Jim Igoe Interviews 2013 Rappaport Prize Finalist, Scott Freeman*

*Scott Freeman is a doctoral student at Teachers College


As part of an ongoing series profiling finalists for the 2013 Rappaport Prize, Jim Igoe interviews Scott Freeman about his research and writing on soil conservation, labor, and environmental awareness in Haiti.

Scott Freeman was a finalist for the 2013 Rappaport Student Paper Prize from the Anthropology and the Environment section.  Scott is completing a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology at Columbia University Teachers’ College and a dissertation entitled, To Conserve and Protect: Soil Conservation and Environmental Awareness in Haiti.  He is currently a visiting scholar in the Institute for Global and International Studies at George Washington University (Washington, D.C.) Scott was selected as one of five participants in the Rappaport Prize panel at the 2013 AAA meetings on the strength of his paper:Conserving the Project: Labor, Development, and Environmental Government in Haiti. The paper engages long-standing concerns with soil conservation in Haiti. His rich ethnographic analysis reveals the ways in which the economy and logic of funded projects shapes and directs labor practices and environmental awareness. His insights have relevance not only for soil conservation in Haiti, but for conservation and development generally, and in many different parts of the world.


JI: Could you begin by talking a bit about your background. How did you become interested in anthropology in general, and soil conservation in Haiti in particular?

SFAfter college, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. I lived in an agricultural town in the mountains where I worked with youth, the environment, and sexual health education. There were a number of Haitian migrant workers living in the sprawling barrio where I lived, and we would trade English for Kreyòl lessons. I think that the more time I spent in the DR, the more I was aware of how necessary it was to understand the island as a whole.

I actually never took any anthropology during undergrad (I was pretty interested in comparative literature). During my years as a Peace Corps volunteer, I happened to run into an applied anthropologist. By that time, I was fed up with the absurdities of development that I saw unfolding around me, and he thought I might find some helpful perspectives in anthropology. After I did some reading and spoke more and more to him, I realized that the questions I wanted to ask were already being asked by anthropologists.

My interest in soil conservation is far more recent. It was one of those unforeseeable fieldwork moments. I hadn’t set out to study soil conservation, but I kept seeing these ditches dug along hillsides, and came to realize that they were the work of the organizations I was interested in. They seemed to be everywhere; I really couldn’t get away from them. Farmers I spoke to started telling me they would never build them, because it was the job of the NGOs and projects to do so. It went from an odd side topic of conversation to becoming my primary focus of research. As I learned more about the structures and their history in the country, these canals seemed to be the clearest way to really study how environmental development aid was unfolding.

JI: I remember reading about soil conservation in Haiti back in my Development Anthropology seminar in graduate school back in the late 1980s. What makes this topic such a long-standing topic in environmental anthropology do you think?

SFSupposedly, soil conservation was considered the first ‘global environmental movement’. Right after the Dust Bowl phenomenon in the 1930s, people in the United States were startled. Even Washington DC was getting dust storms. Seeing all of this in the US, other countries (particularly British colonial administrations) wanted to figure out how they can continue to extract resources from the land without having some sort of environmental catastrophe. So soil conservation became this global concern.

Political ecology makes a pretty important intervention into all this. The premise for these interventions was largely that farmers were doing things wrong, and that populations were growing too fast. Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield looked at soil degradation and started pointing out that actually degradation has far more to do with broader systems of accumulation and dispossession.

Since then, this back and forth has continued. Is soil degradation the fault of ‘negligent’ farmers? Or is there something more insidious going on in terms of extraction and accumulation? Anthropologists love to get at these questions. They involve global movements of ideas and commodities, and revolve around knowledge production, representation and inequality. I think it was essential that anthropologists played a role in these debates, and I really hope that we continue to do so into the future.

JI: One of my favorite parts of the article is your discussion of collective labor, ritual feasting, and a postive post-colonial identity. Could you talk about that a bit and how it relates to some the arguments you are making about soil conservation?

