Deforestation as Epistemicide.

[Futuress talk Transcript]

So, this talk is entitled “Deforestation as Epistemicide,” and what I’m going to do is to draw the line that connects these two big words to one another. How do we get from the one to the other or, how are they not only interconnected but, rather, where I want to arrive is to figure out, how they can mean, how they can be, actually the same.


Ok, Let’s start with the “epistemicide” part, What is epistemicide?

Epistemicide is a term coined by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos and it means, in simple terms, the killing of knowledge; the destruction of an episteme. And episteme is a system of understanding, a way of knowing, a way of making sense of the world.

Each culture formulates its knowledge in a particular way and has its own knowledge tradition or its multiple knowledge traditions. The way in which their knowledge is formulated, the way in which a sense of the world is made is linked with the identity of this particular culture, their value system, their worldview, their cosmology.From this we can understand that there are many epistemes, that multiple ways of understanding the world exist among us from which multiple attitudes, values, and ways of relating to the world and ways of being in this world (ontologies) follow.

OK, let’s keep this Epistemicide idea on a corner for a bit cause I want to present to you the Quebracho Colorado tree, who will be our companion in this talk.

[One Quebracho, Two Stories]

Quebracho trees can grow up to 20-25 meters high, and they achieve this height once they are 100 -150 years old, they blossom from November to March, their interior is red (Colorado in Spanish means red), and they like lots of sun and high temperatures, that’s why they grow in the Gran Chaco forest in South America. This is the Gran Chaco forest, the area in green, as you can see it covers Bolivia, Paraguay, a little bit of Brasil, and the north of Argentina. This forest is the second most important biodiverse territory in the continent after the Amazon rainforest.

Now, I want to present to you two stories, that we will reflect on through this talk:

The first story: In certain regions of the Gran Chaco in Argentina, it is known that before approaching a Quebracho tree, one must salute him, we say “Buenos días Señor Quebracho,” meaning Good morning mister Quebracho. This salutation is not only an acknowledgement of the tree’s presence but it is also an asking for permission to be physically close to him. Quebracho trees can deny permission by ‘shooting’ the person with a heavy rash that makes their body itch. Locally, this skin irritation is called by its name in Quichua ‘páaj’, and according to local knowledge and tradition, the way to cure this rash is to go back to the Quebracho, offer him a cake of ashes as an apology, and tie a red thread to the trunk as a sign of respect and declaration of friendship.

Now, I will take you to the other story of the Quebracho: This is the history of the deforestation of the Gran Chaco. At the beginning of the 16th century, in the land that now constitutes Argentina, there were about 150 million hectares of forest. During Spanish colonial rule, trees that were in forests close to colonial settlement were felled to use the wood , mostly for construction work, heating, and cooking. This brought the forest area down to 100 million ha by the 1900s.

From the 20th century onwards, intensive logging activities spread overwhelmingly in the Gran Chaco region, this time, with the timber mainly destined for the export market. Specifically, it was the intense Quebracho exploitation that made possible the development of Argentina’s first and most important forest industry and the reason why the Quebracho Colorado became Argentina’s national forest tree. Because its wood is so hard and rich in tannin (a substance employed in the transformation of pelt to leather) Quebrachos were exploited simultaneously for the extension of railway tracks and tannin extraction — two key elements for the country’s industrialisation process (let’s keep this in mind cause we’re going to go back to this later on). The indiscriminate plundering of the Quebracho Colorado was carried out, in particular, between 1906 and 1963 by La Forestal, an English company that settled in the Argentinian territory of the Gran Chaco and became the world's largest tannin producer. Nowadays, only 4 million hectares of the Gran Chaco forest remain and the Quebracho Colorado is in danger of extinction.

So, from 150 million hectares before colonisation to 4 million hectares now. This is hard core.

