Category: "ecology nature"
Anthropologists are following in media’s and politicians footsteps: They care less about the floods i Pakistan than for the Tsunami in Southeast Asia, the Katrina floods in the USA and the earthquake in Haiti.
A quick search reveals nearly complete silence. While several anthropologists mention the desaster or call for help, they don’t contribute with any analyses.
The only piece by an anthropologist that deals specifically with the floods consists of rather dubious culturalisations: Cultural wisdom in crisis by Kashmali Khan from Oxford University, published in the Pakistani Tribune.
But while I am writing these lines, suddenly an interview about the flood pops up at the great blog Anthropologyworks. Pakistan expert Maggie Ronkin (who’s recently taught on Justice and Peace in Pakistan and Social Development in South Asia at Georgetown University) interviews Fayyaz Baqir, Director of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center in Islamabad.
Fayyaz Baqir describes the floods as “the worst in the entire world during the past hundred years". But he is eager to add - and this is the interesting part in my view - that we “are underestimating the resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity of the people to cope with the disaster due to the presence of hundreds of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms that help people on a day-to-day basis.”
This capacity and the will to help is echoed in several stories in Pakistani media.
“In the last 10 days", Zeresh John writes, in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, “I’ve seen Pakistan come together in ways never seen before.” “It is an overwhelming feeling", Zeresh John adds, “when people unite for a cause. When in an instant, strangers no longer remain strangers":
The Pakistani youth has risen and literally stepped out on the streets to help their countrymen affected by the flood. (…) Each day brings a relentless and constant chain of support. Where the monetary contributors stop, there is a group of people ready to take over by running to crowded bazaars everyday to buy food supplies, clean drinking water and medicines. From there yet another massive portion of the population is stepping in to pack those supplies and load them into trucks to deliver them to the affected areas.
As Pakistani authorities failed to provide the necessary leadership needed and with no proper coordination in the relief efforts, the civilian population of Pakistan has taken it upon themselves to do what they can in the face of this crisis; in the process, developing a conscientious society that we’re all proud to belong to.
But these stories are not told by the media, a reader comments:
“I live overseas and this post was quite educational for me. How is it that none of our TV channels are highlighting this spirit ? All I’ve seen so far are stories about corruption, fake camps and immoral feudals diverting the flow of flood waters to their benefit. Our free media seems to be failing miserably by promoting only the demoralizing but sensational stories.”
My favorite story is written by Shabnam Riaz in The News: The Real Heroes (see also cached version). She is also writing about “a spirit-lifting experience in this whole nightmare": Pakistan’s youth, young men and poor laborers who help other people:
Small, scattered groups of young boys and men had formed where the rain was the harshest and was threatening to sweep away cars along with their occupants. (…) They worked in unison, all of them had a single purpose and that was to rescue other human beings. (…) They waved at us, hurriedly preparing to help the next hapless driver who was blindly careening into their path. We waved back with euphoric ‘thank you’ but they had already become busy in helping others.
I was touched beyond words. These young men were poor labourers who were most probably hungry as a day full of rain would not have given them a chance to earn their daily wage. I am sure that none of them were owners of a vehicle either. But their dedication to help the other members of society who definitely had more material possessions than they had, without any contempt at all, told me something. It told me that deep inside they were people of substance. Those individuals who had their moral compasses pointing in the right direction.
It also told me something else; that in fact, these were our heroes. Also, these people who slog from sun-up till sun-down for a meagre amount that could hardly put a decent meal on anyone’s table, are our actual role models.
Here another story about how people help themselves (video by Al Jazeera)
Save Pakistan from the catastrophe is the title of an earlier article where anthropologist Fazal Amin Baig calls for action. Fazal Amin Baig wrote it earlier this year in the aftermath of a heavy landslide that took the lives of 19 people and displaced more than 1,500 people. “The year 2010 witnessed a natural disaster, which did not indicate a good omen to the people of Pakistan.” Unfortunately, the anthropologist was right.
For an excellent example of how to contribute as social scientists, see my earlier post on anthropologists on Katrina.
(update: Pakistan: Netizens In Action Helping Flood Victims. (Global Voices 24.8.2010))
In the recent issue of Imponderabilia Heid Jerstad criticizes the lack of anthropological research on climate change. Climate change is only present on the margins of anthropological research, Jerstad claims. A similar critique was formulated by Simon Batterbury in his article Anthropology and global warming: the need for environmental engagement.
