Tag Archives: landscape

Consuming Conservation in the Age of Instagram

by Meghan Downes

Media and popular culture both shape and reflect our everyday ‘commonsense’ ideas about the natural environment. Stories that circulate about the value and vulnerability of the environment offer a window into popular perceptions, as well as a potential medium for transforming such perceptions. Social media is no exception, and in this post, I reflect on changing relationships between young people and the natural environment in Indonesia, as mediated through the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram.

My current research focuses primarily on the mega-city of Jakarta and how urban environmental problems and solutions are represented in popular film and fiction. For this blog post, however, I explore a slightly different but closely related topic: the growing popularity of dedicated ‘nature tourism’ spaces outside the city, spaces where urban youth congregate to appreciate (and often more importantly, to photograph) the natural environment.
I visited several such places during a recent trip to Indonesia. The pictures I include here are from around the area of Batu in East Java, where over the past few years the local government has begun to capitalize on growing environmental awareness, and also growing demand for exciting Instagram opportunities, by building various new photo-friendly mountain parks.

 

At ‘Taman Langit’ (Sky Garden), visitors can pose with animal statues, recline on grass-covered beds or in giant birds’ nests, and are reminded to put their rubbish in the novelty ‘Tempat Sampah Tampan’ (Beautiful Bins).

The nearby ‘Omah Kayu’ (Tree Houses) area features tire swings, hammocks and a range of wooden platforms and tree houses. Most of these have a ‘maximum 5 minutes’ rule: just enough time to get some killer photos and then move along. The path between the trees is peppered with environmental messages and Indonesian translations of quotes such as ‘Only when the last tree has been felled and the last spring ceased to flow, only then will humans realize that we cannot eat or drink money’ and ‘We do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our grandchildren.’

Another popular spot, ‘Goa Pinus’ (Pine Cave), has viewing platforms in various fun designs jutting out over the valley below. This area also features a collection of so-called ‘Papuan houses’: small, thatched huts that – given the (problematic) popular public discourses surrounding Indonesia’s Eastern-most province – are perhaps intended to represent a kind of ‘primitive’ affinity with nature.

There are often performative nationalist elements to the kind of ‘environmental tourism’ being enjoyed in these parks, with the Indonesian flag making a frequent appearance.

Yet what is most striking is the way that, across all of these sites, the natural environment is packaged first and foremost as an Instagram opportunity. The platforms and paths and statues and props have all been designed with the primary purpose of facilitating great selfies. Scattered around the parks are signs that suggest the appropriate hash-tags to use when posting online: #tamanlangit, #omahkayu, #goapinus, #gunungbanyak, #paralayangbatu, and so on. If you browse these tags on Instagram, you will find thousands of images.

So, what are the implications of nature being framed (often literally!) as an object for fleeting consumption, by a mainly urban middle-class audience? Is the kind of environmental engagement facilitated by applications such as Instagram destined to be superficial and narcissistic? Or, is there potential for deeper engagement with conservation ideas and practices? These questions lead to other related points, including the issue of class. Local farmers in the areas surrounding these parks are facing imminent damaging effects of global climate change on crop cycles, and meanwhile, for visitors, the leisure-activity of ‘nature appreciation’ becomes merely a symbol of urban middle-class identity.

However, while it is easy enough to write off Instagram engagement as superficial, the reality is more complex. As part of my broader research, I discussed environmental issues with a broad selection of young Indonesians, who are often quite critical of what is going in and around their Instagram feeds. During these conversations, several people raised the issue of economic inequality and expressed concern over what will happen to the profits from entry fees for these new parks: Will the profits go to the local people? Will they fund conservation projects? Or will they simply line the pockets of government officials? Others expressed frustration over the lack of waste disposal infrastructure in their daily lives: Why should rubbish bins simply be a novelty item in a tourist park, while littering remains the norm upon returning home?

