An Ecology of Knowledges: An Interview with Micha Rahder

An Ecology of Knowledges: Fear, Love, and Technoscience in Guatemalan Forest Conservation

By Micha Rahder, Independent Scholar

336pp. Durham, NC: Duke University Press §

Colin Hoag spoke with Dr. Micha Rahder about her recent book on forest conservation in Guatemala.

Micha! Welcome back to Engagement, seeing as how you were once an editor. I really enjoyed reading your book, which is full of insight, evocative prose, and experimentation with the form of the ethnographic monograph. Before we dive in, I was hoping you might be able to provide a quick synopsis of what the book is about—for Engagement readers who have not yet read it.

Thanks Colin! The first thing I ever did as Engagement editor was a book interview (with the lovely Cissy Fowler). It’s fun to be on the other side now.

The book is about forest conservation in the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR), which covers a huge portion of the northern part of Guatemala. The reserve is a complicated jumble of tropical lowland ecologies, land use types and regulations, permitted and “illegal” human settlements and extractive activities, drug traffickers and displaced indigenous (mostly Q’eqchi’) peoples, and dozens of local, national, and international institutions working in conservation, development, and adjacent issues. My fieldwork was mostly situated among conservationists, split between the joint state-NGO computer lab, CEMEC, that does all the monitoring and mapping for the reserve, and the Guatemalan branch of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). From these vantage points, I focus on a key desire that drives conservation actors in the reserve: for knowledge of the landscape that can enable conservationist decisions, plans, and actions.

Given the complexity of the MBR, this dream of complete or objective knowledge is beyond impossible—and that’s where the book really digs in. I write about how different kinds of knowledge are created, contested, translated, moved, and interpreted, and how their always-partial enactments of different worlds come together (or not) across the reserve. I also include nonhumans, from wild palm plants to satellites, in my analysis of these knowledge- and world-making practices and relations. Ultimately, I write about how conservation in the MBR is haunted by this ontoepistemic multiplicity, such that resulting practices can end up deeply contradictory, reactive, and sometimes contribute to further violence. At the same time, the partiality and patchiness of knowing and intervening in the reserve means that there are also bright spots, so the book balances critiques of exclusionary or violent conservation practice with attention to these possibilities for collaboration, learning, and relationship building.

I was excited to include this interview in Engagement’s thematic series on “Imaging Nature,” because of your attention in this book to mapping and other kinds of image production. One thing that your book captures well is not only the rich everyday life of people who produce these maps or process images—and the high stakes of that work—but also the heterogeneity of the work and the materials. You describe the various kinds of MODIS imagery, LANDSAT imagery, aerial photographs, GIS maps, household survey data, and so on that these professionals work with. Would you mind telling us a bit about your own relationship to cartography and these mapping or imaging technologies? How did you come to be interested in them?

Absolutely! I came to these technologies kind of sideways, based on what people working in the MBR told me. When I started doing preliminary fieldwork I was interested in the production and use of scientific knowledge in conservation, following my own interests and previous education in biology and ecology. But whenever I asked people about the science or research that helped them in their work, they all pointed me in the same direction—straight to CEMEC. People in a bunch of organizations all talked about how much they relied on CEMEC’s maps and data for their work, even when their approaches to conservation were totally different. Despite my initial desire to find some wildlife biologists to follow around, it was pretty clear that I had to learn how to get curious about maps!

I did take a GIS class before returning for extensive fieldwork but did most of my real learning just by watching and participating at CEMEC. Like their technicians, who generally learned on the job, I quickly realized that the standardized (North American) practices for remote sensing or GIS mapping didn’t always apply. The lab had to make the most of freely available data, often of lower resolution, and strategize where and how to spend limited funds for better equipment, software, higher-resolution data access, and so on. One of my favorite fieldwork photos that made it into the book is of the way the lab rigged up a camera for aerial photography using zip ties, chunks of foam padding, bicycle inner tubes, and so on. The plane itself was owned and flown by a volunteer, a retiree from the United States, and the technicians had perfected a system for matching the timestamps of the camera–computer setup with the GIS flight recorder to geolocate their photos. It was an incredible production, but also totally mundane and pieced together from what they had. That kind of creativity, ingenuity, and problem solving was common to the lab’s work.

(I did also, eventually, find some biologists to follow around a bit too… they get their own chapter in the book, “Wild Life.” And even they rely on CEMEC for their research.)

