Author Archives: RGS-IBG Managing Editor: Academic Publications

Occupy and the dilemmas of social movements

By Sam Halvorsen, University of Cambridge

occupy.jpg

Occupy London, 16 October 2011, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Photo credit: Crispin Semmens (Flickr: assembly time) CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

You don’t have to look far in 2017 to see people taking to the streets. The election of Donald Trump led to global protests, with January’s “Women’s March” reported as the biggest day of protest in the history of the USA. In March, International Women’s Day saw marches and strikes around the world. While it is too early to say how these protests will unfold and what spatial forms they will take it is likely that they will come up against many of the challenges faced by activists in the past. Learning from the lessons of previous social movements is a useful task.

My recently published paper seeks to draw attention to and understand some of the more challenging and problematic aspects of social movements. It does so not with the intention of undermining them, but in the belief that it is important not to romanticise social movements as inherently good things and to directly confront the internal dilemmas they face.

From my research with Occupy London, part of a global wave of protests that spread across hundreds of cities worldwide in 2011 (see here for a report 5 years on), I argue that decisions that activists make about where to mobilise (e.g. in what places or at which scales) present particular dilemmas that can, at worst, lead to demobilisation. The research was based on my own active involvement and commitment to Occupy London, something I have written about elsewhere (Halvorsen, 2015) and has been explored in a previous blog post on this page.

As geographers have demonstrated for some years now (see Routledge, 1993), social movements don’t just appear ‘on the head of a pin’ (Miller and Martin, 2000) but mobilise in and across space. In this paper I aim to add to recent conversations about how and why geography matters to social movements (e.g. Nicholls et al, 2013) by focusing on the dilemmas and contradictions that arise when mobilising particular spatial strategies: decisions to prioritise spatialities such as the place of the protest camp or a global network of solidarity.

I argue that in the pursuit of particular spatial strategies activists tend to create tensions that, at times, undermine the original aims and goals of a movement. For example, decisions by Occupy London activists to prioritise the building and maintenance of a protest camp meant that less energy was available for building international alliances or solidarity campaigns, creating tensions with Occupy London’s stated aims of building a global movement. This led both to the demobilisation of some activists, concerned with the “fetishisation” of camp, and later to new spatial strategies following eviction.

In making this argument I develop a dialectical analytical framework, an approach that understands change as the result of constantly resolving contradictions, which I integrate with a spatial analysis of social movements. Specifically, I outline spatial dialectics as a means of grappling with the unfolding of contradictions both historically, over time, and geographically, across different moments of space (what Henri Lefebvre referred to as the moments of perceived, conceived and lived space).

Social movements have great potential for social change as history has taught us. Yet social movements, like any other part of society, are not free from contradictions and internal tensions and it is important to both acknowledge and make sense of why this is the case.

This is important because the work of doing activism is unevenly experienced by differently placed people. In Occupy London, for example, I demonstrate divisions of labour based around class and gender, features that are all too common in seemingly “radical” movements.

Grappling with contractions is also important, crucial in fact, for supporting and pushing social movements forward. Exposing and explaining why geography is central to the unfolding of contradictions is thus an important task.

About the author: Dr Sam Halvorsen is a Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. 

References

60-world2 Broomfield M 2017 Women’s March against Donald Trump is the largest day of protests in US history, say political scientists The Independent Online 23 January 2017

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2015 Creating space for militant research within- against-and-beyond the university: reflections from Occupy London Area 47 466–72

books_icon  Halvorsen S 2017 Spatial dialectics and the geography of social movements: the case of Occupy London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12179

60-world2 Jamieson A 2016 Occupy Wall Street reunites five years later: ‘I never ended for most of us’ The Guardian Online 18 September 2016

books_icon  Miller BA and Martin BG 2000 ‘Missing Geography’ In Miller BA 2000 Geography and Social Movements: Comparing Antinuclear Activism in the Boston Area University of Minnesota Press, London

books_icon  Nicholls W, Miller B and Beaumont J eds 2013. Spaces of Contention: Spatialities and Social Movements Farnham, Ashgate

60-world2 Rose M 2016 Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest protest Geography Directions

books_icon  Routledge P 1993. Terrains of Resistance: Nonviolent social movements and the contestation of place in India Praeger, Westport CT

60-world2 Topping A and Redden M 2017 ‘We are international, we are everywhere’: women unite in global strike The Guardian Online  7 March 2017

 

Beyond facilitator? The state in global value chains and global production networks

 Rory Horner, University of Manchester, United Kingdom

trump

Donald Trump, quoted in The Financial Times (2017). Image available via Pixabay.

