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1st International workshop on Contested Territories

Approximately 40 social science scholars and activists met in the School of Geography, University of Leeds from 20 and 21 May 2019 to discuss Contested Territories, a conceptual notion aimed at focusing on the production and appropriation of space and knowledge(s) in and through often overlapping cultural, economic, environmental, political and spatial conflicts occurring at multiple sites, places and scales. Contested Territories has the scope to de-centre traditional Anglophone discourses about territory by including critical dialogues between different sets of understandings, worldviews and knowledge’s, especially those that are rooted in alternative political and social practices emerging in and from Latin America.

The international workshop in Leeds represented the first out of a series of activities supported by the White Rose University Consortium and was jointly organised by the University of Leeds, the University of Sheffield and the University of York. With the above working definition in mind, delegates from Austria, Brazil, Chile, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Peru, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela critically examined the discourses and practices that produce Contested Territories in different social, political, and geographical contexts across Latin America.

Two keynote speakers, Sofía Zaragocin (Universidad San Francisco de Quito) and Sam Halvorsen (Queen Mary University of London/LAG-UK), opened the discussion by historically and conceptually situating Contested Territories within debates around social movements, decolonisation and identity politics, and challenging participants to imagine ways of disrupting territorial knowledge and practice. Their contributions thus recognised the association of Contested Territories with specific epistemic and political projects that centre on processes of counter-mapping, resource distribution, institutional transformation, and emancipation.

In addition to the two keynote speakers, four panels, two roundtables, and a PGR-dedicated workshop on participatory video-making were the means to develop a substantial discussion around Contested Territories in Latin America. The event was multilingual in nature, encouraging participants to share their findings in person or via Skype in either English, Spanish or Portuguese. Although all presentations were delivered seamlessly, our event further highlighted the ongoing visa problems facing foreign academics trying to attend international conferences in the UK.

Despite providing a wealth of evidence from the University of Leeds and meeting all entry criteria, our keynote speaker Sofia Zaragocin was not granted a visa from the Home Office. The impact of increasingly regular visa rejections has been featured recently in a number of articles in the Observer and the Guardian. Without a change of approach from the UK government, visa delays and rejections will continue to impede our ability to collaborate with academics to tackle core global challenges related to poverty, inequality, and social exclusion at home and abroad.

The five substantive blog contributions that follow this brief introduction illustrate some of the discussions from the workshop. The papers elaborate on critical issues presented in each panel, thus serving as entry points for further reflection about the intersections of research and practice. Balderson’s and Lipari and Lehman’s blogs discuss the strong association between Contested Territories with two prevailing themes in the Latin American region—environmental destruction and extractivism. Paulsen’s and Halverson’s blogs reflect on the profound political nature of Contested Territories and the politicisation processes urban and rural actors undergo in relation to them. Paulsen examines these issues in relation to the case study of Santiago de Chile while Halvorsen invites the reader to pay attention to how territories are implicated in political socialisation. The blogs by Cottyn, Domenech and Hope further extend and enrich conceptual understandings of Contested Territories by establishing connections to ongoing debates around “commodity frontiers” (Cottyn), “regime theory” (Domenech) and “counter-assemblages” (Hope). Finally, the intervention by Olvera and colleagues discusses how the use of Forum Theatre can challenge traditional knowledge production about Contested Territories. They call to decolonise the epistemic traditions of our methodologies and to identify alternative projects that can challenge and confront processes of environmental destruction, violence, and inequality.

We invite the reader to have a look at the five contributions, the conference booklet, and the Call for Papers of the 2nd International Workshop on Contested Territories, to take place at the University of York on September 26th and 27th, 2019.