Throughout the years, much has been written about the image of ‘indigenous’ peoples as ‘authentic’ people of nature (Garland and Gordon 1999, Carrier and West 2004, Comaroff and Comaroff 2009, Koot 2017a, Hüncke and Koot 2012, Gordon and Douglas 2000, Fennell 2008, Sylvain 2014, Butler and Hinch 2007, Carr, Ruhanen and Whitford 2016). This image is often presented as if these people are still living in tune with nature, while often they have become marginalised under colonialism and past and present processes of the spread of neoliberal capitalism, including the rise of global cultural or indigenous tourism. In today’s sustainability discourse, indigenous people are often characterised as the authentic ‘natural ecologists’ or the wise protectors of the land. As such, they can function as an example for non-indigenous people who can begin to live in harmony with nature just like them (Fennell 2008, Koot 2017b). In marketing campaigns, they are often ‘naturalised’ for tourist consumption and are shown in photographs, for example, in traditional dress with the local flora and fauna (Chambers 2000). And consumers, such as Western tourists, see the progress of modernity as a state that depends on modernity’s own inauthenticity, which creates the belief that authenticity is always elsewhere: in the past or in the ‘simpler’, ‘purer’ cultures far away (MacCannell 1976). Thus, driven by consumer culture, “the 21st century is an age that hungers for anything that feels authentic” (Banet-Weiser 2012, 3), and today, branding reflects and affects our cultural and social relations on a daily basis. Marketers acknowledge the power of authenticity as an essential aspect of branding. This is an area where we, ‘the inauthentic’, search for genuine affects, ideas, and emotions in our consumer culture (Banet-Weiser 2012).
Indigenous tourism, based on branding indigenous people, thus creates an important contradiction in which Western ideals about nature and the people living there are enacted through the free market, creating products based on the tourists’ consumptive needs. In this way, tourists spread ‘inauthentic’ capitalist values and the market system, instead of supporting authentic indigenous practices (Carrier and West 2004, Koot 2016). In fact, ethnic commodities are contradictory in the sense that, seen from the conventional assumptions about value and price, the appeal of such commodities lies in the idea that they resist the rationality of such ordinary economics.
The Bushman brand in tourism
One example of such ‘branded’ indigenous people are the Bushmen (or San) of southern Africa. They are often still considered part and parcel of nature, an image that can be viewed in the wider context of romanticism about Africa. The tourist sector in southern Africa has typical branding strategies that tap into the image of a wild Africa and portray the continent as spectacular, thriving with wildlife, and sparsely populated by some western explorers and exotic people (Ellis 1994). To give just one example of a text by a tour operator: the Bushmen “have much to offer our modern ways of living in terms of a sustainable existence with nature” (NAAT 2019).
In my research over the years I have investigated the marketing of this touristic image and shown some of the Bushmen’s responses to such marketing. I found that their ‘authentic’ image itself has now become a financial asset in tourism and therefore can be considered a brand: the ‘Bushman brand’. In the end, a brand can be regarded as “a process of attaching an idea to a product” (Walker 2006), which is exactly what the Bushman image has turned into: a product with (romantic) ideas attached to it. Even broader, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a brand as “a particular identity or image regarded as an asset” (Oxford Dictionaries 2019). Seen as such, static representations of indigenous identities, based on the authentic image, are brands in today’s neoliberal political economy; in tourism especially, the Bushmen’s image is commodified within the free market system as a particular product with financial value, and as such can be regarded an asset based on the many ideas attached to it. However, in this process it is often assumed that Bushmen “do not participate in visual discourse, they are always represented as different and other: a silent minority who show no resistance to the identity which has been historically created for them” (Bester and Buntman 1999, 58). Although I do not deny power relations through branding (Koot 2016), to consider Bushmen a ‘silent minority who show no resistance’ does not do justice to reality. In fact, in many cases they have shown agency to engage with contemporary (tourism) projects, and with the Bushman brand, for their own benefit (Koot 2017a, Koot 2018).
Commodification does not necessarily mean that those who commodify their identities and/or image will always remain victims of market forces, although it might appear this way at first. Numerous examples show that indigenous groups set up their own entrepreneurial activities based on their authentic ethnicity. In this, there is a good level of tactical and critical consciousness (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009). As such, various groups of Bushmen have shown to use the Bushman brand to their advantage. For example, the ≠Khomani Bushmen in South Africa have shown themselves in the media as the authentic people of the Northern Cape Province to successfully gain back land (see, e.g. Koot and Büscher 2019). Today, some of them perpetuate the usage of the Bushman brand, mostly in tourism. For example, the first thing that catches one’s eye when arriving in their reclaimed land are the craft makers along the road side where they sell souvenirs to tourists, dressed up ‘traditionally’ at their road stalls, or stalletjies in Afrikaans. However, commercial operators of course also benefit from this brand and throughout history more powerful parties have created this brand in the first place (Koot 2016). Commercialised usage of the brand is widespread and highly supported by consultants, private enterprises and NGOs, often promoted as a ‘competitive advantage’ in neoliberal development strategies. For example, the NGO the African Safari Lodge Foundation (ASLF) believes that the ≠Khomani need their “own brand identity” to be able to survive in today’s competitive tourism industry (ASLF 2011, 3), and a marketing company has supported the ≠Khomani in acquiring (free of charge) their own website (http://www.khomanisan.com/). Notably, the company supported the ≠Khomani in developing “their new identity” (FOTK 2015), although it remains unclear what exactly they mean by this. Becoming a ≠Khomani brand, it seems, means that the Bushmen are becoming part of the neoliberal capitalist system predominantly as a brand, and not as ‘authentic’ hunter-gatherers.
Further North, in the Namibian Nyae Nyae Conservancy, a Tourism Development Plan was developed by consultants to prepare for funding (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009). They wrote about the local Ju/’hoansi Bushmen as
universally known to be ancestors of “the world’s first people” and continue to live in harmony with the environment […] It is recommended that the above message be provided to visitors entering the area through the design and construction of regional gateway points (Humphrey and Wassenaar 2009, 88).