So when we think of these two stories, what we have is two different ways of understanding and relating with the Quebracho

In the first one the Quebracho tree is capable of communicating with humans, and affecting them: a subject-tree to put in a way. In the second one, the Quebracho tree is just matter ready to be transformed: a resource. So these two stories about the Quebracho (tree as person and tree as resource) show two different onto-epistemologies, and here I want to bring back what Uzma said in her lecture last week: “the being of objects is related to our knowledge of objects,” so not to think of the epistemic and the ontological as distinct but rather as mutually constitutive of one another.

Like we’ve seen with the rate of deforestation in the Gran Chaco, one conceptualisation and way of relating to the Quebracho prevailed above the other. So, evidently, not all knowledge systems have received the same treatment, have been granted the same relevance, or are given equal legitimacy when it comes to understanding and making sense of the world. When we talk about epistemicide, we are actually talking about the ways in which Western knowledge has and still is engaged in the exclusion, invisibilisation, inferiorisation, silencing, appropriation, and killing of any other knowledge system that is not the Eurocentric canon.

The fundamental questions here are:

  • What is the dominant episteme into which we have been globally socialised? Even if the answer is obvious, it is important, at least for me, to keep this question present, as a way not to normalise it.
  • And, specifically, what kind of knowledge surfaces with regards to Nature and how to relate to it?
  • On the flip-side, and if we think in terms of epistemicide: which knowledges are destroyed? who does the destruction? and how does this destruction happen?

[Eurocentrism and Nature]

Let’s start with the first questions:

What are the fundamentals of the hegemonic canon and how does it conceive nature?

The perception of ‘nature as a resource’ can be attributed to a particular gendering of nature — a concept that is both patriarchal and colonial and whose origin is related to the invention and intersection of the ideas of gender, race, and nature as social categories both constructed within and constructive of the modern project (and we’ll get to this in a bit).

[Feminisation of Nature] During the 17th century, a particular feminisation of nature became prolific in Europe and helped legitimise its domination. In The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, Carolyn Merchant examines the transformations of the conception of nature particularly during the Enlightenment period. She explains that in most pre-modern European societies, the image of nature was two-sided:

1. nature as a nurturing mother, a benevolent and generous female (a perspective that provided (some) restraints on how to relate to nature; and

2. nature as wild, chaotic, hostile, and violent, the one who brings the pests and the natural disasters

So, Even though both conceptions of nature were female, after the scientific revolution, the second one (nature as wild) became more prolific because, and this is crucial, it called forth the need to control it.

In an oppositional manner, this reinforced the idea of man and everything masculine as the master. This is the origin of the ’mechanistic model,’ that defined nature as inert, passive, and dead, a move that became fundamental in reducing (female) earth to a mere resource for economic production and justify her exploitation. German Sociologist, Maria Mies explains:

“The rise of modern science, a mechanistic and physical world-view, was based on the killing of nature as a living organism and its transformation into a huge reservoir of 'natural resources' or 'matter', which could be analysed and synthesized by Man into his new machines by which he could make himself independent of Mother Nature. Only now, the dualism, or rather the polarization, between the patriarchs and nature, and between men and women could develop its full and permanent destructive potential. From now on science and technology became the main 'productive forces' through which men could 'emancipate' themselves from nature, as well as from women.” (Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation On A World Scale.)

In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Australian Philosopher Val Plumwood explains how Bacon and Descartes (building blocks of the modern science Mies was just talking about) built on earlier dichotomies between human an nature coming from classical greek philosophy to further intensify the separation between humans and nature through the idea of reason. Rationality is one of the fundamental characteristics of Eurocentric thought. Plumwood argues that dominant western intellectual tradition have historically conceived the markers of humanity as masculine (reason, mind, culture) as a means to control, and oppress every body that does not possess them — as they are considered less than rational, they do not possess full humanity. The association between women and nature is one produced by exclusion. She says:

“Nature, as the excluded and devalued contrast of reason, includes the emotions, the body, the passions, animality, the primitive or uncivilised, the non-human world, matter, physicality and sense experience, as well as the sphere of irrationality, of faith and of madness. In other words, nature includes everything that reason excludes.” (Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature.)

