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Knowing Water Worlds: A Postphenomenological Approach to Socioenvironmental Imaginaries in Costa Rica

Knowing Water Worlds: A Postphenomenological Approach to Socioenvironmental Imaginaries in Costa Rica

Author(s): Francesc Gabriel Rodríguez Mansilla
Published: 2020
Type: Ph.D. Dissertations


In a context of increasing liberalization and privatization of the energy sector in Costa Rica, a wave of applications for private concessions to build run-of-the-river dams has swept over the country during the last decade. These hydroelectric projects have caused concern among residents adjacent to the targeted rivers to the extent that a socioenvironmental conflict has erupted in several communities in the southern Pacific side of the country, which I refer to as water worlds. I use the term water worlds both to transcend the limits of a human-focused notion of community, and to refer to the mutually sustaining confluence of relations between the materiality of water, human and non-human living beings, knowledge claims and practices (acts-of-knowing) and their corresponding socioenvironmental imaginaries in particular territories and river water areas. This dissertation focuses on the acts-of-knowing and the underlying socioenvironmental imaginaries of these water worlds.

My empirical study seeks a postphemenological ethnographic approach, and draws theoretical connections between Cornelius Castoriadis and Science & Technology Studies. Using advocacy research, it was conducted in 34 fieldwork sites, involved 14 unstructured interviews and dozens of conversations with community participants, and drew on numerous documents and visual resources.

My analysis shows how:

- The Environmental Impact Study (EIS) report of the San Rafael River over-simplifies the knowledge capacities of neighbor communities and environmental groups. The EIS report does not fully take into account knowledge about biophysical dynamics that members of the communities are able to co-create using alternative acts-of-knowing, such as: (i) giving attention to historical perspectives, (ii) embodying practices, and (iii) creating community coalitions in response to perceived knowledge deficits.

- Local communities co-create imaginaries of water worlds associated with ways of living and the maintenance of community relations, upon which rivers have significant influence. This notion of imaginaries as a life force of connectivity challenges the underlying (modern) assumptions and treatments of rivers, as expressed in the EIS report. That is, it defies the imaginary of rivers as quantifiable, determinable, divisible, and isolated from the human and non-human communities.

- Multispecies encounters in daily situations represent an important element in understanding acts-of-knowing articulated by the local communities in the water worlds of this dissertation. Drawing from Cornelius Castoriadis perspective of living beings, I offer alternative imaginaries of the role of non-human animals in Costa Rica that are more intimate and affective than what I understand as mechanical and passive notions of non-human animals in the multiple spaces that they share together with humans.

Overall, this dissertation contributes to a deeper (and politically significant) understanding of acts-of-knowing in a particular conflict over (more than) water. In doing so, it contributes to existing work on sociotechnical and environmental imaginaries in Science & Technology Studies and political ecology by adopting a postphenomenological perspective, which aims to transcend taken-for-granted assumptions about acts-of-knowing under the sustainable development approach in Costa Rica.

A copy of this PhD dissertation is available through the YorkU Space website