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Why are English local authorities behaving like property companies?

By Brett Christophers, Uppsala University

Flickr user Balmain

In March 2019, Harrogate Borough Council in North Yorkshire launched an independent, arms-length housing company called Bracewell Homes to focus on ‘the purchase, development, sale and leasing of dwellings, as a commercial venture for the borough’. The same month, at the other end of the country, but in an equally leafy milieu, West Berkshire Council announced that it had spent £60 million of a planned total new investment of £100 million in commercial property, not for the purpose of delivering council services but rather to be let to tenants; the properties it had purchased included offices, a warehouse and two supermarkets, the latter located, ironically enough, in North Yorkshire.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007–08, a string of English local authorities (‘councils’) have pursued similar initiatives: over a third are believed to have invested in commercial property to earn rental income, and nearly half are estimated to have established a private housing company.

These ventures have elicited a barrage of criticism. Councils, it is said, should not be behaving like property companies – investment in commercial property is a risky business at the best of times, and if councils are going to build residential property then it should only be social housing on a not-for-profit basis.

The initiatives in question are the focus of my new Transactions article, which is targeted toward a general audience as well as a scholarly one. It tries to do four main things.

The first is to paint an overview picture of these initiatives. Drawing on a range of secondary sources, the article discusses how prevalent they are, the regulatory context within which they have evolved, and the different approaches used by different local authorities.

The second contribution of the article is to conceptualise the initiatives in terms of what has come to be termed the ‘financialisation’ of urban development, namely a set of processes whereby financial actors, markets and/or logics come to play an increasingly important role in the development of the urban built environment. Insofar as English local authorities have been establishing housing companies and investing in shopping centres and the like with a view specifically to earning financial returns, they can be said to be financialising both residential and commercial property.

The article’s third aim is to explain. It is to ask why local authorities are pursuing these initiatives. While there are numerous factors in play, I argue that the most important is a set of profoundly significant recent transformations in what I term local authorities’ financial ‘conjuncture’ – the nexus of circumstances and forces bearing directly on their financial wherewithal.

I highlight three such transformations: the post-financial crisis devolution of austerity from central to local government, which has seen the latter bear the brunt of public-sector funding cuts; the largely unsuccessful reform of local authority housing finance in 2012; and a progressive cheapening of council borrowing capacity, also occurring in the wake of the financial crisis.

These transformations have not so much caused local authorities’ new commercial and residential property ventures as encouraged and enabled them. They have impacted local authorities in such a way as to make those initiatives considerably more appealing and arguably, in some cases, even necessary. They have, in short, pre-disposed councils to act as they have done.

In the light of this explanatory argument the article asks, fourth and finally, whether the criticism that has greeted councils’ new property initiatives is justified and fair. My answer is that it may not be, or at least not entirely. While local authorities would not need to pursue such ventures in an ideal world – one where they were amply funded to provide the services that local communities require of them – that is not the world in which they currently find themselves. For councils desperate to maintain social care, homelessness and other key front-line services in the face of savage cuts in funding from central government, commercial and residential property ventures appear to be – and indeed, may well be – the least worst option, a more sustainable and strategic approach than say liquidating remaining assets or raising council tax.

If we are to criticise these ventures, our criticism is perhaps better targeted not at local authorities themselves, but at the central government that is primarily responsible for shaping councils’ constrained financial conjuncture and that, in the process, has motivated them to behave like property companies rather than the service-focused community caretakers that the public expects them to be.

About the Author: Brett Christophers is Professor at Department of Social and Economic Geography, Uppsala University

References

Christophers, B. Putting financialisation in its financial context: Transformations in local government‐led urban development in post‐financial crisis England. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2019; 00: 1– 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12305

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Can lakes and rivers have rights?: Voters in Toledo, Ohio weigh in

By Eden Kinkaid, University of Arizona

2011 Toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie (Wikimedia.org)

In a recently passed ballot initiative, voters in Toledo, Ohio granted legal rights to Lake Erie, the 11th largest lake in the world. As The New York Times reports, Lake Erie has seen numerous environmental crises in the last several years, including a major algal bloom in 2014 that rendered water temporarily unfit for drinking and bathing. This incident, and others like it, have been linked to agricultural runoff from surrounding farms that fueled the rapid growth of the toxic algae.

These ongoing threats to the health of the lake led a coalition of locals, Toledoans for Safe Water, to advocate for its protection. Working in partnership with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, an organization known for developing “rights of nature” legislation, advocates prepared a Lake Erie Bill of Rights that was included on the February 26 ballot. A majority of voters – 61% – voted in favor of the measure. While the success of the initiative is inspiring, the decision is already facing legal challenges on the grounds that it does not have legal standing and that it will negatively impact area farmers’ livelihoods.

In the last fifteen years, the geographical spread and success of “rights of nature” measures, like Lake Erie’s, has been quite remarkable. The first such measure, an ordinance in Tamaqua Borough designed to outlaw fracking, emerged in 2006. Since then, the concept of “rights of nature” has appeared in ordinances, laws, resolutions, and even national constitutions around the world. It has been used by indigenous groups, communities, cities, states, and nations to protect natural bodies, including rivers, ecosystems, and sacred territories. How are we to understand this new wave of environmental activism? Will the rights of nature stand? Will they be a solution to the myriad environmental issues facing populations across the globe?

In a recently published article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, I consider these questions through an analysis of another recent rights of nature ruling: a decision granting legal personhood to the Ganga (Ganges River) in India. Like the Lake Erie initiative, this case grants legal personhood to the Ganga to protect it from rampant pollution and development. The similarities between these cases, however, stop there. The rights of the Ganga were declared in a court ruling concerning illegal encroachment on river banks, whereas the Lake Erie decision was a ballot initiative. The Ganga case focused on the sacredness of the river to India’s Hindu majority rather than the more ecological concerns of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Further, each case advocates for different ways to govern the natural bodies. In the case of the Ganga, governance strategies are based on legal precedents governing the personhood and trusteeship of religious idols in temples. Recognizing the central role of Hinduism in the ruling, critics worry that it may come with unintended consequences. Given the uneven history of environmental governance in India and the current religiously polarized political moment, the concern is that the ruling could be enforced selectively to police Muslims and other marginalized populations who live and work near the river.

