Decolonising Fieldwork

Research science may be an international subject but, Beth Price and Rachel Gunn argue, it still operates on a hugely unequal and colonial structure. They argue for a rethink of climate and geological research practice.

For a huge number of researchers in the northern hemisphere, fieldwork means hopping on a plane and travelling halfway across the world to spend a couple of months gathering data. They’ll then fly back to analyse that data at their desks. This annual cycle of research travel is part and parcel of how universities in Western countries operate. But, as a single researcher travelling from the UK to Indonesia for fieldwork carries with them a carbon footprint of 3.7 tonnes of CO2 for the flights alone, the truth is self-evident; this is not sustainable. On top of research travel’s carbon cost, the priorities of researchers are often ill-aligned with the interests and needs of the host communities, and their agenda and practices often embody an imbalanced power dynamic. In extreme cases, field work can become an exercise in a modern, incipient colonialism.

Scientific Neo-Colonialism

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, a politician and historian, wrote a scathing report on the potential of educating native communities in India in order to make them more ‘educated’ and Indian society more ‘civilised’ (read: indoctrinated into Western Enlightenment-style education systems designed by white men across the ocean). His report included the conclusion that, ‘the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information’, ie, there was no point in trying to explain scientific concepts to Indian natives because their language and culture literally lacked the capacity to express science. This is, of course, not true. Indian languages were among the first to use a symbol for zero (0), without which binary language could not have developed.

You might have thought that, almost two hundred years later, influential Westerners would have a more balanced opinion of countries the West declared to be ‘developing’. The neo-colonial myth of global overpopulation gained publicity again after an interview for the BBC documentary, A Life On Our Planet (2020), in which Sir David Attenborough said, ‘we’ve overrun (the planet)’. Although Attenborough later clarified (correctly) that it is the ‘excesses of western countries’ that causes more climate damage than the majority of the world’s population, the presence of neo-colonialism in science and Western media cannot be ignored.

Universities and institutions built on Enlightenment thinking to create a framework for study and research that has barely been altered since. Within this framework, science created and shaped by and for white Europeans three hundred years ago is often a mechanism through which neo-colonialism is imposed and perpetuated. Ideas theorised in Western universities are transported by researchers and institutes to Indigenous communities. Any issues created by the establishment of these ideas are all too often seen as problems in the reception of the communities and uneducated resistance to change. A case study from Colombia identified seven causal factors in the conflict between local communities and conservation authorities, such as social exclusion and forced displacement. Generational livelihoods are cut away by researchers arriving and telling local fishermen to stop fishing in order to protect depleting fish populations. When the same fishermen have no alternative income but to keep fishing and ignore the instructions of scientists, they are seen as being disruptive, or even ‘stupid’ for not understanding the scientific problem. Conservation decisions should be based not only on the science (often conducted by researchers geographically separated from the areas the conservation is implemented), but on the needs and resources of local communities. The resolution to these current inequalities may come from an unlikely source.

The Anthropause

In 2020, the measures introduced around the globe to stem the spread of COVID-19 reduced the movement of humans to an unprecedented rate for modern times. Social media was filled with posts (some serious, others not so much...) claiming that ‘Nature is Healing’. Scientists have coined this period of reduced human mobility the ‘Anthropause’. The Anthropause has provided researchers with a unique opportunity to chart the extent to which humans affect wildlife. However, and perhaps more importantly, the Anthropause is also an opportunity to regenerate and ‘decolonise’ ecology.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has grounded the majority of researchers, with much of their research itself having been abandoned. However, there could be an alternative. Oftentimes, Indigenous individuals have a greater knowledge of their local ecosystem than any visiting researcher could ever hope to have. The Bajau people of Indonesia spend their entire lives at sea, spear fishing on coral reefs every day in order to feed their families. So well accustomed to life at sea, these communities are genetically adapted to diving for long periods of time with nothing more than wooden goggles and a spear. Scientists could, and indeed should, utilise the skills of the local peoples whose communities they work so closely within. For example, there is no reason why monitoring surveys cannot be done by Native people. For research requiring physical samples of reef fish, who is better prepared to collect those samples than the people who spend their lives in the ocean? Whilst it is true that some scientific data collection requires specialist equipment and intense training to use, this is not always the case.

Although the Anthropause has been the product of a pandemic rather than a deliberate policy choice, the visible difference it made to natural environments and animal populations has been hard to miss. We have utilised Native and Indigenous knowledge to get around the limitations of lockdowns and restrictions on global travel, but more than that, we have a unique opportunity to make permanent changes to the way we ‘do’ things in the world of research.

Looking to the future

We are living in a world of ‘unprecedented’ changes. Now is the time for a radical regeneration in scientific practice to better protect nature in all its forms, including people. We need to move away from unsustainable colonial fieldwork to more cohesive, diverse, and accessible practices that unite host communities with Western researchers and promote healthier power dynamics. As we start to move out of COVID-19 restrictions, scientists should not jump back into fieldwork. The discussion is already in process, but the challenge that climate educators and activists face involves turning discussion into action; there needs to be a pivot. This is a chance to build better relationships with local communities and find alternative ways to ‘do’ science that both benefits conservation efforts and rebalances the power dynamics.