Nature's materiality and the circuitous paths of accumulation: Dispossession of freshwater fisheries in Cambodia

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Nature's materiality and the circuitous paths of accumulation: Dispossession of freshwater fisheries in Cambodia
  See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at: Nature's Materiality and theCircuitous Paths of Accumulation: Dispossessionof Freshwater Fisheries in...  Article   in  Antipode · February 2007 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00511.x CITATIONS 52 READS 142 1 author:Some of the authors of this publication are also working on theserelated projects: Science of the Dammed: Expertise and Knowledge Claims inContested Dam Removals   View projectChris SneddonDartmouth College 22   PUBLICATIONS   970   CITATIONS   SEE PROFILE All content following this page was uploaded by Chris Sneddon on 04 March 2015. The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.  Nature’s Materiality and theCircuitous Paths of Accumulation:Dispossession of Freshwater Fisheriesin Cambodia Chris Sneddon Environmental Studies Program/Department of Geography,Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA; Abstract This paper examines recent conflicts over freshwater fisheries in Cambodia using the notionof accumulation through dispossession as a conceptual starting point. Despite a recent mate-rial turn, theoretical literature on the political economy of the environment has only partiallyincorporated an ecologically nuanced view of nature into analyses of its transformation under processes of capital accumulation. The biophysical characteristics of riverine fisheries are pred-icated on the ecohydrologic dynamics of water flows, and these characteristics dictate strategiesof appropriation for both subsistence and commercial use. The complexity of these materialcharacteristics is compounded in the case of Cambodian fisheries, where an array of state- andmarket-driven processes promote the dispossession of resources and constrain the livelihoodopportunities of rural communities dependent on fishing. Theories of capital accumulation andhow accumulation induces socioecological conflicts can be very useful, firstly, for explainingtheoriginsofenvironmentalconflictsand,secondly,forgroundingtheanalysisofsuchconflictsin the politics of accumulation as mediated by state actors. Conversely, theoretical framings of primitive accumulation must examine the “things” being accumulated (eg riverine fisheries) infar more biophysically specific ways, and must recognize the circuitous pathways, particularlyin cases involving developmental states, that strategies of accumulation follow. Narratives of fisheries conflicts in Cambodia in recent years all follow,with few deviations, a familiar script (see Evans 2002; FACT and EJF2001; Pettitt and Sim 2003). Over the past several years, rural fish-ing families have experienced a decline in the availability of fish anda concomitant restriction of access to a crucial element of their liveli-hoods.Thislivelihoodthreatislinkedtoseveralfactors(egtheconstruc-tion of large-scale water infrastructure projects in the upper regions of the Mekong basin; degradation of ecologically important wetlands; andoverfishing), but is most frequently blamed on the illegal activities of private fishing operators, who encroach on community fishing groundsand use threats and violence to sustain their exploitative practices. TheCambodian state, alternately rapacious and feckless in these narratives,exacerbates fisheries conflicts through inaction and corruption as it C  2007 The Author Journal compilation  C  2007 Editorial Board of   Antipode .  168  Antipode pursues a neoliberal economic agenda emphasizing open markets, for-eign investment and rapid liquidation of natural resources. At firstglance, this narrative communicates a familiar story in the field of en-vironment and development studies: a domineering developmental stateand its allies in the private sector appropriating the common-pool re-source of a marginalized social group struggling to retain access to acrucial resource in the name of food security.This account also suggests a process that Marx described in the mid-nineteenth century as primitive accumulation, and what Harvey (2003)recentlydubbed“accumulationthroughdispossession”,wherebyindige-nous forms of production and the resources on which they depend are(violently) appropriated in the name of jumpstarting more “advanced”forms of capital accumulation. Given its recent role in promoting andmediating the appropriation and subsequent degradation of fisheries,forests and other ecological resources (see De Lopez 2002; Le Billon2002), the actions of the Cambodian government certainly appear toconfirm Marx’s assertion about the crucial role of the state in drivingprimitiveaccumulation:“tohasten,asinahothouse,theprocessoftrans-formationofthefeudalmodeofproductionintothecapitalistmode,andto shorten the transition” (1976:915–916). It thus seems reasonable tointerpret ongoing conflicts in Cambodia’s freshwater fisheries as an al-most textbook example of primitive accumulation and its more or less“permanent” concurrence with advanced global capitalism.Or is it? While I do not discount the elements of the narrative thatindeed conform to this framing, the account presented above begs sev-eral non-trivial questions. What is the difference that nature, not justin its generalized form but as a highly variegated and complex set of entities and processes (eg Cambodia’s freshwater fisheries), makes toprocesses of accumulation? Concomitantly, what are the advantages— conceptually and politically—to using a primitive accumulation frame-work to examine the intermediate steps between physical appropriationof resources and projects of capital accumulation? A central aim of thispaper is to intervene in current discussions of primitive accumulationby arguing that more attention be given to the nonhuman “things” thatprovide the material basis for accumulation and the uneven pathways of accumulation characteristic of so-called Third World, or peripheral, re-gions. My argument hinges on two assertions. First, notions of primitiveaccumulation share an important oversight. They do not have much tosay, or do not say enough, about the ways in which the resource beingdispossessed matters to processes of accumulation. In the case of river-ine fisheries in Cambodia, the availability, quantity and reproducibilityof fish are the products of the highly interrelated agencies of biological,ecological and hydrological processes. The materiality of Cambodianfisheries is fundamentally different than the materialities of other kindsof “nature”, and discussions over primitive accumulation would benefit C  2007 The Author Journal compilation  C  2007 Editorial Board of   Antipode .  