Migrants and miners: gender, age and precarious labour in a Tajik resource extractive landscape

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Negar Elodie Behzadi.

Migration is both gendered and aged. It is also deeply tied to the emergence of new extractive landscapes around the world, marked by extractive frontiers pushing into already stressed and fragile environments.  The story of the village of Kante in Tajikistan, of its male migrants and its coal miners – men, women and children – illustrates the ways in which multiple forms of precarious labour appear alongside these new landscapes.

The village of Kante, Tajikistan, 2014

In Tajikistan, a landlocked country in post-Soviet Muslim Central Asia, men started migrating seasonally for work following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Kante, a village of 1,500 inhabitants on the slopes of the Fann Mountains, 2,000m above sea level, the men gradually began leaving a derelict landscape and a run-down collective tobacco farm. Like most Tajik male seasonal migrants, they left for Russia to find new livelihoods and to escape a country torn by civil war. During the seven years of conflict, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, men who did not fight travelled as far as the Kamchatka peninsula in search of work. Some Kantegui mountaineers became fishermen. Others went to Moscow, Sverlovsk, Irskuk and other big Russian cities to do ‘mardikor’ (the work of men) on construction sites.

Young boys coming back from the mines with coal bags on donkeys, 2014

When the war ended, some men came back to Kante, only to find destroyed infrastructure, abandoned fields and an uncertain future. So most returned to Russia. In Kante, as in the rest of Tajikistan, migration became a way of life and a rite of passage – every real man in Tajikistan has migrated, provided for his family back home, drunk alcohol in overcrowded compounds, travelled illegally through borders. Some have slept with Russian women, fallen in love, even taken a second Russian wife, leaving a Tajik wife back home (Behzadi, 2019). Life has also changed for those referred to as ‘the left-behind’. Women, children and the elderly live without husbands, fathers or sons for most of the year. Men become absences, photos, voices down the phone, heroic stories, the amount of remittances arriving at the Western Union in the local town.

Unlike villages in the rest of the country, however, Kantegui men have an alternative to migration. The village lies on one of the largest coal reserves in the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, families started digging up the mountain with pickaxes to extract coal, using donkeys to haul their load. At first, families extracted the coal for subsistence, but later they started selling it on a growing informal market. This coincided with a broader turn to coal as a major source of energy across the country. Following Uzbek/Tajik resource conflicts, Uzbekistan shut off the pipeline providing Tajikistan with gas in 2012/13, leading to a new Tajikistani coal development strategy (Behzadi, 2019). The same year, a formal Sino-Tajik mine was established in the village, which blew up the Southern slope of the mountain with dynamite. The rolling stones and big machinery crushed some of the donkeys of the informal miners and damaged their houses. The company brought in engineers and managers from China and pushed informal miners away.

Map of informal and formal mining areas in Kante, 2018

In 2014, around 300 men from Kante and neighbouring villages worked in the formal Sino-Tajik mine. Most Kantegui miners in the ‘Chinese’ mine were men who had retired from migration, tired of the back and forth between Russia and the village. In their 30s and 40s, these men had nothing to prove anymore – they were the ‘djahon didir’ (those who have seen the world) who had come back to a quieter life (Behzadi, 2019). But the formal mine does not offer jobs to all. Those who do not work for the Chinese carry on splitting their year between labour migration to Russia in spring and summer and informal coal mining in autumn and winter. In 2014, around 500 men were working in the informal mines. The hardship of their labour and the simplicity of their tools contrasted with the relative ease of labour in the Chinese mine. Although less arduous, however, work for the Chinese project is a mixed blessing: precarious contracts, unpaid salaries and difficult relationships with Chinese managers take their toll in other ways. And the trade-off is significant: men who accept work for the Chinese mine know it is threatening the very existence of their village. The Chinese are ‘taking all our coal’, many villagers say, in particular the informal miners. Part of the informal mines have already been destroyed, and they fear that the whole village might follow.

