Stories from the Rainforest: Plantationocene
a contract with nature
As a part of ArtEZ studium generale research on Land: on climate, ownership and coexistence, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s contribution offers a rich reflection on how materials speak to them in and through their artistic practice. By tracing material flows and goods within the global economy, they show the rifts and new relations between human and their environment. Plantationocene is the first essay in the series Stories from Rainforest.
Our plan had been to follow Episode of the Sea with an ‘episode of the land’, working together with Dutch growers. We had already held several conversations with farmers in the Noordoostpolder and filmed both a potato and a tomato harvest. But doubts quickly surfaced. It turned out that the tomato grower no longer grew his crops in the soil but above ground in gutters filled with rock wool. The potato farmer also barely touched the ground. His tractor was satellite-controlled to sow with geometric precision in order to maximize yield. It was explained to us unhesitatingly that the goal was grow a high-yielding quality crop that met the needs of a demanding market. Did these growers still have a relationship with the soil beneath their feet? Were they not – like the fishermen – too much at the mercy of the discipline of the market with its logic of extraction? Were these really the people from whom to learn how to be guided by matter?
As we embarked in 2014 on our land-based episode, the debate about the Anthropocene that had started in the earth sciences was reaching the wider public.1 Geologists and atmospheric chemists were observing that the Earth had entered a new era, in which its systems were increasingly disrupted by human action. Mankind, or at least its industrialized part, had set in motion something with the impactive force of a meteorite, something so large-scale that animals and plants would die en masse. A different future loomed, not one of progress for more and more people, but a dystopian era of climate change, forest fires, melting ice caps and rising sea levels, in which planet Earth’s ecosystems could no longer meet the increased needs of this one rapidly multiplying species. Slowly people would begin to realize that we humans can no longer separate ourselves from the material processes of the Earth and its biosphere.
The name Anthropocene is somewhat misleading. ‘Anthropos’, which means ‘human’ in Greek, seems to suggest that all humans are equally responsible for the damage to ecosystems. Humanities scholars are therefore inventing new terms such as Capitalocene, a word that emphasizes the pursuit of profit and the commodification of nature, or Plantationocene referring to the plantation economy with its remotely financed circulation of humans, plants and animals, exploitation of workers, and monoculture.2 The starting point is also disputed. When had we left behind the Holocene, that long ecologically stable period that had enabled us to practice agriculture and develop complex societies? Was it the industrial revolution that had hurled the earth into the new era, or the European colonization of the Americas?3
It is Michel Serres who was one of the first to observe, in his manifesto The Natural Contract (1990), that man, with his far-reaching technological capacities, had become a geological force that was profoundly affecting the Earth’s ecosystems.4 He noted how the hard, hot architecture of megalopolises has the ecological impact of deserts, and how, when massed together, human beings change the composition of the air with their emissions of carbon monoxide and toxic chemicals.5 Serres concludes that this invalidates the boundary that Western knowledge systems have drawn between man and nature. For him it raises the question of why nature does not appear in our ideas of community. Why it is not included in our social contracts?
“Those who share power today have forgotten nature,” he writes.6 We humans have withdrawn into our own human world, busy with our own language in our own networks. We have split the world into a human world and a world of objects that we think we can appropriate. As a result, we have lost the world as an entwined collectivity of culture and nature. Or as he puts it:
“We’ve lost the world. We’ve transformed things into fetishes or commodities, the stakes of our stratagems; and our a-cosmic philosophies, for almost half a century now, have been folding forth only on language or politics, writing or logic. At the very moment we are acting physically for the first time on the global Earth, and when it in turn is doubtless reacting on global humanity, we are tragically neglecting it.”7
Serres calls for a new collectivity in which people are part of the world again. This collectivité will require a different contract than the exclusive social contracts that we humans have concluded with each other. Its contractors will be symbionts, a role he opposes to that of parasites. The symbiont recognizes the rights of the host, while the parasite condemns to death the one it loots, not realizing that it also undermines itself in the process.
“The parasite takes all and gives nothing; the host gives all and takes nothing. Rights of mastery and property come down to parasitism. Conversely, rights of symbiosis are defined by reciprocity: however much nature gives man, man must give that much back to nature, now a legal subject.”8
We learned from the fishermen what it meant to have a reciprocal relationship with tools. Fetching was followed by mending: repairing and taking care of the fishing gear. But of a reciprocal relationship with the fish there was no question. What could a reciprocal bond with nature look like? How can we humans give back to nature? And how could nature find a place in human contracts?
From Brazilian activist Paulo Tavares we learned, during a meeting of World of Matter, that Ecuador was the first country in the world to respond to Serres’s call.9 Tavares was presenting his research on “non-human rights”, for which Serres’s The Natural Contract forms the starting point. He outlined how large-scale oil extraction in Ecuador’s rainforest had led to a series of ecological disasters. The indigenous people living in those areas had filed lawsuits to hold the oil companies to account. In the struggle for livable land, they presented nature as a witness.
