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14 November 2022
UWC Anchors Innovative Global Conference on Climate Change
The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape took another step in the fast-paced world of accelerating online platforms when it held a successful international climate conference. The event brought together leading global scholars with younger generation researchers from six continents. In a first for UWC, the conference was held with simultaneous interpretation with multiple audio channels providing professional interpretation in Spanish, French and Burmese. 

The Climate Change and Agrarian Justice Conference was held online over four days from 26-29 September 2022, with over 2 200 registered participants from 105 countries. The conference was a collaboration between PLAAS at UWC, the top-ranked academic Journal of Peasant Studies, the Transnational Institute and an informal network of young critical scholars from the global south. It was held ahead of COP27, currently underway. 

Innovating in online platforms

Quite apart from the substance of the conference, the logistics presented a learning curve, said PLAAS researcher, professor, and conference co-convenor, Professor Ruth Hall
“UWC’s Institutional Advancement team, led by Melody Williams, worked seamlessly with our PLAAS administrators to provide online hosting. While we are now all accustomed to virtual events, the new variable here was the simultaneous interpretation, which was new to us all. It was quite a spectacle. We had to have eight laptops recording separate language channels, each overseen by a staff member, all gathered in the PLAAS boardroom. And it was exhilarating to see UWC so well represented on the global stage, with several of our colleagues and post-docs presenting papers as well.”

PLAAS was able to get professional journalist support for communicating the research being shared at the conference with some welcome funding support from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. A small team of journalists coordinated social media on Facebook and Twitter throughout the conference. At the same time, a team of 20 researchers from around the world collaborated to take real-time notes in every plenary and parallel session, collating them as input for a conference report - text which was immediately available via Google Docs for journalists to use for news stories and for social media. 

In another innovation, the core messages from each day’s proceedings were summarised in a two-minute ‘explainer video’ for wide dissemination. 


“It’s a brave new world,” said Prof. Hall. “Researchers need to communicate our work better, to wider audiences, without diluting the content. To do this, we also need help, and working in partnerships with journalists really helped us to distil core messages.”

Evidence from the grassroots

Notable global scholars shared their solutions to agrarian struggles, which primarily affect the Global South. While world leaders continue to believe that carbon markets and high-tech solutions will enable us to cope with the climate crisis, research evidence from multiple countries showed that these responses actually displace smallholder farmers, erode jobs and undermine food production. Pre-existing agrarian struggles for land and livelihoods are often overlooked in an era of market-based solutions to climate change.

Scholarly research from numerous countries showcased at the conference demonstrated how climate mitigation efforts are creating ethically questionable effects, including expropriation of resource rights, displacement of rural populations and extraction of value from rural areas across countries in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

These top-down forms of mitigation shift the costs of continued emissions in the Global North onto poor populations in the Global South - populations already facing the devastating effects of climate change, which they did not cause. Instead of carbon offsets, some argue for the opposite - climate reparation. This is now central to the COP27 discussion on ‘loss and damage’.

Militarisation and violence often accompany both fossil fuel industries and ‘green’ industries, coercing rural populations into ceding their resources. The case of the Amazon and the status of indigenous people facing both legal and illegal logging was widely discussed. 

After years of under-investment by states following structural adjustment, skewed trade relations and resource-grabbing, rural populations are now hit with both the direct impacts of climate change - in the form of extreme events such as the recent Pakistan floods - but also the indirect effects including loss of farmlands, water resources, forests, rangelands, and ocean resources, as these are targeted for carbon deals.

A busy semester

This climate conference was just one of five major events that PLAAS has convened this semester. 

The first event of the semester, in August, was Land Conference 2022, focusing on tenure security of the estimated 19 million people living in communal areas of South Africa’s ex-Bantustans. It was a hybrid event with rural communities in three physical venues as well as 400 people, including academics and lawyers attending online. This conference was convened with the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC) at the University of Cape Town, the Society and Work Programme (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the Legal Resources Centre. Among the luminary scholars attending and engaging with rural communities was Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Uganda, who holds joint professorial chairs at Columbia University in New York and Makerere University in Kampala.

The second event, in September, was a Spring School in Political Economy and Political Ecology - a one-week intensive course in core theoretical tools for scholarly analysis for PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows from across 24 African countries. The course was jointly offered by PLAAS at UWC and the University of Cologne in Germany, and hosted here in Cape Town as an exclusively in-person event - a welcome reprieve from ‘Zoom fatigue’.

The third event was the Climate Change and Agrarian Justice conference explained above, which, as a global event, was held exclusively online.
The fourth event is the 4th World Small-scale Fisheries Congress to take place later this month, in November, which will be held in Cape Town but also with provision for hybrid participation. The conference highlights the struggles of fishing communities globally, to mount an informed response to the UN’s International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture as part of the global response to the Sustainable Development Goals. Here, PLAAS is collaborating, as host, with the African Development Bank, World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), among others. 

Finally, the fifth major event PLAAS will convene this year is the Writeshop in Critical Agrarian Studies and Scholar-Activism which will be held in-person on the UWC campus in December, drawing together 40 PhD candidates and post-doctoral candidates from across Africa, Asia and Latin America. The purpose is to train emerging scholars in the Global South in the world of academic publication and peer review - crucial skills for career-pathing into scholarly careers. Participants will work in small groups and be paired with 12 professors, also from across Africa, Asia and Latin America, who will serve as mentors. This is the fourth such ‘writeshop’ that PLAAS has convened in partnership with China Agricultural University and the Journal of Peasant Studies, and the first to take place in-person since the start of the COVID pandemic.

Main image: Dibakar Roy (Unsplash). Other image: Ninno Jack Jr (Unsplash)