Stormy waters: Debating the British Overseas Territories in Parliament

By Nichola Harmer, University of Plymouth


Photo Credit: Robin S. Taylor CC BY 3.0

August marked the start of peak hurricane season in the Caribbean, where last year Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrought destruction across several of Britain’s overseas territories.  Criticised for an initially slow and unstructured response to aiding islanders affected by the disaster, the UK government recently announced a new improved strategy for monitoring and responding to future hurricanes. The plan includes improved coordination between the UK, the overseas territories, and other international actors, as well as the investment of further resources in the region, and additional insurance.

The devastation and loss caused by the hurricanes last year brought to public attention the continuing responsibilities of the UK to the overseas territories. Initial limitations on the UK Government’s use of overseas development assistance funding to aid the islands underscored their unusual position as non-independent territories in an international political system geared towards independent states. The crisis also brought back into the public spotlight wider and sometimes contentious issues surrounding the relationship between Britain and its fourteen remaining overseas territories.

In an article in The Geographical JournalI explore this relationship by examining the main concerns regarding the overseas territories expressed by MPs and Lords in the British Parliament between 2010 and 2017. The overseas territories are diverse, including a number in the South Atlantic Ocean:  the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and British Antarctic Territory. In the Pacific Ocean there is tiny Pitcairn Island; in the Indian Ocean the highly contentious British Indian Ocean Territory, where the inhabitants were expelled in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a US military base; in Europe there is Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus, and there are six territories in the Caribbean.

Parliamentary debate on the territories during the researched period reflected this diversity, covering subjects as disparate as defence, the need to protect the rich biodiversity in many of the territories, the Brexit vote, the construction of an airport on remote St Helena, and the rights of Chagossians to return to the Chagos Islands in The British Indian Ocean Territory. Interest in the overseas territories was fairly evenly split between the main political parties and they were discussed both in the Lords and in the Commons.

Analysis of Parliamentary debate showed a peak of interest in the overseas territories in 2016, with many parliamentarians raising questions around this time about transparency in the financial services sector, which forms a significant part of the economy in some overseas territories. This coincided with revelations about tax-dodging in the so-called ‘Panama Papers’, an Anti-Corruption Summit held in London in 2016, and debate in Parliament of a Criminal Finances Bill.

Concerns among many parliamentarians about achieving greater financial transparency in offshore finance led to debate about the sensitive issue of whether or not it was right to impose legislation on the overseas territories. Many of the territories, although under British sovereignty, have varied but often significant levels of political autonomy. Territory inhabitants (except for voters in Gibraltar for EU elections) have no representation in the British parliamentary system. Nonetheless, the UK Parliament is empowered to make laws which affect lives and livelihoods in the overseas territories.

During debates, many parliamentarians expressed the view that the UK should make it compulsory for overseas territories to introduce registers of beneficial ownership to help strengthen measures combating financial crime, an activity which impacts significantly on both developed and developing countries. Others argued that the imposition of legislation was out-of-step with the post-colonial era practices and that the territories should instead be encouraged by the UK to do more on financial transparency. An amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill adopted in Parliament earlier this year (requiring overseas territories to hold open registers of beneficial ownership in companies registered in their jurisdictions by 2020) was recently greeted with fierce criticism in the British Virgin Islands. The Premier, Dr Orlando Smith, described it as “a fundamental breach in the constitutional relationship and modern partnership between the United Kingdom and the Virgin Islands” and as a threat to the economy and reputation of the islands.

This dispute and the wider debates within Parliament draw attention to the ongoing, and at times controversial and difficult, relationship between Britain and its offshore territories. In July this year, the Foreign Affairs Committee announced an inquiry on the future of the UK overseas territories, which will consider their resilience, how the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office manages its responsibilities towards them, and how it considers their future. The political, economic, ethical and reputational entanglement of the British state, with its widely dispersed and hugely varied territories, points to the continuing complexity of current political geographies involving the UK. Ongoing tensions over financial transparency, efforts to strengthen disaster response in the territories following last year’s hurricanes, and a plethora of historic and emerging issues from across the territories, mean they are likely to remain firmly on the radar of parliamentarians and of keen interest to political geographers seeking to better understand the complexities and implications of relations between states and the offshore territories.

About the author: Nichola Harmer is a lecturer in Human geography at Plymouth University.

