Film screening, Jan 12 at 7pm: Climate change in the land of the Sherpa

January 5th, 2011 by

Minority Rights Group International (MRG) would like to extend to you an invitation to attend the premiere of our new documentary film, A Journey to Imja Lake: Climate Change in the Land of the Sherpa.

Venue: The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1HX

In the Everest region of Nepal, the Sherpa people are confronting the harsh impact of climate change in the Himalayas. Changes in snow and rainfall patterns are affecting food production and communities face an ever present threat of flooding.  A Journey to Imja takes us on a winding path through the mountains to an altitude of over 5000m and illustrates how the temperature increase in the region is affecting the livelihoods of the Sherpa people and other minority groups in the area. Glacial melt poses a huge risk, not only for these communities but also for the millions of people downstream in Asia who depend on water from rivers born in the Himalayas.

The half-hour film will be followed by a discussion on the issues raised.


Anna Colom – filmmaker
Navin Khadka – BBC Nepali Service
Farah Mihlar – MRG Media Officer and Sri Lanka Programme Coordinator

The discussion will be followed by light refreshments. For more information see attached invitation or contact:

Emma Eastwood – MRG Media Officer
T: +44 (0) 207 422 4205
M: +44 (0) 7989 699984

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BBC News: Sunderland experts study 18th Century Arctic voyages

December 28th, 2010 by

Ships’ logs from vessels which travelled in the Arctic Circle in the 18th century are to be studied to see if they shed light on climate change.

Read more: here

A team from Sunderland University will study records kept by explorers, whalers and merchants during trips which took place up to 260 years ago. They want to see if the logs provide clues about the ice levels in the area at that time. They will be analysing log books written between 1750 and 1850.

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Local knowledge & tsunami risk in Columbia

December 21st, 2010 by

I am working on a particular project concerning local knowledge and tsunami risks on the Pacific coast of Cauca, Colombia.

We have been doing fieldwork in recent months, with Afro-descendant communities in the Pacific port of Guapi. This is a relatively small village of around 18,000 people who are devoted to different economic activities ranging from fishering, agriculture, commerce and transportation services.

As an anthropologist and working with one additional colleague, we are trying to recover stories and local narratives of how people have negotiated and reacted to climate changes and tsunamis.  

The most recent tsunami was in 1979 and others reported far in time in the 20th century. We hope our analysis will provide more understanding of extreme climate events and even help people in dealing with them. 

The principal investigator is a geographer and we are also working with engineers, oceanographers and experts in tsumami modelling.

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The Dalai Lama on Climate Change in Tibet: Wikileaks

December 17th, 2010 by

The Dalai Lama told US diplomats last year that the international community should focus on climate change rather than politics in Tibet because environmental problems were more urgent, secret American cables reveal.

More details: here

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader told Timothy Roemer, the US ambassador to India, that the “political agenda should be sidelined for five to 10 years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau” during a meeting in Delhi last August.

“Melting glaciers, deforestation and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that ‘cannot wait’, but the Tibetans could wait five to 10 years for a political solution,” he was reported as saying.

Though the Dalai Lama has frequently raised environmental issues, he has never publicly suggested that political questions take second place, nor spoken of any timescale with such precision.

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China’s Spreading Sands: combatting desertification

December 3rd, 2010 by

On China’s western frontiers in Ningxia province, a massive afforestation drive to battle the spread of the desert reveals fast-expanding efforts to combat what is being called “climate change”. 

See slideshow: here

About 57% of Ningxia province is desert, with around 65% still growing. Desertification is also a major problem in nearby Gansu province. Unregulated development, changing rainfall patterns and overgrazing are all cited as reasons …

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Call for Papers: Climate, Knowledge and Politics, XVIIIth-XXth Centuries

November 30th, 2010 by

International Colloquium on Climate, Knowledge and Politics, 18th-20th centuries in Paris: September 16 & 17, 2011.