After a decade of social uprisings and political tension, the country adopted a new constitution in 2008 incorporating Pachamama (Mother Earth) as an entity with its own rights.10 This constitution, which accords fundamental rights to mountains, forests and rivers, is based on the community idea of Ecuador’s indigenous people. When they speak of “community” they mean both its human and its non-human inhabitants. Or as Luis Macas, indigenous politician of the Kichwa people, puts it:11
We believe that everything is interrelated. Nothing is disconnected, nothing is separate. For us, everything, absolutely everything, has a life. This conception has allowed us to recognize that the community is the community of all to all.”12
From Arturo Escobar’s essay “Latin America at a Crossroads” (2010) we understood that Ecuador’s constitutional change was part of a wider political movement in Latin America. Although neo-liberal reforms had resulted in an improved export position, increased foreign investment, greater equality between men and women, more decentralization and more multiculturalism, these successes also had a downside. For example, unemployment had risen, the gap between rich and poor had grown and ecologies had been disrupted.13 According to Escobar, this had given rise to a multitude of social opposition movements. Although different and sometimes even mutually opposing, these renewal movements shared the attempt to find an answer to the double crisis of the (neo-) liberal system and its “Euro-modernity”.14 Escobar gives a long list of dualistic divisions and hierarchical assumptions that this form of modernity views as self-evident. These include the bifurcation of nature and culture, the primacy of humans over non-humans, and (continuing the colonial divide between “we” and “them”) the priority of some peoples over others. The individual is presumed to be autonomous and separate from community. Both “the economy” and “the market” are viewed as self-regulating entities, independent of social practice. Objective knowledge, reason, and science are recognized as the only valid ways of knowing. The worlds constructed on these assumptions form a kind of universe in which capitalism, the state, the individual, private property, representative democracy, industrial agriculture, etc. are recurring manifestations.15
Escobar sets out how the Latin American renewal movements are trying, with varying strategies, to break open this universe to make room for other types of community building. Several countries are experimenting with political, economic, legal, cultural, and linguistic pluralism and with direct, more community-based forms of democracy. The state, territories, education, rights, and law are being redefined. Attempts are being made to create new hybrid socio-natural formations in which human and non-human actors are reconnected, bridging divisions previously taken for granted.16
In this reorientation process, Escobar sees a particular role for indigenous and African-American communities who, with their collective ways of life and their own cosmologies, histories and legal systems, form a kind of nations within states. With their relational approach and their strong connection to the areas in which they live, these communities could offer an alternative with which to resist the universalizing dichotomies of liberal modernity.17
land struggles in Suriname
As European Dutch we are somewhat familiar with the struggle for livable land in South America via Suriname.18 For three centuries the country was a Dutch plantation colony. Using African slave labor our ancestors transformed biodiverse ecosystems into rectilinear plots planted with a single crop to produce products for the European market. With the abolition of slavery, the plantations gradually disappeared. But even after political independence, Suriname’s economy would continue to depend on the extraction and export of raw materials. Today it is mainly gold and wood that are leaving the country.
Just as elsewhere in South America, a battle has been going on here for decades against the destruction of ecosystems for resource extraction. It is the Maroons who seem to be taking the lead in this. The ancestors of these Afro communities succeeded in liberating themselves from slavery hundreds of years ago, choosing a life of freedom in the rainforest. From here they waged a guerrilla war against the colonial armies and the planters. While eventually making peace with the colonists, they continued to oppose the Western production system. It was one of these militant Afro-peoples which, at the beginning of this century, filed a lawsuit against the state of Suriname at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. These so-called Saamaka appealed to their collective ancestral land rights in an attempt to protect their habitat from further exploitation.
From the books of anthropologist Richard Price, we learned that the ancestors of the Maroons hailed from different parts of West and Central Africa.19 Their oral tradition preserve, we are told, stories of how their ancestors got to know the rainforest, an environment hitherto unknown to them, with the help of the indigenous people. After they had freed themselves from slavery, their “fugitive” condition required them to remain hidden in the forest, well away from hostile pursuers. This apparently resulted in a shifting cultivation practice designed to allow land to be abandoned quickly, if necessary after just one harvest. In this way they learned to survive in existing ecosystems with minimal interventions.
In their new habitat they encountered thinking entities residing in trees, large stones, and streams of water. By trial and error they learned to form alliances with them. Together with the gods they had brought from Africa, these new deities helped them to build a life in the rainforest. The Maroons always maintain a strong bond with their biotope.
The Maroons, like Ecuador’s indigenous people, appeared to attribute agency to the rainforest and to maintain a reciprocal relationship with it. Could we learn from them how to inhabit land without fully owning or exploiting it? But would these people, whose distant ancestors had fought ours, be willing to make an episode of the land with us?
watch Rice song on: https://vimeo.com/376401809
videoclip of 3 min. from Dee Sitonu A Weti, DCP, 100 min. (2018)
- Davis, J. et al., “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, … Plantationocene? A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises”, Geography Compass (2019).
