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A conversation with Professor Julie Klinger (Part 1)

Next week Professor Julie Klinger, Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies, will be bringing  indigenous leaders, NGO activists, and environmental journalists from Brazil. Talks will cover topics that range from the leadership role of women in sustainable development, environmental journalism within the Amazon, and grassroots leadership in Amazonian Sustainable Development.

This is part one of a two-part interview series with Professor Julie Klinger. The next part will be available on our website next week.

Three talks will take place on December 4 throughout the day. At 10:10, Women’s Leadership in Sustainable Development will take place at 121 Bay State Road. At 12:30, Environmental Journalism in the Amazon will take place at 121 Bay State Road. And at 4:30, Grassroots Leaders Forum will take place at 213 Bay State Road.

Philip Horowitz, who is studying International Relations and Environmental Policy, sat down with Professor Klinger to discuss her research with Yanomami communities and the importance of indigenous voices in the Amazon. 

Horowitz: This is Professor Klinger, Professor of International relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies. I would like to jump right in, so my first question for you, Professor, is, can you elaborate on the research you have been doing in Brazil? 

Klinger: The research I am currently doing in Brazil builds on several years of research on land use change and local and environmental politics in  relations to the global political economy. What became clear to me over the years of research on everything from soybeans to regional infrastructure development projects was that the questions of environment and security are inextricably intertwined. That led me to a much deeper interest in the relationship between big ideas,national policy and international development discourse and what is actually happening on the ground in people’s everyday life. These questions led me to the Brazil-Venezuela border in the Brazilian Amazon where I’m currently working with a community that’s part of the Yanomami Indigenous people. In collaboration with them I’m exploring a number of different research questions.

The first question I asked is: how is the local clandestine economy working? There’s illegal gold mining, drug trafficking and all sorts of informal activities that can be problematic. So I want to understand what the local livelihood pressures are that compel people to partake in these sorts of behaviors given the dangers involved. That’s the first.

The second thread is that I am interested the indigenous population’s ability to monitor their territory against threats imposed from multiple fronts, including these clandestine economies. One being the threats to local security caused by illegal activities that bring all sorts of unsavory characters and expose local people to direct and environmental violence. I’m also interested in how they’re negotiating the ongoing threats from some in the Brazilian government who seek to undermine Yanomami autonomy and control over their over lands – so what are they doing? What tools are they using? How effective are these tools?  It turns out the answer to that question can be kind of surprising for those of us outside of the Amazon. They’re actively engaged in mapping their own territory that they’ve received training in how to use satellite linked GIS and GPS technology. They successfully had themselves inserted into Google Earth so they are visible on that platform to the outside world. So I’m  interested in the politics of visibility and grassroots use of technologies because it has a whole bunch of interesting political ramifications. And so we are analyzing that together. 

Another way that they’re  defending their territories from these multi-dimensional threats is actually taking the entrepreneurial route.  After five really intense years of deliberation they’ve decided to found a community-run eco-tourism enterprise called Ecoturismo Yaripo.  It just so happens that within their legally-designated Indigenous territory is Brazil’s highest mountain, Pico da Neblina, which is an important and iconic spot in Brazil and to mountaineering enthusiasts around the world. But it has been legally inaccessible to the rest of the world for two reasons. First, the mountain is within Yanomami territory and no one is allowed to enter indigenous territory  without first getting permission from Federal government. The second is that it’s within 90 kilometers of the Venezuelan border, which means it requires special military permission as well. Even with these legal barriers in place, it is  still the highest mountain in Brazil so it attracts all sorts of adventurers, until recently entirely illegally. Sometimes, unfortunately, these illegal expeditions were led by persons who mistreated or exploited the local people. After years of denouncing these practices, the community successfully won an official moratorium. But people keep coming. The community has realized that simply telling non-Indigenous Brazilians and  the federal government to stay out and to respect their constitutionally-protected rights to their land hasn’t been working. So they thought “okay why don’t we bring people in on our own terms?” and charge them dearly and appropriately for the privilege of having and an absolutely extraordinary experience.

Their plan is to put those profits into a Community Fund to then support their own initiatives. They’ve gained a lot of support over the years from missionaries, from the military, and from NGOs, but local community leaders have been very clear that they do not wish to be in a perpetual position of dependence on the help of outsiders. If they decide that if they’re able to send a member of their Community to law school or medical school, they want to be able to pay for that  themselves. If they need solar panels, they want to be able to pay for that themselves instead of asking a missionary or an NGO. In the political sense, if the federal government gets up to anti-indigenous shenanigans, they want to be able to send a delegation to engage directly with government officials, or to protest if necessary. They want to be able to show the world that they can develop autonomously and from a position of strength. For the ecotourism enterprise and the mapping, no one can accuse them of being in the pockets of outside interests. So it is really exciting and really interesting. However, it is also a bold experiment with capitalism in a largely non-monetized society. So they’re very cautious about all of this.. They’re very concerned about the potential for conflict. There already is conflict, and they’re interested in analyzing the long term effects of the efforts and studying them together with experts who can help further their interests.

The final major thread I am looking at is what happens when Yanomami environmental experts sit down and talk to climate scientists. This is something that I’m working on facilitating. 

Horowitz: Alright well that sounds very exciting. I’m inspired by your work in Brazil and all the initiative you are taking part in there. I think it’s fantastic you’re connecting with the Yanomami people on a basis that isn’t entrenched in colonialism and figuring how autonomous and individualistic goals can be brought forward and that’s really exciting. My next question is why your research is important, but I think you already solidly spoken to that already. But if you think there are clarifying points that you might think might be helpful to understand why it’s important to create these systems of autonomy and self-determination for the indigenous people of Brazil. 

Klinger: Well, okay, so you’ve heard you’ve heard the phrase, “all politics is local.” I would argue that all politics is local and global. All of the big questions about climate change, human security,  national security, geo-political stability, et cetera; none of these big questions make any sense without a close look at what’s happening at the local level. By the same token, what happens at the local level then shapes in important ways what happens in state, national, and international policy and practice. It is a dialectical relationship that can only be understood through direct engagement and empirical research. So, I think that, in a broader intellectual, political, and policy sense, my research is driven by putting that conviction into practice. This is why when I do my fieldwork I spend part of the time in nice pantsuits talking to people in Ministries and the other part of my time in muddy remote areas, with people who live on the “frontiers.” Why is this important? It’s clear to me that even among the best intentioned development institutions and practitioners, there is a persistent tendency to  treat indigenous people like they are our ancestors, as part of the landscape or even people from another time. The fact of the matter is that we are all here together in 2017 and we all have to figure out how to live together.  In the context of clear and present climate change as well as increasing political instability, social inequality and generalized brutality, we have to figure out how to achieve something that looks like collaborative survival. We can’t do this if we don’t take indigenous people seriously in a way that works for policy, development, and sustainability for everyone.

My objectives in my research, my policy engagement, and my teaching is to build something much more than a simple researcher-subject relationship with Indigenous people engaged in bold new experiments with technology and development. I want to give Pardee students the opportunity spend time with the Yanomami. So when our graduates are one day in policy-making positions, be it the State Department, World Bank, an NGO, or the UN, I want them to have had a  personal relationship with indigenous people, to have seen for themselves what life is like at the local level, on the frontier. This transforms the way you think about the world and about our own society. These sorts of transformative experiences lead to better decision-making in the future, when you or one of your colleagues is faced with figuring out  how to solve our most pressing global problems.

Philip Horowitz is a second year graduate student studying International Relations and Environmental Policy at the Pardee School. His research focuses on energy development, climate change, and Latin America. 

This interview was transcribed by Jacob Howe.