See full announcement: here

Organizers: Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Fabien Locher, Julien Vincent ANR Profutur, EHESS, CNRS

This international colloquium aims at replacing the contemporary linkages between Climate, Knowledge and Politics in a broader historical perspective encompassing the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. Was “climate” a category of modern political thought and did it inform concrete forms of government since the 18th century? Did the emerging human sciences participate in contemporary debates and thinking about the climate? Was “climate” part of the environmental awareness of the past? What were the terms of debates about human-induced climate change?

One aim of the conference is to bring together historians of “the climate” understood both as a philosophical concept, and as a practical concern for individuals and governments. One major theme is the transverse nature of the notion of climate. Because this concept was common to many forms of knowledge, academic and popular, including both the moral and the natural sciences, it was used to analyze a vast variety of facts. The issue of regional climatic differences, for example, brought together disciplines ranging from medicine, geography, botany, anthropology, and law. In the same way, studying the climate in evolution was equally relevant to geology, theology, and history. Were certain kinds of knowledge instrumental in the construction of this climatic paradigm? In which contexts did the transverse nature of climate play a structuring role? Did the constitution of a separate science of weather, put the climatic paradigm into question? Did other, including moral, sciences contribute to the erosion of this climatic paradigm?

We particularly encourage proposals for papers that explore the link between climate and government and can inform the long-term history of environmental concerns. Proposals focusing on the following themes are more than welcome: climatic anticipation, climate in Humboldtian sciences, neo-hippocratism, anthropology, acclimatization, climatic eugenics, climate and political economy/moral sciences.

Proposals can be made by both PhD students and established scholars. Financial assistance for travel and accommodation will be provided to all conference presenters.

Please email a 500-word abstract and a one-page CV to by March 15, 2011

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United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun

November 30th, 2010 by

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place in Cancun, from 29 November to 10 December 2010. And today, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister has said he will not attend.

Click here to follow the talks

The UN hopes that: “Cancun can launch a new era in the pace of global action on climate change”.

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The Andes: Retreat of the glaciers

November 28th, 2010 by

Here is a brilliant video on the Guardian about glacier retreat in South America with local people talking about the effects of climate change on their animals, crops and traditional lifestyle.

Click to view: A climate journey pt1

In the first of a 4-part video series on climate change in Ecuador and Peru, John Vidal takes us through the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, where the Cayambe mountain glaciers are melting. In the hills below, farmers are struggling with the effects of changing weather systems.

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November 25, 2010: Anthony Giddens on the threat of climate change

November 26th, 2010 by

During this engaging 1-hour talk at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, UK Anthony Giddens spoke about the threat “like no other” that climate change poses to security.

In the first part of his speech, Giddens outlined the 3 main positions (which have many interstitial positions) he believes exist on climate change and its threats. Namely:

1) Climate change skeptics who deny climate change and claim instead that it is simply caused by natural events and the influence of the sun. These skeptics are mostly not scientists. Nigel Lawson is a famous advocate of this position, the influence of which is huge in politics. The blogosphere also carries this view with huge effect, often claiming to represent scientific expertise and even issues threats.

2) The IPCC of the UN. This effectively summarises scientific views and promotes the view that climate change is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation and that action is necessary within a 20/30 year timespan before serious, limiting effects are felt.

3) Climate change radicals (Giddens’ own term) such as James Hansen (NASA) and James Lovelock who use the same evidence as the climate change skeptics but for divergent ends. While climate change skeptics say that the IPCC is caremongering, climate change radicals are also critical of the IPCC but say the latter is essentially conservative, given that it merely summarises scientific data on climate change and converges towards the mean.

Of these 3 positions, Giddens feels we have to take the radicals seriously rather than the IPCC which is prone to understating the risks.

Climate change, he says, is dangerous because it is the source of changes which are essentially irrevocable and time is limited. People are also relatively indifferent. The problem he feels is that climate change is about abstract future risk, meaning that citizens can’t relate and politicians simply postpone action. We also can’t say for sure that climate change influences extreme weather events.

