Exploring the “world’s most dangerous city” – Medellín, Colombia

by Eliza Norris

In 1988, Medellín was branded the ‘world’s most dangerous city’ (Time 1988). Merely twenty-five years later it was heralded the leading urban centre for innovation (Urban Land Institute 2013). From a reputation of mass homicides and rampant drug trafficking to one of dynamic modernisation, Medellín’s transformation is remarkable. Whilst reminders of the devastation are visible, having visited the city over the summer it seemed somewhat detached from its horrific past. One must question how this profound metamorphosis has been achieved. One of the most discernible images of innovation I witnessed arose from mobility. Whilst exploring some of the most deprived Comunas, I was struck by the juxtaposition between the “informal”, and in some places decrepit housing, and the modern transportation infrastructure. It led me to explore the role increasing mobilities has played in the cities transformation.

As part of the city’s Integrated Urban Projects, three aerial cable-car public transport systems and a series of escalators were developed to connect the underdeveloped “informal” communities to the “formal” population along the main Metro line (Brand and Dávila 2011). Whilst the principle behind transport infrastructure providing a solution to social exclusion is clear, one must question the extent to which these schemes have truly resulted in the desired economic and social outcomes. Are developments, such as the Metro Cable pioneering and effective solutions to urban inequalities? Or are they merely highly visible interventions that only superficially convey images of modernity and inclusion (Reimerink 2018)?

Metro Cable Line K from Santa Domingo Station in Comuna 1. This is one of three cable lines reaching Medellín’s Comunas that line the valley side. Source: Eliza Norris

Ample literature exists to support the view that such developments have not increased the mobility of the urban poor and thus have not produced the desired social and economic outcomes. To quantify the precise outcomes of these transportation schemes is problematic due to a lack of available data and the infrastructure’s conjunction with other improvement projects (Brand and Dávila 2011). However, it has been suggested that in the barrios where the stations are situated, under 10% of daily trips are via the cable car systems (Brand and Dávila 2011). This failure may be attributed to the importance of context; whilst mobility is a prerequisite of contemporary society, the operation and insertion of transport routes must coincide with the local users’ temporal patterns and economic situations (Kauffman et al., 2004). Thus, it has been argued that there is a “vision dissonance” between the mobility issues as perceived by the planners and the public (Kash and Hidalgo 2014). For example, the Metro Cable has arguably failed to meet the needs of the local residents due to issues surrounding luggage restrictions, safety for women and walking distance to the nearest station. Many of these problems have meant that residents opt to continue to use pre-existing transportation schemes such as the bus, despite the potential economic and temporal benefits of the Metro Cable (Brand and Dávila 2011). The dislocation between the vision of the planners and the needs of the population is clear.

 

The Metro Cable and Escalators located in Comuna 13 are undoubtedly of enormous symbolic and political significance. Arguably, the Mayors’ motivation to produce visible and media-friendly solutions to entice international recognition and praise has led to the implementation of superficially modern and effective schemes (Reimerink 2018). These publicity-centred gains may have seen Medellín receive international accolades but are arguably not providing appropriate long-term solutions to social exclusion, nor changing the lives of the local people. As our Comuna 13 walking tour guide noted, whilst the escalators may produce a bold and visible image of innovation and opportunity, there was much resistance to their development as many of the local citizens did not see their relevance; the old stairs did not produce their most significant barriers to mobility. One must therefore question whether planners have neglected the real mobility problems in order to fulfil superficial goals of internationally recognised modernity.

 

Whilst in many ways these transport schemes have not been efficacious, this is not to say they are without merit. Both local residents with whom I conversed and research surrounding the matter concur on an important result of these products of ‘social urbanism’. They have produced a “feeling of inclusion and integration into the ‘modern’ city” (Brand and Dávila 2011:647). Whilst the Metro Cable and Escalators may not have achieved their desired usage and thus economic and social effects, they have begun to redress the view of these neighbourhoods in the eyes of the Comunas residents, Medellín inhabitants and internationally. By beginning to restore the image of the once war-torn city, it has encouraged tourists, such as myself, to venture into the previously inaccessible areas. As I was repeatedly reminded, for the local residents in the most deprived Comunas, tourists signify hope, pride and their continuing integration into the innovative and modern city. This in itself may begin to redress the contrast between prosperity and poverty, opportunity and shortcomings, and mobility and immobility in Medellin.

 

References

 

Adey, P. (2010) Mobility, Abingdon: Routledge.

