New & Noteworthy

June 29, 2008

Reason to Believe: Cultural Agency in Latin American Evangelicalism by David Smilde, University Of California Press, 2007, 277 pp., $21.95 paperback

Since mid-century, about 50 million Latin Americans have converted to Protestantism. Anthropologist David Smilde asks why this is so in the barrios of Caracas, particularly with regard to the many men living there who are converting. Opening the book with the admission that the relationship between agency and belief is extremely complex and poorly understood, Smilde explores what it means to believe in the context of a Latin American evangelical congregation, and in the process attempts to counter the idea that Protestantism offers a form of metaphysical or cultural escapism for Latin Americans.

Rather, he argues that the ability to free oneself from vices like drugs, alcohol, and gambling, and the violence that is often connected with them, is an important motivating factor for conversion. To develop his ethnographic analysis, Smilde spends time with members of two congregations, both of which offer moral, social, and in certain cases economic incentives to recruit new members. He demonstrates that the strong social networks found within evangelical groups are organized around very real issues for converts. These networks are not only an immense resource for those attempting to escape their vices, but also offer assistance, both social and economic, to incoming migrants from rural areas.

The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mining, Multinationals, and Human Rights Edited by Aviva Chomsky, Garry Leech, and Steve Striffler, Casa Editorial Pisando Callos (Bogotá), 2007, 200 pp., $12 paperback

Rarely does such a comprehensive and rich account of a case of devastation come into print. This collection of essays and testimonials sheds light on the social, environmental and medical problems caused by the opening of the coal operation in El Cerrejon, Colombia, more than 20 years ago. A timeline in the opening chapter gives the reader a sense of the mine’s history. Discussions between energy companies and the Colombian government began in 1975, and the mine itself was opened in 1983. Today it is the largest mine in the Americas and the largest open-pit mine in the world.

As indicated by its title, the book highlights the many corporations, state agencies, and other economic actors—including U.S. energy consumers—who are responsible for the mine’s activities. Beyond that, it is concerned with the people whose lives have been touched, often disastrously, by the mining operation. The most affected groups have been the Wayuu people, a group indigenous to the region, and Afro-Colombians living in the area. For many of the Wayuu, life dramatically changed when they were moved to five “reservations” established by the government for their protection and convenience. They lost their homeland and have received virtually none of the benefits they were promised when the mine was opened.

Environmental Justice in Latin America: Problems, Promise, and Practice Edited by David Carruthers, The MIT Press, 2008, 336 pp., $25 paperback

The editor put together this book in order to contribute to what he calls “an emerging effort to explore the promise and limits of environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Bringing together a broad variety of experts, this collection of 13 essays examines the ways in which activists, policy makers, and academics have opened up space for the cause. The edited volume is broken into three sections, the first of which covers conceptual and theoretical frameworks. The second half examines industrial development, land rights, and resource management, with a particular focus on Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite a long history of environmentalist activism in the region, numerous obstacles continue to block an expanding environmental agenda in the region: Both quantitative and qualitative data are lacking, as is the funding for research to gather such data; limited legal frameworks receive little or no funding for their implementation; and there is increasing pressure from private investors to expand industrialization and limit environmental regulation. Socio-economic inequity, it becomes clear, is crucial for explaining environmental injustice, but just as culpable are inequities in access to the political process.


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