By Michael Woods, 12th September 2015
As the nights start drawing in it’s time to reflect on a busy summer of conferences for the GLOBAL-RURAL team. Since the end of June, we’ve presented eight papers and a poster at six different academic conferences, starting with the WISERD conference in Cardiff, and continuing with the Quadrennial UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference, the IGU’s Commission on the Sustainability of Rural Systems Colloquium in Portugal, the European Society for Rural Sociology Congress in Aberdeen, and most recently, the Royal Geographical Society’s Annual International Conference in Exeter. Nor is the conference season over quite yet, with Anthonia Onyeahialam presenting maps from the ‘Visualizing the Global Countryside’ strand of our work at the Open Source GIS conference in Korea this coming week.
Copies of our presentations to these conferences can be found on our publications and presentations page, but the value of participating in academic conferences for us is not just in talking about our research (and receiving helpful feedback and questions and suggestions), but also in hearing about the research that other people are doing – and right now there’s a lot of interesting work on globalization and rural areas going on. So here’s my brief reflections on some highlights of the summer, and some of the things that I’ve learned.
Back in July, it was our pleasure to host the 8th Quadrennial UK-US-Canadian Rural Geography Conference – together with Swansea University – and to guide 35 rural geographers from Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States around Wales with an intensive programme of presentations, field visits and croquet. For the GLOBAL-RURAL team it was a unique opportunity not only to report on our on-going study of everyday globalization in the mid Wales town of Newtown, but to try out some innovative methods for disseminating this work. So it was that we despatched our geographer guinea-pigs out on to the streets of Newtown with tablets and smart-phones loaded with a Storymap tour of the town and its global connections. The exercise usefully (if frustratingly) demonstrated some of the technical challenges that this method of communication faces, but also elicited some excellent feedback from our colleagues about the content and style of presentation that will help us to refine this approach. It was also a great exercise for prompting us to think about how Newtown as a place has been assembled over time and the recurrent influence of global connections in this process, from investment of Davies family money derived from coal exports, to the internationalization of the wool trade, to the legacy of Newtown-born, cooperative-pioneer Robert Owen – about which Marc Welsh has written on our Assembling Newtown blog.
The conference theme was ‘Global Challenges and Rural Responses’ and many of the papers provided insights into the ways in which globalization is re-shaping rural economies, societies and communities. Several presentations explored the dynamics of local and global food systems, with Renata Blumberg, for example, describing the rise of alternative food networks in Lithuania and Latvia as a response to the global economic crisis, and Damian Maye revealing the different emphases of food security discourses in different countries. Margareta Lelea, meanwhile, demonstrated the complexities of global-local interactions, discussing how the adoption of international standards for food safety in Kenya had undermined local food networks and the capacity of rural communities to feed themselves. Other papers focused on international migration and the diversifying cultural mix of rural regions. Dick Winchell, for instance, showed how Latino immigration in Washington State maps on to areas of post-war rural modernization and irrigation programmes; whilst Levi van Sant presented a sobering corrective, charting the dwindling numbers of African-American farmers in South Carolina during the twentieth century. Martin Philips, Peter Nelson and Darren Smith in a trio of papers presented early work from the fascinating iRGENT project, investigating international perspectives on rural gentrification, with Darren coining the term ‘Sothebyisation’ to describe the role of transnational real estates in developing an international market in elite property sales. Finally, a reminder of the persistence of the periphery in the age of globalization came from Ryan Gibson, with a discussion of the challenges faced by the Strait of Belle Isle region in Canada, with capital extracted by multi-nationals and local capacity compromised by a segmented political geography.
A fortnight later, the IGU Commission on the Sustainability of Rural Systems Colloquium in Portugal provided me with an opportunity to talk about rural responses to globalization in a keynote lecture, drawing on the GLOBAL-RURAL case study of the closure of the Moreton sugar mill in Nambour, Australia, as an impact of global economic restructuring, which I’ve discussed in a previous blog post. It is, however, the conference fieldtrips that stick in my mind as illustrating the impact of globalization in the Portuguese countryside, and confirming that these impacts are not necessarily new. A visit to the Duoro wine-producing region, in particular, provided evidence of how the distinctive viticulture-based economy and landscape of the region had been assembled over time from the combination of the region’s unique climate and topography, the business acumen of British port merchants (whose names still adorn the vine-clad hillsides), the development of export markets in 18th century Europe and North America, and, critically, the grafting of American and European vines in the late 19th century to enable the vineyards to survive the plague of phylloxena, which botanical collectors had inadvertently introduced to Europe.
The port wine assemblage continues to dominate the region today, but other sites visited revealed more recent international influences: from the Korean company investing in solar power farms north of Lisbon, to entrepreneurs reviving artisan salt-pan production for niche export trade, to the small town of Ponte de Lima attracting tourists with an International Garden Festival.
From Portugal to Scotland, and the GLOBAL-RURAL team were out in force for the European Society for Rural Sociology congress in Aberdeen, including an excellent pre-congress workshop on Digital Technologies and Visual Research Methods organized by the James Hutton Institute, which sharpened our ideas and techniques for trying visual methods in our Newtown case study. In the conference proper, Laura Jones and Jesse Heley presented on our research on the entanglement of the Welsh wool industry in the global wool assemblage, detailing how the introduction and refinement of non-human components have facilitated re-configurations that have enrolled Welsh farmers in international networks at the cost of local traceabiity (Laura has also written about this research in a blog post). Elsewhere, an impressive series of papers interrogated the dynamics of international migration in rural areas, with examples from across Europe and beyond. My own paper discussing the interesting case of Chinese farmers in late colonial Queensland as a possible example of early rural cosmopolitanism (which I will discuss further in a later blog post), was neatly complemented by Branka Kravokapic Skoko’s presentation on contemporary rural cosmopolitanism in Australia today, including the remarkable story of Katanning, WA, a small agricultural town with a mosque at its heart and strong inter-faith and inter-cultural relations. Ingrid Machold, meanwhile, demonstrated how international migration is responsible for the positive demographic balance in rural Austria; whilst Robyn Mayes’s paper in the same working group raised important questions about the body in international labour migration and the global circulation of a corporate workforce in sectors such as mining.
Finally, we returned to our theoretical framework at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Conference in Exeter, convening an exhilarating session on Assembling Globalization. We used our own paper to test out our developing thoughts on how to operationalize an assemblage approach to analysing the affects of globalization on place; but my mind was left reeling by the barrage of ideas and arguments from the other contributions to the session. Andy Davies countered our DeLanda-influenced approach with a strident call for a more radical assemblage theory, truer to its Guattarian roots, whilst Martin Jones’s barn-storming paper advocated the concept of plasticity as a fix to assemblage theory’s perceived weaknesses. Tarje Wanvik and Havard Haarstad’s paper on carbonscapes introduced the interesting idea of an ‘assemblage converter’ to describe the role played by the world oil price in affecting change in the landscapes of Alberta and Norway; whilst Martin Mulligan explored assemblage perspectives towards community resilience, and papers by Mor Shilon and Clara Rivas Alonso presented rich empirical applications of assemblage theory in urban analysis, examining case studies of Ben Gurion Airport in Israel and struggles over urban space in Istanbul respectively. I for one left Exeter with much to think about, a long list of reading to follow-up, and a desire to continue the dialogue in other forums.
So it’s been a hectic but stimulating summer and we have returned to Aberystwyth charged up with new ideas and possibilities that will be finding their way into the GLOBAL-RURAL research as we launch into the next round of fieldwork in Wales and Ireland this autumn.