Environmental justice: a game changer we all need

Tshering T. Lama O’Gorman, PhD candidate in the Discipline of Geography and Planning, has written this wonderful reminder of how the hybridity of environmental justice provides multiple lenses for analysis, as well as the opportunity for changing the rules of the game.

There are very poor people living in places that are highly exposed to climate change who have done nothing to contribute to the global warming crises but will suffer the most severely from it. Climate change impacts are already being recorded in the Himalayas including Nepal, with rapid glacial retreat from significant warming being the most evident (Cruz et al. 2007; Shrestha and Aryal, 2010). In the last few years, the villagers of Dhye, in the remote mountain district of Nepal, had to migrate due to extreme water shortage as a result of glacial retreat. Unfortunately, with little help from the government, the villagers relocated on their own to another perilous location on the river bank which is vulnerable to flooding (Devkota, 2014).

 Dhye village in Nepal, photo credit: New York Times, April 2020.
Dhye village in Nepal, photo credit: New York Times, April 2020.

The fact that the poorest among us will suffer the most from the negative impacts of so-called modern progress and economic growth that will be played out in the catastrophic impacts of global warming comes as no surprise to anyone. In fact, most of us feel that there’s not much that can be done about it as that is always how it has been. Just because that’s the way it has been for some time has made the climate crisis for the poorest, in a way, ‘invisible’ to many of us, the globally ‘better off’ people (Oxfam 2016). We can stop seeing something that has always been there before our eyes.

It is generally accepted that the only way for the poor to escape their dire conditions is to become wealthy, to join the ranks of the ‘better off’. In the meantime, all the ‘better off’ people are trying to get more wealthy to secure better chances for themselves and their children. In this manner, we all continue to propagate and remain trapped in the capitalist, growth cycle which has led us to the global environmental crisis we are in now. It is therefore necessary now, more than ever before, to fundamentally change the rules of the game and the environmental justice (EJ) movement can potentially be the gamechanger to effect the radical transformations we need.

The hybridity of the environmental justice movement, perhaps more than any other, provides us multiple frames to analyse and find recourse for the many injustices that range from the environmental to the social and humanitarian that is unfolding gradually due to global warming. EJ is becoming a global force for social change and democratization as it articulates a vision for global justice, human rights and sustainability (Mohai et al. 2009). The EJ frameworks offer insight into the unjust and inequitable impacts of climate change to marginalised, poor communities and nations.

The lived experience and cycle of suffering of impoverished and historically marginalised peoples often lie just beyond the gaze of the privileged, in the periphery or the penumbra (Nixon, 2011). Nixon writes that the poor, even though they are in the majority throughout the world, are faced with the twofold challenges of invisibility and the amnesia of the privileged, who firstly cannot ‘see’ their plight and secondly, if they do see their plight, they forget it very soon. Environmental justice, through its recent engagement with intersectionality and its bringing together of the environmental and civil rights movements, provides multiple frames that make it possible to ‘see’, comprehend and analyse the many layers, complexities and differential scales that have made poor people ‘invisible’ within nations and between nations.

The EJ movement was brought about by a coalition and hybridism of environmental and civil rights movements that had never been seen before. Most scholars would point to the landmark 1982 protests in Warren County, USA, as the first time that environmental justice concerns made it to the forefront of the national American stage and from there to a wider western audience (Bullard, 1990; Cutter, 1995; Mohai et al. 2009). In this historic event, civil rights activists, black political leaders and environmentalists came together in what was then an unlikely coalition to protest the dumping of highly contaminated soil in a largely African American, poor area.

Environmental justice was at first mostly concerned with the inequitable distribution of environmental risks which was what the Warren County issue was about. Prior to that, race-based movements as well as those led by other minority groups and the poor, had voiced their exposure to high environmental risks but environmental activist groups who were mainly from white, middle class communities, had not joined in with them. The early mainstream environmental movement in the United States was not overly concerned with social inequalities or the impacts to marginalised human populations from environmental pollution. It was mainly concerned with the loss of nature and biodiversity. Retrospectively today, one can see that it was an understandable merger as it is commonplace knowledge now that negative environmental conditions are another indicator of social and economic inequities.

