Vital Decomposition

Soil Practitioners and Life Politics

Book Pages: 232 Illustrations: 42 illustrations, incl. 8 in color Published: April 2020

Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Latin American Studies

In Colombia, decades of social and armed conflict and the US-led war on drugs have created a seemingly untenable situation for scientists and rural communities as they attempt to care for forests and grow non-illicit crops. In Vital Decomposition Kristina M. Lyons presents an ethnography of human-soil relations. She follows state soil scientists and peasants across labs, greenhouses, forests, and farms and attends to the struggles and collaborations between farmers, agrarian movements, state officials, and scientists over the meanings of peace, productivity, rural development, and sustainability in Colombia. In particular, Lyons examines the practices and philosophies of rural farmers who value the decomposing layers of leaves, which make the soils that sustain life in the Amazon, and shows how the study and stewardship of the soil point to alternative frameworks for living and dying. In outlining the life-making processes that compose and decompose into soil, Lyons theorizes how life can thrive in the face of the violence, criminalization, and poisoning produced by militarized, growth-oriented development.


Vital Decomposition weaves enthralling ecopoetic writing with the finest ethnographic storytelling. Kristina M. Lyons tells us a compelling story of human-soil relations nurturing insurgent life from the very grounds of eco-social devastation. An indispensable and inspiring read for hopeful decolonial naturecultures.” — María Puig de la Bellacasa, author of Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds

“Making several important interventions in biopolitics, multispecies ethnography, and feminist science studies, Vital Decomposition is a riveting, engaging, timely, and intimate book. It is the best kind of ethnography; it takes us to the small, marginal, and forgotten and examines the world through them, making us feel as though we've been looking at everything the wrong way for a while.” — Kregg Hetherington, author of The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops

Vital Decomposition is a beautifully written book that takes readers deep inside the worlds of Amazonian farmers, soil scientists, and the Amazonian ecosystem itself…. Readers interested in rural Colombia, alternative agricultural practices, and the connections between knowledge, practice, power, and resistance, will appreciate her work.”

— Alex Diamond, NACLA

“Through her research, Lyons weaves poetry and storytelling into a novel analysis of soils. From the perspective of the rural farmers she came to know, Lyons vividly describes the urgent need to ‘think with Amazonian soils’ rather than external systems....” — Kathleen M. Smits and Jessica M. Smith, Vadose Zone Journal


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kristina M. Lyons is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania.

Table of Contents Back to Top

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. Life in the Midst of Poison  1
1. From Aerial Spaces to Litter Layers  10
2. The Theater of Life Is Also a Stage of Death: Beyond Surface Chauvinism  41
3. Partial Alliances among Minor Practices: The "Ellusive" Nature of Colombia's Amazonian Plains  70
4. Decomposition as Life Politics: On Reclaiming and Relaying  105
5. Resonating Farms and Vital Spaces: A Person and His Concepts  137
6. Which Soils? Where Soils? Why Soils?  169
Notes  183
References  197
Index  213

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Rights and licensing

Honorable Mention, 2021 Bryce Wood Book Award, presented by the Latin American Studies Association

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