SFI think one of the most amazing parts of this research has been getting to think about the different ways that people work together in adverse conditions. Cooperative work groups are a prominent part of Haitian life. The strategy is, ‘we’ll work your land one day, my land the next’, and so on. The really fascinating part comes when the groups sell their labor to another person. When they collect payment for their work, they don’t distribute the money. Rather, they hold onto it until the end of December. At that time, they’ll buy a goat or cow to slaughter, and will divide the meat among the members. So rather than individual and immediate cash compensation, there’s delayed, non-cash compensation. On January first then, everyone gets some of the meat to eat. January first is Haitian Independence Day, and this activity comes as an assertion of freedom and humanity, remembering the day that the slaves won their freedom and for the first time could eat what they wanted.  Even if meat is scarce for the rest of the year, on that day everyone can meat- there’s this profound assertion of dignity with independence.

I think this intersects with soil conservation as conservation projects come in with cash-for-work type wages. Many of these projects assemble labor groups to dig ditches. These groups look the same, but there are completely different in terms of the types of relationships that are imposed. Unlike the cooperative work groups, soil conservation group payment is individual, immediate, and in cash. There’s a monetization of the social relationships in group labor. Not that wage labor hasn’t existed before in Haiti, but there’s something really quite different going on here with the way that particular labor forms become coopted for the purpose of cash distribution. Farmers too discuss the wage labor done for soil conservation as something qualitatively different, something they, without a project, would never attempt.


JI: The central focus of your analysis is what you call “the projectification of soil conservation.” What do you mean by this and what do you regard as some of its primary topical and theoretical implications?

SFWhat I’m referring to is the way that projects slip into the everyday parts of people’s lives. For example, space starts to be defined in terms of beneficiaries, time becomes regulated by the entrance and exits of projects. Grassroots organizations continually seek legal recognition in order to obtain projects. However slowly all these processes occur, they start to alter the everyday.

Development aid has become remarkably dominated by ‘the project’. There are graduate school programs in ‘project management’, and aid workers have described to me their lives as hopping from project to project. I realized that this intense prevalence of the project calls for attention to how aid is  terms of the project. It forces us to consider what are the properties of the project itself—how does a project assert certain logics as it becomes more and more a part of life in both development and in the Haitian countryside.

JI: How would you describe this work fitting with your larger dissertation project?

SFFunny enough, I now wince when I think of my dissertation as a project! But I think that this intersection of an examination of the project and of soil conservation is really at the heart of what I’m doing. I try to take a very historical perspective in understanding how problems get defined, and how they oblige particular solutions. Soil conservation as an institutional response then becomes this package of technical expertise and strategies that gets moved throughout the world to solve ‘environmental degradation’. I think the larger dissertation research really starts to show how profoundly projects work, and how they become this very intense and diffuse type of government.

JI: What kinds of questions and concerns still remain for you? What kinds of research would you like to do next?

SFThere’s still some conceptual work to be forged on the project for me. I think this means trying to reach out to other disciplines, scholars who are thinking about this in perhaps slightly different ways. In regards to soil conservation, there’s interesting work being done on infrastructure that I think aligns nicely with what I’m doing.

I’ve got another project in Haiti I’m excited about continuing. I looked at the vetiver industry in Haiti a few years ago. This is an industry that takes the roots of the vetiver plant, digs them up, distills them, and sells the oils to perfume houses. The oil is in a lot of widely distributed (and expensive) perfumes. I’m interested in the way the perfume industry conceptualizes Haitian vetiver as compared to the Haitian farmers’ understanding of the uses and movements of the oil. This has a lot to do with soil degradation (ripping roots out of the ground is a very real threat to the soil), and processes of extraction and accumulation. I think it will build off the current project really nicely, and hopefully add a important perspective to a very sparsely studied industry


