Category Archives: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Commodifying Christmas

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

It’s that time of year again; the decorations are up, Michael Bublé is on repeat, and there are mince pies coming out of our ears. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But what does Christmas really look like? There are more definitions of what makes a ‘traditional’* English Christmas than there are children on Santa’s naughty list. One thing we appear to agree on, however, is what a German Christmas should look like. The romantic traditional German Christmas market has infiltrated English culture, becoming a staple of most cities’ festivities, and bringing with it Glühwein, beer, Bratwurst, sweet treats, and merriment (and, in the case of Birmingham’s market, a singing moose head!).

Standing in the middle of Birmingham’s German Christmas market, surrounded by crowds of people consuming German cuisine and buying gifts, I am reminded of a ‘classic’ paper by Peter Jackson (1999). Although 15 years old – not quite as old as the market itself – Jackson’s observations on commodification and consumption manifest in this commercial celebration of German culture. As Jackson (1999) argues, the commodification of Christmas, as well as the general globalisation of everyday life, have been strongly criticised, contributing to the somewhat marred reputation of ‘commodification’.

Since 1997, the market’s picturesque wooden stalls have spilled into Birmingham’s streets from its partner city, Frankfurt. Two recent articles on the BBC News website have, however, voiced a negative opinion of the city’s much-loved annual event. Writing for the BBC in November, Graham Young argues that despite the obvious boost to Birmingham’s economy, the city is ritually destroyed by the crowds, tourists, litter, and noise. He voices concern that in an attempt to recreate an authentic German Christmas, the traditional Nativity display is almost out of sight at the back of the Council House.

At Birmingham’s market, cultural difference is commodified, commercialized, celebrated, aestheticized, and fetishized. There is a strong visual and performative element to this; stalls are designed to ‘look German’ and stall owners shout and gesture enthusiastically, adding to the already excitable and festive atmosphere. However, in a further recent BBC article, the market is criticised for not being very ‘German’. Jackson’s (1999) article raises the question of authenticity, suggesting that it is sometimes produced rather than genuine. Birmingham’s market is clearly constructed and staged to create an ‘authentic’ experience, romanticising and exaggerating the appealing aspects of German culture. However, whilst many of the workers there are not German, the stalls are all German-owned and the products sold are the same as the ones found in Germany, creating an experience as authentic as possible almost 500 miles from home.

Birmingham's German Christmas Market captured last weekend!

Birmingham’s German Christmas Market captured last weekend whilst doing ‘research’

There is, however, one difference between German Christmas markets in England and the ‘real’ ones. In Germany, markets are more food-orientated, whilst in England the markets are altered for English taste, with a focus on alcohol and celebration. The market reinvents German culture, as Jackson (1999) would argue, tailoring and transforming it according to the ‘receiving’ (i.e. English) culture. Scrooge-like critics argue that adjusting the market to suit English taste makes it more enjoyable at the expense of ‘authenticity’, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Do we really want an ‘authentic’ experience, or do we just want to enjoy ourselves?  Geography clearly has an important role to play in addressing and challenging this notion of ‘authenticity’.

The market’s critics are, however, only a minority. Instead of saying ‘bah humbug’ to inauthentic German cuisine, Birmingham’s German Christmas market will be as busy as ever this year. And so it should be; after all, ‘tis the season to be jolly!

*I am aware this is a bit of a misnomer; many of our Christmas traditions – including the Christmas tree! – were, in fact, imported from Germany by Queen Victoria when she married Prince Albert. Perhaps we already celebrate Christmas in an ‘authentic’ German way?

books_icon Jackson, P. (1999). Commodity cultures: the traffic in things, Transactions of the IBG, 24: 95-108.

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham’s German Market: Singing moose and ‘ugly huts’

60-world2 BBC 2014 Birmingham Christmas Frankfurt Market: How German is it?

60-world2 BBC 2014 In Pictures: How does Birmingham’s Christmas market compare?