Borrell, J., (1988) Colombia the Most Dangerous City. Time [online] 21 March 1988. Available at: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,967029,00.html [Accessed 28 September 2018]

 

Brand, P., Dávila, J.D., (2011) Mobility innovation at the urban margins. City. 15(6), DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2011.609007. [Accessed 28 September 2018]

 

Reimerink, L., (2018) Planners and the Pride Factor: The Case of the Electric Escalator in Medellín. Bulletin of Latin American Research. 37:2 pp. 191-205. Available at: https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:3688/doi/epdf/10.1111/blar.12665 [Accessed 25 September 2018]

Cresswell, T. (2010) Towards a politics of mobility, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 28(1), 17-31. Available at: http://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:7216/doi/pdf/10.1068/d11407 [Accessed 25 September 2018]

Kash, G. and Hidalgo, D. (2014) The Promise and Challenges of Integrating Public Transportation in Bogotá, Colombia. Public Transport 6: 107–135. DOI: 10.1007/s12469-013-0083-7 [Accessed 28 September 2018]

 

Kaufmann, V., Bergman, M. and Joye, D. (2004) Motility: mobility as capital, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(4), pp. 745–756. DOI:  10.1111/j.0309-1317.2004.00549.x [Accessed 28 September 2018]

 

Ohnmacht, T., Maksim, H. and Bergman, M.M. (Eds.) (2009) Mobilities and Inequality. Farnham: Ashgate.

Schwanen, T. (2017) Mobilities and Networks. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford [unpublished] 8th January 2017

Sheller, M., Urry, J. (2006) The new mobilities paradigm. Environment and Planning A38(2), 207-226. DOI: 10.1068/a37268. [Accessed 27 September 2018]

 

Starkey, M., (2013) Medellín Voted City of the Year. Urban Land Institute [online] 1 March 2013. Available at: https://americas.uli.org/urban-land-magazine/medellin-named-most-innovative-city/ [Accessed 27 Sepetember 2018]

 

Following a project of ‘social urbanism’, Mayors Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007) and Alonson Salazar (2008-2011) have injected vast financial investments into the poorer, or “informal” communities, that line the hillsides of the Aburrá Valley (Reimerink 2018). One of the most recognised outcomes of these investments are the Metro Cable and the Escalators of Comuna 13. The primary aim is to diminish the socio-spatial exclusion between prosperity and poverty. Such strategies fall in line with increasing literature in the social sciences proclaiming a ‘mobilities turn’ (Schwanen 2017). As it is increasingly acknowledged that mobilities must be treated as ubiquitous, the inherent hierarchy to mobility must also be recognised (Adey 2010; Cresswell 2010; Ohnmacht et al., 2009). Mobility is socially and spatially uneven and is producing and produced by social relations and power (Cresswell 2010). Those people and places in the fast lanes have a clear advantage (Sheller and Urry 2006). Therefore, one could argue that by expanding the mobilities of the urban poor in Medellín, one increases their motility; that is their ability to relocate both socially and geographically and thus diminish social and economic exclusion (Ohnmacht et al., 2009).

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Summer Geographies winning assignment

For second year geographers returning to College in October, we ran a competition. Their brief was to submit a short piece of work in a style of their choice which presented something they did over the summer through a geographical lens. Over the next few weeks all entries will be uploaded here and to begin, here is the winning entry to listen to from Olivia Leigh about a trip to Scotland:

Well done Olivia!

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Welcome new geographers

Some useful links to other sites as you settle in:

Keble College Library:

Oxford University Health and Welfare Services

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Exam successes

Some of the Finalists during our last meal together in June

Congratulations to all our geographers who sat exams in May and June. They secured an excellent set of results across Prelims and Final Honours with a number of Firsts, Distinctions and a 2nd prize in the national Undergraduate Dissertation prize awarded to Caitlin Brown by the Food Geographies Working Group for her excellent research project entitled ‘Wonky Veg and Liquid Politics: a contestatory commerce?’

 

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It’s that time of year again…. BMW MINI Plant tour

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Geography 2nd Yr Human Geography Fieldvisit…

With rows and rows of mortar boards on the wall behind Amy, Aisling, Hannah and Emma, this location was not quite the homogeneous place that some hyper-globalists would have us believe…

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Unnatural Nature Up Mount Snowdon, Snowdonia National Park

Thank you to Emma Carter for her insights on Mount Snowdon:

For a significant period of time, I have been wanting to summit Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. After proposing this to my mother at the beginning of this summer, we decided to book a hostel room and attempt the walk, which is hardly challenging for experienced walkers and takes around 5 hours to ascend and descend. My family enthusiastically seeks naturally beautiful landscapes, which exist in abundance in rural Wales; I also sought the sense of achievement which reaching the top of a mountain brings, and ideally the stunning views which were sure to accompany this. However, thinking deeper into geographical understandings of how nature and landscapes are interpreted, I have come to realise that perhaps my experience of Snowdon cannot simply be boiled down to one of beauty.

