A sneak preview…

Why read Geography at Keble? A preview of student experiences produced by Keble Geographers…

by Rakan Dajani

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What do geographers get up to over the summer? Part ii

and the second book prize to Hannah – congratulations.

Lebanon: a state without a nation

by Hannah Ritchie

‘To create a country is one thing; to create a nationality is another’ (Salibi, 1993. Cited in Varady, 2017) and arguably nowhere is this more apparent than in Lebanon, a state arbitrarily created by the West in which 18 sects have been forced into coexistence, creating a mosaic of distinct and often conflicting factions. As a result, Lebanon has long been riddled with sectarian disharmony, obstructing the formation of a genuine and cohesive national identity (Varady, 2017). It is widely recognised that, for the vast majority of the population, religious loyalty is regarded as sacrosanct while patriotism is little more than a myth, an issue which came to light almost instantly on my recent trip to Beirut.

In order to manage such a complex and volatile amalgamation of sects, a confessional political system emerged in which each sect is designated specific roles in government, ensuring equal representation for the Christian and Muslim populations. However, while confessionalism may be a vital tool in sustaining coexistence, it is arguably counter-productive in terms of long-term nation-building as it cements, rather than dilutes, internal distinctions (Varady, 2017).  This point was stressed by the Druze prince Majid Arslan when I met him in Beirut, who argued that such a rigid confessional system is fundamentally flawed and unsustainable; it creates a façade of cooperation between factions, hiding the reality of a fractious and contested system which, by so inflexibly distinguishing between religious sects, prevents a unified nation from developing out of an institutional state (ibid).

The divergence of Lebanese sects and their respective identities cannot, however, be blamed solely on the overarching political system. Particularly through conversations with my host, a Lebanese Orthodox Christian, it became apparent that there is significant bottom-up resistance to the formation of a united national identity, as he deemed different sects to be inferior and insignificant. This form of ‘othering’ which proliferates throughout the general population aids the fragmentation of Lebanese society and the strengthening of sectarian, rather than national, identities. Despite such sentiments being endemic amongst the public, Majid Arslan remained optimistic that younger generations, those too young to have experienced the 1975-1990 civil war in which sectarian tensions reached a peak, will prove more tolerant of religious differences. He therefore suggested, contrary to much of the contemporary commentary on the state of Lebanon, that divisions along sectarian lines may be gradually deteriorating, with national unity becoming a more likely (although far from guaranteed) future.

In addition, the internal dynamics of the Lebanese state cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the wider regional context; the Syrian civil war has had profound implications for Lebanon, destabilising the already fragile state as sectarian rifts are forced to escalate, with opposition between Sunni and Shia Muslims becoming especially tense (Bahout, 2014). An implication of the intensification of conflict in the Levant has been the increasing paranoia of communities who perceive their entire existence to be under threat, as well as the consequent replacement of ‘interest-based political turf lines’ with ‘“identity”-based imaginary boundaries’ (ibid, p.4). Whether it be Sunnis, Shias, Maronites, Druze, or any of the other 18 Lebanese sects, these communities increasingly focus on the necessity of self-preservation, inevitably escalating inter-sectarian hostility. The porosity of official boundaries across the Middle East, in both real and imaginary terms, has also meant that state borders are increasingly perceived as meaningless for sectarian communities (Spyer, 2014). While the state remains officially intact, the practical insignificance of the boundaries arguably reduces the efforts made by sects towards nation-building and cooperation as they do not feel committed to or constrained within the state.

Sectarian conflict in Lebanon has also been magnified both by the involvement of foreign powers in Lebanese affairs, either directly or by proxy, as well as the involvement of Lebanese actors in foreign conflicts, most notably in Syria. Hezbollah, for example, is often said to have become a ‘state within a state’ (Abdul-Hussain, 2009), capitalising on the weakness of central government while relying on the backing of Iran, it’s Shia ally, in order to gain de facto sovereignty within its strongholds. Hezbollah exploits sectarian divisions to augment the influence it commands over the Shia population, as well as over Lebanon as a whole. By emphasizing the importance of religious loyalty, the Lebanese population becomes increasingly fragmented and a single national identity appears to be not just unachievable but also undesirable.

Ultimately, Lebanon has failed to develop a unified national identity to encompass and blend the complex myriad of religious and social groups that fall within its borders (Varady, 2017). Society is intrinsically divided along sectarian lines and although this is not necessarily incurable, it is for the time being a chronic issue riddling the country. It is therefore apparent that while Lebanon is a state, claims that it is a nation-state are little more than illusions which fail to recognise the fundamental sectarian divisions undermining any notion of genuine national unity and cohesion.

Abdul-Hussain, H. (2009) Hezbollah: a state within a state. [online] Hudson Institute. Available at: https://www.hudson.org/research/9801-hezbollah-a-state-within-a-state [Accessed 5th October 2017]

Bahout, J. (2014) Lebanon at the Brink: The Impact of the Syrian Civil War. [online] Crown Centre for Middle East Studies. Available at: https://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB76.pdf [Accessed 5th October 2017]

Spyer, J. (2014) Do ‘Syria’, ‘Iraq’ and ‘Lebanon’ still exist? [online] Middle East Forum. Available at: http://www.meforum.org/3751/syria-iraq-lebanon-nation-states [Accessed 4th October 2017]

Varady C. (2017) Lebanon: A Crowded State Without a Nation. In: US Foreign Policy and the Multinational Force in Lebanon. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

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What do geographers get up to over the summer? Part i

Our second year geographers shared some of their recent adventures by sending in short essays that were designed to show where and how they encountered geography over the summer. Staying with an iconic theme of geography, all of the entries involved travel to a different place, whether in the UK or abroad.

The essays were strong and in the end we decided to award two book prizes for a joint first place based on their engaging insight and interpretation which demonstrated engagement with ideas that will be explored in forthcoming Geography lectures. Over the next week we’ll be sharing with you all of these short essays.

In no particular order, one of the book prizes is awarded for the following essay: congratulations Ludo.


A Stateless Nation? The Rohingya Muslims and their lack of citizenship

by Ludo Findlay

Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The camp is one of three, which house up to 300,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing inter-communal violence in Burma. Source: Wikimedia Commons

During my vacation I visited Myanmar/ Burma and was interested to find out that despite only ‘opening up’ to tourism recently, it was still forbidden for foreigners to visit parts of the country. This piece will focus on one of the ‘closed off’ states, Rakhine, and the Rohingya Muslims who live there, who have been denied legal citizenship of Burma, and who have been increasingly thought to be the subject of an ethnic cleansing (Ratcliffe, 2017). In this report I will explore how the lack of citizenship has affected the Rohingya people, particularly in their lack of rights and their sense of belonging to the country, and why neither the government of Burma nor its neighbouring country Bangladesh have granted the Rohingya people legal citizenship.

The Rakhine state is on the far western side of Burma and borders Bangladesh, with a 1/3rd of its inhabitants being Rohingya Muslims (Smith and Krol, 2017). This is vastly different to the demographics of the country as a whole, with the Rohingya people only make up 3% of the national population. The Rohingya people are the descendants of Arab traders who settled in what we now know as Rakhine State in the 14th Century (Kosem and Saleem, 2016) but despite being ethnically Burmese and having lived there for hundreds of years, they have not been recognised as such in the last 50 years, and consequently have not been granted legal citizenship (Galache, 2017).

This lack of legal citizenship has led to large restrictions placed upon the Rohingya people’s freedom of movement, access to medical assistance and education, leading to them living in conditions which people have deemed apartheid-like (Jaswal, 2017). Furthermore, they are banned from owning land and have been “subjected to various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation, land confiscation, forced eviction, and house destruction” (Kosem and Saleem, 2016, p212). This has led to unrest amongst the Rohingya people, culminating on an attack against a few Buddhist policemen, in which the Burmese government retaliated with what the UN has described as ethnic cleansing operation, with Rohingya villages being burnt, women raped and children murdered (Nelson, 2012). The Rohingya’s only form of defence has been to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they are too treated as illegal immigrants. Throughout this recent trouble, it is thought that 500,000 Rohingya people have become refugees, half of the Rohingya population (Ratcliffe, 2017).