Original post can be found here


Gender and Education Policies in North Uganda


A country of boundless physical beauty, well known as the “pearl of Africa,” Uganda also hides one of the most tragic occurrences: abduction of children by Joseph Kony and the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in North Uganda over a period of twenty years. Nonetheless, Uganda is known as “a leader in policy development with an established record of developing policies that are used as best practices in Africa” (Brown, 2013). Government policies and their effects on North Uganda developed into a research topic for my first class at TC, International Policies, during summer 2013. As the case study for the course turned into a conference presentation, I started to wonder if an apology of sorts was required to the conference audience.  I questioned what it means to look critically at the policies of a developing country, and I wondered whether research that is not field based might be a form of appropriation, meant for passive consumption by a Western audience. Having read much this term about Western perspectives and also keeping in mind Easterly’s perspective that MDG goals make Africa look worse, how fair is it to be critical? Yet, the case of Uganda is unique. Uganda has met many of the MDG’s, including gender parity in schooling. There are numerous policies to promote gender equality and education such as the National Strategy for Girls’ Education (NSGE); there’s a gender desk at the MoE (Ministry of Education); gender mainstreaming exists; and quotas for female ministers are present in Uganda. The Global Gender Gap report ranks Uganda extraordinarily as 28th overall out of 163 countries and 5th in sub-Saharan Africa (The Global Gender Gap Report, 2012). Gender parity in education, universal primary schooling and universal secondary schooling are some of these successes. However, tremendous barriers to access and quality exist. Girls experience high drop-out rates, early pregnancies are rampant, and incidents of rape are not uncommon.

Elaine Unterhalter’s statement, “gender parity is so hollow a measure of gender equality” has guided this research. Thus, I started wondering if it was the government that should apologize for passing policies which remain largely nominal such as the USE (universal secondary schooling) and UPE (universal primary schooling). These policies have incredible hidden costs, for appropriating these quantitative relative successes to enable it, a regime that has been in power since 1986, to maintain strong relationships with the West and with donors to continue the flow of aid despite high levels of alleged corruption. A full 41% of Uganda’s national budget comes from the international aid. I wondered also if as a relatively stable country geopolitically in a region of great instability, Uganda had harnessed gender and education policies as social currency to elevate its position in the international arena, yet which make little impact for the marginalized people, especially in Northern Uganda, for whom these policies should engender the most impact. Against this backdrop, it becomes salient to be critical.   

  There are different perspectives for why North Uganda lags, having the highest poverty rates, lowest net enrollment ratios, and rising numbers of ‘defilement,’ the Ugandan term for rapes of children under 18. Although it is true that during the LRA’s insurgency, nearly 20,000 children were abducted and 1.5 million people were displaced, the LRA’s atrocities are still the reasons given by government to explain the higher rates of poverty; yet, there are substantial critiques of the government’s discrimination towards the North due to political rivalries in providing equal funding. This endemic inequality is manifested in various levels of governance of the North and has meaningful implications on the realities of gender and education policy implementation.  “[C]entral and western Uganda benefited most from …investment [of Western aid], while the north and north- east suffered relative neglect, a situation which some came to believe was ‘punishment’ for the region’s role in the bush war” (Ritchie, 2011). Moreover, there is a reverse correlation between the wage bill given to students and the district level poverty (Winkler and Sondergaard, 2008). Therefore, amidst the myriad policies, numerous problems of quality, transparency, and systemic inequities of poverty, especially in the most vulnerable regions in the North, egregiously leading to low survivor rates of children in completing primary school remain (Tamasuza, 2011). UNICEF country report findings show that a mere 32% remain in school by P-7 [grade 7] (UNICEF, 2012).  An interview with Jackie Olanya, who is from Kitgum, North Uganda and has worked for the ANPPCAN (African Network for the Protection and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect), provided valuable insights into how marginalized people of the North cope with policies that are only nominal such as those that are meant to protect girls. Responding to an assertion made in the Guardian about poorer families settling cases of defilement outside court for money, Olanya states,