In the second part of his talk, Giddens went on to talk about the failure of the Copenhagen summit, what we might expect from the Cancun summit and made some interesting suggestions for a possible future approach.

He feels that the weakness of the UN (being so globally interdependent); the dominance of domestic over international politics in the USA; the paralysis of the EU (it lacking an essential decision-making centre); the ambiguous role of China with its “traditional notions of sovereignty” leading to immense hesitation; and divisions within the approach of developing nations are the reason for the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

The Cancun meetings are beginning now and effectively, the Kyoto approach is dead. What we now have are the climate change plans that each nation will be submitting as part of the Copenhagen accord. This accord in Giddens’ opinion will be led by the developing (rather than industrialised) states of China, Brazil and India. While the Kyoto agreement was about agreeing targets, the Copenhagen accord is about how to achieve them. The Cancun meetings are likely then, to shore up and amplify commitment but unfortunately will not be able to make them obligatory in international law (as with the Kyoto agreement).

Giddens feels that overall, the Latin American nations could assume more prominence. A national climate change policy is needed where clusters and regions might work together with target-specific interest groups. This would resemble a patchwork approach. And the UK bears a special responsibility: it is the highest Carbon-emitter per person in the world and of course, was the starting point of the industrial revolution.

Overall he says, a massive social and economic transformation in politics is demanded of industrialisation. We are in the closing years of the non-sustainable industrial model typified by the USA. We now need a politics of the long-term; a 20/30-year cycle of investment; a new relationship between the state and long-term innovative, flexible markets to release their power. And we must avoid Left-Right political division, embarking instead on cross-party agreements.

Giddens commented that the new coalition government in the UK is sustaining and radicalising the formal structure put in place by Labour. The Liberal Conservatives are investing in renewable energy and the recently announced wellbeing index are encouraging signs. However the USA remains a rogue outsider: only 11% of Republicans even believe in climate change (in comparison to 60% of Democrats).

Finally, he called on India and China to pioneer a new path of development which exemplifies positive models of low-Carbon economies. These would be more harnessed to self-interest rather than just altruism (e.g. energy security, competitive advantage) and be founded in a retrieval of utopian political thinking, which is real and grounded, and looks 10-15 years down the line.

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Oct 16, 2010 workshop: histories of land & water in the East Anglian Fens

November 25th, 2010 by

The Fens are a naturally marshy low-lying landscape in the flat lands that stretch out around the Wash in Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Norfolk. This land is prone to flooding: see the photo here of flooding in Feltwell in 1915.

What interests me as an anthropologist is way in which the humans who live in this region have attempted to adapt to their environment, and to adapt the environment to their needs.

See my presentation here: RDGIpdf

In particular, the contemporary landscape of the fens is shaped by past drainage; there is evidence of Roman efforts to drain the land in their digging of the 80 mile long Car Dyke along the western margin of the Fens. The history of the Fens has subsequently been punctuated by attempts to render the marshy ground ‘productive’. A systematic programme of drainage was advanced in the 17th century when a group known as the ‘Adventurers’, led by the Earl of Bedford and assisted by the Dutch Engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, obtained contracts from King Charles I to drain the land and make it suitable for agriculture, and to retain property rights in that which they had drained. This was seen by some as an act of enclosure, and actively resisted. Oliver Cromwell, who was born in Ely, an ‘island’ in the Fens, declared himself a champion of the commoners, and the attempts by inhabitants to undermine the drainage works in order to protect common rights must therefore be read through the lens of the English Civil War history of this period. Indeed, Cromwell resumed drainage works in his time as Lord Protector. Still, the folk history of resistance to drainage by those fearing that the right to use the land would be taken away from them (and with it, access to resources of peat, reeds, waterfowl, and fish) retains an allure, and is commemorated in folklore to this day; for example, a band called Norcsalordie recently composed a song entitled “Cursed Cornelius”, which expresses the anger of the Fenmen towards the Dutch engineers: “God help those damn blasted Dutchmen, they’ll drive him away from these lands… Cornelius Vermuyden, the worst of them all, Cursed Cornelius you’ll bloody well fall”.