So why has legal citizenship not been granted to the Rohingya people? In 1962, the military took dictatorial control of the country via a coup d’état and sought to use nationalism as a political tool, thus proliferating the influence of the Bamar, the largest ethnic group in Burma, comprising 70% of its population (Kosem and Saleem, 2016). During this time, the Rohingya people were perceived as foreigners, as they shared more cultural and physical characteristics with Bangladeshis than Burmese people (Kosem and Saleem, 2017, p212). This was most clearly seen by their language, which is very similar to the Bengali dialect of Chittagong (Ratcliffe, 2017), but most importantly they are Muslims, whilst the Bamar ethnicity is allied very closely with Buddhism. As a result of this political nationalist movement, the Rohingya Muslims, amongst other minority ethnic groups, were not granted citizenship, and their descendants continue to be denied it too (Galache, 2017). The official Myanmar government version dictates that the Rohingya were Bangladeshis brought over by the British during the colonial era, when both Bangladesh and Myanmar were controlled by Britain, and thus due to them being brought be the colonists, are illegal immigrants and shouldn’t be regarded as legal citizens (Smith and Krol, 2017). Meanwhile, over in Bangladesh, the country cannot afford to have almost half a million refugees entering the country whilst it itself is in a poor economic position, particularly when it rightly recognises that the Rohingya people are Burmese and not Bangladeshi.

This unique situation has led to the Rohingya population ‘belonging’ nowhere. Belonging can be seen in a geographical sense as primarily social, and is about inclusion and exclusion, rather than a sense of familiarity (Ralph and Staeheli, 2011). Although they share a national past and a homeland with the rest of the Burmese population, their treatment by the government has led them to feel that they do not belong in Burma, largely due to their religious differences with the majority of Burmese people, which affects how they are perceived by the other Burmese ethnic groups (Samer, 2010). Even when a pilot group of Rohingya Muslims were granted legal citizenship in 2012, other ethnic groups still viewed them with suspicion, with certain areas requiring them to have special permits to travel to them (Galache, 2017). I personally experienced this view when discussing the situation with various Burmese people (all of Bamar ethnicity), who did not consider the Rohingya as ethnically Burmese.

In conclusion, it seems that a nationalist movement led by the military junta and centred on the Bamar people, has led to a situation where the Rohingya are seen as foreigners in the only land they have ever known. The lack of citizenship has prevented assimilation into the Burmese culture, and due to the military intent on removing the ‘illegal immigrants’, a terrible genocide is taking place.

Galache, A. (2017) Citizenship for a few, rights for none: the Rohingya in Myanmar [online] Available at: https://www.equaltimes.org/citizenship-for-a-few-rights-for?lang=en#.WcuzAoWcGuU [Accessed on 24th September 2017]

Jaswal, M. (2017) Aliens In Their Own Land [online] Available at: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/03/the-stateless-humans-of-myanmar/ [Accessed 24th September 2017]

Kosem S., Saleem A. (2016) Religion, Nationalism, and the Rohingya’s Search for Citizenship in Myanmar. In: Mason R. (eds) Muslim Minority-State Relations. The Modern Muslim World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. P.211-212.

Nelson, D (2012) Burma considers citizenship for Rohingya Muslims [online] Accessed at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/burmamyanmar/9648329/Burma-considers-citizenship-for-Rohingya-Muslims.html [Accessed 24th September 2017]

Ralph, D. and Staeheli, L. (2011) ‘Home and migration: mobilities, belongings and identities’ Geography Compass, 5(7): 517-530.

Ratcliffe, R. (2017) Who are the Rohingya and what is happening in Myanmar? [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/sep/06/who-are-the-rohingya-and-what-is-happening-in-myanmar [Accessed 24th September 2017]

Samers (2010) Migration. Abingdon: Routledge

Smith, N. and Krol, C. (2017) Who are the Rohingya Muslims? [online] Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/rohingya-muslims/ [Accessed 24th September 2017]

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Imagine Palestine

by Rakan Dajani who spent his summer in Palestine, part of it on his undergraduate dissertation.

Being in Palestine grounded the ideas and forgotten memories of my family having left in 1948- at the time of the ‘Nakba’- ‘catastrophe’. My understanding of Palestine was formed in the intermediary, between these memories passed through generations but also through the various articles, books and films that sought to understand Palestine, represent its casualties and even predict its future.

What I found were the limitations of all my ideas and conceptions- all sound yet suffocated by the inability to bring experience to them. The occupation in Palestine is real and dealt with everyday by people leading different lives. It challenged me to negotiate this paradox between a spectrum of ideas and arguments and these everyday realities on the ground- it felt insufficient to understand this country through crafty words that gave me a overinflated sense of insight. Words, photographs and music are all representational forms of communication and as we have learnt from history, a ‘crisis of representation’ (Soderstrom 2005:13) cautions any less than sceptical understandings of what we read, see or hear.

It made me think of the power of our imagination. ‘Imagination’ should not be considered fantastical but rather quite subtly formed by such representations and narratives that form our daily lives. A travel advert, a friend who visited and a politician’s speech are a few of the countless ways our imagination of a place grows both in complexity but also in some ways, a sense of clarity. The layers of contexts that shape the advert develops into a story in itself, the tongue-in-cheek bold assertions made at the UN inevitably with its own agenda and rhetorical devices but also the friend’s visit re-told through embodied encounters that itself is infused within that friend’s imagination. Edward Said and Derek Gregory expand upon the idea of the geographical imagination as fabrications that combine “something fictionalised” and “something made real”. The multiple Imaginations of Palestine have formed over time, each imagination reflecting the narratives that surround one’s life- for example the imaginary of Palestine composed of different elements for an Orthodox priest as compared to a historian in America.

Imaginations of Palestine within the diasporas community are often romanticised. Descriptions of ‘our true home’ seemed naive in light of the stark reality of a deeply degraded society as a result of the occupuation. These imaginations, as are most, were not completely naive and I found the qualities of ‘home’ and ‘hospitality’ deemed true yet it was clear that Palestine would not fit into any imagination exclusively, be it romanticised or conflict-ridden. The 4 weeks that I spent in Palestine were bounding ‘here’ and ‘there’, the fiction with the real, and most of all attempting to challenge my imaginations of Palestine into grounded informed experiences.

Our previous understandings should not be underestimated in its power to determine our experiences of a place. It is centuries of orientalisation that today we have realised that it has influenced the way we travel- our gazes as tourists (Urry 2002) and the experiences we seek, oftentimes serving to reinforce our imaginations. My awareness of the political struggle at times led me to only ‘see’ the occupation and all its suffering. But what I soon noticed was the frustration of traffic, the young teenagers speeding on motorcycles on the way to bars, the trivial yet important fact that it would be unfair to Palestinians if I only understood the place they lived in through the Separation Wall or Friday protests. It is a burden that every traveller should carry, explore and then let go of- the burden of misrepresentation, orientalisations or even misinformed understandings that weigh down any authenticity of experience as our imaginations are always in compromise with any confrontation with reality.

I spent time in Palestine visiting Hebron, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Jericho but I based myself in Bethlehem where I conducted research on tourism as a new frontier of occupation. It explored the themes of geographical imaginations, architecture and occupation as well as the touristic gaze. A large portion of my time was working as a gallery receptionist at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel which has been at the forefront of Bethlehem’s political tourism. The research brought me into contact with all sorts of characters that had their own relationship with the Hotel but also tourism’s effect on Bethlehem. Unlike anywhere in the world, the Church of Nativity attracts millions of pilgrims every year but given Israeli control over borders and people into Bethlehem, the majority of these pilgrims arrive in Tel Aviv on package tours and are brought en masse to the Church leaving Bethlehem within a few hours thereby summarising their time in the West Bank. This leaves the majority of tourists on their transient encounter with Palestine with impressions of the Biblical Holy Land or Israel as an oasis of civilisation surrounded by tyranny and fanaticism. Narratives of a dangerous West Bank are sold to these tourists and as such Bethlehem faces a declining sector of tourism. The occupational forces dominate physically over the land and people but the struggle over space has developed into a struggle over ideas and imaginings of the space. A Wall guide explained to me ‘Being a tourist here is a political act’. He is one of the many guides who form part of the Wall-type alternative tourism sector in Bethlehem which tours the refugee camps, the Separation Wall and explores darker side to the Holy Land all with the idea of ‘seeing’ the real Palestine. So being a tourist, particularly in Bethlehem but inevitably anywhere in the world is political, one participates and engages with different narratives and imaginations all in competition to be adopted into the tourist’s mind-safe of collected imaginaries. As I mentioned, Palestine would still not fit into any imagination exclusively, be it a romanticised Holy Land or conflict-ridden, by dismissing my imaginations, the imaginations in front of me, I was able to experience Palestine for what it was… a place far away from any imagination now.

It is the questioning of the dominant imaginations that tourists and explorers, abroad or at home should be aspiring to ask as part of their trips, down the road or across the world.

