At a turning point – climate change and the responsibilities of humanitarian actors

Climate change is going to be the game change to the humanitarian world. How? By sheer necessity. There is no other way. Otherwise, the humanitarian system will be overworking its way into exhaustion and oblivion. The current international humanitarian system is not fit for purpose to stem what is coming its way. The latest IPCC report presented alarming evidence for what is at stake with half of the world’s population living in areas highly vulnerable to climate change. António Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. The list of horrifying alerts seems endless: 2015-2021 were the warmest seven years on record. We might have already overturned at least five of the core tipping points of no return influencing the climate.

At the same time, humanitarian need is skyrocketing. In 2022 alone, 274 million people were projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 14 percent of the year prior – one that already broke the records. These numbers were published prior to February 24, when the Russia-Ukraine war moved to another level. In September 2022, the numbers escalated to 313 million people in need.

Today, with all of its floods, fires, and storms, also the small but powerful Western world has realized that climate change is no longer only an issue of charity and carbon offsets. It is not “only” about small islands in the Pacific perishing or children starving as a consequence of droughts at the horn of Africa. A large part of the world is on fire, under water, overheating, shook, and dried out, including those parts of the Western hemisphere that have been relatively spared by catastrophic effects of the forces of nature in the past.

The humanitarian system as a whole, and humanitarian organizations in particular, are not prepared or equipped to face the climate crisis, financially, technically and capacity-wise. Scaling–up and skilling-up are the two core paradigms of the humanitarian future. Change is needed, in the way humanitarian organizations plan and run their operations, in terms of the norms and principles that are the foundation of humanitarian work as well as regarding the humanitarian mandate and its limitations, especially considering its short-term cycled thinking.

Concerning the normative framework of humanitarian action, the climate crisis might offer the chance to revisit some of its core assumptions by taking a look into the questions of compensation and justice surrounding the discourse on climate change. For decades, the climate justice movement has advocated for political intervention emanating from the vast difference in responsibility for and vulnerability to the effects of the climate crisis. Both are unequally distributed around the globe and often the division is running along colonial fault lines.

The recent floods in Pakistan make it painfully clear, once more: those who have contributed the least to climate change, have to pay the highest price of climate change. In loss of life and loss of a livable future. While Pakistan’s greenhouse gas emissions account for only 1 percent of the overall total, it is among the ten countries most affected by climate change. In August 2022, one third of the country was flooded, more than one thousand people died, more than 30 million people are internally displaced. A catastrophe for those affected and a massive challenge for humanitarian actors and their responses.

The flooding in Pakistan is only one example among many, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, laying open the intimate and destructive relationship between colonial models of space and power. Colonized people, people of color and poor people are disproportionally affected by the consequences of climate change, within nation states as well as globally. The poorer the neighborhood the more exposed it is to the effects of climate change, nearly everywhere in the world. The distribution of environmental risks spatially mirrors the historically generated unequal distribution of access to power, capital and knowledge. More often than not, it is exactly this divide that humanitarian action operates in.

With the accelerating climate crisis, the movement around climate justice gains political momentum. The latest IPCC report of February 2022 featured justice quite ostentatiously. The upcoming COP 27 has chosen its motto: Together for just, ambitious implementation NOW. Also, the discussions around loss and damage for nations severely affected by climate change within the COP context are a start. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with climate change impacts formalized the discussion around loss and damage in 2013. The Santiago Network initiated at the COP 25 in 2019 intends to support developing nations with technical expertise. Yet, the question of funding and compensation is still high up in the air.

Next to the local first responders, international humanitarian organizations are at the forefront of the fight against climate change and its diverse effects and thus need to claim more space, advocate better and make more demands in this discussion. Humanitarian actors can help the loss and damage framework to grow beyond technical support into a compensational mechanism that does justice to the unequal distribution of cause and effects and ultimately into an accelerator for a renewed and revisited understanding of responsibilities and commitments, with additional benefits for internal debates around the normative bedrock of humanitarianism.

One idea debated mostly behind closed doors so far is using a seat at the table to demand a specific percentage of GDP funding for the climate crisis to allow for scaling-up and skilling-up. A part of that percentage can be reserved to compensate countries affected by climate change within the loss and damage framework. When offset against a possible 18% global GDP loss as an effect of global warming recently projected by the second largest reinsurance company, a 0.7% or even 2% GDP share for measures against climate change seems like a reasonable investment. While the core argument should be one of compensation and shared responsibility, these calculations might also convince those more prone to utilitarian thought.

As the ones faced with the catastrophic effects of climate change as a baseline of their everyday work it is the responsibility of humanitarian actors to make clear how much the world is at a turning point right now and that mitigating the effects of climate change will be to the benefit of everyone in the long run. 

Episode 7: Forging emotions and truth in criminal courts

In the 7th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews anthropologist Kamari Maxine Clarke on how emotions—and its expressions —are central to interpreting justice in criminal courts. Clarke’s work on affective justice highlights the larger historical conditions and structural inequities under which justice is realized, the role of time and space in the materialization of justice in juridical proceedings and the significance of geospatial technologies in forging truth.

Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 3 – Lake Poopó as cultural heritage: the entangled futures of a drying water basin and the ‘people of the lake’

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Lake Poopó, chronicle of a death foretold?

Lake Poopó is a shallow, saline lake situated in the Andean highlands of Bolivia at an altitude of about 3,700 meters. It constitutes the country’s second largest lake, after Lake Titicaca. While the lake’s size has always been subject to extreme variability, its surface during stable, dryer seasons used to span 1000 km2. Late 2015, however, Lake Poopó’s vast body of water dried up almost completely. The desertification is the outcome of slow natural processes in combination with anthropogenic climate change factors. Mining, irrigation, and urbanisation in the broader basin have led to a loss in water quantity and quality (Marti-Cardona & Torres-Batlló, 2021). Poor water management has dramatically sped up the area’s natural salinization. The lake is situated within an endorheic basin, which means that its water has no outflow to the ocean, and can only evaporate. Salt and waste are trapped in the retained water, condemning the lake to a future as a salt flat.

Landsat recording of Lake Poopó, 12 April 2013. NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey (Wikimedia Commons).
Landsat recording of Lake Poopó, 15 Januar 2016. NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey (Wikimedia Commons).

The dramatic transformation of the lake directly affects the livelihoods of the communities living in the basin, with many migrating in search for work. The impact is particularly significant in the indigenous communities of the Uru Qot Z’oñi people (Perreault, 2020). Known as ’people of the lake’, and generally referred to as ‘Uru-Murato’, this ethnic minority group maintains a very intimate bond with this body of water, economically and spiritually. However, throughout their history this identification with the lake has been used as an excluse to deny these communities land rights, leading to dispossession and displacement (Barra Saavedra, Lara Barrientos & Coca Cruz, 2011). Through centuries-long processes of colonial and inter-ethnic discrimination, exploitation and assimilation, only three small communities still survive on the former shores of the shrunken lake, disconnected from other Uru ethnic sub-groups, the Uru-Chipaya and Uru-Iruhito. The lake’s announced death seems to seal the fate of the Uru Qot Z’oñi communities as well, on the brink of becoming climate refugees. In their strategy to guarantee the entangled survival of their people and the lake, they managed to have their ‘knowledge, wisdom and ways of life linked to water as traditional living spaces and ways of subsistence’ declared Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019 by the Bolivian state.

