Home>Research & Environment: Postdoc Inès Calvo Valenzuela Works on Mines in Colombia


Research & Environment: Postdoc Inès Calvo Valenzuela Works on Mines in Colombia

On 1 October 2023, Sciences Po's Center for International Studies (CERI) welcomed Inès Calvo Valenzuela, who is joining us for three years as part of a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Bruno Latour Fund.

The aim of this programme, initiated by Bruno Latour, is to bring to Sciences Po a group of ten or so young scientists who are at the cutting edge of the most fundamental aspects of political ecology research, from a variety of humanities and social sciences disciplines, to reflect on the consequences of ecological change.

The Fund is part of Sciences Po's Institute for Environmental Transformations, which aims to ensure the coherence and visibility of research and teaching activities on these themes. Inès Calvo Valenzuela answers many questions in this interview that was initially published by Miriam Périer on the CERI's website.

Can you tell us a bit about your research background and your doctoral thesis?

Being of Bolivian and Spanish nationality, I have always had one foot in Europe and the other in Latin America. This is probably why I have always been interested in the cultural particularities on either side of the world. My doctoral research, which began in 2015, focused on the impact of mining on the relationship between the Wayuu Amerindians of the La Guajira peninsula (Colombia) and the features of their environment. I was particularly interested in their relationship with water and how it has changed in the light of the territorial and social transformations that occurred at the time of the adoption of pastoralism, at the time of the conquest, but also and above all at the time of the arrival of the largest open-cast coal mine on the American continent in the 1980s.

My ethnographic work took place over 22 months. During the first 12 months, I carried out research in the north of the La Guajira Desert, in the Wayuu community of La Makuira, 300 kilometres from the mining enclave and protected from its impact. The next 10 months I spent in the south of La Guajira, in three Wayuu communities directly affected by mining. This is the first ethnographic study to be carried out jointly on the Wayuu in the north and south of the Colombian peninsula.

In it, I analyse the differentiated transformation of social relations, comparing the north to the south, in the light of changes in the environment linked to the establishment of the coal mine and the economic market dynamics that it has brought to the region. I focused on changes in the symbolic, economic, and discursive practices associated with water in the two regions of La Guajira. In the north, the tutelary and feminine spirit of underground water continues to influence human uses of water, granting autonomy to women, who are responsible for the dynamics of matrilocal territorial occupation. In the increasingly urbanised south, a new social organisation is emerging, centred on men who have exclusive access to land and water sources, increasingly monopolised by the mining enclave. Yet in both cases, water remains an institution in its own right. Torn between naturalist and animist ontological meanings, brandished as part of a discourse of struggle by environmental activists opposed to extractive predation, water is the cornerstone of Guajira political and economic practices. This is why I have chosen to call my thesis “The Law of Water: Wayuu Women's Authority and the Politicisation of Nature through the Prism of Mining Capitalism”.

You work on the processes of restoring the territory of the indigenous Wayuu in Colombia, in a post-extractivist context. Can you tell us a little more about this, and in particular about what you mean by “reparation”?

The comparative study that I carried out as part of my thesis enabled me to argue that, by modifying the cycles of water and land, not only are the conditions of habitability of the living hindered, but so are the systems of belief of an entire population built on the intersubjective links between humans and the other elements that make up the territory. As in many situations of capitalist exploitation, these changes give rise to new spaces of identification, in which symbolic representations of the environment and a wide range of magicoreligious practices directly linked to it tend to disappear or to be reinvented. As a result, an entire cosmology is changing, and with it social, economic, and political organisation.

With this in mind, I have long been interested in understanding how, once the mine had disappeared, the Wayuu would collectively imagine a land that would ensure the continuity of the community in a new and recomposed way... And now, the mine is announcing its departure and preparing for its definitive closure in 2033.