Guardian article about the newly opened The Walled Off Hotel

SODERSTROM, O. (2005) Representation. In Atkinson, D., Jackson P., Sibley D. and Washbourne, N. Cultural Geography: a critical dictionary of key concepts. London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd

URRY, J. (2002) The Tourist Gaze, 2nd edition. London, Sage Publications.

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Welcome to 10 more Keble geographers

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Keble Geography Excellence

Congratulations to former Keble Geographer (2016) Alex Henry on receipt of the Alfred Steers Dissertation Prize awarded by the Royal Geographical Society for best dissertation nationally, 2016. Alex’s project in the field of climate geography was supervised by Keble’s Richard Washington. Well done to Richard too.

Bravo to Aisling, Emma, Hannah, Ludo and Mason on their first year exam results with four distinctions.

Keble also celebrated another fine year of geography Finalists. Congratulations to all and particularly to Clara, Charlie and Jack for their Firsts. We wish you all well as you embark on life beyond Keble, though we are pleased to welcome Charlie back who will be starting a Masters programme in October 2017.

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BMW MINI, Oxford & post-fordist transformations

Following a visit to the BMW MINI Plant, Cowley, first year geographer Emma Carter asks:

In what ways does the MINI Plant, Cowley, provide a useful example of economic and/or social transformations?

The structure and organisation of the UK’s economy and society is morphing from one distinct phase of capitalist development to a new phase (Coe and Jones, 2010). This is observable socially not only in the changes in the workforce structure and gendered division of labour over the last half century (McDowell, 2009 in Coe and Jones, 2010) but, economically in the way in which industries are run. This is particularly relevant in Plant Oxford, where the BMW Group produce MINI cars in Cowley, Oxford, and this essay will outline the ways in which the plant corresponds to academic discourses surrounding economic and social transformations.

The most notable and material change in the operations of Plant Oxford, Cowley, is the shift over the last half century in the number of workers employed. In the 1970s, over 20,000 people were employed at the British Leyland and Pressed Steel Fisher plants from which today’s MINI plant arose (Wikipedia, no date) whereas today the workforce totals around 4,000 (MINI, 2017). This reflects the automatization of the production process, with thousands of robots replacing human labour to do unskilled tasks such as applying spot welds to the new MINI bodyshell (MINI, 2017). A transfer from the use of humans to machines implies, as suggest Coe and Jones (2010), that workers assume the form of commodities during the working day such that they are easily replaced by inanimate objects if necessary. This reduces the social and hierarchical aspects of work – there is a ‘social and spatial infrastructure that underpins the presences of workers in the labour market’ (Coe and Jones, 2010:203) which is disregarded by the use of technology.

Nonetheless, BMW insists that ‘the knowledge of qualified and motivated people is the basis for products of the highest quality’ (MINI, 2017). Here we see how humans are increasingly valued for their embodied, affective and cerebral attributes over their physical ones, in what is known as the new ‘knowledge economy’ (McDowell, 2012). Whilst the performance of menial tasks can be transferred to machines, this is not the same for the accumulation of experience, knowledge or innovation – therefore workers in high-status service jobs are valued for these things, more so than for their manual labour. This represents a stark contrast to 45 years ago, when employees in vast numbers were needed at each stage of the production process, even if only to lift a car component from one place to another.

This change in manufacturing has led to a marked change in the structure of the UK workforce, which has moved to favour ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ workers within the ‘flexible firm’ (Atkinson, 1984 in Coe and Jones, 2010). Whilst the MINI plant has a permanent workforce, often they will take on supplementary temporary agency workers, such that in 2009 almost a third of the Cowley workforce were agency staff (MacAlister and Pidd, 2009). This allows the firm to have ‘a degree of numerical flexibility’ so that workers can potentially be dismissed at very short notice (Coe and Jones, 2010); Plant Oxford attracted attention for this in 2009 when 850 workers were given one hour’s notice before redundancy (MacAlister and Pidd, 2009), highlighting the vulnerability of those who are ‘last in, first out’ (Coe and Jones, 2010).

Social transformations can be seen in Plant Oxford within the sphere of gender. Whilst in the 1960s, jobs were clearly gender coded and manual occupations earning a living wage were reserved almost exclusively for men (Coe and Jones, 2010), several women can be observed performing manual tasks at the MINI plant and BMW actively encourages the participation of females in their apprenticeships with the ‘Girls Go Technical’ scheme (MINI, 2017). This is a significant departure from the traditional gendered notion of the performance of women being constrained to the domestic setting (Williams, 2000) as women are now able to participate more fully in jobs which had previously been coded as ‘masculine’. However, it would appear that tasks associated with ‘femininity’ are still taken by females, as those working at the front desk were women. This reflects Hochschild’s (1983, in McDowell et al., 2007) ideas of associations between femininity as servile and amenable which makes service sector occupations dominated by women. As a result, McDowell (2003) suggests a ‘crisis of masculinity’ whereby white working class males are being excluded from waged work as a result of their perceived unsuitability for such roles, yet the ‘poor work’ they previously performed is less available – to this end, their sense of masculinity disappears because they are unable to perform the sort of work associated with it. The MINI plant exemplifies this through the proportions of women working in different roles, although men still significantly outnumber women on the workshop floor.

The Cowley MINI plant provides a microcosmic case study of the economic and social transformations which have been underway in the UK for the last fifty or so years. These take the shape of changes to both the size, demography and economic structure of the workforce, reflecting the important of human actors in the economy. With increasing automatization and the rise in technology, as well as increasing emancipation of women and participation in the job market, perhaps these trends will continue into the future.

Coe, N.M. and Jones, A. (eds.) 2010. The Economic Geography of the UK. London; Los Angeles: Sage Publications.

Wikipedia (no date) Plant Oxford. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plant_Oxford (Accessed 17th May 2017).

MINI (2017) MINI Plant Oxford. [online] Available at: http://www.mini-production-triangle.com/home.aspx (Accessed 17th May 2017).

McDowell, L. (2012) Post-crisis, post-Ford and post-gender? Youth identities in an era of

austerity, Journal of Youth Studies 15, 573-590.

MacAlister, T. and Pidd, H. (2009) Uproar in Cowley as BMW confirms 850 job cuts at Mini

Factory. The Guardian. [online] Available at:

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2009/feb/16/bmw-mini-job-cuts. (Accessed 17th

May 2017).

Williams, J. (2000) Unbending Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDowell, L. et al. (2007) ‘Division, segmentation, and interpellation: the embodied labours of migrant workers in a Greater London hotel’, Economic Geography 83(1): 1-25.

McDowell, L. (2003) Redundant Masculinities? Employment Change and White Working Class Youth. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Student Excellence: award-winning research

Congratulations to former Geography student, Alex Henry (graduating from Keble in 2016), who has been named by the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), as the winner of the Alfred Steers dissertation prize, an award for the best UK undergraduate dissertation, 2016. Alex’s dissertation, supervised by Keble’s Richard Washington, examined low level jet streams in central Sahara as part of a wider project that is lead by Richard on the Saharan Climate System.

Alex, along with his peer group, returned to Keble on Saturday 6th May for their graduation ceremony. It was great to see everyone again!

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Rediscovering China: one personal experience at a time

by Sze Ching Cheung,

This summer, I spent over seven weeks volunteering in China, teaching English to a range of Chinese children and youths at four different summer camps. The first of these camps was held in at the Castle Peak Bay Resort in Qingshan Bay, on the east coast of Shangdong province (Figure 1). The location was memorable for its incredible beauty; the combination of mountain and ocean supposedly made it a six-star tourist hotspot. After arriving in the nearby city of Qingdao by train, we embarked on a long coach journey, lengthened by the need to circumvent the Laoshan National Forest Park via a north-western route followed by a southward coastal road. On our last day at the camp, the organisers decided on a hike up a nearby mountain path on which I took a number of scenic photos. It was after I returned home that I ran into a peculiar dilemma when attempting to manually “geo-locate” or “geotag” said photos. Seeing that the general reference map provided by Google was wholly inadequate for my needs, as it lacked the small village roads we walked along let alone the mountain path (Figure 2), I switched to the satellite view to discover an unexpected situation.


Figure 1: Map of Qingdao and Laoshan Region, with Qingdao and Qingshan Bay highlighted

Figure 2: General reference map for the Qingshan area around Castle Peak Bay Resort

To my surprise, the general reference overlay was offset compared to the satellite image (Figure 3). Knowing Google to be fairly accurate with its geographic data, I did some research online. Turns out the Chinese government restricts the use of Chinese geographic data to certain organisations which have been granted express permission, a national security policy lingering on from the Cold War era, as a precaution against foreign companies which may have been a cover for military operations. Combined with the disagreements between Google and the Chinese government over censorship in 2010, and the result is the above map; hilariously, Castle Peak Bay Resort sits fifty metres off the coast. However, upon closer inspection, I realised the overlay was entirely useless for geolocation because restoring the offset puts the Resort on a hill in the midst of terraced farming (Figure 4). The offset was not the only inaccuracy in the geographic data; the GPS coordinates for all the highlighted buildings were also further incorrect.