This blog assesses how the link between the Qot Z’oñi people and the lake has been ‘naturalized’ and eventually ‘heritagized’ in a contradictory context of climate change and environmental policies, discrimination and indigenous revitalization. While this complex history deserves a more in-depth elaboration, the aim of this blog is to briefly cover how the exploitation and contamination of Lake Poopó has deprived the Uru from their most basic means of subsistence, leading to the extreme drought of 2015. Considering different stakeholders’ responses to the lake’s transformation since the late 20th century, the blog finally reflects on what role “heritage”, memory and related artistic and ritual practices play in the Qot Z’oñi’s efforts to recover and gain recognition of their identity and their ways of life.

The intimate bond between Uru communities and Lake Poopó: from land grab to water grab

As the people inhabiting the Andean central high plateau the longest, the Uru people self-identify and are generally acknowledged as Qot Z’oñi or ‘people of the lake’. This ethnic identity seems to be supported by colonial accounts, Uru memory and mythology, and ethnographic observations of the Uru as fishers and hunter-gatherers of aquatic plants and birds and their eggs. However, ethnohistorical research suggests that this apparently “natural” bond with the lake obscures a more complex history through which Uru communities gradually lost their lands, and thereby their agricultural and pastoral practices (Barra Saavedra et al., 2011).

Through the assignment of fiscal categories and a process of “othering”, an initially heterogeneous Uru population was gradually excluded from land access and reduced to an ever smaller group of poor, marginalized families (Wachtel, 1978). In order to remain outside the reach of discriminatory colonial politics and inter-ethnic exploitation, the Uru families appropriated Lake Poopó as their refuge. The high reed vegetation named totora allowed them to retreat in a kind of marronage community, providing shelter and a means to construct houses and floating islands on the lake.

The intimate bond with the lake became a survival strategy, yet as the lake basin integrated deeper, albeit weakly, within an emerging state apparatus and market economy, this bond came under growing pressure. Throughout the 19th century, the lake’s fluctuating water levels seriously tested that survival strategy and drew the Uru closer into the logic of on-land settlement and labour exploitation (Mamani Humérez & Reyes Zárate, 2005). Episodes of drought motivated neighbouring Aymara communities to seize the “new” land for cultivation, initiating long cycles of conflict over land and at times forcing Uru to migrate and assimilate with dominant ethnic groups.

By the 1930-40s, the last group of Uru still remaining on Lake Poopó were forced to settle on land (Miranda, Moricio, Alvarez & Barragán, 1992). Out of the lake, their intimate bond with the water continued to offer a justification to other communities to deny them access to land. In addition, they gradually lost control over their access to water resources due to competition over, reduction and contamination of those resources. In the decades after pejerrey (silverside) fish was introduced in the lake in the 1950s, surrounding communities set up enterprises that obtained fishing concessions, an economy that boomed in the 1980s (Rocha Olivio, 2002, p. 97). In the following decades, the lake started to suffer more frequently from serious drying cycles (Satgé et al., 2017). Moreover, the effects of water extraction for irrigation and contamination caused by urban and mining activities became more evident. Pollution levels disturbed the dynamics that had interwoven Uru and lake life, taking the adaptive potential of the Uru’s survival strategy to the edge.

‘Heritage’ as an attempted ecological and cultural revitalization strategy

The changes in Lake Poopó started to attract attention among scientists and public institutions in the late 1970s, and especially from the 1990s onwards (Coronado Pando, 2009). This led to the design of action plans to combat drought and desertification with financial and technical support from international cooperation, including a major EU programme, and new initiatives to monitor changes in the broader water basin system that interconnected with Lake Titicaca (OEA, 1996; Comisión de las Comunidades Europeas & República de Perú y Bolivia, 1993; Vazquez Ruiz, 2018). Under growing national and international attention, and as a way of protecting the area’s biodiversity and culture, Lake Poopó was declared National Heritage and Ecological Reserve in 2000 by the Bolivian state. In 2002, the site was designated as a conservation site under the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Despite the research, the money and institutional arrangements, the heritage and conservation site was officially declared evaporated in December 2015. A year earlier, the massive death of aquatic fauna in the lake had already led to the declaration of Lake Poopó as a ‘natural disaster zone’ by the regional government, to enable authorities and international organizations to attract resources for the recovery of the lake’s water level and its biodiversity as well as communities’ livelihoods. However, few concrete initiatives followed. Around that time, the 14 million EU programme for the conservation and rehabilitation of the Poopó basin came to an end, unable to prevent the lake’s transformation to a ‘puddle’ on the brink of completely disappearing.

Just as during previous declines of the lake, the dramatic events in 2015 provoked scientific analyses, campaigns and popular media reports that tend to frame the fate of Lake Poopó and the Uru Qot Z’oñi as a rather linear tale of inevitable disappearance. Already in the 1990s, there was critique about how scientific and political responses to the desertification and contamination of the lake failed to consult and include Uru perspectives and experiences (Schwarz, 1996). Both the lake and the Qot Z’oñi tend to be reduced to passive residues of water and cultural practices respectively, detached from the intimate relations between not only water and humans, but also plants, animals, salt, and spiritual ‘presences’ (De Munter, Quintero & Rocha, 2019). Against such rather victimizing discourses, the remaining Qot Z’oñi community leaders and their families seek to revitalize their fragmented community organization and political representation. After establishing the ‘indigenous Uru nation’ in 1992 among different Uru groups, they initiated a demand for land titles before the National Institute for Land Reform in 1997, based on colonial documents that proved their control over the entire lake area. While unsuccessful, they gained access to some small patches of land around the lake thanks to land donations. This material reconstruction of their territory was accompanied by political mobilization and the recovery of ceremonial and artistic links with the lake. Since 2000, the Uru communities surrounding the lake have restored – and partially reinvented – the annual ritual offering to ‘Qucha Mama’, Mother Lake. Through artisanal crafts with different reed types that grow in and around the lake, the Uru families are generating a new, albeit precarious source of income, thereby demonstrating their rich knowledge of plant and animal life in and around the lake.

Annual ritual offering to ‘Qucha Mama’ in Lake Poopó. Picture by author, 30 August 2022.
Young Qot Z’oñi women walking towards what remains of the lake. Picture by author, 30 August 2022.

