Theses Doctoral

Between a Promise and a Trench: Citizenship, Vulnerability, and Climate Change in Guyana

Vaughn, Sarah E.

Between a Promise and a Trench examines how science is constituted as a strategic practice and site through which citizens make claims about racial democracy in Guyana. It shows how government policymaking around climate adaptation--which drew upon the recommendations of outside actors, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations (UN), and various NGOs and international scientific networks-- profoundly disrupted the country's delicate racial-ethnic balance. A contribution to the burgeoning anthropology on the social and political impact of climate change, the dissertation also speaks to current debates over race and citizenship, the complex relationship between expertise and democracy, and the competing post-colonial claims of Indo-, Afro-, and Amerindian Guyanese to land and self-determination. The dissertation is based on seventeen months of fieldwork and archival research conducted between, 2009-11 in coastal Guyana. It brings together three conflicting perspectives: of engineers, who drew upon datasets and models about flooding and construction of canals around IPCC and UN climate data; the state officials, who sought to reduce vulnerability to flood hazards through land evictions; and of Indo-, Afro-, and Amerindian Guyanese farmers and squatters who were evicted as a result of post-2005 engineering projects. I use the concept "politics of vulnerability" to describe how states assume that citizens experience vulnerability to climate change based on their "ethnic-political status," thereby making the extension of democratic rights contingent on citizens providing cultural knowledge to the state to manage climate change. The dissertation attends to the consequences of the canals, including collapsed housing, failed civic science programs, and erratic water allocation. In response to these failures, citizens charge that state engineering repositions environmental hazards around existing social welfare inequities between racial-ethnic communities. During my time in Guyana, I tracked these responses at four distinct sites. 1) I observed engineers at work in the field produce and interpret "datasets" and "models" about flooding and construction of canals around IPCC and UN climate data. 2) I gathered residents' "unofficial" stories about vulnerability to floods through interviews and participant observations of everyday life in two coastal villages, Sophia (a racially mixed urban squatter community) and Mahaica (a predominately Indo-Guyanese cash crop community), where people were evicted due to the post-2005 engineering projects. 3) I analyzed "official" data generated through civic science projects and fieldwork in Mahaica and Sophia by engineers, state officials, and scientists that addressed vulnerability to flood hazards and its relationship to land evictions and property rights. 4) I conducted archival research in Guyana's National Archives on documents relating to colonial-era canals (1920s-60s) that inform the current projects. Although there is a growing ethnographic literature on climate change, a critical anthropology of vulnerability has yet to emerge. This dissertation offers two key interventions in this emerging field. First, I argue that in applied contexts, the validity of climate science is structured by the ways in which governments hinge climate adaptation projects to address varying national racial-ethnic populations. Second, I argue that governments cultivate institutions of social welfare that encourage "racial-ethnic" niche markets to manage vulnerability to climate change to soothe citizens' fears of state failure and environmental insecurity in the everyday. In such contexts, experiences of vulnerability become privatized, informing a consumer-oriented practice of racial democracy.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Scott, David A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 23, 2013