But several climate anthropologists have been in the news recently. In an interview with the Borneo Post, anthropologist Bob Pokrant addresses climate change in Borneo. To tackle the climate change issue, he proposed using the ‘adaption approach’ instead of the ‘mitigation approach’:
By mitigation, we mean reducing the sources of greenhouse effect. By adaption, we mean recognising that climate change is happening and then work out a programme to reduce the social vulnerability of those affected. We have to empower the people to take the future in their own hands. In countries affected by climate change most, their people’s capacity to adapt must be built up.
Fight global warming ‘with traditional methods’, urged Pietro Laureano. architect, town planer and anthropologist. Traditional water management methods from the Sahara and Ethiopia and Iraq’s Babylon area could be used alongside newer technologies such as solar power to prevent desertification and energy wastage. See also interview with Laureano and his paper Traditional Techniques of Water Management a New Model for a Sustainable Town and Landscape. From the First Water Harvesting Surfaces to Paleolithic Hydraulic Labyrinths.
Environmental anthropologist Kenny Broad was interviewed by Hawaii 24/7. As an anthropologist “his focus is bridging the physical and social aspects of science, specifically the human-environment relationship along coastlines and the impacts of climate change.”
A few weeks ago, Susan Crate’s research on climate change in Siberia was presented. On her website lots of papers can be downloaded, for example the most recent one Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change (pdf). Together with Marc Nuttall, she edited the book Anthropology and Climate Change. From Encounters to Actions. See also interview with Nuttall on CBC News “Human face of climate change: Weather out of its mind”.
At the University of Copenhagen, anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup is the leader of the interdisciplinary climate change research project Waterworlds. In an interview, she explains the relevance of historical anthropology for today’s climate change.
See also Climate Change and Small Island Developing States: A Critical Review by Ilan Kelman and Jennifer J. West (Ecological and Environmental Anthropology, Vol 5, No 1 (2009)) and Waterworld1: the heritage dimensions of ‘climate change’ in the Pacific by Rosita Henry and William Jeffery as well as information about climate refugees and my earlier post Why Siberian nomads cope so well with climate change. For even more literature see Bibliography for the anthropology of climate change.
The tundra ecosystems in Siberia are vulnerable to both climate change and oil/gass drilling. Yet the Yamal-Nenets in West Siberia have shown remarkable resilience to these changes. “Free access to open space has been the key for success” says Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Finland, Environmental Research Web reports.
Forbes and five colleagues from various disciplines (including anthropology) at the University of Joensuu, Finland, the Russian Academy of Sciences and the University of Cambridge, UK, have studied the Yamal-Nenets for more than four years. The research should not only help with plans for the Nenets’ future survival but could also offer tips for other communities.
The ability to roam freely enables people and animals to exploit or avoid a wide range of natural and manmade habitats. The Nenets responded to their changing environment by adjusting their migration routes and timing, avoiding disturbed and degraded areas, and developing new economic practices and social interaction, for example by trading with workers who have moved into gas villages in the area.
“Our work shows that local people have an important role to play, one that is every bit as useful and informative as that of the scientists and administrators charged with managing complex social-ecological systems", Forbes says.
Around half of the Yamal Peninsula’s 10,000 Nenet people are herding reindeers. Average temperatures in the region have increased by 1–2 °C over the past 30 years. The area contains some of the largest known untapped gas deposits in the world.
Their findings were published as open access article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, see High resilience in the Yamal-Nenets social–ecological system, West Siberian Arctic, Russia.
One of Forbes’ colleagues is anthropologist Florian Stammler. He has put several papers online, among others Arctic climate change discourse: the contrasting politics of research agendas in the West and Russia (together with Bruce C. Forbes), The Obshchina Movement in Yamal: Defending Territories to Build Identities? and the magazine article Siberia Caught between Collapse and Continuity (together with Patty Gray)
I have to confess I have an ambivalent relation to initiatives like the Earth Hour. But anthropologist Stephen Bede Scharper casts an interesting perspective on this new way to save our planet.