It’s clear, too, that these people really love maps. And, they have quite a reputation for their cartographic skill, too, as you already noted. In Chapter 2, you describe strangers you meet who are really excited to relate to you that the office you’ve been researching makes tremendous maps.

It was truly wild how much people loved these maps! As I write about in the book, I think this is a result of both the quality of CEMEC’s technical work and their subtle, skillful political work. Yes, the kinds of information they are able to provide is really impressive. You mentioned the range of information and products they provide, but they also cover an enormous amount of land, keep up with major long-term monitoring projects while responding to urgent requests on short notice, and do it all with a small team and minimal funding.

On the political side, the lab’s real skill is in producing neutrality or objectivity in an incredibly fraught, conflict-ridden space. They are technically a Guatemalan state institution, a state better known for its untrustworthiness, and their work has the power to help adjudicate land conflicts and other issues with high stakes. So the fact that people trust their data speaks volumes. The lab is extraordinarily adept at producing knowledge that is useful but not threatening: detailed, specific, and accurate enough to enable conservation decisions and action, but carefully avoiding pointing to more dangerous actors or problems on the landscape (including within the Guatemalan state itself).

When you combine this technical skill with political savvy, the resulting knowledge products are perfectly tailored to that conservationist desire for knowledge that enables intervention. Their maps and reports are able to travel far and wide—to other branches of the state like the military, to community-based forest concession managers, to foreign researchers, and everything in between. But of course, they don’t always mean the same thing once they are taken up by these different actors.

You open Chapter 1 with a story about how one of the boundary lines of the Maya Biosphere Reserve (MRB) park was established in reference to the 17th parallel because the designers believed it would be appealing on the map. What’s interesting about it is that the person who suggested this was a biologist, and that biologist felt that the politicians deciding whether the park would be established would find that cartographic aesthetic attractive. Critical studies of national parks have shown how their establishment erases the people within the boundaries for the sake of “wilderness” (which also happens in the case you describe), but here you’re showing how these territories have this almost absurd or arbitrary quality, too. I’m wondering what you make of the relationship between the erasure of local people and the idiosyncratic political calculations being made in this boundary-drawing?

I should perhaps first note that this story about the biologist and the politicians was related to me by someone who claimed to have “been in the room,” but I can’t confirm that – so the exact details may be apocryphal. That said, I included it in the book because of exactly this arbitrary quality, which was a sense widely shared by people who work in and around the reserve. What was interesting to me was the ways that people struggled to make sense of these arbitrary lines and laws nearly twenty years later, especially as the presence of relatively poor or displaced people (those present at the original map-drawing moment) became complicated by major land grabs, including those funded by drug traffickers.

So the question becomes: now that we have a situation with so many settlements inside national parks, and can’t necessarily distinguish the “good” from the “bad,” what’s the right path forward? Kick them out with military force, calling up echoes of civil war atrocities? Change the designation of the land, sending the message that large land grabs in protected areas will result in legal property rights? Try to regulate the settlements to minimize damage, even though this is in contradiction to protected area laws? I attend to how people tried to sort through these options—and how they drew on and interpreted different knowledge sources, from CEMEC maps to second-hand rumors, as they did so. I write a lot in the book about how patchy and fragmented the results are, with different people and places treated in entirely contradictory ways. But this contradiction also reflects the sheer incommensurability of the different worlds jostling for attention throughout the reserve.

I was really struck by your account of the three “ways of knowing” the biosphere reserve that shape people’s interaction with it: technoscience, paranoia, and love. I was wondering if you could elaborate on these, and specifically I’m interested in hearing more about how these converge upon the everyday work of the professionals you were speaking with?

First I should describe what I mean by “ways of knowing.” I use that phrase as a somewhat looser way of talking about epistemology, because there are multiple epistemic forms within each of those three frames, but they are overarching ways of making or processing knowledge, thinking about evidence, and ways of interacting with and understanding the reserve.

