The virtualism of “capacity building” workshops in indigenous Amazonia: Ethnography in the new middle ground

Laura Mentore


Sustainable development and conservation NGOs in Amazonia often hold workshops in which they task indigenous communities with various activities in the name of “capacity building.” People tend to perform these tasks despite often finding them to be flawed, demeaning, or based on erroneous assumptions about their lifeways and perspectives. Workshop organizers, for their part, tend to view local participation in itself as a straightforward indicator of a successful workshop to the neglect of a more complex picture. These combined tendencies contribute to expectations on both sides being partially fulfilled at best, but due to asymmetrical power distributions, can have disproportionately negative consequences for indigenous communities. The aim of this article is to critically examine these habits of workshop practice by casting ethnographic light on the multiple cultural imaginings (of present and future, self and other) that people and projects carry with them into workshop space. Capacity building workshops can be seen as the latest form of “middle ground” between indigenous social desires and global eco-politics, set apart from the middle grounds of the 1990s (cf. Conklin and Graham 1995) by an intensification of symbolic economics through what I refer to as virtualism. Two ethnographic vignettes illustrate how capacity building exercises can elicit ambivalence and pose problems and risks for indigenous communities despite their theoretical intention of “leveling the playing field.”


capacity building, middle ground, virtualism, Amazonia, political ecology, development

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.028