Sino-Tajik mine containers in Kante, 2014

Like migration, extractive labour in mines is gendered and aged. Women and children cannot work in the Sino-Tajik mine, but they do work in informal mines. In the past decade about 20 women have been going mining every day high above the village, and sometimes at night when they know they can go unseen. Some of their husbands, like Nadirah’s (a female miner in her 30s), left the country straight after their wedding and took a second wife in Russia. Now he sends only sporadic remittances. Nadirah goes mining with a friend and her daughter who is 13. Her work is considered ‘ayb’ (shameful) in the village and, as a result, Nadirah is stigmatised and excluded from social networks. But while it is considered unacceptable for women to work underground, it is tolerated for children. Most children start at the age of five, leading the donkey in and out of the coal galleries to the market while their parents extract the mineral on the coalface. ‘Coal,’ says Gulnissar, a mother of a 10-year-old child coal miner, ‘there is only coal in children’s heads today.’

Male seasonal labour migration, the ‘shameful’ work of female miners and the spread of child mining comprise a few of the many precarious forms of labour that emerge in new extractive landscapes around the world. The story of Kante illustrates the fragmentation of societies along gendered and aged lines that occurs in such extractive landscapes. These new extractive frontiers also often emerge in places that are already socio-ecologically stressed, such as in the countries that emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Negar Elodie Behzadi is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. She is a feminist political geographer and political ecologist who explores questions of resource extraction and migration in Tajikistan and France. She has also co-directed two ethnographic films on resource extraction in Tajikistan: Komor: Journeys through the Tajik Underground and Nadirah: Coal Woman.

(All images by the author.)

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Kathryn Allinson.

Climate change will impact all our lives in the coming years and many people will experience extreme events due to climate  change resulting in displacement, both internally and across international borders. This has become the reality for some already within low-lying archipelago islands within the South Pacific, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. Despite the certainty of increased climate change-related displacement, there is still no specific frameworks which protect those moving for climate related reasons (see a detailed discussion here).

The site of the village of Tebunginako, Kiribati – relocated due to severe coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion (image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

Are people displaced by climate change refugees?

Under Article 1(A) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, climate-related displacement does not constitute grounds for international protection. I will take the essential elements of Article 1(A) in turn. First, a refugee must have crossed an international border, whereas climate-related displacement is expected to be predominantly internal.

Second, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution requires an egregious violation of human rights, which is assessed in light of the nature of the right and the severity of the violation (see here for further discussion). It also requires that the fear of persecution must be well-founded – this does not require certainty – but it must not be far-fetched and should be based upon both an objective assessment of the likelihood of persecution and the subjective nature of the individual’s fear (see Chan v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1989). Climate change is unlikely to fulfil this requirement despite the detriment it can have on an individual’s access to human rights. It is unlikely to meet the severity threshold even in relation to socio-economic rights and, as McAdam (2016) highlights, it is difficult to identify a ‘persecutor’ that the refugee fears; instead, many refugees are likely to be moving to states that are major greenhouse gas contributors.

Third, persecution must be related to a reason given by the Convention of ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…’ The impacts of climate change do not discriminate. Even if an individual did establish persecution based upon an egregious socio-economic rights violation caused by climate change, they would need to argue that this affected them because of their membership of one of these groups. At best, an individual could argue that a government had consciously withheld assistance to address the impacts of climate change to a specific group, amounting to persecution (see here) but the group must be connected by an immutable characteristic (Applicant A v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1997), not just the impact of the climate change.

Courts have firmly established that the Refugee Convention does not protect victims of natural disasters, slow-onset degradation, poor economic conditions or famine – even when the country of origin is unable or unwilling to provide protection (Canada (Attorney General) v Ward, 1993; Horvath v Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2001). UNHCR has echoed this in its own discussions of how to respond to climate-related displacement (see here and here).

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

A response to climate-change related displacement must therefore be sought through other international legal mechanisms. In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council recognised under resolution 10/4 that there is a ‘core inter-linkage between human rights and climate change’ such that those displaced by climate change would be able to rely on the obligations outlined in the ICCPR and the ICESCR. In particular, this would include state’s non-refoulment obligations as the cumulative effect of socio-economic harms can amount to inhumane and degrading treatment such that an individual cannot be returned to such conditions (see Sufi v Elmi, 2011). However, courts may require an immediacy to the rights violation such that future fear of climate-related impacts is insufficient grounds to provide protection from return (see AF(Kiribati), 2013).

