Rethinking International Law from Amazonian Onto-epistemologies: the Kukama People and the Amazonian Waterway Project

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Cristina Blanco, PhD candidate at the School of Law, University of Essex, was awarded the PhD Fieldwork Grant 2021-22 by the Socio-Legal Studies Association (SLSA). Cristina’s research focuses on the interactions between Amazonian onto-epistemologies, international law (IL) and human rights in the context of an investment project.

In the Amazonian rivers, water flow varies significantly with the seasons. During the dry season, low water levels hinder the navigation of large vessels. Although the peoples inhabiting the Amazon rainforest have travelled and traded using these rivers over centuries, the fluctuating navigability prevents uninterrupted large-scale transport. This is the main reason why the Peruvian state is promoting the “Amazonian Waterway”, an infrastructure project that consists of removing sediments from the bottom of the main Amazonian rivers.

The Amazonian Waterway is far from being an isolated project. It rather reflects the neoliberal developmental paradigm favoured by IL (Escobar 2011, Pahuja 2011, Eslava 2019). In addition to generating serious socio-environmental impacts, the project hides a profound conflict of ways of understanding the world.

The Amazonian indigenous peoples conceive the territory as a space inhabited by human and non-human entities, a conception that challenges the very definition of what we call “nature”. The sharp distinction between humans and non-humans that governs the Western world and underlies modern (international) law is not necessarily present in Amazonian cosmologies (Viveiros de Castro 2004, De la Cadena 2010, Descola 2013).

For the Kukama-Kukamiria people, for instance, the territory is inhabited by different “categories of people” living in a “plurality of worlds” (Tello 2014). The river is an (aquatic) world in itself, inhabited by beings endowed with their own subjectivity and intentionality (Rivas 2011). Therefore, thinking from the Amazon means not only standing in a geographically different place but also thinking onto-epistemically different.

In this scenario, the main problem the research seeks to explore is that IL does not take this onto-epistemic diversity seriously. Instead, it frames the issue as a cultural question of relevance to indigenous collective rights. While such rights play an indispensable role in protecting indigenous worldviews, they are insufficient to prevent their elimination.

This, in turn, has important implications in areas as critical as the Amazon. Trying to make sense of IL from the Amazon, this case study provides the opportunity to explore how to move from the impact of IL in the Amazon (historically aimed at its internationalisation) to enable the influence of Amazonian epistemologies on IL. This exercise of “Amazonising IL” enables us to reveal the epistemological richness of the Amazonian cosmovision and explore its potential for rethinking IL.

The research has three main methodological components. Substantively, it is a socio-legal research that takes as the unit of analysis the interactions between IL, human rights and the Amazonian worldview relevant to the case study. In analytical terms, it has an interdisciplinary approach theoretically informed by Amazonian studies and critical approaches to IL. As for the empirical component, it uses a case study method based on qualitative analysis of documentary and visual information, as well as in-depth semi-structured interviews.

The fieldwork was possible thanks to the valuable support of the SLSA.

Bibliographic references

De la Cadena, M. (2010). “Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond “politics”.” Cultural anthropology 25(2): 334-370. https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01061.x

Descola, P. (2013). Beyond nature and culture, University of Chicago Press. https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo9826233.html

Escobar, A. (2011). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World, Princeton University Press. https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691150451/encountering-development

Eslava, L. (2019). The Developmental State: Independence, Dependency, and the History of the South. In: The Battle for International Law: South-North Perspectives on the Decolonization Era. J. von Bernstorff and P. Dann, Oxford University Press: 71-100. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-battle-for-international-law-9780198849636?cc=gb&lang=en&

Pahuja, S. (2011). Decolonising international law: development, economic growth and the politics of universality, Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/decolonising-international-law/7E8B4FB0AAECFD08355914EE41DDB5C7

Rivas Ruiz, R. (2011). Le serpent, mère de l’eau: chamanisme aquatique chez les Cocama-Cocamilla d’Amazonie péruvienne, Paris, EHESS. http://www.sudoc.abes.fr/cbs/xslt/DB=2.1//SRCH?IKT=12&TRM=160329019&COOKIE=U10178,Klecteurweb,D2.1,E192cfbd9-1f1,I250,B341720009+,SY,QDEF,A%5C9008+1,,J,H2-26,,29,,34,,39,,44,,49-50,,53-78,,80-87,NLECTEUR+PSI,R95.151.73.225,FN

Tello, L. (2014). “Ser gente en la Amazonía, fronteras de lo humano: aportes del pueblo kukama.” Amazzonia indigena e pratiche di autorappresentazione. Milano, Franco Angeli: 39-48. https://www.francoangeli.it/Ricerca/scheda_libro.aspx?Id=21593

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2004). Perspectivismo e multinaturalismo en la América indígena. Tierra adentro: territorio indígena y percepción del entorno. A. Surrallés and P. Hierro. Copenhague, IWGIA: 37-82. https://www.iwgia.org/images/publications/0331_tierra_adentro.pdf

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