Figure 3: Satelitte image of Qingshan Bay with map overlay offset indicated

Figure 4: Inaccuracy of geolocation of Resort, with the dam and reservoir highlighted

Abandoning the overlay entirely, I decided to use the satellite image by itself to determine where I had been. The most prominent feature from my photos obviously distinguishable from an aerial view was a reservoir and dam (Figure 5), which I spotted in the upper-left corner of the image. Tracing the route back from there, I pinpointed the approximate true location of the Resort, several hundred metres down the road from where the overlay indicated, but sadly hidden by the clouds such that I could not confirm its location (Figure 6).

Figure 5: View of Qingshan Bay including the dam and reservoir

Figure 6: Walking route plotted by memory (red), with further geolocation inaccuracies highlighted

I also managed to geolocate the highest point we reached on our hike up the mountain (Figure 7 and 8).

Figure 7: View from the highest point on the mountain path

Figure 8: Same view using 3D projection of satellite image

This brief encounter with cartography reminded me again of how subjective maps can be. They are merely a visual representation of the actual location and thus can be manipulated to serve various purposes. For example, to make maps accessible and easy to read, omissions are inevitable; only those features deemed necessary or useful are included. The general reference map (Figure 2) was compiled by Google primarily as a navigational tool for drivers, and so did not include any routes inaccessible to vehicles and was useless for geo-locating photos taken on a mountain hike. From this example alone, such omissions seem harmless; however, when the features that mapmakers omit can have a great impact upon public perceptions as a form of censorship. If all maps of China available to the public were to omit Hong Kong for example, people may eventually disassociate Hong Kong from China in their minds. Similarly, Chinese-made maps of China may include Taiwan in its administrative region (Figure 9), given its insistence on the One-China Policy; maps made elsewhere will have Taiwan as a separate country (Figure 10), highlighting the political motivations which permeate cartography. Additionally, geographic data can be manipulated and falsified just like any other data. China’s scrambling of its own geographic information using a different coordinate plotting system is one example of this, resulting in inaccurate maps for the sake of national security.

Figure 9: Administrative map of China taken from a Chinese travel website (http://www.china-mike.com/china-travel-tips/tourist-maps/china-provinces-map/), despite own claims to being uncensored

Figure 10: Map of China from an American map-making company (www.mapsofworld.com/china/)

Therefore I think the only way to truly discover a place is to visit and investigate it personally; had I not visited Qingshan Bay myself, I would not have been aware that the Resort was incorrectly geo-located on the map for example. This removes external subjectivities that are inevitable and maybe even purposeful in various visual representations of place; these are not only limited to maps, for such subjectivities are also found in artwork and photography based on what the maker wanted to portray. The photos I took (Figure 5 and 7) can only allow others to see Qingshan Bay as I represented it, the views that I decided were beautiful and noteworthy, and cannot compare to a personal there-and-then experience; they are, even for me, just a shadow of the reality of that place. And yet such visual representations are necessary, because there is no way yet to personally experience all places at once, and highly improbable even with a lifetime of travelling. The challenge therefore in geographical investigations is to find the hidden subjectivities and inaccuracies in visual representations of place, especially when they are far subtler than the ones I discovered during my geolocation project.

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Volunteering in Nepal

By Alessandra Martorana

Voluntourism, describing short-term volunteering placements as part of tourist travels, has attracted controversy concerning its efficacy and ethics (Scott, 2015). Despite concerns the industry continues to expand, and voluntourists spend more than two billion dollars annually (Hartman et al., 2014). Voluntourisms advocates argue its negative impacts are avoidable and that it can catalyse positive change (Guttentag, 2009). This summer I undertook a two week volunteering placement teaching English in the Nepali village of Tartong, located in the Helambu district of the Nepali Himalayas. I will analyse this trip in relation to the critiques of voluntourism.

A significant concern surrounding voluntourism is that some programs may reproduce cultural misconstructions between the developed and developing world. Elliott (2013) argues they ‘perpetuate the white saviour complex’. As volunteers and beneficiaries often have vastly different socio-economic statuses, a lack of cultural understanding can lead to condescending relationships (Mohamud, 2013). One issue with some programs is that they are imposed by volunteer organisations without community consultation, meaning the programs aim to ‘save’ the community instead of creating partnerships (Scott, 2016). However, Elliott (2013) argues that ‘voluntourism can be a good thing if you go in knowing that you aren’t going to save anybody’. My trip to Nepal emanated from a Keble humanitarian discussion group, in consideration of group discussions encompassing these issues I endeavoured to avoid contributing to this dynamic, assisted by the fact that ‘HELP’- the charity I worked with, was a local charity established by a former villager. The charity had created the program to improve their own conditions; by recognising these power relations I hope that I avoided a domineering and judgemental approach to volunteering.

A key way the ‘white saviour’ stereotype is propogated is through voluntourist’s photographs. Volountourists may be guilty of appropriating images of suffering in order to portray themselves making a positive impact to their social audiences (Kleinman and Kleinman, 1996). Caton and Santos (2009) argue such photos reproduce hegemonic depictions of non-Westerners, presenting a binary between the ‘backward’ non-west and the modern and superior West. Dasgupta and Kasack (2014) go as far as to assert voluntourist photography represents an ‘imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, and a good deal of narcissism’. To avoid these neocolonial concerns I only posted photos of my experience on social media that showed the stunning mountain views, avoiding any that highlighted the poverty of the area or portrayed myself as a rescuer.

Another problem is that some volunteers may lack the skills necessary to meet their project’s needs, meaning their time is spent ineffectively or potentially they may prevent locals from finding much needed employment (Brown, 2014). During our project evaluations we concluded that projects involving unskilled labour were perhaps deserving of this criticism but felt that teaching English was suited to our skills, being fluent speakers. However, I do recognise weaknesses with my placement; whilst I have lengthy volunteering experience with children this was not a prerequisite nor was a TEFL course. Although we were able to teach English we were dependent on a Nepali teacher providing translations for the children, however the youngest classes were not yet fluent in Nepali, restricting their progress. It would have perhaps been more beneficial to provide supplemental training to an existing English teacher, rather than bring in volunteers. However without volunteers there would be no funds to provide such training. As unpaid volunteers we provided resources and undertook fundraising for HELP. Undoubtedly an advantage of volunteers also being tourists is that they provide revenue to host communities (Guttentag, 2009). This is evident from our trip, we payed the local family we stayed with and hired porters, also by extending my trip an extra week to stay in Kathmandu I contributed to the cities’ tourist industry which has declined since the earthquake. Although it may have been more advantageous to train existing teachers and more environmentally sustainable for me to volunteer locally, unfortunately as a student I am doubtful I would simply donate the money I spent on this trip. This expense was only feasible as I was simultaneously investing in my own experience from the trip.

This realisation led to me reconsider the motives for voluntourism. Whilst voluntourists may be inclined to present their trips as altruistic, Tomazos and Butler (2013) suggest these decisions result from a combination of reasons. These include material motives involving the acquisition of new skills or the inclusion of ‘volunteering’ on a CV which may translate to future monetary gains. Other motivations include escapism, even from oneself- as voluntourists may hope to be transformed by their experience. Personally, I have recognised that whilst altruistic motives and global concerns initiated my interest in voluntourism my decision to undertake my specific placement was also largely influenced by a desire to prove to myself I could handle the challenges of an unfamiliar environment. Whilst I was careful to avoid a ‘white saviour’ narrative when recounting my trip, I now recognise a theme of choosing to survive hardship, which may provide a degree of social currency. Zakaria (2014) states ‘If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, a story of a deliberate embrace of poverty signals superiority of character.’ However Scott (2016) argues any motivations other than altruism are not entirely bad as long as the project actually serves to address the host communities’ long-term needs in a responsible manner.

