ROYAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL INSTITUTE AND THE DEPARTMENT OF AFRICA, OCEANIA AND THE AMERICAS OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

(P49)
Ecology of relations in a changing climate
Location Senate House - Woburn Room
Date and Start Time 28 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3

Convenors

  • Geremia Cometti (Collège de France) email
  • Nastassia Martin email

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Short Abstract

Through an ecology of relations approach based on ethnographical inquiries, the aim of this panel is to compare different case studies in order to analyse how indigenous societies living in extreme environments greatly affected by climate change modify or perpetuate their relations with non-humans.

Long Abstract

Climate change, as an object of study, challenges numerous Western conceptual dichotomies, in particular the one that opposes Nature to Culture. It has indeed become impossible to qualify such phenomenon in dualistic terms, as many factors overlap and add further complexity.

Climate change is not only challenging the Western world, but also the so-called "non-modern" societies that tend to conceive relations between nature and culture in terms of continuity rather than rupture. In fact, within indigenous cosmologies, non-human entities share the same status as humans. However, for many of these societies living in extreme environments such as the arctic and subarctic regions or high mountain ranges, climate change is disrupting the system of relations to such an extent that established beliefs and values are shaking. In order to deal with these relational and ecological transformations, these societies are forced to rethink their relations with non-human entities - divinities, ancestors, plants, animals and atmospheric phenomena.

Through an ecology of relations approach based on ethnographical inquiries, the aim of this panel is to compare different case studies in order to analyse how indigenous societies confronted with climate change in extreme environments modify, restore and/or perpetuate their relations with non-human entities.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Ecological metamorphosis and subarctic animism among the Gwich'in (Alaska) and the Even (Kamchatka)

Author: Nastassia Martin  email

Short Abstract

Through comparative ethnography conducted among the Gwich’in and the Even, the aim of this paper is to show how hunters from both sides of the Bering Strait reinvent and reconfigure their relations with non-humans while confronted with said ecological transformations.

Long Abstract

For many indigenous societies living in environments greatly affected by climate change, such as the Gwich'in (Alaska) and the Even (Kamchatka), uncertainties are becoming ever-more evident, frequently making the "known" land and solid ground disappear along with all kinds of certainties about "what is what", "who is who" and what is going to happen. Confronted with ecological alterations, these societies are forced to react and to rethink their relations with non-human entities to face these transformations.

Through comparative ethnography conducted among the Gwich'in and the Even, the aim of this paper is to show how hunters from both sides of the Bering Strait reinvent and reconfigure their relations with non-humans while confronted with said ecological transformations.

Live landscapes and transitive communities in subarctic Yakutia

Author: Csaba Mészáros (Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Research Centre for the Humanities)  email

Short Abstract

Sakha environmental perception refers to lakes and meadows as living beings. Based on the example of three village communities in Central Yakutia I endeavor to describe this complex society of humans and non-human being in transition in the time of global climate change and permafrost degradation.

Long Abstract

Sakha environmental perception refers to lakes and rivers as well as boreal meadows formed in thermokarst depression as living creatures, with whom human beings regularly communicate and exchange gifts. To some extent these landscape types are members of local society and are affiliated to resident kin groups. 20th century modernisation efforts imposed robust anthropogenic pressure on Yakutia's ecosystem. Not only intensive state farm agriculture introducing sprinkling irrigation, flood irrigation as well as arable farming but also nuclear experiments in some regions had a great impact on Yakutia's landscapes in the Soviet era. Global warming in the past decades has further amplified the negative effect of Soviet time planned economy.

Meadows and lakes, as living beings, have not only been exposed to economic and climatic change and permafrost soil degradation, but they have also responded to it. Moreover, as sentient beings, they communicate with each other and with resident ancestor spirits by a complex "vascular" system. Today, local people experience that lakes and meadows often react in unison to human harms in an unfriendly or even hostile way.

Based on the example of three village communities in Central Yakutia I endeavour to describe this complex society of humans and non-human landscapes being in transition.

"The World's End: Climate Change and the Disruption of Interspecific Communication among the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon"

Author: Emanuele Fabiano (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS))  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims to provide ethnographic analysis of how Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon recognize a correlation between the gradual impairment of the dialogic relationship between human and non-human and the effects of climate change.

Long Abstract

In shamanic discourse of Urarina people (Peruvian Amazon) the notion of "end of the world" doesn't describe as much an eschatological perspective in the apocalyptic sense, as rather the possibility of interruption - always reversible - of a complex communicative field based on a fragile balance defined by the constant dialogue between human and non-human.