While the effects of 17th century drainage were short lived, renewed efforts to drain the land in the late 18th and 19th centuries made use of windmill and, later, steam technology to lift water out of the land and push it towards the cut channels. The triumph of steam over the flooded plains is commemorated on a plaque in a pumping station built in 1830:

These Fens have oft times been by Water drown’d
Science a remedy in Water found
The powers of Steam, she said, shall be employ’d
And the destroyer by itself destroy’d

Yet the triumph over water was far from absolute. Indeed, the nature of the land being drained meant that this work ultimately lowered the level of the land, making it more prone to flooding. Much of the Fen was peatland, and peat is a wasting asset: as it is drained, it shrinks, and as it is exposed, it oxidises, dissipates, and blows away. This gives rise to dust-storms known locally as ‘fen blows’, filling the air with peat dust, which spreads out across the flat open fields. The extent to which the peat has shrunk – and therefore, the extent to which the land level has dropped – is made starkly visible by the Holme Peat Post, which was sunk into the ground in 1851, so that the top of the post was at the surface level, and as the peat shrunk, the post would become more and more visible. The post is now exposed 4 metres above the current ground level. Because of this fall in land level, waterways in the fens are often above the level of the adjacent farmland, creating a need for substantial banks to be built up (and maintained) alongside them.

I am interested in exploring the kinds of social life that emerge from this negotiation between people, land, and water. We have seen, for example, in the idea of the fens as a ‘common land’ a particular historical representation of a system of use: the fens as land for common subsistence, a site for waterfowling, eel catching, reed cutting, and grazing livestock. Today, individuals such as Peter Carter, eel catcher and waterfowler continue to put the natural resources to this kind of use, although such activities are sometimes represented as a relic of the past rather than a serious attempt to adapt to the contemporary environment – indeed, much of Peter Carter’s visibility as an eel catcher comes from his involvement in heritage events.

The creation of ‘productive’ (and owned) land through drainage creates different forms of social relations. The cultivation enabled by such drainage has made the region a key site for the UK’s food security (and during the Second World War, its productivity was investigated and measured, and concrete roads built for access, precisely to ensure that the nation was making full use of the Fens as agricultural resource). Today the area is a major producer of sugar beet, carrots, and potatoes.

While cultivation today favours a small number of large farm businesses, previously the unpredictable nature of the land meant that much was left unused, enabling small-scale and flexible land rental – though in times of flooding, those renting could lose everything. For example, following a 1796 flood, 416 land renters were forced to take up day labour after their crops were destroyed. Floods, however, could create opportunities as well as destroy them; W.H. Barrett, in his Tales of the Fens – a collection of stories told and retold in pubs – describes the ‘drown’ of 1861, giving us detailed insight into the social impact of an extreme weather event, but also showing us the impact it had on land use, with a rise in smallholding activity as people made use on the at-risk land as “one horse farmers”.

The social life of the Fens has historically been characterised by an understanding of what it means to live alongside water, and in land that is prone to inundation by water. This is perhaps clearest in the mobilisation of whole communities in the work of watching for floods: relays of men kept watch on the banks containing the waterways, so that word could quickly be sent out if one of the banks was to break. During the extreme floods of 1947 and 1953, these teams of ‘bank-watchers’ played an essential role in minimising the loss of life and livelihood by alerting the communities.