Some of the strongest critiques of voluntourism suggest some projects may be unsustainable. There have been projects where long-term planning has not been considered, for example schools have been built with no remaining funds to employ teachers (Elliott, 2013). There have even been suggestions that voluntourism may cause additional problems, such as medical programs discouraging families from investing in health (Caton and Santos, 2009). Evidence has also shown that the popularity of orphanage voluntourism may be encouraging a race to the bottom for care conditions (Richter and Norman, 2010). Such criticisms are specific to individual programs; when considering my placement it did appear to be sustainable, we elected to teach grammar, a subject the Nepali teacher himself struggled with. The teacher replicated our lesson plans meaning he will hopefully be able to build on our lessons without being dependent on volunteers. Speaking English benefits the children as all of their textbooks are in English, so it aids their overall education and also provides opportunities for employment, especially considering HELP runs a scholarship program. However, perhaps a key issue was the lack of demand for the English language skill in the villages, and although the charity recognised its benefits it is possible that the villagers were not aware of its value and so were less invested in the project. This was reflected in a lack of motivation by some teachers and children (Banerjee and Duflo, 2011).

In conclusion, voluntourism presents a number of problems but also has the capacity to effect positive change, the value of voluntourism, depends on each specific program and its own sustainability. I believe the project I participated in was largely sustainable and I attempted not to enact any cultural misunderstandings however there were a few issues concerning the selection of volunteers and efficiency of the program.


Banerjee, A. and Duflo, E. (2011). Poor economics. New York: PublicAffairs.

Brown, J. (2014). Voluntourism is a ‘waste of time and money’ – and gappers are better off working in Britain. The Independent. [online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/voluntourism-is-a-waste-of-time-and-money-and-gappers-are-better-off-working-in-britain-9816837.html [Accessed 13 Aug. 2016].

Caton, K. and Santos, C. (2009). Images of the Other: Selling Study Abroad in a Postcolonial World. Journal of Travel Research, 48(2), pp.191-204.

Dasgupta, S. and Kascak, L. (2014). #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism. Sociological Images. [online] Available at: https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2014/12/29/instragrammingafrica-the-narcissism-of-global-voluntourism/ [Accessed 14 Aug. 2016].

Elliott, D. (2013). Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations. Conde Nast Traveler. [online] Available at: http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2013-01-15/volunteer-vacations-rewards-risks [Accessed 13 Aug. 2016].

Guttentag, D. (2009). The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism. International Journal of Tourism Research, 11(6), pp.537-551.

Hartman, E., Paris, C. and Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair Trade Learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism and Hospitality Research, 14(1-2), pp.108-116.

Kleinman, A., and Kleinman, J. (1996). The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times. Daedalus, 125(1), 1-23.

Mohamud, O. (2013). Beware the ‘voluntourists’ doing good. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/13/beware-voluntourists-doing-good [Accessed 13 Aug. 2016].

Richter, L. and Norman, A. (2010). AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care. Vulnerable Children and Youth Studies, 5(3), pp.217-229.

Scott, A. (2016). Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask. Uncornered Market. [online] Available at: http://uncorneredmarket.com/volunteering-voluntourism-good-bad-and-questions-to-ask/ [Accessed 13 Aug. 2016].

Tomazos, K. and Butler, R. (2012). Volunteer tourists in the field: A question of balance?.Tourism Management, 33(1), pp.177-187.

Zakaria, R. (2014). The white tourist’s burden. Al Jazeera America. [online] Available at: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/4/volunter-tourismwhitevoluntouristsafricaaidsorphans.html [Accessed 14 Aug. 2016].


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A Brief Discussion on a Recent Landfalling Typhoon in Southern China

by Brett Chung

In early August this summer, the seven million residents in Hong Kong kept their fingers crossed as they were warned of a possible direct hit by a fast approaching typhoon. As a passionate weather watcher who began closely monitoring typhoons since the age of nine, I was on full alert, hectically surfing the websites of leading international agencies for their latest forecasts. Apart from reading and analysing data to formulate predictions of Typhoon Nida’s strength and moving path, I exchanged views with my storm-chaser friends. After four days of swirling in the sea, Nida nudged to the north just prior to landfall and spared Hong Kong the worst of its onslaught. Despite the near miss of the storm, frequent gales and squally showers ripped through the city. Fortunately Nida left behind minor damages with only 12 people injured.

Hong Kong is a small dot along the vast East Asian coastline. Still, on average six tropical cyclones affect the city every year. At least one brings gale-force winds (63-87 km/h), strong enough to break branches and veer cars. When this is forecast, the local Observatory issues the Number 8 Warning Signal, under which school, work and most commercial activities are suspended. ‘Hurricane’, the strongest winds, are rarely recorded, as they are only brought by ‘typhoons’ giving direct hit to the city. Typhoons are the highest category of a tropical cyclone in the western Pacific (equivalent to ‘hurricanes’ in the Atlantic), with winds of 118 km/h or above. Because of their widespread impacts to society, approaching storms often attract popular attention from the social media.

All year round, thunderstorms spawn over the tropical Pacific Ocean, travelling generally westward under the steering flow of the subtropical high. As environmental conditions become more favourable for development, some gain organisation and strengthen into tropical cyclones. These are intense areas of low pressure capable of producing strong winds, torrential rain and storm surges. They take energy from the latent heat released by rising moist air as a result of conditional instability in the atmosphere. Their characteristic form of rotation which resembles a large spinning disk results from the earth’s Coriolis force. The most powerful cyclones can reach sustained winds of over 260 km/h with central pressure below 900 hPa. Peak season for typhoon activity runs from July to October, when the ocean waters are the warmest.

Since World War Two, Hong Kong has witnessed 14 occurrences necessitating the issuance of the Number 10 Hurricane Signal, the highest in the warning system. Quite a number of them caused serious loss of human lives and property. In 1962, Typhoon Wanda swept ashore with ferocious winds and a catastrophic storm surge. A record gust of 284 km/h was observed at a mountain station by the harbour. It destroyed dozens of coastal villages, leaving 183 people dead and 108 missing. Nine years later, another violent typhoon, ‘Rose’, struck again. This storm was notorious for sinking the ‘Fat Shan’ ferry, causing 88 deaths alone. Historic documents have revealed that typhoons from even earlier times were much worse. Two typhoons in 1906 and 1937 each killed more than 10,000 people in the then British colony where a large portion of the population were living in primitive shelters.  Among other things, the lack of accurate and timely warnings for evacuation were to be blamed. Gone were the days of severe typhoon destruction. Now that Hong Kong has become one of the world’s most modern cities, the impact of typhoons on this densely populated place weakens substantially.

That said, if Nida had taken a slightly different track this summer, the scale of damage caused by the wind and flooding could be much greater in light of past experience. Of the 14 typhoons requiring the Number 10 Hurricane Signal, twelve passed to the southwest or directly over the Hong Kong Observatory. There are three main factors to explain this. Firstly, tropical cyclones in the Northern Hemisphere spin in an anticlockwise direction. As they travel westward under the background flow of the atmosphere, the translational motion of the storm is superimposed onto the cyclonic spin, thereby enhancing the winds in the right semicircle (known as the ‘dangerous semicircle’ to sailors). Hong Kong is located on the southern coast of China, facing the South China Sea. The geographic location of Hong Kong means that northerly winds are weaker than southerlies because of the frictional effect of landmass. Offshore winds are further reduced by the east-west oriented mountain axis just north of the city’s metropolitan area. Therefore, typhoons passing to the southwest of Hong Kong bring southeasterly winds, and are generally stronger than the northwesterlies caused by a passage to the north for similar distances. In addition, a typhoon that chooses a path to the south stays over open waters which allows strengthening to occur; in contrast the alternative route to the north always implies weakening due to prior landfall. Furthermore, southerly winds are onshore winds, and thus produce significant storm surges.

Typhoon Nida’s closest point of approach was about 40 km to the north of Hong Kong. Hence a 50-60 km track shift to the south would have brought southerly winds while the storm might be strengthening at sea. This scenario seemed likely since some computer models had been suggesting this track only a few days before the typhoon reached land, and after all tiny changes in the atmospheric setting could have resulted in considerable deviations in the official forecast. If hurricane-force winds did prevail, the issuance of the Number 10 warning signal should be necessary.

In this part of the world, typhoons have been and will continue to be a recurring natural hazard. Scientists have predicted that under the current trend of global warming, higher sea surface temperatures can result in the formation of more intense tropical cyclones. Together with rising sea levels, this poses a significant threat to coastal cities. Less developed countries will be hardest hit, as they lack the technology and infrastructure to withstand severe storms. In November 2013, Super Typhoon Haiyan, packing winds of over 300 km/h, struck the Philippines at peak intensity. It was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded worldwide. Complete towns and villages were devastated with more than 7,000 people confirmed dead or missing. This terrible tragedy reminds us of the destructive power of tropical cyclones and the importance of further scientific research to improve long-term hazard forecast and management.

Nida radarThe large, distinct eye of Typhoon Nida was clearly visible on the Observatory’s radar imagery.