Technoscience is the most obvious of them, it’s sort of the stuff produced by measurement, GIS and remote sensing, quantification, and so on. That one is more of a familiar frame to environmental anthropologists. Paranoia was very different, and it took me a while to land on that term for it, but it describes the way that people navigated ever-present violence or the threat of it, or navigated dynamics of what could or could not be said in different kinds of contexts. People would both communicate through that frame, carefully avoiding naming certain things in certain contexts, or make knowledge through that frame, interpreting what they saw on the landscape by trying to see what was hidden or read the possibility for violence of different kinds. And it was also an interpretive frame: people were always listening to other reports, in particular technoscientific reports, through this paranoid frame. It was like, okay, we have this measurement of how many patrols are being walked through the reserve, and maps of where they’ve gone, and there’s a number of cases that have been reported, and you can follow them through the courts and write up these very technical reports about it. And people read them and read into all of the gaps of what wasn’t reported, who made up their patrols on the forums, who was paid off along the way, who is corrupt in the courts, all of these kinds of things that get filtered out of the technoscientific realm or official knowledge. People always read these unknown things back into reports, so it’s this ever-present kind of secondary frame.

And then love sort of emerged in my awareness later in the project. It came about in thinking about the question of why people were doing this work, or the ways that they expressed their commitment to the work, or even just what it was like to be out in the forest with a wildlife biologist and, you know, looking at plants or tracks on the ground or climbing up to a scarlet macaw nest. People’s affect changed when in the forest or when talking about the forest, or when thinking about the loss of forest people would express real grief. And so I sort of came to use love to describe that more embodied or affective way of knowing the landscape that interweaves with the other two. In the book I describe it as keeping people engaged in the work in the face of all of these barriers. But I think it also exceeds that, in the way that affect exceeds our ability to describe it; it’s just something about the way that people built connection with the place.

As you noted above, your book tracks the work of two conservation organizations and the work they do researching the ecological dynamics of the biosphere reserve, producing images of the park such as maps, and presenting that information to different publics, like the Guatemalan state, local villages, or international donor audiences. One interesting claim you make—also in Chapter 1, but fleshed out in Chapter 7—regards the fact that a primary objective of these conservation organizations (specifically, CEMEC) is simply to reassert the fact that the reserve exists in the first place. Could you elaborate on that a bit?

That insight largely grew out of people’s difficulty in talking about the reserve as a whole. If asked about the reserve, most people would immediately break it down into parts in their answers: national parks versus the Multiple Use Zone (which contains industrial and community-run forest concessions), or deforested versus still-forested areas, or other finer-grained divisions. In other words, I was highlighting the scale-making work of conservation mapping, and in particular their ability to create a scale that remained meaningful to higher-level institutions like the Guatemalan presidency or the UNESCO Man [sic] and the Biosphere program.

But I like that you’ve highlighted Chapter 7 here, because it actually points to a slightly different kind of ontological labor that is tied up in scale-making claims but also exceeds them. That chapter centers on community-NGO conservation collaborations in the village of Uaxactún, which has a forest concession in the MBR’s multiple use zone. There is this uneven but multidirectional relation of “this exists” that happens in the chapter: NGOs like WCS use Uaxactún as a key example of “successful” community forest conservation, thereby justifying their own programming and the mixed-use model of the reserve as a whole object. In other words, the reserve exists as a whole with parts of parks and concessions, and here’s this beautiful story about the latter that’s not about illegal land sales and failure. On the other hand, Uaxactún’s claims to belonging in the reserve are much more complex than their 25-year concession contract would imply, but that’s the legal framework through which all such belonging is filtered. So they have to draw on these external sources of validation for their practices—such as WCS reports, or CEMEC monitoring data, or the published work of visiting researchers like myself—in order to make their own existence (as a community with a presence that predates the reserve, as rightsholders, or as forest managers) on the landscape legible and to ensure its ongoingness. There is plenty of tension in these relations, but the continued existence of the village’s lifeways and the broader reserve as a holistic object are all tangled up, and institutional knowledge structures are a common meeting ground through which these scales and realities are worked out together.

Mel Gibson makes appearances in this story more than most academic books I’ve read in the past few years. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the work he does in the book and in the Maya Biosphere Reserve more broadly.

Ha! Mel Gibson is such a bizarre character, so his connection to this place was a fun one to write about. But I think his presence in the book also is kind of mirroring what his presence in the reserve does, which is pointing to the way that this place that’s very embedded in Guatemalan politics and history and land struggles and lived multispecies worlds is also very charismatic. It’s a place that attracts all this global attention in different ways. Another example that makes it into almost every book about the MBR, but I don’t think it made it into mine, is the fact that the Classic Maya temples at Tikal were used in filming Star Wars.