This process of revitalization and visibilization culminated in 2019 with the declaration of a law, co-designed among the communities and public institutions, to recognise their mutual bond with the lake as intangible heritage, thereby identifying the lake as a ‘traditional life space’ (Bolivia: Ley No 1255, 2019). ‘Heritage’ in this case encompasses knowledges, ancestral wisdom, subsistence practices, and ecological resources including the landscape produced through those knowledges and practices. Reflecting recent developments around biocultural heritage management, the law offers a good example of how indigenous peoples seek to bridge entrenched dichotomies between cultural heritage and nature conservation by recovering and demanding recognition for ‘traditional’ resource management practices in specific landscapes (Bridgewater, Rotherham, & Rozzi, 2019). Often, such examples derive from science- and or state-initiated conservation projects that seek to integrate indigenous knowledges as directly imported from an inert past (Sarmiento & Hitchner, 2019). Different from the 2000 heritage status, the Uru leadership was the demanding party for this law and was directly involved in its formulation, attempting to create an instrument that allows them to steward their historical memory and their landscape.

Of course, opting for heritage status is a well-known pragmatic strategy to bolster indigenous rights claims and generate economic perspectives. Article 3 of the law states explicitly that it aims to

promote actions … oriented towards … strengthening cooperation measures at the municipal, regional, departmental and national levels, to ensure that the Uru Indigenous Nation fully exercises its civil, social, economic, political, cultural, linguistic, educational, health, environmental rights, [and] respect for its ancestral lands and territories, housing, tourism, and hunting and fishing of unprotected wild animals.

However, as of today these remain mostly symbolic words, as a regulation still needs to be elaborated to be able to implement the law.

Mural in the community of Vilañeque. Picture by author, 2022.

Water, property, and reconciliation: The limits of heritage in the lake Poopó basin

The insecure future of the lake highlights the limits of heritage as a strategy for securing material and cultural rights. While Uru communities perceive the recognition of the site as Uru heritage as a means to defend their rights, it will not undo centuries of discrimination and othering, portraying the Uru as ‘savages’ and exploiting them in semi-enslaved relations. On top of landscape transformations depleting Uru heritage, the perpetuating unequal socio-economic relations with those communities constantly undermines the stewarding of Uru ‘traditional life space’. As the heritage status is explicitly linked to water, and not to a land-based territory, there will be every time ‘less’ heritage while the lake continues retreating. At the same time, the patches of dry land that appear tend to be seized by neighbouring indigenous non-Uru communities, even though this land is officially designated as state property.

It remains challenging to envision how heritage can help to disrupt the stark (inter-indigenous) inequalities and fragilities that have reorganized Lake Poopó into a sacrifice zone, and create openings towards ‘living together’. Yet, while this heritage of knowledge and practices is mostly a symbolic and nostalgic site for younger Uru generations—having never eaten fish from the lake, let alone been fishing in the lake—it nurtures a first step of reconciliation with their identity as ‘people of the lake’. It also forces authorities to recognize the Uru people and their culture, and sit around the table to support this process of revitalization, however still conditioning that process to its link with water without viable bases for recovering land rights.


Barra Saavedra, S. Z. de la, Lara Barrientos, M., & Coca Cruz, R. O. (2011). Exclusión y subalternidad de los urus del lago Poopó: discriminación en la relación mayorías y minorías étnicas. La Paz, Bolivia: PIEB.

Bolivia: Ley No 1255, 25 de octubre de 2019, no. 1255. (2019). Retrieved from

Bridgewater, P., Rotherham, I. D., & Rozzi, R. (2019). A critical perspective on the concept of biocultural diversity and its emerging role in nature and heritage conservation. People and Nature, 1(3), 291–304.

Comisión de las Comunidades Europeas & República de Perú y Bolivia. (1993). Plan director global binacional de protección – prevención de inundaciones y aprovechamiento de los recursos del lago Titicaca, Rio Desaguadero, Lago Poopo y Lago Salar de Coipasa (Sistema T.D.P.S.). La Paz, Bolivia: Intecsa, AR, CNR.

Coronado Pando, F. (2009). Una mirada a tres investigaciones sobre el lago Poopó. Tinkazos, 12(27), 183–186.

De Munter, K., Quintero, H. F. T., & RochaGrimoldi, R. C. (2019). Atencionalidad y líneas de vida en la malla Poopó-uru-qotzuñi (“gente del agua”). Antípoda: Revista de Antropología y Arqueología, 34, 19–40.

Ibarra Grasso, D. E. (1962). Los desconocidos Urus del Poopó. Zeitschrift Für Ethnologie, 87(1), 77-92.

Mamani Humérez, F., & Reyes Zárate, R. (2005). Conflictos intercomunitarios por el control del espacio. Aymaras y urus en la region del lago Poopó, 1770-1900. In XVIII Reunión Anual de Etnología 2004 (pp. 13-44). La Paz, Bolivia: MUSEF.

Marti-Cardona, B., & Torres-Batlló, J. (2021, January 11). Lake Poopó: why Bolivia’s second largest lake disappeared – and how to bring it back. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Miranda Mamani, L., Moricio Choque, D., Alvarez de Moricio, S., & Barragán R., R. (1992). Memorias de un olvido: testimonios de vida Uru-Muratos. La Paz, Bolivia: ASUR/hisbol.

OEA. (1996). Diagnóstico Ambiental del Sistema Titicaca-Desaguadero-Poopo-Salar de Coipasa (Sistema TDPS) Bolivia-Perú. Washington, D.C., USA: Organización de Estados Americanos,.

Perreault, T. (2020). Climate Change and Climate Politics: Parsing the Causes and Effects of the Drying of Lake Poopó, Bolivia. Journal of Latin American Geography, 19(3), 26–46.

Rocha Olivio, O. (2002). Diagnóstico de los recursos naturales y culturales de los lagos Poopo y Uru Uru, Oruro – Bolivia: para su nominación como Sitio Ramsar. La Paz, Bolivia: Convención RAMSAR.

Sarmiento, F., & Hitchner, S. (2019). Preface. In F. Sarmiento & S. Hitchner (Eds.), Indigeneity and the sacred: indigenous revival and the conservation of sacred natural sites in the Americas (pp. xiv – xxi). New York, USA: Berghan Books.

Satgé, F., Espinoza, R., Zolá, R. P., Roig, H., Timouk, F., Molina, J., Garnier, J., Calmant, S., Seyler, F., & Bonnet, M.-P. (2017). Role of Climate Variability and Human Activity on Poopó Lake Droughts between 1990 and 2015 Assessed Using Remote Sensing Data. Remote Sensing, 9(3), 218. doi:10.3390/rs9030218

Schwarz, B. (1996). La categoría neocolonial en la problemática ecológica de la Quta Pupu y del petpuju: Algunas consideraciones sobre el aspecto socio-étnico-cultural. In H. D. Ruiz, A. M. Mansilla, & W. I. Vargas (Eds.), Reunión Anual de Etnología 1995 (pp. 13–44). La Paz, Bolivia: MUSEF.

Vazquez Ruiz, A. (2018). Strengthening of clientelism by development cooperation. The case of the EU “Poopó Basin Program” (2010-2015) in Lake Poopó Basin (ORURO, BOLIVIA). Master thesis. Ghent, Belgium: Ghent University.