Nida trackHong Kong adverted a direct hit from Nida as it tracked to the east of the city.

Nida windStorm-force winds (88-117 km/h) were recorded offshore on Waglan Island during the passage of Typhoon Nida.

Nida pressureSelf-measured drop of air pressure at home due to the nearing of typhoon.

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Human-Elephant Companionship Informed Conservation in Sri Lanka

Caitlin Brown’s Summer Geographies:

A degree of naivety is permissible for presuming that a Buddhist society, founded and nurtured under the principles of altruism and equality amongst all creatures, would protect and conserve its elephant population. However, last year alone as many as 150 Sri Lankan elephants died due to anthropogenically induced causes (The Planet D). A relationship initially founded on respect and reverence for the animal symbolic of ‘mental strength’ has evolved into one of contention with consequent detrimental impacts to both species (Santiapillai et al., 2006). In pursuing conservation strategies, it would be advisable to recognise the historical and cultural significance of these Elephas maximus to Homo Sapiens.

In Sri Lanka, no other creature has been associated so extensively with tradition and religion. This connection extends over 5,000 years ago to when Sinhalese kings first captured and tamed the then populous wild elephant to partake in ceremonial, cultural and religious pageants as well as utilise their strength in logging operations and construction works to build the foundations of the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Such sites exhibit intricate elephant carvings in many forms, attesting to the close association between man and elephant. Further evidence of human-elephant companionship is depicted in the tens of thousands of artificial ‘tanks’ for irrigation. Constructed during the ancient-civilisation period, the extensive deforestation of the dry zone in the North and East resulted in the creation of a hydraulic-civilisation which collapsed during the colonial period, rendering these tanks free to be occupied by thousands of elephants; eco-tourists can now pay to enter these nature reserves to view the elephants. Nowadays, the annual Buddhist festival of Perahera includes displays of over a hundred elephants, in continued recognition of this early dependency.

The ecological performance of elephants is characterised by this co-evolution with man-kind, their modern habits and characteristics bearing traces of multi-millennial geographies of captivity, taming and migration. Within the geographical discipline there has been a burgeoning request for new modes of biogeographical analysis, including a focus on life itself as a central concern, as well as the regulation of human and non-human interactions (Braun, 2007). Attention has subsequently been drawn to the emergence of animal identities in different socio-ecological contexts. Asian elephants are social and sagacious, too captive to be wild, yet too wild to be domesticated (Lorimer, 2010). This situation lends itself to issues of elephant-human co-habitation and interaction.

Ideas of non-human agency and interspecies conviviality have led researchers to identify and explore the ‘beastly places’ of human ordering (Philo and Wilbert, 2000), recognising the necessity of a shift from conflict to co-existence in an increasingly pressurised and resource-stressed world. Conviviality is a challenging ideal, as exemplified through the Sri Lankan elephant’s fragmented biogeographical habitat comprised of protected areas, orphanages and transit homes as well as spaces of private and religious captivity. Wildlife habitats are shrinking as humans continue to encroach on elephant territory, resulting in the ‘pest’ problem of elephants damaging crops and produce. The potential for wildness has been compromised by urban proximity. According to Santiapillai et al., 2006, 70% of Sri Lanka’s elephants range outside of protected areas, onto cultivated land and into contact with local farmers. Asian elephant populations have consequently declined in excess of 50% over the last three generations, leading to them being listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (Born Free Foundation). Differences between elephant and human populations need to be mediated in order to facilitate co-existence within places of fraught and antagonistic local histories.

As elephants and humans come into increased contact, the archaic distinction between Nature and society as dualistically defined terms is fast coming to an end (Castree, 2005). Haraway (2008) acknowledged the relevance of ‘companion species’ and the historic and contemporary processes of companionship through which humans and animals learn to be affected by one another. Current regimes of companionship are characterised by claustrophobic and lethal relationships in which neither elephant nor human is able to flourish. This ethological ‘entanglement’ needs to be reflected in present and future conservation efforts if the diminishing elephant populations are to revive and flourish. Ongoing efforts to find hospitable modes of human-elephant companionship thus rely on the development of environmental knowledge as a multi-faceted, subjective and varied model whereby contests are recognised and not simplified, where Nature and Society cannot be divided, but are intrinsically interwoven and where ethology is accounted for in the methodology.

In conclusion, in recognition of the human-elephant companionship existing in Sri Lanka, as historically evidenced, it is argued that a biogeographical, ethological approach is key to conservation strategies, permitting a study at all possible scales of analysis of the distribution of life across space and how such a pattern has developed and changed over time. This would circumvent the binaries and dualisms characteristic of such wild-domestic debates, promoting interest in animal welfare as connected to, and not isolated from, humans. Like many other ecologies in the Anthropocene, elephants are not representative of a pure Nature but are hybrid and responsive to humans. Spaces that are not solely occupied by humans therefore need to be designed to accommodate such inter-species interaction. Sharp increases in the incidence of human-elephant conflict have demonstrated the inadequacies of contemporary land management, illustrating the desire for a new approach to land-use planning that departs from the binary spatial logic of orthodox protected areas. Instead of confining elephants to protected regions, ‘dynamic reserves’ are proposed by Bengstsson et al., 2003 that adhere to the lively migration routes of these animals beyond their current boundaries. Such an approach would account for the sagacious characters of elephants, and the historical pre-existing companion style relationship between humans and elephants.

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Nepal Summer Work

The next installment in the Second Years’ Summer Geographies Series:

Olivia Bertram writes for us on Nepal:Olivia's photo

‘Poverty’ is highly contested and not easily defined. Observing the Global South measurements for absolute poverty are often used; they determine an individual, on the basis of stated levels of income or nutrition, to be in deficit of the basic standard of living considered necessary to survive (Gregory, 2009). For wealthy nation-states, often those of the Global North, poverty is instead measured as a relative term, a cultural construction based upon the lacking of goods that would be considered a ‘normal’ standard of living. However, what became apparent during my time spent teaching in the himalayan village of Tartong, Nepal was that both of these measures which rely upon the material aspects of poverty but tended to exclude the nonmaterial dimensions were overlooking just how the idea of ‘being poor’ affected those labelled as such (Sen, 2000). Sen argues that the exclusion of the poor from opportunities in society is a key manifestation of their poverty and it must be recognised. Most importantly in this case is Sen’s argument that this social exclusion is ‘both a case and a consequence of poverty’ (ibid).

President Barack Obama observed in his memoirs of his childhood and early adult life that, “People come back [to Kenya] … and tell them, ‘You are poor.’ So now we have this idea of poverty. We didn’t have this idea before.” He later remarks, “perhaps the idea of poverty had been imported to this place, a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles, by me, by [other well travelled family members]. To say that poverty was just an idea wasn’t to say that it wasn’t real” (Obama, 2004). The knowledge of what others have, in both material and immaterial (eg. education) terms, makes it clear what one does and does not have themselves. The concept of ‘poverty importation’ relates to Sen’s (2000) emphasis on the nonmaterial aspects of poverty and the idea that one can feel poor, or feel wealthy purely on the basis of immediate comparison to what they know rather than on a scale of absolute measurement. It is a subjective scale on the basis of the extent of knowledge and awareness one has about the world around them, in effect how connected one is to the forces of globalisation and the population density in which one lives.

“We’re not poor, people in Africa are poor, they’re starving” – Pemba Hyolmo, 31.

The people of Tartong occupied a middle ground in this sense. They live a rural life, in isolation, 8000ft above sea level at the top of a mountain, accessible only through often impassable tracks and unnavigable rivers, forever vulnerable to the unpredictable will of nature and their climate. It is a hostile environment largely removed from the common reaches of globalisation such as regular tourism, multiculturalism, daily television and media and higher level schooling. As such, in many ways the people of Tartong lack connections with the rest of the world. When asked, the primary school children all responded that they wished to be either a farmer or a housewife when they were old enough, a select few aspired to teach at the school. These were not children lacking in intelligence, ability or personal drive, evidenced by the 11 year old niece of our host, Pemba, who climbed up and down the mountain alone for 4+ hours, 6 days a week, just to reach a good school and to learn English to a standard acceptable in the United Kingdom. These were children that knew of no different, the vast majority had never left the small collection of nearby villages, lots did not even speak Nepali, only a mixture of local dialects. In their community there were no other jobs available, and they knew very little of other places, even Kathmandu, only a 3 hour car journey away. In this sense they suffered not from a poverty of ambition but a poverty of knowledge and opportunity, they could not aspire to more if they did not know it existed.

