RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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28 Calamitous ‘events’? Exploring perceptions of disaster timeframes (1)
Convenor(s) Robert Coates (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
Jeroen Warner (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
Chair(s) Robert Coates (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
Timetable Wednesday 28 August 2019, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Room 10
Session abstract Notions of temporality lie at the heart of the idea of disaster, with lived ‘events’ underpinned by the existential experience of trauma or abnormality across a defined human population (Perry, 2007; Quarantelli, 1985). Yet what constitutes such a (disaster) event remains deeply problematic, with allegations the event has even been ‘dissolved’ in analysis (Fassin and Vasquez, 2005). The impact of hazards like storms, tsunamis or even chemical leaks can most clearly be located in a particular time and space, yet none of these automatically results in a disaster or in a shared traumatic memory. Safeguards are frequently put in place to prevent hazards turning into disasters, while distinct cultural developments have sometimes equipped people with the means to familiarise hazards (or even traumas) to the point of avoiding them embedding in memory (Kruger et al., 2015).

Disasters are always interpreted through social experience in specific social time (Hoffman and Oliver-Smith, 2002). Nonetheless, notions of disasters as unexpected, negative, traumatic events are being eroded from multiple sides. Disasters have been discussed variously as ('beautiful') focusing events (Lowry, 2006), as forcing breakthroughs in ‘disaster diplomacy' (Kelman, 2012), as potentially changing the social contract (Pelling and Dill, 2010), or as punctuating an equilibrium (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993). Approaches focussed on adaptive management and social-ecological resilience (Renn, 2008) tend to see disaster events as part of cyclical or functional processes involving the disruption and restoration of normative stability, and as such undercut subjective 'meaning' and 'memory' among individuals and communities, just as they demote questions of social and political power.

Conversely (or in parallel), vulnerability analyses go a long way toward explaining the unequal experience of hazard impacts, and thus the kinds of social and spatial conditions that actually produce a disaster. Chronic and ongoing vulnerability can be a disaster in the making, long before the earth shakes – in this sense all disasters are ‘slow-onset' (Kelman, 2018). From this perspective the focus on discrete shocks or events, rooted in mysterious ‘outside’ forces, side-track us from the development issues that count. From Oliver-Smith’s (2012) Peruvian ‘500-year earthquake’ to Wisner et al.’s (2004) build-up of ‘pressure’, and onwards to the creation of increasingly hazardous and uneven planetary space under capitalist urbanization (Braun, 2014; Brenner, 2013), the idea of what constitutes the event itself is dissipating under the weight of socio-spatial production. ‘Eventfulness’ can be an abstraction based around late liberal governance or governmentality; the internalised strategy of blaming nature an integral part of what sustains everyday marginality as a ‘non-event’ (Povinelli, 2011). From geophysical hazards to industrial pollution, questioning the diffusion of knowledge of hazardous environments speaks to the manipulation of social subjectivities and the limitations of perceptions of existential experience (Auyero and Swistun, 2009).