Wachtel, N. (1978). Hommes d’eau: le problème uru (XVIe-XVIIe siècle). Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 33(5-6), 1126–1159.

Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 2 – Castle of Good Hope: from bastion of colonialism to beacon of decolonization?

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On 9 August 2017, a couple dozen activists gathered in front of the Castle of Good Hope in central Cape Town to mark International Indigenous People’s Day. Constructed between 1666 and 1679 at the behest of the Dutch East India Company, the Castle is South Africa’s oldest surviving colonial building and the epicentre from which settler colonialism spread across the subcontinent, leaving the indigenous people, commonly known as ‘Khoi and San’ or ‘Khoisan’ — a controversial term, subjugated, decimated and dispossessed (Verbuyst, 2022). Using the Castle as a base of operations, European settlers eventually broke down the Khoisan’s resistance and chased them away from the lands they traditionally occupied (Adhikari, 2010). The Khoisan could remain only as pacified colonial labourers with a Christianized identity stripped of references to indigenous culture, identity and modes of subsistence. This protracted process of assimilation reached its peak with the promulgation of the Population Registration Act of 1950, through which the apartheid regime categorized people according to supposedly innate and neatly bounded racial identities. The Khoisan were thereby definitively lumped together alongside various others, such as descendants of enslaved people from Asia and East Africa, as ‘Coloureds’: a label devoid of indigeneity, vaguely denoting mixed-race origins and situated between ‘Whites’ (i.e. Europeans and Afrikaners), ‘Blacks’ (i.e. the majority Bantu-speaking demographic) and ‘Indians’. Badgered by centuries of oppression, most Khoisan internalized their ‘Coloured’ identity and lost any meaningful connection to their ancestral roots, even if some kept the awareness alive covertly (Øvernes, 2019; Bam, 2021).

This changed dramatically with the democratic transition of 1994, when increasing numbers of ‘Coloureds’ were reclaiming Khoisan identities with a vengeance. Ever since, more and more Khoisan activists are demanding recognition and reparations from the state. One such occasion was the aforementioned protest, where the activists attempted to form an “Aboriginal Khoisan human chain” around the Castle to highlight how the Khoisan were still not recognized as indigenous people by the post-apartheid state, how their historical land claims unjustly fell outside of the scope of the official land reform program, and how the Khoisan were marginalized in various other cultural, political and economic domains (SAHRC, 2018). The Castle was chosen as the location to stage the protest due to its historical and symbolic significance and because it houses museums dealing with military history, art and colonialism, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Together with other dissenters, various Khoisan were for centuries imprisoned and tortured at the Castle, a history currently not adequately recognized and represented according to the activists. The “slaughterhouse” embodied centuries of unsubdued oppression. For them, it was better to tear down the offensive structure altogether.

However, not all Khoisan share in this damnation of the Castle. There have been various self-styled “decolonization” initiatives by the management of the Castle, which many Khoisan support or have givenimpetus to (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019). It is moreover important to take into account that the Castle is not just a museum hub, a provincial and national heritage site or a popular location to host public events. Remarkably, as it remains under the custodianship of the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, the Castle still hosts military ceremonies and houses military equipment and personnel. Given the shared use of the site, the Castle is governed by its own legislation, the 1993 Castle Management Act, and since 2013, by a CEO and management board made up of representatives from various public entities, including the military, the city of Cape Town and South African Tourism Board. We do not have the space in this article to extensively detail the ways in which all stakeholders utilize and relate to the Castle. Rather, in keeping with the overarching theme of the blog series, we want to show below how the Khoisan are engaging with the Castle as ‘heritage’ in order to contest and/or (re)define the relationship between the site and the growing Khoisan community, particularly since 2013, when the current CEO, Calvyn Gilfellan, took office with a mandate to “decolonize” the building.

Decolonizing the Castle of Good Hope

Resurrection Day Event 2018 (Rafael Verbuyst)

Indeed, together with two colleagues, Gilfellan explained in a 2019 contribution for the South African Museums Association Bulletin that a deliberate choice was made in 2013 by the Castle Control Board to “reposition, reimagine and reimage the Castle of Good Hope into a beacon of hope” (Ibid.: 11). Although the precise reasons for this timing remain unclear — the article mentions “a global call for the redefining of the museum and its sector and the national appeal to address how museums are decolonised”, it is undoubtedly related to the rise of Khoisan activism during this time, even if they were not directly involved in determining the agenda. With decolonization as “a ‘code’ word”, this agenda was articulated in terms of “nation building and reconciliation”, pursuing UNESCO World Heritage Site Status and maximising tourism potential. However, as other stakeholders are not really highlighted in the article, at the core of this “decolonization and Africanisation drive” was (and is) “direct and robust engagement and programmatic activities” with the Khoisan, as well “acknowledging the significance of the connections between the Castle and the chequered and painful past of the country”. The Castle records show hundreds of engagements with Khoisan representatives in recent years. As Gilfellan explained in various contributions in Eerste Nasie Nuus [First Nation News], a Khoisan community newspaper, this ongoing dialogue allows for the Castle to shed its image as “a bastion of white colonialism” and “transform… into a living heritage space” (Gilfellan, 2014; 2016). To facilitate this, the new CEO not only established “the Centre for Memory, Healing and Learning” – essentially a conference space — but also brought the unwritten rule into effect that the Khoisan are free to utilize the Castle for events, meetings or ceremonies.

This has allowed for a wide range of activities to take place at the Castle since, from community-organized Khoisan language classes and book launches for Khoisan authors, to !Nau ceremonies, which some Khoisan representatives use to swear in tribal members and traditional leaders, and cultural festivals. A noteworthy example of the later was Aba Te, launched by Khoisan activists in August 2015 and involving educative and creative sessions covering art, history, hunting and gathering, cooking, plants, spirituality, indigenous music and medicinal practices. A year later, the same people involved with Aba Te created a “Khoi-khoi Village Scene” at the entrance of the Castle: “a new exhibition celebrating the journey, culture, heritage and aspirations of the first indigenous people”. As the main designer explained in Eerste Nasie Nuus: “[T]he KhoiSan kraal retains all the elements of authenticity”, which creates educational opportunities for youths in particular to learn about Khoisan identity, culture and history (Eerste Nasie Nuus correspondent, 2016).