From this, a set of interrelated and mutually reinforcing dualisms will organise relationships in terms of domination/subordination: human/nature, culture/nature, man/woman, reason/emotion, mind/body (mental/manual), civilised/primitive, subject/object. So, so far, for Eurocentric thought, Nature is female, and rationality is the main characteristic of humans and thus, of humanity. Everything outside of the sphere of human (i.e., everything that lacks rationality) belongs to the natural realm. On the flip side, the conceptualisation of both female and nature and their association, also constructed the conceptualisation of the male, not only as a biological differential, but of the ‘masculine’ as an epistemological orientation and position defined by the rational scientific mind not only as separated from nature but as a complete denial of any relationship or dependency to it.

The emergence of European science and technology, the border of its discourse is not, however, in Europe. Concurrently, this is the period of the colonial invasion and domination of the Americas. These were not only simultaneous as historical parallels, but the (scientific revolution and its process / the construction of Europe) was built upon the exploitation of colonial bodies and territories.

[Coloniality and Nature]

So, gender is certainly a necessary and useful analytical category, but it is insufficient if we are to move our location of thought to the Americas. In his book A Decolonial Ecology: Thinking from the Caribbean World, Martinican political scientist and philosopher Malcom Ferdinand makes a rather under-explored historical observation: the separation — which he calls ‘the double fracture” of modernity’ — between what belongs to postcolonial/decolonial thinking and what belongs to ecology and the environmentalist movement. Ferdinand acutely points out that the latter (the environmentalist movement) was only able to unfold under the condition of silence of colonial history — a setting that enabled a set of discourses and concepts that do not account for the experience of those colonised and those enslaved. For example, concepts such as the Anthropocene, by homogenising the category of human (the anthropos) — mask the different power relations and injustices that constitute such ecological destructions by not accounting for the inequalities of its (colonial) causes. He says:

"The destruction of the Earth's ecosystems over the past 500 years has been possible only under the condition of extreme domination over indigenous peoples in the entire world; in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. And today we want to acknowledge these environmental destructions without acknowledging the dominations of the Indigenous people of the world.” (Malcom Ferdinand, A Decolonial Ecology.)

So, we are starting to understand knowledge and the silencing of knowledge, the silencing of history as knowledge too, as an instrument of power. In fact, and this is crucial when we talk about epistemicide or epistemic violence, we are actually talking about the ways in which Western knowledge (and now i will repeat myself) has and still is engaged in the exclusion, invisibilisation, inferiorisation, silencing, appropriation, and killing of any other knowledge system that is not the Eurocentric canon imposed globally by the modern project through coloniality (so now we’re in the third set of questions from before).

What is coloniality?

Coloniality is short for “coloniality of power,” and it is a concept developed by Peruvian Sociologist Anibal Quijano to refer to the specific and ongoing model of power that sought and served to legitimise European colonial expansion, domination, and pillaging of the world. This model of power began to form with the colonisation of the Americas 500 years ago, again.. it is still ongoing (this is what Uzma in her talk, referred to as ‘the contemporaneity of Colonialism’), and acts over all aspects of life. Quijano identifies three fundamental and interrelated elements within coloniality: (1) the invention of “race” as a social category and the fundamental criterion for the social classification of the world population that self-positions Europeans as “naturally” (i.e. racially) superior to everyone else, (2) world capitalism as the new structure for the control of labor, its resources, and products, and, (3) Eurocentrism as the theoretical ground and the hegemonic universal rationality that would help naturalise this whole fiction as “a civilizing mission.”

So, Eurocentrism is the knowledge that controls the colonial matrix of power. So, European expansion via the ‘modern project’ was political, economic, and intellectual. And, In this way, coloniality of power, based on racial differentiation and classification became a more powerful tool for global control than the previously used gender-based domination system we talked about before.

We have seen how two of the main aspects of modern western thought was rationality and dualistic thinking through radical exclusion, and now another aspect of Eurocentric thought appears: a linear, evolutionary way of conceiving reality. Eurocentrism, as an evolutionist and dualist perspective of knowledge, became the theoretical ground that would legitimise colonial relations between Europeans and non-Europeans. Quijano explains that:

“[Eurocentrism] is based on two principal founding myths: first, the idea of the history of human civilization as a trajectory that departed from a state of nature and culminated in Europe; second, a view of the differences between Europe and non-Europe as natural (racial) differences and not consequences of a history of power.” (Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.”)

