From time immemorial people have existed in the framework of the environment, constantly influencing and being influenced by it. Perceiving and interpreting the environment as alien to human societies, in our ecological training now, seems to be a constricting ideology for studying ecosystems. The normative scientist in us took a while to identify and acknowledge that seeing the world and its people as mutually exclusive entities, is a major impediment in the practice of conservation. Moreover, in the most common forms of “conservation,” some groups of people always end up losing something tangible or intangible. Unsurprisingly, there is a demographic pattern to these groups of people — they largely belong to the marginalized and the indigenous groups of any given region. These regions inevitably have conservation practices and projects largely prescribed by the notions of the western world.
As young field ecologists, we work with local field collaborators who accompany and assist us to collect field data across different landscapes. Thus, we have had the privilege of gaining unique knowledge about those landscapes that they call home. It is, however, very recently that we began to understand and introspect the relationship aspects with our field collaborators. After we wrote an article (Sarania et al. 2021) on the inclusive approach to research in field biology, we realized that there were other scholars across the world questioning the oppressive (however, normalized) power structures and knowledge hierarchies largely imposed by colonial rule. We began reflecting by acknowledging our own positionality when we first started to read and discuss political ecology. Having been oblivious before, time made us realize how our privileges and the associated power dynamics affect the way we work.
Field ecology in developing countries is a highly extractive discipline. It is a process that typically involves researchers based at larger universities/organizations conducting research in a particular geographical region (mostly in the global south) by hiring or/and consulting local people. As researchers publish the research, the absence of acknowledging the local field collaborators who made the research possible is stark. This has been articulated by Dr. Asha de Vos as a form of ‘parachute science’ (2020) and discussed extensively by Mbaria and Ogada in their seminal book The Big Conservation Lie (2016), which questions the current extractive and racist practices of research and conservation across Africa. In fact, even something as basic as the nomenclature of ‘the field’ in field research (“a distant, pristine, untouched land”), or neotropical (“New World, but for whom?”) is deeply rooted in eurocentric ideas of geographical space (Ramesh 2020, Trisos et al. 2021). Here, we explore the various layers and effects of decolonizing conservation. Furthermore, we will explore how the various layers of power structures interplay in dictating how conservation is practiced in India.
Decolonizing vs. Decoloniality: their effects on conservation
Just a century ago, nearly one-fourth of the world was under the rule of imperialists, including the British. The market creation and flows, under colonization, led to varied social, economic, and political transformations. These changes continue to influence those regions that were once colonies, even if they have achieved independence. Thus, decolonization and decolonial perspectives gained more traction when people realized the harm that the long history of colonialism had, and how it pervaded across all spheres of life and disciplines. While there has been a steady increase in calls to decolonize multiple spaces and practices, including education, curriculums, universities, research, and conservation, what we now understand is that we also need to look into the factors that result in the dilution of this terminology. Tuck and Yang, in their seminal work (2012), explicitly state that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” They argue that when metaphor invades decolonization, it kills the very possibility of decolonization, which according to them, requires the return of stolen land and abolition of slavery.
The exercise of coloniality is perhaps best defined by Suarez-Krabbe as “the death project” which, similar to Dr. Achille Mbembe’s idea of necropolitics, concerns linking ideas of “racism, capitalism, patriarchy and the predatory behaviors against nature” to dictate who may live and who must die (Mbembe 2008, Suarez-Krabbe 2015). The notion of decolonization as a metaphor in conservation space was recently critiqued by a group of social scientists from the global south (Mabele et al. 2021), who advocated for the acknowledgment of the dominant power structures that underlie conservation as an effective form of decolonization. It is important to thus understand “what is coloniality? And how is decolonial thinking different from decolonization?” Scholars like Anibal Quijano and Walter Mignolo have talked about this for decades. This is an important axis of thought, as this understanding will dictate how we choose to dismantle the forces and manifestation of coloniality in field ecology (or any other discipline, for that matter). It is also vital to look critically at how decolonization has been used in narratives in conservation but do not really engage with decolonial scholars or cite/collaborate with them. In response to the article “Decolonizing conservation in a global world,” Mabele et al. 2021 clarify what decoloniality means and how vital it is to consider the histories of colonialism and its powerful effects on societal structures.
