Rethinking IR from the Amazon – an interview with Manuela Picq, by Leonardo Bandarra

The supremacy of theories from the developed world is a reality in the International Relations scholarship. This field of study is currently oriented towards a divide in the process of theorisation, in which thinkers of the Global North tend to develop theories, whereas academicians from the Global South would only test them. To break this divide, and thus making International Relations a more inclusive discipline, recent efforts have being undertaken in order to voice otherwise peripheral perspectives, such as the worldviews emanating from the Amazon.

Amazonia is a byword of how an important region was left aside from the major developments of IR theorisation. The Amazon is usually not analysed by IR theoreticians when addressing the main issues that affect global affairs, and, even on its rare mentions, it is solely regarded as a passive scenario, where environment-related issues take place. The lack of relevant studies about the Amazon is a gap, which leaves aside IR theories a historically crucial landmass, where not only sundry social groups, from runaway slaves to native-American tribes, lived together but also where divergent interests from erstwhile European powers confronted to each other.

How the Amazon region could be successfully addressed by IR and the reasons why understanding it is a crucial issue to IR scholars are the topic objectives of the article Rethinking IR from the Amazon, which was published by professor Manuela Picq, from Universidad San Francisco de Quito, in the special issue Many Worlds, Many Theories? of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI (Volume 59 – N. 2). About the formulations developed in her article and about her own opinion on those topics, professor Picq was interviewed by Leonardo C. Bandarra, who is a member of the editorial board of the RBPI.

In a nutshell, why is it important to include the Amazon in IR theoretical frameworks?

Manuela Picq: Amazonia has long been embedded in world politics, but it remains is invisible in our discipline of international relations. Amazon Rivers were the stage of European claims to sovereignty in the sixteenth-century; in the nineteenth-century the region produced all the rubber fueling the car revolution; today it offers diverse expressions of sexuality from Gay pride celebrations to drag queen contests. Rather than separate from international relations, the region has shaped and been shaped by global dynamics.

My research calls attention to the value of Amazon experiences in IR scholarship for two interrelated reasons. First, IR scholarship without the Amazon is incomplete, giving an impaired understanding of the world we live in. Second, Amazon experiences of the international challenge IR’s conceptual canons. Amazon perspectives debunk assumptions of where modernity comes from, where is the center and the periphery, and how to think policy for the future. For instance, what does it mean that the Amazon has a vibrant LGBT scene? Does it make this region long considered peripheral sexually modern? Or does it rather challenge mainstream notions of political modernity that lie at the core of IR?

This research seeks not only to demonstrate the contributions of the Amazon to international relations but also to reveal how Amazon experiences challenge conventional theories of stateness.

In your article, you state that the Amazon “is not perceived as a place to study IR because it is imagined outside the modern state”. In your opinion, what could be done in order to insert Amazonia in the IR scholarship?

Manuela Picq: The important point here is the temporality of the Westphalian state. Western thinkers tend to locate nature outside the modern state of Westphalia, and therefore in Europe’s past. In a way, we perpetuate today what John Locke said in his Second Treatise of Government (1690): “in the beginning, all the world was America.” The Amazon continues to represent this state of nature that precedes the arrival of western political history. In other words, political modernity starts in America with the colonial encounter. This kind of mentality locates subaltern temporalities outside the temporality of the modern state and seeks to bring the ‘uncivilized’ into the present (ie the state).

IR scholarship is infused with this temporalization of difference, with narratives on ‘emerging’ economies and ‘developing’ societies. This temporal dimension creates false dichotomies between past and present, implying a colonial political thought stuck in the ‘first in Europe, then elsewhere’.

Amazon perspectives are valuable because they put IR upside down. If we succeed to “bring in” the Amazon, our scholarship will inevitably challenge the state-centrism of the discipline — and allow us to rethink what IR is all about.

Still concerning state centrism, you make in your text an interesting parallel between the Spaniards’ inability to understand the Incan sensibility for art and the incapacity of IR scholars to see beyond the nation-state. In a broad way, what could be done in order to renew IR scholarship and thus making it more inclusive?

Manuela Picq: The most important is our ability to see. When the Spaniards arrived in the Andes, they had their own expectations of what sacred idols should look like—man-made, anthropomorphic idols. They were unable to apprehend rocks as Inca culture saw them (animate, transmutable, powerful and sentient) thus failing to access the broad array of beliefs and relationships people forged with them. Their inability to access meaning in Inca rock echoes a larger European inability to read the New World. Today, IR is similarly impaired; it cannot accurately understand political configurations that differ from those it has defined for itself. IR is similarly impaired; it cannot accurately understand political configurations that differ from its own Westphalian state-centrism.

I emphasize the significance of the Amazon in world politics to enable a more comprehensive way of seeing IR. The Amazon experiences are not untold, they are unheard in IR. As Cox once put it, theory is made by someone, from somewhere, for some purpose.

Unlike most academicians, you also engage yourself in social movements and in the defence of marginalised groups, such as Amazonian Indians. In your opinion, which role does academia play in day-to-day world politics?

Manuela Picq: We all live IR. We don’t simply simply study international relations, we enact them in everyday life and in academic choices, even if we don’t take to the streets. Feminism has repeated again and again that it is impossible to separate the political and the personal. There are political implications for how we engage with the world- and there are costs too.

In my case, I became involved with Indigenous politics, which became central to my scholarship and opinion pieces. My research became a worldview, and I grew involved with Indigenous activists who taught me community and knowledge. Some may call it ‘action research,’ others refer to activist scholarship. I think of it as my body standing with my ideas: my ideas inhabit my body and my body stands with my ideas. There is no dissociable border between our bodies and ideas. Our ideas are not dead words thrown at conferences, they inhabit our bodies.

In August 2015, I was in a march for democracy by Indigenous activists. Police forces surrounded me, beat and detained me. My work visa was revoked and I was expelled from the country where I had built a social, professional, and family life. There are costs to standing by one’s ideas, especially when one’s ideas side with the most criminalized group in the world. I was silenced for standing for a certain worldview. Ideas can be inconvenient; bother existing orders. But that is good. What I experienced is only a fraction of what Indigenous peoples have experienced for centuries. IR theory is not simply an intellectual exercise; our scholarship has practical implications.

Do you believe that a more inclusive IR scholarship could become a mechanism to entice the creation of an international community that is more open to claims from marginalised social groups?

Manuela Picq: Good scholarship and good universities, even good democracies, can only blossom with the insights that come with diversity. The inclusion of other ways of seeing is indispensable to comprehend the world we inhabit. Feminism, race, and indigeneity are not simply about adding marginalized social groups to expand IR scholarship. Their experiences change what counts and what does not count as IR, redefine borders, challenge conceptual canons. A more inclusive scholarship is not an act of generosity or charity; it is absolutely necessary if we want a partial knowledge obfuscated by social blind spots.   

Read the article:

Picq, Manuela. (2016). Rethinking IR from the Amazon. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 59(2), e003. Epub September 05, 2016.

Leonardo Carvalho L. A. Bandarra, member of the editorial team of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI. He holds a Master degree in International Relations from the University of Brasília, Brasília, DF, Brazil.

Mundorama. "Rethinking IR from the Amazon – an interview with Manuela Picq, by Leonardo Bandarra". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais,. [Acessado em 20/08/2019]. Disponível em: <>.

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