Book review of A. J. Faas's In the Shadow of Tungurahua: Disaster Politics in Highland Ecuador (2022)
by Ian Skoggard
Published onOct 28, 2023
Book Review: In the Shadow of Tungurahua
In the Shadow of Tungurahua: Disaster Politics in Highland Ecuador, by A. J. Faas (2022). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press
It is extremely challenging for an anthropologist to articulate the many entanglements of culture, history, and the environment – employing different theoretical lenses while at the same time not losing sight of the people who matter, anthropology’s true subject. A. J. Faas in his new book, In the Shadow of Tungurahua: Disaster Politics in Highland Ecuador, has achieved exactly this in how he portrays the history of disaster in highland Ecuador. Tungurahua is a volcano that erupted ten years before Faas completed his fieldwork in Penipe (2009-10, after which he returned for short periods in 2011 and 2018). What he witnessed was the aftermath, displacement, and resettlement of nearby communities as well as their members’ attempts to reconstitute a new way of living together – notwithstanding the intrusion of well-intentioned but narrowly focused disaster-relief government and non-governmental agencies. Faas’s book is divided into three parts – history, institutions of communal labor (minga), and recovery – and, as such, brings into relief the locals’ ways of living in this unique environment.
For Faas, disaster is not a singular event but constitutes an area’s cumulative history of past disasters and the “disastrous” societal structures that make local people more vulnerable to natural cataclysms. The first half of In the Shadow of Tungurahua chronicles that history and structure, examined together as “assemblages” that shift, change, and overlap one another. It is an effort to depict how powerful elites operate elusively in space and time, in many cases appropriating local culture to expropriate labor. Before the Spanish, there were the Inca and before them, various kingdoms. As Faas explains, each of these polities sought to restrict locals’ movement and assess their potential – he adopts here James Scott’s notion of legibility (1998) – and put them to work in the grand projects of empire building. Restricting people’s mobility, which has always been a key response to natural hazards, is the first step in making them vulnerable. For these reasons, the communities situated along the slopes of Tungurahua live, as a result, in a tenuous relationship with the volcano.
The second part of Faas’s book is devoted to the minga, the famous Andean institution of communal labor. As such, Faas wants to complicate the minga and remove the rose-tinted lens through which it has usually been examined by scholars: as an ideal cooperative practice, one of communitas and altruism. While the minga may have had its roots in the past communal practices of small Andean communities, it has since had a history of appropriation by powerful state interests, who have used it as a form of corvée labor. To reveal this, Faas uses the notion of palimpsest to evoke how the minga changes over time in each new historical context – the slate wiped clean and rewritten, as it were. And yet traces of earlier texts still reveal themselves through the deep communal spirit and feelings surrounding the original practice. Today, it is NGOs that romanticize the minga in an effort to mobilize labor for their various development projects.
Despite this corruption of the minga, Faas wants us to see that it nevertheless remains a rare communal practice via which community is constituted and claimed, creating an assemblage on the locals’ own terms, as he puts it, and thus forming a space for resistance. Faas participated in some mingas and offers keen insight into their communal ethos. As he describes it, communitas is only achieved when everyone is doing their share of the work at hand; then and only then does a collective spirit and identity arise. In this case, labor presupposes the social and not the other way around; comradery, thus, is a condition of everyone doing their bit.
The final section of the book is largely about how the Tungurahualocals seek to reclaim their lives not just from volcanic disruptions, but also from the interference of the state and other outside agencies that have attempted to resettle them. As such, these organizations try to restore the basic amenities of shelter and access to water but fall far short of re-establishing the full cultural life of the community, which must be done by the local people themselves.
And yet Faas relates how these communities – against all odds – recreate lost social ties, and he offers a local theoretical lens to examine their efforts. This process is called convivir, translated as “co-living,” which captures the communal spirit but also the dimension of work that makes life viable after disaster. Convivir is simultaneously a philosophy, theology, and ontology – one that Faas evokes when discussing relations with his interlocutors: meeting up with them, talking with them, sometimes working alongside them. He is able to tell us not just what they do and say, but he also conveys their feelings through expressions and gestures. The reader can accordingly feel what is happening to Faas’s interlocutors and how they cope in the wake of disaster. It is, indeed, resilience in its essence.
It may appear at first that there is little in this book for students of religion. There are no descriptions of festivals, ceremonial life, or local cosmologies. However, to think as such would be a misperception, as religion stares at the reader from the onset, in the form of the majestic volcano Tungurahua depicted on the jacket cover. Akin to some Old Testament God, the volcano is both loved and feared. It is the source of the rich soils that the inhabitants farm and where they graze their livestock. It is also wrathful and destructive. It is intimately addressed as abuela, grandmother – a powerful entity that anchors the locals’ world, more so than any state or foreign power. It reflects their common consciousness and identity.
And, like the volcano, Faas’s In the Shadow of Tungurahua is similarly potent due to the scope of its scholarly interventions, for how it brings together the anthropologies of work, risk, and disaster. It is also potent for how it keeps the ethnographic encounter front and center, which breathes life into the text. As such, Faas’s scholarship does justice to the lives and understandings of those whom he met. We as readers will also no doubt remember who these people are – Rosa, Bernardo, and Martina, among others – and the truth of the words that they speak.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Ian Skoggard, Ph.D. completed his fieldwork in Taiwan where he examined rural industrialization. He has subsequently written on the topics of development, religion, affect, love, disasters, and cooperation. He works at the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, USA.
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