More broadly, living alongside and often in water leads to particular forms of accommodation to the environment. The buildings in which people in the Fens lived were built in consideration of the particular environmental pressures to which they were subjected. While this is most evident in surviving examples of houses built on stilts (see, for example, the Rothschild bungalow at Woodwalton Fen), such accommodation to the water often took subtler and more everyday forms. Many of these ways of adapting are well described in Sybil Marshall’s Fenland Chronicle, in which her parents recall their late 19th and early 20th century lives in the Fens in vivid detail. We see, for example, that the damp conditions meant that many of houses were infested with crickets, which led to some people keeping hedgehogs as pets, so that they would eat the crickets. Floors in houses were bricked or paved, but not bound, to enable easy relaying when the surface became uneven due to the nature of the ground, and also to enable drainage through the spaces between the tiles if water was to come into the house. Blocks would be kept handy to raise beds above the level of the water should the houses become flooded, leading Sybil Marshall’s father to tell the following story:

“I ’eard a tale about a chap as I knowed what used to get a fair amount o’ beer down him whenever he had the chance. One night when the water were just a-coming up ’e’d bin out and ’ad a goodish allowance, and found as ’e’d got to get out again to get rid o’ some of the beer. But by that time the water had ris’ so that it stood about nine inches all over the flood all around the bed, so ’e just rolled over to the side o’ the bed and done what ’e wanted.” His wife is indignant, but he tells her “What’s a little drop more matter? It’ll all goo out wi’ the rest.”

While prior to the Second World War construction of roads much of the Fen was difficult to access, the use of waterways to navigate around the region created a certain attitude to social life that is well expressed in the name of a (still existing) pub on the banks of the River Cam – the “Five Miles From Anywhere – No Hurry” Inn at Upware. The name encapsulated the fact that a particular pace of movement was created by the watery landscape. While such a pace of movement may have made it difficult, for example, to reach nearby villages to attend church, such problems could be solved in enterprising ways: in 1897 the Vicar of Holme Parish had a floating church built to reach the parts that other churches can’t reach. This ‘Fenland Ark’ navigated the waterways of the parish, providing services in difficult to access places; 70 people were baptised on board.

While these stories of accommodation speak to a particular understanding of the nature of the Fenland landscape, recent events in the region point towards a sense of disconnection. In 2008, Natural England suggested that parts of the Upper Thurne Basin in Norfolk could be allowed to flood in the next 20-50 years as part of a strategy of “managed retreat”. While such a strategy recognises the vulnerability of the landscape and makes clear that much of East Anglia consists of ‘temporary land’, such an idea was met with a certain amount of public outrage, because of the inevitable effects that such a strategy would have on property value and insurance rates.

Natural England’s strategy points to the fact that due to the pressures of isostatic rebound (the post-glacial readjustment of land masses, which means that most of the south of England is very slowly sinking in relation to global sea level) and, more recently, the effects of global warming, much of the flat East Anglia region is under a particular risk of flooding – and as I have explained, peat shrinkage has exacerbated this problem in the Fenland area. And yet, also in 2008, the Office of National Statistics predicted that after London, the East of England region was going to see the largest growth in population in the UK. So while the region is likely to consist of less land and more water, it is also expected to contain more people.

Alongside this evidence of disconnection, it is also important to note particular ways in which people have ‘reconnected’ with the landscape. Since 2004, the City of Ely has organised ‘Eel Day’ festivities (see myself throwing an eel at Ely’s Eel Day in 2009), celebrating their namesake and the watery environment that supports the eels. A giant eel is paraded through the streets, and participants can take part in an “eel throwing” competition (in fact throwing stuffed socks in the shape of an eel), meet an eel catcher, look at eels in tanks and, of course, eat eels.

This ‘invented tradition’ celebrates the particularity of Ely as a place, and emphasises a particular form of relationship with the environment. Further to this, the recent photographic competition and exhibition “Fens through a Lens”, organised by the Cambridge Museum of Zoology and the RSPB, generated a surge of photographic interactions with the habitats of the Fens, although it is interesting many of the photographs consisted entirely of wildlife scenes without any evidence of the human place within the environment. On a much bigger and more dramatic scale, the ‘Great Fen Project’ aims to buy up and ‘reflood’ 14 square miles of Cambridgeshire, turning a large area of productive farmland into nature reserve.

In a context of environmental change, in which the particular land history of the Fens interacts with the changing climate, what are likely to be the future patterns of land use? What kinds of social life will the future Fenland generate?