Statues of resistance fighters, unveiled in 2016 (

The CEO has also endeavoured through countless activities to have the Castle “recognized as a safe space to deal with the aftermath and pain of colonialism, slavery and apartheid” (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019: 14). Some events have been more modest, such as private ‘cleansing’ ceremonies or Khoisan-organized tours of the building highlighting traumatic legacies, whereas others have been more largescale. An example of the latter was the “Resurrection Day Event”, a religious Khoisan-themed event organized by a local church on Easter Sunday 2018. The goal was for the Khoisan to gather en masse and “spiritually take possession of the gates trauma… to go back to the original sin” and carry out “a cleansing of the curses which have lingered for centuries, especially those emanating from the Castle and its torture chambers” (Verbuyst, 2022: 159-160). Similar rhetoric surfaced in the context of the Castle’s “commemoration”, rather than “celebration”, of its 350 years existence. As part of the events marking the occasion, the “soul” of Krotoa, a 17th century Khoisan woman of note, was symbolically “reburied” at the Castle by a sizeable Khoisan contingent (SABC News, 2016). Krotoa was however not featured among the four statues of Khoisan and non-Khoisan prisoners that were unveiled in the main courtyard. Instead, Krotoa was honoured with a commemorative wooden bench in one of the smaller courtyards of the complex. This stirred up quite the controversy. Various Khoisan representatives argued that a bench was disrespectful and insignificant. They claimed they had not been meaningfully consulted on the decision (eNCA, 2016).

Beyond the Castle: ongoing heritage tensions and the limits of decolonization

The fallout over the commemorative bench is an apt reminder that the Castle’s role as ‘heritage’ remains unsettled and fiercely contested. Echoing arguments often made elsewhere about material changes being a prerequisite for decolonization (Tuck & Yang, 2012), some of the Khoisan desire total ownership of the site and do not agree with the “nation-building” dimension of the Castle’s rebranding exercise (Gilfellan, Hendricks & Sipoyo, 2019: 13). Others want to transform the structure itself in more profound ways or become part of the Castle Control Board, which they are currently not represented in. William Langeveldt, a prominent activist who also temporarily acted as a Khoisan representative to the United Nations, has long been campaigning to transform the “Stone-Kraal” into a “Place of Love and Indigenous Healing” and the headquarters of a “Ministry of Indigenous Affairs” (Verbuyst, 2022: 253). In Langeveldt’s view, this would require renaming the five bastions of the Castle after indigenous nations, creating “storage facilities for organic food production” and “using the roofs to generate solar and wind energy”. So far, these types of ideas have not been taken on board by the management team at the Castle. There are also pressures for the Castle to respond to issues that do not directly relate to the building itself. At the 2017 Indigenous Peoples’ Day protest there was a telling moment when the protesters ceased marching across the perimeter of the Castle and pointed out how a group of homeless people, some of them stuck on social housing waiting lists for decades, had set up shelter just outside of the Castle’s walls. To the activists, their living conditions symbolized the ongoing marginalization of the Khoisan as many were “still” forced to sleep outside on the pavement and did not have decent access to basic services and infrastructure.

Housing is evidently not the responsibility of the Castle Management Board; nor can it satisfy everyone’s demands or is disagreement among the Khoisan something the Castle should get involved in. And yet, because it is such a symbolically significant location and housing conditions have such a painful historical legacy in South Africa, the Castle quickly becomes the focal point of these types of broader calls for decolonization linked to urgently needed material change. The Castle is not the only heritage site being contested in this manner in the City (or elsewhere). Just a few kilometres further, there is a fierce ongoing battle over the Two Rivers Urban Park, part of which is currently being redeveloped into a commercial and residential complex, with Amazon as the anchor tenant (Charles, 2022). Here too, the Khoisan community is split between those conditionally supporting the redevelopment and those opposing it on grounds that it is allegedly located on a “sacred site”. What makes the Castle unique, however, is that it has committed itself to decolonization and made it a priority to include the Khoisan in particular in decision making processes and dialogue, or at least allow them to use the space to host events, meetings and rituals. Further research is needed to ascertain how non-Khoisan stakeholders — the military in particular — feature in the Castle’s decolonization agenda and respond to Khoisan activism and its diverse engagements with the building. Moreover, the debate is ongoing about whether the Castle’s take on “decolonization” is in line with, a response to, or an attempt to co-opt the diverse calls for decolonization by Khoisan activists. However, as one Khoisan academic recognizes, for now the Castle’s decolonization agenda has allowed the Khoisan to create “a counter narrativewithin the space… by counter curating the castle as a site of memory” (Bam-Hutchison, 2016: 24). Ironically then, though not by coincidence, because of the Castle’s commitment to explore creative solutions and think outside of the box about ‘heritage’, the old bastion of colonialism and symbol of Khoisan oppression is becoming a prime facilitator for the growing indigenous revival movement in South Africa.


Adhikari, M. (2010). The Anatomy of a South African Genocide: The Extermination of the Cape San Peoples. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Bam-Hutchison, J. (2016). Lalela: Occupying Knowledge Practices and Processes in Higher Education in South Africa (UCT as Case Study). Paper presented at the Social Anthropology department at University of Cape Town, Cape Town, 1 March.

Bam, J. (2021). Ausi Told Me: Why Cape Herstoriographies Matter. Cape Town: Jacana.

Charles, M. (2022, April 7). Work on River Club continues despite court order halting R6bn redevelopment. News24. Retrieved from

Eerste Nasie Nuus correspondent. (2016). Castle exhibition affirms first nation. Eerste Nasie Nuus, July edition, 15.

eNCA. (2016). Khoi community protesters disrupt Krotoa monument ceremony. YouTube. Retrieved from

Gilfellan, C. (2014). Castle Cool and Creepy at the Same Time. Eerste Nasie Nuus, September edition, 2.

Gilfellan, C. (2016). Castle, Centre of Shared Heritage. Eerste Nasie Nuus, November edition, 5.

Gilfellan, C., Hendricks, D., & Sipoyo, G. (2019). The Decolonisation of South Africa’s Oldest Surviving Colonial Building: Lessons From the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. South African Museums Association Bulletin (41), 10-19.

Øvernes, S. (2019). Street Khoisan: On Belonging, Reconciliation and Survival. Pretoria: UNISA Press.

SABC News. (2016). Mapisa-Nqakula on unveiling a monument in honour of Krotoa. YouTube. Retrieved from

South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) (2018). Report of the South African Human Rights Commission: National Hearing Relating to the Human Rights Situation of the Khoi-San in South Africa. Cape Town: South African Human Rights Commission.

Tuck, E., & Yang, W. (2012). Decolonization is not a Metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education Society, 1 (1), 1-40.

