The video recording of the interview is available here.
In April 2020 Xi Jinping launched the New Health Silk Road agenda of aid and investment that would extend the Eurasian and African Belt & Road Initiative to Latin America. This project is extremely relevant in the intersection of two of the world’s most transformative processes: on the one hand, China's rapidly expanding sphere of influence across the Global South, and on the other hand, the disintegration of some of Latin America's most important biomes.
Paul Amar and Fernando Brancoli, among others, have recently published a key book to understand this phenomenon: The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America, which they co-edited along with Lisa Rofel, Maria Amelia Viteri and Consuelo Fernández-Salvador.
Fernando Brancoli is an adjunct professor of International Security and Geopolitics at the Institute of International Relations and Defense at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, while Paul Amar is professor of Global Studies and Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
First of all I would like to ask you to briefly explain what the book is about and how it fits into the interests of the Security in Context community and project.
This book, The Tropical Silk Road, came out from Stanford University Press a couple of months ago. First I want to thank the Ford Foundation for funding this research, the Carnegie Corporation, which organizes Security in Context, as well as the endowment of the Orfalea Center, thanking the benefactor Paul Orfalea. Second, I think Security in Context is an amazing network, partnering with Global South researchers in the Middle East, in Latin America, and across the world, who are trying to rethink what security means and how violence, economic security, and social security are experienced on the ground, particularly in the Global South.
This book reframes these questions of what security means and how it is practiced both in the negative sense regarding questions of militarization, violent policing and paramilitary actions in these areas, but also on questions as economic security. What does it mean to have sovereignty over your own resources, your own land, and your own communities in a participatory way? This book is about investment in major mining infrastructure, extraction and port facility projects, mostly in the Amazon region and in other parts of Brazil and the Andes.
There are three relationships with the Security in Context project. First, we look at questions of militarization, paramilitary and militia groups around these mines, port building, and infrastructure projects; we particularly look at the way that indigenous communities or communities which are primarily black or minority are targeted and are resisting these forms of paramilitary, militia and military-run operations. Often, these big infrastructure and mining projects occur in rural areas where there is not much human rights accountability nor many journalists to witness what's going on. And often, those territories are run by military or paramilitary groups, not by regular municipal city councils or elected authorities.
The second way our book relates to the Security in Context agenda involves notions of cultural security and social security, especially regarding how indigenous, resistance, and feminist groups, and also Chinese laborer and civic groups, which are located now in Brazil and in Ecuador, think of cultural security and social security. How do they think of safety in terms of its social value, its positive and diverse cultural meanings? Security in Context is unique in this focus and we theorize and research about cultural and social security, as well as questions revolving around militarization and police security.
Finally, we are really interested in the question of economic security, which is also a hallmark of this project. We want to rethink what are the economic objectives of development around these major projects. Because both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum there is a lot of interest in mining and extraction of oil and petroleum in mega infrastructure and hydroelectric projects as hallmarks of the “future” of modernity and development. But many of our organizers and researchers in this book have an alternative notion of economic security and development that does not focus on fossil fuel extraction or major infrastructure projects: therefore the book asks its questions from those three angles.
I would also like to highlight that we are quite related to Security in Context regarding our methodological approach. We really try to engage with these communities’ experiences, not only from a bird’s eye view or a satellite view of what is going on. We conducted a lot of field work and tried to include a lot of local voices in this discussion. For example, if you look at new engagement between Brazil and China over the last months, one kind of research would focus on presidents Lula and Xi Jinping and diplomatic meetings. They are important; however, in the book we try to go beyond. This type of research relates to a methodological approach that Security in Context tries to address. For example, we have a specific chapter from indigenous leadership creating new methods and theories to engage security around China in the Amazon, which is brand new. We spent a lot of time and discussions on how to actually go to those places in a really interesting way to create native concepts and try to address this incredible moment where we have now China coming over and creating all these models of development and security.
I believe it is the very first book both in English and Portuguese that tries not only to understand this reality in the sense of geopolitical shift, but that also has indigenous voices from maroons, quilombolas and indigenous communities addressing and creating their own place. It is a polyphonic book and really interesting methodologically and epistemologically. We explore how these political shifts are changing not just the numbers or the commercial values between those countries, but the whole idea of security and how those groups circulate in those areas. It is a whole new world and we are really excited to be able to engage here in Brazil, the US and in those local communities and friends from this area. It has been quite useful and really exciting being able to go through those places, spending a lot of time in the region interviewing residents and creating this incredible relationship so that they were able to express themselves. I feel at home at Security in Context, as we are trying to emphasize not only in the book, but here in the project, that we must create new and exciting ways to understand security not only for different concepts but the number of voices we are able to speak to at the end of the day.