BBC. (2018). Hurricane Irma: MPs say UK’s response ‘lacked structure’. Retrieved from

The Guardian. (2018). Britain ‘will strengthen response to hurricanes in the Caribbean’. Retrieved from

Harmer, N. (2018). Spaces of concern: Parliamentary Discourse on Britain’s Overseas Territories. The Geographical Journal Article. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12273

Smith, O. (2018). Premier Smith Statement on United Kingdom Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. Retrieved from:

Mapping Microbial Multiplicity

By Carmen McLeod, Erika Szymanski, Joshua Evans, Anna Krzywoszynska, and Alexandra Sexton 

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Microbes are everywhere. Headlines announce that microbes have been found in all sorts of spaces, from NASA’s cleanrooms to the vitreous fluid inside the human eye, in addition to such now-familiar residences as soil, skin, and all around our homes. And beyond simply being found, microbes are increasingly seen as significant and often valuable in virtually every space humans study—leading to more and more calls for research that flows between and beyond the natural and social sciences, as with this Geo: Geography and Environment open collection.

Repeating the truism that ‘microbes are everywhere’, however, can risk flattening microbial life into a sameness that is so much less interesting and useful than the diversity this ‘everywhere’ implies. Moreover, reifying ‘the microbe’ would suggest that the single-celled microbial body—one of many possible units of analysis—is always at the root of microbial life and human workings with it.

For these reasons and more, we propose deeper critical discussion of current approaches to thinking about and with microbes in the social sciences. This concern motivates our Geo: Geography and Environment-sponsored session at the upcoming RGS-IBG conference in Cardiff, where we will present and discuss work exploring some of these potentials and limitations. Our experiences working with human–microbial communities in a range of settings have spurred us to consider how social sciences might get better at dealing with microbes as crucial societal and environmental agents. We invite you to join us in this exciting debate.

To give a taste of the session, we thought each of us would share an image and anecdote about how we’ve found and followed our microbial fascinations, and the promise and trouble they bring.

Click on the contributor’s name, or scroll down, to read more about their work:

Carmen McLeod

Carmen McLeod

Synthetic biologists’ crocheted imaginings of microbes for public engagement activities

In 2015, I began working in a UK synthetic biology research centre. As the only full-time social scientist amongst microbiologists and other natural science-related disciplines, I was tasked with embedding a Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) framework within the work of the centre. I assumed that much of my work would centre on the ‘big picture’ relationship between science and society. As it turns out, I have become fascinated by the smaller and intimate relations between humans and microbes. This began as I became aware of the complex ways that my scientific colleagues interact with microbes. Interviews and ethnographic fieldwork revealed that laboratory work encompasses what could be termed ‘cultures of care’ for microbial life and relationships that go far beyond scientific goals. My interest has extended to other specific relations that emerge when considering the context of the human microbiome. In particular, my work is looking at the key role that the gut microbiome plays in health and wellbeing, and the new (and old) human–microbial relations this reveals. Faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), for example, is an ancient treatment for a disrupted gut microbiome, and FMT applications are growing in both the clinic and ‘DIY’ settings, revealing new sociocultural and ethical considerations. I am excited by the cross-disciplinary opportunities that emerge from studying and illuminating the places where humans and microbes meet. This area of scholarship has the potential to disrupt binary categories, such as human/non-human; science/society; and nature/culture, and my hope is that there will be increasing interest in the work of scholars exploring these messy human–microbial spaces.

Erika Szymanski

Erika Szymanski

My companionable sourdough starter and the current contents of my nightstand which, to be fair, don’t usually live on top of each other.

Yeast has been following me around since my childhood, when I baked bread with my mother and helped destem grapes for my parents’ tiny backyard winery. Notwithstanding a brief affair with gram-negative bacteria as a microbiology student, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that I’ve followed yeast through childhood hobbies and adolescent reading to higher education in microbiology, through humanities and now into the social sciences. There might seem little mystery in why someone initially trained in microbiology has, in her later career as a social scientist, chosen to work on microbes. But why have microbes stuck when so much else has not? Yeast, I find, is able to follow me anywhere—or, rather, I am able to follow it—as a common inhabitant of so many spaces where science, technology, culture, and domestic life happen. It is mundane to say that microbes are everywhere. But a corollary that seems to be articulated less often is that everywhere there are ways of coming to know microbes, and that these myriad ways of knowing may often be complementary to each other. In some of my recent work with the synthetic yeast project (Saccharomyces cerevisiae 2.0), I’ve suggested that conceptualizing microbes as collaborators to be listened to, learned from, and worked with—not just as tools or machines to be completely controlled—may offer new routes for achieving human design goals with living systems.