Understanding land as a resource for global investment

By Izabela Delabre, University of Reading

Tanzania Independence Monument: Sold.  As part of Oxfam's 2013 Global Day of Action to stop land grabs, activists placed "sold" signs next to iconic landmarks all over the world to protest land grabs in developing countries. (image credit: By Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons)

As part of Oxfam’s 2013 Global Day of Action to stop land grabs, activists placed “sold” signs next to iconic landmarks all over the world to protest land grabs in developing countries (image credit: Oxfam East Africa, via Wikimedia Commons)

On 16th November, an article in The Guardian reported how the Tanzanian government was breaking its promise to 40,000 Masai pastoralists. It claimed that the government was going ahead with plans to evict the Masai people and turn their ancestral land into a reserve for the royal family of Dubai to hunt big game. Within one week, 18,000 people had signed a petition run by the campaigning community, Avaaz, against the proposal. As the online petition gained supporters, President Jakaya Kikwete tweeted: “There has never been, nor will there ever be, any plan by the government of Tanzania to evict the Masai people from their ancestral land.”

In a following article on 25th November, Ole Kulinga, an elder and traditional leader from Loliondo, the affected district, said: “Without our land, we are nothing and this commitment from the president lets us all breathe a sigh of relief. But hunters want this land more than anything and we will only feel safe when we have permanent rights to our land in writing.” A community leader, Samwell Nangire expressed caution, noting that Kikwete said on Twitter that there had never been a plan to evict the Maasai. Nangire stated that wasn’t true.

Since 2008, we have been exposed to countless stories reporting on “the global land rush” and “land grabs.” From rising food prices, to growing demand of biofuel crops, investors are taking an interest in agricultural land as never before. In a Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers paper, based on her Plenary Lecture at the 2013 RGS-IBG Annual Conference, Tania Murray Li addresses the question, what is land? Entitled “What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment,” the article stresses land’s materiality, its multiple affordances and the quality it shares with other resources: its intrinsically social character. In order to address the “so-called global land grab or land rush,” she examines the inscription devices that have made land into a resource available for global investment.

Drawing on research among indigenous highlanders in Indonesia, Li states that, for the purpose of analysis, the English word ‘land’ carries cultural baggage that needs to be made strange – not all peoples have this word, not everyone “lumps together the same set of material substances under one label, nor do they assemble material and social relations into equivalent forms.” In her research area, it was only around 1990, when a new element was added (cacao), that land started to be treated like a commodity. This required the indigenous highlanders to invent a term, lokasi, for a socio-material entity that did not exist before (Li later adds that most of this cacao was later killed by an incurable virus).

Land’s material emplacement means that, usually, the people located within the geographical area will have a say on its use, be it through democratic processes or the exercise of force, such as resisting eviction. Assembling farmland as a resource for global investment uses the work of multiple actors drawing on discourses, inscription devices and modes of calculation already available, such as maps, grids, surveys and images. These devices, when pulled together, may produce an expanded capacity to envision “under-utilised” land as a globally important asset capable of producing food, profits and reducing poverty.

However, if the anticipated high returns do not materialize – licenses or funds may not being secured, or the intended crop does not grow well – investors may lose interest. The land would still be there, but it would no longer be a global ‘resource’ attracting investment. Land would therefore be considered in new and different ways.

books_iconT. M. Li 2014. What is land? Assembling a resource for global investment. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 39(4): 589–602.

60-world2Tanzania accused of backtracking over sale of Masai’s ancestral land. The Guardian, November 16

60-world2Tanzania’s Masai ‘breathe sigh of relief’ after president vows never to evict them. The Guardian, November 25

Lest we forget?

A soldier proudly wears his Remembrance Day Poppy alongside his Afghanistan Medal Source: Wikimedia Commons

A soldier proudly wears his Remembrance Day Poppy alongside his Afghanistan Medal
Source: Wikimedia Commons

by Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Sandwiched neatly between Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, this post could only really address one thing; the inherently geographical themes of remembrance and memory. Geographers have engaged with the wide range of embodied, material, and spatial practices involved in both collective and individual remembering; from war memorials and commemorative ceremonies or exhibitions, to a photograph of a missed relative kept on a mantelpiece or the poppy so imbued with symbolism. The spaces, practices, and material culture associated with memory provide a wealth of research fodder for cultural geographers. However, let us not forget (if you’ll pardon the pun) the other side of the coin; whilst there is a burgeoning geographical literature that discusses selective remembering – particularly work that has considered the traces of the Holocaust in Berlin’s ‘memory district’ – there has been less investigation into processes of forgetting.