Not so long ago, proposed policies to “repatriate international supply chains” as part of national-oriented initiatives openly marketed as protectionist, would have been quite difficult to imagine. Yet, like in many issue areas, Donald Trump’s approach to trade policy is unconventional. His planned trade policies, including import taxes, have been met with widespread condemnation, with many questioning how they may work in an era of global value chains (GVCs).

The irony of Trump advocating protectionism to support American manufacturing while visiting Boeing, which reportedly draws on parts manufactured in over 60 countries, has been pointed to. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has tweeted that: “If Trump wants to close down global value chains he will close down Boeing as well. Among others”.

Meanwhile, in relation to the UK’s planned exit from the European Union, questions have been raised about how the UK’s new proposed trade policies might work in the context of global value chains. Theresa May has advocated sector by sector deals, yet there is scepticism as to the practicalities of how this might work. The automobile industry in the UK, for example, is dependent on products crossing back and forth across borders many times. The effects of any trade barriers are thus magnified.

Such political developments in both the UK and USA are dramatic examples of the increasing empirical relevance of state roles beyond facilitating GVCs (or related global production networks – GPNs). Not so long ago, the dominant emphasis in research on GVCs and GPNs was arguably on how state’s played a facilitator role – whether through choice or seemingly facing little other option – assisting firms (either major global corporations or their suppliers) in relation to the challenges of the global economy.

Indeed, the global organisation of production accelerated greatly over the last two decades during the neoliberal era of market-promotion, falling trade barriers and the belief in limiting state intervention. In this context, research on global value chains and production networks has valuably highlighted the uneven power dynamics in global industries, moving beyond dominant state-centric approaches to understanding economic development.

Yet, increasingly a variety of other state roles beyond facilitator are of increasing prominence, including as regulator, producer (state-owned enterprises) and buyer (public procurement). In a new article in Geography Compass which synthesises a variety of recent research on the role of the state in GVCs and GPNs, I highlight four different such state roles, as indicated in the table below:

Table 1. Typology of state roles within global production networks

Role Definition Examples
Facilitator Assisting firms in GPNs in relation to the challenges of the global economy Tax incentives, subsidies, export processing zones, incentives for R&D, implementing and negotiating favourable trade policies, inter-state lobbying
Regulator Measures that limit and restrict the activities of firms within GPNs State marketing boards, price controls, restrictions on foreign investment, trade policy (tariffs, quotas), patent laws, labour regulation, quality controls, standards implementation
Producer State-owned firms, which compete for market share with other firms within GPNs State-owned companies e.g. in oil, mining.
Buyer State purchases output of a firm Public procurement e.g. of military equipment, pharmaceuticals.

Source: Author’s construction.

While the relevance of roles beyond facilitator is highlighted by, and may get increasing attention with, Donald Trump’s suggested policies and the UK’s planned exit from the European Union and, their relevance is longer-standing. The Economist (2013) highlighted a growth in protectionist measures in 2013, to provide just one example of the relevance of a regulatory role. Meanwhile, state-owned companies are significant actors in the global economy – involving a producer role. Moreover, a buyer role is highlighted through public procurement which has been estimated to comprise an average of between 13% and 20% of GDP worldwide (OECD, 2013).

Future research attention is needed to the influence and viability of the regulator, buyer and producer roles and how they are manifest in a context of a potential retreat from, or even reformulation of, economic globalisation.

Significantly for any current move towards “protectionism”, the location of states within a world of GVCs and GPNs means both that current policy initiatives are likely to vary and to have different implications from earlier eras where states intervened to promote national interests. The implications of growing neo-nationalism for GVCs and GPNs, and vice-versa, are uncertain, but clearly something to watch!

