for festive occasions,12 a face paint that is also sometimes associated with warfare. Red face paint or masks were used in the collection of photographs of people supporting the Yasuní Initiative. Hundreds of photos of people wearing face paint were collected with mobile phones and a portable photo booth, and they were subsequently handed over to the Danish Minister for Climate and Energy. After some pressure, he agreed to meet up with the representatives of the Initiative, who were on a tour to meet European governments.
About a week before the scheduled meeting, in August 2013, President Rafael Correa announced that the Yasuní Initiative was being dropped, because, as he stated, “the world has failed us.”13 Only around 300 million US dollars had been pledged by governments and private donors to the Yasuní ITT Trust Fund managed by UN Development Programme and the German government had withdrawn its support. Over the following year, the international campaigns changed their strategies, targeting the Ecuadorian government to uphold the decision of leaving oil in the ground. In Ecuador, Yasunidos launched a campaign to collect signatures enabling a national referendum on the question, re-appropriating the red face paint in their campaign.
The adoption of the red face paint as part of the campaign is a mimetic move. Anthropologist Michael Taussig has described the mimetic faculty as “the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other.”14 He describes it as a form of sympathetic magic ingrained in the process of knowing through which “the copy draws on the character and power of the original.”15 In the book Mimesis and Alterity (1993), Taussig shows how both sides of the colonial encounter perform imitations. The adoption of the red face paint in the Danish Yasuní campaign, and its use outside “the original” cultural context, can, in other words, rightfully be interpreted as a form of cultural appropriation—a dominant group's adoption of customs, ideas, practices, or symbols from another culture—even though it was not permeated by a lack of understanding or disrespect. While the imitation highlighted questions of authenticity and power in campaigning, a topic that has been heavily debated both in academic circles and in Euro-American social movements over the past five years, it also points to the political potentials of unruly analogies in political campaigning.
In Germany, I encountered another example of how activists may lay performative claim on indigeneity—an example that both blurs and challenges the more puritanical ideas about cultural appropriation that one can find among activists, and questions the limits of self-determination in auto-identification processes.
In addition to my participation in the annual summer camp of the anti-coal movement in the Rhine-Ruhr district and the recurring Ende Gelände16 mass direct actions aimed at putting an end to brown coal extraction in Germany, I was conducting fieldwork in a small forest occupation at the rim of an opencast mine in the area. The occupation was established in 2012 in continuation of a summer camp, and consists, even today, of a number of tree sits and a basecamp to support these. The tree sits were set up to prevent the clearcutting of the forest, with the expectation that this would slow the expansion of the mine, because loggers would be reluctant to cut down trees where people were “sitting” in the top branches. The Hambacher mine, for example, covers an area of approximately 85 km2; the plan is for it to keep growing until 2038, and it is recognized by the company operating it as Europe's largest single emitter of carbon dioxide.17 Several local villages have been displaced in the process of expanding the mine, and the company has, since the beginning of its operation in 1978, felled the majority of a 5,500-hectare old-growth forest, known for its extraordinarily high biological diversity.
The felling of the forest has produced significant opposition from groups of local villagers, who held the forest as a common (bürgerwald) until 1978, as well as from radical environmental activists pouring into the area from German cities and neighboring countries. Besides lawsuits, demonstrations, and political pressure on elected politicians to phase out lignite coal mining and live up to internationally agreed climate goals, the fight against coal involves the use of direct-action tactics and occasional acts of sabotage. Since 2012, the basecamp of the occupation has developed from providing a merely supportive function into an experiment with alternative sustainable livelihood, drawing on ideas circulating in the international Earth First! Network and in North American anarcho-primitivist communities.18
Activists living in the basecamp of the forest occupation related to indigenous peoples and their resource struggles in various ways. During the summer camp in 2015, a representative from Yasunidos and visitors from the communities of Intag and Sarayaku in Ecuador received lots of positive attention from organizers and participants alike. Their struggles against oil and mining were cast as cases to follow and emulate. One interlocutor (let us call him Fox), had returned to the forest after spending time in jail for his anti-mining activism. After that he spent most of his time managing the information hub in the basecamp, and on building “relations of solidarity to indigenous peoples' struggles” in the Americas. This work mainly consists of writing and sending letters of solidarity to other places—at the time of my fieldwork, for example, to the camp at Standing Rock that was put up in resistance to the establishment of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Fox would also mention the community of Sarayaku in Ecuador, as an example of how to endure against the odds and “how to win” through a mix of resistance on the ground, international lawsuits, and generation of international media attention. The forest occupation would also receive similar expressions of solidarity from across the world, and these letters were considered important for upholding one's own project, which was often the object of similar strategies of police repression.
