The city of Oaxaca provided a fitting location for the 2019 Earth System Governance conference. Like the city itself and our host institution (the National Autonomous University of Mexico), which generously shared their rich histories and visions for the future, this year’s conference theme of “Urgent Transformations” pointed conference participants to the historical efforts of the Earth System Governance project, as well as to some of its new ambitions and frontiers. One compelling dimension of this year’s conference was the “reporting back” of some key historical efforts within the ESG network. For example, two innovative sessions presented the outcomes of an initiative to “harvest” insights from a decade of scholarship examining the role of agency in ESG. At the same time, the conference provided a platform for research fellows to gain insight into exciting new directions and to advance new opportunities. One particularly exciting semi-plenary session highlighted the diversity of forums available to ESG scholars, with editors advocating a range of publication venues (including a Cambridge Elements “minibook” series and the new peer-reviewed Earth System Governance journal) and authors noting a diversity of forthcoming works. This attention to how best to disseminate ESG scholarship was complemented by numerous efforts to cultivate new and existing foci within the research network. Among the many vibrant areas of emergent scholarship, researchers and taskforces evaluated how to expeditiously advance insight in the areas of Earth Systems Law, democracy, and planetary justice. Ultimately, the conference provided our network with a valuable opportunity to take stock of past accomplishments, exchange contemporary ideas, and lay the foundation for a productive 2020 conference in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The 2019 Winter School brought seventeen early career researchers and five ESG faculty members to the Zapotec community of Calpulalpam. Located about a two-hour drive away from Oaxaca, Calpulalpam is situated in the beautiful cloud forest sierra – a mountainous highland area – and is known for its sustainable forest management practices and rich cultural heritage. In Calpulalpam, as in the vast majority of Oaxaca state, land is owned and governed by local communities through an intricate set of customary institutions. As such, participants were able to gain rich insights into bottom-up variants of Earth System Governance that have endured centuries and overcome many challenges, and we were looking forward to immersing ourselves in the local social and ecological contexts: apart from lectures and mentoring sessions, encounters with the local community, a guided hike through the forest and the Day of the Dead celebrations made for a very exciting programme.
One learning experience, however, came not from the programme itself, but from the elements. We were greeted with persistent rainfall that only stopped on day three of the Winter School and was accompanied by muddy roads and cold temperatures. This was unusual and most likely a symptom of climate change, given that the rainy season traditionally ends in early October in the region. The weather conditions forced us to practice the adaptiveness that we usually only talk about, and adjust our schedule to what nature allowed us to do. Faculty members did a great job at re-organising sessions, with a focus on mutual learning as participants presented their research projects and heard from community leaders about their governance structure, forest management and resistance to ‘mega-projects’ such as mining concessions. Other cultural highlights included an interactive teaching session with local high-school kids, a traditional steam-bath (‘Temazcal’) experience, and the Day of the Dead parade in the village. The shared experience allowed participants to connect and cold conditions were countered by inspiring conversations, local food and music and contemplative moments enhanced by the pitter-patter of rain hitting the roof. Finally, the sun came out on the third day, just in time for the long-awaited forest walk and a last goodbye to the gorgeous landscape surrounding us.
Want to know more? Check out this video about the Winter School.
This year’s ESG conference brought me for the first time to Latin America. By being in unique venues like Terraza and Burgoa and participating in a Calenda, I learned about the history and culture in Oaxaca, which have led me to rethink human-nature relationships for sustainable development. With a more diverse group of participants compared to previous years, discussions during the conference pointed out the importance of taking a holistic approach that considers the interconnections between environmental and social issues to ensure sustainability of Earth system. For my own research, I got useful feedback on my paper presentations and also generated several new project ideas by brainstorming with old and new friends. Lastly, I was happy to see many young faces coming to join this community. Hopefully more people will join our ECR network and organize activities in the next year!
This year’s ESG conference in Oaxaca, Mexico was special in many ways. Starting with Calenda parade (an important part of Oaxacan celebrations) on the first day to the emotional closing plenary (farewell) by Leticia (including inspiring videos), ESG 2019 reverberated with several key messages, particularly that of sharing and communication. What inspired me most in this year’s conference is the importance of community and regional discourses on sustainability, justice, socio-economic inequalities, environmentalism and several other issues pertaining to earth system governance. Sitting through several sessions and papers on the environmental and sustainability outlook of Latin America (including individual countries) gave me deep insights into national policies (or lack thereof), regional fragmentation, local struggles and the future of sustainability in this region. In fact, I also felt that the very fact that the entire conference was held in historical and cultural (heritage) sites, gave a very different perspective to the issues that we discussed. Historical, cultural, social and political underpinnings are so critical to these discourses, especially when you deal with them in a region such as Latin America.
