The field of “western” Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) started centuries ago when European naturalists, such as Charles Darwin, embarked on months-long research expeditions to the “New World”. This legacy of the work that some think of as foundational in EEB (e.g., Darwin’s finches) legitimized a colonial approach to conducting EEB research. Historically marginalized Indigenous Americans, Black people, and other colonized people were forced to assist white male ecologists on research expeditions to far-flung places. This legacy of colonization and oppression is still evident in EEB, as evident in the phenomenon of ‘helicopter research.’ In general, EEB suffers from a lack of diversity due to challenges to inclusion, where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are grossly underrepresented in EEB. For example, even though people of color are 36% of the U.S. population, they constitute a much smaller proportion of staff in environmental government agencies (15.5%), environmental NGOs (12.2%), and environmental donor agencies (12%). In this context, we welcome this intervention by Christopher Trisos, Jess Auerbach, and Madhusudan Katti, advocating how to promote diversity and end oppressive and racist practices in EEB. In this piece, we seek to broaden the debate with the hope of moving it forward in the direction of tangible near-term reforms.
It is heartening to see that academics and researchers from and trained at institutions in the Global North, many of who are the beneficiary of the currently skewed balance of power within the discipline, are leading and engaging in scholarly and popular writings on exclusionary and oppressive research practices, reflecting on how to create a more inclusive environment for BIPOC students and academics. Even so, it is more important to engage researchers from historically marginalized groups and the global South as equal partners in these efforts to make EEB genuinely collaborative and socially just. It is essential to do so for ethical and political reasons, but equally important, for creating truly inclusive research communities that are essential for asking the right kind of questions, bringing in diversely rich perspectives, and for addressing scientific problems that require an intimate knowledge of landscapes and settings being researched. So, diversity is not just an ethical and moral question but a necessity for doing good research. Yet, diversity cannot be reduced to representational diversity.
Intersectionality can be a valuable tool in facilitating such thinking, but only if used as an analytical tool, not as a simple descriptor of the coincidence of multiple markers of ascriptive identities. Such broader use of intersectionality would redirect our attention to the privileges that we enjoy by living in and have been trained in the structurally privileged contexts of the Global North. For example, discussions on decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices in EEB are framed mainly as a response to the disadvantages experienced by marginalized groups within the Global North. However, frames and responses based on an understanding of marginalization in the global North could be a misleading way of thinking about identity and intersectionality in the Global South.
For example, propelled by strong sociopolitical mobilizations of Indigenous Peoples and Nations in the Americas, there is now a broad agreement about the need for incorporating indigenous knowledge and worldviews. Yet, in many instances, references to indigenous practices and knowledge are used as rhetorical devices, without a deep engagement with the unique place-based and culturally-appropriate practices of material engagement with the surrounding environments and with nature. This has prompted indigenous scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang to remind that “metaphorization of decolonization makes possible a set of evasions, or ‘settler moves to innocence,’ that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity.” To reduce such risks of metaphorization, the emphasis, in the current proposals for decolonizing EEB and related fields, on moral, ethical, and epistemological aspects, should be complemented with an equally strong investigation of the institutional structures, protocols, and prioritization of research approaches that keep the status quo intact.
We believe we all agree that the goal of scientific research is to discover and understand the complex biophysical, socioecological, and sociopolitical systems and their inter-relationships. For far too long, biologists, ecologists, and conservationists have taken on the presumptive role of advocating for narrowly construed models of exclusionary global conservation. As the second author and co-authors have argued here, here, and here, these environmental conservation models are fundamentally at odds with the interests of the world’s poor. EEB research designed to serve the dominant models, e.g., via the advocacy of Half-Earth, are fertilized by presumptions of dictating the affairs of poor ‘tropical countries’ in the name of conservation while ignoring the root causes of biodiversity decimation in profligate consumption of the global elite. Similarly, the recent development of the global restoration priority mapping exercises presumptively seeks to redirect a large proportion of the agricultural lands in countries with large populations of poor and agriculture-dependent people, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and Tanzania, toward the goals of global conservation and restoration. These top-down research projects impose neocolonial policy agendas that serve the dominant political and economic interests in the global North responsible for most biodiversity loss while penalizing historically disadvantaged communities for having lifestyles and living circumstances that contribute the least to environmental degradation. These imbalances produce ecological injustices, despite celebrating the aspirations for environmental and climate justice.
Decolonizing EEB and adjacent fields of global conservation will require acting simultaneously on multiple fronts. As behavioral sciences tell us, without transformative changes in the institutions and structures of the status quo, younger individuals from historically marginalized regions and groups who take a critical stance toward the discipline will be systematically screened out. Lastly, while we greatly applaud the ecologists engaging in reflections and aspirational pronouncements, the more comprehensive, intersectional, and transformative changes we have in mind require a deep understanding of the social and political roots and shoots of the deeply entrenched nature of the status quo. This, in turn, requires developing substantive, long-running, and mutually respectful collaborations between natural and social scientists. Social science expertise in studying the rules, norms, and conventions that shape EEB and other conservation disciplines is essential for researching the complex intersections of historical legacies, institutional structures, epistemologies, and power dynamics. Building such rainbow coalitions of sciences and scientists with diverse tools and perspectives is necessary for meaningful decolonization.
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
8. Decolonizing Science and the Bias Against Non-Native English Speakers by Ian MacGregor-Fors