Dispossession of Freshwater Fisheries in Cambodia  169 from reflection on how these different materialities condition the ac-cumulation process. Second, questions concerning the intermediarypathways between the alteration/appropriation of nature and primitiveaccumulation as a political-economic imperative within capitalist soci-eties remain underdeveloped. The case of Cambodian fisheries revealsthatsuchroutesarefrequentlycircuitousandcontradictory,involvingthetransformation of locally and nationally important “natures”—in termsoflivelihoodsandeconomicgrowth—andtheirinsertionintoglobalnet-works of accumulation. The agents and processes of transformation inthis case are far from clear, involving a host of political actors (eg stateagents, international financial institutions, community fisherfolk, fish-inglotoperators,non-governmentalorganizations),livelihoodpractices,ecological vulnerabilities, and, certainly, capital accumulation.The paper proceeds as follow. First, I highlight the insights of a mate-rial turn evident in recent theorizing and research concerning the trans-formation of nature under capitalist economic development in order touse this work to engage notions of primitive accumulation. As an exam-ple of how this engagement might play out, I delineate the ecologicalandhydrologicalinfluencesonCambodianfisheriesthatdemonstratethe“livelymaterialityofnature”(Goodman2001:183).Thenextsectionex-amines the emergence of fisheries conflicts in Cambodia—particularlythose in the Tonle Sap region—in recent years as a case of accumula-tion through dispossession. I argue that identification of the processes,agents and pathways of primitive accumulation is far more complexand context specific than suggested by recent theoretical exegeses onthe topic. I conclude with a necessarily brief discussion of how linkingthe materiality of environmental conflicts to debates on accumulationopens up analytical and normative spaces for considering hybrid socialmovements and resistance to projects of accumulation.Methodologically, the empirical information presented here is based,first, on the significant and quite recent ecological knowledge regard-ing Cambodian fisheries emerging from a variety of institutional fora.A majority of this work has been carried out by researchers directly or indirectly affiliated with official intergovernmental organizations suchas the Fisheries Programme of the Mekong River Commission (MRC),bilateral aid donors, and the Fisheries Department of the Cambodiangovernment. The knowledge produced through this scientific anddevelopment-oriented research—which contributes to my own interpre-tationsoftherelationshipsbetweenaccumulationprocessesandthebio-physical characteristics of fisheries in Cambodia—remains firmly em-bedded within formal institutional mechanisms for governing fisheries,creating something of an epistemological quandary (see below). Sec-ond, I draw on the accounts of several non-governmental organizations(NGOs), both Cambodian and international, active in the fisheries sec-tor who have been highly critical of the government’s role in governing C  2007 The Author Journal compilation  C  2007 Editorial Board of   Antipode .  170  Antipode fisheries and mediating fisheries conflicts. As is also the case withthe emerging scientific knowledge of fisheries, fishing conflicts inCambodia are typically described in a variety of organizational newslet-ters, unpublished accounts, conference proceedings and the like.I realize this work, and the methodology upon which it is based,raises difficult epistemological questions along the lines suggested byCastree (1995) nearly a decade ago. The challenge, for Castree, is howto promote a radical geography that is simultaneously more attentiveto the materiality of nature  and   more reflexive in terms of our col-lective, unsettled and partial understandings of “nature”, capitalist or otherwise. Yet a more fine-tuned explication of nonhuman organisms,inorganic materials, biophysical processes and their complex evolution-ary interplay—as they become bound up and transformed in response tohumanpractices—demandsengagementwithamodeofknowledgepro-duction (largely positivist and empirical) that may rest uncomfortablyagainst a broader social constructivist approach that is duly skeptical of the knowledge claims of “normal” science (see Funtowicz and Ravetz1993). I cannot pretend to address all of these concerns here. How-ever, in taking up Castree’s call (one that to my mind has been onlypartially fulfilled) for a “more thorough comprehension of the materi-ality of physical processes” in order to better understand “nature’s rolewithin capitalist societies” (1995:27), I seek an epistemological middle-ground where ecological knowledge (materialist in orientation) can bemobilized not in the service of managerial and technological reform of deeply politicized development–environment conundra, but rather to-wards a materialist accounting of how processes of accumulation (in alltheir constructedness) subsume and alter nature. Nature’s “Lively Materiality” and Primitive Accumulation As described in a recent review, the most theoretically sophisticatedconceptualizations of nature–society relations share the following: aperception of “nature” as an important actor in constant material in-teraction with society; an understanding of knowledge as “situated,partial, and internal to exercises of power” and people as “organi-cally embodied and ecologically embedded”; an integrated focus onpolitical–economic structures, ecological processes and human under-standings of nature; and an openness to the permeability of the bound-aries in “traditional units of analysis (eg nation, economy, biology,culture, or species)” (Goldman and Schurman 2000:565). One strandof these still-evolving nature–society theorizations focuses on the nec-essary and contingent relationships between ecological transformationand capitalist economic processes. Whether under the rubric of pro-duction of nature arguments (Smith 1991), ongoing treatments of theconditions of production and the “second contradiction of capitalism” C  2007 The Author Journal compilation  C  2007 Editorial Board of   Antipode .
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