It is clear, then, that these two decisions, like many rights of nature rulings, are born of radically different contexts and will likely have a variety of impacts and implications. To understand the significance and potential implications of these rulings, I argue we need to attend closely to the geographical, historical, and cultural contexts in which they occur. In my article, “Rights of nature’ in translation” I attempt to come to terms with the marked differences visible within rights of nature activism around the world. In some sense, “rights of nature” appears as a global movement to protect natural entities, yet these cases emerge from very specific and irreconcilable geographical and cultural contexts. They demonstrate understandings of the environment and governance that are clearly linked to specific places, yet they make use of a seemingly “universal” legal language and an international set of precedents. We might ask then, are the rights of the Ganga the same as the rights of Lake Erie? Given their vastly different historical and geographic contexts, does the rights of nature mean the same thing in each case?

In my article, I argue that this question should make us rethink the form of “global” social movements. Rights of nature discourse circulates transnationally, yet is not global in the sense of being “universal.” Indeed, I describe how the terms “rights” and “nature” become translated and contextualized in specific places and projects of governance. Rather than seeing “rights of nature” as a global movement then, I argue that we should see it as a “boundary object” (Leigh Star 2010), a shared term linking together different communities of interpretation and practice. This way, we can understand both the mobile, “global” moments of “rights of nature,” while still attending to the ways in which the concept is deployed and transformed in particular contexts. Indeed, this flexibility and multi-dimensional aspect of rights of nature discourse makes it a fascinating object of study for geographers, challenging us to rethink longstanding meanings of geographical boundaries and scales. Thinking the rights of nature “in translation” requires us to rethink the “local” and the “global” and to reimagine their various divergences and connections.

About the author: Eden Kinkaid is a doctoral student in Geography at the University of Arizona. Eden conducts field-based research in north India on issues of agriculture and environmental governance. More information about Eden’s work and other publications is available here.

Kinkaid, E. (2019). “Rights of nature” in translation: Assemblage geographies, boundary objects, and translocal social movements. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (0)0: 1-16.

Williams, T. (17 Feb. 2019). Legal rights for Lake Erie? Voters in Ohio city will decide.” The New York Times. Retrieved online 19 March 2019 from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/17/us/lake-erie-legal-rights.html.

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If Donald would meet Fatima

By Karen Culcasi, West Virginia University

We live in a world today where 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced,[ which is almost 1% of the world’s population. Those statistics are alarming. In this context, it is deeply troubling that the system created to help refugees and asylum seekers has failed the people it is supposed to support. The sense of humanity and compassion that once guided refugee policies has waned. Refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants are all too often confronted with hostility, violence, and repression both at state borders and through deterritorialized bordering processes that happen away from physical borders (Gorman 2016).

The USA, where I live, has a long history of resettling refugees and asylum seekers; and the country has benefited immensely from these migrants. However, this trend of acceptance is changing. This is plainly evident through countless examples of the violent deterrence of asylum seekers at the USA’s southern border and debates over building a wall. Yet, what is less visible in public discussion is the quiet, slow violence (Coddington 2019) of deterrence that happens through bordering practices of policy, legal regulations, and nativist ideologies.

Syrians are currently the largest refugee group in the world, estimated at 13 million. In 2016, under the Obama administration, the US resettled 15,479 Syrian refugees. The election of Trump, and the mainstreaming of nativist anti-immigration and Islamophobic politics (Bail 2015 and Beydoun 2018) have had profound impacts on resettlement of Syrian refugees. More specifically, the implementation of travel bans targeted at several Muslim majority countries including Syria (Executive Order 13769, known colloquially as the ‘Muslim travel ban’) and the lowering of refugee ‘ceilings’ (the maximum number of refugees permitted to enter the country) in successive years under Trump’s presidency has resulted in a near stop to the resettlement of Syrians in the USA.

In 2017, the USA allowed in 3,024 Syrians, 12,455 less than the previous year. In the first 3 and a half months of 2018, only 11 Syrian refugees were admitted, compared to 790 during the same time period in 2017. In 2018, a total of 22,494 refugees were admitted into the US, which was not only well below the 45,000 ceiling, but also lowest number of admissions since the 1980 Refugee Act was passed.

I wonder if the policy makers of the world, if Donald Trump, would continue to enact such humanitarian violence if they knew some of the Syrian women refugees in Jordan whom I met and spent time with. These women have experienced immense trauma and countless struggles, things that are incomprehensible to most Americans. Yet they are amazingly productive citizens of their communities throughout Jordan and within their households. Many Syrian refugee women are working for an income to support their families; some have started businesses, while others are learning new skills and earning degrees; all while caring for their families and coping with the trauma of war and displacement.

Fatima, for example, was in her second year of college, pursuing a degree in education, when the Syrian war erupted. Her family fled to Jordan, living for a short time in an apartment in the city of Irbid. Due to lack of money, her family moved into the Za’atari refugee camp several months later. In the camp, there was no chance for Fatima to continue her studies. She explained that,

“I couldn’t continue my education here, so I suffer a lot. I am one of the people who care a lot about education… I had high hopes about college because I was excellent in certain subjects in school and I wanted to go into grad school and get my masters as well as my doctorate.”