In the specific situation of small island states whose territory is threatened by climate change, the law relating to statelessness may also be able to provide some protection and a remedy (see the 1954 Statelessness Convention; Rayfuse 2009). UNHCR has a mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness enabling them to work with states to respond, including coordinating international cooperation, providing protection and resettlement. However, issues concerning when a state will have ceased to exist under international law remains unsettled. For example, for a state to be recognised by international law, Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention requires a permanent population, territory, government and capacity to enter international relations (see Lauterpacht, 1944, and Crawford, 2007, for further discussion). However, there is a lack of clarity on when these criteria will cease to be fulfilled. The problem that international law has grappled with until now has been when new states are formed, not when existing ones have disappeared. As a result, it is unclear when protection for stateless persons of ‘disappeared’ states will be triggered.

There are also regional frameworks that provide broader protections to displaced people, beyond the narrow 1951 definition. In particular, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration both contain provisions relating to ‘events seriously disturbing public order’, which could be taken to include the events resulting from the effects of climate change. These are both non-binding instruments, whereas Article 5(4) of the Kampala Convention is within a binding instrument and explicitly includes protection for those affected by climate change:

 ‘States parties shall take measures to protect and assist persons who have been internally displaced due to natural or human made disasters, including climate change.’

This focusses protection on internally displaced individuals and ensures that signatory states are required to provides protection and assist those displaced by climate change.

The Kampala Convention is largely based upon the UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement which, under Principle 6(d), outlines that internal displacement is prohibited including in the context of disasters. The principles then provide a framework for states to respond to internal displacement, including that resulting from disasters. The extension of human rights protections to those fleeing climate change is echoed in the Global Compact on Migration, which calls for humanitarian visas for people migrating due to natural disasters and climate change (see objective 2 and 5), as well as similar commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals. Such a response to climate-change related displacement is required under the commitments of Article 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This aims to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement…’ These instruments represent moves by the international community to consolidate existing legal frameworks to respond to climate-change related displacement. However, they are not binding treaty law. They demonstrate political commitments not legal obligations. It is evident that, outside the Africa region, mechanisms for protecting individuals from climate-change related displacement are often non-binding and ad-hoc.

The future of climate-related displacement

The term ‘climate refugee’ is conceptually flawed. Such individuals will not constitute refugees for the term ignores the complex causation involved in any displacement, let alone that related to climate change, which in itself is a multi-causal phenomenon. Whilst human rights law, the law relating to statelessness and regional arrangements do provide for some protections to individuals displaced by climate change, these approaches remain disparate and uncoordinated. A lack of clarity can lead to legal loopholes that are abused by states to limit protections.

To respond to this complexity, there are calls for a separate framework for cross-border climate migrants. Commitments within the Global Compact on Migration and the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Cancun Agreement, represent attempts by the international community to start to coordinate and elucidate protection for climate-related displacement. However, much more must be done to ensure clarity on the personal, material and temporal scope of protections and obligations for climate change-related displacement.

Kathryn Allinson is a Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School. Her research concerns the establishment of state responsibility for breaches of international law focussing on the interaction of human rights and humanitarian law in relation to displacement, and the protection of socio-economic human rights during conflict.

For more on climate change and displacement see the MMB blog by Ignacio Odriozola about at a landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee on people seeking international protection due to the effects of climate change: Climate-change displacement: a step closer to human rights protection.

Eurofisch: hyper-mobility, cosmopolitanism and the European eel’s appeal

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Peter Coates

Unlike the Atlantic salmon, the snake-like European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is widely perceived as devoid of charisma. An epic reproductive journey is integral to the salmon’s appeal. But an equally spectacular migration, if in reverse, defines the European eel. The sea-dwelling salmon returns to its freshwater origins. The freshwater-inhabiting eel goes back to its oceanic birthplace. Natural distribution represents another key point of similarity and difference. The salmon spans the North Atlantic, its European breeding grounds confined to more northerly freshwaters. The European eel, with its broader temperature tolerance, populates a wider latitude. Its habitat ranges from southern Iceland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula to the southern Mediterranean – despite the name, North Africa’s rivers and lagoons contain this eel species – and, on the Atlantic coast, as far down as the Canaries. From west to east, they are distributed from the Azores to Georgia.

‘Artisanal’ dipnet fishing for elvers from the bank of the River Severn at Wainlode, Gloucestershire, on a spring evening in 2017 (Image: Environment Agency. Reproduced by permission of the Sustainable Eel Group).