In an article published online in Transactions of the IBG earlier this year, Muzaini (2014) explores the active processes of forgetting practised by people who lived through the Second World War in Perak, Malaysia. This article explicitly sets out to address the oft-neglected question of forgetting and, in particular, the strategies used by individuals to obscure and obliterate painful memories of war. However, as he discovers, despite their best efforts to avoid them, memories unfortunately have a terrible habit of re-emerging involuntarily and unpredictably. The arguments put forward in this article almost certainly could be applied to some people in this country living with memories of war.

Muzaini (2014) conceptualises processes of individual forgetting in three ways. Firstly, ‘silence’ is a technique often used by those who want to forget; they may avoid talking about topics that could trigger upsetting memories. Secondly, some people may throw away or hide objects that they associate with unwanted recollections, re-arranging their domestic space to avoid upset. Finally, a more embodied form of avoidance involves staying away from certain places associated with troubling memories, even if it means ‘taking the long way round’. However, these active processes of evading the past are often in vain; unwanted memories can return through interactions with people, objects, and places. Triggers can also be multi-sensory; sounds and smells as well as bodily scars and injuries may elicit flash-backs of traumatic past events.

The fact is that the past has agency; it can exert a strong influence on the present and can never truly be forgotten. So, whilst you’re remembering and celebrating those who have fought in wars for our country during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spare a thought also for those who would rather just leave the past in the past.

books_iconMuzaini, H. (2014). “On the matter of forgetting and ‘memory returns’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/tran.12060.

GJ book reviewhttp://poppies.hrp.org.uk/

GJ book reviewhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-29879015

GJ book reviewhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-29407993

GJ book reviewhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-29829581

The Changing View of UK Conservation

By Jessica Hope, University of Manchester

Photo credit: Karen Roe via CC BY 2.0

Photo credit: Karen Roe via CC BY 2.0

Last month the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) exhibition opened at the National History Museum, celebrating 50 years of the WPY competition.  The competition champions the diversity of life on Earth, encouraging photographers to think differently about the way that they tell the stories of nature and depict the natural world. The photographs in the competition present the diversity, beauty and wonder of the natural world. It seems an obvious next step to question how we look after and protect wildlife in the UK.

In the current issue of the journal ‘Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers’ William M Adams, Ian D Hodge and Lindsey Sandbrook consider recent developments in conservation in the UK, namely conservation’s expanding territorial claims. They argue that the models of  large-scale conservation being developed in the UK are a form of re-territorialisation, linked to wider neoliberal values and logic. For example, they consider the 2011 UK government White Paper on the natural environment. This White Paper restated a public policy vision for conservation in England, adopting “the positive language of success and expansion, rather than the more familiar conservation tropes of threat and retreat” (2014:574). However, the importance and value of conservation was justified with the logic of neoliberalism – presenting conservation as a means of meeting wider social and economic purposes, for example growth, prosperity and security.  This article charts these changes in UK conservation policy and raises questions about the challenges that this conservation model will face. Moreover, it draws attention to the need for more analysis of the power dynamics at play in the balance of public and private interests that come together in these larger conservation endeavours. The article reminds us that, like photography, how we see and value nature impacts how we protect it

Nature and economics: a necessary marriage?

By Joseph Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK.

Adams et al. (2013; p. 585): “Neoliberalism may offer a new set of mechanisms in pursuing conservation ends, but also creates new risks and challenges.”

Sustainability and social and economic human prosperity resulting from ecosystem services provided by nature form the heart of the principle of human–nature connectivity (see UK NEA, 2011). Such services are categorised as supporting (e.g. soil formation), provisioning (e.g. food), regulating (e.g. flood regulation) and cultural (e.g. education, recreation) by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA, 2005). These services can then be assigned an economic value and, theoretically, be more wholly incorporated into a neoliberal economy where conservation is seen as protecting an area’s economic value, rather than diminishing it.

