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Steve Hinnefeld
IU Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, October 2, 2012

IU professor's book explores political ecology of water in South American port cities

Oct. 2, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Stephanie C. Kane spent half a year conducting research in northern Brazil, where her "guide, research collaborator and friend" Antonio Conceição Reis was waging a brave and passionate battle to protect the iconic lake called Abaeté.

"I had just left Brazil when I got word that he had been assassinated," Kane said. "It was quite a blow. He was the main person I worked with, the one person who dedicated himself to this cause."

book cover, Where Rivers Meet the Sea

Conceição Reis' death -- under circumstances that were never properly explained -- was a dramatic reminder of the sometimes destructive but essential relationship between people and water. And that relationship is at the center of Kane's new book, "Where Rivers Meet the Sea: The Political Ecology of Water," published by Temple University Press.

Kane, an associate professor of criminal justice in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, writes about port cities in Brazil and Argentina, investigating the interaction of commerce, natural resources and the state and its impact on the people, rich, poor and in between, who live near and depend on rivers and oceans.

"Urban ecology is like a bad dream work in progress," she writes in the introduction, "infinite sets of semiconscious negotiations taking twists and turns through distinct locales. Each locale faces a particular set of aquatic conundrums, and each relies on cultural and political forms of engagement that are uniquely shaped by port city history."

Resulting from more than a year of field research, "Where the Rivers Meet the Sea" combines ecological and anthropological perspectives and integrates understanding of the ecology of rivers and coasts with an examination of changes in shipping technology, harbor-side redevelopment and urban migration.

The book focuses on two very different port cities: Salvador, Brazil; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Neither suffers from a shortage of water; and both Brazil and Argentina have laws that, in theory, protect water and other resources. But both cities struggle with pollution and equitable access to clean water.

Salvador, a smaller city, is less intensely polluted, but political and racial oppression complicate the fight for environmental justice, Kane says. She focuses on Lagoa de Abaeté and the nearby community of Itapuã, made famous in the songs of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and other Brazilian musicians. The lake and its white-sand dunes, she says, are at risk of being "loved to death" by tourists and are threatened with the development of hotels and houses.

Informed and encouraged by Conceição Reis, Kane interviewed local officials, searched for elusive documents and waded into complex debates about whether and how and why Abaeté is being degraded. After moving on to Argentina, she learned that Conceição Reis, who had filed complaints against local police, had been gunned down in front of a neighbor's garage.

Police made no progress in solving the murder for three years. Then they arrested four drug dealers and blamed them for the death. Conceição Reis' friends were not convinced; or, at the least, they believe that some powerful figure with a stake in quieting the activist must have given the order.

Buenos Aires is much larger than Salvador; its metropolitan area is the second-largest in South America, with a population of more than 10 million people. With its size and population density come serious pollution related to "eco-blind" engineering of water, sewer and drainage infrastructure projects. But the city is also a hotbed of protest, where activism is a vehicle and principle for democratic organizing.

"Where Rivers Meet the Sea" highlights the struggle for clean water by Buenos Aires' residents against a backdrop of settlement and migration, development and political and business corruption.

"Environmentalists, in general, have over-emphasized wild areas," Kane said. "If we want to take environmentalism seriously, we need to look at urban ecology."

Kane is also the author of "The Phantom Gringo Boat: Shamanic Discourse and Development in Panama" and "AIDS Alibis: Sex, Drugs and Crime in the Americas." She is co-editor of "Crime's Power: Anthropologists and the Ethnography of Crime."

For more information or to speak with Kane, contact Steve Hinnefeld at IU Communications, 812-856-3488 or