Joshua Evans


While the Kimbucha is a more recent encounter of mine with microbes involved in food fermentation, it illustrates much of what both enthralls me about microbes, and what suggests to me that current approaches to making sense of them may be insufficient. Kim Wejendorp is a friend and collaborator who works as a chef and crazy brain at a restaurant called Amass in Copenhagen. This screenshot, from his instagram account, details how he arrived at making a kombucha from scratch. Kim’s primary motivation is to produce new flavours for the restaurant’s menu, but it strikes me that with this project he has also inadvertently levelled a challenge at both received fermentation orthodoxy and the scientific literature, both of which generally agree that kombucha can only be made from existing culture. The question of whether this is a kombucha, sensu stricto, cannot simply be answered by looking at which cellular bodies are living in it or which ‘species’ emerge from its metagenome—it must also and mainly involve considerations of flavour, culinary use, and social function. We might indeed typically expect social scientists to highlight these factors; yet strangely, most social researchers studying human–microbe relationships have so far worked rather uncritically from the stories scientists tell, without questioning what other stories are missing and possible. By revealing such gaps, these novel fermentation projects are rich sites for investigating alternative and as-yet-unaccounted-for ways in which microbes come to matter.

Anna Krzywoszynska


“If you build it, they will come.” Jokingly quoting from a Kevin Costner movie, the farmer I am interviewing brings the invisible microbes in this clod of soil into the conversation; he explains how his changed land management practices are creating a hospitable environment for this microbial life to inhabit. In the UK and across the world a ‘microbial turn’ is taking place in conventional agriculture as farmers and scientists turn to soil biota for solutions to climate change adaptation, productivity increases, and even planetary salvation (through the much discussed capacity of soils to act as carbon sinks). There are similarities between the current interest in microbial life in the farming community, and my previous experiences of following microbes through the worlds of organic winemaking. The invisibility of microbes invites scientific forms of ‘making sense’ of human–microbe encounters and relationships. At the same time, everyday practices of living and working with microbes in fields and wineries have more to do with changing personal identities and ethics then with deploying ‘certified’ knowledges. Scientific tools and narratives are both embraced, refuted, and imaginatively redeployed; working with microbes thus goes to the heart of classic social scientific questions about the relationships between knowledge and power. But there is more here than interpretation. What I see are experiments in living on the planet differently through microbes, with microbes. The  most exciting moments come when the microbes thwart the stories I, my research participants, or my natural science colleagues are able to tell about them: when a wild yeast fermentation creates an unforgettable and unplanned rosé wine; when the unexpected alliance between cover crops, soil biota, and slugs wipes out a harvest. These moments challenge me to think about the relationship between the agential cuts I make as a social scientist in deciding what is and what is not an object of my inquiry when I say I am researching ‘human–microbe relations’. They gesture towards the need for new social scientific understandings of human and nonhuman agency which go beyond the struggle between control and co-existence—which are about finding ways to be human well in a busy world. I am excited to think through the kinds of social and inter-disciplinary science which are needed to be better at living (and making a living) in a world where humans do not call all the shots (something I have been thinking through in the context of soil for a while).

Alexandra Sexton


There have been many stories told over human history about the ‘future of food’. These stories are important not only for tracing evolutions in technological promise but also for taking a pulse of the food-related anxieties that have been felt across different times and spaces. Taken from a Demo Day of tech start-ups in San Francisco, the image above is one of the current stories being told by an emerging technological movement in Silicon Valley, California. In short, this story describes a broken global food system, particularly livestock-based food, and that salvation lies in the innovation streams and business models of Big (bio)Tech. When I took this photo I didn’t know that I was soon to encounter microbes through more stories presented by the start-ups during their pitches. Speaking to an audience of venture capitalists and media personnel, I heard microbes framed as a ‘logical’, ‘sustainable’, ‘ethical’ and, perhaps most emphatically, lucrative solution to future food production. I also heard that there are “literally no down sides” to these new microbe-based food factories. I was shown graphs of predicted company growth and projected environmental savings. Microbes were conjured as biology-turned-technology, their ‘natural’ behaviours reimagined through notions of the ‘synthetic’ that rendered them more useful for feeding (some of) us and making (some of) us rich in the process. Reflecting on the microbe in these stories has quietly forced me to ask new questions in my research, particularly concerning how the invisible is made visible through the mechanisms of the Valley, venture capital and media hype; and conversely, it has invited consideration of the agents and stories made purposefully silent. These are all inherently political acts disguised through the seemingly apolitical, controllable and distinct ‘bodies’ of microbes. The task set for myself as a social scientist, then, is to critically unpack the hype and find ways of staying open to the ability of microbes to resist and exceed the stories that are told about them.

Taken together, we believe these and other stories suggest why more and more diverse microbe-focussed studies might be useful. We invite you to join us at our session at RGS (Wednesday, August 29, 9-10:40am) to discuss the shape critical microbe studies might take, and to learn more about Microbe Work—our new network for facilitating cross-disciplinary inquiry into microbe–human relations.

This post was first published on the Geo: Geography and Environment blog:  and is reproduced here with permission.

