Interview: Nicole Fabricant on Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced

[This article is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]

Nicole Fabricant, photo by Luis Arauz

Nicole Fabricant
(photo by Luis Arauz)

In her new book, Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle Over Land, author Nicole Fabricant examines how landless peasants in Bolivia politicized indigeneity to shape grassroots land politics, reform the state, and secure human and cultural rights for Native peoples during the presidency of Evo Morales. Here, Dr. Fabricant discusses activist anthropology, the centrality of “mobility” in her research, and her ongoing work in Bolivia.

To start, will you talk about how you developed your interest in Bolivia and what inspired you to conduct research there?

I initially chose Bolivia in 1997 as an interesting place to begin thinking about grassroots organizations, movements, and political change. I have always been interested, since my days as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, in the ways in which community organizations use and mobilize culture to create structural change. My work in Bolivia has very much evolved from initially looking at how community organizations addressed issues of urban poverty in Santa Cruz to rural social movements, resource politics, and new forms of state-making. Yet at the center of all of this is my interest in the use, the mobility, and elasticity of culture (indigeneity) to implement change.

You spent a lot of your research time on the move—either with the MST activists or traveling with your research partner; can you talk about why that mobile research strategy was important to your particular topic? What were a few of the primary benefits and challenges of that mobile approach?

Protestors arriving in the Plaza 14 de Septiembre of Cochabamba, November 2006. Photograph by Nancy Romer.

Protestors arriving in the Plaza 14 de Septiembre of Cochabamba, November 2006.
(Photograph by Nancy Romer.)

Mobility is a central trope in the book because it informed my thinking about indigeneity and  movement building in Bolivia. I realized that in order to effectively capture the Landless Peasant Movement’s ( Movimiento Sin Tierra/MST) organizational strategies, I would have to be in constant motion.  I traveled with MST activists on the back of agricultural trucks for nearly 20 hours from the city to their communities, lived in two MST agro-ecological communities, traversed regional spaces, as well as national and international spaces of organizing. The life of an organizer is in constant motion and, as an ethnographer, I too had to be constantly traveling.

It is rare that anthropologists study social movements because fine-grained ethnography often requires one to live in a designated community for an extended period of time. My initial research protocol sketched out a methodological strategy of living in a migrant community where MST had some of its bases. However, a community study would limit my ability to study and capture the dynamism of this movement. I was actually able to use the best of qualitative research (developing and establishing meaningful relationships with people, five-sense ethnography, informal and unstructured interviews) on the long trips on the back of trucks. This was an ideal place for participant observation. By traveling alongside movement members, many activists came to share parts of their lives, worlds, and histories with me. I’m not sure I would have reached this depth of relationship and meaning if I remained grounded in one migrant community.

One challenge is that I was physically exhausted. It’s hard to spend an entire year and a half in constant motion. It also became challenging to stay on top of fieldnotes as I was always traveling with a small bookbag and a tent. However, the times I returned to the city, completely caked in dirt, provided great insight into how rural peoples feel when traversing urban Santa Cruz.

The concept of mobility came to inform how I thought about the flexibility and adaptability of Indigenous ways and customs. The idea of indigeneity is no longer grounded to national or territorial space, or rooted in language or birthplace. Landless activists can use it, perform it, dress it up, and claim ownership over it as a critical organizing tool.

In the introduction, you mention that you employed an engaged anthropology approach to your research. What is engaged anthropology and why did you choose it for your own work?  

Perhaps the best definition of activist anthropology comes from Charles Hale at the University of Texas at Austin. He defines it as a method that affirms a political alignment with an organized group of people in struggle and allows dialogue with them to shape each phase of the process, from conception of a research topic and data collection to verification and dissemination of the results. I worked alongside MST members to think about and shape various phases of the research process. We realized that an academic text was not going to be the most useful tool for the movement. Together, we figured out that a documentary film, which illustrates the struggle over land, would be more effective in disseminating their stories of struggle. We constructed this film together, co-edited it, and hope to have a final product this year. I also worked on fundraising for the movement and helped to support much of the transnational activism. We continue to work on the creation of websites and coordinate solidarity efforts between activists in the North and MST members in the South.

Activist or engaged anthropology seems to be the only way to study and understand movements. There were moments when friends and colleagues asked if I was going to come back and write this book or whether I simply wanted to become a part of the movement. I believe powerfully in what Dwight Conquergood, a performance studies professor and mentor at Northwestern University described as a politics of the body: “We must be radically engaged and committed, body-to-body, in the field and in the academy . . . a politics of the body deeply in action with others.” In part, this means putting your own body on the line in order to understand the daily experiences of violence, poverty, and inequality of our interlocutors.

Camba youth holding flags of Santa Cruz at the Gran Cabildo. (Photograph by Nicole Fabricant.)

Camba youth holding flags of Santa Cruz at the Gran Cabildo.
(Photograph by Nicole Fabricant.)

As part of your involvement with the First Peoples initiative, you were mentored by Andrew Canessa as you went through the dissertation revision process. Is there any advice you got from him that you found particularly useful and that might benefit other scholars going through the revision process?

Andrew Canessa provided intellectual rigor and emotional support along the way. I traveled to England in the Spring of 2011 to meet with him and revise several chapters. We sat at his dining room table talking for hours about the thesis of the book. Canessa really pushed me to get to the “so what” question. He wanted me to be able to tell him what this book was about in one or two lines. This was perhaps the most important exercise in getting to the essence of the narrative. Once I figured this out, the rest of the chapters fell into place.

He also encouraged me to find my ethnographic voice. Often he would say, “you are the expert” or “let go of what other people have to say.” Andrew forced me to shed some of the unnecessary referencing and to allow the details of people’s lives (their everyday struggles and challenges) to define the story I wanted to tell.

Evo Morales’s presidency will end in a little over a year. What do you think is next for Bolivia in terms of Indigenous leadership at the state level?

Everyone I spoke with this summer believes that Evo Morales will win the 2014 election. The interesting thing is that while people are very critical of Morales, they also realize he is their best candidate. There aren’t any other Indigenous peoples who have come to the fore as viable candidates for the next election.

Finally, would you talk about the focus of your ongoing research in Bolivia?

For the last three summers, I have been working with social movement activists in El Alto, Bolivia (a migrant squatter settlement located in the highlands of Bolivia) to understand how residents are mobilizing pre-existing social, territorial, and cultural networks to address issues of climate change and water scarcity. The great irony of climate change is that those who have the smallest carbon footprints (nations like Bolivia) are on the frontlines of environmental catastrophe.  This longitudinal and engaged ethnographic project seeks to work in collaboration with community activists to understand how climate change is affecting local water supply, and how residents might use pre-existing social and political structures to begin to pressure the state to seek solutions to the water crisis.

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Mobilizing Bolivia's Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle over Land, by Nicole FabricantNicole Fabricant is assistant professor of anthropology at Towson University. Her book, Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle Over Land is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.

Check back next month for a guest post by Dr. Fabricant in which she will discuss the presidency of Evo Morales as well as her forthcoming documentary film.