Just published in Current Anthropology: my latest article on energy sovereignty and environmental conflict. Here’s the punchline: to really understand what’s going on today in terms of natural resource conflicts, it helps to go back to the legal and political practices of the 16th century that justified the massive land grab in the Americas. In other words, what happened with First Nations, Native, Indigenous peoples in the past has a lot to do with the present.
Leftist former Bishop Fernando Lugo came to power in Paraguay in 2008 with the pledge to “recover Paraguay’s hydroelectric sovereignty” from Brazil by demanding greater control of the energy and finances of Itaipú Binational Hydroelectric Dam. This article explores what is meant by “hydroelectric sovereignty” and argues for a new approach to how to theorize sovereignty within anthropology by urging that scholars move beyond a focus on the exception, biopower, and bare life. The (re)turn I propose situates sovereignty historically in terms of nature, economics, cultural otherness, and imperialism by engaging an older genealogy of sovereignty, the sixteenth-century Spanish school of Salamanca, which centered on the rights of indigenous peoples to control their natural resources and govern themselves. This tradition gave rise to international law, setting in place a framework that continues to structure the global economy and natural resources, including the hydroelectric potential of Itaipú Dam. By exploring how hydroelectric sovereignty is an example of theorizing from the margins, I show how the asymmetrical dominance between Brazil and Paraguay, the desirability of natural resources in a time of environmental scarcity, and the supremacy of economic imperative presage twenty-first-century changes in eco-environmental sovereignties.