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The Land Beneath Our Feet: A Film Screening and Roundtable Discussion

Thu, March 30, 3:30 to 5:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Parkside

Session Submission Type: Roundtable

Abstract

What can environmental history bring to contemporary understanding and debates related to land tenure and concessions occurring throughout the globe? How might film serve as both a tool of public engagement and critically informed scholarship?

Such questions form the basis of this session, which features the screening of a documentary, The Land Beneath Our Feet, directed and produced by Gregg Mitman and Sarita Siegel, followed by a roundtable discussion.

The film follows Emmanuel Urey, a young Liberian man, uprooted by war, who sets off on a journey, sparked by the discovery of a rare cache of motion picture footage shot in 1926 Liberia by a Harvard University scientific expedition. The uncovered footage reveals the sweeping changes of early globalization in Liberia, when Firestone Plantations Company clear cut a massive tract of government-leased land to make way for a vast rubber plantation to meet America’s growing need for rubber.

Firestone’s arrival set a precedent for the slow erosion of land rights in Liberia. The Liberian government increasingly demarcated and titled land to promote private ownership and corporate investment, while the majority of Liberians claimed and used land based on established practices of community stewardship. Today, in Liberia, individuals and communities are pitted against multinational corporations, the government, and each other in life-threatening disputes over ownership and use of land.

As Emmanuel travels with the ghostly film, it sparks heated debates in government offices, out on the city streets and in rural Liberia. The footage is at once a national treasure and a painful and potentially explosive reminder of Liberia’s deep land conflicts.

In the roundtable to follow, experts in political ecology, African environmental history, and visual culture and the environment offer their perspectives and invite audience discussion on the film and its meanings for the practice and uses of environmental history.

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