This recommendation resembles an amusement park for tourists, something that was long ago already described by the famous Ju/’hoansi filmmaker and activist John Marshall as a “plastic Stone Age” (1984), in which tourists enter a geographical area where one can gaze at wildlife and ‘authentic’ Bushmen. Such commodification at times leads to uncomfortable situations, as an employee of an NGO that operates in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy explained:
Within the Conservancy [Ju/’hoansi] people think every tourist that comes, they should make money out of it. They’re starting to make their culture become like a whole business thing […] If anybody wants to take a picture it’s money, money, money, money.
And it is exactly this discomfort that demonstrates the contradiction described above: once Bushmen start to adapt to neoliberal capitalism and capitalise on their own brand, the values and ideas on which the brand is built make the people ‘inauthentic’. On the one hand, the capitalist value of profit maximisation is continually promoted in tourism, based on the economic idea that individuals want to gain financial benefits. On the other hand, this can ‘make their culture become like a whole business thing’ (‘inauthentic’), based on the idea that they should stay authentic and not hanker for money.
But just as with the ≠Khomani and their stalletjies, the Ju/’hoansi also want to benefit from the Bushman brand, as the self-made logo meant to attract tourists near the settlement of Mountain Post, inhabited by Ju/’hoansi, shows:
The global indigenous brand beyond tourism
The idea that a particular group of indigenous people can be seen as a brand, or defines itself as a brand, is certainly not unique to the Bushmen of southern Africa or to tourism only. Recently, the Maasai of Kenya started a legal procedure to protect their ‘cultural heritage’ legally, which has been used by more than 1,000 companies, including Calvin Klein, Jaguar Land Rover, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, while a group of aboriginal Australians are struggling to create protocols that oblige companies who use their images or ancestral lands for marketing or other commercial purposes to pay a fee to them (Pilling 2018). And in the U.S., native Americans performing at Euro-Disney at a ‘Wild West Show’ do not view tourist performances as perpetuating the image of a ‘native savage’. Such performances can create a sense of taking back ownership of native representation through their participation, providing them a chance for cultural exchange, education, cultural pride, and accomplishment (Scarangella 2005).
In all these cases, the indigenous people have not only been exploited under colonialism and neoliberal capitalism, they have also actively responded to and tried to benefit from it. It seems as if indigenous people’s first response to the encroachment of the capitalist world is to selectively transform the usage of commodities for themselves. Therefore, they often have not merely entered the capitalist world economy as passive objects of exploitation; they are also active agents continually engaging in their environment (Sahlins 1992). If they embrace their image as people of nature, indigenous people can use their agency creatively; they commodify their own ‘spectacularisation’ as people of nature (cf. Igoe 2017). It is important to be wary though, that such agency and engagement are derived based on a conformation with dominant values in contemporary society and that they often do not have many other choices.
 I am aware of the contentious character of the term ‘indigenous’, but it goes beyond the scope of this blog to elaborate on this in detail.
 Both ‘Bushmen’ and ‘San’ are debatable terms. I prefer the use of ‘Bushmen’ instead of ‘San’, because most of the indigenous people whom I worked with in southern Africa—practical and as a researcher—told me they preferred this term. I am aware, however, of the colonial, patronising and derogatory connotations that the term ‘Bushmen’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘San’ too) can have (see, e.g. Gordon & Douglas 2000).
 For a debate on private sector-community tourism, the usage of the brand and the consequences of this usage in the South African Northern Cape Province, between myself and Keyan Tomaselli, please check out Koot (2016), Tomaselli (2017) and Koot (2017c).
Pilling, D. 2018. Warrior Tribe Enlists Lawyers in Battle for Maasai ‘Brand’. Financial Times 19 January.
Sahlins, M. (1992) The economics of develop-man in the Pacific. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 12-25.
Scarangella, L. (2005) Fieldwork at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Anthropology News, 46, 17-19.
Sylvain, R. (2014) Essentialism and the Indigenous Politics of Recognition in Southern Africa. American Anthropologist, 116, 251-264.
Tomaselli, K. (2017) Picking on the poor: The contradictions of theory and neoliberal critique. A response to Stasja Koot’s paper on the contradictions of capitalism for indigenous tourism in the South African Kalahari. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25, 1182-1196.
Walker, R. 2006. The Brand Underground. New York Times 30 July.
Authors: Stasja Koot, Catie Gressier and Robert Hitchcock
A series of recent events in southern Africa reveal that the land question—and especially that related to land reform—is a long way from being resolved. There are currently no indications that these issues will be addressed quickly or efficiently. Land reform is at the top of the South African agenda at present, and this is true in Namibia as well, which had its Second Conference on Land Reform and the Land Question in October of 2018. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe stepped down as president after ruling the country for 37 years in November 2017. Arguably, Mugabe’s most controversial political activity had been the fast track land reform programme, in which mostly white farmers were dispossessed of their lands, obviously also having a very strong effect on the, mostly black, farm workers. However, today Zimbabwe’s next president, Emerson Mnangagwa, has announced that Zimbabwe will allow white farmers to get 99-year leases of land again. Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Africa, the new ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa said that the country should speed up the land reform process, including by appropriating white farms without payment of compensation. Likely, Ramaphosa and his party have felt the pressure of new, but highly popular, parties such as the EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters, for whom land appropriation without compensation is their ‘first non-negotiable cardinal pillar’. Since the demise of apartheid in 1994, the ANC-led government’s budget for land reform has never exceeded 1%, and since 2007 the process has only slowed down (Nkosi 2018). In a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world, it is then not surprising that more radical groups like the EFF can easily affect high level policy decisions and national political strategies, when large parts of the population feel their needs are not being addressed and promises remain unfulfilled. All of these issues make up some of the subject matter in a (part) special issue in the Journal of Southern African Studies (45: 2).
