Strange powers: Conservation, science, and transparency in an indigenous political project (Respond to this article at


  • Michael L. Cepek

    1. Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a fellow in the Division of Environment, Culture, and Conservation at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. He began working with the Cofán people of Amazonian Ecuador in 1994 and continues to collaborate with them on projects. His email is
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The Cofán people of Amazonian Ecuador are important players within global movements for indigenous rights and biodiversity conservation. Scholars, non-governmental organizations, and donor agencies laud their efforts to protect more than 430,000 hectares of forestland from an expanding colonization front, the transnational petroleum industry, and the spillover of violence from the Colombian civil war and drug trade. In this article, I examine how a set of discourses surrounding indigenous politics enable and constrain Cofán projects. In the context of an ethnographic account of Cofán political practice, I differentiate between the ‘expressive’, ‘instrumental’, and ‘obstructive’ nature of ‘conservation’, ‘science’, and ‘transparency’, respectively. More specifically, I develop three arguments: first, that the discourse of conservation serves to express deeply held conceptions of the ties between Cofán culture, Cofán territory, and Cofán politics; second, that the discourse of science functions as an instrument that Cofán activists use to ground a political-economic exchange with outside powers; and third, that the discourse of transparency stymies Cofán collective action and is neither locally meaningful nor politically useful. By analyzing the social life of these terms and concepts in Cofán activism, I argue for a more nuanced understanding of discursive power, which always exists in tension with the cultural sensibilities and political perspectives that it supposedly transforms.