This, I believe, could pave the way for more regionally focused research on earth systems governance based on local realities, socio-economic contexts, (geo)politics, power, knowledge and influence among other factors. ESG’s regional research centres can possibly lead the conversations on all themes, including “urgent transformations”, which was the theme of this year’s conference. ESG could also think of setting up new research centres that can expand the scope, bandwidth and impact of ESG research across the globe, which is already being given a huge amount of impetus through several publications such as the newly launched ESG journal.
Personally, I was happy that I managed to pull off an innovative session on the role of the military in climate governance, along with Marie Claire Brisbois, University of Sussex in ESG 2019. This was the first time that the ESG hosted a session on this topic and I believe it could trigger an opportunity to expand ESG’s research base on security discourses related to environment, climate, sustainable development and so on. I should also add that the presence of several researchers (including early careers) reflecting on these issues at the conference provides ample scope for further research collaborations on not just the military dimensions but also the non-military security dimensions associated with earth system governance.
Earth System Governance conferences generate a different experience than do most academic colloquia. In contrast to the sometimes-competitive environments elsewhere, at ESG conferences, one is immersed in a space welcoming of diverse ideas, collective brainstorming, and dedicated to a mission of best practices for future earth politics. ESG conferences are where you share a drink with colleagues, strengthen relationships and your professional network, all the while debating existential questions of humanity during planetary crises. These annual events foster connections amongst attendees through social events – from inclusive lunches and coffee breaks to celebratory welcome events and closing Research Fellow parties. And this year’s conference in Mexico was no different; extraordinary and memorable in its unique way. After a day of fascinating panels, the evening brought attendees together in a Calenda – a street celebration traditional to Oaxaca. ESG colleagues followed large papier-mâché figures, a band, and over a half-dozen dancers in colors that shone brightly even on the already-vibrant Oaxacan streets. Fireworks punctuated the procession, heightened excitement and anticipation, and dazzled all eyes in the broad fabric of the event’s community. Such experiences are not common to the typical academic conference and to share in such a special celebration with respected colleagues, whose passion inspires your own, breaks the barriers between junior and established scholars. ESG conferences not only recognize the phenomenal work of earth system governance scholars but celebrate and honor each individual attendee and a community dedicated to knowledge-sharing and change.
What was amazing for me at ESG Oaxaca was the idea of inclusion throughout the entire conference. Most of the time, international conferences are and feel the same whether they take place in Hungary, Sweden, or Canada. What you do outside of the conference might differ, but the conference remains a neutral space. That was definitely not the case of ESG Oaxaca. The panels, venues, food, and calenda, were so colourful and vibrant, and constantly reminded us that we were living something different. Besides, seeing so many panels focusing on Latin America and issues that lack discussing in international conferences was enlightening.
In the same idea of inclusion, and even though this is certainly a characteristic of the ESG community, I witnessed many efforts towards the inclusion of early career scholars. In the official events or during informal chats, it always felt like, as an ECR, what one has to say, what one wants to do, matters. The support brought by other scholars is amazing and makes it easier for us to get involved, offer new ideas, and take the lead. ECRs are the future of the ESG community, and ESG Oaxaca was definitely a place where we were reminded of that.
The Earth System Governance (ESG) community always provides me inspirational experiences that challenge my intellectual boundaries thanks to the ESG’s unique DNA of diversity and shared values. My experience during the ESG winter school and the conference at Oaxaca was all about hatching out of the isolated box of my comfort zone based on my academic discipline and my sometimes seemingly mundane life on campus. The time spent in everyday-solitude in my small office sometimes deprives me of the joy of living as a scholar. I was beginning to lose pieces of the whole puzzle of my life as a researcher, the pieces reminding me of how I am connected to the world and the people in it and the story that my research wants to tell about them. The four days of the winter school in Zapotec community at Calpulalpam especially let me find these missing pieces once again. Falling asleep listening to the sound of raindrops in an eco-cabin (without an internet connection forcing me to do ‘internet-fasting’!) reconnected me to nature. Talking, eating, and laughing together with indigenous people in the mountain village made me re-recognize how my research on global environmental governance is interlinked to their personal life stories and their land and forests. Meeting young students, getting to know their names, and talking about their perspectives on the current world and nature made me re-imagine the future world where the next generation will live. My colleagues and professors at the winter school from various countries and different disciplines gave me new insights to understand my research topic with their diverse and fresh eyes. I arrived in Oaxaca on the first night of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), one of the biggest holidays in Mexico for celebrating both “life and death,” and it inspired me that it is time to make a bridge between the two realms. People sang and danced on every street, celebrating a blending of the line between life and death. They enjoyed reconnecting with their loved ones in that way. My early November in Mexico and the reunion with the people of the ESG community was like the feast. It was academic singing and dancing beyond all the boundaries: human and nature, global and local, generational, cultural, and disciplinary borders. I look forward to our next festival in Bratislava, where we will sing and dance together again for our dream for a better future earth.