The frustration also shows when white and black farmers get attacked at their farms, attacks that sometimes also come with brutal violence, torture and rape. Of course, such violence should never be allowed, and therefore groups of both whites and blacks have protested against such attacks and asked the government for more protection. What is regrettable though, is that the focus in such protests for some vocal groups remains only on white farm attacks (even white ‘genocide’), and not on violence more generally (see, for example, the view of AfriForum and the response by Elmien du Plessis). In the end, the farm attacks, however brutal and horrific, only form a fraction of the violence in the country (Du Plessis 2018): most of the violence in South Africa (street crime, but also domestic violence) takes place among marginalised people who live in townships or impoverished rural areas. Focusing solely on the white farm attacks arguably creates more racial and economic tensions, strengthening feelings of ‘us’ against ‘them’ while ignoring structural issues of racial and economic inequality, which is nowhere as apparent as it is in the land question.
Who does the land belong to? Or: Who belongs to the land?
So in post-independent and post-apartheid southern Africa two questions that are still highly relevant are Who does the land belongs to?, and the preceding question: Who belongs to the land? The answers to both questions create a large variety of contestations: Under neoliberal capitalism, which currently thrives in southern Africa, private ownership is an important anchor. However, ownership of land is not necessarily congruent with the question who belongs to the land. Many instances show that the latter question continues to lead to heated debates and a large variety of political dynamics, of which we will only highlight a few here. ‘To belong’ is to have a sense of connection; it implies familiarity, comfort and ease, alongside feelings of inclusion, acceptance and safety. The way people belong to place is often informed by political strategies, conscious and unconscious, through which access to various rights and resources are sought and contested. Land has long been among the most highly valued of resources, and nowhere has this been more evident than during the liberation struggles across southern Africa. Claims to belong frequently invoke unique relationships to the land and nature (Gressier, 2015), which, in neoliberal contexts, are simultaneously constructed as highly commodified resources, in different ways by various ethnic groups.
A diverse set of ethnic groups is white southern Africans, who remain the most powerful set of ethnic groups from an economic point of view and who have always strongly identified with nature (McDermott Hughes, 2010). Take, for example, how white Namibians who work in the tourism industry and construct belonging through articulating a strong connection to the mostly essentialised local indigenous San people as people of nature (Koot, 2015). Or what about the coloured and white farmers of the highly commodified famous rooibos plantations in South Africa? Both groups struggle to express an ‘authentic’ sense of belonging, but have creatively, and in somewhat different ways, been able to identify more with the plant than with the land (Ives, 2017). These examples are important reminders not to reduce the politics of belonging to place as only a politics of land. And neither is it solely a positive politics; it is mobilised just as frequently in processes of exclusion that are shaped, more often than not, by dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. Take the key issue of labour and its consequent processes of (rural–urban) migration (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019), which keenly demonstrate that ‘inherent to belonging is always the potential for its opposites: insecurity, alienation and exclusion’ (Gressier, 2015). Xhosa people working in Cape Town often keep a strong sense of belonging with their rural homes in Centane in the former Transkei, a phenomenon which is referred to as Ekhayeni (Njwambe, Cocks and Vetter, 2019). Labour in particular demonstrates how the politics of belonging are integrally related to a variety of economic push and pull factors, with immigrants stereotypically regarded as a threat to an often already limited pool of work; economic migrants, temporary workers, asylum seekers and illegal migrants are then seen as those who do not belong and, as a consequence, are all too frequently confronted with xenophobic violence (Mosselson, 2010).
Indigenous peoples and their many court cases surrounding protected areas
Despite a lack of formal recognition of the unique histories of the region’s indigenous people, the governments of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are attempting to assist indigenous (mostly San or ‘Bushmen’) communities as ‘marginalised’ or ‘historically disadvantaged’ through various state-sponsored programmes (Sapignoli and Hitchcock, 2013). The San, who are often considered the ‘real’ indigenous people of southern Africa, continue to endure the region’s highest rates of impoverishment, landlessness and political alienation. While material resources are far too frequently scarce, as Richard Lee pointed out, indigenous people have “what migrants and the children of migrants (i.e., most of the rest of us) feel they lack: a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in place” (Lee, 2003, p. ).
Indeed, the San often articulate themselves —and are often articulated by others—as having a special relation to the land and nature. For the last few centuries, they have been among the most prominent victims of evictions for the sake of nature conservation. This is still visible today, when a large variety of San groups are in the middle of a court case or has won court cases already to get (access to) land. The Hai//om of northern Namibia, for example, have filed a collective action lawsuit in 2015, to be able to receive a share of the benefits from the highly profitable tourist gem Etosha National Park and from an area called Mangetti West. However, the Namibian government continues to push those Hai//om who still live in the Etosha park out, under the banner of ‘voluntary’ resettlement. Large donors and the Hai//om traditional authority (who was appointed by the government and not democratically elected) support this process (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Such problems with traditional authorities seem to be widespread over southern Africa, from Namibia in the West all the way to northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, in the East, and it does not seem to be restricted to indigenous people only (Aardenburg and Nel, 2019). Meanwhile, the Hai//om at the Tsintsabis resettlement farm, to the east of Etosha National Park, experience a high level of in-migration, which leads to a variety of social problems, including the rise of shebeens (where the sale of alcohol leads to many socio-cultural problems, such as prostitution, violence and ethnic tensions). Ironically, since Namibia’s independence in 1990 the land reform programme has predominantly favoured those with good connections in the government instead of marginalised groups, showing new elitism based on the privatisation of property. And further to the north, impoverished Hai//om at Mangetti West are today denied access to large tracts of land where they used to gather for food because cattle farmers from far away have now illegally fenced off large parts of the area (Koot and Hitchcock, 2019). Other San groups have also experienced difficulties with illegal fencing in northern Namibia, such as the San of the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy. Despite winning a court case against the illegal fencers in 2016, so far the fences have not been removed and no pressure seems to have been put on the illegal fencers, despite the Minister of Environment and Tourism himself stating that the government will “ensure that the rights of the San are protected” (Namibian Sun, 2016, see also Van der Wulp and Koot, 2019).