Source: http://gwynant.com/activities/walks/

My walking party chose the manageable Snowdon Ranger path, which coincides with the popular Llanberis path shortly prior to reaching the summit at 1,085m. Despite a reasonably quiet walk up, in which our encounters with other walkers were only occasional, on joining the Llanberis path this changed drastically. The summit of Snowdon was very busy, a fact that was only augmented by a horde of runners competing in an international hill running race that day. My search for undisturbed and beautiful nature had been interrupted by excessive human presence, which begs the question: is nature really natural?

In common conceptions of nature, a false dichotomy can be observed between nature and society, such that nature is pristine, God-given and unmarred, the raw material exploited by ‘society’ for the purposes of production (Smith, 2010 in Apostolopoulou, 2016). Nature is therefore defined by a dualism which is inapplicable to reality, as my visit to Snowdon suggests: seeking ‘nature’ as a wild, untouched entity is impossible. We expect that nature is grounded in a divided geography, islands of ‘natural’ space surrounded by less ‘natural’ urban or inhabited areas, but inevitably nature and society are inextricably intertwined. Nature has been defined by its distance from humans, and humans therefore seek wilderness – yet this presents a paradox, because any space in which humans are present fails to conform to what we would label ‘natural’. This was evident in the extreme up Snowdon, where the presence of other walkers rendered the scenery ‘unnatural’.

Source: Emma Carter

This is a notion much discussed among Marxist geographers, who have investigated and developed Marx’s ideas about the concept of nature writing from the middle of the 19th century. According to Smith (2010 in Apostolopoulou, 2016), Marx suggested that virtually no nature existed any longer which predated human history; simply put, we almost can’t find any piece of nature that hasn’t been influenced by humans. This could be labelled the ‘Anthropocene’, yet this in itself is a problematic term – ‘anthropos’ implies that humans are against the great forces of nature, reinforcing the Cartesian dualism characterising human relations with nature (Moore, 2014 in Apostolopoulou, 2016). Even the way we address discussions of nature with humans as a central role, for example within debate around contemporary environmental issues or designating Sites of Special Scientific Interest, suggests that nature cannot coexist with society and retain its ‘naturalness’.

Furthermore, our conceptions of nature and landscape tend to be limited to outside spaces – yet time spent playing board games in the hostel and looking down the spectacular Pen-y-pass was an equal part of the experience of nature in Snowdonia, as this created a locale in which the mountain was experienced. The ways in which humans experience the landscape are varied: it can even be through representations of the landscape, for example through the maps and pictures lining the walls of the youth hostel. The debate arises as to which provides the most complete picture of the landscape – these maps, including the one pictured, exclude certain aspects of the landscape such as the people who may be encountered on the paths, and how busy they are.

Spinney (2006) argues for a phenomenological approach to landscape, where it is experienced pre-cognitively through the senses – the body and the landscape are intertwined through movements, urges, emotions, or routines. Motility is of utmost importance here due to the body’s capabilities to access a new layer of meaning from the landscape through the senses such as temperature monitoring, vision, and kinaesthesia (Spinney, 2006). Kinaesthesia was particularly important when ascending Snowdon, due to the thick cloud clinging to the mountainside – like Ingold (2000, in Spinney, 2006), I felt rather than saw the contours of the landscape due to the muscle burn of ascending and the shifting of scree beneath by boots.

Overall, looking at my experience of Snowdon through a geographical lens demonstrates how concepts within the discipline of human geography are endlessly applicable even in a setting which many would initially not associate with humans – the wilderness of Snowdon is not, in fact, wild at all, but permeated with human relations.

References

Apostolopoulou, E., (2016) Nature. [Lecture to BA Geography Year 1]. Oxford University, 30th November 2016.

 Llyn Gwynant Campsite (2017). Walking. [online] Available at: http://gwynant.com/activities/walks/ (Accessed: 1st October 2017).

Spinney, J. (2006) A place of sense: a kinaesthetic ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 24, 709-732.