The letters, news on activist media sites on the internet, and conversations about resource struggles in the Americas were hence the point of departure for a work of comparison and translation. Some of these translations took their point of departure in activist's own situation and an eagerness to learn from other people's strategies, and in the translation process knowledge was transferred horizontally and served to creatively renew tactics within movements.19 At other times, comparisons served as points of departure for reflections on how global capitalism and civilizing endeavors were exercising the same kind of violence against alternative life projects across the globe. As Fox put it:
Civilization is exercising violence against all of us and other species. Against the Earth! It is threatening to exterminate us all. In that light, our acts of ecotage are a lesser crime to prevent a greater one.20
Apart from a recognition of common conditions, reflections such as this also projected anti-civilizational sentiments onto the life-making projects of indigenous peoples, who came to serve as a model for a life beyond capitalist civilization. Hence, activists' interest in indigenous peoples' resource struggles not only reflected their supposed promise of successful resistance to extractivism, but also—increasingly—entailed an imaginary of indigenous peoples as closer to nature, and an imitation of their life skills as the promise for surviving the climate catastrophe.
Some German activists were even laying performative claim on indigeneity. Each year prior to the “cutting season” (the time of the year where clearcutting of forests can legally take place in Germany), a “skill share camp” was organized in the forest occupation. Apart from sharing direct-action tactics, the participants would also share so-called “primitive living skills”21 such as fire-making or building with clay. One evening, an activist called Willow, who had lived for several years in the basecamp, co-organized an evening debate on “cultural appropriation” with a visiting North American activist going by the name of Crow. After some discussion about definitions, and whether it was okay for activists to wear Palestinian scarfs or have dreadlocks, a young man participating in the discussion pointed out what to him seemed to be the most pressing problem of the forest occupation, namely, the lack of strategic alliance-building with the local inhabitants of the villages and towns in the area surrounding the mine and forest. Willow explained that these relations were difficult, because:
these people do not have a relationship to the land or to the forest. They are living off the mine. They say that if something had to be done, it should have been done 20 years ago. Instead of relying on them, we should rather link up to the struggles of other indigenous peoples, who are also fighting for their land.
In inquiring further about this comparison, and challenging how it tied into his anti-cultural appropriation talk, Willow (who referred to himself with the pronoun “it”) argued that being indigenous rested on “respect” and “care for the land.” In Willow's view, these were the defining factors for who could be considered an indigenous person. As they were acquiring this knowledge, and regaining a connection to the land and forest, they should too be considered an indigenous group. Furthermore, Willow went on, it and other fellow activists had been reading an article by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro talking about ontological self-determination. Following this line of thought, Willow reasoned, they did also hold the right to auto-identification.
In this case there is an obvious equivocation at play in the translation of the concept of “indigeneity,” but the reference to ontological self-determination22 adds a another layer of translation, which opens up new questions about control and authority in cross-cultural comparison.
To make the concept of equivocation clearer, let me give an example from the work of José Antonio Kelly, who studied the relations between the Venezuelan state and the Yanomami through the implementation of state healthcare in Yanomami territory. He draws on Viveiros de Castro's argument to point at the “uncontrolled,” that is, unrecognized, equivocations playing out in a series of meetings between the medical professionals of the Ministry of Health and the Yanomami. Kelly points out that whereas the Venezuelan state—in the name of “cultural authenticity” and the preservation of indigenous identity—is interested in “making Indians,” the Yanomami are instead looking to the biomedical health system to “become white,” specifically to use and appropriate white culture “at the service of reproducing Yanomami society.”23
At the heart of this is an equivocation around what “white” and “Indian” refer to—as the same word refers to very different things in the world.24 As Kelly writes: “The Yanomami are not transforming themselves into ‘whites’ as the whites understand it, and nor do the Yanomami see themselves as ‘Indian’ in the way the State wants to instate.”25 Similarly, in the case of Willow, the project of becoming an indigenous person defending the land does not refer to the same identity project that indigenous persons in the Americas might envision for themselves.
The activist narratives around the Conga mining conflict in Peru described by Li and Paredes Peñafiel also incorporated notions of indigeneity to highlight indigenous peoples' special relationship to nature and Mother Earth.26 Whereas these activist narratives glossed over the multiplicity of ways of being an indigenous person, Willow's project involved an unruly reinvention of what an indigenous person could be (namely: a German environmental activist). In the process of translation between different realities, German activists made use of visual representations—not only to show other realities or negotiate alterity, but also to remake their own identity and relationship to the land.
And this is where I want to make my final remark. With this last example I seek to draw attention not just to the moments when those we work with seem to be “doing anthropology” by negotiating alterity, but also to the moments when the anthropologist is not in control of comparisons or of the revelatory capacity they might hold for political activism. As I have shown here, those we work with are involved in comparative acts of their own that may in fact not be anything like academic ones—or, alternatively, may draw on and appropriate anthropological material and theories “in unruly ways” that challenge our ability to retain authority in the process of translation.27 It is not always that the anthropologist is the one “controlling” the equivocation or inserting the discipline into the equation in the most appropriate way (as suggested by fellow proponents of the ontological turn).
My question is, what effect should people's unruly analogies have on academia and the activism we sometimes engage with? Instead of shying away from these moments, upholding a false authority by shielding ourselves from these uncomfortable translations, we could instead consider them as productive forms of “ontological anarchy”28 that generate productive reflections on the human condition, conceptual innovation, and new political possibilities. Ontological anarchy is not founded on the true nature of things or people, but on the invention of what is; a prolongation of ambiguity as a way to evade power.