The eel’s Europeanness is most vividly demonstrated by its genes. Whereas the salmon displays high genetic diversity and reproductively discrete local populations, European eels all belong to the same breeding population. This singular, panmictic identity is rooted in a shared birthplace: the West Central Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea is a melting pot where every eel of the opposite sex is a potential breeding partner. And the place the next generation calls home could be anywhere within the species’ European range. Lacking the salmon’s homing instinct, the offspring of eel parents that spent their adult lives in Norwegian and Tunisian waterbodies respectively might settle in Wales. Alternatively, this progeny could end up in Portuguese freshwaters, or wherever the currents carry the tiny larvae (leptocephali) during their up-to-three-year odyssey. The European eel is the only truly pan-European fish: a paragon of cosmopolitanism I call ‘Eurofisch’.

On reaching western Europe, leptocephali metamorphose into glass eels. Shoals of these transparent mini-eels – also known as elvers in the UK – start entering southern Europe’s estuaries in December. But in 2012, fisheries scientists reported that ‘recruitment’ had fallen by up to 95 per cent since 1970. An Extinction Rebellion event in Yeovil, Somerset, in the summer of 2019, underscored the species’ critically endangered status. Protestors dressed as eels participated in a ‘drown in’ and a ‘European eel’ addressed South Somerset District Council.

I’ve recently examined the reasons for this drastic decline; tracked the emergence of concern; considered the remedies; looked at trafficking in glass eels for East Asia’s ‘grow-out’ farms that a Plymouth University project has characterized as an ‘unnatural migration’; and reflected on the prospects of eel appeal spreading. Mobilising popular support for eels is more difficult than drumming up enthusiasm for mammals, either terrestrial and marine (for example, ‘T-shirt’ animals such as pandas, polar bears, whales and dolphins). Few who have seen the 1979 movie version of Günter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum (1959), will forget the stomach-churning scene on the Baltic beach near Danzig (Gdansk) where a fisherman hauls in a horse’s head writhing with eels that he pulls from ears, nostrils and throat.

Elvers wriggling upstream at Bradford on Tone, Somerset Levels, UK in April 2014. (Image: Andrew Kerr. Reproduced by permission of the Sustainable Eel Group).

What I’d like to convey here is the richness of Europe’s eel heritage and how Eurofisch illuminates what it means to be European. The silver eel (the final, Sargasso-ready life stage) has the highest calorific value of any European fish. A venerable and varied culture of consumption unites Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from Ireland to Italy. Since early Christianity, roast eel has been the dish customarily served at midnight on Christmas Eve in Rome and Naples. The epicentre of Italian eel gastronomy, though, is Comacchio. Since the 1300s, this town in the Po Delta has hosted a silver eel fishery based on lagoons stocked with glass eels entering from the Adriatic. Eels are skewered and roasted, marinated in barrels, then canned. La Donna del Fiume (1955) starred Sophia Loren as an impossibly glamorous worker in a Comacchio cannery that’s now a museum.

In the early 1900s, glass eels were swept up hyper-tidal estuaries such as the Severn, Loire, Gironde, Minho and Tagus in tremendous quantities: surpluses were fed to pigs, fertilised vegetable plots and made into glue. In France, glass eels were boiled and served cold (‘spaghetti with eyes’). Meanwhile, in Severn estuary villages, super-abundant elvers were fried in butter or bacon fat, scrambled with eggs, or boiled and pressed into gelatinous, fried cakes. In Victorian London’s East End, whose labouring population could not afford salmon or meat, itinerant vendors of stewed and jellied eel and the ‘eel and pie’ shop were odoriferous fixtures of the cityscape. Dutch traders were supplying London by 1400 and in the late 1600s schuyts – ships fitted with wells for live export – established a mooring near Billingsgate fish market. Squirming cargos arrived almost daily until the early 1900s; the last schuyt docked in 1938.

In Frampton-on-Severn, the Easter Monday elver eating competition was woven deeply into village life. Male contestants gobbled down a pound of fried elvers. A contest for women (only required to consume half a pound) was founded in 1973. With steeply declining numbers and sharply rising prices, the contest was cancelled in 1990. Revival followed in 2015 – with ersatz elvers known as gulas, produced in Spain’s Basque country. Dubbed ‘elvers’ locally, gulas consist of surimi, blocks of fish paste from Alaskan pollack and Pacific whiting.

