In Conversation: Dialogue on Andreza A. de Souza Santos’ “Trading time and space”

Editor’s Note: This feature is a conversation between Dr Andreza A. de Souza Santos and Dr Markus Hochmüller, both of the University of Oxford’s Latin America Centre, following the recent publication of Dr de Souza Santos’ article Trading time and space: Grassroots negotiations in a Brazilian mining district” (Ethnography, 2019)

Participatory governance in urban Latin America: an opportunity or a trap? A response to Andreza A. de Souza Santos’ “Trading time and space” 

Dr Markus Hochmüller

Citizen participation has become a key buzzword for policymakers, urban planners, and practitioners working in the field of urban development and security. The United Nation’s New Urban Agenda imagines the cities of the future as spaces that are ‘participatory, promote civic engagement, [and] engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants’.

Andreza A. de Souza Santos’s recent article “Trading time and space: Grassroots negotiations in a Brazilian mining district” (Ethnography, 2019) sheds light on the practice of participatory governance. It provides important insights to make sense of – and eventually improve – the urban condition in Latin America. Exploring how different stakeholders construct and advocate competing imaginations of a better future in the small mining town Miguel Burnier in Southeastern Brazil, de Souza Santos engages with the growing field of anthropological research on the future and competing temporalities in the global South.

In her paper, de Souza Santos examines how Miguel Burnier’s Municipal Council for the Preservation of Cultural and Natural Patrimony mediates negotiations between local residents and a mining company. While urban dwellers expected the mining project to boost employment and local development, the company prioritised expanding its mining activities and limiting popular opposition.

Seeking local approval, the company offered to compensate residents for the negative externalities of their mining activity. Company agents thus promised to implement vocational training programmes, improve recreational opportunities, and fund local cultural heritage initiatives. De Souza Santos’s ethnography, however, demonstrates that this strategy for local development could not align with local residents’ visions for a better future. In this context, local dwellers saw abandoning Miguel Burnier as a more feasible and realistic option to create a better future for themselves.

De Souza Santos shows that the mediating Council was severely limited in its decision-making due to its own economic dependencies and the fear of adverse repercussions. Hence, the Council initially abstained from taking sides, thereby reproducing the status quo that was unsatisfactory to all involved stakeholders. Succumbing to the dominance of vested political and economic interests, the Council failed the community members in finding a solution to the most pressing local concerns such as the pollution of air and drinking water.

In order to advance the negotiations, the Council created a commission composed of an architect, an environmental engineer, and a local community leader. The commission’s on-site evaluation recommended the expansion of mining activities in two of the company’s mines. It also advised closing the mine located near the centre of town in order to reduce its negative impact on the community. These recommendations were eventually accepted by both parties. The situation for the residents, however, remained largely unchanged. For instance, mines kept polluting the water and Miguel Burnier’s economic future remained uncertain.

De Souza Santos’ article thus raises important questions related to the local community’s room for manoeuvre in changing urban futures, as well as to the temporal dimension of local agency. Her essay is an invitation to critically scrutinize participatory governance. It animates readers to think about the unintended consequences of participation on the one hand, and ways to make participation a more powerful tool for urban dwellers on the other hand, which requires incorporating local concerns, in particular those of the most marginalized sectors of a city, into the process of urban governance.

Participation has become a popular way for governments to address urban problems and local discontent all over Latin America. When it comes to issues such as local development or security, citizen participation is generally expected to make the provision of goods and governance more effective and legitimate. Participation is, however, not a panacea to improve urban governance, as de Souza Santos’ analysis shows. She points to several unintended consequences of participatory governance: first, participation can reinforce existing divisions in a community; second, participation does not necessarily equal empowerment; and third, participation does not automatically improve local life-worlds.

Her analysis thus forces researchers and practitioners to question their expectations on the transformative power of community participation. In fact, participation can also become a trap for city dwellers. Policymakers may, for example, use participatory governance as a façade that locally legitimises top-down decision-making processes. State officials may also blame social issues on wrong participatory decision-making, thus avoiding their accountability over ineffective policy implementation.

De Souza Santos demonstrates that local actors have a disproportionate influence over participatory governance. While a necessary condition to improve local democracy, participation alone is not sufficient to guarantee more democratic decision-making. It can even reproduce exclusionary mechanisms and a highly asymmetrical status quo when inequalities and power relations remain unaddressed. In order to level these asymmetries and to make urban futures more sustainable, fair and empowering, new modes of participatory governance need to grant equal access to information, mediate between competing interests, and respect the different needs of city dwellers. Otherwise, ‘giving people a sense of meaningfulness’ under the guise of collectively building a better future is in fact a distraction in citizens’ quest for a future that is unlikely to materialize.

