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The politics of noticing

The politics of noticing

On April 9th, 2018, in the center of Bogotá’s Plaza Bolívar, human rights defenders had arranged coffins in concentric circles. It was the National Day of Memory and Solidarity with Victims of the Armed Conflict in Colombia—an annual occasion designated by law to recognize the harms that over 8.9 million individuals have suffered as a result of war. I was there to observe these commemorative events as part of my ongoing research on the politics and hierarchies of victimhood during transitions from violence.

Each black coffin had a white cross painted onto it. People left carnations in the middle of the crosses and scribbled messages in chalk around them. “We are not numbers. We are people. Fathers, mothers, sons, brothers,” one message read. On the next coffin: “Enough with the corruption. It is killing us. Peace is a right. Do not kill us.” And next to that: “Mother Earth is a victim too. Who will repair her?”

In this context, the Spanish verb reparar (repair) has a dual meaning. One meaning refers to mending, healing, fixing what is broken. The other meaning, reflected in the vocabulary of transitional justice after war, refers to reparation as recognition of and remedy for harms. This duality of meanings aptly captures what we must reckon with when it comes to land and nature, not only in the case of armed conflict but also in the broader context of climate catastrophe. It invites us to examine and respond to harms in ways that not only supply technical fixes, but also address the injustices and inequalities that underpin ongoing losses.

This holistic understanding of the work of repair is not always reflected in peace-building and justice initiatives after war. “Peace-builders think too narrowly about land,” an environmental justice advocate told me in an interview in Colombia. What does narrowness look like in this context? To begin with, many scholarly and policy conversations on land focus overwhelmingly on humans and on individual relations of ownership. We speak of displacement and dispossession—and these are important conversations that aim to recognize significant harms. Yet, as scholars and activists have advocated in Colombia and beyond, when relationships to land are always mediated through the human, other losses and harms become less legible and less grievable.

These are the losses of herbs contaminated by campaigns of aerial fumigation, of rituals that can no longer be carried out in poisoned or dried up rivers, the losses of kinship between humans and the non-human elements that surround them. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “in the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kin-folk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.”

Paying attention to land, therefore, enables us to see a different register of losses. It reorients our sense of both mourning and violence. Significantly, in June 2019, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in Colombia recognized the environment as a “silenced victim of the armed conflict.” This interpretation of victimhood allows for recognizing the kinds of harms that are not necessarily embodied in humanity or commemorated through a coffin. Many of my interlocutors who identify as victims and as advocates for an array of interlinked justice causes welcome this step. They are cautiously hopeful that it will lead to a more holistic reckoning with how, where, and with what effects violence manifests. Yet, they simultaneously call for another kind of recognition.

“People don’t see the butterflies,” Manuel told me. We were sitting under blooming guayacán trees in the Antioquia region. I admitted to Manuel, with some shame, that I did not see the butterflies either. “They didn’t return this year. Not as many of them anyway,” Manuel told me. “There used to be butterflies here, but they didn’t make it this year.”

Manuel was not merely grieving the ecosystem-wide effects of dwindling butterfly numbers. His mourning was not confined to habitat loss. Nor, in turn, were his resistance and activism limited to mourning. Rather, what Manuel noticed, and invited me to pay attention to, was beauty. “There is still so much beauty on this land,” he said.

Social justice struggles are not only fueled by an opposition to violence and injustice; they are also sustained by beauty. To mourn an absence, one must notice presence first. What Manuel and my other research interlocutors have modeled is a politics of resistance to inequality and injustice that allows for noticing beauty and finding joy—and that permits us to be fueled by these forces. This politics is founded on acts of noticing, on paying attention to blossoms on trees, on writing those into our narratives of violence and peace-building alike. It is also a politics of acknowledgment, recognizing that research—just like violence—is not produced with nature or land in its backdrop, but always in conversation with it.

It is difficult to speak of noticing beauty when there is so much pain in the world. And, as Julian Hoffman writes in Irreplaceable, “we don’t speak nearly enough of joy, as though its levity were somehow a burden.” There are good reasons to fear that beauty is a distraction, that joy is a diversion from politics. Yet, in the lives of my interlocutors who advocate about land and who narrate experiences of violence and meaning alike, vocabularies of beauty and joy co-exist alongside those of loss. Perhaps, then, we can slowly learn to develop a different fluency. Perhaps we can make room for a multi-lingual politics of noticing that allows for and encourages this co-existence.

Roxani Krystalli recently completed her PhD at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In September 2020, she will begin her appointment as a Lecturer at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where her research and teaching will focus on feminist peace and conflict studies. Roxani writes about feminism, violence, place, moss, and loss at Stories of Conflict and Love. She can be found on Twitter at @rkrystalli.

Hear more from Roxani Krystalli from her interview at the SSHARC Global Symposium in Sydney, 2019