To date, the mine's restoration projects do not involve any measures to remedy the loss of this interdependence caused by land appropriation and exploitation. This is why the company uses the terms “restoration, rehabilitation and recovery”: for the company, this means following the guidelines laid down by the National Department of Environmental Authorisations (ANLA), which oversees the end of extraction operations in Colombia. These guidelines are a national regulation and oblige companies to dismantle infrastructure in enclaves, to develop social programmes focused on creating new economic circuits at the local level, and, finally, to rehabilitate and restore fauna, flora, soil, and water. On this last point, however, there are currently only plans for reforestation of the exploited area. What about the impossibility of carrying out funeral rituals following the displacement of cemeteries, concomitant with the forced displacement of populations; the extinction of plant species necessary for healing rituals; the monopolisation of underground water, the home of guardian spirits necessary for the purification of initiated bodies? These are all disruptions that the Wayuu have suffered and denounced as requiring reparation. The notion of reparation raises questions about the social and cultural dimensions of damage, responsibility, and justice.

In my postdoctoral research, I intend to analyse the basis on which the actors in charge of the restoration process take on board the different Wayuu visions. I want to understand how measures to rehabilitate or restore the land take into account the cultural experiences of the populations, which reveal the reminiscence of a cosmopolitical system in which humans and non-humans are not a priori dissociated. As a corollary, my project seeks to study how these intersubjective relationships that I have already mentioned are mobilised by the affected communities in the development of a territorial reparation project.

For both the Wayuu and the NGOs they work with, as well as for landscape architects and biologists, the challenge of the reparation process is to engage in an exercise of eco-political imagination in order to think about the future. Investigating this exercise seems to me to be all the more relevant at the present time.

How do you intend to use your postdoctoral stay at Sciences Po as part of this research?

Sciences Po is one of the academic institutions most involved in thinking about the climate emergency; Bruno Latour was one of the precursors and helped to build bridges between all sorts of disciplines and institutions sharing the same concerns. I am honoured to be able to contribute to this much needed movement of critical thinking and research.

The closure of the coal mine in Colombia echoes the not-so-distant horizon of decarbonisation: according to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development launched by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, by 2030 coal should disappear from the energy matrix of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and at a global level by 2050. I think that the case of the Wayuu community can help us to take a closer and more nuanced look at the issues at stake in the international climate negotiations, and to reflect on the “governance of knowledge” that the Interdisciplinary Environmental Research Workshop (AIRE) at Sciences Po is exploring. It is from this angle that I intend to participate and get involved in the organisation of various discussion forums (seminars, study days, colloquia) on the issue of reparation and the dismantling of mines in the Anthropocene.
I will also have the opportunity to share with Sciences Po my teaching experience from my doctoral contract at EHESS.

What is your approach to fieldwork? Do you have any fieldwork planned for the next few months?

As an anthropologist, I am extremely committed to ethnographic fieldwork and, as I mentioned earlier, I spent almost two years in the field. In the same way that I was able to observe that the relationship to water carries messages that are conveyed through everyday gestures and practices that are invisible in the environmentalist discourse of the Wayuu, many other relationships to elements of the environment are not made explicit. In the reparation negotiations, the Wayuu hope to reactivate and revive these relationships. They are thus forced to develop a discourse that may prove inaudible to external actors seeking to establish balances in euros, dollars, hectares, or cubic metres, in other words, that reduce these elements of the environment to their most material and quantifiable expression, devoid of their social complexity. In this context, ethnography is sometimes the only way of making these relationships and silences intelligible.

I therefore intend to spend around three months each year in the field, interviewing Wayuu families and activists, members of environmental NGOs, and scientists (biologists, geologists) who are called upon to work with local populations on territorial reparation plans.

Wayuu reparation calls on a wide range of scientific knowledge, natural and social sciences - if it is still possible to distinguish between these - and studying it enables us to analyse the links that can be forged between different types of knowledge. This kind of research, combining a diversity of approaches, is necessary at a time when the scientific facilities for carrying it out are still, unfortunately, all too rare. This is precisely the great value of the interdisciplinary postdoctoral programme offered by Sciences Po, and I am delighted to be part of it.

Cover image caption: Quarry located on the outskirts of Paipa city, in the department of Boyacá (Colombia) in May 2019. (credits: WILLIAM RG / Shutterstock)