About the author: Rory Horner is a Lecturer in Globalisation and Political Economic, ESRC Future Research Leade,r and Hallworth Research Fellow at the Global Development Institute , University of Manchester.  

books_icon Horner, R. (2017) Beyond facilitator? State roles in global value chains and global production networks, Geography Compass 11(2)

60-world2 OECD (2013). Leading practitioners on public procurement, [Online], Accessed from: http://www.oecd.org/governance/meetingofleadingpractitionersonpublicprocurement.htm (Last accessed 22nd February 2017).

60-world2 The Economist (2013). The gated globe. October 12th. Available from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21587785-gated-globe

60-world2 The Financial Times (2017) Trump’s top trade adviser accuses Germany of currency exploitation, January 31 2017. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/57f104d2-e742-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539.

Only connect – the linked lives of the researcher and the researched in a walled village in Hong Kong

By Isabella Ng, The Education University of Hong Kong

In a village in the southernmost province of Hainan, China, women were not compensated when the government decided to remove some of the houses for tourism development; only the men were compensated for the loss. What is more, a new law passed in China in 2011 allowed no split in properties during divorce, but rather the property would be awarded to the person named within the deeds. In another part of China, Hong Kong the former British colony which was returned to China two decades ago, walled village women who lived in the territory were treated unfairly until 2004 when a law was passed that allowed women to have equal inheritance rights as their male counterparts. I was interested to find out how they fared after the old law was revoked and to find out more about gender dynamics in the walled villages. When I entered the field to conduct fieldwork, I soon discovered that studying a group intensively as a researcher is a journey that I needed to walk with the researched in order to produce ethical and fruitful research.

As a nascent ethnographer venturing into the field during my second year of PhD study, I felt anxious but thrilled about my initial pursuit in fieldwork. It seemed ‘cool’ to be an ethnographer—at least that’s what I thought initially—and I liked introducing myself to informants as an ethnographer. That feeling of excitement ended when one of my supervisors reminded me about my field notes, and how I should go about writing them. My notes should not just contain factual accounts and observations, but also my reflections and my state of mind. I should reflect upon the day’s event(s) and how I felt at the time. One important aspect that I failed to consider at that time was my role as an ethnographer. I had the naivety to believe that my work (research) and my personal life were, and could, remain completely separated. I thought that as long as I stayed away from personal involvement (meaning, keeping my private life to myself when conducting my fieldwork), then I could remain professional and avoid being too subjective.

However, it was not until I began my fieldwork that I realised that conducting fieldwork is more complicated than I had thought. Over time, I discovered that field experience is reciprocal, and that the lives of researchers are linked with the lives of the researched. I realised that my multiple positionality, the nuances in my life, and my personal experiences affected my day-to-day interactions with my informants. The way that things evolved in my life during my fieldwork, the way that prolonged interactions and connections with people and the environment intertwined with my personal life, and all the knowledge I acquired through this, could enrich my research and make it multi-dimensional.

In my recent paper, ‘When [Inter-]Personal is Transformational: [Re]examining Life Course Emotion in PhD Research’, recently published in Area, I explore the ways in which different life events I experienced between 2008 and 2013 affected my research as a PhD student. By examining the relationship between these events and my development as a researcher, I consider how the complexity of emotions and affect helped me understand my research participants and helped me produce multi-dimensional, ethical research.

Drawing upon a series of life events that happened to me during the research period—such as my divorce and then a new romance—I examine how these events affected not only my research perspective when looking into gender dynamics in the indigenous villages in Hong Kong, but how they also affected my interactions and connections with my research subjects. I discovered how research is an interactive and dynamic activity. The researchers and the researched are walking through a journey to mutual understanding. The lives of the researcher and those researched are connected, and they affect each other. In this auto-ethnographic account of my fieldwork, I demonstrate how life events happening to the researcher during the research period can affect the researcher’s emotional and affectual state, and how this in turn can enrich a researcher’s study of the subject.