Fatima, at age 19, had her first child in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. When her son was just a few months old her husband left Jordan and traveled to the UAE to work and send money back to support the family.  But Fatima could not wait for his financial support. So she got a job as a teacher’s assistant in Za’atari and was soon promoted to 2nd grade teacher. As a result, she became the primary income earner for her extended family, who were living together in the camp. Fatima is successful and proud. She is also full of humor and warmth. When she has free time, she often creates artwork to help the dire aesthetics of life in the camp. With the most meager of materials – dried beans and cigarette boxes typically – she has decorated her family’s caravan, as well as some of her neighbors’ walls, and small schoolrooms with designs like palm trees or sayings from the Quran.  

Cigarette Box Bean art/

I am humbled by the strength, resilience, ingenuity, humor and warmth of Fatima and the other Syrian women I met and interviewed. Though nearly all these women (and many other Syrians I spoke with) asserted without hesitation that they want to return to Syria and rebuild their lives, I believe that these women, and their families, would make wonderful neighbours, colleagues and friends; whether in northern, West Virginia, USA, where I live or elsewhere. Yet the slow violence of the bordering practices like the travel bans and the refugee ceiling are squelching any such chances.

References

Bail, Christopher. (2015). Terrified: How anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Beydoun, Khaled A. (2018). American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Coddington, Kate. (early view). The slow violence of life without cash: borders, state restrictions, and exclusion in the U.K. and Australia. Geographical Review doi: 10.1111/gere.12332

Culcasi, K. “We are women and men now”: Intimate spaces and coping labour for Syrian women refugees in Jordan. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2019; 00: 1– 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12292

Gorman, Cynthia. (2016). Containing Kassindja: detention, gendered threats and border control in the United States. Gender, Place and Culture, 23(7), 955-968.

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New home, new clothes: the old ones no longer fit once you move to the country

By Rachael Wallis, University of Southern Queensland. First Published in The Conversation.

File 20190305 48426 124nxz4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
City clothes mark the wearer as being out of place in the country. S_oleg/Shutterstock

What happens if you decide to jump in, Escape to the Country-style, and flee the city rat race?

Well, for a start, your identity begins to change in response to the new place around you. This change happens inside you, but is also reflected in the objects you surround and clothe yourself with.


Read more: How moving house changes you


My recent research looked at the stories of two women who moved from the city to the country and published books about their experiences. Hilary Burden moved from London to rural Tasmania and wrote about it in A Story of Seven Summers. Margaret Roach, author of And I Shall Have Some Peace There, moved from New York City to rural upstate New York. The two women tell the story of their moves, but at the same time, they narrate a journey of changing identity that is shared with others through the clothes they wear.

In memoirs such as these, the authors interpret the events they write about, but so does the reader, who brings their own understandings to their imagined experience. This allows readers to imagine a new way of living too, through the pages of the book. Through this, they might imagine their own SeaChange.

Clothes are part of our identity

When people get dressed each day, they let others know who they are, or who they think they are, in an identity-sharing performance. The clothes the authors discuss in the pages of their memoirs effectively map how their identity changed and how they shared this change with the people around them by wearing different styles of clothes from the ones they wore before. These items combine to produce a narrative that lets others understand those around them more clearly.

Most of the time people are not even aware that they are doing this. They just pick and choose the things they like from the vast array of options open to them.

Sometimes, however, it becomes clear that the clothes that once worked for a person just do not “fit” any more. This can happen in the process of life transformation, including moving from the city to the country the way these women did.

Roach had experienced a long and successful career at Martha Stewart Omnimedia. She knew how to dress for her professional role and had confidence in sharing her wealth and status through the expensive suits she bought. When she moved to the country, however, she could not dress in the same way. With her career behind her, she asked herself: “Who am I if I am not mroach@marthastewart dot com any longer?”

Unsure, and in pyjamas

This lack of clarity about her evolving identity is shown in the pyjamas she starts to wear during the day. Far from familiar terrain, and experiencing a state of flux and transition, Roach finds it simpler just to remain in her nightclothes and not have to figure out her new identity via the clothes she wears. Understanding this dilemma, Roach describes how her old way of living no longer fits her new self:

…like the wardrobe hanging in my closet, a vestige of a life left behind, it just doesn’t resemble me any longer.

She talks about how her clothes no longer fit, mentally or visually, with her new life in the country. With real insight, she writes:

The outside packaging … has to match what’s going on inside of me.

This understanding enables her to finally reconcile who she is to where she now lives. Once she negotiates this process, she is able to manage the transition of her clothing and visual identity to what works in her new country home.

Burden’s move across oceans starts a similar journey. She writes:

I knew I wanted to shed the stuff I associated with cities: suits … dressing up, being very important or busy or loud.

Country clothing is both more practical and an expression of identity. bernatets photo/Shutterstock

These had once enabled her to present and perform her class identity and status to others, but they no longer suited her work outside at a farmers’ market in rural Tasmania. Her clothes needed to fit the time and place she lived in, but she found they did not. These old clothes end up in garbage bags on a journey to the op shop, and Burden adapts to share her new identity through her clothes.

These memoirs offer a glimpse into lives and identities within the imaginative space they create, permitting identity to be shared through language and text. They show how moving to the country impacts identity, and how these people need to work through this process of change to adapt to their new life and feel comfortable in their new location.

Next time you contemplate moving to the country, just be sure to factor in the cost of a whole new wardrobe!

About the author: Rachael Wallis, Lecturer and Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Read more: Wallis, R. Self‐telling place, identity and dress in lifestyle migration memoirs. Area. 2019; 00: 1– 7. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12540

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Flood Risk Management #10yearchallenge

By Thea Wingfield, University of Liverpool

The first viral craze of 2019 had already taken hold as fireworks welcoming the New Year lit the sky around the globe. The #10yearchallenge, described by some as catnip for narcissists,  started with celebrities sharing side-by side photos showing that they were beautiful ten years ago, and that they are still beautiful now. I then noticed some of my friends doing the same under the hashtag 10 year challenge. A second wave of posts used the same hashtag to promote campaign messages, sharing then-and-now pictures of shrinking glaciers, or gut wrenching images of worn torn cities in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Over the last couple of months it has been almost impossible to avoid the #10yearchallenge on social media.