Another key take-away from de Souza Santos’ paper is that alternative futures imagined by dwellers are often pre-structured by past experiences and present power relations. Miguel Burnier’s residents, for example, sought an (idealized) past of economic opportunities in the form of employment in the local mining business. The residents ignored the exploitative working conditions in the mining sector and they would not openly challenge the powerful company. Despite the hardship and the social and environmental degradation related to past mining activities, local residents were unable to imagine a future without mining. This points to a limited capacity to aspire for a better future, to put it in Appadurai’s terms.

Hence, in order to avoid hollow forms of participation and to stimulate more radical thinking about alternative futures, participatory governance needs to create more inclusive and multi-layered spaces of participation (ranging from fora open to the general public to more specialized councils for organized civil society and ad-hoc commissions dealing with punctual issues that bring together all stakeholders of a community). Furthermore, new modes of participatory governance need to encourage thinking outside the box. While this may be a somewhat utopian perspective given the distribution of power in Latin American cities, more radical visions of alternative futures are vital to improve local democratic processes and to challenge the uneven field of political and economic participation. Only when citizens transcend narratives informed by capitalist modernization and neoliberal development, they will be able to create a more sustainable and emancipatory future for all.

In response to Dr Markus Hochmüller

Dr Andreza A. de Souza

Recently in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro extinguished more than 50 participatory policy councils that worked on a national level and were created under the PT administration.  When I write about the challenges and limits in participatory policy councils during a time when participatory mechanisms are under threat, I do so knowing that we do not have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is indeed possible to improve participation, and for that, it is necessary to map the problems.

I like very much Hochmüller’s comments on my paper because it discusses the unintended consequences of participation. When designing policies for a country as large as Brazil, it is difficult to imagine what participation generates on the ground in cities as large as large as Porto Alegre, and others as small as Ouro Preto or any of its districts.

Increased competition rather than cooperation amongst community members, intimidation during negotiations, participation as a means to give legitimacy to top down decisions, distinguished time horizons between a plan offered and dwellers’ needs, are only some of the problems. What are the solutions then? By getting to know the members of the Council for the Preservation of Cultural and Natural Heritage and residents in Miguel Burnier during one year fieldwork, I could discuss some possibilities: written tools is one of them. While voicing concerns during meetings expose individuals who could then be considered to oppose to a great economic force locally; in writing demands gain a formal aspect and detaches the text from the writer when signed as an official minute or report. Written reports and minutes can soothe perceived intimidation brought by a negotiation of disenfranchised residents, locally employed technicians, and a powerful mining company.

The solution in this case may not apply to all other cases in Brazil and elsewhere. Not everyone speaks a bureaucratic language and minutes are part of this lexicon that excludes the majority. In addition, illiteracy may also feature amongst problems with the use of written language.

What my articles advocates is for more ethnographic research about policy councils and a real engagement between academia and the policy sector.

While the article speaks to the academic community, locally, I have created a local Forum on Social Governance, and in 2019 we have its third edition. The forum discusses with civil society, technicians and the local university how to make better use of participation, academia and mineral resources available. Ouro Preto sits atop mineral deposits, it is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is a University town. In addition, the city is made of 13 distinct districts, Miguel Burnier is one of them, and each has its own reality. To govern such city with international grandeur and competing local interests, there is no easy formula except that to improve methods for continuous interaction between ‘flesh and stone’: the city and its dwellers.

There is a lot to improve in the making of a democratic city and to begin; the recognition that poverty is a form of political oppression is a great start. We shall then not denigrate democratic methods when they do not function perfectly, but understand which historic, economic and social amalgam are beneath political meetings where residents silence when they do have a lot to say. 

Author Biographies 

Dr Andreza A. de Souza Santos is the director of the Brazilian Studies Programme and Lecturer at the Latin America Centre, University of Oxford. She is the author of The Politics of Memory: Urban Cultural Heritage in Brazil

Dr Markus Hochmüller is a postdoctoral fellow of the German Academic Exchange Service and a visiting research associate at the University of Oxford’s Latin American Centre. He is also a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, where he received his PhD in political science in 2018. His research looks at security, state- and peacebuilding, development, and democratic governance in (urban) Latin America.