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Vital Geographies – blog

10 May 2018: Professor Esther Turnhout – Spaces of Biodiversity Expertise

May 15th, 2018

Last Thursday the Geographies of Knowledge research group hosted their first annual lecture, where they welcomed Professor Esther Turnhout, Professor in Forest and Nature Conservation Policy at Wageningen University. In her talk, Esther explored a number of sites where biodiversity expertise is produced. These included examples in the Netherlands and drew on her experiences as an expert and lead author for the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). In exploring the transition from ‘biological diversity’ to ‘biodiversity’, Esther’s lecture presented a theoretical frame for replacing the ‘logical’, drawing upon the performative aspects of the production knowledges pertaining to the concept and politicisation of biodiversity. There was a particular focus on three interrelated logics that are prominent in biodiversity expertise: a logic of inclusiveness, a logic of relevance for policy, and a logic of efficiency for assessment. Esther’s argument was that these logics together prioritise model projections over other forms of expertise. The lecture concluded by discussing the scope for doing things differently and breaking through dominant logics: establishing a context for reconceptualising biodiversity expertise in the presence of political logics and alternative modes of knowledge production.

15 February 2018: David Nally – Biophilanthropy and youth pedagogies: the case of the International Education Board, 1923-28′

February 21st, 2018

Thursday’s Vital Geographies seminar was delivered by the Department of Geography’s David Nally, presenting a paper to be published in the Journal of Historical Geography (JHG) later this year. The focus of the paper – the International Education Board (IEB) – was a short-lived but influential initiative delivered through the philanthropic work of the Rockefeller Foundation. Its origins lay in late nineteenth century work intending to foster scientific farming methods in the American South in the face of agrarian crisis, while aiming for the rejuvenation of ‘rural values’ and the eradication of forms of dependent poverty. Rather than target adults, this agricultural pedagogy focused on youths as pliable recipients of new scientific and cultural values. Skip forward to Europe in the aftermath of the war of 1914-1918 and these pedagogies were being experimentally applied by the IEB to rural communities in Scandinavia as a form of “progressive statecraft” for inculcating American values of democracy and rational agricultural management. This ‘work on youths’ involved advancing quantification through measurement and record-keeping – as a means to awaken a “remunerative spirit” – and the staging of cultural events and competitions as a means of embedding and reinforcing the requisite practices. Borrowing from Tania Li, Dr Nally framed these as a set of “inscription devices” that subtly transmit values through time and across geographies, and which find their zenith in the Green Revolution later in the century. Part of the point is to locate the antecedents of the Green Revolution and reframe it as an historical process, rather than a single event. Particularly striking was how many of the tropes and language invoked by philanthropic actors at the time resound with subsequent and contemporary discourses of international development.

13 February 2018: Lewis Daley – “The Shaman is the White Man’s Computer”: The interaction of shamanism and conservation in Amazonian Guyana

February 14th, 2018

This Tuesday, the Political Ecology group had the pleasure of welcoming Dr Lewis Daley from UCL’s Department of Anthropology, Environment, and Development, where he gave presented on two years of ethnographic research with the Makushi people of Southern Guyana. The indigenous Makushi people live in the Rupununi region of southern Guyana – an ecologically-diverse and seasonally-variable mosaic of rainforests, savannahs, and wetlands on the northerly fringes of the Amazon watershed. In recent years, this sparsely populated area has become the focal point for various conservation and development schemes. Yet shamanism, as an indigenous form of ritual practice and cosmo-political mediation, remains crucially important as a structuring aspect of Makushi life. Indeed, according to many, the power of the shaman (pia’san) to navigate the boundary between Makushi society and the world of Others (ratiko) is more critical than ever before. Within this context, Dr Daley’s talk investigated the complex intersection between conservation, development, and shamanism in Amazonian Guyana.

8 February 2018: Cheryl McEwan – Protean geographies: Plants, politics and postcolonialism in South Africa

February 9th, 2018

In the Departmental Seminar yesterday evening Professor Cheryl McEwan of Durham University spoke to many of the issues that are central to the Vital Geographies Research Group: how a type of flower has often been seen as innocent and beyond politics, but is deeply entangled in political economies, nation-building and post colonialism. Employing a multi-species ethos, she showed how the materiality – the nature – of proteas matters to the unfolding of sustainable trade, sustainable landscapes and to the construction of political relations. The intermeshing of relational and material processes in proteas makes the flower a productive focus through which to think about pressing environmental and political concerns in South Africa. Professor McEwan also outlined her work with colleagues on an innovative botanical database and on the translation of field guides into local languages, and showed one way in which it might be possible to move from studying political processes to transforming them, challenging the historic inequalities that continue to pervade the economies and landscapes of proteas.