I think when producing any kind of knowledge based on research, new methodological perspectives are key. We tend to ignore methodology, but I think it is a very important part of any research. There is a lot of potential in having the people in mind. The book is made up of thirty short essays, so it brings together a huge variety of perspectives: an economic perspective, anthropological, political science, activism from different traditions, black feminists, indigenous, Chinese stakeholders, environmental activists, journalists, etc. Could you briefly explain how all of these perspectives that you have included and reflected in the book contribute to providing a well-rounded understanding of China's expanding influence in South America and its impact on the environment?
When we were trying to address this movement of China coming over and all the changes in the environment, most of the discussion was concentrated on the political and economic side. Again, this is important, but at the same time we had been doing fieldwork in Brazil and Ecuador for a long time and we saw that there were consequences that were being ignored in other areas. I think we were quite lucky, because Stanford University Press, which is such a great place to publish a book, almost does not edit volumes anymore so they were happy for us to integrate a lot of brand new discussions.
Since we have been looking at these topics and different topics in the last decades we were already receiving messages and comments from colleagues from black feminist groups that there was already a lot of stuff happening on the field. They would tell us that they were already engaging with Chinese officials coming over to the Amazon. We knew that there was a history to be told there that has been completely ignored by the mainstream research and media. We are quite happy that now things are getting tracked in Brazil because the book is already being so well received, generating articles in newspapers. At the end of the day, this movement was already happening, but the traditional and standard eye was looking at politics and economy, looking at the discourses in the high level. What we tried to do was a cartography of those groups who are engaged in different ways.
I would say the results are way more exciting than if you just look into the political and environmental sector. We were also able to express a constellation of Chinese groups, it was not like “China'' coming over. There were differences between the companies and which Chinese specific group was coming with different engagements. We were quite happy to see that the results were also varied. If you look into how the feminist groups are engaging, you would see exciting ways of how to “fearize” about this Chinese usually-male worker coming over and how they engage with Brazilian communities.
There is a huge interesting discussion now within indigenous groups around traditional investments in the Amazon from the US or Canada, which are conducted in one specific way, while the Chinese are creating a whole new model of production. And these groups are creating completely different perspectives from the feminists and from the other colleagues. We were happy to get a lot of engagement and funding from different places that enabled us to engage in all this.
So we had two overarching commitments in terms of the politics of knowledge production. One is that we really wanted to avoid any simplistic grouping of the authors as being the “pro-China” or the “anti-China” groupings, because sinophobia or the fear of China is such a part of the geopolitical moment. We also wanted to make sure that our methodology, although critically evaluating these investment projects, did not fall into any kind of particular targeting. Therefore, our methodology includes various perspectives from the indigenous, black journalist, environmentalist and feminist organizers, but we also involved several different kinds of Chinese stakeholders and perspectives, including social media and cultural labor perspectives on the ground.
Second, we also wanted to make sure that we do not have a statist lens for analyzing these phenomena. Our methodology is not just pluralistic but it also provides a space that is beyond seeing the state as the unit of analysis; and that really democratizes, pluralizes and radicalizes the potential for analysis. Not just by moving from the geopolitical level to the grassroots, but by disaggregating the state as the primary decision-maker and actor in our studies. So we hope that this becomes a model for this kind of international analysis, one that really gets to the grassroots level.
What are the primary challenges and opportunities presented by China's Tropical Silk Road for South America?
This is an incredible moment of opportunity. All of us began this research years ago, but this research came together as a crystallized project in February and March of 2020 during research in the Amazon region, when we engaged in a research partnership among Fernando, myself, the anthropologist in Ecuador Lisa Rofel, Chinese researchers and indigenous researchers. Of course, we were faced immediately with the arrival of the pandemic. That heightened the importance and urgency around some of these questions since many of the indigenous communities affected already by infrastructure investment and mining projects were then doubly or triply impacted by the pandemic and by the rise in militarization and paramilitary activity that happened during the crisis, which is a story that we capture in part in this book. So this book reflects the research we were already conducting on this set of investment projects, but it also reflects the transition that happened during the pandemic, which ended up producing in some cases some positive openings, despite the incredible stresses and the tragedies that occurred.
So the first opening is that in many Latin American countries such as Colombia or Brazil there were new governments elected during this period. In Ecuador, there was a very important election that happened in the middle of the writing of this book, in which although the result was the election of a business-friendly neoliberal government, the election actually revealed a three-way split in the political terrain of Ecuador, which includes the statist extractivist left that supports these infrastructure and mining projects, then an indigenous activist left, which got around 30% of votes, which is eco-feminist, eco-socialist and environmentally activist in origin, and then another third was this neoliberal business-oriented party. So actually, despite the fact that the split of the leftist camp produced a neoliberal government, there is a real shift happening in Ecuador, and the young generation of indigenous, feminist, ecology activists that have chapters in this book are part of this new generation that is producing a new political spectrum.