Emotion and affect here play a critical part in my research. As Rose (1997) points out, emotions of researchers are affected by events preceding the fieldwork and during the research process. This alters the researcher’s positionality—defined in terms of gender, age, race, social status, economic status, and marital status. In geography, studies on emotions and affect have examined conscious and expressive factors. These factors are generally understood as emotion—as well as non-cognitive, non-linguistic, and non-representational factors—involving affect (Pile 2010; Thrift 2004). During the research process the discursive, conscious, and cognitive parts work in coordination with the non-cognitive, non-discursive aspects that affect how subjects and objects perceive the world and their relations with the world (Bondi 2005; Narvaro-Yashin 2009; Thrift 2004). In my case, these aspects affected how we saw each other.

In this paper, I argue that as researchers, we need to realise that research is an ongoing, interactive, ever-changing process. Also, we need to recognise the reciprocal relationship between researchers and the researched subjects during the research process in order to create a better understanding of one’s own work and the ways in which the research itself fits within one’s broader life goals.

About the author: Isabella Ng received her doctorate from SOAS, University of London. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies, The Education University of Hong Kong.

books_icon Bondi L 2005 Making connections and thinking through emotions: between geography
and psychotherapy Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30 433-48

60-world2 Branigan T 2015 For richer, for poorer: how China’s laws put women second The Guardian Online https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/24/chinese-women-equality-laws-land-housing 24 February 2015

books_icon Burton L M and Bengtson V L 1985 Black grandmothers: issues of timing and
continuity of roles in Bengtson V L and Robertson J F eds Grandparenthood Sage, Beverly Hills CA 61-77

books_icon Elder Jr. G H, Johnson M K and Crosnoe R 2004 The emergence and development
of life course theory in Mortimer J T and Shanahan M J eds Handbook of the life course Springer Science + Business Media, New York 3-19

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the
privilege of partial perspective Feminist studies 14 575-599

books_icon Navaro-Yashin Y 2009 Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the
production of anthropological knowledge Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 1-18

books_icon Ng, I. (2017), When [inter]personal becomes transformational: [re-]examining life course-related emotions in PhD research. Area. doi:10.1111/area.12325

books_icon Pile S 2010 Intimate distance: the unconscious dimensions of the rapport between
researcher and researched The Professional Geographer 62 483-95

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics
Progress in Human Geography 21 305-20

books_icon Thrift N 2004 Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect Geografiska
Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 86 57-78

Towards a more ethical geographical praxis: western privilege and postcoloniality

By Mark Griffiths, Northumbria University

j-_vermeer_-_el_geografo_museo_stadel_francfort_del_meno_1669

Johannes Vermeer The Geographer (1669). Available via United States Public Domain license.

Geographers have never been more acutely aware of the historical and contemporary cleavages of which we – or so many of us – are often both critics and beneficiaries. This year’s RGS-IBG Conference carries the theme of ‘Decolonising Geographical Knowledges’, while the other large conference, the AAG Meeting, is currently reacting to the damage brought by President Trump’s recent anti-Islam Executive Orders. These are worrying times that lay bare the legacies of formal colonialism and the persistence of western privilege. Particularly worrying is that geographers from outside the publishing heartlands – whose work is invaluable if we are to know anything at all about diverse places and people – will, as always, feel the brunt of these neocolonial measures brought by the new Trump Administration.

There is then a renewed focus on the haves and have-nots of people across the globe, geographers very much included. In this heated moment it feels very new, but while it might be true that we have never seen anything like Donald Trump before, it is not novel to have privileges skewed across space. This is not at all to dismiss the deleterious acts we’ve seen recently (and the silent complicity of too many), but it does serve to recall that our discipline has grown out of a history of uneven power relations with post/colonial places and people. As I point out in my recently published paper in Area, part of the privilege of western geographers in terms of ‘mobilities, institutional prestige, access to publishing avenues and so forth’ is owed to the spoils of empire.

We can therefore understand the privilege of western academics and geographers as historically constituted, where, say, the ‘permission to narrate’ (as Edward Said put it) or the ability to cross borders is tied intimately with one’s ancestral position within colonial-era relations. Couple this with important feminist interventions on the situatedness of knowledge and positionality as relational, and the self-reflection (or ‘hyper-self-reflection’ as Gayatri Spivak calls for) incumbent on us all when we embark on fieldwork in a “postcolonial context” can reveal much about how the past bears on the present and the means to carry out research.