The widespread appeal of taking a moment to reflect has been neatly captured by this trend. We enjoy trying to remember what our outlook was and what we hoped for. Congratulating ourselves for goals achieved, lessons learnt and lucky escapes. When the memories aren’t so pleasant, ten years can be a safe distance from which to examine bad decisions and wrong turns. The #10yearchallenge began as a scrutiny of physical appearances, but I have no desire to go through that. Although, the concept of the #10yearchallenge has inspired me. In light of our recent Area paper, we have undertaken a Flood Risk Management #10YearChallenge. Our paper examined how contemporary holistic flood risk management can be delivered by working with natural processes. So what was the picture in 2008? Should we be congratulating ourselves for achieving our goals, or are we working with a legacy of bad decisions?

In 2008 Sir Michael Pitt published a review of the country’s flood management following the widespread devastating summer floods of 2007, which represented the largest peacetime emergency since World War II. The Pitt review generated a total of 92 recommendations calling for “urgent and fundamental changes” for the country to adapt to the, “likelihood of more frequent and intense periods of heavy rainfall”. Under the heading “Reducing the Risk of Flooding and its Impact”, recommendation number 27 called specifically for flood risk management to work with natural processes. Whilst not the first document to do so, the Pitt review was an early and influential statement of intent for flood risk management to consider options beyond a total reliance on hard engineered flood defences. To realise such an ambitious change required much greater collaboration and stricter controls between urban planning, water companies, and flood and coastal risk management. Our review in 2018 drew similar conclusions with the addition of the agriculture and conservation sectors.

Fast forward 10 years. Is government embracing the recommendations of the Pitt review? Have we gained 10 more years of knowledge and practice? In November 2018 Michael Gove made a speech on the UK Climate Change Projections in which he discussed food risk management as being one of the principle threats to the UK from a changing climate. He goes on to discuss what he calls “new philosophies” of making communities more resilient to flooding, which requires a move away from a total reliance on hard engineering. Thanks to the ten year challenge we know that there is nothing new in this aim. If you were to position Michael Gove’s speech side by side with the Pitt review in the style of the #10yearchallenge there are many similarities. Ten years ago a more diverse flood risk management strategy was called for and ten years later that call is still being made. One ominous difference is that while the Pitt review identifies urban planning and building regulation as having a significant role to play, Michael Gove appears to willfully ignore this crucial piece of the puzzle. Instead his picture has agriculture and upland land management as carrying the burden for a countrywide adaptation to more frequent and intense rainfall. What we have shown in our Area paper is that there are opportunities to work with natural processes across the catchment from urban areas in the lowlands to rural areas in the uplands and everywhere in-between.


Catchment‐wide NFM interventions categorised as the initial step in the hydrological cycle. Interception: A1 bunded ditches, A2 vegetative cover, A3 green roofs and walls, A4 interception ponds, A5 managed realignment, A6 rain gardens, A7 restoring peatlands, A8 swales, A9 beach nourishment, A10 habitat promotion, A11 reef creation. Infiltration: B1 woodlands, B2 filter/buffer strips, B3 hedgerows, B4 managing soil quality, B5 no and low till agriculture, B6 permeable paving, B7 reduced stocking density. Water storage: C1 ponds, C2 rainwater harvesting, C3 reservoirs, C4 wetlands and reed beds. Channel flow: D1 de‐culverting, D2 increase channel roughness, D3 regulated washlands, D4 remeandering, D5 restore functioning floodplain, D6 setting back flood defences, D7 woody material dams, D8 species reintroduction (e.g., beavers). Each intervention uses a number of hydrological processes to slow the flow of water, for example interception, infiltration and water storage in wetlands and surrounding vegetative cover will result in reduced surface run‐off. Source: Wingfield et al.

So why is our move away from a reliance on hard engineering still being discussed as a future ambition? Why have we not adopted the recommendations of ten years ago and implemented catchment wide integrated flood risk management? One reason could be that it is very difficult to measure the natural processes involved. The research agenda is dominated by approaches commonly used in the natural sciences, which focuses resources on efforts to increase the evidence base and tests our computational skills rather than the resilience of the hydrology system. We have found that there is not the same research effort into translating policy into practice, particularly in identifying existing forums that can be utilised to encourage wider delivery. The geographical sciences are well placed to bring together the interdisciplinary thinking required from both the physical and human traditions.  Our paper has found that the catchment based approach (CaBA), initially established in 2011 in response to the challenges of delivering the Water Framework Directive, also advocates for an approach to the delivery of flood risk management that harnesses natural processes. Furthermore, the sectors that are needed to collaborate are identical. Therefore, an opportunity exists to utilise established catchment partnerships. If CaBA is supported through research into the mechanisms of delivery, a future ten year challenge could be reflecting on the changes that have been achieved in a decade rather than still describing identical policy ambitions.

About the author: Thea Wingfield is undertaking a NERC-CASE funded PhD in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Liverpool.

References

BBC (2019). 10 Year Challenge: How the world has changed in a decade

Crace, J. (2019). The 10-year challenge is catnip to narcissists. Speaking of which … The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jan/18/10-year-challenge-catnip-narcissists-speaking-of-which-

Wingfield T, Macdonald N, Peters K, Spees J, & Potter K. (2019). Natural Flood Management: Beyond the evidence debate. Area. 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12535

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Five countries hold 70% of world’s remaining wilderness; but does anyone there agree?

By Phillip and April Vannini, Royal Roads University

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has revealed that five countries hold 70% of the world’s last wilderness. Hundreds of newspapers and TV stations around the world have given the study and the map that it produced extensive coverage, prompting nations around the globe to measure up their performance on wilderness conservation.