The truth is that research which says poorer families seek material gains rather than punishment is rather condescending to the poor. The truth is at the end of the day, people are people and families are families. When we met with families of survivors – they were furious about the defilement, especially the mothers of the girls. However, they were up against so much that it made seeking the ‘conventional’ “western” type of justice so difficult for them due to many barriers. Firstly, even just reporting was a problem – who do you report to? And if you report? So what? People in Ug normally report cases to the local councils (who are the lowest local government level and are present in each village)

 For the people of Uganda, the country may still be a pearl, but for the government, it has become a form of production on many levels, a factory that they can manipulate, to create a façade of success. 

Natasha Mansur is a masters student studying education and international development at Teachers College

TC Education Anthropologist Herve Varenne Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Herve Varenne, TC Professor of Anthropology and Education, has received the George and Louise Spindler Award for lifetime achievement from the Council on Anthropology and Education. The honor – named for the husband-wife team who, along with TC’s Margaret Mead, did much to establish the field – was announced this past week at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. Varenne and Elsie Rockwell, a prominent Mexican education anthropologist, each received this year’s Spindler award.

The Council’s award committee credited the French-born Varenne with exerting a “profound effect” on the field of anthropology and education, noting that his first book, Americans Together: Structured Diversity in a Midwestern Town (1977), “sparked a comparison to another famous French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, because of [Varenne’s] insights into American culture as expressed through the actions of ordinary people.”

More broadly, the committee said that Varenne is “widely recognized for advancing theory and asking the counterintuitive questions…including: Are people really predisposed toward anything? Is there an ‘American culture’? Is learning outside school settings as powerful or more powerful than that of in-school settings? Why do we assume ‘community’ and is it even possible?”  

The flavor of Varenne’s ideas comes through in an essay he wrote in TC Today magazine in the spring 2012 issue of TC Today magazine, which was dedicated to technology.

Noting the ease with which non-experts from children to grandmothers have learned to operated computers, Varenne asked, “What if teaching and learning are not specialized activities? What if they are ubiquitous processes regularly activated when conditions require them? Dewey intuited this, but we must investigate a more radical set of opportunities. Could schools simulate the conditions under which newcomers realize that they must learn a skill and find the people who will help them? Perhaps by specifying curricula, pedagogies and the experts one must go through to be certified as knowing something, schools have been unwittingly limiting educational activities and the rewards they produce.” 

In nominating Varenne for the award, Jill Koyama, a faculty member in education leadership and policy at SUNY Buffalo, praised him for demonstrating how “cultural categories have perceived, real, and often, enduring consequences,” particularly for those in education.”

Another nominator, Lesley Bartlett, TC Associate Professor of Education, hailed Varenne “for shifting the attention of the social sciences from ‘learning’ as a process with lasting individual consequences, to ‘education’ as an open, collective, and deliberative process of continual transformation and change.”

And Ray McDermott, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, wrote in his nomination of Varenne:  “Call him genius, call him creative, call him the new de Tocqueville (150 years later), they all apply, but the important point is that he puts on the table, every time he speaks, every time he writes, a different and important point of view on the American nation, the American school, and the American family.”

At TC, Varenne’s many courses have included the Ethnography of Education, American Culture, Technology and Culture, and The Dynamics of Family Life. His books include American School Language: The Rhetorical Structuring of Daily Life in a Suburban High School (1983); Ambiguous Harmony: Family Talk in America (1992); Successful Failure: The School America Builds (1998; with Ray McDermott); and Alternative Anthropological Perspectives in Education (2008, with TC Professor Emeritus Edmund W. Gordon).

In each of those works, the emphasis has been on determining an applied approach for his field that answers the needs of the day. Or as Varenne himself put it at a conference he convened at TC this past October on the future of anthropology in education: “It is not self-evident that our discipline and its approaches are sustainable. We must figure out how to educate our audience about the power of what we do.”


More info here