An Interview with Mattias Borg, Author of Andean Waterways

The Danish anthropologist Mattias Borg Rasmussen has recently published a book, Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in Highland Peru (University of Washington Press, 2015), which addresses the economic, political, social and culture dynamics of a community that is facing glacier retreat and water scarcity.

The book shows how environmental change and institutional politics are intertwined in struggles over water. It presents vivid descriptions of daily life in the provincial municipality of Recuay  in the highlands of Ancash in northern Peru. It links these descriptions with a richly textured account of the village’s history and shows how water is always the site of intense political, economic and social struggles.

In this context of climate change, the book explores how the inhabitants of an Andean town manage fickle waterways, lobby an unresponsive central government, and adjust to receding glaciers and capricious rains. The villagers create, maintain and defend the flows of water that are essential to their livelihoods. And through these efforts, the villagers confront both climate change and rural abandonment, and navigate the possibilities and restraints that influence life in the high mountains. A short video presents additional information about the book. 

Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)
Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: What led you to select Recuay as the site of your research?

MBR: Late in 2008, I began thinking about doing field work, and in the summer of 2009 I joined  the Waterworlds project, headed by Kirsten Hastrup, at the University of Copenhagen, where I found a supportive group of colleagues. I was looking for a place with glaciers and due to my background working in Peru I wanted it to take place there. I was more familiar with the eastern lowlands of Peru, and I was curious to learn more about the highlands. I began searching the internet and came across a document which intrigued me. It was a signed declaration by peasant organizations and other groups. It included a statement which directly linked climate change to ‘irresponsible’ government policies. They were talking about an imminent future of water scarcity, about the uneven distribution of causes and effects, and about their own moral obligation to act against this knowledge that they have due to their prolonged settlement in the area. That document led me to Recuay.


GH: What was one of the biggest surprises that occurred to you during your fieldwork?

MBR: Initially, the document which had drawn me to the area turned out to be of no relevance as I followed the peasants in their everyday efforts to obtain water. Before I left for the field, I had spent a great deal of time thinking about cosmologies and worldviews. In other parts of the world, peasant farmers think of sentient beings—you could call them spirits, or local deities—who play a critical role in assuring flows of water. I was expecting characters or agents pertaining to the non-human world to be central to the question of water. But I found that concepts belonging to the bureaucratic ordering of water to be of much larger importance. This became central in my work, and the book has a lot to say about the ways in which the peasants try to engage in different kinds of state bureaucracies in order to secure their water. In these encounters, climate change may be used to frame or contextualize the claim to water, but the sites of struggles are always between different kinds of institutions who may secure water rights by defining proper uses and users. In the final chapter I describe how the document I had found on the internet suddenly became of relevance, as peasant communities in this region mobilized against a proposed mining installation in the headwaters of the Río Santa, the main river in the valley. Suddenly, the links between an uneven global political economy of minerals and pollution became entangled with local livelihoods and water in a very specific way.


Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: Your fieldwork took place where the world’s largest area of tropical glaciers is found, and where these glaciers are melting rapidly. Do you think that the concept of “climate change” has relevance to the communities that you lived in?

MBR: The short answer to that is yes. Climate change is unquestionably  visible through the receding glaciers, and it is something which is felt on directly on the human bodies as temperatures become more intense, rains fall differently and winds shift direction. The local farmers talk about their children getting bronchitis, their animals dying, species such as particular amphibians and insects disappearing and the glaciers vanishing. But climate change is not the lens through which you can understand all things going on there. While it has relevance, it is not all encompassing. That is why I am a little bit cautious about using notions such as adaptation, which seem to establish a direct relationship between an ‘action’ and a ‘phenomenon’. By a play of words, I write that rather than adaptation to climate change I am more interested in how climate change is adopted to human lives – that is, how the changes that I describe above are made meaningful, talked about and acted upon. That shifts the center of the analysis. But yes, climate change is definitely part of the local vocabulary and shaping local realities in ways that are astonishing.


Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Did your experience in Recuay give you optimism for the future, pessimism, or a bit of both? In what ways?

MBR: I must admit that I feel mostly pessimism. First of all, the people whose lives and struggles I describe here lead hard and troubled lives. Many of them feel somewhat caught in a limbo between the rural and the urban, a want for progress but a sense of haven been left behind. This is not a very attracting place for international donors and, as I describe in the book, the communities do not exactly feel well catered by state institutions. On top of this comes the sense of urgency introduced by climate change in a material sense of places with less water. But more importantly, it brings forward images of a brutal future and possibly – especially in Christian interpretations – the end of the World. This is the Apocalypse and people fear for their children and grandchildren. The Ancash regional government  has had a relatively large budget (it receives payments from local mines), but in spite of some investment in the irrigation sector, the needs far exceed the payments that come to support irrigation. In the last year or two, the revenues are shrinking, since prices for minerals have been falling, so the public coffers are emptying. The Ancash region and Peru as a whole are facing the challenge of creating institutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on water availability in an effective, fair manner. So far, the experience in Recuay and the region shows that there is a long way to go.


Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Having completed your research, and having written this book, you are now moving forward with other projects. How has your experience in Recuay shaped your current focus?

MBR: I have continued working in the area, but have shifted my site a little bit towards the south where there is a much larger peasant community (comunidad campesina). I have become increasingly interested in the role of these social organizations in conflicts over the use of resources – and actually, the very definition of what constitutes an element of the environment as a resource. The work in Recuay showed how water is subject to struggles between different kinds of institutions which claim authority over its use. By moving to a larger and historically more consolidated comunidad campesina I have been able to examine further the importance of these collectively owned productive enterprises – which number around 6000 across the Peruvian highland – in the struggle for the control over resources in relation to state agencies, in this case particularly a national park as well as local municipalities.

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