Verbuyst, R. (2022). Khoisan Consciousness: An Ethnography of Emic Histories and Indigenous Revivalism in Post-Apartheid Cape Town. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Blog series – Heritage, belonging and land: global perspectives on Grace Ndiritu’s ‘A Season of Truth and Reconciliation’ – Blog 1 – Het Pand

Blog 2

Blog 3

On a warm September evening in 2021, we joined a group of residents, researchers, and activists at the centre for contemporary art Kunsthal, which is part of the 13th century Caermersklooster, the old Carmelite convent in Ghent’s historic city centre. On the trail of plundering iconoclasts, poor working class families, young artists and the monks once shuffling through these corridors, we attended a “therapeutic Townhall Meeting”, convened by artist Grace Ndiritu. The meeting concerned the fate of the neighbouring building, the second monastery courtyard dubbed het Pand. Since the mid-19th century, the galleries of het Pand were reorganized into tiny houses for poor families. When the Province of East Flanders acquired the property in the late 1970s, residents were threatened with eviction to make way for real estate developers. However, the Province dropped its plans in the face of the Pandinisten, an activist collective successfully advocating social housing. 2020 saw a renewed push for privatisation, with the Province and the social housing company WoninGent announcing their intention to sell part of the building complex. This once again triggered fierce opposition from activists and squatters, this time going by ‘Pandemisten’ in reference to their predecessors and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participating in the Townhall Meeting made us reflect on the global dimensions of the ongoing dispute over het Pand. Our enquiry was framed and nurtured by Ndiritu’s A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, which ran from September to December 2021 as part of her art project Ghent: How to Live Together (Ndiritu, 2021a). Informed by the site’s rich history and contested sites elsewhere, particularly involving indigenous people, Ndiritu’s “season” included a movie night, a reading group, a public debate, sharing local knowledge and assembling a community archive (see below). An international ‘truth and reconciliation’ perspective on the conflict over het Pand guided all events, drawing as well on Ndiritu’s ongoing project Healing The Museum and her work on non-rational healing and radical pedagogical methodologies (Ndiritu, 2021b; 2021c). Collaborating with legal specialist Julie Van Elslande of the Brussels-based artists’ initiative Jubilee, A Season of Truth and Reconciliation is also one the art trajectories of Jubilee’s collective research project Emptor, which interrogates the concept of “property” in the quest for an ecology of practices on the field  of visual arts ( A Season of Truth and Reconciliation deliberately goes beyond the Caermersklooster, examining what the situated dispute in this historical, European urban place can teach us on practices of “living together” in contested sites.

Ndiritu’s international lens on het Pand facilitated a framework for us in this blog series to critically reflect on our own research on indigenous people and their ongoing struggles to access and/or assert rights over heritage sites in South Africa (Rafael) and the Andes (Hanne): What happens to a place-related community’s identity and their way(s) of life, as well as the place itself and its identity, when that place is being (re)claimed as heritage? How do (re)claimed heritage sites become the object of      community dispossession, displacement, and revitalization (Cottyn, 2022; Verbuyst, 2022)? Tackling cases that might at first sight have little in common, we identify topics, questions and challenges that can inform future research and policy regarding contested heritage. Broaching topics such as indigenous rights, property law, commoning and the role of ‘archives’, we are particularly interested in the relationship between heritage, belonging, and community and their relationship to what Laurajane Smith famously called the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’, i.e. Western/conventional management, assessment and conservation perspectives about ‘heritage’ (Smith, 2006). As Smith and others remind us, ‘heritage’ is always subject to ‘heritagization’: the process of defining, valorising and contesting something as ‘heritage’, which usually encompasses tangible and intangible features and involves various stakeholders (Harvey, 2001). With recent decades bringing heritage issues sharper into focus, resulting in new conceptual proposals including “heritage from below”, “heritage otherwise”, or “decolonial heritage”, many have argued that we need to think more outside the box and explore heritage’s relation to social struggles, local heritage knowledge, decolonial epistemologies, property regimes, and (a lack of) community participation (Arregui, Mackenthun & Wodianka, 2018; Ginzarly, Farah & Teller, 2019; Bigenho & Stobart, 2018; Robertson, 2016).

In this vein, our three cases demonstrate diverse questions of legal ownership (this blog), colonial legacies (the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, blog 2), and environmental change (Lake Poopó in Bolivia, blog 3). In each blog, we situate the contested land, and the historical trajectory of the property or use rights over it. We sketch a brief history of “belonging” and community formation at the site, survey the contemporary problems, and discuss the tensions and protagonists, as well as the strategies and potential creative solutions that have been put forward, with an emphasis on the theme of ‘truth and reconciliation’. In the remainder of this post, we engage in this exercise by expanding on the case of het Pand and Ndiritu’s A Season of Truth and Reconciliation.

A history of belonging

Caermersklooster, 2011. Wernervc, Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout history, the Caermersklooster complex has been drawn intimately into the rhythms of diverse projects of community making, religious worshipping, housing, artistic creation, and capital production. This history of belonging starts with the Carmelites procuring the property in 1287 (see Vandamme, 2021). An strong bond emerged between the monks and the wider neighbourhood as they built more structures on the site from the 14th century onwards. The monastery was plundered during the Reformation in the second half of the 16th century, but Catholics eventually regained control of the city. A long process of recovery and expansion of both the building and monastic life ensued. However, the Order of the Carmelites was abolished in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution and the monastery was declared private property. The “kerkfabriek”, the institution overseeing the Church’s assets and property, eventually assumed ownership in 1841. In 1881, the City of Ghent acquired the church and restored the site in neogothic style. Thecomplex hosted an archaeological museum, later the Museum of Folklore and it was eventually used for storage. The church was declared a protected monument in 1943, encompassing the entire complex by 1980. In 1977, the Province of East Flanders assumed ownership of the rest of the monastery complex.

Impoverished labourers had meanwhile settled in the former monastery hoping to find employment in Ghent’s booming textile industry. The galleries surrounding het Pand were restructured into tiny houses in the mid-19th century. While participating in Ndiritu’s ‘Local Knowledge’ event, Norbert, a former resident, described a fairly closed community with strict rules and strong social and religious traditions in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from his family, only unmarried women lived between the walls of the building, whose concierge reportedly locked the outside doors every night by 10 pm: “It was something between a prison and a beguinage [housing for lay religious women who lived in community]”. The space opened up in the 1970s, when mostly poor students from the nearby art school began occupying rooms on the top floor of het Pand. While het Pand had been repurposed for social housing to support the neighbourhood’s poor residents, it became an eyesore to politicians and investors. In the late 1970s, the Province revealed plans to sell its stake of the complex on the private market, dismissing pleas by tenants to maintain the housing function of the site. While these kinds of evictions were later declared unlawful, various people, such as the parents of Norbert, were forced out in the 1980s.

Others stayed behind and resisted. A coalition of poor residents, students and artists, mainly youngsters without domicile, formed an organization, mischievously called Pandinistisch Verblijvingsfront [Pandinist Residence Front], after the Nicaraguan Liberation Front. The Pandinisten sought to safeguard the right to housing, juxtaposing “erfgoed” (heritage/patrimony) with “vastgoed” (real estate/property). The group had their own pirate radio and newspaper and received support from locally renowned artists. Luc recalls how their often radical tactics were infused with playful and artistic elements, which helped win over the public opinion in Ghent. Authorities eventually opted for a “revaluation” of the site as well as an overall gentrification of the neighbourhood into a picturesque, touristy district. Now in the hands of the municipality, het Pand retained its social housing function and restoration works followed in the 1990s. The Province meanwhile restored the church hall.

Het Pand between community and market

As het Pand entered the 21st century, it continued to be occupied by people looking for social housing, and a tree, which had been planted by the Pandinisten. Since 2018, most of the Caermersklooster is owned by the City of Ghent, which includes the Kunsthal in the church hall since 2019, but a large portion of the complex remains under control of the Province. Towards the end of 2020, the City, Province and the social housing company managing the site, WoninGent, announced their plans to sell their property on the private market, arguing that there are no possibilities to use the building for public purposes. A group of (non-)squatting activists swiftly joined the sole family remaining at het Pand in response to this announcement. Inspired by their predecessors and the COVID-19 pandemic, the arguments, demands and tactics of the ‘Pandemists’ resonated strongly with those of the 1970s and 1980s. Advocating for social housing, the constitutional right to a dignified life and greater participation in decision-making, the activists claim the municipal government disregards its (in)tangible heritage by selling off historical buildings and forgetting about ‘people’ in its ‘development’ agenda (De Pandemisten, 2021; see also These sentiments grew even more prominent when a judge ordered the evacuation of the site in December 2021.

Collectively reflecting on these grievances during A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, international parallels surfaced alongside a strong emphasis on the relationship between (in)tangible heritage and belonging. Both tend to get lost in the more managerial and utilitarian discourse on heritage and its emphasis on the material and financial sustainability, which the City and the Province at times promulgates. As Emilie, the last resident of het Pand, argued during the ‘Local Knowledge’ event, the site has incredible historical value, but this value is intrinsically linked with its social, housing, and artistic role in Ghent. The Pandemisten indeed explicitly engage broader critiques on social crises around housing, gentrification and citizen participation across the Ghent region, Europe and beyond (Grazioli, 2021; Neven, 2021). Different generations of residents also expressed a strong sense of unrecognized belonging performed through communal or customary practices. During A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, (former) residents argued that practicing ‘property’ through ways of commoning was explicitly/implicitly constant across the history of the Caermersklooster: from the 13th century Carmelites to the social housing tenants today.

Het Pand Community Archive, Kunsthal Gent. Grace Ndiritu and Jubilee vzw, 2022.

From the interweaving of materials and people, het Pand thus emerged as a “meshwork” of relationships of belonging in which knowledge and meaning is enmeshed (Lefebvre, 1991; Ingold, 2015). Articulating het Pand as a threatened fabric of intimate associations, residents argued during A Season of Truth and Reconciliation that you cannot subdivide the space of het Pand. It must be taken as a whole, as “inextricably” connected with the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. This form of life that sustains the meshwork that keeps het Pand together is what they want to safeguard and celebrate. As former Pandenist Luc put it, het Pand allows for “a form of dwelling (wonen), and in that sense a kind of heritage.” A kind of heritage that exceeds the definition and practices of heritage management currently proposed by public authorities and private investors, and whose revitalisation relies on interpersonal rather than monetary agreements. 

As part of their response to the contestations over het Pand, Grace and Julie aimed to document this (conceptualization of) living and dwelling through the curation of a ‘community archive’, which was on display for several months. Informed by Jubilee’s research, the input from various community members and the public, and efforts to involve all stakeholders invested in the site and its future, the archive traces the many historical users of the building, its changing property status, and shifting institutional management of the place over time. In line with Ndiritu’s overarching project of Healing the Museum, the initiative demonstrates how collaborative artistic projects can generate productive spaces of dialogue with institutions around creative resistance and alternative practices of heritage (Serafini, 2022). This initiative in the spirit of truth and reconciliation is partially responsible for the fact that residents feel there is greater room for participation in the ongoing negotiations, even if tensions still regularly run high. A report looking into possible design for het Pand was ordered by the City in the meantime (Miss Miyagi, 2021), and venues for dialogue were facilitated by public institutions, activists and artists. While city officials and WoninGent usually did not respond to invitations to engage in dialogue, the municipality recently organised a series of “city debates” about the Caermersklooster in direct response to A Season of Truth and Reconciliation – the results of which will be presented in September 2022 (Personal communication Grace Ndiritu; see also Meanwhile, the use and purpose of the site is everchanging, with the Province announcing plans to host refugees at the site in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and programmes for troubled youths being organized by youth organizations and networks (Schouppe, 2022; Van Waeyenberghe, 2022).

When the building’s ownership passed from the “kerkfabriek” to the Province, the former owner explicitly expressed its trust in the new owner’s intentions and capacities to maintain the building’s historical purpose. Whether the site of het Pand remains true to its history, if chequered, of community building is yet to be seen. While the possibility of a sell off on the private market remains, several innovative options have been identified to do this in coordination with public authorities, under certain heritage arrangements, and/or the community, so as to ensure their right to their own kind of heritage.


Arregui, A., Mackenthun, G., & Wodianka, S. (2018). DEcolonial Heritage: Natures, Cultures, and the Asymmetries of Memory. Münster: Waxmann Verlag.

Bigenho, M., & Stobart, H. (2018). Grasping Cacophony in Bolivian Heritage Otherwise. Anthropological Quarterly, 91(4), 1329–1363.

Cottyn, H. (2022). The More-than-human Histories of a Dying Lake. The Uru-Qotzuñi and Lake Poopó, Bolivia. Paper presented at the POLLEN22/3 conference, 27 July.

De Pandemisten (2021, May 29). Stop de verkoop van ‘t Pand (Caermersklooster Gent). De Wereld Morgen. Retrieved from

Ginzarly, M., Farah, J., & Teller, J. (2019). Claiming a role for controversies in the framing of local heritage values. Habitat International, 88 (101982).

Grazioli, M. (2021). Housing, urban commons and the right to the city in post-crisis Rome. Lonon: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harvey, D. C. (2001). Heritage Pasts and Heritage Presents: temporality, meaning and the scope of heritage studies. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7 (4), 319–338.

Ingold, T. (2015). The life of lines. New York: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The production of space. New York: Blackwell.

Miss Miyagi, (2021). Eindrapport – Caermersklooster. Retrieved from

Neven, B. (2021, December 9). De Gentse krakers van ‘Het Pand’ zetten de wooncrisis op de agenda.Vice. Retrieved from

Ndiritu, G. (2021a). Ghent: How to live together. Retrieved from

Ndiritu, G. (2021b). Healing The Museum. Retrieved from

Ndiritu, G. (2021c). Being Together: A Manual For Living. Hasselt: KRIEG.

Robertson, I. J. M. (2016). Heritage from below. London/ New York: Routledge.

Schouppe, W. (2022, March 11). Oost-Vlaanderen maakt noodopvang voor vluchtelingen uit Oekraïne in Caermersklooster in Gent.VRT NWS. Retrieved from

Serafini, P. (2022). Creating worlds otherwise. Nashville: Vanderbildt University Press.

Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. New York/London: Routledge.

Vandamme, G. (2021). Het Caermersklooster te Gent: een (bouw)historische benadering. Retrieved from

Van Waeyenberghe, S. (2022, March 3). Nu de krakers weg zijn, heeft Caermersklooster nieuwe tijdelijke functie: “Een ontmoetingsplek voor jongeren”. HLN. Retrieved from

Verbuyst, R. (2022). Khoisan Consciousness: An Ethnography of Emic Histories and Indigenous Revivalism in Post-Apartheid Cape Town. Leiden/Boston: Brill.

