The NorLARNet conference 2016: knowledge for a troubled world

Last week we organized the 3rd conference of the Norwegian Latin America Research Network (NorLARNet). It started the day after the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, the same day as hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Caracas, and only days after the signing of the peace accords between the FARC and the Colombian government. We could not have chosen a better point in time to discuss Latin America.

Lena Lavinas, Eduardo Gudynas, Kari Soriano Salkjelsvik, Jon Askeland, Holmfridur Gardarsdottir, Håkon Tveit, Hans Jacob Ohldiek

I think we achieved a lot during these three rainy days in Bergen. Among many other things we had in-depth discussions by our two key-note speakers on the crisis in Brazil and Venezuela, debates about current environmental challenges and the political and economic challenges after the end of the “pink-tide” era in Latin-America, presentation of a number of recent PhDs on Latin America in Norway, thorough discussions of the role of the role of Colombia in Latin America in a post-peace accord era, and a fascinating account of a new golden age in Latin American film and literature.  To me the conference was memorable for a number of reasons, but on top are these two: (1) how it demonstrated the improved quality of Norwegian Latin America research and a sense of community among us Latin America researchers, and (2) how it brought together researchers from Latin America and Europe with widely different perspectives – indeed some being explicit political adversaries – and created an arena for a constructive exchange of viewpoints and insights on difficult and controversial issues.

The Latin America research boom in Norway

The conference started with a presentation of the book Norwegian Social Thought on Latin America published by CLACSO, Buenos Aires that discusses main trends and perspectives in Norwegian social science and history engaging with Latin America at the Litteraturhuset (House of Literature) in Bergen. This was followed by a debate on what Norway based Latin America research has achieved and what will be its future.  Among the lessons from the booklaunch and the debate are that Norwegian Latin America research has been strengthened a lot the last years, both quantitatively and in terms of the impact in different fields of research.  Since 2008 when the Latin America program of the Research council was launched, 41 books have been published on Latin America by Norway-based Scholars, 300 Master theses have been submitted, and in recent years 7-10 PhDs have been submitted on Latin America to Norwegian academic institutions every year. Elin Skaar presenting book on transitional justiceMoreover, we register 1-2 op-eds by Norwegian researchers on Latin America topics in newspapers every week. In spite of acknowledgement that funding Latin America research will not be given high priority by Norwegian authorities in the years to come, there was an agreement in the panel  of making efforts to not lose the momentum created and  seek new forms of continuing the work within regular University departments or research institutes.

Multidimensional problems and solutions

While Venezuelans took to the streets in Caracas to protest against the Maduro government, we started day one of the main conference-program with a rather depressing but thorough account by Margarita Lopez-Maya on the root causes of the current Venezuelan crisis.  Margarita Lopez MayaThe difficult situation that several countries in the region finds itself in was also the topic for the debate on “the end of an era” later the same afternoon with Pablo Gentili, Margarita Lopez Maya, Lena Lavinas, Leiv Marsteintredet and Patricio Silva, as well as for Lena Lavinas key-note on Thursday on What went wrong in the decade of prosperity? on Friday. The discussions showed to its full extent the complexity and the many differences between the situations in the different countries in the region. Indeed, while the debates on Latin America are often portrayed in left-right terms, the debates showed the multidimensionality of the issues:  Lena Lavinas criticized the PT governments in Brazil for having failed to curb the influence of global capital, and particularly the financial sector, leading to the vulnerability of its redistributive policies; Margarita Lopez-Maya criticized the Venezuelan government for disrespect of the will of the people it is populist, authoritarian one-man show;  Pablo Gentili expressed deep concerns for the continuation of some of the major gains made by the recent progressive governments, while Leiv Marsteintredet and Patricio Silva spoke about variations in respect for stable economic and political institutions.  

The return of the curse of commodity dependency

What everybody agreed on was that governments in Latin America – left and right – over the last 15 years have blatantly ignored the insights of one of the most influential intellectual contributions from Latin America – the “developmentalism” of the ECLAC-school : that in order to move forward, one has to diversify the economic structure and reduce commodity dependency.  That was also a main theme in the debate on current environmental challenges in Latin America, organized on the conference’s first day, although it was a broad spectrum of challenges that was discussed by Eduardo Gudynas, Ivana Penna, Astrid Bredhold Stensrud, Mariel Aguilar Støen and John Andrew McNeish. John Andrew McNeish, Eduardo Gudynas, Mariel Aguilar Støen, Astrid Bredholt Stensrud, Ivanna PennaThose included also how climate change is changing the livelihoods and local communities across the region, and a message that it is impossible to analyze the environmental challenges of Latin America in isolation from the global processes that we take part of when we eat, when we fill our gasoline tanks and when we fly to exotic areas.

But in the end: a lot of hope

A conference on Latin America should bring new knowledge and perspective to the issues that are dominating in the media and the daily news, but it should also bring about knowledge on the issues and processes that are not necessarily making headlines.  At the NorLARNet conference we had a little bit of all of that. We discussed the rise of evangelicals, the (lack of) reach of state in peripheral Argentina, Norwegian peace engagement in Latin America in comparative perspective, protests against extractivism, new approaches to documentary films and many other issues. When looking into all these processes where there is so much innovation and activity in so many issue areas, the relevance of the headline for the whole conference - Latin America research for a troubled world - appeared highly relevant.  I hope that more people than myself were struck by Håkon Tveit’s outburst at the panel discussing recent trends in Latin American film and literature, referring to the topics of prior debates: Crisis, what crisis? Kari Soriano Salkjelsvik, Jon Askeland, Hólmfridur Gardarsdóttir, and Hans Jacob Ohldiek gave us not only enough tips for Latin American literature and films to fill all the dark autumn nights that are ahead of us, but also a feeling that the culture production in Latin America is in the midst of an extremely vibrant period. When adding the musical experience of Thursday night by former University of Bergen researcher Alejandro Huidobro and his band Bergen Vista Social Club, what these three days left are both a deep understanding of the challenges faced by different Latin American countries, a sense that there is a lot of creativity and energy to overcome them, and a certainty that continuing knowledge exchange with Latin America will benefit us all.


By Benedicte Bull
Published Sep. 6, 2016 2:31 PM - Last modified Sep. 6, 2016 8:15 PM

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