As is the case with any form of communication, the kinds of stories that circulate in and around social media applications like Instagram are many and varied, and ultimately depend on the concerns of users. This is one of the reasons why social media, and popular culture in general, can be such a rich entry point into understanding how people interact with natural and built environments. Far more so than education curriculum or scientific research, popular culture strongly shapes and informs our everyday understandings about environmental problems and solutions. Not just in Indonesia, but globally, governments are often just as likely to respond to populist perceptions as they are to in-depth policy research. Therefore, although this blog post may seem a relatively fun and colorful topic, I also suggest that it is in fact very important to examine how these everyday ideas about the environment are produced, consumed, and mediated through various platforms in order to better understand the complex and evolving relationship between nature and society.


Meghan is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the Asian Urbanisms Cluster at ARI. She was awarded her PhD from the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Her current research looks at youth engagement with the natural environment and environmental problems in Indonesia.

Tracing narratives and perceptions in the political ecologies of health and disease

by Creighton Connolly

Post written for ENTITLE Blog

In a previous post on ‘Horses, bees and bodies: post-conference accounts from Lexington’, Panagiota Kotsila shared reflections on the 2015 Dimensions of Political Ecology (DOPE) Conference, where we organised a panel titled ‘Perceptions of Urban Environmental Health: Narrating Political Ecologies of Disease’. At the end of the post, she promised a forthcoming issue on the topic, which we have now published in the Journal of Political Ecology, with Giacomo D’Alisa.

While there have been some previous writings setting out a political ecology framework for the study of health and disease (e.g. King, 2010), we bring a particular approach to the sub-field, namely, the role of perceptions and discourse. We emphasize the role of health perceptions, in particular, as a way of exploring how people’s experiences of the local environment often differ from dominant discourses related to un/healthy environments, and the effects stemming from this disjuncture.

More recently, scholars have suggested more specific avenues through which the sub-field can be further developed and focused. For example, Jackson and Neely have argued for the incorporation of marxist-feminist, STS, and more-than-human approaches to the political ecology of health and disease (PEHD). Similarly, our special section also sets out three additional avenues which we think may be of use for future empirical studies in this area. These are the themes of environmental justice, place and landscape, and the political economy of disease. These theme emerged from the empirical contributions making up our special issue, and also relate to central themes in political ecology.

The concept of environmental justice, in particular seeks to expose the way that marginal populations, minorities, and the poor are more vulnerable to environmental and health hazards. This is aptly demonstrated in Kotsila’s article on ‘health dispossessions’ in the Mekong region of Vietnam, which shows how state discourse follows neoliberal approaches in individualizing health responsibilities and moralizing disease. As shown by Iengo and Armerio’s article on ‘the politicisation of ill bodies’ in Campania, Italy, the most affected by the disease are also (often) seen as the least credible in generating knowledge about environmental justice disputes, thus forcing such individuals to mobilize particular forms of embodied resistance. For this reason, Marcelo Porto and colleagues mobilise a political epistemological approach to the political ecology of disease, which recognizes that the way knowledge is produced (epistemology) plays a fundamental role in generating and confronting environmental justice disputes. They also develop the concept of ‘health as dignity’ to highlight the capacity of affected communities and their democratic alliances in addressing environmental conflicts. Relatedly, the article by Giacomo D’Alisa and colleagues on ‘the Land of Fires’ in Southern Italy, illustrates the importance of using a PEHD approach to studying environmental conflicts, firstly to highlight the role of victims of environmental disasters in fighting environmental crimes, and second, to challenge the ‘slow violence’ of toxic crimes.

Toxic Waste burning in the streets of Naples, Italy (image: Eduardo Castaldo).