He describes Earth Hour as “the first globalized ritual", a `liminal space’ and therefore “a potent opportunity for change":
Earth Hour combines a spiritual quest, a moral mandate and a communal practice into a unique and truly global event. It can thus be considered a transcultural action of moral responsibility for the planet, a statement that “another world is possible.” It is not driven by brands, consumerism or corporate logos. Earth Hour is not Coca-Cola teaching “the world to sing in perfect harmony,” nor Nike telling us to “Just Do It.” It is, rather, approximately one billion people entering the threshold of a different relationship with both the planet and the cosmos.
Earth Hour has arisen, almost organically, outside of established religious and secular institutions. The fact that churches and municipal governments are now participating is a testament not only to its popularity, but also possibly to its motivational power and persistence, something that places the event in the category of “ritual.”
UPDATE: Antarctica to Pyramids: Lights dim for Earth Hour (ap, 28.3.09)
On the 5th of December 2006, typhoon Durian hit Bến Tre province in Southern Vietnam. Close to 100 people died, more than 800 moored fishing boats sank, thousands of buildings collapsed including schools and hospitals. In her master’s thesis, Uy Ngoc Bui looks at how this event changed peoples’ lives and explains why we need more disaster anthropology.
In this extremly well written thesis at the University of Bergen (Norway), Uy Ngoc Bui looks at the role of NGOs, the state and the people themselves’ in the period after the disaster. Although the government and the NGOs did a significant job in handling typhoon Durian the real heroes were the people themselves, who helped one another in a time of great need, she writes:
They showed great courage, endurance and solidarity by overcoming this challenge. As such, it is perhaps no surprise that my study concurs with the many previous studies which state that disaster management is very dependent on the participation of the community, and their strengths and efforts can determine the outcome of the disaster.
Therefore it is important to study peoples’ knowledge and coping mechanisms:
In disasters as floods and tsunamis, traditional knowledge acts as warning signs which can be read ahead of time, saving many lives. This type of information should be spread wherever it is useful, as Red Cross has done in Vietnam.
I believe that thorough research into traditional knowledge and local coping mechanisms should be emphasised as they are a type of accumulative knowledge which has been passed on throughout generations, adapted to their specific environment. This type of knowledge is valuable because it is not written down, and if is lost, it will be lost forever. Here anthropology has an important job to do.
There are lots of topics to study for anthropologists, for example the local-global linkages and the reconstruction work:
My experience is that more research should be done on the bridging of relief aid with long term reconstruction and development. Relief aid has become more efficient and standardised, which is positive, but this is only short term help for people who are in a vulnerable situation. Decreasing their vulnerability and strengthening their capacity to overcome disasters in the future should be the key foci of anthropologists and NGOs.
Anthropology provides a unique look at how the local situation relates to the global through the holistic approach. It is therefore important that anthropology uses this approach to better understand the complex local-global linkages in future research. Solid fieldwork on the ground level can show how the lives of the people involved are changed as a result of the disaster and the following intervention by foreign actors. The real effects of natural disasters, the ones that are felt intimately and which linger on long after the dust has settled, are best researched with anthropological methods which can take into account all the historical, economical, political and social factors that are involved in the making of a natural disaster.
One of the global forces are related to global warming:
Many blame the Western industrial ways for corrupting the planet’s eco-system, creating more and more havoc for each year. Research in disaster management therefore also includes research into finding more eco-friendly ways to live.
Uy Ngoc Bui has studied anthropology at the University in Bergen, Norway. As she’s “of Vietnamese origin” she felt that she “had an advantage in being half-immersed in the ‘culture’ already, which would make the transition somewhat smoother". Furthermore, people were as interested in hearing about Norway and Norwegian culture as she was interested in them, she writes.
Today was by the way the second day of an interdisciplinary climate conference in Copenhagen. Among the researchers we find many anthropologists. Kirsten Hastrup is team leader of the research project Waterworlds at the anthropology department at the University of Copenhagen:
The ambition of the project is to study local, social responses to environmental disasters related to water, as spurred by the melting of ice in the Arctic and in other glacier areas, the rising of seas that flood islands and coastal communities, and the drying of lands accelerating desertification in large parts of Africa and elsewhere. The aim is to contribute to a renewed theory of social resilience that builds on the actualities of social life in distinct localities, and pays heed to human agency as the basis for people’s quest for certainty in exposed environments.
In a new paper that was published today in Science he writes that these settlements might be a model for the future.
