Stensrud, A.B. 2022. Watershed politics and climate change in Peru. Pluto Book. ISBN 9780745340203, (hardback £50)/ 9781786807571 (ebook £25)
Stockholm, Sweden; firstname.lastname@example.org
To cite this review: Lennon, G. 2023. Review of “Watershed politics and climate change in Peru”, Pluto Books, 2022, By A.B. Stensrud. Water Alternatives, https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/328-peru
In her recent book 'Watershed Politics and Climate Change in Peru', Astrid Stensrud provides a rich and cogent analysis of the contestation and connections engendered by water in the Majes-Colca watershed, in southwestern Peru. She follows the multiple understandings and practices around water in the context of increasing water scarcity due to a combination of ‘proxy privatisations’ through neoliberal reforms, a lingering colonial dynamic, and the increasingly palpable impacts of climate change. Specifically, Stensrud focuses on the Majes-Siguas irrigation project and the vast array of different actors’ discrete yet intertwined relations and understandings of water. She shows how water was rendered as a primarily economic asset and how the watershed writ-large is being made as a singular, manageable ‘organic machine’ that works to sap vitality from the headwaters and enrich the desert.
Core to the ethnography is the contention that the irrigation project was (and is) an ongoing project of conquest and colonisation, but Stensrud approaches this with an anthropological spin on the state: understanding its functioning as dispersed and contradictory, knowable through its effects rather than receiving it as a monolithic entity (p. 60). Thus, her approach is attuned to the particularistic and syncretic understandings and practices and the merging and overlapping of ontologies, consciously and forcefully opposing any simplification of the situation as a dichotomy. Instead, she underlines the undeniable multiplicity and continual emergence of ‘worlds’ in the Andes, drawing from work on the ‘pluriverse’.
This is to say that Stensrud is combatting a narrative, found in many other contexts, whereby the imposition of a development project or modernisation scheme can be simply understood as a tale of two worlds, one imposing itself on the other. To this point, engineers with indigenous backgrounds feature prominently, being those who blend understandings of water as a resource—a finite, manipulable asset requiring technocratic management—and as a being—a sentient and responsive entity, with people having duties and obligations toward it. This is a perplexing balance (for this reader), but the work convincingly demonstrates that congruity is found at these ontological junctions, while Stensrud continually reminds the reader that living and working in the highlands entails the participation in multiple, partially connected ‘world-making practices’, which “does not mean that one world will eventually extinguish the other; on the contrary—new worlds are constantly being enacted in the interface” (p. 93). Stensrud additionally repeatedly returns to underlining how socially embedded these interlocutors are, as these engineers are also entangled in multiple social and ontological realms, operating as brokers between groups within this hydro-social domain by translating between farmers and the institutions involved in the running of the canal, a demonstration of the process by which new worlds are formed. This, as is noted, creates understanding, but also compliance from the farmers with the rules and regulations dictated elsewhere—an element that may potentially contribute to the marring of the slight romance of this continual emergence of new worlds, or at least an unresolved tension in the role of these trans-world interlocutors.
Stensrud also crucially argues that these overlapping, constantly changing worlds are not arrayed at the same level of analysis, but rather across scales, with the narrative oscillating between scales of change and struggle—going from the international level with the impact of structural adjustment programmes on the Peruvian state and economy and climate change writ large, to domestic political changes in national administrations between Valasco’s left-wing regime to the more recent Fujimori, Garciá, and Humala’s liberalisations and deregulations, to an anthropological focus on the intensely local, with vignettes of engineers repairs, water regulators meetings, and farmers’ trials and tribulations around water scarcity and regulations. This is one of the significant strengths of the work, clearly tracing that the conditions and struggle within the watershed are intricately connected to wider structural conditions and forces (in particular, the 2009 Water Law in Peru).
This ontological multiplicity of water (and the continual emergence of new configurations) is suppressed, however, by the attempted ‘singularisation’ of water by state policies. This is a useful conceptualisation by Stensrud, as it analytically accounts for attempts to subjugate alternative ontologies via standardisation and simplification whilst also heeding the ultimate impossibility of silencing the multiplicity. Specifically, Stensrud describes the ‘singularisation’ of water as essentially the reduction of a plurality of concerns, realities, and factors into one, such as the focus on water scarcity whilst ignoring the compounding factors of poverty and inequality, or the reduction of water to mere resource and commodity, neglecting and suppressing its other roles in sustaining and nurturing lives in the headwaters. This concept that elegantly explains the process of reducing the multiplicity of worlds is, however, slightly undercut by the concluding suggestion that positive singularisations should be attempted, such as singularising water as life-force in opposition to commodity. This hints at a strain throughout the work where plural water realities are asserted, yet it can feel as if there is still a binary and many interlocutors’ positions could be placed somewhere between two ontological poles: one singularising, commodifying, and enclosing, that is working to suppress the latter’s more expansive notion of water.
Even so, Stensrud has written a detailed and nuanced ethnography that provides the reader with a palpable sense of what a multiplicity of worlds is, and how the distinct and clashing ways of understanding and comporting oneself are negotiated and ever-changing. It should be a rewarding read for any person interested in political ecology and eager to take in an attempt at a less dichotomised narrative and analysis, as well as any researchers interested in the politics of water, in Peru, the Andes, or elsewhere.