A quick glance at the map yielded by the UQ+WCS study reveals that Canada, Russia, Australia, and Brazil are vying for the podium of countries with the most wilderness remaining. The USA is in the midst of the race too, but mostly thanks to Alaska (hardly any patch of wilderness seems to exist in the lower 48). The coast of Greenland and much of Western China seem pretty wild too.

For the last four years, the two of us have been traveling around Canada and a number of places around the world with a somewhat similar intent to that the study’s authors. But rather than catalogue wilderness and rank nations, our research has kept us busy simply making sense of not only what wilderness is, but what the very idea of “wild” means across different cultures and different groups of people living in different circumstances.

The notion of wilderness, as countless commentators across geography and environmental history have argued—yet clearly not loudly enough to be heard by the creators of this new wilderness map—is profoundly dependent on the cultural lenses that one wears. In Japan, for example, every time we asked what “wild” meant through the words of a highly competent translator we were met with confused stares and the sound of background crickets. In Argentina “wild” had to be translated in Spanish using a long litany of synonyms that weren’t quite synonyms, each accompanied by disclaimers and qualifications. More examples could be shared.

In most of Canada—which, according to the UQ+WCS map is chockfull of wilderness—the English language doesn’t need a lot of translation. Yet it is precisely there where the notion of wilderness makes the least sense. Better yet, more than nonsensical the idea is colonial and ignorant. Here is what Mary-Jane Johnson, an Elder from the Yukon’s Kluane First Nation taught us.

What people like Mary-Jane would think of that wilderness map is so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be spelled out by us.

The area of Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park is a wilderness as well, according to the UQ+WCS map. In “Re-animating Gros Morne’s storyless space” we tune into a few narratives shared by the residents of the area, all told in this video. Their stories reveal that Gros Morne is home to many people, and it has been so for time immemorial. Does this mean that Gros Morne and places like it are not a wilderness? The answer is not so simple.

If we think of wilderness as uninhabited, untouched, and pristine land then it becomes essentially impossible to find wilderness anywhere. But if we update our understanding of what else a “wild” place could be, and if we do so by listening to those who call those places home, then our mind map of the world’s wildness quickly changes—as we explain in our article and even more so in the rest of our ongoing research. We only wish the creators of the world’s last wilderness map could have found some value in listening to some stories as well.

About the authors: Philip and April Vannini are based at the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC.

Reference

Cox, L. (2018). Five countries hold 70% of world’s last wildernesses, map reveals. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/31/five-countries-hold-70-of-worlds-last-wildernesses-map-reveals

Vannini P, Vannini A. Re‐animating Gros Morne’s storyless space: From natural heritage to ecological heritage. Area. 2019;00:1–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12533

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Historians rethink the Green Revolution

By Glenn Davis Stone, Washington University in St. Louis

A memorable episode of The West Wing, the dramatic series about the US presidency, features a President Nimbala of a fictive African republic.  Nimbala holds forth at a press conference about “people who make miracles in the world,” like the man “in whose hands India’s wheat crop increased from 11m to 60m tons annually.”  Know-it-all US President Jed Bartlett then chimes in with “That’s right. His name is Norman Borlaug, by the way.”  Relaxing with his staff later, Bartlett reflected on how India was once thought incapable of ever feeding itself, but…

“Then Norman Borlaug comes along. See the problem was wheat is top-heavy. It was falling over on itself and it took up too much space. The dwarf wheat… guys, it was an agricultural revolution that was credited with saving one billion lives!”

What screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s presidents were channeling was the legend of the Green Revolution.  In the standard telling, Borlaug developed short-stalked wheat with very high yield potential when heavily fertilized.  This wheat (along with dwarf rice) was adopted in several countries, but the real drama was in India, where the overpopulation and backward-looking agricultural scientists had left the country desperately dependent on shiploads of US grain.  Borlaug’s wheat came in 1967, just in time to avert catastrophic famine.  Accepting the 1970 Nobel Peace, Borlaug claimed a victory in the war between “two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction”.  Agricultural scientists still talk about how Indian agricultural growth “was practically stagnant until the onset of the Green Revolution”.

The Green Revolution has had its critics too, including social scientists (primarily concerned about how it favored the better-off farmers) and eco-activists (most notably Vandana Shiva).  But critics have barely dented the luster of the legend.

But the last few years have brought an astonishing burst of research by historians that forces us to completely rethink what happened in India in 1960s.  Most of this work is by up and coming young historians, but the door to the new body of work was opened in 2010 by Nick Cullather’s remarkable book The Hungry World.  This was followed by 6 dissertations (in different stages of being published).  I summarize this body of research in a new article in The Geographical Journal, but here I will focus on the takeaway about the all-important issue of how many lives were saved.

First, the new histories make it clear that India was not importing US wheat because of overpopulation.  After over a century as a colony, India’s agriculture and industry were both in a woeful state.  Gandhi favored developing rural self-sufficiency and agriculture, but Prime Minister Nehru instead chose heavy industry (steel, chemicals) – with US’s encouragement.  When the US offered free wheat – mainly to unload its ever-growing surplus – India accepted it to keep urban food prices low for factory workers. This undercut Indian producers and hurt domestic grain production.  The food shipments, in other words, were a cause of foodgrain dependency.  (Meanwhile, India encouraged farmers to switch from food crops to nonfood cash crops like jute which fueled a 1960s export boom.  Ironically, most of the jute went to the US, where it made seats for the tractors that over-produced grain and made the sacks that held the grain being shipped to India.)

