Dispossession and extraction have a strange relationship with each other and those within the orbit of their material and epistemic meshwork. One might well concede that it is likely that accumulation, dispossession, and extractivism are more tangible as deeply chaotic entanglements than standalone frameworks for understanding socio-economic-environmental subjectivities. Dispossession and extractive capitalism can often be situated in a tense and seemingly contradictory position in light of how they are perceived instead of how they are in constant intercourse with each other. The conceptual dissonance is especially felt on Indigenous lands. Whilst the domestic social and political realities may be different, it can be safely assumed that across jurisdictions, accumulation by dispossession is one of the biggest drivers of violence and inequality endured by the Indigenous peoples. Mercedes Biocca’s The Silences of Dispossession: Agrarian Change and Indigenous Politics in Argentina provides excellent accounts of Indigenous participation in and resistance to the dispossession by the capitalist and neoliberal apparatuses of accumulation and elimination. The book is a product of extensive and immersive ethnographic work. It presents a considered and thoughtful deliberation on the state of agrarian transformations in rural Argentina. More specifically, the book devotes itself to those changes unravelling on the Indigenous territories of the province of Chaco, the Qom community in Pampa del Indio, and the Moqoit community in Paraje Las Tolderías.
The book frees itself from the encumbrances of unnecessary theorisation. It is delightfully precise in engaging with Indigenous resistance to and participation in ongoing processes of dispossession that emerge from the intersections of colonialism and capitalism. The consistent reliance on the previously established framework of ‘local rationalities’—to indicate the different ways through which subaltern and Indigenous communities “perceive, feel, and act in relation to power from above”—anchors the research in a helpful way. Whilst the text alerts the readers to the combined structural forces of extractive capitalism and racialised labour, it is methodical in its approach and modest in what it seeks to achieve. In the words of the author, the book presents:
how the different positions of subaltern actors with regard to these processes are informed by their memories—of struggle, negotiation, resistance, and incorporation—of previous periods of capitalist development, their historic and present status as subaltern groups, their actual experiences of dispossession . . . as well as their aspirations, which are formed by the specific political contexts in which these processes take place.
The tonal shifts in The Silences of Dispossession have been given due consideration and are clever. Whilst the research emerges from a well-established, personal connection to the land and informants over several years, the critical engagement with the issues of Indigenous dispossession and economic organisation of community-land-cultural relationships unpacked in the research is rich and is weaved effectively into the narrative pace. The book gives its all into highlighting the ‘invisibilisation and marginalisation of the Indigenous communities of Argentina’ through an absolute emphasis on the need to understand the ‘acquiescence, negotiation and resistance’ offered to primitive accumulation and dispossession. The narrative of Indigenous dispossession, resistance and recollection runs through six chapters in the book. The author builds on a brief but significant observation in the acknowledgement that ‘the search for justice always requires a prior struggle for memory’ and forms a clear-headed critique, melding Marxian analytical tools with grounded memories and lived experiences of Indigenous people.
The Silences of Dispossession is as much a book about memory as it is about the expansion and workings of extractive capitalism in Argentina. It is the former that provides a valuable syntax for understanding the wide range of Indigenous peoples’ experience with extractivism, erasure and dispossession elsewhere—such as Australia—without ignoring the central force of ‘local rationalities’. In Chapter 3, Biocca looks at the Qom and Moqoit communities in Chaco. There are three organised approaches through which the author examines the historical and contemporary modes of dispossession—expressed through agro-export regimes of dispossession, developmentalist regimes of dispossession, and neoliberal regimes of dispossession. The three temporal classifications also reveal how capitalist modes of accumulation and dispossession have shapeshifted, morphing into racial and extractive capitalism or both, where profitable. The book insists that these periods are not merely economic processes but should be understood as registers of ‘memories of inclusion and dependence’. Indigenous peoples’ experience of inclusion in their exploitation, the resultant poverty and deprivation or relative prosperity, and the seeming empowerment form the mosaic of broader racialised inequality across Argentina, such as the ones that led to the declaration of a ‘Health, Nutritional, Educational and Housing Emergency among Indigenous Populations’.
Chapter 4, examining the variations in responses of Indigenous communities in Campo Medina and Campo Nuevo responding differently to the expansion efforts because of the variations in the ‘memories of previous regimes of dispossession’, provides an illuminating appraisal of the meanings of dispossession, demanding that we have a closer look at memories of what was lacking and what was lost. The author’s observation—‘. . . poverty and Indigenous identity (are) closely linked. But in those memories, the experience of poverty is also associated with their exclusion from the rule of law. These memories of the remote past reflect the “everyday tyranny of the state” to which these communities were exposed and from which they were only able to liberate themselves if they adopted a “new image” linked to jobs growing cotton, evangelical churches, and political parties’—testifies not only to the physical acts of dispossession but to the gradual erosion of self-determination, connection to the land, and community belongingness.
There are some exceptional instances in the book, in the form of qualitative data, that demand further work, both in Argentina and the rest of the world, where similar socio-political conditions are mirrored. The expansion of soybean cultivation and increasing agrochemical exposure, in particular, is a fine instance of environmental injustice intersecting with capitalist exploitation. It has been especially useful to understand how governments and large corporations have continued to abuse the environment and people while using scientific uncertainty as an obfuscatory tactic. Such knowledge may prove its worth in the climate justice conversation to understand better how losses are experienced and rendered invisible.
By looking closely at the past and the present of extractive capitalism and Indigenous resistance in Argentina, Biocca makes a clear case for accommodating contradictions in theory forms. The contradictions of Indigenous lives and resistance within the capitalist order might be discordant with the academic approaches. However, that shows limitations of existing scholarship rather than the multiple modes of engagement Indigenous people hold with the very conditions of their destruction. Whilst Moqoit memories of cotton and Qom recollection of soybean dispossession are expressed as resistance against forced commodification, at times against forced dispossession, the responses of Indigenous communities have been far more disruptive than organised resistance. Indigenous peoples experience and resist capitalism and neoliberalism in a non-homogenous fashion, and it appears there is a great need for emphasising it in policy and scholarship. Since Biocca’s research delves profoundly into silences, erasures, and memories when writing about Indigenous people and agrarian transformation, this book must be widely read and organically provides the basis for a dynamic interpretation of Indigenous resistance to capitalism.
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Author: Sakshi Aravind
Sakshi is a Lecturer in Law and Social Justice at the Newcastle Law School. Her research areas include comparative environmental law, constitutional law, Marxist legal theory and political economy, sovereignties, and jurisprudence. Sakshi's research is transdisciplinary with a deep situatedness in law. She is currently working on her new project, Plural Sovereignties and the Emergence of New Legalities.