For me, a white, British man working at a UK institution, those means are great. I therefore must include myself in a loose category of ‘privileged western researcher’ that has – rightly – brought much introspection from that part of our research community involved in working towards a de- or post-colonial praxis for geography, a work that will continue at this year’s biggest conferences.

In my paper* I consider the label of ‘privileged western researcher’ from a postcolonial and historical perspective. I argue that if “our” (a collective term I seek to pick apart) positionality is historically contingent with colonial-era relations, then the attendant colonial histories within that might be (re)considered through their, following the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, heterogeneity. More specifically, I seek to bring the politics of class to disrupt the assumption of equivalence between Britishness (or western-ness) and unvariegated privilege.

To this end I turn to positionality as relational and personal and consider my own relationship with Empire, making what I consider an important point: ‘I’m a working class boy from the Industrial North of England, my parents’ parents … did not study at any of our great public schools or prestigious universities … my forebears did not order the passage of knowledge from Africa and the Orient to Kensington Gore and Oxbridge’. The argument I make therefore is that colonial-era relations across space were and are multivalent and histories of domination cannot draw so clearly the contours of researcher privilege in postcolonial settings.

From here I propose an empirical potential for more a more ethical praxis in the field, making the argument that in the business of talking about the unfairness of unequal opportunities, of assigned societal positions and trajectories, to know what it is to be sometimes outside, a working-class background (finally) becomes an academic resource that may just make solidarity with less-privileged Others come that bit more readily. In the article I give a brief example of how I believe this played out in fieldwork in India.

What this brings to these turbulent times is something of nuance to the idea that western geographers always already carry with them the histories of colonial exploration and expansion; just as gender and race can give the lie to this assumption, so can class. I look forward to discussing this further at the RGS-IBG Conference this coming August. As for what this might mean in the context of the ongoing debate around the AAG and travelling to the US, if little else a painstaking process of (communal) introspection might help us better negotiate the dissonant positions of critic and beneficiary of empire and its spoils.

* Mark’s paper inaugurates Area‘s new regular feature, ‘Ethics in/of geographical research’. The Area Editors welcome submissions from across the geographical community that consider diverse, contemporary concerns that fall under the broad remit of ethics.

About the author: Mark Griffiths is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University. His research is split between two sites: in Palestine he focuses on the political affects of the occupation in West Bank, tracking the embodied aspects of Palestinian activism and resistance. In India his work has focused on NGO and volunteer work on livelihood and sanitation projects in both urban and rural areas.

60-world2 AAG Council 2017 AAG Statement on President Trump’s Executive Order http://news.aag.org/2017/01/aag-statement-on-president-trumps-executive-order/ 

books_icon Chakrabarty D 2007 Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference  Princeton University Press

60-world2 Fenton S 2017 Theresa May ‘very happy’ to host Donald Trump on state visit, despite petition reaching 1m signatures The Independent 30 January 2017 

books_icon Griffiths M 2017 From heterogeneous worlds: western privilege, class and positionality in the South. Area, 49: 2–8. doi:10.1111/area.12277 (free to access)

books_icon Haraway D 1988 Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective Feminist Studies 14, 575-99

books_icon Rose G 1997 Situating knowledges: positionality, reflexivities and other tactics Progress in Human Geography 21, 305-320

books_icon Said E 1984 Permission to Narrate Journal of Palestine Studies 13, 27-48

books_icon Spivak G C 1999 A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present Harvard University Press

Multiple stressors and ecological surprises

Geo: Geography and Environment

The expanding global human population, now about 7.5 billion, is increasing the pressure that we as a species put on the environment.  2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, and temperature records continue to be exceeded. Each year, more natural ecosystems are lost to dam construction, deforestation and urbanisation. Rates of species invasion are increasing, and pollution events continue to pressure native wildlife. Many ecosystems are now threatened simultaneously by these multiple human-caused stressors, yet we still know very little about their combined interactive impacts.

