Governing Indigenous Territories: Enacting Sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon

Juliet Erazo’s fascinating ethnography focuses on the ways that indigenous governance in Latin America has shifted over the past decades with a case study of Kichwa communities that make up the territory of Rukullakta in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Following Joseph and Nugent’s “everyday state formation,” she examines the “everyday practices of indigenous sovereignty and territory formation” (p. xxii). Ecuador’s policy of settling poor mestizos in Kichwa lands prompted the 207 families of Rukullakta to legalize their territory as a cooperative in 1977, gaining title to 42,000 hectares of land. Erazo examines these land-titling processes as a paradox for native peoples. Securing their lands against usurpation unavoidably transforms their methods of governance. Her ethnography examines how this process unfolds in Rukullakta through the lens of property, paying close attention to the conflicts, negotiations, and compromises between leaders, those taken to be citizens, and outsiders.

Erazo begins with a provocative shift. She abandons the concept of autonomy which is commonly used across much of Latin America when discussing indigenous territorial rule within nation-states.  Instead, she favors sovereignty and citizenship. Her reasons include acknowledging the work of scholars writing in English, particularly in the settler-colonial context, and the claim that sovereignty captures “…processes of rule better than ‘autonomy,’ which can imply isolation or independence from relationships of power” (p. 2). Erazo defines indigenous sovereignty as a dynamic process of governance that exceeds a social movement frame. This reframing calls into question theories of governmentality, which commonly posit indigenous peoples only as objects of government action. She argues that they are also agents of governmentality who create their own “governable spaces” (p. 196) that produces different types of subjects, in this case  “territorial citizens” (p. 9). While much anthropological scholarship on sovereignty focuses almost exclusively on rights, sovereignty in this case is enacted also as responsibilities. Leaders must consistently legitimate their rule, but citizens also “…shape their leaders and governance practices, imposing own expectations and obligations” (p. 197).

Erazo’s argument unfolds over five chapters spanning four decades, and draws on twelve years of fieldwork, including analysis of historical materials from cooperative archives, aerial photographs, and topographical data. The first two chapters are chronological and trace pre-cooperative history. Erazo argues that forming the cooperative was not simply an imposition. Leaders used the opening to transform the area, creating community members amenable to the novel concept of indigenous governance in a territory, giving rise to a new class within Kichwa society. The transformation altered ideas of personhood and property as well as prior understandings of mutual obligation and kinship ties; in effect, changing people’s “landscape ideology” (p. 53). In chapter one, Erazo argues that these newly reconfigured social relations are closer to the way scholars understand citizenship than membership in an organization. Chapter 2 focuses on the ways that leaders become state-like, utilizing indigenous symbols of unity, the language of empowerment, and successfully employing “funding magic” (p. 72) to bring in development projects. The post-1978 withdrawal of state funds provides an example of how people shape their leaders, discarding the official vision of large collectivism for one that favored smaller collaborations.

The next three chapters build on her argument thematically. In chapter 3, Erazo discusses how population growth in the territory created a land crisis that set the stage for disputes over conflicting property regimes, and the multiple, overlapping perspectives of how land tenure, citizenship and personhood were understood. Erazo traces out three ideal and divergent views on property (collectivist, conservative, egalitarian) linked to three distinct views of territorial governance. Chapter 4 traces the construction of the Kichwa as environmental subjects. She follows the shift from Kichwa forest management to a western style conservation view, which emerges through collaborations between leaders, citizens, and professionals in the sustainability industry. Chapter 5 integrates a reading through the archives to interrogate the consolidation and resilience of the territorial project. Erazo concludes that central to this process of “everyday territory formation” (p. 178) were a number of key practices. Leaders gained legitimacy through their performance of conflict resolution in internal and external disputes. They also reinvented the nature of the cooperative in the face of limited participation, focusing on a shared history of resistance, linking their struggle to indigenous rights broadly, and changing their name to the Kichwa People of Rukullakta. Finally, they staged a public speaking beauty contest for young women in order to recruit more youth.

Erazo’s ethnography is well researched and engagingly written. She adds to our general theorization of governmentality, showing the heterogeneity within Rukullakta and how rule is negotiated from below. Most interesting is her focus on the collaborations beyond the territory’s boundaries, which convincingly presents indigenous governance as a dynamic process of both tradition and change, disrupting the assumption that indigenous peoples are isolated. Despite a photograph of the beauty pageant for young women on the cover of the book, the book misses an opportunity to interrogate the place of gender at the heart of state/territory formation.

A larger issue is that her conceptual shift to sovereignty and citizenship from autonomy is not fully convincing. The initial discussion of autonomy processes overlooks the movements for autonomy in other parts of Latin America that are not in fact isolated, but oppose particular relations of state power. In making the case for sovereignty, Erazo contends that outsiders treated the cooperative more as a sovereign nation, but there is no discussion of effects of competing sovereignties on the state. However, while leaders may be state-like in their vision of territorial governance, the population of Rukullakta is only about 8,000 people, and they do not have state-like powers of enforcement. It is not clear from the text whether people use the word citizen, or how they view the relationship between territorial and national citizenships. However, a more important and timely question might be whether using the framework and the language of sovereignty and citizenship in this case obscures novel forms of indigenous engagement with the state and beyond in the global context? In all, while it leaves some questions open, this is a valuable and thought provoking contribution to anthropologists’ understanding of these issues.

Melissa M. Forbis, Stony Brook University

Erazo, Juliet S.. Governing Indigenous Territories: Enacting Sovereignty in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Duke University Press, 2013. Read more at Duke University Press.

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