In June 2019, the Sustainable Eel Group, a science-led, Europe-wide campaign organisation, marked its tenth anniversary with a two-day meeting at the Natural History Museum and a week-long eel celebration. A highlight was the arrival at ‘Dutch Mooring’ of a reconstructed schuyt, absent from London’s riverscape for over 80 years. My visit coincided with that of Pieter Hak, proprietor of the Noted Eel & Pie House, Leytonstone. Hak told the Dutch crew that his great grandfather, a schuyt captain,sent his youngest son to London to learn the eel pie business in the 1890s. After he met and married the daughter of an English eel and pie shop owner, they opened their own place in Bow in 1926. Hak gave the crew a copy of Stuart Freedman’s paean to this hallowed Cockney institution, The Englishman and the Eel (2017); Hak appears on the cover, grasping a live eel. (Note, however, that an Italian immigrant established London’s oldest surviving eel and pie shops in 1902.)

Two years after leaving the EU, this sort of fishy connection can help, in a small way, to conserve a sense of Britain’s Europeanness. Britain’s eels belong to a wider European family, biologically and culturally. Our migratory eel also has a resounding message in an age of mass trans-border movements, reminding us that where we call home is not always where we, or our parents, were born.

Peter Coates is Emeritus Professor of Environmental History at the University of Bristol. Some of the material in this post appeared in ‘Protecting Eurofisch: An Environmental History of the European Eel and its Europeanness’ in Greening Europe: Environmental Protection in the Long Twentieth Century – A Handbook (2022). Peter wrote a book on Salmon (2006) in Reaktion’s ‘Animal’ series and is currently writing a squirrel history of the UK.

For more on the European eel and its migration read the MMB blog by Michael Malay about the movement of the human and non-human in the Severn Estuary near Bristol: ‘Above the mud, the oystercatchers wheel with their sharp cries.’

Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Chris Preist and Dale Southerton.

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).

Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods. Dale Southerton is Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

Environmental racism in the borderland: the case of Calais

By Travis Van Isacker.

The hostile environment has been shorthand for the United Kingdom’s border regime since it was coined in 2012 by the then-Home Secretary, Theresa May. Originally describing a socio-political environment within the UK designed to make life impossible for people unable to prove their immigration status, it has since been extended to the country’s extraterritorialised borderlands, Calais especially. As the concept travelled, its scope was expanded to include the urban and natural environments that also work to segregate migrants, drive them from the city and frustrate their journeys to Britain.

But what makes environments hostile? Calais is not naturally an especially inhospitable place, nor is it uniformly hostile to all human life. Rather, it has been made hostile for the racialised migrants who are neglected, injured and all too often killed there as a result of the border. That this state-mandated violence occurs to sustain an unequal global distribution of mobility rights and privileges for differentially racialised people means Calais’ hostile environment might best be understood as one of environmental racism.

Aftermath of destruction at Zone du Virval, across from Calais’ hospital, to prevent re-settlement by migrants, 22 October 2021 (image: author’s own)

Environmental racism is a concept typically associated with environmental rather than mobility injustice. Recently, however, it has been expanded in ways which help to unpack the racism, border violence and destruction of migrants’ living spaces in Calais. Willie Jamaal Wright (2018) argues that destroying the environments that Black communities inhabit cannot be understood separately from racist physical violence against Black people. For him ‘environmental racism includes the mutual devaluation of Black bodies and the[ir] spaces’ and is expressed through the ‘mutual malformation of people and environments’. Wright also points out that environments are not only destroyed as a route or corollary to the elimination of racialised people but become weaponised in the violent processes that do so. Thus, we can understand environmental racism as the destruction as well as instrumentalisation of environments to enact racist violence.

Classic studies of environmental racism focus on how communities of colour in the United States are overwhelmingly targeted for dumping waste and locating polluting industries. Calais has its own examples of this. Most notable is La Lande, a former landfill lying in the shadows of the Tioxide and Graftech chemical factories that became home to ‘The Jungle’ in 2015 with the eviction of all other camps and squats in the city. La Lande was a toxic and hazardous site, scattered with harmful waste caused by years of illegal fly-tipping, and that was a designated Seveso area ‘subject to an increased risk of chemical accident hazard’ (Statewatch, 2020). The air quality was particularly bad and held a sour tang. Frequently this was punctuated by the burning of lachrymogenic gas fired by police, illustrating that life in the Jungle not only had to survive ‘slow violence’, as residents’ bodies absorbed pollutants and endured neglect, but the open assault of state agents.