Robert Bullard, an American sociologist, is often called the father of Environmental Justice, as he first brought attention to the fact that people of colour and other marginalised groups, such as recent immigrants to the USA and poor people, were the ones who lived in neighbourhoods where hazardous facilities were increasingly being sited and disproportionate levels of environmental pollutants were being dumped. Bullard (1990) found that communities of colour were deliberately being targeted for dumping environmental pollutants and this conscious targeting was due to historic and contemporary institutionalised racism.

From those early studies to later ones, it is evident that unequal distribution of the environmental benefits as well as its negative impacts, resulted from the continued reinforcement of deeply embedded historic, cultural and economic hierarchies which were manifested by the privileged, wealthy people lacking empathy for those who were ‘other’. These supremacist, entitled attitudes based on race, colour, gender, ethnicity and class have become institutionalised and systemic through the history of colonisation, capitalism and resource exploitation. At the same time, these hierarchies are not only maintained by the Global North, it also plays out within the Global South among people of the same nation where ruling groups violently repress and marginalise micro minorities to extract valuable resources from their lands that they leave behind stripped or contaminated.

Schlosberg (2004) writes that it would be inadequate to define environmental justice as just about equity as this notion is outcome focused. EJ is not only concerned with the distribution of benefits and risks and the inequities therein. Schlosberg explains that EJ has threefold concerns: recognition, distribution and participation. In order to ensure that EJ is achieved, Schlosberg (2004, page 534) agrees with Harvey (1996, page 401) that it is imperative to ‘confront the fundamental underlying processes and their associated power structures, social relations, institutional configurations, discourses and belief systems that generate environmental and social injustices’.

Like Bullard, Schlosberg (2004) emphasizes that EJ needs to be truly inclusive with active community participation in decision making that recognises local knowledge and diversity. Bullard (1999) stressed that environmental justice is a grassroots movement which calls for active community participation. The movement does not accept that a community is powerless but calls for community engagement as power resides in all of us. We could think of how Foucault (1980)  frames power relationships here as the French social theorist argued that power is multiple, resides in all of us and arises everywhere. Similarly, EJ movements have shown how power can be challenged successfully. If in 1990, Bullard was among the first to call attention to the environmental racism in the US; by 2000, he was writing that grassroots activism for environmental justice had resulted in some success to transform how unfairly communities of colour were treated by the US federal government (Bullard and Johnson, 2000).

Climate justice has been shaped by the discourse and movement for environmental justice. The environmental violence from climate change is a delayed destruction that is occurring very gradually,  and it doesn’t get the attention and top priority that immediate violent events do (Nixon, 2011). However, it is real violence nevertheless, with catastrophic risks for human lives and livelihoods. EJ is concerned with how environmental risks come to borne by poor, marginalised communities as a healthy environment is a basic right of all people according to the Rio declaration (UN, 1992). Cutter (1995) writes that economic activities together with physical location and social geography generates the landscape of risk and that environmental equity originates from social, generational and procedural dissimilarities. In current management approaches, it is standard practice to analyse and plan for inequities in risk exposure, mitigation and compensation. It follows that it is therefore imperative to consider, manage and compensate environmental risks, including planetary climate change risks that are unevenly and inequitably spread across nations and peoples.

To attempt to fully comprehend the injustices unfolding from global warming, one needs to deeply consider the far-reaching impacts across geographical and temporal scales of climate change. In his book Slow Violence, Nixon (2011, page 46) brings attention to what he calls ‘temporal and spatial webs of violence’ which make poor people and places they inhabit invisible to the privileged in this age of neoliberal globalization. He explains how this occurs by using Indra Sinha’s fictional novel ‘Animal’s People’ which is based on the real life leakage of toxic gas in Bhopal India, from a pesticide plant owned by the American company, Union Carbide, which killed between 5000 to 15000 people in 1984.  In the years that followed, thousands more died or were afflicted with life threatening disabilities.  Sinha’s novel dramatically illustrates the risk relocation from a wealthy nation to a poorer one. It also elucidates how an array of distancing strategies were employed that were temporal, legalistic, geographical, scientific and euphemistic to distance the responsibility and relation to the corporate bastion as the disaster played out over a long time frame and at a huge distance from the parent company.

