By Vicente A Sandoval Henriquez, on 27 September 2013
The fourth EUGEO Congress took place in Rome, Italy, 5-7 September 2013, at the University of Rome La Sapienza and at the Società Geografica Italiana, where thousands of geographers and researchers from all different fields of study attended and participated in more than 500 presentations.
When thinking of organising a mega-conference like this in a city like Rome one must deal with motivation. The event is competing against the Coliseo, the Vatican and more than 3000 years of vibrant history. How do you maintain the attention of 2000 geographers and attendees for 2 “cloistered” days ? Well, some keynote speeches kicked off the conference. The programme included keynote speakers such as James W. Scott, Ron Boschma, Anne Buttimer, Gyula Horvát, Vladimir Kolossov, Peter Mehlbye, Armando Montanari, Petros Petsimeris and Ad de Roo, among others. But also, other activities such as paper sessions, poster sessions, thematic panels, scientific and social events created very interesting spaces for discussions and knowledge dissemination.
So, when bring 2000 geographers together, along with other researchers from related-fields, it is great to have a juicy programme that ignite intellectual discussion on matters highly relevant for all. Thus, macro topics such as capitalism and geography, borders and neoliberalism, and disaster and capitalism, were a very good beginning.
Neoliberal borders for a neoliberal world
James W. Scott, from the University of Eastern Finland presented in the session “Beyond ‘Fortress Europe’? Bordering and crossbordering processes along the European Union external frontiers”, critically discussing, for example, how EU borders have been affected and influenced by neoliberal forces creating something like a “neoliberal segregation”. The discussion turned to what defines a border as a “good” or “bad”, with further examples given; for instance, the case of US and Mexican border agencies working collaboratively. This sparked debates on borders as opportunities for cooperation, while also being protection from threats. One discussant described this phenomenon as the “permeability of frontiers”. Interestingly, a creative author proposed borders as interstitial spaces such as “Venn diagrams” where opposed forces share common interests and concerns.
Another interesting discussion emerged in the session on free mobility, borders and neoliberalism. The contradictory idea that free market and free mobility of people – ideas from neoliberalism – are all about freedom and liberty but only possible inside a controlled space caught my attention. ‘Free mobility’ for insiders maybe, but ‘exclusionary borders’ for outsiders.
When Capitalism Met Disaster
I participated more actively in the session where Camillo Boano and I presented; “Multiple geographical perspectives on hazards and disasters”. In this session, we discussed single-scale studies on disaster risk and vulnerability –i.e. urban risk, physical vulnerability– by formulating the progression of vulnerability proposed in the Pressure and Release Model (PAR Model) as a multi-scalar phenomenon.
We examined the case of Chaitén in order to explain how socio-economic and political processes nested at major geographical scales participate in the production of disaster risk and vulnerability at minor scales. This proposal and another presentation on L’Aquila earthquake in 2007 set the discussion on ‘disaster capitalism’. Most of the presenters acknowledged that disasters open windows of opportunity for structural transformations. Nobody disagreed with the potential transformative opportunity of disasters. Nevertheless, some of the case studies explored suggest that these windows of opportunity have been devised to systematically introduce more neoliberal reforms, such as in the cases of Sri Lanka in 2004 and Katrina 2005.
While disasters have became more frequent and their impacts more severe, neoliberal reforms are aggressively expanding in an unprecedented manner. So, the combination – or the encounter, just like in the film “When Harry Met Sally” (1989)– of these processes is highly challenging for government and institutions, particularly for people in the global south. Naturally, we all agreed that more research and more intellectual endeavours are required to better understand the implications and potentials –negative or positive– of this new phase in disasters.