French riot police tear gas a group of Jungle residents demonstrating on the motorway, 20 August 2015 (image: Calais Migrant Solidarity)

Since the Jungle’s destruction in October 2016, the camps that migrants create in and around Calais have been mercilessly evicted and destroyed every day, even during blizzards. People’s warm clothes and sleeping bags are confiscated or intentionally soiled by police and city workers in the process. Their goal, in addition to preventing camps from becoming visible or attaining any material durability, is to keep migrants exposed to the elements so they decide themselves to leave Calais and abandon their attempts to reach the UK. Calais’ meteorological conditions – the rain, wind and cold – are thus put to work perpetuating deterrent border policies by inflicting misery and enforcing hardship upon those made to live rough in the city.

Criticism from NGOs led to these destructions being rhetorically rebranded ‘cleanings’. Racialised migrants, already constructed as dirty and contaminated through a racist imaginary, are scapegoated for polluting the environments in which they live, in turn justifying the relentless attacks on their homes in the name of environmental protection. Maria Hagan (2019) writes that these operations in fact do more damage as the slashed tents and spoiled belongings are ‘left on site or thrown into puddles or ponds nearby, not only polluting the environment but making it less liveable for the displaced’. The cleaning euphemism, while intending to downplay the violence of constantly evicting and destroying migrants’ homes, in fact betrays the racism behind these operations when it becomes clear that they are intended to clean the sites of people, not their waste.

A ‘cleaning’ operation close to Calais’ Fort Nieulay, 13 January 2022 (image: Paula Saura).

Despite daily evictions, migrants continue re-establishing camps in the same locations each day. Recently the city started using a new tactic to try and prevent re-settlement: the total destruction of the natural environments in which camps are located. Especially in areas too large to be fenced off (as already so many sites in Calais have been), excavators and bulldozers raze the land, cut down trees, and mulch the shrubbery following evictions. Destroying these environments denies migrants the modicum of shelter and privacy the scrub provided, rendering them hypervisible to police and fully exposed to the elements.

Reflecting other borderlands, the cold and violent seas of the English Channel have recently become both border agent and medium of conveyance for people’s irregular journeys. For decades its hazards presented a natural barrier to crossings, but the intense securitisation of lorry parks, the Eurotunnel terminal and ferry-port over recent years has left navigating this narrow but dangerous marine passage in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels the only choice available to most. The increased exposure to hypothermia and death by drowning are not natural hazards of such journeys, but rather consequences of the racist border regime that prevents illegalised travellers from safely cruising on ferries or gliding through underwater tunnels like the rest of us.

These examples of environmental racism in Calais’ borderlands illustrate how the border harms the city’s environment while making it harmful to racialised migrants. However, the concept of environmental racism also draws attention to the social, cultural and political environment of racism through which border violence is generated and justified. Recognising racism as environmental – in the words of Christina Sharpe (2017) forming ‘the totality of our environments… the total climate’ – demands that our critiques extend beyond a focus on the hostility of borderlands to address the racist politics at their root if we are to abolish them and cultivate something new.

Travis Van Isacker is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. This year he will be joining Migration Mobilities Bristol as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the ‘Moving’ domain of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures. This post was adapted from elements of his doctoral thesis ‘Counter-mapping citizenship: bordering through domicide in Calais, France’ (2020).

What can we look forward to in 2022?

By Bridget Anderson.

January always feels like a slog. All the chores put off until ‘the New Year’ in expectation that 2022 would never come have mounted up. It’s dark and too cold/not cold enough. Summer feels it will never happen. And COVID, ugh COVID. So, instead, I’m thinking of things to look forward to in 2022.

First, there’s the launch of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures co-directed by Susan Halford and Dale Southerton. One of the domains of digital practice explored in the Centre is moving. We will be partnering with Goldsmiths and with Forensic Oceanography to research the significance of individual technologies and data analytics in shaping mobilities. We will also look at how the imaginaries, designs, uses and accessibility of digital technologies shape experiences, understandings and regulations of the movement of people and things. This is a new field for us and we’re very excited about developing it further with these fantastic new colleagues.