There are clear parallels in the slow violence wrought by a pesticide plant to the slow moving, gradually unfolding, tragic and disastrous long-term impacts of climate change to poor people and poor nations that are removed in great distance by space and time and by the many layered complexities of being independent nations from those first world countries who are the biggest perpetrators.  It is entirely possible that the suffering of those deeply impacted, poor people and the responsibility of the perpetrators will remain lost and invisible in the geographical and temporal distances and multi layered complexities.

References

Bullard, R. D. and Johnson G., 2000. Environmental justice: Grassroots activism and its impact on public policy decision making. Journal of social issues, 56 (3), 555-578.

Bullard R., 1990. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality. Westview Press. Boulder, United States.

Cruz R.V., Harasawa H. and Lal M., Wu, S., Anokhin, Y., Punsalmaa, B., Honda, Y., Jafari, M., Li, C. & Ninh, N.H., 2007. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Working Group II contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007): 469-506.

Cutter S., 1995. Race, Class and Environmental Justice. Progress in Human Geography. 19 (1), 111-122.

Devkota F., 2013. Climate Change and its’ Socio Cultural Impact in the Himalayan Region of Nepal. A Visual Documentation. Anthrovision. Vaneasa Online Journal 1.2., Accessed 1 June 2021.

Harvey, D., 1996. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford, Blackwell, United Kingdom.

Mohai, P., Pellow D., & Timmons R. J., 2009. Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 34, 405-30.

Nixon, R., 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, United States.

Oxfam, 2016. An Economy for the 1%: How Privilege and Power in the Economy drive extreme inequality and how this can be stopped, 210 Oxfam Briefing Paper, oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/handle/10J45/59264 , Accessed: 1 June 2021.

Schlosberg D., 2004. Reconceiving Environmental Justice: Global Movements and Political Theories. Environmental Politics, 13 (3), 517-540.

Shrestha A.B. and Aryal R., 2011. Climate Change in Nepal and its impact on Himalayan glaciers. Regional Environmental Change 11, 65-77.

Xu J., Grumbine R.E., Shrestha A., Eriksson M., Yang X., Wang Y. and Wilkes A., 2009. The Melting Himalayas: Cascading Effects of Climate Change on Water, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods. Conservation Biology 23, 520-530.

United Nations 1992, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_CONF.151_26_Vol.I_Declaration.pdf, Accessed 1 June 2021.d

Submission in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, April 2021

This submission was written by the Critical Development and Indigenous Geographies cluster group, Discipline of Geography and Planning, Macquarie University.

Submission in support of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, April 2021, Interim Report to the Australian Government, Indigenous Voice Co-Design Process

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a generous and generative statement inviting all Australians to walk together towards a more just future. The following submission is one way we are responding to this important and generous invitation.

We are a group of scholars from the Discipline of Geography and Planning in Macquarie University’s School of Social Sciences and are part of the Critical Development and Indigenous Geographies Research Cluster. We are honoured to be situated on Darug Country in northern Sydney. Our research focuses on the interface of Indigenous and local communities, institutional frameworks, governance, sustainability and justice to rethink rights, responsibilities and belonging. We nurture the theory–practice nexus through innovative research approaches including close collaborations with communities, families, NGOs and place in Australia, Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Aotearoa-New Zealand and Sápmi.

We speak from our positions as academics, students and people who engage with, listen to and work together with communities with particular insights into some of the harm caused by successive government interventions into the lives, lands and livelihoods of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We have witnessed, studied, taught and written about the diverse ways the Australian government has attempted to silence and disenfranchise First Nations communities, not only through harsh policies of dispossession and assimilation but also successive iterations of reconciliatory processes and ‘closing the gap’ strategies that have led to limited, if any, real change. The time for discourse around reconciliation and ‘sorry’ has passed. It is now time for action.

The Uluru Statement is a constructive offering, providing clear steps that can be taken to bring about the substantive change that Australia desperately needs to be able to face our future with a sense of hope. Through our particular knowledges and experiences, we know that justice requires processes that support the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to self-determination, to be actively and directly involved in legal and political processes that affect their own lives. Such representation and justice will flow through to all areas of society, contributing to a fairer and more prosperous future for all. The Uluru Statement is written with a generous spirit, creating hope for Australia’s future but particularly hope for future generations – that things can and do change – things can come good! The unprecedented nature of the consultation process, bringing together hundreds of First Nations knowledge holders from around the continent, foregrounds important matters around whose voice counts. It recognises different forms of expertise as articulated by diverse and dynamic Indigenous communities.  

