The burning of the Amazon rainforest in Mato Grosso state, Brazil. Photo: Mayke Toscano/AFP/Getty Images & The Guardian is working with a group of activists and scholars to organise a debate about the capacity of anthropologists and geographers to confront genocide. We are putting together a panel for a major conference on anthropology and geography, which is scheduled to take place in London in June 2020.

Anthropology and Geography: Dialogues Past, Present and Future is being jointly organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), the Royal Geographical Society, the British Academy, the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS (University of London), and the Department for Africa, Oceania and the Americas in the British Museum. It will run from 4 – 7 JUNE 2020.

The debate has been triggered by the current crisis in the Amazon, but the issue is as old as anthropology itself. That is where Dialogues Past, Present and Future come into play. We are asking people to consider the following:

40,000 fires burn in the Amazon, threatening the homeland of the Awá people. In the 1890s, anarcho-Solidarists demanded a radical political response from anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists to the threat of genocide through habitat destruction by colonists.

Was anyone listening?

The debate will be framed by an historical precedent from the 1890s, when Alfred Cort Haddon called on the anthropological community to stand in solidarity with the victims of imperialism. The call was taken up by a small group of humanitarians within organised anthropology, but they were forced underground.

Michael Faherty, Inis Meain, 1890-1, from the archive of the Irish Ethnographic Survey (1891-1903). The photograph shows a group of islanders in traditional homespuns.
Alfred Cort Haddon, 1892, Michael Faherty, and two women, Inishmaan. The photograph was taken during an ethnographic survey of the Aran Islands off the western coast of Ireland. Haddon commented that ‘Faherty refused to be measured, and the women would not even tell us their names.’ (Photo: Trinity College Dublin).

Haddon, undeterred, devised the phrase “vanishing knowledge” as code for the cultural consequences of genocide. The phrase has been resurrected here as a slightly ironic reminder of a time when anthropologists and geographers stood against genocide; a humanitarian insurgency that has been written out of the history of the discipline of anthropology.

Mohammad Salas, a 51-year-old man from Iran’s largest Sufi order, the Gonabadi Dervish religious minority. Salas was executed by the Iranian authorities after a trial that was widely condemned as a miscarriage of justice. Amnesty International.

The plight of the Awá is desperately topical, but it is not unique. There are many other groups whose way of life is threatened by economic, political, and cultural forces. The question here is whether anthropologists and geographers have the capacity to make a difference. That question will, in many ways, frame a debate about the future relevance of anthropology and geography.

If people want to get involved in this debate, the RAI and has issued a call for papers.