About the authors: Carmen McLeod is a senior research fellow in Responsible Research and Innovation at the University of Nottingham. Erika Szymanski is a research fellow in Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Joshua Evans is a DPhil candidate in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Anna Krzywoszynska is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Geography at the University of Sheffield. Alexandra Sexton is a research fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

The importance of studying innovation in complex systems: a case study of anaerobic digestion in the UK

By James Suckling, University of Surrey, Claire Hollohan, University of Manchester, and Iain Soutar, University of Exeter

Anaerobic Digestion Plant

GOC Weston-Bygrave 103: Bygrave Lodge anaerobic digestion plant. Photo Credit: Peter O’Connor. CC BY-SA 2.0


We are placing ever greater burdens upon the natural systems that underpin our societies, economies, and industries. While harvesting and consuming food, water and energy are crucial to satisfying our basic needs, it also has implications for our environment, our economy, and our societal well-being. Food waste, for example, is a hugely important issue, with roughly 30% of all food produce being wasted. This is not only an improper end for embedded water, energy, and land resources, but also a waste management challenge, and if landfilled contributes to climate change.

However, all too often systems are managed in isolation from one another meaning that focusing on, say, the energy system may mean that the resultant impacts on other systems (e.g. water, food) are in danger of being overlooked. Highlighting the need to consider the interdependencies between systems, the concept of the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus has been recognised as an important area for sustainability research. Our recent article in The Geographical Journal explores the process of innovation within the WEF nexus, taking anaerobic digestion (AD) as a case study. It is a processing technology which has a potentially bright future, operating across the WEF nexus to bring many benefits, but is one which is often hampered by siloed thinking.

AD is a natural biological process whereby organic matter is decomposed into methane, carbon dioxide and a nutrient-rich liquid called digestate. Harnessing this process in a controlled environment offers a sustainable alternative to producing gas or electricity by other means e.g. via burning fossil fuels. It also presents an attractive option to manage society’s increasing stream of organic wastes from food, farming, and wastewater treatment, while producing, in the digestate, a potentially-valuable alternative to energy intensive mineral based fertilisers.

Although the biological process is always the same, AD applications are hugely diverse, comprising a diversity of inputs (e.g. food waste, slurries, dedicated crops) and outputs (e.g. biogas, electricity, digestate). This also means that AD has the potential to interact with energy, food and water systems in a multitude of ways. In this study, we interviewed owners and operators of AD plants to better understand the nature of these interactions. We sampled a wide variety plants, encompassing micro-scale community enterprises to large commercial operations; those entirely focused on food waste disposal to those processing a range of feedstocks; those capitalising on energy incentives to those pursuing social and sustainability objectives; those based on farms, and those on dedicated sites; and those which are succeeding as viable enterprises, along with those which are not.

The breadth of AD as an innovation presents both opportunities and obstacles for accelerating its deployment. On one hand, its applicability towards processing a range of inputs and producing a range of products broadens its appeal beyond just energy production. That said, the chief driver of AD in the UK has, to date, been energy policy, particularly support for low carbon electricity and heat production. Though having created a supportive context for AD, the presence of energy subsidies has also constrained further innovation. For example, there are few incentives to explore AD as a tool for organic waste management, land management, social wellbeing, or the intended manufacture of digestate as a product in its own right. Indeed, those plants already operating are constructed to capitalise on the energy rewards, and opportunities may have already been missed, but for the lack of a more diverse support structure. Finally, with fluctuating levels of support from energy incentives, there is uncertainty within the AD industry and the businesses already operating, making new investment unlikely and limiting the scope for diversification of existing plants.

Taking a so-called ‘nexus’ approach is vital if we are interested in ensuring that sustainability transitions are truly sustainable. The nexus approach has emerged in response to calls for research and policy on complex systems to draw on whole-systems perspectives, that is, perspectives that consider the dynamics between multiple innovations and how they coevolve and impact on wider system goals. It demands that we integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines, maintain focus on multiple domains, and apply learning at multiple scales to emphasise the complex set of interconnections between systems. Our findings highlight that if the diverse and bright future envisaged, by some, for AD is to be realised, then its strengths and weaknesses across the WEF nexus must be understood and recognised in research, policy and experimentation, rather than just in terms of the energy sector against which it is currently judged.

About the authors: James Suckling is a Research Fellow at the University of Surrey, Claire Hoolohan is a Research Fellow within the Tyndall Centre for Climate at the University of Manchester, and Iain Soutar is Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Exeter.   

FAO. (2018). SAVE FOOD: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction. Key Facts on food loss and waste you should know! Retrieved from

Hoolohan C, Soutar I, Suckling J, Druckman A, Larkin A, McLachlan C. Stepping‐up innovations in the water–energy–food nexus: A case study of anaerobic digestion in the UKThe Geographical Journal2018;00:1–15.