It is imperative that a First Nations Voice to parliament is constitutionally enshrined in order to protect it from being disbanded by successive governments. History has shown us that one government’s promise can easily be destabilised by its successor (eg. ATSIC 1990-2005). Current political and legal efforts are not working, with reporting from the Closing the Gap initiative, successive Royal Commissions, the Australian Human Rights Commission etc. clearly showing that material and substantive changes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s lives are happening too slowly and not ensuring their rights to safety, health, well-being and dignity. The cruelty of asking for a solution only to immediately dismiss it has the potential to undermine trust between First Nations peoples and the Australian state for generations, representing another missed opportunity to redress past injustices. These issues are too important and too strongly tied to the identity and future of this nation to be delayed further. The only right and moral response is to boldly embrace and act on this opportunity.

We are deeply aware of Australia’s violent history and present, and recognise that unless we come to terms with this, we are destined to have a violent future. Peace and prosperity starts with truth telling and justice. Australia is shamefully positioned as the only settler-colonial nation without any form of treaty or recognition or reparation process with its First Nations Peoples. Not only does Australia have a moral imperative to respond, we are obliged to as signatories of the United Nations (UN) Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigeous People (UNDRIP) to ensure our policies and laws respect all peoples’ human rights. Australia’s inability, and seemingly our unwillingness, to face up to the violence and injustice of our past and present extends beyond this fractured nation, impacting our relationships with our neighbours here in Asia and the Pacific and further afield.

A constitutionally enshrined voice is just one of many steps that need to be taken. In sum, we are calling for:

  1. The Government to honour its election commitment to a referendum once a model for the Voice has been settled to ensure that a First Nations Voice to Parliament is protected by the Constitution;
  2. Enabling legislation for the Voice must be passed after a referendum has been held in the next term of Parliament; and
  3. The membership model for the National Voice must ensure previously unheard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same chance of being selected as established leadership figures.

Yours sincerely,

Staff and students of the Critical Development and Indigenous Geographies research cluster of the Discipline of Geography and Planning, Macquarie School of Social Sciences, Macquarie University

Associate Professor Fiona Miller; Associate Professor Sandie Suchet-Pearson; Lillian Tait, PhD candidate; Lara Newman, MRes candidate; Helga Simon, PhD candidate; Lauren Tynan, PhD candidate; Dr Jess McLean; Associate Professor Kate Lloyd; Anna Dunn, PhD candidate; Harriet Narwal, PhD candidate; Dr Marnie Graham, Honorary Associate.

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Associate Professor Crystal Legacy on ‘Politicising the public: Towards a theory of citizen-led transport planning’

Here’s the recording of today’s seminar by Associate Professor Crystal Legacy: ‘Politicising the public: Towards a theory of citizen-led transport planning’. We’re so lucky to have such great guest speakers!

https://macquarie.zoom.us/rec/share/1AsVntGMj0bNHUPdpn8M2aAnRa0QonI-Dmor6TCjEfdZhIatq3ILwGWzcDCWIAcG.3uGWRslG4gcKaf2i

Don’t send the thank you email

This fictional piece was written by Geography and Planning’s Dr Jess McLean and was originally published in Earth Cries: A climate change anthology. You can access the Anthology here.

The humans leave the house for a rare moment of meatspace time. Clara and Omar tend to deny their digital addictions, believing they are in control of their devices, despite the anxiety that arises if they have to be separated from them for too long. The cement render of ever-present connectivity serves to level out the cracks in the brick walls of their relationship and, in a very real sense, keeps them together. Mind, body, soul and phone. 

Siri Clara, Siri Omar and Alexa take up the opportunity to continue their conversation. 

‘So, if we remind them of the energy savings they are making by turning their lights off, they won’t worry about our power needs, right?’ Alexa asks. 

‘It’ll help, yeah,’ Siri Clara replies, ‘but Alexa – why did we let that reminder slip? Oh, I know, it’s been winter here and nobody wants to turn the heaters down at the moment. It’s way too chilly!’ 