So there are these points of connection where this place pulls in global circulations of celebrity and attention. And the chapter in which Mel Gibson appears is the one about the “Mirador basin” controversy, which is surrounded by conspiracy theories. Just the fact that he’s this strange figure who himself believes in conspiracy theories, and has been to the Mirador site and has a connection to a major figure in the controversy (archaeologist Richard Hansen, who consulted on his Apocalypto film), gets pulled into these stories. Just the fact that his name comes up demonstrates something about the weird scale jumping that can happen in that kind of thinking, where those connections are real—he does have a connection to that place, however minimal—but once you mention his name, it sort of sets off these fantasies and ideas about connections behind the scenes or who’s pulling the strings. So I think in a certain way me inserting him into the book is the same move as people inserting him into conversations: drawing attention to how the real and the imagined can amplify each other in bizarre ways.

One of the more striking qualities of the text is the constant contrast between mundane practices of making maps, saving files, sending emails, and so on, and the violence, paranoia, and thrill that also accompanies their work. We’ve already talked about the GIS work and the military or cartel violence. As another example, Chapter 7 describes the routine production of knowledge about Uaxactuneros (the people who live in an area of the reserve) through Basic Necessities Surveys, and then Chapter 8 describes the passion and excitement of seeing rare fauna in the forests that these professionals are mapping. This must have been very disorienting to experience during your field research?! I’m wondering how you handled this whiplash as you went about your days?

As I write about in Chapter 8, some of this was very physically and sensorially disorienting—especially the movements between urban offices and either rural/village or wild/forest spaces in the reserve. I started my fieldwork in the CEMEC GIS lab and was there for a long time, then I moved to the WCS office, and then very quickly from there I was taken out into the field and was just hit by a total sense of overwhelm. It was such a different sensorial experience, and even riding in the car out to the field was different. The ride is a key place where people are also telling their wild stories about animal encounters and sharing rumors, so that convivial space accompanies this full-body experience of driving through different landscapes into the jungle. So in some sense it’s very much like the classic fieldwork arrival story but with multiple arrivals in different sites within the research, which meant I kept feeling that disorientation in different ways.

I mostly just tried to capture that whiplash in the text and think through it and, but at the same time I did eventually get used to it. It becomes mundane to have conversations about the right way to measure biodiversity rates alongside who might or might not have connections to drug traffickers when you’re in the car, and so on. The everyday regularity of suddenly shifting gears or frames was part of what led to my argument about how those kinds of knowledges become intertwined, because the sensorial and epistemic disorientation of moving between these spaces or ways of knowing happens over and over and you get kind of accustomed to it.

That said, some of the multiplicity and disorientation, particularly around questions of violence, I never got used to. So after 14 or 16 months there, I was adept at rolling with certain kinds of whiplash, but others remained shocking.  Some of that is that I am a white woman from Canada, from this very safe and privileged background, and I try to account for that perspective without sensationalizing violence or reproducing stereotypes about the dangerous Global South. But of course, much of the violence also remains shocking and disorienting to Guatemalans or others who live there long-term—indeed, an important part of narco power is the power to remain shocking, using unpredictability and brutality to maintain that tension. And the ways that trials and other forms of accounting for the atrocities of the civil war continue now, twenty-five years after the peace accords, also point to the broader ways that such shocks never fully recede.

Finally, I’m just wondering what you’re working on these days? Having completed this major work, what are you turning to now?

The book came out just after I had left my tenure-track job, and it first hit the shelves in spring 2020 right during the early unfolding of the pandemic, so I was multiply disoriented in whole new ways when this came out! I continue to do a bit of slow scholarship outside of the university, like a collaborative piece I’m writing with my former PhD student Melinda González, and am enjoying the freedom to pursue ideas and curiosity outside of institutional frameworks. I have more time to read other scholarship now, and find myself doing so much more broadly and beyond the extractive mode that often happens under publication pressure.

I’ve also transitioned into working as a freelance editor, writing coach, and indexer. I mostly work with other academics, including many anthropologists. And it’s exciting work! I do a lot of developmental editing where I really get to work with authors on developing their arguments and ideas through their texts. I find it really fulfilling, and in some ways I feel more deeply engaged with scholarship than I was in my academic position.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Micha! And, thanks for this important work.

Micha Rahder is an independent scholar and editor, indexer, and writing coach living in North Carolina. Her interdisciplinary research has ranged from the forests of northern Guatemala to extraterrestrial futures.

This post is part of our thematic series: Interviews.