Monday, April 17, 2017
"Rational Enchantment: Instituting Ecuadorian Biodiversity"
Abstract: An increasing concern for biodiversity loss significantly transformed politics and society in Ecuador beginning in the late 1980s. Amidst a proliferation of expert work to gain new knowledge of what biodiversity existed where in order to curb species extinctions, both the state of biological science and the way that Ecuador was governed were remade. To examine the institution of biodiversity and its contemporary consequences in Ecuador, this dissertation draws on ethnography with and archival research on a community of botanists connected with Ecuador’s National Herbarium. It begins by examining the specialized work that formed the foundation for NGO-led biodiversity conservation. It then looks at the rise of environmental impact assessment used to anticipate and mitigate the impacts of development projects. Finally, the dissertation examines the contemporary dilemmas of Ecuadorian field biologists in the context of the recent dismantling of much of this institutional infrastructure from the last 30 years.
The dissertation’s central argument is that biodiversity is an intrinsically modern (and relatively recent) relationship to biological resources, and that it comes with many of the dilemmas and problems that characterize modern institutions. Its emergence as a recognizable domain, either of expert management or more general social commitment, is inextricably bound up with the production of certain forms of specialized knowledge, and the use of that knowledge in authorizing certain kinds of institutional interventions. A mis-recognition of this aspect of biodiversity (for example, by conflating ‘biodiversity’ with ‘biological things themselves’) risks misunderstanding what kind of an object it is, to the detriment of anthropological critiques of environmental politics.