Press Association. (2018). Food thrown out by House of Commons doubles in three years. Retrieved from

Watts, J. (2018). Earth’s resources consumed in ever greater destructive volumes. The Guardian, 23rd July 2018. Retrieved from 

How geography can help us think critically about disability hate crime

By Edward Hall, University of Dundee


Disability hate crime is a serious and increasing problem in the UK. Hate crime is ‘criminal behaviour where the perpetrator is motivated by hostility or demonstrates hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity’ (Crown Prosecution Service). For disabled people, it includes bullying, harassment, and sometimes physical assault, as well as financial exploitation. In England and Wales there were 5,558 hate crimes committed against disabled people in 2016/17, an increase of 58 percent on the previous year (Home Office, 2017); in Scotland in the same period, there were 188 recorded crimes, a small drop from 2015/16 (Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, 2017). Although constituting a small proportion of all recorded hate crimes (about 7%), it is widely acknowledged that there is significant underreporting of disability-related hate crimes. Disability hate crimes can have a devastating physical and psychological impact on the individual affected and can create fear amongst other disabled people in the community.

Despite the importance of the issue, and that disability hate crimes take place both in the public spaces of neighbourhoods, on city streets and on public transport, and in the private spaces of people’s homes, there has been little or no research undertaken by geographers (some research on religious beliefs and sexuality-related hate crimes, e.g. Listerborn, 2014; and Browne et al, 2011). In my recent Area article, I argue that geography has a significant contribution to make to the understanding of disability, and other forms of, hate crime.

The dominant way that disability hate crime is understood is perhaps the reason for the lack of attention by geographers. There have been a small number of high profile cases of disability hate crime which have arguably determined the way in which the issue is perceived. In 2007, after months of harassment by a group of young people in their street in a Leicestershire village, Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca, who had a learning disability, died in a car fire. In a number of reports by major disability charities, there were further accounts of abuse, violence, and deaths. Such events are traumatic for those affected and create fear and anxiety amongst many more disabled people.

It has been vital to record the violence perpetrated against disabled people and to widen the existing hate crime legislation to include disabled people. However, it can be argued that, at the same time, these dominant accounts of violence mean we do not pay sufficient attention to the far more numerous, everyday incidents of ‘low-level’ harassment, such as being shouted at and called names in the street, being pushed past in shops, and being taunted online. Whilst in most cases not resulting in violence, these experiences can create fear and affect disabled people’s confidence to get out and about in their communities.

Whilst a lot of attention has been, rightly, paid to the experiences of those affected by disability hate crime, I would argue that we also need to examine the reasons why such incidents occur. Why do people commit such crimes, and why do they occur in certain places? There has been almost no research on this, and so there is an opportunity for geographers to make a contribution. Some argue that people are motivated by a hatred of disabled people; others claim that it is the economic and social circumstances of the communities where the incidents happen that shapes people’s negative attitudes towards disabled people. A small survey (by Katherine Quarmby, 2015) of disabled people who had experienced a hate crime, found that their understanding of why they had been targeted was that it was mostly to do with perceptions of disabled people as benefit ‘scroungers’ or ‘jealousy of perceived “perks” of disability’, such as an adapted car or reserved parking space.

Evidence suggests that disability hate crimes happen anywhere that disabled people are present – in the home, the street, college, shops and on public transport. However, they do not always happen in these locations – so we need to shift our attention to the unfolding of such incidents, and the factors or ‘triggers’ that cause them to happen. In a study of ‘race’ hate crime, Iganski (2008) showed that most such hate crimes were opportunistic, the outcome of ‘random encounters’, and were more likely to happen in busy areas and/or when there is a dispute over access to services in a neighbourhood. There could be a similar explanation for the incidence of disability hate crime: widespread negative discourses of disability, and specific local and micro-scale sites, situations and social interactions, combine to make incidents of harassment and violence more likely. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (2011) identified designated disabled person parking spaces as sites where such negative attitudes and social interactions sometimes come together to generate incidents of hate crime.

This is where geographers should be focusing their attention. Talking to disabled people, and possibly perpetrators of disability hate crimes, could enable us to make maps of the specific spaces and social situations, and triggers, where and when disability hate crimes are likely to occur. Importantly, this would provide the police and other organisations with fresh insight into enhancing their responses to, and prevention of, disability hate crime.

Davies, K. 2017. Ten years after the death of Fiona Pilkington, have the police got better at tackling hate crime? The Independent. Available from 

Hamilton, F. 2016. Hate crime against disabled increases by 40 per cent in a year. The Times. 13 July 2016. Available from

Hall, E. 2017. Why disability hate crimes are woefully under-reported. The Conversation. Available  from

Hall E. A critical geography of disability hate crime. Area. 2018;00:1–8.