Furthermore, in neighbouring Botswana, the G//ana and G/wi San and Bakgalagadi of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) continue to be cut off from most government services. This is the latest strategy in the Botswanan state’s sustained campaign to evict residents from the protected area, despite the San having won four (!) court cases affirming their right to continue to reside within the CKGR (Sapignoli, 2018). Such strategies, as well as the land reform programme in Namibia, make you understand why many San in southern Africa consider the ‘new’ governments just as bad as, or at times worse than, colonial governments. Moreover, in South Africa, where the ≠Khomani San have received eight farms back based on past evictions from the current Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, it is not always a given that receiving land ‘back’ automatically also accounts for ‘development’: throughout the years the meaning of land has essentially changed from a ‘total environment’ that was taken away from hunting and gathering people under colonialism, to land as a purely commodified resource today, meant for the development of people who are identifying as hunter-gatherers, but who are first of all people of contemporary society where there is hardly any space for a ‘real’ hunting and gathering lifestyle (Koot and Büscher, 2019).
Aardenburg, E. and Nel, A. ‘Fatalism and Dissidence in Dukuduku, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa: Ongoing Contestations over Land, Resources and Identity’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Gressier, C., At Home in the Okavango: White Batswana Narratives of Emplacement and Belonging (Oxford, Berghahn, 2015).
McDermott Hughes, D., Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
Ives, S., Steeped in Heritage: The Racial Politics of South African Rooibos Tea (London, Duke University Press, 2017).
Koot, S. ‘White Namibians in Tourism and the Politics of Belonging through Bushmen’, Anthropology Southern Africa, 38(1–2), (2015), pp. 4–15.
Koot, S. and Büscher, B., ‘Giving Land (Back)? The Meaning of Land in the Indigenous Politics of the South Kalahari Bushmen Land Claim, South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Koot, S. and Hitchcock, R., ‘In the Way: Perpetuating Land Dispossession of the Indigenous Hai//om and the Collective Action Lawsuit for Etosha National Park and Mangetti West, Namibia’, Nomadic Peoples, 23, (2019), pp. 55-77.
Koot, S., Hitchcock, R. and Gressier, C., ‘Belonging, Indigeneity, Land and Nature in Southern Africa under Neoliberal Capitalism: An Overview’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Lee, R. ‘Indigenous Rights and the Politics of Identity in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa’, in B. Dean and J.M. Levi (eds), At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Postcolonial States (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003), pp. 80–111
Mosselson, A. ‘“There is no Difference between Citizens and Non-citizens Anymore”: Violent Xenophobia, Citizenship and the Politics of Belonging in Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 36(3) (2010), pp. 641–55
Sapignoli, M., Hunting Justice: Displacement, Law, and Activism in the Kalahari (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Sapignoli, M. and Hitchcock, R., ‘Indigenous Peoples in Southern Africa’, The Round Table, 102(4), (2013), pp. 355–65.
Van der Wulp, C. and Koot, S., ‘Immaterial Indigenous Modernities in the Struggle against Illegal Fencing in the N≠a Jaqna Conservancy, Namibia: Genealogical Ancestry and ‘San-ness’ in a ‘Traditional Community’’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 42(2), (2019).
Jessica Hope is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Momentum is gathering behind bids to make academia more diverse and equal. Part of this is about better recognising care responsibilities, which for me personally is about childcare. Since having my two year old, I have been increasingly involved in work to better recognise the challenges facing academics with children, for example how to negotiate career breaks or do fieldwork. In this blog, however, I want to write a personal and positive account of how good fieldwork with children can be, when well supported. I hope that this offers some support and encouragement for those wondering what they can manage or ask for and that it contributes to widening conversations about academic lives.
I have now been to Bolivia twice with my child. First, during my maternity leave when she was 9 months old (for 2 months) and secondly, in April when she was two (for a month). Both trips were great and I would deem them a success, both in terms of collecting data and as family time. In this brief blog, I’ll focus on the most recent trip and write about three key things – being supported economically; the practicalities of travel with a toddler; and the positives for my child.
This recent trip with my duaghter was much more relaxed than the first, in terms of feeling able to spend my funding on childcare costs. I have a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowship at the University of Bristol and these come with £5,000 research funds per year. This money is for my project and I secured approval to use some of it to pay for my daughters travel costs and those of my sister, who left her life in Berlin for a month to help me with Evie. Following conversations at the RGS and within DARG, this time around I felt much more justified in asking for (and spending) money on Bella and my daughters trip. The first important part of this was that I could choose the best care arrangements for my child. Bolivian childcare infrastructure is not ideal for an English-speaking foreigner, especially one moving between three fieldsites whilst there. Settling young children into nurseries is also no small thing wherever you are and the thought of putting Evie in a new nursery each week filled me with dread (I will, however, put her into a nursery when I go on fieldwork to Canada later in the year). Instead, the worries about having my toddler with me in Bolivia (and leaving her whilst I worked) was greatly reduced because she was with my sister – someone we both know and love. The second important part of being supported economically stems from uprooting Bella and my daughters lives for a month. It was a big deal for them to come to Bolivia for me but what helped make this a positive and happy time for us, and not just a productive time for me, was that I had the funding to cover our costs and live securely and happily whilst there.
