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Decolonising Territory

by Sam Halvorsen on June 12, 2018

In a recent paper I argue that Anglophone research on territory, particularly in human geography, has been too constrained to ideas and practices based on the experiences of the modern, Eurocentric state. In contrast, Latin America provides an alternative starting point for understanding territory rooted in grassroots struggles and ongoing strategies to rework, resist and “re-invent”, as Carlos Walter Porto-Gonçalves puts it, Eurocentric and Anglophone ideas of territory. From this perspective the paper seeks to open up greater dialogue between Anglophone and Latin American ideas/practices of territory while acknowledging the colonial power relations that have structured the unequal geographies of knowledge production around territory.

In order to open up a dialogue around territory that exceeds the relatively narrow work of Anglophone geographers I propose an open definition of territory as ‘the appropriation of space in pursuit of political projects’. In scholarly circles such a definition is frequently referred back to the pioneering work of Swiss Geographer Claude Raffestin, particularly his 1980 book Pour une geographie du pouvoir, yet to be translated into English. Yet this definition is also a reflection of how territory has been mobilised by diverse political actors, most explicitly since the late 1980s across Latin America. Moreover, I argue that territory needs to be understood as containing multiple overlapping and entangled political projects that coexist across space and time. The multiplicity of territory has been a central feature of Brazilian geographers work on territory, such as Rogério Haesbaert’s work on “multi-territoriality”, that has been hugely influential in shaping academic debates on territory since the 1990s, reflecting on the changing political realities of Latin America.

As I note in the paper, although territory has been contested throughout the post-colonial history of Latin America, with multiple, ongoing attempts to resist and rework colonial impositions of modern territory, it has been since the late 1980s/1990s that there have been region-wide attempts to explicitly articulate an alternative vision of territorio that directly speaks to and confronts its modern definition as expressed by scholars such as Stuart Elden. Key initial mobilisations by social movements “re-inventing” territory include the Bolivian “March for Dignity and Territory” in 1990, the Ecuadorian march for “Territory and a Plurinational State” and, perhaps most famously internationally, the liberation of “rebel territories” by the Zapatistas in 1994. Yet territory has been mobilised as a core feature in the discourse and practice of social movements and grassroots political projects across diverse contexts in Latin America: rural and urban, indigenous and afro-descendent, formal and informal, autonomist and institutionalised – and I aim to provide a broad snap shot of these in the paper. What unites the many examples I draw upon in the paper is the commonality of mobilising territory as a core strategy of their political projects.

No single use of territory can be understood without an appreciation of how it overlaps and entangles with others yet it has been the violent, modern/colonial imposition of territory that has structured how and why such entanglements/overlappings occur. A decolonial approach to territory begins from an acknowledgement of the bloody and racist “invention”, as Walter Mignolo puts it, of the territory of Latin America some 500 years ago and the various strategies of indigenous, afro-descendent and other groups or individuals that are marginalised through gender, class, etc. to both survive and take forward their political projects. Territory as a grassroots strategy is highly context dependent. In the quilombo movements of Brazil, for example, a key initial feature was the invisibility of appropriated rural lands that allowed fugitive African slaves to exist as free people. Later, in the Twenty-first Century, quilombos have reappeared in urbanised settings in which afro-descendent peoples appropriate the favela as a site of subaltern identity often celebrated through cultural practices such as rap, with visibility being a core goal of their territorial strategy.

The state has also become a direct and explicit focus of grassroots struggles to decolonise territory, most centrally in Bolivia and Ecuador under the Morales and Correa governments respectively. Both of these struggles, most clearly represented in the attempts to create “plurinational states” in new constitutions, have highlighted real limits to state-based strategies to decolonise territory that have been unable to break away from the political logics – operating within post-colonial borders and political-party structures – and the economic logics – tied to the capitalist valorisation of land, most violently in (neo)extractivism – of modern territory.

Yet across the region territory remains a central idea and practice for a huge array of political struggles, each of which has developed rich and nuanced knowledges of territory. In acknowledging both the limits and the ongoing violent and colonial histories of territory, Anglophone scholars interested in territory are thus presented with an enormous set of resources for thinking through how to move beyond parochial debates and towards paths for decolonising territory. Yet much original work remains to be done. In my research on territory on Latin America it has been noticeable how few attempts there are to create non-Eurocentric genealogies of territory, in the way Stuart Elden so brilliantly does with the modern, Anglophone concept. Across the many hundreds or thousands of territorial struggles in Latin America active today it is rare to come across scholarly attempts to trace out how and why territory was mobilised by these movements over historical and geographical contexts that exceed the vantage points of particular struggles.

To take Buenos Aires, where my own research is based, there is a wealth of literature that explores what Denis Merklen famously termed the “territorial inscription” of the popular classes in the 1980s, in a context of neoliberalism (high unemployed and reduction of union organising) and post-authoritarian re-building of political organisation (examined by Steven Levitsky). The 1990s saw numerous movements explode on the scene that begun explicitly mobilising territory as a key identity (often using it in their name) and practice. Yet there are few attempts to understand how particular mobilisations of territory have grown out of other territorial practices and ideas in the prior decades and centuries and in relation to territorial struggles unfolding at similar times elsewhere (such as the Zapatistas or indigenous movements in the Andean region). There is thus a need for greater context specificity and in-depth engagement with particular territorial struggles, a challenge I am taking up in my ongoing work on grassroots territorial politics in Buenos Aires.

The paper was written at a time of a small yet growing engagement with Latin American knowledges by Anglophone geographers and other scholars. In the UK I recently founded the Latin American Geographies Research Network and was overwhelmed with enthusiasm from colleagues. There is thus momentum at present to take seriously the epistemologies of the global south, including Latin America, which could have profound consequences on Anglophone disciplines such as human geography. Yet in so doing it is imperative that I – a white, British man – and other colleagues from the global north remain alert to the hierarchical and colonial power relations that continue to structure our knowledge practices. Moreover, until the structures that sustain modern, violent ideas of territory are dismantled any talk of “decolonising” will struggle to move beyond a metaphor, as Tuck and Tang have put it. Nevertheless, endless examples of grassroots movements across Latin American and beyond demonstrate a capacity to resist, rework and re-define territory that demands greater acknowledgement from Anglophone geographers.

Sam Halvorsen
Sam Halvorsen is Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London and (until October 2019) Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow. He is interested in the relationship between grassroots urban politics and territory, having published widely on Occupy London. Since 2015 he has been researching political parties and local governance in Buenos Aires. He recently founded the Latin American Geographies in the UK Research Network.

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