Quarmby, K. 2015. To combat disability hate crime, we must understand why people commit it. The Guardian. Available from


Stacking toilets across the seasons: providing sustainable sanitation for all?

By Amita Bhakta, University Loughborough

pit latrine Rod Shaw WEDC

Where do you go to pee? Is it hygienic? Can you access it all year round? These questions don’t often cross the minds of those of us using clean toilets in the comfort of our homes, schools, workplaces, and the other public places we visit. However, in  2015, 2.3 billion people across the world did not have access to a private toilet that safely takes away their… well, poo. This risks the spread of disease and ill-health as people have no choice but to go to the toilet outside in a field or a street.

The current Sustainable Development Agenda via the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has given us, as a global population, a target to provide sanitation which meets everyone’s needs by 2030 (see SDG6, to provide clean water and sanitation for all). At the same time, we’re also working towards combating climate change and take ‘climate action’ (SDG13), ensuring gender equality (SDG5), providing a quality education for all (SDG4 ), and, importantly, ensuring good health and wellbeing for everybody (SDG3). Access to safe, improved toilets that reduce disease spread all year round is a vital part of meeting these goals. Whilst global efforts are underway to provide sustainable sanitation for all, climate change brings with it an array of risks and threats to our ability to take care of our health (Batty, 2018) through access to toilets.

In their paper in The Geographical Journal, Jewitt et al (2018) discuss how despite the fact that communities in India are gaining improved ‘pukka’ latrines, ‘stacking’ different latrine systems is not sustainable in the long term. Climate change raises the need to consider seasonality in sanitation design more carefully to adapt to risks of seasonal flooding. Whilst we can design and build man-made structures such as toilets, they are still vulnerable to the forces of nature, which can ultimately dictate whether a toilet maintains its ‘improved’ status, and leads to ‘stacking’ where different types of sanitation are used in the absence of good infrastructure.

Sustainable sanitation for all needs to be able to withstand the seasons of the year, but it also needs to consider who it is there to cater for. In recent years, the water and sanitation sector has explored the needs of women and adolescent girls for menstrual hygiene, disabled people, incontinence sufferers, and, recently, women who are going through the menopause. Individuals have different needs for sanitation, and this needs to be carefully considered in the design of each facility in the longer term. Women and girls will always need good menstrual hygiene management in toilets that are safe and dignified. Disabled people will always need a toilet that they can use easily without barriers. And, ultimately, we will all always need to pee. Sanitation for all means for all – no matter what the weather.

About the author: Amita Bhakta is a PhD candidate at the Water, Engineering, and Development Centre (WEDC) at the University of Loughborough. 

Batty, M 2018 ‘Ways to step up the fight against global antimicrobial resistance’ The Guardian  29 March 2018 [accessed 24 April 2018]

Jewitt S, Mahanta A, Gaur K. Sanitation sustainability, seasonality and stacking: Improved facilities for how long, where and whom?Geogr J2018;00:1–14.

‘UNDP Goal 3 Good health and wellbeing’ [accessed 24 April 2018]

‘UNDP Goal 4 Quality education’ [accessed 24 April 2018]

‘UNDP Goal 5 Gender equality’ [accessed 24 April 2018]

‘UNDP Goal 6 Clean water and sanitation’ [accessed 24 April 2018]

‘UNDP Goal 13 Climate action’

Elephants as Political Actors

By Lauren A. Evans, Space for GiantsNanyuki, Kenya, and Williams M. Adams, University of Cambridge, UK

This video clip was caught by a camera trap positioned along an electric fence built to keep wild elephants away from smallholder farms in Kenya.  It shows a group of male African elephants, banded together to break the fence to raid farmers’ fields. It shows a distinct leader who breaks the fence while the others follow. In such raids, this elephant is often bigger, older and takes more risks.  In our Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers paper we show that these elephants are powerful and influential actors in human-elephant conflict (especially crop-raiding) and in shaping the politics that surrounds their conservation.

Our study site was a human-elephant conflict hotspot – Laikipia in northern Kenya – and a hotbed of diverse human actors (smallholder farmers, large-scale landowners, pastoralists, conservationists, national wildlife department the Kenya Wildlife Service) with different and often conflicting politics relating to land and elephants. We worked closely with the NGO Space for Giants.