For this short tip, I went to 3 field sites and carefully planned for heat, mosquitos and altitude. In terms of practicalities, my big take home point from doing fieldwork with Evie is book an apartment. Being stuck in a tiny hotel room made our first trip stressful and strange upon arrival. However, this time we had space. We could keep to my daughters routines, we could cook and, most importantly, we had a lovely home environment in each place. We could put my daughter to bed and have time to ourselves before going to sleep (20 minutes later) and our apartments offered some breathing space from all the newness and work (for everyone). Finally, I want it in print that I got strong. Really strong. I took one big hold-all for me and my child. I had a dictaphone, a tripod, my phone, some notepads and about 2 outfits. The rest of the bag was filled with stickers, books, soft toys and the clothes she needed for both the heat of the lowlands and the cold of La Paz. The bag was akin to a small garden shed. In addition to carrying a shed, I had a buggy and, ofcourse, a toddler. She was amazing during the trip but often wanted carried when in a bus station or busy airport at night. I couldn’t refuse and so would find myself carrying a huge bag and a toddler, up and down the Andes. In case my sister reads this, I should also come clean that option two was that I had the child and a smaller bag, whilst Bella carried everything else and pushed the buggy (thanks Bella).
I want to end by saying that this trip has scored high, in terms of lovely time spent with my sister and child. Some of our evenings together were magic – playing games, making masks or (endlessly) sticking stickers. I loved our breakfasts – sat together eating porridge before heading out on our separate adventures. My daughter missed her Dad (and he missed her terribly) but apart from that, I think it was a really positive experience for her. She experienced new places and worlds, she realised more about different languages and sounds. She tried new foods. She is definitely more confident as a result (not so good when she’s happy to run off at a busy market) but, most importantly, as the trip went on all that was different became less strange and more normal for her and it feels like her world has widened.
The full text can be found here. In March 2019, German-speaking scientists and scholars calling themselves Scientists for Future, published a statement in support of the youth protesters in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (Fridays for Future, Klimastreik/Climate Strike), verifying the scientific evidence that the youth protestors refer to. In this article, they provide the full text of the statement, including the list of supporting facts (in both English and German) as well as an analysis of the results and impacts of the statement. Furthermore, they reflect on the challenges for scientists and scholars who feel a dual responsibility: on the one hand, to remain independent and politically neutral, and, on the other hand, to inform and warn societies of the dangers that lie ahead.
Ante la catástrofe ecológica es necesario dar vida a un cambio cultural profundo a través del decrecimiento. A nivel de movilidad urbana el vehículo eléctrico representa la defensa del dogma del crecimiento económico ilimitado.
André Gorz ya lo escribió en 1974: «La ecología es como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical: en un primer momento, todos los burgueses y todos los partidarios del orden os dicen que queréis su ruina, y el triunfo de la anarquía y el oscurantismo. Después, cuando las circunstancias y la presión popular se hacen irresistibles, os conceden lo que ayer os negaban y, fundamentalmente, no cambia nada». Cuarenta y cinco años más tarde, fundamentalmente, no ha cambiado nada. Ni las cumbres del clima (de Berlín a Katowice) ni los protocolos y acuerdos (de Kioto a París) han conseguido minar las bases de la economía neoliberal. Los partidarios del orden conceden una aparente atención hacia los problemas ambientales, sin embargo todo permanece igual. La economía neoliberal muestra formalmente interés en ocuparse de las exigencias ecológicas, en realidad absorbiéndolas en su lógica.
Así que se propone solucionar la catástrofe climática con propuestas que siguen alimentando la economía del crecimiento, sin descarrilamientos. En el ámbito de la movilidad urbana, por ejemplo, el coche eléctrico se convierte en el elemento perfecto para conceder lo que ayer os negaban para que, fundamentalmente, no cambie nada. Se añade el prefijo eco- a una producción que sigue generando beneficio y destruyendo el planeta. La anarquía no ha triunfado.
Resulta evidente, sin necesidad de ser un experto, que la implementación de un sistema de transporte metropolitano que apuesta por el vehículo privado motorizado no cambiaría sustancialmente la situación. Por un lado se traslada el problema de los combustibles fósiles a la fuente de producción de la energía necesaria para alimentar los coches, que para reducir las emisiones de CO² tendría que ser energía verde. Por otro lado el proceso de producción de los vehículos eléctricos — la energía utilizada, los materiales y las consiguientes emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero— tiene un importante impacto ambiental, debido en gran parte a la producción de las baterías, que requieren minerales y metales altamente contaminantes (nickel, plomo y cobre). En cuanto a la contaminación atmosférica, no se eliminarían las micropartículas generadas por el desgaste de frenos, embragues, neumáticos y asfalto, que representan una fuente importante de contaminación (PM10). Además, el tráfico sería el mismo, así como el espacio robado al caminante, a las exigencias de juego de los niños, a la vida comunitaria, a la naturaleza, a la agricultura urbana, a los trazados urbanos irregulares que generan perspectivas nuevas. Las muertes por accidentes de tráfico no variarían. Desde luego tampoco los beneficios de la industria automovilística disminuirían, así como su omnipresencia en la vida urbana, su concentración de poder, su injerencia en los asuntos políticos. Sería un ecoinmovilismo.
Para enfrentarse al problema vital representado por la catástrofe ecológica es necesario cuestionar el dogma de nuestra economía: el crecimiento. Hasta que no se cuestione el crecimiento, por ende el capitalismo, éste seguirá destruyendo el planeta con su consumo ilimitado de la naturaleza. Cualquier medida que eluda el núcleo de la cuestión resultaría siendo un paliativo que mantiene el actual inmovilismo ante la catástrofe ecológica inminente, con la agravante de retrasar la implementación de las medidas necesarias a intentar salvar la vida en el planeta.
El decrecimiento, nacido de las reflexiones de autores como Ivan Illich y André Gorz en los años setenta — cuando la situación planetaria aún no había llegado a los peligrosos límites que estamos viviendo hoy en día— , ha alcanzado finalmente su momento de legibilidad. El decrecimiento representa hoy la única solución para un cambio cultural profundo cuya implementación es urgente.
Los problemas que estamos viviendo no son climáticos, sino económicos. Por ende las soluciones no deben ser tecnológicas, sino principalmente económicas y políticas. El verdadero cambio cultural sería producir las condiciones que permitan contradecir a André Gorz, para que la ecología no sea como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical.
