Sleeping Environmental Problems and Academic Work: The Space Between Knowledge Production and Activism

The case of the lead epidemic in La Teja, a working-class neighborhood, and surrounding areas of Montevideo in the early 2000s, was one of the first warning calls that alerted Uruguayan society about the externalities of a socio-economic model based on the exploitation of people and nature. What made it possible for this case to become emblematic and allow this level of social and environmental awareness? This is the question that Daniel Renfrew’s book Life Without Lead tries to answer.

Life Without Lead shows us how through the social organization of neighbors an awareness of socioenvironmental impacts emerged in Uruguay. Renfrew follows the trail of toxic lead to document the difficulties and creativity of people constructing an environmental justice movement. The Comisión Vivir sin Plomo (Living Without Lead Committee) was created by neighbors demanding action, and accountability allowed the situation to become visible to the general public and produced responses on the part of the government. The social organization’s struggle and plan of action revealed the lack of inspection, regulation, or prevention by industries and businesses while detailing the environmental and human health impacts. The book also shows the limits governmental interventions have at the level of policy and legislation because their effects are dedicated to mitigating contamination as much as to hiding institutional responsibilities.

Renfrew’s ethnography focuses on the dynamics and disputes of socio-environmental conflicts at the epistemological and symbolic level. During that period in the public sphere, and at the institutional level, the lead crisis was framed as a consequence of poverty and attributed to the cultural characteristics of the poor. But social organizations foregrounded issues pertaining to the environmental crisis as created by a neoliberal economic model. Renfrew unveils how the social movement work focused on making sense of the experience through an environmental justice perspective. The construction of this new narrative highlights the responsibilities of industries and the state in the contamination of the people’s living spaces, thus revealing how the community’s health was affected by this. The social movement started by neighbors morphed into an eclectic group that included doctors, journalists, and intellectuals who helped to question the established understanding of the lead crisis and frame it as an epidemic that affected the whole city, not only particular neighborhoods. A combination of citizen science and socially committed professional practice produced new knowledge about the phenomenon and a new way of understanding what was happening.

The role of the researcher and the ethnography is also part of this reflexive process that had epistemological and symbolic effects in the community. The outsider perspective of the researcher served to inform the movements’ representations of the socio-environmental issue and gave legitimacy to the neighbors’ interpretations by supporting them with international data and other authorized voices. This enabled the group to use international regulations and experiences as comparison and contrast in terms of what level of lead to consider acceptable in children. Renfrew’s approach to ethnography from a political ecology perspective transforms the construction of knowledge into a political act. How does the researcher-activist stance affect the understanding and unfolding of environmental conflicts? What are the advantages and problems of this stance?

This book makes an important contribution to the history of the environmental movement in Uruguay and also documents the social strategies that have been successful in making visible socio-environmental violence. There are today other “sleeping” environmental problems in Uruguay, which are invisible in the public sphere (i.e. residue disposal “megabasureros,” the monoculture industrial agriculture and tree plantation models based on the use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides). How can this type of engaged and committed ethnography help inform the environmental social movement’s struggles today?


Mariana Achugar, PhD (UC, Davis 2002), is an associate professor in the Universidad de la República in Uruguay. Her work focuses on understanding cultural reproduction and change from a critical discourse analysis and linguistic anthropology perspective. She is an active militant in environmental groups in Uruguay. 

One Response to Sleeping Environmental Problems and Academic Work: The Space Between Knowledge Production and Activism

  1. Pingback: Book Forum: Daniel Renfrew’s Life Without Lead: Contamination, Crisis, and Hope in Uruguay | Somatosphere

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