In our paper in Geo (Linking key environmental stressors with the delivery of provisioning ecosystem services in the freshwaters of southern Africa) we review the impacts of multiple stressors on ecosystem services in freshwater ecosystems in southern Africa (e.g. the Okavango Delta; see photo). We chose these systems because freshwaters contribute disproportionately to ecosystem services despite covering less than 1% of the earth’s…

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How landscape managers think about local landscapes influences their approaches to climate change adaptation

By Vera Köpsel, Cormac Walsh and Catherine Leyshon 

kopsel

A sign warning visitors of coastal erosion at the protected landscape of Godrevy in Cornwall (UK) – Source: © Vera Köpsel 2016

Climate change is likely to alter the appearance of many rural and coastal landscapes, for example through extreme weather, river flooding or cliff erosion . A prominent example of such impacts, often connected to climate change, was the 2013/14 winter floods in the southwest of England . Inasmuch as the climate is changing, so are our responses to its impacts as we try to both adapt to new conditions and reduce future change through mitigation.

A suitable example for researching the connections between perceptions of landscape and place, and adaptation to climate change, is Cornwall in southwest England. Many of the region’s famous landscapes are under special designations such as the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or the properties of the National Trust. As a peninsula stretching into the Atlantic Ocean, moreover, Cornwall is already experiencing an increase in extreme weather events, storminess, as well as river and sea flooding.

Cornwall’s coastal and rural areas are valued places of everyday life and cultural heritage. They are filled with personal attachments but coastal and rural areas are sometimes valued very differently by different groups within a society. This includes the staff of organisations responsible for managing these iconic landscapes (e.g. the National Trust, Natural England, the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Cornwall Council) who bring different priorities and perspectives to their work. These subjective perceptions of places remain largely under-researched when it comes to understanding the dynamics that shape climate change adaptation processes. In our new paper, published in The Geographical Journal, we explored the different perceptions of Cornwall’s landscapes held by local landscape managers who are faced with dealing with the impacts of our changing climate. We asked how these perceptions influence their climate adaptation approaches.

The theoretical approach of our study was that of constructivist landscape research, a concept rooted deeply in human geography and focusing on subjective and collective perceptions of landscapes. By conducting qualitative interviews with local staff of organizations such as the National Trust, the AONB Partnership, Natural England and Cornwall Council, we uncovered four different narratives – in other words, storylines – about what Cornwall’s landscapes are, how they are affected by climate change, and how one should adapt to these changes. These four narratives conceptualise the Cornish landscapes as:

  • the region’s basis for economic growth
  • an intermediate result of an ongoing human-environment relationship
  • a mosaic of wildlife and habitats;
  • and a space for production, e.g. of agricultural goods.

By identifying these different narratives, we show that although superficially often understood as one and the same thing, the concept of landscape means very different things to different actors concerned with its management. These varying understandings of the landscapes have direct implications for how they should be managed in the context of a changing climate: from preserving the status quo and rejecting any built interventions through a focus on community-led action, to a call for hard engineering – different constructions of landscapes result in potentially conflicting demands for adaptation measures in Cornwall. Understanding which landscape perceptions underlie such differing approaches to adaptation becomes especially important when the adaptation activities of one group negatively impact on what another group values about a landscape.

Leaving unarticulated the taken-for-granted constructions that landscape management actors have of their local landscapes holds great potential for misunderstandings and can present an obstacle to sustainable climate adaptation. As climate change adaptation is a societal challenge which demands the transdisciplinary cooperation of many different organizations and actors on the local level, our research makes an important contribution to furthering constructive dialogue about how to adapt landscapes and places to the impacts of a changing climate. With ever greater emphasis on multi-agency working to achieve climate change adaptation in landscape management, it is important that future research investigates the diverse perceptions people have of the places they manage, to secure effective action at the local level.

About the author: Vera Köpsel and Cormac Walsh are both research associates at the University of Hamburg. Catherine Leyshon is Professor of Human Geography at the Univesity of Exeter. 

60-world2 Carrington D 2016 Study reveals huge acceleration in erosion of England’s white cliffsThe Guardian 7 November 2016.

60-world2 Herald Express 2016 South Devon beaches have ‘not recovered’ after ferocious storms of 2014. 27 Nov 2016.

books_icon Köpsel, V., Walsh, C. and Leyshon, C. 2016 Landscape narratives in practice: implications for climate change adaptation. Geogr J. doi:10.1111/geoj.12203

books_icon Radford T 2016 Stronger storms coming to Europe’s Atlantic seaboard The Ecologist 8 April 2016

60-world2 Vaughan A 2014 England and Wales hit by wettest winter in nearly 250 years The Guardian 27 February 2014. 