(Image: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash)

From future to past. There’s a great book coming out that I’ve had the privilege to get a sneak preview of. Global Labor Migration: New Directions (University of Illinois Press) edited by Julie Greene, Eileen Boris, Joo Cheong Tham and Heidi Gottfried, is now in press. It is a wide-ranging collection that looks at global labour mobility from the late 19th century to the present day. And it is truly global, looking at mobility patterns across the world, global empires, intermediaries and migrant labour’s role in anti-colonial resistance. It includes contributions from MMB’s own Katie Bales and Rutvica Andrijasevic, as well as postgraduates doing cutting-edge research. It is a fantastic range of essays that includes: the exploration of how FAIR challenged asylum seekers’ right to work on the basis that the INS has a duty to ‘protect’ US workers from the economic migrant; how assertations of national sovereignty, anti-communism and racist restrictions resulted in moving from migrant labour governance by the ILO to the foundation of the IOM; and how states, through UN mechanisms, have depoliticised migration and underdevelopment even as they have acknowledged a connection between them.

Taking these essays together we can see how the nominal equality of states, whose power, in practice, is deeply unequal, only obfuscates this inequality further – an inequality that has been hewn, resisted and fostered through human movement. Race is occluded by ‘nationality’, and racial hierarchies by hierarchies of poverty and power, but the interconnections between race, nationality and global inequalities are exposed by international migration and the intense efforts to control it. Do take a look at this edited volume when it comes out.

Those of you with an interest in history might want to check out some of the History Department seminars in the coming weeks too. Several are related to migration and mobilities including MMB member Dr Saima Nasar on ‘We Refugees? Discretionary Humanitarism and the Ugandan Asian Expulsion’; Professor Santanu Das (Oxford) on ‘Experience of Sea Voyages in the 20th Century’; and Stephen J. Brooke (York University, Toronto) on ‘Spectacle, Violence and the Ordinary: London’s Political Culture, 1981-86’. Contact the History Department for more details.

Then we have the visit of Professor Nandita Sharma to look forward to. MMB will be hosting Nandita as a Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor for one month from 21st June. Events will include a public lecture where she will discuss how, from the 1950s onward, racism was increasingly considered unacceptable in mainstream politics at the same time as state sovereignty was nearly universally nationalized. Her talk will chart this history to unpack the complexities of the relationship between ideas of race and national sovereignty. As well as her lecture we hope to hold an event in the Watershed Cinema,  and a graduate seminar.

If that feels too far in advance, we have our fireside plotting to look forward to. We will be working with the Brigstow Institute to host a series of conversations at the (de)Bordering plot in Royal Fort Gardens. These will be informal and highly interactive events – with wine! – around a fire. Given it will be outside, we are hoping these plans will not be waylaid by Omicron, though you never can tell.

And if that’s too cold for you we have a new Insights and Sounds series starting in the spring that will bring interviews on the latest in migration and mobilities thinking to you online. In this series we have very varied interviews carried out by different MMB members including our Research Challenge leads, Reading Group co-ordinator and a PhD student in the School of Education. Some of these will fit into our ongoing series on ‘New writing in migration and mobilities’, in which we feature recently published books that take a new angle on the subject through blogs, interviews and events. We are also commissioning a new blog series in partnership with the Cabot Institute on migration and climate change, which will bring together researchers working on these themes from different disciplines across Bristol.

It was very disappointing to have to cancel our Christmas party due to COVID but we will hold an event in early summer to gather everyone together in person again. Until then, enjoy our blogs, interviews and events and do let us know if you would ever like to contribute to our MMB output. Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2022!

Bridget Anderson is Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol and Professor of Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

Mobility and identity in the Patagonian Archipelago

By Paul Merchant.

Cast your eyes over a map of Chile, from top to bottom, and you’ll notice a strange development. South of Temuco, the lakes become more frequent and larger, and eventually, after Puerto Montt, the land fragments into hundreds of islands, some quite large, like Chiloé, and many that are very small. You can travel by road as far south as the town of Villa O’Higgins in the Aysén region, but beyond that, unless you cross into Argentina, a boat is the only option. In Chile’s far south, the Andes seem to gradually sink into the Southern Ocean.

This remarkable landscape (though perhaps seascape would be a more appropriate term) is home to communities whose lifestyles and methods of travel offer visions of identity and belonging beyond Chile’s current political order.