The interruption of community activities, of social reproduction processes and, above all, violation of ritual prescriptions or abandonment of shamanic practice, make it impossible to «bring food on earth», and in humans induces the loss of the ability to learn the language by which it is possible to communicate with non-human entities. The change in the seasonal cycle of rainfall and weather events associated with it, along with changes in behaviour patterns of many animal species, are to be interpreted as unequivocal signs which attest to a fracture of the dialogue between humans and non-humans, which fertilizes the soil and makes possible the cynegetic activities. These changes, together with a new phase of oil exploitation in the region, have also led to the emergence of evil spirits frequently associated with contagious diseases and new forms of witchcraft which, unlike existing ones, find their contacts and privileged interlocutors not with the Urarina, but among the city people, engineers and bureaucrats, that is the owners of "other words"

Shaping the landscape: Relations between non-humans and riverine dwellers in changing Amazonian wetlands

Author: Emilie Stoll (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement)  email

Short Abstract

This paper aims to discuss how the relations between humans and non-humans shape the vanishing landscape of riverine peasants of the Amazonian wetlands.

Long Abstract

In Brazil, seasonal flooding of the Amazon river and then subsequent lowering of the water originate drastic changes in riverine landscapes, such as the formation of water retentions called "lakes", the opening or enclosing of water trails, the emergence and immersion of pieces of land in the form of "islands" and of sandy beaches, etc. This movement goes along with annual transformations of the previously mentioned features of the landscape: from one year to the other, lakes open or close definitely, new trails appear while others withdraw, islands are said to move around as they come along and go away, and the morphology of sandy beaches is changing as they elongate or vanish. As these transformations are correlated with the intensification of outstanding floods in recent years, they are presented by the riverine dwellers as manifestations originated by non-human beings living underneath the water. As "the real owners of dwelling places" - as they are referred to - the subaquatic "enchanted" people shape the landscape at their convenience. The changing landscape present itself then as a mirror of the evolution of intersubjective relations weaved between non-humans and their human co-dwellers.

Human-nonhuman exchanges and ecology of relations in Brazilian Amazonia

Author: Pirjo Kristiina Virtanen (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

This paper looks at the ecology of relations in indigenous Amazonia in the context of changing rainy and dry seasons. It presents a case on nonhuman and human interactions and how they reflect recent socio-political and economic changes as a source of environmental transformations among the Apurinã.

Long Abstract

This paper looks at processes of sociality with nonhuman subjectivities in the context of climate changes in the Amazon region. The changing length of rainy and dry seasons in Southwestern Amazonia have reshaped subsistence, movements, and productive activities of the Arawakan-speaking Apurinã in the Purus River, Brazil. Drawing on ethnography, this paper presents a case on the altering web of socio-cosmological exchange relations, in which the nonhuman actors such as animals, plants, and trees have contributed to Apurinã lives over many generations. Apurinã oral histories recount that certain non-human entities are shamanic ancestors who have transformed into animals. They are one of the actors in the ecology of relations, alongside the so-called master or chief spirits who also play a crucial role in social and economic production. This paper focuses on a narration of the recent death, and subsequent replacement, of a game master spirit, which has affected the ancestor spirits as well as the Apurinã. Contemporary narratives of the game master reflect changing social relations between humans and nonhumans, pointing especially to the socio-political and economic changes as a major source of environmental transformations.

Climate change and the crisis of reciprocal relations among the Q'eros (Cuzco, Peru)

Author: Geremia Cometti (Collège de France)  email

Short Abstract

Through an ecology of relations based on ethnographic researches, the aim of this paper is to show how the Q'eros of the Peruvian Andes modify their relations with non human entities while being confronted to climatic changes.

Long Abstract

The Q'eros are an indigenous group living on the oriental slope of the Cordillera Vilcanota, in the department of Cuzco. They are split into five transhumant communities spanning three 'ecological levels'. Climatic changes, especially through changes in rainfall patterns, significantly impact the agricultural productions of the Q'eros, and endanger the health and existence of their livestock.

The majority of Q'eros explain these meteorological and climatic changes through a degradation of the reciprocal relations between themselves and non-human entities, in particular their divinities, the Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apu (the mountain spirits). This interpretation tends to make the Q'eros feel guilty, particularly for thinking only of commercialising their ceremonies for the inhabitants of Cuzco and the tourists. By abandoning these ritual practices, or by undertaking them with less rigour and participation, they have, in their opinion, broken the reciprocal relations they usually maintain with their divinities. Consequently, the rain falls ever more profusely during the rainy season, and, by contrast, does not fall sufficiently during the dry season. In turn, cultivating crops and breeding animals has become ever more difficult.