- Escobar, Arturo, “Latin America at a Crossroads” in Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 1 (2010).
- Guzmán, Juan José, “When the forest screams. The rights of nature and indigenous rights as a mutually reinforcing resistance platform for the indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon”. Accessed November 3, 2021. https://repository.gchumanrights.org/handle/20.500.11825/1827
- Harraway, Donna, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin”, Environmental Humanities, vol. 6M (2015): pp. 159-165.
- Macas, Luis and Paulo Tavares, “Nonhuman rights” in World of Matter edited by Inke Arns. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015.
- Maslin, Mark and Simon Lewis, “Why the Anthropocene began with European colonization, mass slavery and the ‘great dying’ of the 16th century”. Accessed November 3, 2021. theconversation.com/why-the-anthropocene-began-with-european-colonisation-mass-slavery-and-the-great-dying-of-the-16th-century-140661
- Price, Richard, “Africans Discover America: The Ritualization of Gardens, Landscapes and Seascapes by Surinamese Maroons” in Secret Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency edited by Michel Conan. Washington: Harvard University Press, 2007.
- Serres, Michel. “Man as a geological force” in The Natural Contract, translated by Elisabeth MacArthus and William Paulson, pp. 19-29, 40-42. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.
The term Anthropocene was coined in 2000 by chemist Paul Crutzen. He used the term in the context of his research into the ozone layer. From 2011 onwards the terms appears increasingly in Dutch newspapers but also in f.e. The New York Times and The Guardian.
Plantationocene: Davis J., Moulton A.A., Van Sant L., Williams B., “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, ... Plantationocene? A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises”, Geography Compass, (2019). See also: Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin”, Environmental Humanities, vol. 6M, (2015), pp. 159-165.
Starting point of Anthropocene: Mark Maslin, Simon Lewis, “Why the Anthropocene began with European colonization, mass slavery and the ‘great dying’ of the 16th century”, The conversation, (25 June 2020). theconversation.com/why-the-anthropocene-began-with-european-colonisation-mass-slavery-and-the-great-dying-of-the-16th-century-140661
Man as a geological force: Michel Serres, The Natural Contract (Ann Arbor, 1990), pp. 19-20, 40-42. Translated by Elisabeth MacArthus and William Paulson.
Cities that are like deserts and change the composition of air: Serres, (1990), pp. 19,32.
Those in power have forgotten earth: Serres, (1990), pp. 28-29
Quote about transforming things into commodities and fetishes: Serres, (1990), p. 29.
Quote about parasites, symbionts and reciprocity: Serres, (1990), p 38.
World of Matter was an interdisciplinary research project, which lasted from 2011 to 2018. The collaboration was initiated by photo journalist Uwe Martin and artist Ursula Biemann. Besides us and Tavares, Mabe Bethonico, Emily E. Scott, Frauke Huber, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer also took part in the project. The project aimed at developing an archive on resource extraction and the associated ecologies. It resulted in exhibitions, seminars and a web platform worldofmatter.net
The opening lines of the Constitution state that nature cannot be reduced to a raw material, because it is a living entity with cultural and intrinsic value. The new constitution further stipulates, among other things, that nature has the right to exist, to regenerate itself, and to be repaired in the event of damage. It also provides that Ecuador is a plurinational state, which entails the right of indigenous peoples to live on their ancestral territories according to their own customs and laws.
Luis Macas is one of the founders of CONAIE, the organization in which Ecuador’s indigenous people have come together.
Luis Macas in conversation with Paulo Tavares, Quito, February 2012, published in the article “Nonhuman rights”, in World of Matter, ed. Inke Arns, Sternberg press, 2015. See also: Arturo Escobar, “Latin America at a Crossroads”, in Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, (2010); and Juan José Guzmán, “When the forest screams, (2018/2019), p. 44.
Consequences of market reforms in South America: Arturo Escobar, “Latin America at a Crossroads”, in Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. (2010), p. 8.
Criticism of Euro-modernity: Escobar, (2010), p. 3.
Recurring manifestations of liberal modernity: Escobar, (2010), p. 9.
Pluralism, redefining and bridging: Escobar, (2010), pp. 25, 40, 43, 35.
Relational approach of Afro communities and indigenous peoples: Escobar, (2010,) p. 43.
Suriname lies on the so-called Guiana Shield, a Pre-Cambrian volcanic stone plateau on which rainforest grows. It is the central country of the three Guyanas that are considered to be part of both the Caribbean and the Amazon regions.
Richard Price, “Africans Discover America: The Ritualization of Gardens, Landscapes and Seascapes by Surinamese Maroons”, Secret Gardens and Landscapes: Ritual and Agency, ed. Michel Conan, (Washington, 2007). We also read from this author First Time, (1983) and Rainforest Warriors, human rights on trial, (2011).