The major challenge of bringing elephants to life as actors is that they can’t speak. We needed a creative methodology to understand the elephant experience as much as the human. We used infrared camera traps and GPS collars to directly observe elephant movement across landscapes and behaviour at fences. An elephant tracker observed crop-raiding elephants on a motorbike equipped with a camera and GPS. A network of local scouts collected information on the timing location and nature of fence-breaks and crop-raids.  We used interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups to understand human ideas about and responses to elephants, crop-raiding and fences.

Laikipia’s colonial and post-colonial land polices created a mosaic of land use. The British colonial government evicted Maasai pastoralists and settled Europeans on large-scale ranches. After independence some settlers sold their ranches and they were divided into small plots and bought by smallholder farmers.  Agriculture was hard here: land was dry and rocky so many plots were abandoned, leaving scattered subsistence farms.

Elephants were post-colonial arrivals to Laikipia in the 1970s, driven by insecurity and ivory poaching to the north. Ranches provided ideal ‘elephant spaces’ – contiguous habitat where elephants thrived. They arrived as powerful actors, protected by legislation to reduce poaching and ivory trade.  Yet elephants created a major problem for smallholder farmers. Subsistence farms with ripe crops, lay right next to ranches. When elephants raid crops, they impose their own interests on a landscape intensively used by people, and transform farmland into a “beastly place”.  Despite simple defenses have little capacity to defend their ripening crops against raids by elephants at night. Elephants hold the balance of power.

Data from GPS collars worn by crop-raiding elephants indicate an awareness and avoidance of risk. Elephants leave spaces where they feel safe and enter farmland only when the risk of injury to them from people is low (at night, when few people are around), and they raid crops where farms are scattered rather than concentrated and lie near to elephant habitat. They move faster when they leave the safety of ranches and move into farms, reflecting their awareness of heightened risk.  An electric fence was built along the boundaries of ranches to separate Laikipia into space for elephants and for farming. But elephants frequently break this fence and resisted the human ordering of the landscape, again at night, where it had a low voltage and gave a low shock, and where it was situated close to crops. Elephants impose cost and risk on farmers, and do so in a way that minimises risk and maximises opportunity for themselves.

We found distinct individual behaviour among the elephants we studied. Groups of male elephants break fences (average six, maximum 12). But three bulls – aptly known as Ismael, Nelson, Ananais to Space for Giants – carried out over 70% of fence-breaks in one year. All three were between 35 and 40 years old.  By watching breaks directly and through camera traps we found that these bulls were “breakers” – they physically broke the fence, while a group of younger smaller “follower” bulls waited to cross once the fence had been broken by the breaker. Groups of elephants always had one “breaker” in it, often with the same followers, and young adolescent bulls that would come and go.

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Fence-breaking behaviour, therefore, seems to be “learned” and “taught” among bull elephant society. Young bulls associate with more experienced bulls and learn risky behaviour. “Breaker” bulls represented a frontline of risk-taking bulls – elephants willing to face the risk of injury/mortality posed by humans to raid crops.  In Laikipia, it was the behaviour of these “breakers” in space and time that ultimately shaped the human–elephant relationship with smallholders.

To reduce crop raiding, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) de-tusked some “breaker” elephants – removing part of the tusk to make it harder to break electric fences. Yet elephants invented new ways to break the fence with their stumped tusks and with their feet, body and trunks. KWS then anesthetized 12 of the most prolific breakers and translocated them some 200km away to Meru National Park. After a year, the fence was broken as frequently as before, now by three former – “follower” elephants. Meanwhile, the translocated animals had introduced fence-breaking to Meru National Park, where the fence had never been broken before.

As a species and as individuals, elephants are powerful, political actors, determined to maintain landscapes as a shared space whatever the wishes of their human neighbours.  To accommodate the individuality, vibrancy, and adaptability of elephants in human occupied landscapes, the management of human-elephant conflict needs to become more dynamic. Protected areas are too small and rigidly conceived to accommodate the needs of elephants to move, and their capacity to enforce this movement by crossing barriers erected to stop them.  Human-elephant conflict needs to be understood as emerging from interactions of individual elephants and people in specific landscapes, rather than as a standard problem likely to be tackled effectively by a standard solution. It needs to pay close attention to the individual behaviours, social dynamics and associations of elephants as actors, their predilection for crops and their tolerance of risk.

Evans L. A., Adams W. M. Elephants as actors in the political ecology of human–elephant conflict. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2018;00:1–16.






Alternative geographical traditions from the Global South

By Federico Ferretti, UCD, Dublin, and Breno Viotto Pedrosa, Federal University of Latin American Integration  


Envelop of a letter from Milton and Marie-Hélène Santos to Anne Buttimer (1938-2017), likewise a cosmopolite and transnational scholar, UCD, School of Geography, Anne Buttimer Papers, folder Latin America.