Through an ecology of relation based on ethnographic researches, the aim of this paper is to show how the Q'eros modify their relations with non-humans while being confronted to climatic changes.

Ontological Discrepancies: Alternative Notions of Deforestation and Climate Change in Guatemala

Author: Stefan Permanto (School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg)  email

Short Abstract

The Q’eqchi’ Maya agrees with Western science that deforestation causes changes in weather and climate. However, the manners in which this link is articulated are nevertheless grounded in two distinct and discrepant ontologies. This paper examines alternative understandings of climate change.

Long Abstract

The Q'eqchi' Maya of Chisec in Guatemala experience first hand a number of changes in weather and climate. They complain of hotter and drier weather as well as less wind and thunder. To a large extent they claim that these changes are due to deforestation. In accordance with Western science, the Q'eqchi' Maya readily agree that deforestation causes changes in climate. There is nevertheless a striking difference as to why and how this linkage is construed, which is the main focus of this paper.

Central to Q'eqchi' cosmology stands the belief in tzuultaq'as, deified spirit beings inhabiting caves and hills throughout the Q'eqchi' region. The tzuultaq'as are owners of all things that exist upon earth and as such they control everything from animals, plants, and the weather. Therefore, humans are required to observe a morally and ritually correct behavior in order for to be allowed to hunt game, enjoy bountiful crops and good health. Deforestation is a major threat to Q'eqchi' livelihood since as they say, a hill with no trees growing on it equals a dead tzuultaq'a. If local tzuultaq'as are absent, the Q'eqchi' people say that there is no one left to care for the people. Thus, with deforestation follows the disappearance of tzuultaq'as along with game animals, the chance to enjoy bountiful harvests as well as uncontrolled and unpredictable weather and climate. Thus, while both the Q'eqchi' Maya and Western science claim that deforestation causes climate change this correlation rests on two distinct ontological realities.

Where the Masalai Roam: The Capacity of Non-Human Forms to Mediate Responses to Climate Change in Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea

Author: Michele Fulcher (Anthropologica Pty Ltd)  email

Short Abstract

Non-human entities strongly frame identity in Papua New Guinea. One such often malevolent entity is the Masalai. This paper explores whether Masalai and other sprits provide some means of mediating peoples' responses to climate change in a wet tropics environment.

Long Abstract

In Papua New Guinea, traditional knowledge and ritual provides a strong source of identity in the everyday lives of many Papua New Guineans. The Masalai are one such spirit, inhabiting places often signified by natural features such as swamps and marshes, water holes, rivers, waterfalls and creeks. They generally are thought to be malevolent. They are often linked directly to kinship structures and therefore are part of a very complex web of relations. Other spirits, often benevolent, also occupy similar features and locations and are part of this web of relationships between non-humans and humans. Rising sea levels and strong rain events, key aspects of climate change in Melanesian countries, are impacting the areas where Masalai roam and spirits live. This paper explores whether or not Masalai and other sprits provide some means of mediating peoples' responses to climate change in a wet tropics environment.

Social Capital and Adaptive Capacity in a Fijian iTaukei community: the Vanua and kinship relationships supporting and hindering environmental change responses

Author: Clare Shelton (University of East Anglia)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the impact of relationships based on exchange and kinship social obligations and on the social capital and adaptive capacity of an iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) community to respond to environmental and social change.

Long Abstract

This paper explores social capacities within an iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) village that enable self protection and collective action to avert and/or cope with environmental stressors and hazards. As any response to climate change takes place in a social context, understanding the social capital of the context is important for a fuller understanding of how people may and do respond. In this context, kinship and the relationship with the Vanua are the basis for social capital transactions. Vanua refers not only to a specific area of land and its flora and fauna, but also the people residing there and their ancestors, the social rules governing human interactions, and the relationships between people and the natural environment. These relationships are based on social norms and shared understandings of respect and reciprocity, including the relationship with the Vanua. This respect for people and land, based on communal understandings of possessions is often perceived as indicating high social capital and assumed to be positive in many modern development and climate change adaptation projects. However, these often assume a human/nature dichotomy as well as an understanding of social capital still somewhat rooted in its rational actor origins. Using data collected from an iTaukei community in Fiji's Rewa River delta this paper demonstrates that these assumptions are not appropriate for this context, where social obligations required to maintain healthy relationships with and within the Vanua can negatively impact people's ability to respond to environmental change.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.