Adams et al. (2013) note regular mention of such ecosystem services in UK ‘Large Conservation Area’ (LCA) project descriptions; a shift towards neoliberalism in conservation, and the apparent need to assign an economic value to designated conservation areas, is present in the UK. Such themes also extend to conservation the world over, as we can see by two recent major biodiversity reports.

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Near Ullswater, Lake District National Park, UK. Should this ancient landscape be valued?

Two separate recent international reports on biodiversity – Global Biodiversity Outlook 4 by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the WWF’s Living Planet Report – have been widely referred to by the press. Both reports discuss ecosystem services and the benefits of nature conservation to our well-being and economy. The Telegraph, on the WWF’s report, discusses how humans “depend on ecosystem services”. Meanwhile, The Guardian and Blue & Green Tomorrow discuss the Global Biodiversity Outlook report and the overall failure to meet current global conservation targets. Perhaps then, better incorporation of nature into neoliberal economies via ecosystem services is necessary to convey the value of nature to policy and decision makers, in the UK and beyond.

Of course, ideas of ecosystem services are seldom isolated from opposition to the valuation of nature and for its inherent value, which is arguably priceless. Key arguments against such valuation include: (i) not all of nature’s outputs are useful services, indeed some are disservices, or are neutral, in relation to ‘serving’ people, but the areas providing these may house amazing species and ecosystems (are they at risk if they cannot provide a useful service?); (ii) ecosystem service arguments imply that the conservation of nature should only happen when it is profitable to do so; (iii) technological advancement may surpass nature’s services in the future (then what of a nature reserve that was being protected just because of a service and associated value?); (iv) nature has an intrinsic value and would be better argued for on moral, rather than economic, grounds (list summarised from McCauley, 2006 in Nature). Also see The Ecologist on biodiversity offsetting who ask: “How many pandas is a five star hotel worth?”.

Nature conservation, and associated themes (e.g. biodiversity offsetting, ecosystem services), in the UK and the wider world will only increase in importance and relevance as environments continue to change and, perhaps inevitably, the so called neoliberalisation of nature continues. As territories reserved for nature (and the value of these) are debated, understanding the spatial patterns of biodiversity, and indeed how these will change through time, will be vital so that we can move towards informed, resilient and sustainable decisions. Perhaps true sustainability can only ensue if nature’s intrinsic value takes a dominant role in discussions? Perhaps not, though; perhaps economic valuations will dominate by necessity? Personally, I hope that such intrinsic value is never overshadowed and that economic arguments, where necessary, simply supplement moral ones.

 Adams, W. M., Hodge, I. D. and Sandbrook, L. (2014). ‘New spaces for nature: the re-territorialisation of biodiversity conservation under neoliberalism in the UK‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 39, 574–588.

60-world2 Bertini, I. (2014). Governments have failed to protect wildlife, UN biodiversity report findsBlue & Green Tomorrow.

60-world2 Global Biodiversity Outlook 4: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2014)

60-world2 Lean, G. (2014). Life on earth is dying, thanks to one species. The Telegraph.

60-world2 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

 McCauley, D. J. (2006). Selling out on natureNature 443, 27 – 28.

60-world2 Scrivener, A. (2014). Nature as an ‘asset class’ – the free market’s final frontier? The Ecologist.

60-world2 UK NEA (2011). The UK national ecosystem assessment: technical report UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.

60-world2 Vaughan, A. (2014). UN biodiversity report highlights failure to meet conservation targetsThe Guardian.

60-world2 WWF et al. (2014). Living Planet Report 2014.

Development Projects: Elite / Non-Elite Discourses

By Benjamin Sacks

Astana's futuristic city centre. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Astana’s futuristic city centre. © 2014 Wikimedia Commons.

Civil projects constitute some of the most visible and symbolic actions of the state. Buildings, monuments, bridges, urban reorganisation, and dams, amongst nearly countless other programmes, can serve a wide array of functions: propaganda, potent displays of public resource allocation, political manipulation, civic pride, improvement of health, welfare, and education. Their development (usually) necessitates job growth, and their completion can do much to promote regional and national interests in the international community. Civil projects are also a near-universal behaviour. From Los Angeles’ expansion of its fledgling public transport system and the 2012 London Olympic Games, to Pyonyang’s infamous (and unfinished) Ryugyong Hotel, public projects can heavily influence local and global conceptions of national power, stability, priorities, and culture.

