On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism Within and Against Neoliberal Order

Peer Reviewed


"Transgenic Farming." via Thomas Pearson.

Environmental governance regimes concerned with the management of biological life have encouraged not only new forms of expertise, but also political activism and struggle. One such regime, the international Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Biosafety Protocol), a subagreement of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), seeks to monitor the potential risks of releasing living modified organisms, such as transgenic seeds, into the environment. Drawing on market-oriented visions of environmental conservation and risk management, the Biosafety Protocol is closely tied to the development of new bioeconomies and the ascent of neoliberal principles globally. NGOs and environmentalists have played prominent roles in the Biosafety Protocol by occupying spaces designated for civil society participation, raising the question of how activists both disrupt and sustain the neoliberal logics embedded in new regimes of environmental governance. I explore this question through ethnographic research in Costa Rica among activists, biosafety officials, and private biosafety auditors, where activists have engaged biosafety as part of a campaign against transgenic seeds. Working with limited resources and a genuine concern to manage the risks of agricultural biotechnology, officials draw on strategies that position both the market and civil society as key mechanisms of biosafety monitoring. Despite opposing transgenics and the concept of biosafety, activists participate in the government biosafety commission as civil society representatives and informally monitor local fields. Officials have labeled activists “biovigilantes,” viewing them as parallel to private biosafety auditors who subsidize the lack of state capacity in biosafety. Recent research on civil society and governance suggests that discourses of participation have depoliticizing impacts, encouraging specific forms of self-conduct that reinforce a dominant order of things. Illustrating how activists occupy and negotiate civil society and biosafety expertise, I argue by contrast that their engagement with biosafety is uneven and contradictory, revealing an unsettled struggle, rather than some prevailing governmental logic.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on environment and politics. Examples of these essays include Marina Welker's “'Corporate Security Begins in the Community': : Mining, the Corporate Social Responsibility Industry, and Environmental Advocacy in Indonesia” (2009), Joseph Masco's “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico” (2004) and Hanne Veber's “The Salt of the Montaña: Interpreting Indigenous Activism in the Rain Forest” (1998). 

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on Central America. See Cymene Howe's “Spectacles of Sexuality: Televisionary Activism in Nicaragua” (2008) , David Pedersen's “The Storm We Call Dollars: Determining Value and Belief in El Salvador and the United States” (2002), and Marc Edelman's “Landlords and the Devil: Class, Ethnic, and Gender Dimensions of Central American Peasant Narratives” (1994).

About the Author

Thomas Pearson is a graduate of SUNY-Binghamton’s Department of Anthropology. He is currently teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. His research interests include development issues, political ecology, environmentalism, new social movements, and the politics of civil society.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How are claims regarding the biosafety of transgenic material, especially those claims made in the realm of civil society, negotiated or contested throughout the article? How are certain claims de-politicized? What role does technical knowledge play in the process of de-politicization?

2. What kinds of ethical discourses and practices are being implicated through the emerging assemblage of civil society, biotechnology, and governmental actors in Costa Rica? The class can compare and contrast the figure of the ‘ethical’ auditor vs. bio-vigilantes.

3. How are activists, auditors, and other actors positioned vis-à-vis the ‘neoliberal order’? How is the relationship between the state, civil society, and commerce being transformed under neoliberal conditions?

4. What is the relationship between the different modalities of political engagement traced in the article and new biological forms of life? How is social well being and biological life being transformed in the contemporary moment?

Related Links

Convention on Biological Diversity

Biosafety regulations


Editorial Overview

In the November, 2009 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Thomas Pearson examines how the political and social implications of new biosafety regulations are refracted in various attempts to manage transgenic materials in Costa Rica. Especially given the context of “expanding neoliberalism,” which has reduced the Costa Rican state’s capacity to implement biosafety regulations, Pearson argues that both civil society and the market are increasingly involved in biosafety monitoring. Similarly, he foregrounds how activists who oppose transgenics both reproduce and disrupt this logic of environmental governance, through their participation in civil society as so-called “bio-vigilantes” and their simultaneous refusal to be co-opted. In this way, by analyzing the various means through which NGOs, environmentalists, and biosafety officials negotiate the risks associated with agricultural biotechnology, Pearson is able to trace how both “social well being and biological life” is being concurrently transformed in Costa Rica.

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment