Sustainabilities and Cultural Landscapes in West Namibia
Sian Sullivan, Principal Investigator
With Future Pasts, I seek to weave together several threads of interest, passion and experience. These range from explorations of embodied registers through which connections with places might be expressed; to the shaping of cultural relationships with landscapes through cartographic, colonial and capitalist framings of land and natures-beyond-the human.
I'm sometimes asked, why Namibia? My attachment to African contexts started long ago. I was born in Uganda, where my parents worked as high school teachers during the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s they lived for some years in Swaziland, southern Africa, whilst I pursued training in dance and music at schools in England, culminating with three years at the Royal Ballet Upper School, London. My first full-time job was as a dance teacher (at the Auckland Ballet Academy, New Zealand). In the late 1980s I returned to Swaziland where I lived for two years on Mlawula Nature Reserve, supporting myself through teaching dance to children in local towns associated with the lowveld's sugarcane industry. At Mlawula I was involved with and witnessed day-to-day park management: monitoring the Reserve's white rhino population; culling what was perceived to be an over-population of impala; conducting ecology research on 'the impacts of selective grazers on the herbaceous vegetation of the Siphiso Valley'; and contributing plant specimens to the Reserve's herbarium. I also came face-to-face with the multiple injustices that can be linked with the conservation of beautiful and seemingly wild landscapes: the poverty associated with loss of access to prior sources of livelihood; the lingering deaths of animals killed through snaring; the horror of rhinos I could identify as individuals killed solely for the value of their horns; and the violence of militarised policing of those involved with the deaths of conserved animals.
Whilst at Mlawula I first travelled to Namibia, becoming intrigued by the complex inscribing of colonialism and capitalism on the country's cultural histories and landscapes, and enticed by its open vistas, biocultural diversity and conservation politics. Studying for a degree in Anthropology and Geography followed (at University College London), complemented by a summer research project on livelihoods in a Mozambican Refugee Settlement in Zambia, conducted in 1991 in conjunction with the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre. During this research, a chance meeting with founder and then director of the Namibian rhino monitoring and conservation charity Save the Rhino Trust (SRT) - Blythe Loutit - initiated a collaboration with SRT to document local knowledge and uses of plants in west Namibia, and consider possibilities for small-scale income-generating activities through craft-production. 'Crafts for Conservation' was a lively endeavour based in Khorixas until Blythe's untimely death from cancer in 2005.
This initial research project in 1992 formed the basis for development of an anthropology and political ecology PhD based at University College London, concerning multifaceted Damara relationships with the west Namibian landscape and extending from 1994 to 2000 into post-doctoral research regarding perspectives on environmental change and conservation practice. Critical for this field research was my collaboration with Welhemina Suro Ganuses, a ||Khao-a Dama women from Sesfontein (!Nani-|aus / ≠ Gabia ≠Gao), who continues to play a key role in ethnographic research conducted through Future Pasts.
In the years since I have worked as a research fellow, lecturer and senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, King's College London, Warwick University, University of East Anglia, and Birkbeck (London), leading programmes in 'Environment and Development' and teaching modules on anthropology, cultural landscapes, environment and development, and qualitative research methods. I have researched social movements, alternative media, culturenature relationships, the financialisation of nature, biodiversity offsetting, and embodiment practices, contributing to emerging fields of study in political ecology, non-equilibrium ecology (with Rick Rohde), neoliberal conservation, ethnographic interpretations of KhoeSān rock art (with Chris Low) and ecocultural ethics (with Mike Hannis) (publications are available at academia.edu and researchgate). Recent research funding has been gratefully received from the ESRC (2005-2007), the Leverhulme Trust (as a Co-Investigator with the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, 2012-2016), and the AHRC (2013-2018).
Currently, I am Professor of Environment and Culture in the School of Humanities, Bath Spa University in Somerset.