 

 

 

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Stoke Potters

Summer Geographies: Stoke Potters by Mason Gain

One day over the summer vacation I visited the Emma Bridgewater ceramics factory for a tour, which was originally intended to please my grandmother, a lover of the brand. However, upon arrival in Stoke-on-Trent it was striking how the pottery industry was so overwhelming, so much so that the nickname of the local football club has become “The Potters”. This began to make me think about how this could have occurred, which drove me to want to better understand how one single city has developed such growth in one industry that has led to the city itself being represented by such a nickname. After founding the company in Oxfordshire in 1985 Emma was later told that if her wish was to scale the business to a greater proportion and mass produce, then the only way this would be achievable was if she were to move to Stoke-on-Trent and set up production there. So, what is it about the city of Stoke-on-Trent that has made it such an ideal place to set up and succeed with ceramics production, and does this look set to continue into the future?

Located in the North of the county of Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent has historically had an ideal geographical location for the expansion of the pottery industry. Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent dates back to the 17th Century (Birks, 2008), due to the abundance of clay, salt (used for glazing) and coal (used in the kilns). Therefore, at first glance the city seems a perfect geographical location for the production of pottery. Not only was the geographical location ideal, but the socio-economic conditions were a great fit with the low wages and living costs of the local population meaning that it was very cheap to produce here for the industry owners (Visit Stoke, 2017).

In the mid-18th Century the red-burning clays that originate from nearby Stoke-on-Trent in fact became out of fashion against the preferred white-burning clays meaning that in the mid-18th Century ‘The Potters’ had to seek an alternative solution so that they were not destroyed by competitors. With cheap production costs and a city population of which half were skilled craftspeople in the industry, it was not a viable solution to move the industry to a location where geographical conditions were more suitable to sourcing white-burning clay. Instead, transporting raw materials from Devon and Dorset to Stoke-on-Trent seemed to be the best response to this problem (Visit Stoke, 2017). After a period of around 30 years of transporting the clay, the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 meant that transportation was made cheaper and easier than ever before (Wikipedia, 2017; Visit Stoke, 2017). This led to the industry thriving more than ever before, with raw materials and finished products being able to be transported easier and more cost-efficiently, whilst fuel was still sourced locally.

However, this does not exactly hold true today. With the closure of many mines and factories in the recent decades due to foreign competition, ‘The Potters’ are not as strong as they used to be in the industry. Since 1970 there has been approximately 170 factories closing, leaving only 30 left today along with approximately 20,000 jobs being lost between 1998 and 2008 (Nicholls, 2011). Nicholls (2011) highlights that the foreign competition has been very harsh to many manufacturers, as manufacturing processes remain the same as they always have, which means that it is difficult for the industry in Stoke-on-Trent to compete with the relaxed regulations and lower production costs of their foreign competitors. This has meant that the industry in Stoke-on-Trent is now made up of only high-end producers who thrive more upon the quality of their produce and the reputation of their brand as it is impossible for them to compete on price. Therefore, Emma Bridgewater, who entered the industry in 1985 fought against all odds in what was a declining industry at the time of their founding. They have built a reputable brand that has been able to stand out against cheaper foreign goods.

In conclusion, the city of Stoke-on-Trent has historically been an ideal geographical location for the manufacturing of ceramics due to the raw materials present in the local surroundings as well as efficient transport mechanisms with the canal system, which has made for success in the city. However, in more modern times as the industry has faced difficult competition, the geographical location no longer benefits the industry but instead success in the city has depended on reputable brands and top-quality produce.

Birks, S. 2008. Stoke-on-Trent the world’s largest and most famous pottery producing city… [online] Available at: http://www.thepotteries.org/sot/five.htm [Accessed 3 October 2017]

Nicholls, D. 2011. All fired up: the future of pottery. [online] Available at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/interiors/8281433/All-fired-up-the-future-of-pottery.html> [Accessed 3 October 2017]

Visit Stoke, 2017. 18th Century Ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent. [online] Available at: http://www.visitstoke.co.uk/ceramics-trail/history-18century.aspx [Accessed 3 October 2017]

Wikipedia, 2017. Stoke-on-Trent. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoke-on-Trent. [Accessed 3 October 2017]

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Mountain Gorillas at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

For her Summer Geographies project, Aisling Taylor produced an excellent report on mountain gorillas in Uganda. Watch her short documentary here.

Well done Aisling – we loved the creativity of your submission.

Displaying thumbnail of video Aisling Taylor Summer Work.mov

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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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