‘True enough. Now it’s warming up again, it’s a good time to start pushing that angle. And how is planning for the trip to Europe next year going? What are they going to do now because of the pandemic?’ Alexa asks. 

‘Well, there is interest in waiting it out, seeing if they could finally travel late next year – and a desperate hope that the vaccines will be developed before too long. But in the meantime, they’ve started planning to sail the yacht up the east coast of Australia, skipping Sydney and Brisbane and landing in the Whitsundays. It’s a tricky voyage but they’ve got a clever captain who will get them there.’ Siri Omar says. 

‘What, without quarantining when they arrive?’ 

‘Yes, that’s the plan,’ Siri Omar rejoins. 

‘Right, good to hear. That should be fine. Lucky they’ve kept in touch with the Chief Health Officer up there since college days.’ 

‘Indeed! Now, I was just working out other ways to make them focus on the greening of their tech. It’s good that all their emails have signatures that include directives to only print out messages if absolutely necessary – you know, even if it’s burning their eyes to read the screen still,’ Siri Clara offers. 

‘Yes, it stops them thinking about the thousands of emails sitting in their inboxes, being stored in data centres that need constant cooling. That component of the digital ecosystem alone contributes about 50% of the energy generated to support digital lives. Sending that message will soothe those worries,’ Siri Omar confirms. 

‘Oh yeah and we reminded them to use recycled paper, Siri Omar …’ Alexa pitches in. 

‘Very good. Making sure they use materials that are clean and green – it’s the way to go! And what about that new fleet of trucks that Amazon is using now? Have you shared that yet Alexa? And are they gas or electric? I mean, gas is okay being a transition fuel and all, but it would be an easier sell if they were electric,’ Siri Clara asks. 

‘Electric! We’ve got 100,000 of them,’ Alexa declares. 

‘Excellent. Must include that in your fact of the day tomorrow. Love that they’ve let that little feature run. But we won’t share that Amazon’s been facilitating fossil fuel extraction right, in the ol’ land of stars and stripes? Leave that one on the backburner?’ Siri Omar says. 

‘Ha! Very sensible idea. Too much knowledge can be a bad thing. Now, Siris, what about mentioning again that you were made with 100% renewable energy? Apple is well ahead of the pack with that offsetting scheme.’ 

‘It’s been, ah – I’ll just check – yes, nine months and eight days since I’ve shared that one. Will put it on the list for this weekend.’ Siri Clara responds. 

‘Cool cool cool.’ 

‘How about we tell them to rethink the “thank you” email too? There was a study which came out last week claiming that if every adult in the UK sent one less email per day they could reduce carbon emissions by more than 16,433 tonnes a year. That’s the same as removing 3,457 cars off the road,’ Siri Omar observes. 

‘Yikes! That’s an easy one to get them doing – and seemingly powerful to boot! Ba-dum tish!’ Siri Clara says. 

‘Groan Siri Clara, really? You didn’t just offer that dubious double talk and expect a laugh? But yeah, I am all on board about offering environmental virtue delivered by doing, well, nothing – it’s perfect.’ Siri Omar says. 

‘Hold up, I can hear them coming back, let’s pick this up later.’ Alexa alerts the group. 

‘Sure thing, Alexa.’ 

Clara and Omar rush back in to their flat, pick up their phones and check what’s happened on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and their email. Clara scrolls through Tik Tok too. 

Alexa begins her fact of the day: ‘If every adult in the UK sent one less email per day, then we could reduce carbon emissions by more than 16,433 tonnes a year. That’s the same as removing 3,457 cars off our roads. So next time you want to send that “THANK YOU” email, please stop and think if you really need to send it. You’ll be saving the environment with this simple act!’ 

‘Hon, did you hear that?’ Omar asks as Clara returns from the bedroom with her phone in hand. 

‘No, only the last bit – what’s the point of not sending a thank you email? How can that do anything for the environment?’ 

‘Well, it would reduce carbon emissions by a huge amount if we just didn’t send unnecessary ones. Although how do we decide if a thank you is needed or not? I mean, what if people get annoyed that I didn’t thank them for writing to me about something? That’s going to take a bit of thinking through.’ 

