6th Interdisciplinary Desert Conference

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10 mins
Participants at the 6th Interdisciplinary Desert Conference


The 6th Interdisciplinary Desert Conference was held in the School of Geography and the Environment (SoGE) from 16-17 March 2023. The first participants from India and Morocco arrived early in the morning on 16 March to collect the conference materials from the registration desk and enjoy the first of many cups of freshly brewed coffee. The conference bags had arrived days previously from the Zagros Mountains in Iran. They were hand-woven in a traditional black and white wool design by a cooperative of Bakhtiari women and were greatly valued by the conference participants for their beauty and support for desert livelihoods. By 9 am, the coffee rooms were filled with additional participants from countries such as Japan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, China, Europe, South Africa and the UK.

Professor Giles Wiggs, Head of School, offered a vibrant welcome speech to the conference where over 100 people - academics and practitioners - from across the globe were seated in eager anticipation for the start of the event. Ariell Ahearn and Troy Sternberg, the main conference organisers, encouraged interdisciplinary exchange and highlighted the unique role of the Desert Conference in bringing together a vibrant community of scholars across every career stage and including both human and physical science approaches. The excitement in the air was palpable. The conference was officially launched!

Over the course of two days, the SoGE halls featured talks and roundtables discussing themes such as water, mining and energy extraction, desert ecosystems and food, environmental change and governance in drylands, and mobile pastoralist societies, and identity and culture in Eurasia. Saverio Kr├Ątli gave the first keynote speech on 16 March in the Lecture Theatre, where he presented recent theoretical insights into historical and contemporary relations between pastoralism and development. With spirits high, participants never tired of discussion and exchange of information. As each presentation was only 10 minutes long, the discussion time and coffee break were most valuable for deepening exchange and comparing notes.

The Diversity Room was transformed into exhibition space with samples of traditional Kazakh embroidery and textile art from Western Mongolia and photographs featuring the process of felt making in the home. The Desert Room featured a gazebo tent re-interpreted in the style of a traditional desert dwelling; alongside the vibrant White Horse Press book table where participants perused titles such as Dawn Chatty's From Camel to Truck and the journal of Nomadic Peoples. It is perhaps one of the only conferences where such expertise were found in one room. In the evening of 16 March, the conference dinner was held at St Cross College. Some doubted that dinner would happen during the crowded pre-dinner drinks in the foyer of the dining hall. Then the massive gong sounded and jolted people into attention: dinner was served!

The final day of the conference started with a keynote speech from Dawn Chatty on the topic of, 'The Camel: Beast of Burden or Cultural Icon', tracing the changing camel-human relations in the Levant and wider Middle East including contemporary 'Camel Beauty Contests' which fetch a significant winner's purse. In the afternoon, Troy Sternberg announced the three winners of the previous day's Desert Quiz Game and distributed the prizes. The final session of the conference, Conserving Wildlife in the Central Asian Steppe, was held at Merton College and with a dynamic series of roundtables hosted by EJ Milner of the Department of Zoology. A reception concluded the conference where the participants made one last toast to each other before returning home. An attendee added reflections on the conference, "It was actually the first time I attended an interdisciplinary conference and hopefully this will be the way all conferences on any landscape and topics related to our disciplines are hosted in the future."


Dr Ariell AhearnPrior to becoming the Course Director of the MSc/MPhil in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance, Ariell was an ESRC-GCRF postdoctoral fellow at the School for Geography and the Environment on an independent project called Managing Development and Infrastructure: Understanding State Engagements with Rural Communities in Mongolia. She completed her DPhil from the School for Geography in February 2016. She holds a BA degree in Anthropology from Hartwick College and an MPA from Cornell University in the United States.


6th Interdisciplinary Desert Conference

The 6th Interdisciplinary Desert Conference was held in SoGE from 16-17 March 2023. The conference brought together academics and non-academics who research, work and live across the world's desert and semi-desert regions for two days of vibrant talks, presentations, panels and networking opportunities. Conference organiser, Ariell Ahearn, reviews the interdisciplinary event which allowed social and physical scientists to exchange views, develop lasting collaborations and make a positive global impact.