Addressing underlying oppressive structures in the Indian context
There were multiple levels of inequalities and oppressive practices already existing in the Indian social system, the geopolitics of which was well known to the colonizers. They ended up maintaining a status quo of the oppressive practices, thereby exploiting it and benefitting from it. This view was also held by Gergan and Curley (2021), who argued that “While India is understood as “postcolonial”, we align ourselves with scholars who argue that “the Indian state functions like an imperial, colonising entity in its tribal and borderland territories,” apart from the oppressive varna system of social categorization.
In the Indian subcontinent, conservationists and environmentalists also need to engage with the centuries before the colonial era when Indian society was dictated by the rigorous oppressive caste system. It was promoted as a division of labor for the efficient functioning of the society and many of its defenders still promote it (Gadgil and Malhotra, 1983). In its crudest form, as accurately pointed out by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the caste system was a division of laborers based on birth but not choice or ability. This pervasive system of oppression promotes hierarchy and grades one group of people above another based on inherited social status. Centuries of this practice have marginalized some groups of people while centering on the social and economic progress of the dominant castes or ‘Savarnas’. Knowledge and metrics that validate knowledge have been disproportionately informed by a Brahmanical system of thought, thus invalidating many rural and indigenous knowledge systems. This practice continues to exclude, marginalize, and dehumanize those with different knowledge systems, cultures, and world views thereby increasing inequality and injustice.
Ecological studies and nature conservation, especially in the Indian context, cannot be disengaged from the systemic marginalization and exploitation of certain groups of people. Mukul Sharma (2017), in his seminal book Caste and Nature regards this as eco-casteism — the idea of how caste perpetuates across environmentalism and is justified by brahmins as a means toward modernity. This move towards modernity via casteism invariably tends to silence or inferior the struggles and identities of Dalits and lower castes. Historically deprived and systematically oppressed people often bear the “burdens” of conservation by getting socially and economically dispossessed by neoliberal green initiatives. As examined by Kabra (2019), green grabbing and conservation displacement are shaped around caste, gender, class, and ethnicity in Indian society. This has further been demonstrated by Rai (2004), who found evidence of Brahmins having unequal access and control over forest resources, and how this homogeneity can be reduced by the representation of non-brahmins in local institutions. Mudliar and Koontz (2018) further show how, the “muting (to achieve collective action) and unmuting (to reinforce inequality) of caste,” in the context of institutionally managed watershed groups is a common practice. Even laws as seemingly progressive as the Forest Rights Act 2006 exclude Dalit community members due to their inability to produce hard evidence of citizenship (Kodiveri 2021). It is, thus, no surprise that “Dalits dislike environmentalists” (Omvedt 1997), as Gail Omvedt demonstrates from her experience of caste blindness among popular peoples’ movements in India.
In a keynote address to the Alaskan Federation of Native (AFN) Convention in October 2003, Graham Smith — a Māori scholar talks extensively about how one needs to move away from simplistically talking about decolonization to talking about ‘conscientization’ or ‘consciousness raising’ of the once colonially oppressed communities. This shifts the focus to Indigenous consciousness-raising rather than the experience of colonization. As we read more about ‘consciousness raising’ education in Māori communities, we are reminded of the many anti-caste activists and social justice organizations in India who focus on advocating rationalistic and critical thinking for the upliftment of the oppressed castes rather than simplistically talking about the effects of Brahmanism (which dictates casteism).
Deconstruction of the hegemonic brahminical knowledge systems is vital for equitable solutions for socioeconomic and climate issues. For a society and environment that is as diverse as India, diversity and inclusion within the research and policymaking sectors is the largest lacuna that needs immediate attention. At a time when socioeconomic inequalities and climate justice are at the forefront of many discussions of problems plaguing our societies, it is important to acknowledge and address the institutions that maintain and reinforce inequality.