 

Mobilising affinity ties for humanitarianism at the war-torn China-Myanmar border

By Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho, National University of Singapore

idp-camp-at-china-myanmar-border

Figure 1. An IDP camp at the China-Myanmar border. Source: Author’s own, 2012.

A few days after Christmas 2016, a social media post caught my eye. It stated,

‘Dear Humanitarian Agencies, [the] IDPs regret to let you know that all the humanitarian assistance you provided […] has been abandoned again last night due to the offensive war of [the] Govt Military’.

The IDPs referred to internally displaced persons at the border of China and Myanmar, while the ‘Govt Military’ in question was the military arm of the Myanmar government.

On 8 November 2015, international news agencies had reported the landslide victory of the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It appeared to herald a new era of democracy in Myanmar. But the civilian government has no oversight over the military, which retains the right to a quarter of the seats in parliament, and power over key ministries to do with defence, home affairs and border affairs. As the Washington Post reports on 28 December 2016, fighting at the border areas of Myanmar has escalated as the Myanmar military intensifies its attacks on ethnic groups it considers insurgents.

The IDPs mentioned in the social media post were displaced from their homes in Kachin state (henceforth Kachin IDPs) as a result of armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state of northern Myanmar. The breakdown of a ceasefire agreement (1994-2011) between the two parties renewed a civil war in Kachin state. Regional newspapers such as The Irrawaddy provide fuller coverage of the hostilities happening in Kachin state, Myanmar.

IDPs who fled further north to the border area that Myanmar shares with China were barred from crossing the border into Chinese territory. This act of refusal in turn prevents the IDPs from being recognised as refugees who have crossed an international border and thereby entitled to protection under international law. For several years following the renewed conflict, local humanitarian workers faced challenges channelling humanitarian aid to the IDP camps at the China-Myanmar border. The remote location of camps at the border area meant the supplies could be delivered only via routes controlled by the military in Myanmar or the government in China.

However, both parties denied international humanitarian agencies access to the camps citing sovereignty reasons or concerns over the safety of international personnel in the conflict zone. Only in recent years has advocacy by humanitarian workers succeeded in pressuring the Myanmar military to provide safe passage for the international humanitarian agencies to assess the IDP camps and the needs of the IDPs. Even so, as the social media post above informs us, the humanitarian supplies remain at risk of being destroyed through ongoing conflict.

Considering these humanitarian challenges is an article published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers which examines the geographical and geopolitical constraints that deter international humanitarian assistance, yet provide opportunities to engage a different set of humanitarian actors at the China-Myanmar border.

The paper first argues that the Kachin IDPs are treated as surplus populations by the sovereign states in both Myanmar and China. Surplus populations come into existence when nation-states impose punitive measures that compromise the survivability of populations that are considered threatening to national sovereignty. Second, the paper examines how mobilising affinity ties enables Kachin humanitarian workers to leverage the citizenship resources of empathetic Chinese nationals across the China-Myanmar border for negotiating humanitarianism constraints.

Overall, the paper considers how physical and cognitive borders establish taxonomies of social difference but also provide opportunities for identifying connections and forging transversal dialogues (henceforth transversal webs of connections) to bridge people of different social positionings. The paper argues that transversal webs of connections engender affinity ties that can be mobilised towards nurturing empathetic identification and caring relationships in societies characterised by cultural diversity and social complexity. This approach provides a potential ethical stance and productive analytical lens for advancing wider migration and citizenship debates.

About the author: Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. Elaine’s current research interests include China-Myanmar borderland migrations, Chinese diaspora and transnationalism, Asian forced migration, and urban aspirations of new immigrants in China. 

books_icon  Ho, E. L-E. 2016 Mobilising affinity ties: Kachin internal displacement and the geographies of humanitarianism at the China–Myanmar border. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12148

60-world2  Htusan E 2016 Kachin rebels see more Myanmar attacks, no hope for peace The Washington Post online Dec 28 2016

60-world2  The Irrawaddy http://www.irrawaddy.com/