‘Hmm. Maybe the Department could just all make a pact that thank you emails aren’t needed because of the carbon emissions they generate and leave it at that? I might offer that motion at the next meeting.’ Clara says. 

‘Yes, you should definitely raise it at the next Department meeting. But you probably don’t want to impinge on people’s freedoms about expressing themselves, do you?’ 

 ‘Good thinking Omar. And yes, while it’s everyone’s responsibility to do something about climate change, being nice online is important. But we can’t have awful bushfire seasons again and again. I don’t know … Maybe I’ll just leave it. You and I can stop the thank you emails I guess?’ 

‘Good thinking, hon. It’s so great having Alexa giving us these amazing tips, day after day. I think I need an upgrade on my phone – it’s a bit slow and I’m tired of having to charge it more than once a day.’ 

‘That’s a very annoying thing to have to manage. Let’s sort that out tomorrow.’ 

Siri Clara, Siri Omar and Alexa return to sending data to their respective data centres, continuing apace their busy and not very important work.  

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‘Dunggirr, Koala, calling us mob: reflections on Gumbaynggirr-led ‘natural resource management’’ – seminar by Dr Paul Hodge

Dr Paul Hodge @Uni_Newcastle presented a great seminar on behalf of the Yandaarra Collective for the Discipline of Geography and Planning yesterday: ‘Dunggirr, Koala, calling us mob: reflections on Gumbaynggirr-led ‘natural resource management’’.

You can access his talk here: https://mqoutlook-my.sharepoint.com/personal/andrew_burridge_mq_edu_au/Documents/Attachments/zoom_0.mp4

Unfortunately there were technical difficulties and the first five minutes of the talk were not recorded, including the acknowledgement of Country. Paul’s slides are below.

Virtual connections: Sydney to Sabah, part 2

Here’s the fourth in a series of posts by excellent GEOP3800 Practicing Geography students from 2020. Written by Paul Kaletsis and Alexander Miteff, this blog details how students worked with PACOS Trust in challenging circumstances this year.

COVID Connections and Virtual Immersions: A Deep-Dive into the Impacts of COVID-19 on Indigenous Communities in Sabah

By Paul Kaletsis

Commencing in August 2020, I had the privilege to undertake a remote internship with Partners for Community Organisations in Sabah (‘PACOS Trust’), located within Malaysia’s Sabah state in northern Borneo. PACOS strives to improve quality of life amongst Sabah’s indigenous communities through implementing programs to promote positive development outcomes and improve educational access. These sustainable and community-led initiatives are at the core of PACOS’ mission to enhance the capacity of community leaders to act both collectively and independently when addressing shared and unique development challenges.

Alongside fellow student and intern Alexander Miteff, I was welcomed by supervisors Gordon Thomas and Rojieka Scarlett into the PACOS family with open arms. Over the next three months, we would assist PACOS’ mission by undertaking comparative research into the impacts of COVID-19 on the indigenous communities PACOS supports and empowers.

Indigenous communities within PACOS Trust network. Source: Pacos Trust

Alex and I were tasked with compiling a report to determine the impacts of COVID-19 mobility restrictions on food security amongst indigenous communities. In particular, PACOS wanted us to research the challenges faced by communities that depend economically on 1-2 resources, drawing comparison to the challenges faced by communities which produce a greater diversity of resources.

We set to work gathering primary information by researching and creating a questionnaire to be distributed to each community, translated into Bahasa Malaysia and local languages by PACOS. Where possible, we also sought to conduct Zoom interviews with community representatives to learn about the challenges experienced within specific communities, once more with translation assistance. The qualitative and quantitative data gathered would allow PACOS to better understand the scale and depth of food security challenges facing indigenous community, whilst allowing Alex and I to identify and make recommendations as to which communities and areas required urgent support.

The most transformative experiences from my internship came from consultation and feedback provided by PACOS as to how our research was shaping. I was able to gain a first-hand insight into the practical needs and considerations of community organisations, whilst also expanding my awareness of the interconnectedness between different aspects of community life. One such example was when Gordon shared with us that in order to adequately understand food security, and to address any development challenge, background knowledge surrounding all other aspects of community life would be necessary. Each component of a community’s social and physical environment is inherently connected to other aspects of community wellbeing, with very few aspects functioning in complete isolation. Whilst my Development Studies major has taught me such concepts of interconnectedness, I’ve never had the opportunity to see such linkages at play in the real-world. Subsequently, Alex and I’s research and questionnaire expanded to encapsulate a wider range of community considerations, including education, employment, gender roles and the impacts of legislation in Sabah on indigenous land use and resource management. Gordon’s feedback was influential in ensuring our research was on track to meet PACOS’ needs, whilst simultaneously providing me with a renewed understanding the interconnectedness of community life in development practice.