Then came the 1965-67 drought, which led to increased wheat shipments and claims of famine by newspapers and US President Johnson.  In retrospect it is doubtful there was a famine at all; Indian officials declared the famine a sham, and reporters searched in vain for starving peasants.  Analysts would later find scant evidence of excess mortality. But events of the drought years would morph from an overblown story of starvation into a harrowing fantasy of India having passed a Malthusian point of no return.  In 1968 Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb assured readers that tens of millions would soon be starving.

But in 1968 the rains returned and so did bumper crops.  Wheat had a great year – probably as much because of good prices and thousands of new tube wells as because of miracle seeds – but so did other crops.  If you look at long term trends in not just wheat but all foodgrains, you see that even with imports undercutting Indian farmers, production was climbing faster than population before and after the drought.  The Green Revolution years didn’t lead to faster agricultural growth or more food per capita – just to a higher percentage of wheat in the diet.

Trends in the production of the major categories of food crops in India.
Trend in India’s total foodgrain production divided by population. Data are from the India Dept. of Agriculture & Co-operation.

Moreover, if there was no real famine during the rare 2-year drought before the Green Revolution, just who is supposed to have starved after the rains returned?  The new histories lead us to revise the number of lives saved from a billion to a lower number.

Like zero.

But how much impact these studies have on received wisdom is an open question.  The legend of “people who make miracles in the world” continues to be promoted by parties whose interests it serves.  It suited the US government’s interests at the time: locked in a Cold War with the Soviets and a hot war in Viet Nam, the US jumped at the chance to point to a humanitarian triumph in Asia.  (Even the name “Green Revolution” was an explicit rebuke to red revolution.)  Today the biotechnology industry and its allies zealously promote the legend as a flattering framing for the spread of genetically modified crops.  A Monsanto chief even recounted the aging Borlaug tearing up because while he lived through the Green Revolution, he would not live to see the “Gene Revolution” which might save Africa.

President Nimbala was fictional, but the push for a “Green Revolution for Africa” today is very real and understanding what really happened in India 50 years ago is vital.  We are fortunate to have the careful attention of this generation of historians.

About the author: Glenn Davis Stone is an environmental anthropologist whose research focuses on ecological, political, and cultural aspects of agriculture; on sustainability; on crop biotechnology and GMO’s; and on food studies. Glenn is Professor of Anthropology & Environmental Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

References

Baranski, Marci. (2015). The Wide Adaptation of Green Revolution Wheat.  PhD thesis, Arizona State Univ.

Cullather, Nick. (2010). The hungry world: America’s cold war battle against poverty in Asia. Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Olsson, T. C. (2017). Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ Press. (PhD thesis, Univ. of Georgia, 2013)

Patel, Raj. (2013). The Long Green Revolution. The Journal of Peasant Studies 40, 1-63.

Saha, Madhumita. (2012). State Policy, Agricultural Research and Transformation of Indian Agriculture with reference to Basic Food Crops, 1947-1975. PhD thesis, Iowa State University.

Siegel, B. R. (2018). Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ Press.  (PhD thesis, Harvard, 2014)

Stone, G. D. (2019). Commentary: New histories of the Indian Green Revolution. Geogr J. 2019;00:1–8. https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12297

Subramanian, Kapil. (2015). Revisiting the Green Revolution: Irrigation and Food Production in 20th Century India. PhD thesis, Kings College London.  

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Should we promote commodity crops in forest frontiers?

By Sango Mahanty, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University

Dried cassava in a newly cleared farm, upland Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Among aid agencies, agricultural value chain interventions are often used to promote value addition, rural livelihoods, and economic growth in the global south. In Cambodia, for instance, two large and concurrent aid projects have aimed to strengthen value chains for cassava (manihot esculenta), even urging farmers to enter cropping contracts so that new, privately financed processing factories can thrive. At the same time, as a crop that can be grown easily on newly cleared lands, cassava is implicated in forest loss along Cambodia’s agriculture-forest frontier. Dramatic price volatility and crop pathogens have also fuelled debt and social disruption in farming communities.

My paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers shows that by shifting our analysis from value chains to market networks we can gain a more nuanced understanding of frontier markets. Value chain or commodity chain studies focus on the actors, institutions, and processes that bring goods and services from peripheral frontiers to global markets (Bair, 2009). In contrast, network analysis enables us to also consider how indirect actors frame conditions, entice farmers into new commodity markets, and influence market trajectories.

My research on cassava markets in Mondulkiri province, North-East Cambodia, finds that a boom in cassava cultivation has produced two distinct market networks. The first network supplies dried cassava chips to trans-border markets that serve bioethanol and livestock production. The second network supplies fresh cassava to Vietnamese starch and processed food factories. By assessing the social, material and spatial relationships in each network, I show that subtle geographical variations in transport networks, migration patterns, and the availability of uncleared land support dried cassava production in upland areas and fresh cassava in Mondulkiri’s lowlands. The dried and fresh cassava networks reflect Mondulkiri’s differentiated geography of cassava production, arising from its varied landscape, demography and market opportunities. At the same time, each market network continually reconfigures these landscapes and communities in a process of co-production.

Labourers on established cassava farm, lowland Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Furthermore, both the dried and fresh cassava markets are highly dynamic. The promise of new land and income can mobilise farmers to grow new crops, while setbacks in the form of loss in soil fertility, price instability and debt have the effect of demobilising market networks. Projects that promote specific market crops or encourage contract farming can cut across these fluxes in detrimental ways, for example by reducing farmers’ flexibility to choose different crops.

Although Mondulkiri is often described as a frontier province, its history of settlement and migration along available transport networks has produced highly differentiated spaces and opportunities. When land becomes harder to find in established areas, lowland migrants target new settlement locations, effectively creating a “frontier within a frontier”. This relational dimension of frontiers (Barney 2009) is also evident in international trading networks for cassava starch, where each actor sees themselves as peripheral. While Cambodian farmers think that Vietnamese factory owners set cassava demand and price, starch producers feel like peripheral actors in a global market controlled by international buyers. These examples suggest that frontier discourses are applied to very diverse settings that warrant interrogation if we are to better understand how frontier markets function.