In Brazil, we have the elections and the expulsion of Bolsonaro and some of the most genocidal and directly militia-linked political actors in Brazil. These actors were at the forefront of the most violent experiences in the Amazon region. However, the new government of Lula as we have discussed in this book, like part of the left in Ecuador, carries with it a fascination with megaprojects of extraction, agrobusiness and hydroelectric power that are actually quite damaging and undermine the interests of the indigenous people and black communities, who not by coincidence are almost always located exactly in the places where these projects are built. New contradictions have been heightened in the last couple of years and these case studies reveal real plans, ways of thinking, ways of acting, ways of producing public policy, that can be a new model for progressives and not repeat the old mistakes of the correistas in Ecuador or the PT (Workers’ Party) of Brazil.
One of Security in Context’s lines of research is the study of multipolarity, great power competition and the Global South. How does the book provide insights into the implications of post US-centered world order and what are the possible consequences for South America as China's influence grows?
We are trying to engage in a conversation where in the US the left and right discussion regarding China is now way more complex than when we were trying to address it in the last decade. Then, you could notice a more left wing orientation towards China and a sort of resentment towards the US. What we are witnessing right now are different forms of engagement depending on the topic and depending on the subject and how things are being played out. For example, what we do have and we are mapping this right now is China and the US competing for who is going to give more money to Brazil in the Amazon. And it is not just about financing: it is about the whole model and structure to create those megaprojects. We are trying now to push over a discussion on this binary on how things used to operate that are slowly changing.
The second point is that we are mapping an interesting constellation of elements, and we do have more answers if we do not integrate just the state of Brazil and the state of China. For example, now we do have in Brazil different discussions between state governors engaging in more interesting ways with state governors in China, creating new models of activism.
When we think about multipolarity it often involves people locating you on one side or the other. But what we are trying to discuss here is that in Brazil, Ecuador and other places in Latin America those sides are a complete mashup between what the state governor is doing, what indigenous activists are doing, and how this multipolarity is not only in the state level but a disaggregate discussion, a constellation of actors that engage in different ways. We have not created a book that says that Brazil is moving this or that way. It is way more exciting, more interesting to see how those actors interact with each other, construct different narratives, and engage. One of the possible next projects to engage could be, for example, on how local indigenous communities are going to China to engage with different Chinese concepts of the environment, then coming back to Brazil and trying to integrate them with a model in the state. So I am more excited about this kind of multipolarity, in all those actors engaging, rather than in this lame logic of three states engaging.
I think there's a lot of inspiring elements to take away from your book. So I wanted to ask if you could tell us about some of the novel voices and forms of resistance that have emerged in response to China's presence in South America.
In the last year or two the kind of organization that this book spotlights and provides a space for has really succeeded in seizing parts of the public sphere and the conversation, and has even been elected to office. Two or three of our authors who participate in this volume have run for elections and a couple of them have become leaders in the Brazilian political sphere. We have had young student activists who wrote chapters in the Ecuador volume, who are now completing their studies and have founded major NGOs with high visibility. One of our authors was the vice president of the Federation of the Shuar people, which is one of the largest indigenous groups that was never conquered by the Catholic Church, never converted to christianity. It is a very interesting group that has radically different notions of what the environment means and they have secured some important gains in Ecuador and begun to become the center of a conversation about alternative development and the roles of the indigenous and particularly of the Shuar people in Ecuador.
Finally, we have had black feminist community leaders who have been marginalized and have experienced tremendous violence starting in the time of the planning for the World Cup and the Olympic Games in 2014 and 2016. These same communities organized around the megaprojects for those events, then organized around the investment in steel and industrial plants with Chinese, Brazilian and Western partners. They have now begun to be very visible and to actually transform party politics in Rio de Janeiro. Although extremely urgent and riddled with new kinds of challenges, I think the moment actually shows that local organization and the voices and original strategies developed by the authors in this volume are working and are taking new space. If we look below the level of the presidents and the diplomats you are going to see that the terrain has actually changed: this volume is reflecting that in a really powerful way.
In addition to that, we were able to witness and engage in a conversation on how those activists are also creating new models of transnational activism that have been quite new in those areas. One of the sad stories about this history of environmental discussion has been that the groups have been quite localized. Many have been looking at their challenges as just “my” problem and “my” questions. But I think we were able to see a lot of the voices we were able to engage with in the book. They are now starting to see that the local struggle is also a transnational struggle. So they are starting the conversation and we have been able to talk to groups of indigenous people going to Brazil, to Ecuador, now to the US and then to Europe and to China. There is a brand new sort of movement that is now starting to engage with localized problems, but they want to talk and to discuss with colleagues and other groups in other places that share these Global South problems.
Being able to organize this book and to listen to those voices engaging with their questions has been absolutely an optimistic moment, because you see that the creation of tools to actually better address those things do have a more exciting way of engaging with different groups. So this is going to be the very first book, as we will have another one coming over, because those groups are looking at the outside in a more interesting way.