Olivia's photo 2However, from an alternative perspective they were firmly reliant on globalisation and encountered the process continually. Some families had basic smart phones that when charged via solar power provided enough internet to access sites such as Facebook, allowing them to maintain connections throughout the word but also to use the ‘news feed’ and ‘popular’ pages as a news and information source. Through this method they contacted past volunteers, most of whom were from Denmark, Cambridge University, or Oxford University, like ourselves. Viewing the volunteers photos and posts, as well as talking to them directly whilst they were living with the family, provided great insight into a part of the world that they knew very little about. Their connectivity was not restricted to information however, they were heavily dependent on processes of material globalisation. After the earthquake in 2015, and still now, over a year later, they are firmly reliant on food and resource donations from international organisations and governments in the Global North such as US AID, UK DfID, Chinese Aid and the World Food Programme. Beans, rice, blankets, solar lamps, bedding and school tents were just some of the donations that allowed this village to continue to function after losing everything. Dependency on these supplies was not openly viewed as evidence of poverty, as dependency on local food banks is perceived to be in the UK (Paul, 2010). There, it was simply the reality of the response to an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 that killed over 8,900 people and cost upwards of $10 billion in damages. In fact, the very presence of these donations were a key personal justification for their perceived affluence compared to others in the rest of the world, “people in Africa are poor, they’re starving” the people of Tartong were well fed.

Their lack of connectivity, even to their almost immediate surroundings such as Kathmandu is a direct cause of aspects of their poverty, often the intangible dimensions such as a poverty of opportunity. However, simultaneously their connections to the rest of the world, often far from landlocked Nepal, is how they justified their relative affluence. Whilst the dominant western perspective is to count what we do not have, Pemba instead counts what he does: a large family, loving community, shelter, food, a school. He pulled up a google image search of famished infants in East and Southern Africa with swollen kwashiorkor abdomens to emphasise his relative luck and security. He may not be blind to the things and the opportunities that he lacks, but he does not consider himself ‘poor’ as a result.

To an external observer the villagers were undoubtedly suffering with great poverty, of many tangible and intangible dimensions, the fact that they did not see themselves in this way, does not mean that their poverty was any less true. There were aspects of both relative and absolute poverty and it was clear that had those individuals been given certain simple opportunities such as a quality education or basic transport their lives could be vastly different. Yet, would further openness to the rest of Nepal and the world simply “[import] the idea of poverty to this place”? (Obama, 2000), worsening their situation or could increased connectivity generate the realistic aspirations needed to progress? Pemba and his community had a wide enough view of the rest of the world to appreciate everything that he has, but perhaps a view sufficiently narrow to prevent him, and his pupils from aiming for more. Its not clear whether, as Obama (2000) argues, further openness including continued visits from foreign volunteers would only generate a sense of ‘being poor’ and lacking that traps the villagers in a psychological position of poverty, preventing them from progressing. However, from my experience of this community and its engagement with the outside world I would consider it highly possible.



Gregory, D. (2009). The dictionary of human geography. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Obama, B. (2004). Dreams from my father. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Paul, I. (2010). BBC News – Politics Show – Food banks grow after recession. [online] BBC Politics Show. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/politics_show/regions/south/8481346.stm [Accessed 4 Oct. 2016].

Sen, A. (2000). Social exclusion. Manila, Philippines: Office of Environment and Social Development, Asian Development Bank.

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Summer Geographies – Albania

Here is what Natalie Clarke got up to this summer in Albania

Albanian flagThis summer, I undertook a two-week voluntary placement teaching English in Albania with Tamam, a charity run by local youths aiming to the involvement of marginalised youth in rural communities. I spent much time talking to the Albanian volunteers; about their hopes, their aspirations and their struggles as I gained an insight into the challenges faced by young people in a post-Communist economy. Still in a state of transition from totalitarian dictatorship to liberal democracy, Albania continues to bear the legacy of the Communist regime: the collapse of the regime saw years of economic chaos, and the growth of its economy remains stunted, with little expansion in the labour market. The transition to a market economy has seen high levels of unemployment, especially among young people (King et al. 2012). Drawing on my observations and conversations with the young Albanian people I worked with this summer, I hope to provide an insight young people’s perspectives of the future and the challenges shaping young lives in the context of a post-Communist economy and a still relatively traditional society, focusing specifically on the themes of employment and migration and how this relates to young people’s sense of identity. I aim to explore these dimensions from an ethnographic perspective, discussing some of the broader patterns witnessed in post-Communist Albania and relating these to the experiences of the young people I talked to.

Walking back from our classes one day, I was thinking back that morning’s topic, ‘When I Grow Up’, and recalled the children’s answers- “muesues” (teacher); “balerinë” (ballerina); or “futbollist” (footballer). Reflecting on this, I asked Dori, the Albanian volunteer who I taught English with, ‘The children who we taught this morning, what will they be when they grow up?’ His brow furrowed, and he answered, ‘I don’t know. Waiters, barbers, work in a shop maybe, I’m not sure…” before sighing, “there is nothing for young people in Albania’. He went on to express his frustration at the lack of prospects for young people in his country, in a stagnated economy with few opportunities to achieve social mobility and convert academic credentials into secure employment. I met many people like Dori, young, bright people who were smart and hardworking, knew several languages and some who had Bachelor’s degrees, yet who remained unable to find employment to match their credentials and left many of them fearing that, in the short term at least, they would have to settle for low-status jobs such as bar work to secure some kind of income. His words carried a sense of frustration of helplessness. When discussing economic prospects for young people in Albania, and he often described the sense of feeling ‘trapped’: in Albania, in a state of unemployment, and, in another sense, trapped as he remains unable to progress to adulthood as he remains dependent on his family’s income.

The new labour market is experiencing stagnation as public sector employment declined massively during the transition period and private sector growth has been too slow to compensate (Vullnetari et al. 2011). A stagnant labour market in the new capitalist economy offers young people few opportunities to secure professional employment and thus achieve social mobility, a bleak reality many young Albanians have realised and which informs their decisions to migrate in the search of work elsewhere in Europe. Agriculture, and now increasingly tourism, remain two of the country’s main industries, neither of which, it seemed, really appealed to the young people I spoke to. Agriculture was often associated with an isolated existence in rural mountainous communities, which have experienced depopulation in post-Communist years (Mendola et al. 2016) due to increased levels of out-migration to urban areas such as Tirana as young people search for a “proper job”. The tourist industry offers only unsecure employment in the form of seasonal and part-time contracts, and thus offers little in the way of job security and prospects for career progression.

The unemployment suffered by many young people in Albania carries social consequences: unable to achieve the self-sufficiency and independency attained through employment, many I spoke to were left feeling unable to progress to adulthood in a sense, as they remained financially dependent on parents’ income (Orgocka et al. 2006). This carries implications for young people’ self-esteem and sense of identity:  my friend expressed his frustration at having to ‘ask family to support for everything’, leaving him feeling ‘like a child’. This sentiment was shared by many of the young Albanians, who often felt frustrated yet helpless in their state of unemployment. This carries serious socioeconomic implications for young people and has ‘posed a threat to youths’ transition to adult life’, undermining their chances of social and political integration (Orgocka et al. 2006). This is in part why initiatives such as Tamam are so important, particularly in rural communities, where they serve an important role not only in providing English tuition and summer activities for the rural children, but also for the volunteers, for whom the project encourages integration and involvement in the development of the community and the opportunity to mix with volunteers from England, Spain and Switzerland.

The lack of prospects in Albania inform many young people’s decision to emigrate. The collapse of the Communist regime, during which emigration from Albania was impossible, has seen migration occur on a massive scale. There have been phenomenal increases in cross-border travel for work: as of 2010, half of the resident population was living abroad, with remittances from labour migrants keeping the economy afloat (King et al. 2012). This migration has been a largely male-dominated phenomenon, with young people migrating to the neighbouring countries of Greece and Italy, due to their geographical proximity, as a strategy for acquiring short-term financial capital (Michail et al. 2016). Some of the Albanians I spoke had themselves, or had family, who had worked in Greece, performing often semi-skilled labour in the agricultural industry, picking and packing produce. Despite the highly educated level of many of the young Albanians, many had to settle for working long hours in low-status, unattractive manual positions in host countries (Hatziprokopiou, 2010). My friend told me that the work was often hard and entailed long unsociable hours, and he often associated the work with homesickness and feeling isolated, a sense compounded by the fact that he understood little Greek and so struggled both in the workplace and socially when there.