This session explores spatial and temporal contexts and limits surrounding disaster events, or as the case may be, disaster non-events. The contributions explore these ideas alongside disaster case studies, leading to productive theoretical dialogue.
Linked Sessions Calamitous ‘events’? Exploring perceptions of disaster timeframes (2)
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Questioning the eventfulness of disaster under hazardous urbanisation
Robert Coates (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
‘The river was moved too close to my house!’, a respondent noted during research in Brazil. The disaster for this resident was in fact the engineering intervention that had changed the river’s course, long before the flood of 2011, as it had vastly increased his exposure to the effects of rainy season storms. Settlement on wetlands and dangerous slopes has followed and characterised the industrial urbanisation of the global South through the 20th century and into the 21st, and yet disasters and hazards are still widely blamed on externalised nature. In an effort to mitigate increasingly strong or irregular storms, the advanced monitoring of climate and production of complex data has accompanied the further embedding of cities in hazardous locations, leading to a seemingly circular process of development and disaster. This leads us to question the nature of the event in space and time. As nature cannot be separated from culture, with indigenous cosmologies demonstrating varied understandings of the place of the human within ecological space, then this locates the natural event within the realm of symbolic language, around which the performance of public authority is mobilised. This paper thus views the existential experience of disaster as a powerful distraction from addressing disaster causation in the ongoing capitalist urbanisation of nature.
The changing responses to hazards and their management in the Bedamuni Tribe of Western Province, Papua New Guinea
Guy Jackson (University of Queensland, Australia)
The Bedamuni tribe are exposed and vulnerable to various hazards, but droughts and earthquakes have been the most devastating. Although the exact time and date are never known, the Bedamuni are aware that hazards come like the falling of leaves that indicate the changing of their seasons. Until very recently, the Bedamuni have confronted and coped with hazards without external assistance and causality was based on their unique epistemological foundations which corresponds to animist beliefs. Their pacification by the Australian territory of Papua and New Guinea (1902-1974) and the establishment of a permanent Evangelical mission in the 1960s radically transformed their society including their food systems, culture, and worldview. This paper asks two questions: How has this ‘external contact’ affected the Bedamuni’s underlying epistemological understanding of hazards? And, how have the recent humanitarian responses to the 1997/98 and 2015/16 El Niño droughts and February 26, 2018 earthquake changed how hazards are experienced and responded to? To answer, the author draws on in-depth fieldwork (July-October 2018) focusing on food system change and vulnerability within the Bedamuni tribe. The investigation shows that many of the stories that transpire from ancestors and current elders relate to hazards, their impacts, and food system coping and adaptive strategies, demonstrating the centrality of hazards as a key concern to Bedamuni’s way of life. While this concern is present today many traditional risk reduction strategies have given way to expectations of food aid and previous understandings of disasters as emanating from the spirits and manageable, or intervenable, are now perceived as inevitable. These among other findings are presented and discussed throughout.
In the land of the blind the speculative eye should be king: The possibilities and limitations of observing silent and potential disasters in evolving governance
Martijn Duineveld (Wageningen University, The Netherlands)
Kristof Van Assche (University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada)
Building on Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems and its contemporary: the poststructuralist evolutionary governance theory, we explore the possibilities and limits of observing silent and potential disasters. These are the material changes in the environment of any discursive system that escapes the deliberate attention or observation by that system (or humans, organisations, discourses). We argue that in our current societies the functioning of the different function systems (politics, law, science, art) are unavoidably missing out by definition, every observation creates its own blind spot for everything else. To be adaptive, and to manage the observation of silent disasters, is about analysing the way materiality is conceived of in governance, the way governance shapes observation of the material world and its risks, and, most difficult, the way material context and material legacies (e.g. infrastructures, old pollution) that shape in silent ways the structure and function of governance. For this we need to re-conceptualise the roles and relations between time, second-order observation and reflexivity in and about social systems, that make different and sometime contradictory observations possible. We conclude that for increasing the likelihood of observing of the ‘known unknown’ disasters and ‘unknown unknown disasters the rigidities embedded in the function systems, especially in the natural and social sciences needs to be reconsidered. We conclude with a plea for speculation, fiction, conspiracy, witchcraft and a ‘sensitisation for the ruptures of the real’. (Indeed, a conclusion against the current emerging fear of irrationality and post-structuralism in debates about the so-called post-truth society).
Eventful Disasters: Urban Traces and Blame in Post-disaster Chilean Cities
Ricardo Fuentealba (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
The naturalness of disasters implies that these are not centred on the materiality of a natural hazard but on a wider, historical and contentious trend of social development. Disasters then not only relate to the past, as in long-term processes of risk incubation (the social construction of vulnerability, exposure to hazardous events, and so on), but also to the future, particularly on the ways that people recover, rebuild, and prepare to disasters to come. Material and immaterial traces of past disasters always remain, either in policy processes such as (re)constructed landscapes or land-use planning, but also in how victims extract learnings and develop disaster memory. The latter in particular is critical for understanding the cultural construction of time in relation to disasters, as some memory initiatives can contest official eventfulness and responsibility narratives, imprinting long-term socio-spatial marks in cityscapes and their relation to risks.

In this paper, I explore how temporalities work out in relation to socio-spatial practices of disaster memory. In particular, I describe how state- and victim-based initiatives for remembrance depict urban traces with unequal consequences for disaster risk reduction. Based on case studies for two urban disasters in Chile, and following ethnographic methods and literature from urban and cultural geography, I analyse disaster commemorative projects and initiatives and how they deal (or not) with issues such as disaster blame and responsibility. Ultimately I show that, if victim are co-producing these urban traces, disaster eventfulness can contest the meaning and responsibility over their occurrence, leading to more socially-rooted and progressive forms to cope with past harms, and also for prefiguring adaptive capacities and preparedness for the future.
Slow disasters and local knowledge: vulnerability, resilience and risk reduction
Francisco Molina Camacho (Research Center for Integrated Disaster Risk Management (CIGIDEN), Chile)
Cristián Inostroza Matus (Universidad Católica de Temuco, Chile)
The tsunami of 1960 (after the earthquake of 9.5º in Valdivia) is considered on the most powerful disasters ever recorded, and the implications of this event have been deeply studied in terms of fatalities, monetary costs, infrastructure damage, among others. Unlike a single event, this article reflects on the tsunami as the beginning of a chronic disaster that have occurred over years and decades in the Araucania Region. From an analysis of a cluster of policies –Decree-Law 701 (1974), Water Code (1981) and Indigenous Law (1993) – that the Chilean State have developed since the 1970s we critically analyze the interaction between politics and disasters, and how it has increased vulnerability in indigenous groups. Through semi-structured interviews and discussion groups in the lafkenche community Ignacio Galvarino within the FONDART project “Memories of the Budi Lake: The El Nüyyun Ka Tripanlafken of 1960 in Saavedra”, this article analyses the way local knowledge has been key to diagnose this slow disaster, appealing to everyday experiences with nature. In short, it reveals that this knowledge has not only be useful for lafkenche communities to be more resilience, but to strength current strategies oriented to disaster risk reduction (DRR) in Chile.