In a press release Heckenberger says:
If we look at your average medieval town or your average Greek polis, most are about the scale of those we find in this part of the Amazon. Only the ones we find are much more complicated in terms of their planning.
These are not cities, but this is urbanism, built around towns. The findings are important because they contradict long-held stereotypes about early Western versus early New World settlements that rest on the idea that “if you find it in Europe, it’s a city. If you find it somewhere else, it has to be something else.
They have quite remarkable planning and self-organization, more so than many classical examples of what people would call urbanism.
This new knowledge could change how conservationists approach preserving the remains of forest so heavily cleared it is the world’s largest soybean producing area. “This throws a wrench in all the models suggesting we are looking at primordial biodiversity,” Heckenberger says.
This early urban settlement can be a model for future solutions. Heckenberger and his colleagues conclude:
Long ago, Howard proposed a model for lower-density urban development, a “garden city,” designed to promote sustainable urban growth. The model proposed networks of small and well-planned towns, a “green belt” of agricultural and forest land, and a subtle gradient between urban and rural areas.
The pre-Columbian polities of the Upper Xingu developed such a system, uniquely adapted to the forested environments of the southern Amazon. The Upper Xingu is one of the largest contiguous tracts of transitional forest in the southern Amazon [the so-called “arc of deforestation"], our findings emphasize that understanding long-term change in human-natural systems has critical implications for questions of biodiversity, ecological resilience, and sustainability.
Local semi-intensive land use provides “home-grown” strategies of resource management that merit consideration in current models and applications of imported technologies, including restoration of tropical forest areas. This is particularly important in indigenous areas, which constitute over 20% of the Brazilian Amazon and “are currently the most important barrier to deforestation".
Finally, the recognition of complex social formations, such as those of the Upper Xingu, emphasizes the need to recognize the histories, cultural rights, and concerns of indigenous peoples—the original architects and contemporary stewards of these anthropogenic landscapes—in discussions of Amazonian futures.
>> press release: ‘Pristine’ Amazonian region hosted large, urban civilization, study finds (University of Florida News)
Oil is vital to our growth economy. Yet, our need for continued access to fossil fuels drives many of today’s conflicts. And we are in the last days of cheap oil and need alternatives. In his guest editorial in the new issue of Anthropology Today (subscription required unfortunately), Thomas Love encourages anthropologists to examine the complex relationship between our lives and fossil fuels.
What are the consequenes of rising oil prices? Rising energy prices may prolong availability for those who can afford it, but will will cause uneven economic development and contribute to the deterioration of labour conditions in sweatshop economies, he writes.
A quick search reveals following news: Rwanda: High Oil Prices Make Essential Commodities Costly (allAfrica 28.3.08), Higher petrol costs ‘act like a tax on consumption’ (CNN, 7.8.06) Food prices are rising worldwide. Weather, oil costs among factors (Boston Globe 30.3.08), Oil prices hit hard on Asia’s poor. UNDP report ranks countries according to a new Oil Price Vulnerability Index (UNDP 25.10.07), and “What about the poor?”, askes the Energy report (1.8.07).
Thomas Love proposes following research questions:
How does this crisis resemble previous ones? What metaphors and symbols do people use to make sense of it all? To what discursive structures will people turn to make sense of the potential unravelling of their worlds? (…) How has the fossil-fuelled growth system already affected the lives of people in producing areas?
We need cross-cultural perspectives and commitment to ethnography to understand how such large-scale forces play out on the ground in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Detailed grasp of the non-fossil-fuelled ways of living of pre- and non-industrial peoples will convey to interested publics and policy-makers alternative ways of organizing human society. We can help understand how humans might manage to power down without precipitating collapse.
Ethnobotany in not only about “exotic” plants in the rain forest: “The ethnobotany of British home gardens: diversity, knowledge and exchange” is the title of a new research project at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kent. Among other things the anthropologists will look at the the social networks along which plants and knowledge are exchanged.
“We hope to be able to demonstrate scientifically the wider value of home gardens beyond the material worth of the land that they occupy", Simon Platten explains. “We wish to learn how people learn to become good home gardeners. Whilst biological diversity in itself is important, so are the skills and knowledge that maintain it”, project director Roy Ellen says.
Despite high rates of participation in gardening there is according to him relatively little work on the basic social, cultural and ethnobotanical dimensions of home gardening.