Who decides how a city – especially a national capital – is going to look? What image(s) of itself does the city want to project or obscure? Who gets a say, and who doesn’t? Natalie Koch (Syracuse University) tackled these questions in the most recent Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. In ‘Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana’, Koch examined the remarkable creation and expansion of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet capital, which creatively, is Kazakh for capital. Long-serving president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s flagship programme, Astana has come to at once symbolise Kazakhstan’s meteoric rise as a regional power and the country’s increased notoriety as a centre of cultural creativity and experimentation, as well as an enduring example of the problems of (even relatively benevolent) authoritarian rule.

Scholars have been fascinated by the ‘Astana phenomenon’ since construction began on top of the small Soviet-era city of Tselinograd in the mid-1990s. Most recently, Charles E Ziegler, Isabelle Facon, and Jean-Pierre Cabestan, writing in Asian Survey, identified Astana’s successful 2010 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit as symbolically demonstrative of the city’s rising importance in Asian international affairs. But these specialists, by and large, have conceived of Astana in strictly ‘top-down’ terms, without examining how intricate sociopolitical negotiations between various factions continuously develop the city.

Koch’s approach is substantively different. In both ‘Bordering on the modern’ and a series of previous studies on Kazakhstan’s urban development, she has sought to recover the voices and desires of average Kazakhs, not just those who control the capital’s space age-looking skyscrapers and monuments (p. 433). To accomplish this goal, she identified and collected data from both elites and other urban actors to paint the most comprehensive image of Astana’s development culture we yet have.

Cities, by their very nature, are constructed of borders and bordering. These borders are not the traditional rigid, red-coloured lines we usually see in atlases, but rather active, discursive, processes of inclusion and exclusion, acceptance and ‘othering’. When particular (group)s press for change, redevelopment, expansion, or shifts, they are attempting to redefine who and what gets accepted or othered. When Nazarbayev’s engineers set out to erect a new capital for a newly-independent state, they didn’t entirely know what they wanted to achieve. They did know, however, what they wanted to ‘other': Astana would not be a Soviet city. Ironically, the elites who designed and funded the first, new wave of capital construction drew on Soviet-influenced models to establish a distinctly non-Soviet city:

[T]he Astana project draws on similar visions and has been an important site for enacting Nazarbayev’s vision of Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet modernity. And yet, these elites are heavily influences by a distinctly Soviet-era understanding of the ‘city’ – in terms of both its function and its symbolism (p. 434).

With that in mind, however, Kazakh elites also used this opportunity to raze thousands of poor Kazakhs’ samannyi, or mud-brick buildings that had been built on Tselinograd’s periphery. Both Soviet practices of architectural standardisation and low-income housing were deemed incompatable with Nazarbayev’s vision of a culturally representative, deliberately eclectic urban aesthetic. This development would suggest that elites have simply imposed a top-down reinvention of Kazakhstan’s capital, but the truth is more complex and interesting than that. Even as Kazakhstan deals with the many problems of capitalism without significant democratic liberalisation – a conundrum that promotes a rich, powerful oligarchy at the expense of relatively poor masses – many city spaces are being designed with the collective public in mind. Malls, in particular, serve as a popular social rendezvous, even for those without sufficient means to purchase many of the higher-end products sold in their stores. Architects are gradually accepting this social phenomenon, creating indoor/outdoor fixtures that promote social interaction.

Nevertheless, much of Astana’s middle- and poorer-classes increasingly resent the iinordinatecontrol of Astana’s elite over the city’s future political and cultural directions. Fault lines divide Astana between ‘northerners’ (traditional, ‘Russified’ urbanites), and ‘southerners’ (rural and recently urbanised Kazakhs), who wrangle for political and financial power, redistributing funds to their own, respective urban projects and political balances shift (p. 438).

books_icon

See special issue of Asian Survey 53.3 (May-Jun., 2013).

books_icon Koch N, ‘Bordering on the modern: power, practice and exclusion in Astana‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 39 432-43.