Volviendo al ámbito de la movilidad urbana, la solución no se encuentra en la tecnología, o sea la implementación del uso del coche eléctrico. La solución consiste en impulsar una cultura nueva, una cultura, como decía Colin Ward, de la libertad de circular después del fin de la
dependencia del automóvil [After the motor age]. La sinergia entre un sistema de transporte público gratuito, la organización de la ciudad basada en distancias cortas y el uso del medio de transporte que mejor representa la relación pacífica y respetuosa entre seres humanos y naturaleza — la bicicleta, simple, comprensible, mensajera de una cultura nueva— sería la solución que impulsaría el movimiento de personas e ideas hacia la ciudad del decrecimiento, basada en una ética y unas prácticas nuevas en todos los ámbitos, más allá de la movilidad, reduciendo drásticamente el uso de energía.
La solución está en el cuestionamiento del capitalismo, desautorizando el dogma del consumo ilimitado y la destrucción de los equilibrios naturales, y la organización de una sociedad que ponga en el centro la vida, el ambiente, las relaciones humanas entre iguales y los bienes comunes, devolviendo las calles a las personas, al juego, a la naturaleza, al vivir y pensar en común.
Luego, si el género humano conseguirá proseguir su camino en este planeta, habría que ocuparse del sufragio universal y del descanso dominical.
Today’s blog comes from Dr Jessica Hope, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the upcoming Development Studies Association (#DSA2019) conference, Jessica will present on the early-career plenary panel. You can follow her on Twitter.
As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas – those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist development logics are being maintained and reworked.
Bolivia is an insightful case through which to investigate reiterations of sustainable development. With the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, himself an indigenous social movement leader, Bolivia was looked to as one of the most radical countries in Latin America’s move left. New development and environmental ideas and policies were enacted by the state, which have mostly promoted indigenous knowledges, rights and anti-colonial agendas. Particularly relevant to the environmental remit of the SDGs are those that re-conceptualised development as Vivir Bien/‘Good Living’ (replacing targets for economic growth with targets for social and environmental well-being), granted legal rights to nature and pledged significantly enhanced territorial rights to indigenous and campesino groups. Yet, since 2009, intensifying commitments to extractivism have come to dominate Bolivian politics and debates, as well override progressiveagendas. In 2015, the Morales administration set out commitments for Bolivia to be the ‘energy heart of Latin America’ – expanding hydrocarbon infrastructure and exports to include fracking, hydropower megaprojects and solar farms. It is in the context of this contested politics that the SDGs are being implemented.
In terms of thinking differently, I have found assemblage theory useful to researching and analyzing the SDGs in Bolivia. Assemblage theory foregrounds the ways realities come into being through particular (and changing) relationships and connections between, for example, objects, places, institutions, discourses and policies. Drawing on how Deleuze and Guatarri’s theories of assemblage (agencement) have been used in social science, primarily by Tania Murray Li, I have used assemblage thinking to analyse how powerful common-senses are being made, maintained and reworked. In Bolivia, adopting this approach has firstly foregrounded how the take-up of the SDGs emerges in relation to existing development agendas, actors and networks. The SDGs are primarily being operationalized by the state, by international NGOs and by their national partners. Secondly, the goals were brought into existing initiatives, rather than causing a wholesale reappraisal of development work. Thirdly, I found that, crucially, the SDGs assemblage is disciplined – with NGOs, for example, being clear that their work could not address disputes between the state and civil society. This meant the contentious politics of extractivism is excluded from sustainable development projects and discourse. A fourth finding about is that through its emergence, disciplining and holding together, progressive discourses are being “deployed to new ends”. The central government has aligned its commitments to the SDGs with their interpretations of Vivir Bien, which fall within the parameters of an extractive-led development model. So rather than providing support to those contesting extractive-led development, the SDGs are helping to consolidate its hegemony. This interpretation and deployment of Vivir Bien is contradictory to how Vivir Bien has been conceptualized and advocated by activists and scholars. In their critical reading, Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir provides an alternative to sustainable development, as it decentres growth and instead moves toward a more holistic measure of wellbeing (including how communities live with and treat nature). In summary, assemblage thinking reveals that the SDGs are acting as a form of anti-politics – rendering neutral and technical the contested environment/development politics of Bolivia.
Finally, and in answer to my second question, I have used assemblage thinking to identify a counter-assemblage that is emerging and consolidating in relation to the exclusions outlined above. This means identifying the organisations, discourses, politics, landscapes and histories that are coming together in exclusion from mainstream development agendas in Bolivia and in opposition to extractivism. What I find exciting is that assemblage thinking enables the inclusion of material components too – trees, riverways, habitats, wildlife, canoes, speedboats and roads. Following the work of urban geographers, for example Ash Amin, this opens-up interesting lines of enquiry into the sociality and liveliness of particular territories, as place, and how they are generative of reworked and progressive environment/development politics. In this new work, I am researching the generative liveliness of the hybrid spaces that partly emerge from policies for conservation, territory, collectivity and extractivism. Despite calls for academics to make a pragmatic step to get behind the SDGs, the Bolivian case has made me question this step and, instead, I plan to examine the stifled, excluded, contentious and more transformative politics of the counter-assemblage.
Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide
Having recently returned to the UK following several months of fieldwork in USA and Mexico, Jared Margulies writes this blog about his zine ‘Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide’.
During the course of fieldwork earlier this year, I spent a month in California investigating an emerging illegal trade in the succulent species Dudleya farinosa—an unusual, and as of yet, poorly understood phenomena. In pursuit of understanding the perspectives of conservationists, law enforcement agencies, and botanists in California about this trade, I found myself increasingly distracted by news reports about the humanitarian emergency happening nearby along the US-Mexico border. I watched and listened to news about the unfolding ‘border crisis’, and how a humanitarian and human rights crisis, the result of the Trump Administration’s increasingly hostile (and largely, illegal) policies towards migrant refugees, was being dubiously recast as a matter of geopolitical security and an existential threat to US citizenry and the US economy.