Quellon on Chiloe Island (image: Wikimedia Commons)

My research project ‘Reimagining the Pacific: Images of Ocean in Chile and Peru, c.1960 to the Present’, which is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores how cultural responses to the ocean reveal contemporary ecological challenges and neglected local histories. In Chile, the last ten years have seen increased interest on the part of documentary filmmakers in the past and present of indigenous communities in Chile’s watery south. These communities, such as the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, suffered terribly as a result of the arrival of European explorers, missionaries and colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with many dying from disease and malnutrition, and some groups disappearing entirely.

Yet not all is lost. In Patricio Guzmán’s documentary El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015), we meet Martín González Calderón, a Yaghan man who explains how the Chilean Navy’s strict control over maritime space has made it almost impossible for him and his family to travel by boat using the skills and techniques passed down over generations.

Guzmán also speaks to Gabriela Paterito, a Kawésqar woman who recounts a long journey by canoe that she made when she was a girl, and the director prompts her to state that she does not feel Chilean at all. In Guzmán’s film, indigenous mobility by water in the Patagonian archipelago is presented as lost to the past, and impossible in the present (I’ve written elsewhere about how Guzmán consistently relegates indigenous experience to a separate timeframe, or even a separate world).

Other filmmakers have taken a different approach to these issues, however. In Tánana, estar listo para zarpar (Tánana, being ready to set sail, 2016), for instance, we meet Martín González Calderón again, but this time at much greater length. The documentary’s directors Alberto Serrano Fillol and Cristóbal Azócar do not provide an explanatory voiceover. Instead, the camera follows González Calderón as he goes about his daily life, and then seeks to build a boat in which he can recreate a childhood trip around the False Cape Horn, near the southern tip of the continent, that he undertook with his father.

Another documentary from 2016, Alas de mar (Sea Wings) exhibits some similar characteristics. Here, the director Hans Mülchi does provide a voiceover, but it is intermittent and reflective. The film follows the journey by boat of two Kawésqar women, Rosa and Celina, back to the region where they grew up. The voices of Rosa and Celina are much more prominent than that of Mülchi, or indeed that of the European anthropologist who is travelling with them.

Yaghan bark canoe, Wuluaia Bay, Chile (image: GrahamAndDairne on Flickr)

It is not only the human voice that counts, though. Both Tánana and Alas de mar contain long sequences in which the only sounds audible are the sounds of travel by sea: the flapping of a sail, the rush of the wind, the crash of waves against the hull, or the roar of a motor. This openness to the sounds of the marine environment allow the spectator to share in the embodied experience of the protagonists in a way that escapes any definitions that might be imposed by spoken or written language.

It is precisely because Alas de mar and Tánana do not offer definitive answers to the question of the relation between indigenous identity and Chilean identity that I find them valuable to think with. The people whose stories are told in these films have been displaced from their childhood homes (as is the case for Rosa and Celina), or are held in place by the state’s unwillingness to allow maritime travel outside of specific, limited purposes (in the case of Martín). And yet we see them strive to retrace past journeys and reclaim certain modes of mobility as an essential part of their heritage.

In fact, indigenous identity itself appears as fluid and mobile in these films. Martín notes that while he understands much of the Yaghan language, he cannot speak it well himself, and in Tánana we see him teaching boatbuilding techniques to family members who are clearly of mixed heritage. In Alas de mar, Rosa and Celina share weaving and construction techniques with their fellow travellers.

At a time when the Constituent Convention in Chile is determining the form of the country’s new constitution, with the participation of many indigenous groups, including the Kawésqar and the Yaghan, these films’ visions of mobile and changing identities present a source of inspiration for a plurivocal or even plurinational political order.

Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens have suggested that an ‘archipelagic American studies’ can offer a way of ‘decontinentalising’ our understandings of space and identity. A way, in other words, of recognising the cultural and political value of apparently marginal or ‘in-between’ spaces like islands, seas, beaches and inlets, and the people who live in them. Perhaps a decontinental understanding of Latin America might allow a similarly generous approach to its many voices and perspectives.

Paul Merchant is a Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture at the University of Bristol. He is lead researcher on the project ‘Reimagining the Pacific: Images of Ocean in Chile and Peru, c.1960 to the Present’. The project is running an event, ‘Redrawing the Ocean‘, as part of First Friday at the Watershed Café and Bar in Bristol on 5th November.