Episode 6: Are we in the age of Anthropocene?

In the 6th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews environmental historian and historical geographer, Jason W. Moore. Moore’s work radically upsets the Nature-Society dualism of capitalism both materially and symbolically manifested in the logic of Anthropocene. We discuss the periodization of history, its framing, and the kind of role it played in shaping our interpretation of climate change and the inanimate world.

Book Review – Watershed Politics and Climate Change in Peru, by Astrid B. Stensrud. Pluto Press, 2021

In this ethnographic account, Astrid B. Stensrud explores the ways in which water is perceived and used. Based on 13 months of ethnographic work between 2011 and 2014, the book provides a vivid description of how social practices, legal frameworks, and the changing weather due to climate change and insecure water supplies influence the pluralities of understandings and practices linked to water. The book adds to the corpus of scholarly work that recognizes the ontological pluralism of water (Perreault et al., 2018) and contributes to the debates on water justice.
The ethnographic work took place in a critical period: during Peru’s implementation and adaptation of a new regulatory framework on water management, in line with the neoliberal policy adopted by the Peruvian water sector since 2000 (Harris & Roa-García, 2013). The first pilot for a river basin council implemented through the 2009 Water Law was initiated in the very region where the study took place (Arequipa), in the neighbouring watershed of Quilca-Chili. Arequipa is also a region where there are ongoing, long-lasting social conflicts over water sources (as the case of Tia Maria (Dunlap, 2019)) and a region that has litigated at the higher courts to prioritize scarce water sources in irrigation projects to expand agro-business in the desert (Majes Siguas) (La República, 2012; Ruíz, 2011).
Throughout the duration of the study, there was debate on the right to water at the national level (which the book omits). Between 2000 (the return to democracy) and 2011 there were no constitutional amendment proposals concerning the right to water. However, between 2011 and 2012, all political parties with representation in the national Congress issued bills for constitutional amendments (seven in total). But all the bills contained a limited understanding of water rights and linked the right to drinkable water to other fundamental rights. The rights mostly referenced were the rights to health and life. In 2017, Peru passed constitutional reform Article 7-A recognizing the fundamental right to water.

Within this context of regulatory changes, which also consolidated a neoliberal approach to water management, Stensrud’s book, organized into seven well-structured chapters, provides an informed analysis of the changes in the social relations in the Colca-Majes watershed, offering a detailed report on the multiple dimensions of these relations. While recognizing the transformation and resistance produced by the 2009 Water Law and the water management structures generated by the law, Stensrud’s ethnographic work shows that in these transformations climate change is also playing a role. Yet, Stensrud goes beyond describing the inhabitants of Arequipa’s perceptions of climate change (Bowling et al., 2021) and water stress, accounting for how this phenomenon is already shaping social relations and the relationship between the watershed inhabitants, the mountains and the springs, as well as the water authorities.


Bowling, L. C., Mazer, K. E., Bocardo-Delgado, E., Frankenberger, J. R., Pinto, J., Popovici, R., & Prokopy, L. S. (2021). Addressing Water Resources and Environmental Quality Programming Needs in Arequipa, Peru. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, 173(1), 1–12.

Dunlap, A. (2019). ‘Agro sí, mina NO!’ the Tía Maria Copper Mine, State Terrorism and Social War by Every Means in the Tambo Valley, Peru. Political Geography, 71, 10–25.

Harris, L. M., & Roa-García, M. C. (2013). Recent Waves of Water Governance: Constitutional Reform and Resistance to Neoliberalization in Latin America (1990–2012). Geoforum, 50, 20–30.

La República. (2012). En Arequipa alistan paro contra el Gobierno por proyecto Majes Siguas II. La República. Retrieved 14 August 2012, from:

Perreault, T., Boelens, R., & Vos, J. (2018). Introduction: Re-Politizing Water Allocation. In T. Perreault, R. Boelens & J. Vos (Eds.), Water Justice. Cambridge University Press.

Ruíz, J. C. (2011). El mundo al revés en el caso Majes Siguas II: proteger derechos constitucionales puede acarrear sanciones. Justicia Viva. Retrieved 11 April 2011, from:

Episode 5: Science and economy of selling pesticides

In the 5th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews Historian Elena Conis on how risky pesticides were culturally accepted and what kind of role did science play in its acceptance. Professor Conis explains how scientific research during war and epidemics prioritized some types of scientific questions over others, and how this approach built an economy that was geared towards selling poisonous pesticides and making them socially desirable.

Science and economy of selling pesticides by Public Anthropologist Podcast (

Podcast Episode 4: Economies of scarcity and abundance

In the 4th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews a professor of English, Candace Fujikane, on how ideas of abundance and scarcity are forged under capitalism. Professor Fujikane’s research uses cartography as a methodology to map Kanaka Maoli’s knowledge and relation of abundance with lands, seas and skies. In doing so, Fujikane’s work raises fundamental concern about the capitalist economies of scarcity, which have devastating consequences for the planet.

Public Anthropologist Award 2023 (PUAN-A)

PUAN-A is awarded to a social and cultural anthropologist who has published an outstanding contribution that addresses – in innovative, engaging and compelling ways – key societal issues related to one or more of the following topics: violence, war, poverty, social movements, freedom, aid, rights, injustice, inequality, social exclusion, racism, health, and environmental challenges.

A contribution can be any published research output – for example a book, peer reviewed article, documentary, etc.

Application: submit your research output together with your CV (2 pages) to Public Anthropologist’s Editor-in-Chief, Antonio De Lauri:

Write PUAN-A + “Title of the research output” in the subject heading.

Prize: A committee chaired by the Editor-in-Chief will select one research output for the Public Anthropologist Award. The author will receive a prize of 500 €.

Deadline for PUAN-A 2023: 15 January 2023 (for outputs published in 2021 and 2022).

For more information on the journal, please visit

Prize Winners

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2022 was Catherine Besteman for her book Militarized Global Apartheid (Duke University Press, 2020). Catherine Besteman is Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. Throughout her career, she has worked on issues related to power dynamics that produce and maintain inequality, racism, and violence, as well as collective efforts for social change. Militarized Global Apartheid effectively addresses key instances of exploitation, inequality, and division in the contemporary world. The book is a lucid and nuanced exploration of the global hierarchies that, whether we are aware of it or not, have a devastating impact on the lives of many while creating privileges for a few others.

The winner of the Public Anthropologist Award 2021 was Ather Zia for her book Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (University of Washington Press, 2019 & Zubaan Publishing, 2020). Ather Zia is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology from the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines the Indian military occupation, settler colonialism, and women’s collective political and social challenges in the disputed Indian-administered Kashmir. Resisting Disappearance is a powerful narration of the effects of oppression and political disputes on people’s everyday life. The book is engaging and shrewdly written. It effectively summarizes the broad and committed scholarship and research behind it. An excellent example of anthropology’s capacity to both inform and inspire.