Should we promote commodity crops in the frontiers of the global south? My research findings indicate a need for caution. Interventions must be founded on nuanced knowledge that goes beyond value chain logics, particularly in areas that are undergoing dramatic and differentiated forms of social and environmental change. Without this, projects run the risk of uniformly promoting market engagements that are socially and environmentally unsustainable.

About the author: Sango Mahanty is Associate Professor at The Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, where she leads the Resources, Environment & Development Group. The research discussed in this post and the associated paper draw on her Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (2014-2018), which studied market formation in the context of rapid social and environmental change along the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

References

Bair, J. 2009. Global commodity chains: genealogy and review. In J. Bair (Ed.), Frontiers of Commodity Chain Research (pp. 1-34). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Barney, K. 2009. Laos and the making of a “relational” resource frontier. The Geographical Journal, 175, 146–159. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2009.00323.x

Chan, S. 2018. Farmers urged to enter contract farming scheme. Khmer Times. Retrieved from https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50512869/farmers-urged-to-enter-contract-farming-scheme/

Chan, S. 2018. Cassava mosaic virus now affecting at least five provinces: Ministry. Khmer Times. Retrieved from https://www.khmertimeskh.com/50522984/cassava-mosaic-virus-now-affecting-at-least-five-provinces-ministry/

Mahanty, S. 2019 Tale of Two Networks: market formation on the Cambodia-Vietnam frontier. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 1-20. DOI: 10.1111/tran.12286

United Nations Development Program Cambodia. Our Focus: Upgrade value chain. Retrieved from http://www.kh.undp.org/content/cambodia/en/home/upgrade-value-chains.html

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Are more and more of us restricting the freedoms of others in everyday life?

By Kathryn Cassidy, Northumbria University

Still from the film Everyday Borders depicting a protest organised by women from the Southall Black Sisters. Everyday Borders was directed by Orson Nava and was produced as part of the EUBorderscapes project.

Increasingly immigration legislation has shifted the policing of the UK’s border away from the margins and into everyday life, transforming ordinary residents into agents of the state who are required to verify the immigration status of others (Yuval-Davis et al, 2018). Recent legislation has de-professionalised checks and enforcement and moved them into the roles of different actors, most recently via the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, whose focus is to create a “hostile environment” for so-called “illegal migrants”. This “borderwork” routinely happens when we attempt to access housing, health care, education, employment, and financial services. While they may not be physically detained, everyday life for those unable to prove their status (e.g. some members of settled populations from Britain’s former colonies) or whose status is not widely understood (e.g. asylum seekers) in the UK is characterised by “unfreedom”.

Especially affected by this are Black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee (BAMER) women, for whom this hostility intersects with the existing gender-based oppression and discrimination that they experience across interpersonal, social, structural and institutional spheres. The situation is exacerbated by the linking of immigration status to relationships through the ‘spousal visa’ issued by the United Kingdom Visas and Immigration (UKVI. Those who are forced to be dependent in this way and experience domestic violence find themselves facing the prospect of losing not only their home, family, work, etc. if they flee, but also their status in the UK.  Evidence suggests that the need to access domestic violence support services is not only gendered but also racialised. BAMER women find it harder to leave situations of domestic abuse, yet they are more highly represented among those accessing domestic violence support services (Bowstead, 2015).

For most of the BAMER women who took part in our research[1], their status in the UK was dependent on a partner or spouse. Loss of immigration status was often used to try to force the women to remain in a violent situation by their partners, families, and communities. One woman said, “My husband’s family they were using my immigration status as a way to make me stay […] They threatened to tell the Home Office about me”.

In leaving a violent and/or controlling domestic situation, women may hope to find new freedoms as a result. However, BAMER women applying for leave to remain in the UK can become subject to new, state-sponsored processes of control, which may be so extensive and multi-layered that they could be described as a form of everyday incarceration. They face not only the possibility of destitution but also the threat of deportation, as they enter the UK’s asylum process. Non-EEA nationals leaving a violent partner settled in the UK may apply for a visa and gain indefinite leave to remain, but this route is often difficult to access, for instance, if a woman does not disclose the violence immediately, or is unable to provide “evidence” of it.

Despite these difficulties, all of the women had left their homes and were forced to, as one woman said, “throw themselves on the mercy of the British state”. For some women, this had led to enforced relocation to different parts of the country, or to specific housing, which was in some cases unsafe. Some women described experiencing intimidation from landlords or housemates. Alternative housing options were limited, partly because of the government’s no-choice accommodation system for asylum seekers, but also legislation which obliges landlords to check tenants’ immigration status, leading some to avoid renting to those without UK passports. Some women had to travel long distances for frequent visits to Home Office reporting centres. Many lived in constant fear of being raided or picked up by Immigration Enforcement teams. All faced financial hardship, being unable to work or access benefits while their applications were processed. If they could prove they were “destitute,” the women could claim very limited cash funds and housing. If their application was refused but they were not detained (known as “immigration bail”), women were issued with an electronic payment card to buy food and essential toiletries. They could only use the card in certain stores, and this was dependent on verification by store staff, who were often untrained and therefore refused them service. Not all of the women were entitled to even this support. These factors combined to heighten feelings of difference and separateness for the women and thwarted their attempts to become or to feel integrated within their communities. 

“When you go out on the street, station or bus, immigration people they are checking your status […] you have to show your passport. So, I feel so suffocated all the time […]. I suffered my childhood; my brother was controlling my life. After that my husband and his family they were controlling my life and now […] in this country the immigration is controlling my life. So every time, I feel like, where can I get free?”