Argentinian philosopher María Lugones takes on Quijano’s conceptualisation of coloniality of power and complicates it by introducing ‘coloniality of gender’ as another analytic category. Lugones explains that gender became an instrument of power that would legitimise man’s control, domination, and exploitation not only of (what we so far understood as) nature and women but of ‘the feminine’ understood and positioned as closer to and constitutive of nature. As such, gender also became a ‘mark of civilization’. The European man is fully human as he is a being of mind and reason, and the European woman is also human as long as she reproduces race and capital. As only the civilized (i.e. white Europeans) are men or women (they are gendered). Coloniality of gender positions colonial bodies as outside of the women/men normativity (as non-civilised they are non-gendered) and transforms them in less than human, in beings of nature.

So, Coloniality split Latin America into two clearly differentiated historical linear spaces with their own identities: ‘modern’ as signifier for capitalist relations and ‘pre-modern’ as a signifier for any other way of being in and relating to the world (i.e. ‘primitive’). Under this premise and the evolutionary conception of social reality, development is conceived as the path towards modernisation (i.e. civilisation of the primitive). In this list, it would be the path towards everything on the right to the left. The rhetoric of Eurocentrism is then one of salvation: Europeans are the most advanced (the saviors, because they possess all the “virtues” on the left column), and, by opposition, the rest of the world, who belongs to the past in the progress of the species, is in need of salvation. With regards to this, Argentinian philosopher Walter Mignolo explains:

“Salvation has several designs, all co-existing today, but that unfolded over 500 years, since 1500: salvation by conversion to Christianity, salvation by progress and civilization, salvation by development and modernization, salvation by global market democracy (e.g. neoliberalism). Thus, the rhetoric of modernity is the constant updating of the rhetoric of salvation hiding the logic of coloniality.” (Walter Mignolo)

Under this discourse, industrialisation emerged both as a mediator of the relationship between society and nature and as the most effective way to take these uncivilised societies out of their ‘postmonement’. And this is one of the Quebracho stories from the beginning, the one of deforestation: how through the exploitation of the Quebracho, Argentina was able to follow this “path of civilisation” of modernisation, and propel the country into industrialisation. So it becomes very clear, very concrete, how the “conceptual framework” of Eurocentric thought, the lens through which a perspective of reality was not only invented but intellectually rationalised, how it was mobilised to impose the idea of an only and universal world governed exclusively by white European men through the exploitation of the land, its resources, and its peoples.

A dominant world that subjects all other worlds to its own terms or, worse, to nonexistence. What began with the colonisation of the Americas, then, as the colonial/modern project, was a multiple matrix of power based on absolute binaries where race and gender intersect to categorically exclude, oppress, and dominate everything outside of the European male identity. In other words, the concept of nature (from the perspective of the West) constructed as a gendered other contains — in terms of exclusion and submission — the governing through destruction of the entire sphere of life/existence of those colonised and enslaved. María Lugones explains:

“The normativity that tied gender and civilization became involved in the erasure of community, of ecological practices, knowledges of planting, weaving, and the cosmos […]. One can begin to appreciate the tie between the colonial introduction of the instrumental modern concept of nature central to capitalism and the colonial introduction of the modern concept of gender and appreciate it as macabre and heavy in its impressive ramifications.” (María Lugones, “Methodological Notes Toward a Decolonial Feminism.”)