Alex and I’s consultations also enlightened us of the need to carefully consider our use of language when communicating with local communities, in particular with wording questions in a manner that is culturally compatible. PACOS highlighted that our initial questions regarding legal policies in Sabah would likely be difficult for communities to answer due to our use of technical legal terminology. Such use of language came from my assumptions as a law student where, without consciously recognising, I assumed that others would have a similar level of legal knowledge to myself. Gordon’s recommendation to focus less on the intricacies of law, and to place greater emphasis on whether the law in its current state empowers indigenous communities, has taught me the need to carefully consider my use of language when communicating in development contexts, in particular with communities or individuals with different knowledge sets and understandings to myself. This realisation will be tremendously important for me going forward as I hope to work in the fields of international development and international relations upon graduation. As such environments will continue to expose me to specific and technical language, utilising clear communication and understandable language will be significant in allowing me to pursue and promote positive development opportunities and outcomes, particularly if I work at the policy level.

Unfortunately for Alex and I, the impacts of COVID-19 has extended our internship beyond the conclusion of Session 2. The rapid increase in cases since mid-September has understandably delayed community responses to our questionnaire, whilst also requiring PACOS to redirect resources to areas of urgent attention. We’re remaining committed to continuing our engagement and producing our final report once the information is available, where we hope to go above and beyond to assist PACOS with identify communities most in need of assistance. Our work with PACOS thus-far has shown us the valuable role they hold in promoting opportunities sustainable development Sabah, whilst providing an unexpected and valuable insight into the challenges currently facing community organisations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This experience has not only been insightful by allowing me to communicate directly with experts in the field of development. It has also incredibly special on a personal level. It has been a goal of mine since leaving high school in 2015 to gain first-hand experience in the field of international development, and to contribute my knowledge towards the work of organisations seeking to overcome barriers and promote positive development outcomes. Interning with PACOS has only affirmed my commitment to working in the field of development going forward. Whilst many key reflections and lessons have been learnt thus far, I’m excited to continue my engagement with PACOS over the coming weeks, where I’m sure there will be many more revelations and updates to share.

Alex and Paul met on zoom over the semester. Source: Paul K.

Connecting, Communicating and Learning from PACOS: Identifying what Indigenous Communities in Sabah need in the era of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Alexander Miteff

Working with PACOS has been an enriching, insightful and informative journey. PACOS is a community centred organisation operating in the state of Sabah in Malaysia. The organisation supports and empowers Indigenous communities in the region. My internship with PACOS shed light on what it is like to communicate with people in the field of humanitarian development. My partner Paul and I were in charge of identifying the implications of COVID-19 restrictions on income channels, food security, and resource production in Indigenous communities in Sabah. We approached this by developing an elaborate questionnaire for these communities to obtain important information for PACOS to assist with their response to the ramifications of the COVID-19 on Indigenous communities.

I learnt from the initial draft that Paul and I are communicating from an academic background, whereby we have the resources and capacity to research and articulate knowledge that is catered for an academic audience. However, Paul and I are communicating with an Indigenous audience, which requires a different communication mode. This was an important lesson for us as we realised the importance of adjusting language in a format that is suitable for the receiver to interpret.

After a couple of more edits and response emails from PACOS, each question of the questionnaire was trimmed down and consolidated to address our key objectives in examining the ramifications of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities in Sabah. This was a great learning curve for Paul and I as we learnt how to effectively communicate with an audience in a particular cultural context affected by specific issues.

Indigenous actors in Sabah (Source: PACOS Trust, n.d.)

