A note on Ceisal 2022: Let’s ask uncomfortable questions

By Dr. Jasmin Immonen

I attended the tenth Ceisal Conference arranged in Helsinki between 13-15 June 2022, excited to have my first on-site conference in a while and leave the mask at home.

Hundreds of Latin American specialists had arrived in Helsinki, and the University did a magnificent job pampering the guests with coffee, snacks, and reception at the Town Hall with its chandeliers and flamboyant architecture. Although at the beginning of the pandemic, the slogan “we won’t get back to normal, because normal was the problem” was in vogue, on the day, it seemed people do prefer the normal: socialising face-to-face, taking the plane, going to the after-party.

Yet there is something slightly uneasy in events that revolve around social and global injustices, as conferences centred around Latin America tend to. Many of them seem to deal with the same problems year after year. I know academics who do not attend conferences because of the sheer number of buzzwords appearing in calls for papers.

Although I was initially sceptical, the CEISAL conference was a pleasant surprise. It revived some of my old enthusiasm. On the first day, a panel on urban activism started with a decolonial reflection on how scientists often view our research subjects unnecessarily as victims. Instead, the panel talked about the autonomy of people conducting urban social projects like painting murals, doing educational gatherings and much more. The projects are not handed to the state to solidify and for the state bureaucrats to take credit for. Instead, they are led by the people and occur cyclically, drawing inspiration from another.

I began to think what a Helsinki with a similar kind of social life and organising on the streets would look like. Perhaps life would be more spontaneous, and there would be more interaction between strangers. That is something I miss from Latin America. The ease of exchanges with people you most likely will never see again.

Could our forms of interaction also be decolonising? An important question regarding decolonial practice from a panel focusing on buen vivir, sentipensar (feeling-thinking) and inequality was how we could learn the politics of listening in academia?

Observing the conference layout with the spectacles of an anthropologist, I ask, have we listened at all? The people hidden or present in the researchers’ papers have demands and questions, like the demand of Central American migrants to the US to have a dignified life. Some of the researchers presenting papers were keen to know in the informal chats around the coffee table, where exactly Finland gets its wealth from? Or more precisely, how may Finland be complicit in maintaining the oppression of global South countries, i.e, through ignoring the discussion on cheap prices of raw materials that enable much of the Finnish technological advances.

Today a pressing concern – among many – is the green transition of the North happening at the expense of the global South, where the minerals needed for the transition lay. Since extractivism was a recurrent theme of the panels, I would have gladly wished for some attribution from the Finnish academic community about what the implications of the critique could be for a country like Finland. What is the next step forward?

Admittedly, the question of “what does this mean for Finland” might be too simple. Yet, it would be a shame if conferences avoid simple and uncomfortable questions. Let’s be brave and try. What could there be to lose?