Amidst this (still ongoing) disaster, I found it difficult to remain focused on my research about the politics of plant conservation and illegal plant trade. It didn’t take long, however, for the themes of US geopolitical security and biodiversity conservation to converge in my fieldwork. I learned from scientists in the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department about how botanists would be acting as expert testimonies in the State of California’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s declaration of a State of Emergency at the border, which was declared while I was in San Diego in February. While San Diego County’s borderlands with Mexico have long been fenced, walled, and surveilled, gaps remain. The Trump Administration proposed to close these gaps with his declaration of a State of Emergency after his previous efforts in Congress to obtain border wall funding failed. One such site where a new border wall would be erected is the Otay Mountain Wilderness, a formally designated US Wilderness Area just north of the border with Mexico.
Otay Mountain is one of the few areas of the borderlands in San Diego County that doesn’t feature a physical barrier, in part because its steep and rugged topography serves as a natural deterrence for those attempting to move across these borderlands. But Otay is also (currently) protected from border wall construction by a variety of other unlikely actors: rare and endemic plants, which, protected under both California State and Federal endangered species laws, have previously been cited in environmental impact assessments to stop border wall construction because these rare species would be irreparably impacted by border wall construction. But endangered plants may not be enough to stop the wall. A previous attempt to protect Otay Mountain from new border wall construction on the grounds it would significantly impact a diversity of rare and endangered plants was rejected by the Supreme Court in December.
As I learned more about Otay Mountain, its unique ecology, and the way that the politics of plant conservation and the humanitarian crisis at the border were colliding in this contested geographic space, the more I saw concerning integrations of security narratives playing out in the borderlands invoking value-laden terms like invasive and native, endemic and exotic, alien and refugee. The politics embedded within and co-producing these terms are nothing new to geographers or political ecology. Yet at the same time, I also saw unexpected and even creative spaces of resistance to unjust social policies through leveraging the political positions of rare plants, ones who similarly find legal protection through many of these same terms political ecology often (rightly) unsettles and critiques. With some of these ideas, contradictions, and concerns in mind, I decided to visit Otay Mountain. I hoped to gain a more grounded perspective on how those resisting the construction of an ever-more securitized (and violent) border were finding unlikely allyship with botanists concerned about preserving the ecological integrity of Otay Mountain as an exceptionally biodiverse landscape with a large number of endangered plant species. Several of these species only grow on Otay Mountain or directly across the border in Mexico. At the same time, I felt uneasy about the emergence of this moment of ‘emergency’ in which rare plants protected by endangered species legislation seemed to find greater rights to protection under US law than people seeking refuge in the United States from violence at home, violence attributed by many scholars and journalists to US geopolitical strategy and statecraft.
The ‘results’ of this exploration are detailed in a zine I produced following my visit to Otay Mountain called, “Welcome to Otay Mountain: an Alternative Field Guide.” It will be featured as part of the upcoming exhibit entitled, No Walls, No Bans, No Borders in Baltimore, USA, “a benefit photography and art exhibit featuring the work of Baltimore-based activists connecting ideas of the violence of capitalism, colonialism, and the racist/fascist state both locally here in Baltimore and globally.” The exhibit is curated by Rebel Lens Bmore – a photo and video-based activist group documenting social movements in Baltimore. The exhibit opens on May 9th and runs through June 2nd at the Peale Center in Baltimore.
Unlike a peer-review academic output, “Welcome to Otay Mountain” does not attempt to answer a particular question or offer any clear analysis. Instead, I think of it as a prompting, a means by which to pay attention to unsettled yet politically powerful ideas about biodiversity, security, and violence. I created this zine because I think there is growing agreement that the work of doing political ecology, and writing political ecology, is strengthened when our work extends beyond formal academic writing whose accessibility and style rarely speak to those impacted by, or actively working to upend, the systems of oppression we tend to study and engage with as researchers. This is not a novel insight by any measure, but as I look to creating and editing more “Alternative Field Guides”, I wish to share but one example of how creative practices might energize, and at least in very small way, financially support, those doing the difficult work of direct action in the face of social and environmental injustices.
If you are interested in purchasing a print copy of this limited edition zine please contact Jared directly—all profits from these sales will be directly donated to No More Deaths, a charitable organization whose mission is “to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.” The zine will also be for sale at the Peale Center throughout the duration of the exhibit No Walls, No Bans, No Borders. This work includes providing direct aid to people crossing the desert borderlands in the form of water, supplies, and emergency medical treatment.
Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled predicting the advent of commercial deep-sea mining (DSM). Successful extraction of zinc, gold and copper has already taken place in Japan in late 2017. Several other countries who have identified deep-sea mineral deposits in their territorial waters are considering whether or not to adopt the new industry into their future economic strategies. Yet, despite the widespread interest in the activity, to date there has only been one commercial contract for deep-sea mineral extraction awarded globally. Moreover, this project – a copper and gold mine named Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea – has struggled to overcome the funding requirements needed to become commercially viable. Its contractor, Nautilus Minerals – a Canadian mining firm – has struggled to convince investors of its ability to manage both the economic and ecological uncertainty fostered by deep-sea mining’s untested nature.
At the same time, the International Seabed Authority, the key regulator for minerals found on the seabed in the area beyond national jurisdiction, has issued 29 exploration contracts to both private and state-run companies from all over the world. Deep-sea mining thus stands at a threshold: waiting in the waters yet confronted with an array of questions. However, for all the pointed arguments expressed by those on both sides of a debate, which has focused on evaluations of environmental and economic sustainability, analyses that have sought to understand deep-sea mining’s very specific politics have been rarely heard. Put another way, it is necessary to think about deep-sea mining as a contentious political problem, in which the politics of knowledge and justice are never far from the surface and in which a variety of actors – both human and more-than-human – will shape the future prospects for the controversial industry.
