The many natures of water in latinamerican neo-extractivist conflicts

BY CRISTOBAL BONELLI, DENISSE ROCA-SERVAT AND MOURIK BUENO DE MESQUITA

Thousands of diverse ‘water protectors’ representing different ethnic, cultural, and social backgrounds throughout the American continent are standing firm against the destruction of ecological systems carried out by extractive development projects. One recent example concerning indigenous peoples has been the mobilization carried out by the Hunkpapa Lakota and Yanktonai Dakota Native American people of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline project is a $3.8 billion investment to move 500,000 barrels of domestic crude oil a day through four U.S. states. If constructed, the Dakota pipeline would pass through sacred burial grounds as well as the Missouri river – the main water source for the Standing Rock Sioux population. David Archambault II, the tribal chairman, recently stated: ‘The U.S has its laws, and pipelines know how to comply with all the laws, but just because something is legal, that does not make it right. And so, what we are trying to do is expose the wrongs and the flaws with the permitting process of pipelines (…) I think there are a lot of similarities between indigenous peoples (…) what is important to us is the earth, and it is the same for all indigenous people, we protect the relatives that we have, and those relatives are the plant life, the animal life, the water. We don’t think about them as resources, we think of them as actual beings that are precious to us, and it’s indigenous peoples who share that’.

In what follows, we would like to explore how water can ‘not only, to say it with Marisol de la Cadena´s (2015) words, be conceived of as a natural resource ready to be extracted, used, and transformed by and for human desire and consumer needs or capital profit. Strongly moved by David’s words, in this article we will think about water as entailing ontological political conflict, namely, a ‘conflict involving different assumptions about what exists’ (Blaser 2013; 547). These conflicts are not new, and there are a lot of similarities between the Dakota Pipeline conflict involving the Standing Rock Sioux population and those involving indigenous peoples in Latin America.  For example, the Huichol indigenous peoples in Mexico are struggling to protect their sacred territory of Wirikuta from mining extraction. Similarly, the Diaguita communities in the Andean mountains bordering Chile and Argentina, are demanding the halt of mining projects in glacier-fed river headwaters because it will destroy “Yacurmama or Mayumaman”, that is to say the mother of water. Nevertheless, state institutions, transnational corporations, and many water experts hardly thought of them as entailing different politics of nature, and indigenous claims are generally dismissed as pertaining to “cultural beliefs”, or “strategic slogans”. Yet,  what would happen if the actors just mentioned were trained  in thinking that water is not only a natural resource, but it can also be, among other multiple options, a relative too?

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