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Plenary Roundtable

South Asian Plenary Roundtable: Environmentalism and the Arts

India’s sudden, unprecedented success at the Oscars in 2023 with All that Breathes and The Elephant Whisperers, both documentaries with strong environmental-humanist themes, brings to new light the fact that the arts have always been engaged with issues concerning the environment. The South Asian Plenary Roundtable topically focuses on the theme Environmentalism and the Arts broadly, which could include musical cultures, dance, performing arts, film, documentary, as well as literature. The panel will have up top five speakers and each panelist can focus on and speak to a specific text/tradition and extrapolate on what kind of environmentally-formed historical understanding is possible when the axis is shifted to, say, a marginalized people’s or an animal’s or a waterbody’s history of representation/s.

Organizer: Anupama Mohan, Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur (IITJ)

Participants: Ananya J Kabir (King’s College), Naiza Khan [visual artist], Shaunak Sen [director; with screening], Anupama Mohan [novelist; IIT Jodhpur], Annu Jalais (Krea University)

Time and Location:
Tuesday, August 20
11:15 - 12:45

Plenary Session

African Plenary: Meaning(s) of Water and Humanities

The past five years have seen the birth of a vibrant interdisciplinary field, the environmental humanities. The expertise of the natural sciences by themselves have not in and of themselves have not yet translated fully into a coherent vision of sustainability. Environmental issues are being addressed by many academic disciplines. Ecologists and environmental scientists try to understand the natural world and study the impacts of human activities on biodiversity. Climate scientists study the dynamics of the atmosphere and build models to predict future movements of air, water, and land/soils and suggest policy actions. Environmental social scientists, on the other hand, focus on the relations between policy and behavior, between economics, ecological “services” and human consumption of resources, and so forth. Yet to achieve balance, environmental humanities studies address and describe the cultural dimensions of the environment, where interactions are expressed in poetry, religion, plastic arts, and language. Water as a theme perfectly affords this.

Organizers: James McCann, Boston University
Admire Mseba, University of Southern California

Izabela Orlowska, ZMO, Berlin

Nature and the Supernatural: Meaning(s) of Water in the Upper Nile, Ethiopia
Water is a media that sustains both belief and life. One of its roles is as a symbol of power and destiny. Yet, water’s broader and functions are also represented in the arts, religious dogmas, and language of human activity. In this structured and imaginative ecology of human relationships with environment requires intervention of the supernatural that can be reached through mediation by holy persons, who mediate between humanity and the environment (natural world). The inhabitants of the Nile watershed, the Niger Delta, or Zambezi valley, for example, have prayed, pleaded and offered sacrifice to the supernatural in order to survive and establish a degree of control over the powerful and unpredictable forces of nature. Hitherto, there has been limited systematic study looking at how local ecology and the spiritual realm collide and interact.

Julia Tischler, University of Basel
Water Stories: The Zambezi as a Force of History and a Force of the Future My presentation focusses on the social and cultural history of the Zambezi River in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, exploring how local residents, colonial planners, missionaries, and modern-day writers have constructed the Zambesi as a force of history and a force of the future. Practices and narratives surrounding the Zambezi have revolved around historical time and the origin of different polities. They have constructed the Zambezi as a sources of life as much as a source of death; they have debated the issue of excessive water in the form of rain and flood; they have made moral evaluations of the right of humankind to meddle with the river’s forces. My presentation highlights how long-standing notions of time, both circular and linear, change, human interference, and danger have been central to Zambezi narratives, whilst they are being appropriated by modern writers to be folded into global climate change debates.

Admire Mseba, University of Southern California
Drops of Rain, Bodies of Water, and the Locust Problem in Twentieth Century Southern Africa For much of the twentieth century, locust swarms posed a severe challenge to the livelihoods of many Southern Africans. These swarms were intimately connected to rain (or its failure) and to bodies of water. The locust infestations almost always followed cycles of droughts and floods (a development that may have been tied to the ecology of locust swarming), reinforcing, in the process, the impact of each of these environmental phenomena. What is more, by the 1940s, colonial policy makers and their scientists understood that swarms of locusts originated in particular locales, what they called outbreak areas, before they invaded a much larger area, what they called the invasion area. In Southern Africa, the red locust outbreak areas were located near Lakes Rukwa (Tanzania), Mweru (Zambia) and Shirwa (Malawi) as well as in the Buzi valley in the plains of central Mozambique. This paper explores what this timing, or rather, sequence of droughts, floods and locusts as well as the pests’ association with east-central Africa’s interior lakes and surrounding marshlands meant for the control of these destructive insects in the colonial period. The timing, the paper shows, triggered a range of interpretations from the religious to the material all of which informed how rural farmers and policymakers responded to the appearance of locust swarms. At the same time, in the eyes of Southern Africa’s settler population resident mainly in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), the swampy landscapes that constituted the outbreak areas conjured up images of threatening wastelands, the breeding grounds of dangerous pests that lay far north into the interior and could be treated with dangerous chemicals without posing immediate danger to their interests. The result was a racialized landscape of water, marshes and pestilences that often justified and simultaneously undermined colonial states’ techno-chemical interventions.