Deep-sea mining has proved to be a divisive topic. For its apologists, it heralds a sustainable answer to dwindling supplies of high-quality, terrestrial deposits of conventional deposits such as copper. The deep-sea deposits being earmarked for future extraction are said to be of higher quality and concentrated into a reduced footprint. The proposed Solwara 1 copper deposit in Papua New Guinea is just 0.1km², a fraction of the 7.5km² dedicated to the world’s biggest copper mine, Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA. Other champions of the nascent industry point to its potential to furnish the green energy infrastructures of the future with the rare earth elements required for their expansion. Electric vehicles, wind turbines and photovoltaics are all cited by the industry as placing a demand on society for materials that can only be met by an expansion of the mining frontier into the ocean.
On the other hand, DSM has attracted plenty of criticism from those who point to the uncertainty surrounding the ecological consequences to the ecosystems of the deep ocean. Although scientific studies of deep-sea oceanography remain limited, most stress the need for care, advocating a precautionary principle that states ‘where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, activities should not proceed’ (UN WCN 1982). Such concerns have been raised by a number of international NGOs ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, who additionally highlight the lack of consent from local communities and are calling for further research on the social and ecological impacts of DSM.
Those making the case for deep-sea mining, point to the notion that it has ‘no human impact’. This continues a longstanding tradition in Western thought that the deep sea has a negligible relation to the rest of the social world. Yet this is disingenuous, as the case of Solwara 1 makes clear. Certainly, for communities closest to the proposed deep-sea mine site in Papua New Guinea, the fears of spiritual, ecological and economic disruption are very real indeed. Although the targeted metals lie some 1600m beneath the surface of the ocean, research conducted over the last three years showed that proximate populations were most concerned about the potential impact upon spirits – so-called masalai – that reside in and protect the deep-ocean and its resources. For these people, the deep-sea is not a world separated from humanity. As a prominent leader representing the 20,000 inhabitants of the Duke of York Islands, a small archipelago situated around 30km from the proposed mine site, makes clear:
‘The sea is not another world. It is part of graun [earth]. You see people, fish, masalai [spirits], volcanoes, what you call land, the sea – it is all connected. We understand that we are at one with the sea. But we are also are at one with the spirits. If you disturb this world, you are in trouble…this is why this seabed mining company will be in trouble – it does not understand how us people connect to something deeper’
For many communities near the Solwara 1 site, the spiritual world is foundational to their identity. As has been noted elsewhere in the context of terrestrial mining in Melanesia, for these people the arrival of deep-sea mining ‘means not just social and economic disruption; it rends the very fabric of the world and a vivid, direct, sacred link with the land is irrecoverably lost’ (Macgregor 2017). Perspectives such as these and those highlighted in a short film produced as part of the project—Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea—serve to force a reconsideration of the ways in which the deep-sea’s ‘hidden’ nature comes to matter politically.
It is only in recent years that the ocean has been taken seriously as an object of social scientific enquiry (e.g. Steinberg 2001; Deloughrey 2017). Despite a glut of work emanating from marine science, the ‘social’ ocean has largely ‘remained outside of history’ (Hannigan 2016: 3). Moreover, this oversight becomes even more acute as depth is introduced to the analysis. Simply put, thinking about the ways that the ocean’s depth and the physical characteristics of the seabed might matter politically have been almost totally absent (Squire 2017). Yet matter they do.
The extreme location of the deposits, several kilometres below the surface of the water in some cases, is far beyond the capacity of human beings to experience it directly. This creates political space for imagined geographies (what people imagine the deep-sea to be) to come into conflict with corporate attempts to communicate science and legitimise their practices. For example, Nautilus Minerals highlights the dynamic and volcanic nature of the seabed close to the proposed mine site in Papua New Guinea. By pointing to the regularity and violence of eruptions in the immediate surrounding area, it is able to simultaneously stress the resilience of nearby associated bacteria and fauna. The argument goes that if these organisms can withstand a volcanic event, then they can comfortably survive any disruption caused by mining. It is an effective means to counter critique from those that are concerned by DSM’s environmental impacts.
Another example of this kind of material politics relates to the geologic speed at which deep-sea mineral deposits are formed. At Solwara 1, ‘black smokers’—underwater chimneys made by minerals that are precipitated from rapidly cooling jets of fluids—can grow several feet in a matter of weeks. This is incredibly dynamic in geologic terms. Compare this to polymetallic nodules – another type of targeted deep-sea mineral deposit – that form at the rate of about one inch every million years, and the ethical implications of seafloor disturbance emerge quite differently.
A final dimension, which demands attention in considering DSM as political, is time (Childs 2018). Many accounts of deep-sea mining frame it as an industry ‘of the future’. This has conceptual purchase, offering the allure of untapped wealth, and positioning the activity as a key part of a ‘blue economy’, the extension of a capitalist spatial fix into earth’s watery volumes. Yet just as the ‘future’ facing aspects of DSM are about the appeals made to global finance with their attendant promises of ‘resource potential’, so too must any ‘waste’ from the extractive process be included in predictions of environmental impact.
Moreover, the ‘time’ of deep-sea mining operates on a range of different registers and speeds, each with their own political implication. This might be about the acquisition and control of monitoring, generating and transmitting data on seabed resources or the time of their geologic formation. Whether it’s about the anticipation of DSM’s potential before extraction even begins or the time, as yet unknowable, when its environmental impacts are realised, time will be crucial to defining its politics.
These aspects addressed above collectively lead us to confront some uncomfortable political questions that have yet to be fully addressed. This is not just the case in Papua New Guinea. More globally, as the ambitions for deep-sea mining expand, how is the extraordinary diversity of different knowledge systems that relate to the ocean going to be reconciled? Is the mining of the deep seabed a price worth paying in order to build the green energy systems of the future? If not, where are we going to get the materials needed?