In the last few years, a rich literature has addressed what might be defined as “alternative geographical traditions”, accounting for a plurality of views, in the history and philosophy of geography. Scholarship in anarchist geographies analyses the shared ‘roots’ of the anarchist tradition and the geographical one (Ferretti et al., 2017; White 2015; Springer 2016). Historical geographers also investigate labour history, anti-racism and global networks of solidarity beyond nationalistic views of the concept of anti-colonialism (Davies 2017, Featherstone 2012; Griffin 2017).

Recently, critical scholarship produced by political dissidents in Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century has been brought to the attention of Anglophone readers.  For example, Anglophone readers have engaged with the work of three Brazilians who were persecuted by the military dictatorship, which ran their country between 1964 and 1985: Josué De Castro (1908-1973); Milton Santos (1926-2001); and Manuel Correia de Andrade (1922-2007) (Ferretti 2018). These authors can be understood as exponents of alternative geographical traditions for three reasons: first, they criticised mainstream discourses on development, countering neo-colonialism and Malthusianism; second, the places and spaces of their work were alternative to the circulation of mainstream scholarship as they established scholarly and activist networks outside Europe and North America, including South-South relationships; and third, they represented a cultural alterity to the dominant discourses mentioned above, being multilingual scholars publishing in English but also (and especially) in Latin languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Important materials on the figure of Milton Santos have emerged, especially thanks to the work edited by Lucas Melgaço, Carolyn Prouse and Tim Hall, including translations of Santos’s work (Bernardes et al. 2017; Davies 2018; Melgaço 2017; Melgaço and Prouse 2017; Santos 2017) and an Antipode forum collecting interventions by Santos’s students and friends. Now, a paper by Federico Ferretti (UCD) and Breno Viotto Pedrosa (UNILA), published by TIBG, provides for the first time an analysis of Santos’s networks with critical and radical geographers of the ‘Global North’. It does so through archival research on Santos’s unpublished correspondence, which is held at the São Paulo IEB (Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros), a collection only recently opened to researchers and whose story is told via the Milton Santos’s website.

Other initiatives are recovering the memory of radical geographers of that generation. For example, the digitalization of the archives of the Union of Socialist Geographers Newsletter on the Antipode Foundation website.  Our paper explores unpublished correspondences between Santos and Neil Smith (1954-2012) on the initiatives of this association. The paper demonstrates that Santos played an influential, albeit still neglected, role in shaping the field of international critical and radical geographies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Born in Bahia, in the Nordeste region, one of the states with the most numerous Afro-Brazilian communities, Santos was a radical and transnational scholar aware of both anarchist and Marxist traditions. Showing the importance of Santos’s activism in both the French-speaking and the English-speaking circuits, which inaugurated key journals in the field such as Hérodote in France and Antipode in North America, contributes to a reassessment of the role played by the Global South in ‘theorising back’. At the same time, it exposes the importance of doing research on primary sources in different countries and different languages to reconstruct transnational and transcultural networks. In a nutshell, decolonising geographical knowledge.

About the authors: Federico Ferretti is a lecturer at the School of Geography at UCD Dublin. Breno Viotto Pedrosa is Professor at the Federal University of Latin American Integration. 


Bernardes A et al. 2017 The active role of geography: a manifesto Antipode 49, 4 952–958.

Davies Archie 2018 Milton Santos: The conceptual geographer and the philosophy of technics Progress in Human Geography [early view]

Davies Andy 2017 Exile in the homeland? Anti-colonialism, subaltern geographies and the politics of friendship in early twentieth century Pondicherry, India Environment and Planning D, Society and space 35, 3 457-474

Griffin P 2017 Making usable pasts: collaboration, labour and activism in the archive Area [early view:]

Featherstone D 2012 Solidarity: hidden histories and geographies of internationalism Zed, London.

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Ferretti F 2018 Geographies of internationalism: radical development and critical geopolitics from the Northeast of Brazil Political Geography 63 10-19

Ferretti F, Viotto Pedrosa B. Inventing critical development: A Brazilian geographer and his Northern networks. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2018;00:1–15.

Melgaço L 2017 Thinking outside the bubble of the Global North: introducing Milton Santos and ‘the active role of geography’ Antipode 49 4 946–951.

Melgaço L & Prouse C Eds. 2017 Milton Santos: Pioneer in Geography. London: Springer.

Santos M 2017 Toward a new globalisation Springer, London.

Springer S 2016 The anarchist roots of geography Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis.

White R 2015 Following in the footsteps of Elisée Reclus: disturbing places of inter-species violence that are hidden in plain sight in Nocella II A, White R and Cudworth E eds. Anarchism and animal liberation, essays on complementary elements of total liberation Jefferson, Mc Farland & Company, 212-230.