Nana Kesse, Clark University
Why Live on Water?: Lessons from a West African Stilt-House Community, Nzulezo Why do people live in the middle of bodies of water as opposed to land or the littoral? Scholars have studied this question from both environmental and social perspectives, with some arguing that humans created stilt houses in water bodies as a way to adapt to moist tropical environments. In contrast, others suggest that the practice spread with people from Asia and pre-Columbus America who were already familiar with living in these homes. According to historian Heyward James, these factors account for the global distribution of human settlements on stilts, particularly in the middle of water. However, these arguments fail to explain why stilt-house communities in bodies of water were so rare in pre-colonial equatorial Africa despite the favorable environmental conditions. Only two such villages, Ganvié and Nzulezo, existed in eighteenth-century West Africa. Historian Elisee Soumonni explains that the Ganvié community of the present-day Republic of Benin was established as a defensive stratagem against the Atlantic slave trade. I argue that, by contrast, Nzulezo of present-day Ghana was created due to political and environmental factors, including gaining access to freshwater and heeding the fiat of seemingly despotic monarchs. Significantly, spirituality—i.e., Nzulezo people’s belief in and intricate relationships with water deities—explains why they remained on the Amanzule River for over two centuries. The story of Nzulezo reconsiders orthodoxies that pre-colonial West Africans constructed settlements in hard-to-access spaces, particularly water bodies, primarily as a defense against the Atlantic slave trade. It also demonstrates how prolonged human interactions with bodies of water often resulted in complex relationships between culture and ecology.

Time and Location:
Wednesday, August 21
14:00 - 15:30

Plenary Session

Key Environmental Transitions in Latin American Environmental History

This plenary session will explore four key themes and transitions in Latin America’s environmental past. José Iriarte (University of Exeter, UK) will talk about the region’s deep past, from the arrival of humans over 13,000 years ago until before colonization. He will focus on the nature and scale of pre-Columbian human impact on the Amazon forest, its modern legacy, and the lessons we can learn from past human land use. Since at least two thirds of the region were once covered by forests, José Augusto Pádua (Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro) will discuss the historical factors that help to understand the massive deforestation that has occurred since the 1970s, making the fate of the Amazon Forest one of the icons of global environmental concern. Viridiana Hernández (University of Iowa) will then focus on one of the causes of deforestation: commercial agriculture, from sugar cane in the seventeenth century to soy today. Finally, Antoine Acker(University of Geneva) will discuss Latin America’s particular energy transition, in which wood and oil are more important than coal. The presenters will show how the region’sunique and diverse environments underline pivotal historical trajectories, which are deeply entangled with developments elsewhere in the world.

Chair: Claudia Leal (Colombia, Universidad de los Andes)

Convenors: Sandro Dutra da Silva (Brazil, UniEvangelica)
Claudia Leal (Colombia, Universidad de los Andes)

Participants: José Iriarte (University of Exeter, UK), José Augusto Pádua (Universidade Federal de Rio de Janeiro), Viridiana Hernández (University of Iowa), Antoine Acker (University of Geneva)

Time and Location:
Thursday, August 22
16:30 - 18:00

Plenary Session

Environmental History, Environmental Humanities, and More-than-human Approaches from the Pacific

Engaging with topics as diverse as taro, salmon, and nuclear testing, scholars in and of the Pacific are drawing together environmental history, environmental humanities, and more-than-human approaches in new and innovative ways to examine uneven landscape transformations and address the legacies of colonial racial capitalism. This plenary panel asks how are scholars in and of the Pacific world engaging with history and with more-than-human approaches? What are the political and pedagogical stakes of these diverse approaches and what do they offer to environmental history more generally? Is there a distinctive Pacific approach to environmental history, environmental humanities, and the more-than-human world? The plenary grounds these questions in a series of presentations by researchers about their work.

Organizer: Dr. Emily O'Gorman, Macquarie University
Dr. Sophie Chao, University of Sydney

Participants: Craig Santos Perez, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Hi'ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart, Yale University, Bonnie Etherington, Victoria University of Wellington, Yen-Ling Tsai, National Chiao Tung University, Frank Zelko, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Heather Swanson, Aarhus University

Time and Location:
Friday, August 23
11:15 - 12:45

University of Oulu
Bioverse Anthropocenes