The themes of place and landscape are central to the discipline of cultural geography, and have also been adopted in political ecology studies (see, e.g. Connolly, 2017). Two of the articles in this section use landscape as a form of inquiry for addressing political ecologies of disease. First is Jeff Rose’s insightful study of a group of ‘hillside residents’ in an American municipal park, which considers the role of material and discursive cleanliness as an agent of health in the construction of ‘sanitary’ urban environments. Second is Creighton Connolly’s study on the farming of edible birds’ nests in Penang, Malaysia, which demonstrates the dialectical relationship between landscape and discourse in producing political ecologies of disease. Together, these articles further demonstrate how the landscape concept can be utilized in seeing disease as not only determined through biophysical factors, but also constructed out of a particular set of social relations and lived experiences mediated through the landscape.

Finally, and relatedly, all of the articles in our special issue refer to the political economy of health and disease as a set of material and discursive practices that influence the incidence of disease, or are otherwise involved in the production of (un)healthy landscapes. Such an analysis recognises that health is structured by political and economic systems that influence the transmission of disease and the ability – or willingness – of health care agencies to effectively respond (see, e.g. Houston and Ruming, 2014). Through these foci, the empirical investigations provided in this special issue thus further rectify the gap between the material and the discursive, highlighting how the politics of health is shaped through the confluence of power relations, specific discourses and practices of communication in particular sites.

If you have any comments on the special issue, please leave them below, and we’ll get back to you. Alternatively, you can send an email to Creighton Connolly  or Panagiota Kotsila. Thank you for reading!

Article Alert: Moral Geographies of ‘Swiftlet Farming’ in Malaysia

Last week saw the publication of the first of four journal articles from my PhD research on urban ‘swiftlet farming’ in Malaysia. Swiftlet farming refers to the harvesting of edible birds’ nests in urban areas, which has posed a number of socio-environmental challenges to cities in Southeast Asia where the industry proliferates. This particular article engages the animal geographies literature in foregrounding the agency of  animals like swiftlets as co-producing urban environments. This research contributed to the EU funded project ‘ENTITLE‘ (2012-16) which funded a number of projects on political ecology throughout Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia.

An active swiftlet farm in central George Town, Malaysia, photo by author, 2014.
An active swiftlet farm in central George Town, Malaysia, photo by author, 2014.

Title: ‘A Place For Everything’: Moral Landscapes of ‘Swiftlet Farming’ in George Town, Malaysia

Journal: Geoforum (Vol. 77, Dec. 2016, pp. 182-191).

Author: Creighton Connolly (Asia Research Institute, NUS).

Abstract: This paper is based on 6 months of ethnographic, multi-sited research in Malaysia, and investigates the relatively recent phenomenon of edible birds’ nest farming in urban areas (‘swiftlet farming’). Swiftlet farms are typically converted shophouses or other buildings which have been modified for the purpose of harvesting the nests of the Edible-nest Swiftlet (Aerodramus fuciphagus). I use the controversy over urban swiftlet farming in the UNESCO World Heritage city of George Town, Penang, to examine discourses used by key stakeholders to shape debates over the place of non-human animals in cities. By considering everyday experiences of urban swiftlet farming, I explore how this burgeoning industry is perceived amongst residents, and how it is deemed to be (in)appropriate within the political, economic and cultural landscape of George Town. Yet, I also consider how farmers have sought to contest these discourses on ideological and normative grounds. In so doing, I place the cultural animal geographies literature in conversation with emergent literature on landscape and urban political ecology. Such a framing allows for a critical evaluation of the controversies surrounding this case, and their implications for human- animal cohabitation in cities. The paper reflects on the implications of this case for how we regulate human-animal relations and live in contemporary cities, and the crucial role of animals in altering urban form, aesthetics and everyday life, particularly in non-Western contexts.

Highlights:

•Develops the conceptual approach of landscape political ecology as a way to examine socio-environmental conflicts in urban contexts.

• Enhances understanding of the role of animals in shaping urban form and dynamics, and shaping urban policy.

•Highlights the complex factors involved in managing human-animal relations in cities, due to the agency of non-humans.

•Adds to understanding of politically and morally-infused claims to urban space, and competing socio-economic interests.

Read the full article here, free until January 7, 2017.