Acknowledgment and Actionables:
So how do we disengage from these dominant eurocentric narratives that dictate conservation, and ensure inclusivity of people and knowledge systems?
First of all, we recognize that knowledge systems are varied and diverse. For example, making decisions on what counts as valid knowledge, what knowledge can be collected, what knowledge has monetary value, what knowledge can be discarded, how we design our studies – are all avenues where our own positionality overrides that of our local field collaborators. Similarly, the eurocentric worldview of knowledge regards the knowledge of field collaborators and ‘others’ as ‘alternative’ (Chettri and Chettri, 2015), creating a false dichotomy and steering away from the responsibility of acknowledging knowledge systems. Globally, the idea of ethnocentric knowledge production (western/white people practices as a frame of reference to judge other cultures, practices, behaviors, and beliefs) needs to be dismantled.
We actively need to disinvest from citational power structures and practice reading, citing, and collaborating with research works apart from that of western scholars. Many scholars from the global south have been working on issues of colonial practices, casteism, and intertribal geopolitics. The knowledge in this regard has been built from their work all these years and it is not a “new phenomenon” that is being debated in the field of conservation.
While we understand and acknowledge, we also must keep in mind how western notions of knowledge production have usurped or co-opted indigenous knowledge, which has advocated for similar ideas for much longer. Ideas of ‘sustainable development’ as a co-optation of indigenous knowledge have been critiqued (Huaman and Swentzell).
As also mentioned explicitly in Mabele et al. 2021, we reiterate that it is imperative to acknowledge that capitalism and overconsumption remain the biggest threat to conservation, and moving away from these dominant notions will positively dictate notions of what constitutes conservation, who affects it, and who gets affected by it.
Conservation of biodiversity is critical for human survival. As we are aware, humans are prosocial. We naturally have the tendency to help and cooperate with each other. Addressing the underlying power structures and assumptions of oppression, we need to rethink and reframe our research and policy actions. If it involves engaging with those often uncomfortable aspects of questioning one’s own power and privilege and its effect on our society, we should begin there!
Read the entire Decolonizing Science series:
1. Introduction: Decolonizing Science and a World Turned Upside Down by Madhusudan Katti and Jess Auerbach
2. Towards a New Understanding of the Relationship Between Humans and Nature by Shubhobroto Ghosh
3. What Will It Take to Decolonize Ecology? by Adriana Romero-Olivares and Prakash Kashwan
4. If Colonialism in Africa is Dead, Would That Make Forest Conservation its Ghost? by Emmanuel Nuesiri
5. What Does Decolonization Mean for Conservation? by Subhashini Krishnan and Sutirtha Lahiri
6. Decolonizing Science Means Taking Indigenous Knowledge Seriously by Dina Lupin
7. On Decolonizing the Law: Views from a South African Legal Scholar by Caiphas Brews Soyapi
We are grateful to Dr. Madhusudan Katti for providing us with an opportunity to write for their special issue. Thanks to the members of the political ecology reading group — Bidyut Sarania, Krishnapriya Tamma, Samira Agnihotri, Nitin Rai — for sparking the interest among us.
We convey immense gratitude to the ICGC instructor — Dr. Elizabeth Sumida Huaman — for opening up a space to understand what knowledge means and the ways in which we can introspect and unlearn. We are also grateful to her for her insightful comments on the draft. Thanks also to our friends Fa’aumu Kaimana, Lucas Rapisarda, and Yashashvini Rajeshwar for their feedback.
We believe the social identities of the authors are important to mention in an article about coloniality and casteism. Both the authors are from an upper-caste background in India. We have written this article with awareness about our caste privileges and we have written this article largely addressing the people of privilege. We think this dialogue is necessary for the highly caste monopolized space of Indian ecological academia and conservation action.
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- Gail Omvedt, ‘Why Dalits Dislike Environmentalists’, The Hindu (24 June 1997) 12
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