Whats fundamental to understand is that the imposition of a universal knowledge regime (through the exclusion of any alternative episteme, any alternative way of knowing) has practical material consequences too because it legitimises relations of domination and exploitation over all aspects of life and exclude (or try to exclude as we will see in a bit) any other way of relating to the world that does not follow Western rationality. And now I want to read two quotes in the form of dialogue by US writer Ursula Le Guin that synthesises what we talked about:

“Civilised Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is Other—outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women and wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”

“Those who were identified as having nothing to say […] those who were identified with Nature, which listens, as against Man, who speaks—those people are speaking. They speak for themselves and for the other people, the animals, the trees, the rivers, the rocks. And what they say is: We are sacred.
Listen: they do not say, “Nature is sacred.” Because they distrust that word, Nature. Nature as not including humanity, Nature as what is not human, that Nature is a construct made by Man, not a real thing; just as most of what Man says and knows about women is mere myth and construct. Where I live as woman is to men a wilderness. But to me it is home.” (Ursula Le Guin, “Women/Wilderness,” Dancing at the Edge of the World.)

And this links us back the other story of the Quebracho, the one in which this tree is considered a communicational being. This means that the tree is part of the realm of the social. we saw how knowledge is a social construction — SO, if we include trees within the realm of the social — as the first story of the quebracho tells us — in which the difference between the human and the non-human realm (what for western knowledge constitutes ‘nature’) here is not marked by a dualism that implies a hierarchy/in fact, it doesnt exist then the realm within and from which knowledge is constructed, also includes that which we call ‘nature’.

So, when we talk about the destruction of Nature, what is actually being destroyed? It is not only the material space, the land—understood as the territory that people inhabit, or even worse, land as emptiness—that is destroyed, but the destruction of the territory in which relationships and knowledge are formed, and where knowledge is formed through relationships.

“The territory as an interrelational place for the production of life and of a vision of the world” (Arturo Escobar, “Hacia el Pluriverso.”) This is another vision, one that understands the material and the immaterial as mutually constituted and constituent of a world. So, when one encounters a Quebracho, as an earth-being capable of relating to us humans, one does not merely encounter a tree but it invokes (because if the tree is there, the knowledge is there too) a whole belief system and a way of relating to the world that Western rationality not only cannot capture but, as we saw, actively seeks to destroy.

[slide: “Hegemonic understanding ignores what escapes it.” (Marisol de la Cadena, “Earth-Beings: Andean Indigenous Religion, but not only.”)]
[Not Only]

And i want to finish with a concept elaborated by Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena.

So what is this Quebracho that is also able to communicate? this tree that is able to grant or deny consent? this Quebracho that is part of social relationships? Where would this tree be placed now? How would we describe it?

And here Marisol de la Cadena proposes “not only” as a formula to acknowledge both multiplicity and the limits of translation and description. In a conversation she has with Mariano Turpo, a friend of hers and a native Quechua speaker, she tells us that “Mariano would insist that what to her was (for example, a mountain, or in our case, a tree) was not only that. And it was possible that she (or us) could eventually not know what it not only was!” She reflects:

“Coming to terms with what was not only that which emerged through my habitual practice of thought, in addition to taking time, required working at a permanent interface, where Mariano’s worlding practices and mine were both seemingly alike and at the same time different. And what emerged at the interface rather than ‘the’ entity or practice in question was an awareness of our concepts and practices (Mariano’s and mine) frequently exceeding each other as they also overlapped.” (Marisol de la Cadena, “Earth-Beings: Andean Religion, but not only.”)

Here, not only signals a sort of complex phenomenon that exceeds that which any (modern, so to say) description tries to point at while at the same time enabling what Marisol de la Cadena calls “onto-epistemic openings.” What she means by this is “a proposal to think that, as they become through enactments, anything — events, relations, practices, entities — might be other than what it also is.” she says that her intent with not only is to slow down our practice of knowing, to challenge what we know, the ways we know it, and even suggest the impossibility of our knowing, without such impossibility canceling the emergence.

She continues:"Practicing not only we may attend to that which is (or may emerge) beyond the limit of epistemic knowledge and thus exceeds the way ‘we’ know.” (Marisol de la Cadena, “Earth-Beings: Andean Religion, but not only.”)

And after this, and the path we took together in this talk, we could dare to say that the Quebracho Colorado is a tree, a natural resource, a wilful entity, but not only.

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