Action and value: community, livelihoods and indigenous struggle in Highland Ecuador
Partridge, Tristan Henry
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This thesis is an ethnographic study of collaborative action and notions of value in San Isidro, an indigenous community of c.90 families in Ecuador’s central highlands. Drawing on Arendt’s theory of action as a mode of human togetherness, it focuses on forms of activity that are both affective (appealing to particular values, principles and practices) and productive (engaging in struggles to reorder social and economic relations). These include communal gatherings, shared work-parties, assemblies, meetings, campaigns and celebrations. Developing work by Lambek and Graeber, the thesis explores how such actions are used to generate different kinds of ethical and material value, the criteria people use to evaluate competing visions of hope and possibility, and the related dynamics of division and cooperation. I argue that such a focus on action and value allows us to build on insights from existing regional literature which tends to interpret indigenous collective action as either predominantly expressive (through cultural revival) or instrumental (in terms of economic and political practice). A core theme that emerges is how localised expressions of what people hold to be vital or desirable interact with coordinated efforts to defend and secure livelihoods. In San Isidro, such efforts contend with a limited land base, ongoing conflicts rooted in histories of dispossession, and widespread patterns of migratory labour (mainly for shift-work in the Amazon-based oil industry). At the same time, many residents participate in collective work to maintain shared infrastructure, protest against land inequalities, and manage areas of the communally-held páramo hills (registering as a ‘comunidad’ as recently as 2009). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork conducted over fifteen months, I analyse how such collaborative actions are combined with everyday forms of paid and unpaid work, memories of conflict, and a sense of duty toward future generations. Through chapters that focus on shared labour, coordinated campaigns, the legacies of land reform and accounts of labour migration, the thesis also examines how cooperation is fostered within a community that is increasingly diverse in access to resources, income and outlook, and how those involved negotiate the ruptures and tensions that intentional actions entail.