Another theme I encountered in relation to young people’s prospects was patriarchy, and how societal expectations, particularly in older generations in rural communities, continue to shape, even curb, young people’s agency and trajectories. I had noticed that the mothers of the children we taught we very young, no older than early twenties, and how some of the young girls in our classes already appeared to fulfil quite a maternal role, flip-flopping into class with a younger sibling balanced on their hip. Reflecting on this, I asked two of the male volunteers, ‘What about prospects for girls, do their families want them to work too?’ I was told that, while ‘traditional’ patriarchy in Albania has undergone significant change (Mendola et al. 2016), Albania is still a very patriarchal society, and women continue to be “oppressed”. For some, the gendered regime of patriarchy continues to curb women’s independent mobility and life trajectories- it was not even considered acceptable for a young woman to wonder the streets on her own, particularly in some of the more rural areas, accounting for some of the odd looks I and the other female volunteer got when walking to the local supermarket (King et al. 2012). Families still held very traditional expectations about women’s trajectories and women, particularly in mountainous rural communities, were often married young, with marriage perceived as the only way to secure a good future. I had asked, ‘What do girls do for a job?’ To which I got the reply, ‘You’re a pretty girl, you marry a rich man’. My friend went on to tell me, ‘I know girls who are your age, and they are married and have two children now’. He explained how women were often married young, often pressured by their families, barely out of school. While some young women I spoke took advantage of the expansion of education in Albania as a means to secure their own futures and achieve independence, a lack of employment opportunities continues to prevent them from fully achieving this by converting academic qualifications into secure employment, leaving marriage, again, as one of the few options. With patriarchy regimes of power still prevalent, I questioned how effective our classes were- the children we taught were bright and inquisitive, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder if traditional expectations and poor labour prospects would funnel them into the same path of young marriage as their mothers. While I was able to witness some of the positive impacts of the charity’s work, particularly through the opportunities it provided for local unemployed youth to become more involved in community development, I felt that, for our students to truly benefit from the opportunity of an education, fundamental changes in the underlying socio-economic conditions needed to take place.

Albania still bears the legacy of Communist rule in a stunted economy and a stagnated labour market, conditions which present significant challenges for young people’s prospects in terms of securing employment, achieving social mobility and, in many ways, progressing to adulthood. Efforts of young people to convert academic credentials into secure employment remain hindered by differential trajectories of men and women in what remains, in many ways, a traditional and patriarchal society. From my interactions with my Albanian friends, I feel that, in order for youth initiatives such as Tamam to be more effective, fundamental attitudes towards women’s roles need to be addressed as well and significant economic changes. For now, the future for young people in Albania remains bleak, and for many their only hope lies in securing work abroad.


Hatziprokopiou, P. (2010). Albanian immigrants in Thessaloniki, Greece: processes of economic and social incorporation. Journal of ethnic and migration studies. 29: (6) 1033-1057.


King, R. and Vullnetari, J.  (2012). A population on the move: migration and gender relations in Albania. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. 5: (2) 207-220.


Mendola, M., and Carletto, C. (2012). Migration and gender differences in the home labour market: Evidence from Albania. Labour Economics. 19: (6) 870-880.

Michail, D. and Christou, A. (2016) Diasporic youth identities of uncertainty and hope: second-generation Albanian experiences of transnational mobility in an era of economic crisis in Greece. Journal of Youth Studies. 19: (7) 957-972.

Orgocka, A. and Jovanovik, J. (2006). Identity exploration and commitment of Albanian youth as a function of social opportunity structure. European Psychologist. 11: (4) 268-276.

Vullnetari, J. and King, R. (2011). ‘Washing men’s feet’: gender, care and migration in Albania during and after communism. Gender, Place and Culture. 23: (2) 198-215.

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Iceland’s Unique Energy System

In October 2016, I attended a study tour of Iceland with the ELEEP group. Basing ourselves in Reykjavik – along with 60% of Iceland’s whole population – we met with several large organisations including a major fishing corperation HB Grandi, Iceland’s largest bank Landsbankinn and national power company Landsvirkjun. From each of these we heard how their corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies were developing since the financial crisis which had hit Iceland so hard, and which made the meaning of sustainable development very real for Icelandic business. We also visited a state of the art geothermal power plant owned by Reykjavik Energy and a hydropower plant which has been producing emissions free electricity since the 1950s.

Unique human and physical geography

Iceland has a small population of only 330,000 people – the equivalent iceland_mid-atlantic_ridge_fig16of Coventry, UK – but is blessed with a wealth of natural resources and a unique culture. Being at the intersection of major tectonic plates, Iceland is well known for its natural geothermal pools, and explosive geysers.

It is only in recent decades however that Iceland has begun to harness its natural energy resources. Until the start of the 20th century, Icelanders used imported coal and oil for heating and electricity generation, until the first small scale hydro power station was constructed in 1904.  It’s transition to renewable energy began early though, with 12% of its energy being provided by hydro electricity even in 1940.


Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in Iceland, and in response it has been building new hydropower and geothermal power stations.

The result of all this hydro and geothermal power is that electricity in Iceland is amongst the cheapest in the world, at only 5.5 US cents per KWh. Encouraged by the national government, energy intenlandvirkjun-clientssive industries have been attracted to the island, and we learned that 80% of the electricity supplied by Landsvirkjun is to industrial users such as ALCOA and Rio Tinto in the Aluminium industry. The result is that Iceland is now the highest consumer of electricity per capita in the world.

Iceland’s natural energy resources are helping it to recover from its devastating financial crisis in 2008. An argument could certainly be made that its volcanoes, geothermal pools and wild rivers underpin the rapid growth of the island’s tourism industry, which is now Iceland’s biggest export and growing by 20% per year. After all, the hot water in the famous Blue Lagoon is actually provided by a nearby geothermal power plant.

Looking to the future, there is significant potential for the energy industry to drive further growth, as only a fraction of the sources of renewable energy are currently being harnessed. A fellow alumni of ELEEP Ásbjörg Kristinsdóttir is currently leading a project to extend the Búrfell hydro power station by 100MW to a total of 396MW, and her company Landsvirkjun are also in the process of constructing a 90Mw geothermal power plant in Þeistareykir in the north of the country. Both will increase capacity and improve the reliability of supply to domestic and industrial users. Landsvirkjun also have plans to build Iceland’s first utility scale onshore wind farm to harness the country’s extraordinary wind resource. Something that we experienced first hand:

Landsvirkjun predict that wind power will complement its existing portfolio of hydro generation further increasing security of supply, as illustrated by this chart from it’s report on wind power:


I recently wrote a briefing note on underwater interconnectors planned to connect the UK electricity grid to its European neighbours, including the 1000km long 1MW ‘Icelink’. It was fascinating to hear the Icelandic perspective on this project from Asbjorg, who had been the Icelink project manager before working on the new extension at Búrfell. Having completed a feasibility study and economic assessment, the decision whether to go ahead with the major project now sits with members of Iceland’s parliament (pictured right). According to Ásbjörg, the decision is as much about the costs and benefits for the electricity market as it is about the symbolic connection of the isolated island to its neighbours.

Efficiency and emissions

With abundant supply of cheap, low carbon electricity, a number of participants on the study tour observed that many of the basics signs of energy efficiency were not being practiced in Reykjavik. Our apartment and the various industrial premises we visited were all lit by halogen or incandescent bulbs, and frequently overheated. For those of us working on efficiency as the first priority for tackling climate change, it was a strange cognitive adjustment to think that energy conservation was not as high a priority in Iceland where energy is cheap, clean and abundant.

However, we learned on the trip that while geothermal electricity is renewable, it is not free of greenhouse gas emissions. While 99.5% of the gas released from geothermal bore holes is water vapour, 0.4% is carbon dioxide, meaning that for every kWh of electricity produced, around 50 grams of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. This compares very favourably to coal fired power stations which produce over 1kg/kWh, but presents a challenge for Reykjavik’s ambition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. According to Reykjavik Energy however, there is some potential for capturing and re-injecting carbon dioxide into deep geothermal bore holes, and at the Hellisheidi geothermal power plant we visited on the trip the company has already started to sequester 10% of its annual CO2 emissions.


It is not surprising that Iceland is becoming an increasingly attractive place for tourists from all over the world, with its outstanding natural beauty, tectonic activity and unique brand of Scandinavian culture. Having already completed its transition to renewable electricity, it is now seeking to further exploit its natural resources to support its sustainable development. For a group of young energy professionals it was a fascinating and awe inspiring place to visit. As a UK citizen, I hope that the Icelandic parliament do decide to go ahead with Icelink, and that we become increasingly connected – by more than just electricity.

Thanks go to the ELEEP members who organised the tour, and to the Atlantic Council for subsidising the trip.

This article was originally posted on my own website which you can find at www.samuelhampton.co.uk

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