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Ivan Vargas Roncancio
McGill University

This presentation discusses how a particular kind of forest beings in the Colombian Andes referred to as the ‘invisible ones’, engage with the law. It tells the story of the making of a legal contract between an indigenous community and a plant scientist in the Southern department of Nariño. The contract outlines a research protocol on ethno-botanical classifications of a ritual plant, which required the mediation of the invisible people of the mountain where the plant is harvested. The paper brings ‘legal theory to trial’ as it engages with the ‘spirit-masters’ of plants and animals that human people encounter in forests, everyday speech, and legal documents. The first part of the paper describes a plant scientist’s relationship with what she calls “the mandate of the mountain”, and how the ensuing research protocol involved the contested participation of human and more-than-human agencies. It also discuses some of the epistemological, axiological, and methodological challenges that the making of this legal artifact entails. The second section reviews ethnographic accounts of Amerindian forest spirits; in particular, how spirits come to mediate norms for doing, or not-doing something in the forest. Ritual and magic are modes of legal thinking in the Andean-Amazonian region. The third section reflects upon how the law is connected to the nonvisible, and thus how legality and invisibility are socially constructed, mobilized, and negotiated. Finally, the presentation draws attention to what I call the ‘legalities of the invisible’ in the context of a place-based legal theory and practice in this region.

Iván is Ph.D candidate in Natural Resource Sciences – Renewable Resources; a member of the Leadership for the Ecozoic program at McGill University; lawyer, M.Sc in Bioscience and Law, and M.A. in Latin American studies. Iván studies Andino-Amazonian legal cultures, the ontological and political dimensions of ecological conflicts, and critical legal studies. His current research ethnographically follows indigenous practitioners, scientists, legal scholars, and ritual plants across territories, laboratories, and courts of justice in the Andean-Amazonian region of Colombia.

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