Everyday bordering excludes people waiting for leave to remain in the UK from the freedoms of citizenship and subjects them to invasive control over their mobility, finances, and daily lives, even refusing them access to goods and services. Increasingly, we are all compliant in this process, with more and more people being engaged in undertaking “borderwork” on multiple levels. Women like those who took part in this research experience daily social, spatial and material oppression as their uncertain immigration status intersects with racial and gendered ‘micro-aggression’, and the control exerted over their lives by the UK Home Office is often effectively a continuation of the controls imposed through domestic violence.

A fuller discussion of the issues in this blog post can be found in Cassidy, K (2018) Where can I get free? Everyday bordering, everyday incarceration. Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers, 1-15.

A film is available at https://vimeo.com/126315982


[1] The research includes a focus group that was shot as part of film produced for WP9 ‘Borders Intersectionality and the Everyday’ by Dr. Georgie Wemyss (UEL) and led by Professor Nira Yuval-Davis (UEL/Umea) for the EUBorderscapes project (2012-2016), as well as a collaborative arts project developed by Dr. Kathryn Cassidy (Northumbria), the Angleou Centre and Helix Arts on Tyneside (2015-2017).

About the author: Dr Kathryn Cassidy is Associate Professor in Human Geography in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at Northumbria University. 

References

Bowstead, J. C. (2015). Forced migration in the United Kingdom: Women’s journeys to escape domestic violence. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 40, 307–320. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12085

Cassidy, K. (2018). Where can I get free? Everyday bordering, everyday incarceration. Trans Inst Br Geogr. Advance online publication. 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12273

Yuval-Davis, N., Wemyss, G., & Cassidy, K. (2018). Everyday bordering, belonging and the re‐orientation of British immigration legislation. Sociology, 52, 228–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038517702599

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With a little help from my family: how do researchers negotiate the risks and problems of doing fieldwork

Menusha De Silva, Singapore Management University, and Kanchan Gandhi, New Delhi

Kanchan Gandhi (right) with her mother during fieldwork

Kanchan Gandhi (right) with her mother during fieldwork

How can higher education institutions ensure the safety of researchers while they conduct overseas research without compromising the researcher’s academic freedom and their ability to deliver high-quality work? The cases of Giulio Regeni, who was abducted, tortured and murdered during his fieldwork in Egypt in 2016, and Matthew Hedges, who was imprisoned for over five months in 2018 during his fieldwork in the United Arab Emirates, exemplify some of the more brutal dangers researchers can face in the field.  Although most researchers will not face such extreme danger, all fieldwork – whether it is conducted overseas or in the researcher’s home country – involves some form of risk to the researcher’s physical and/or emotional well-being.

Geographers have drawn attention to the physical dangers researchers, particularly women, have to negotiate when they conduct fieldwork. For example,  some researchers rely on family members to assist and accompany them in the field. Meanwhile, some white, female researchers who engage in cross-cultural fieldwork, especially in the global South, rely on their husbands and/or partners to provide protection from physical harm. Female researchers often present themselves in a way that conveys that they are conforming to the social and cultural norms of the communities they are studying. In some instances, taking young children to the field can make it easier for researchers to build a rapport with their participants as they bond over common concerns about children. Researchers’ dependency on family to ensure the success and safety of fieldwork highlights that our work is shaped by who we are as individuals, our family, and our social connections. In other words, our gender, age, class, religion, ethnicity, citizenship status, sexuality, physical appearance, and personality, among other factors, are implicated in the ways in which people interact with us and consequently our work.

Our paper in Area focuses specifically on how we, as PhD students, relied on our parents to help us with research in our home countries. We reflect on our negotiations as ‘natives’ to our field sites in Sri Lanka and India and refer to three of our colleagues’ experiences in India and the Philippines. Our identity as local women meant that we had to align with the dominant gendered cultural norms of our field sites, such as being accompanied when we traveled to distant places or meeting with unknown people. In addition to protecting us from both real and perceived risks, we discuss how our parents assisted the research by tapping into their social networks to identify study participants, giving back to the communities we researched, and providing care and accommodation.

While there were occasions when we insisted on navigating the field alone, our fieldwork was most successful when we relied on our parents and emphasised our identity as a ‘daughter’ who was under the protection of their parents. Yet, due to our identity as PhD researchers, and experiences of living alone in an unfamiliar country, our dependence on parents led to feelings of shame. We show how the explorer and survivor rhetoric that continues to influence general understandings of fieldwork led us question was it means to produce an ‘independent’ piece of work. There are numerous individuals who contribute to PhD research, but they are ordinarily only mentioned in the thesis acknowledgements. Our parents played important roles by helping to facilitate our fieldwork and by mitigating risk during our fieldwork. Through this paper, we retrospectively recognize our parents’ influence on the research process and highlight the need to critically engage with other people’s contributions to shaping and accomplishing a research project.

About the authors: Menusha De Silva is a research fellow in the School of Social Science, Singapore Management University. Kanchan Gandhi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

Chiswell, H. M., & Wheeler, R. (2016). ‘As long as you’re easy on the eye’: Reflecting on issues of positionality and researcher safety during farmer interviews. Area, 48, 229–235. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12257

De Silva, M. and Gandhi, K. (2018) ‘Daughter’ as a Positionality and the Gendered Politics of Taking Parents into the Field. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12525

The Guardian (2016) Italian student killed in Egypt: Giulio Regeni ‘showed signs of electrocution’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/14/italian-student-killed-in-egypt-giulio-regeni-showed-signs-of-electrocution

The Guardian (2018) Matthew Hedges jailing: two more UK universities cut ties with UAE. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/nov/24/matthew-hedges-jailing-two-more-uk-universities-cut-ties-with-uae

Lunn, J., & Moscuzza, A. (2014). Doing it together: Ethical dimensions of accompanied fieldwork. In J. Lunn (Ed.), Fieldwork in the Global South: Ethical challenges and dilemmas (pp. 69–82). New York, NY: Routledge.