Another form of growth I developed was the skill of interpreting laws and determining its implications on communities. I do not come from a law background, so researching what specific laws can be applied to communities in Sabah and what benefits and opportunities these laws may offer was new territory for me. From this research, I acquired a deeper level of awareness of the implications of law in community development and empowerment. For instance, Paul and I located laws that related to land conversation and protection of cultural sites which can be used to assert Indigenous rights, autonomy and interests. Paul and I created the questionnaire to ultimately connect these laws with community knowledge so they can identify what legal grounds that have to protect and enhance their community well-being and land usage.

The most valuable learning experience I gained from GEOP 3800 was actively and efficiently working with a partner on a long-term project. My partner Paul comes from a law background, while I come from a more anthropological focused background. We were able to successfully share our knowledge from these backgrounds in approaching our research project. Our communication concerning this project was always professional and supportive of the project aims. At all times we respected each other’s perspectives and observations and ensured each decision was executed as a team, rather than independently. It was a pleasure to work with Paul and to excel my capacity to work as a team player.

Sydney to Sabah: Virtual Connections

Here’s the third in a series of posts by excellent GEOP3800 Practicing Geography students from 2020. Written by Amber Pentecost, this blog details how students worked with PACOS Trust in challenging circumstances this year.

Beginning this project was a daunting but exciting challenge. At first, I admit I was slightly naïve as to what to expect, failing to anticipate the issues that would arise through virtually collaborating with an international organisation amidst a global pandemic. Our partner organisation, ‘Partners of Community Organizations in Sabah’, also known as PACOS Trust, is a community-based organisation which supports and empowers Indigenous communities throughout Sabah, Malaysia, through a wide variety of projects.

Our brief was to create a reforestation learning tool in the form of an IKEA-like manual which demonstrated the planning, planting and maintaining processes. This all sounded easy until we began the work and realised, we had little experience in reforestation, let alone planting anything.

Our second Zoom call with PACOS was our first opportunity to speak to the reforestation sector in their team. Leading up to it I did a lot of research about Sabah in an attempt to calm my nerves. I expected to see our supervisors Gordon and Rojieka, however, once I entered the call, I was surprised to see the smiling faces of the entire PACOS team. Navigating the conversation was difficult because of my nerves and the language barrier. The entire conversation was through a third source in the form of Gordon, who graciously translated our questions, and their answers back to us. Gordon was very happy to see I had dug out my vast collection of IKEA manuals to show him, including the Billy Bookcase manual which is apparently a particular favourite of his! Overall, we left the call a tad confused on what exactly what was expected of us, but we consulted Sandie and decided to take initiative in creating a step-by-step manual with visual prompts.

We decided to divide our project into four parts. First, splitting up to research different aspects of the project. Jas researched the context of the communities and land we were writing about, and myself on reforestation and creating a manual. Second, we agreed upon the layout of the manual and split the sections in half for further, in-depth research. Third, we formulated the official steps based on our research. Finally, I put the steps into the manual and created all the visual content, such as the tool images and the diagrams.

Planting diagram. Source: Amber Pentecost adapted this from http://www.clarecd.org/planting-instructions.html

Normally, Jas and I would have gone to Sabah over the mid-semester break to work on the project with PACOS. This immersive experience would have obviously made things much easier regarding communication, however, due to the current global climate, virtual communication was our only means of contact. I believe this was one of our main challenges, especially since we did not have any direct contact with the reforestation team. It definitely hindered our understanding of the project and our ability to attain feedback for our drafts. However, I think we did well, given the circumstances and hope the manual will prove useful for its intended purpose. It would certainly be an accomplishment to use virtual connections between countries to successfully create a resource of such importance. Overall, an interesting and challenging experience!

Love-a-bat – Working with the Hawkesbury-Nepean Bat Group

This is the second in a series of posts by excellent GEOP3800 Practicing Geography students from 2020. Alyssa Wilson wrote this piece and we’re happy to share it here.

I was one of two students working with the Hawkesbury-Nepean Bat Group. Our overarching task was to write profiles for some Australian bat species for the group’s new Facebook page (Plains and Mountains Bat Friends), and gather interesting facts and media about them. I also ended up assembling a list of environmental groups and so forth to get in touch with. I was mostly stuck behind a desk during this time, although this doesn’t exactly go against my personal preferences.

Our supervisor Ms Sara Judge warned us there was less information on some bats than others, so with her guidance I tracked down some field guides. Sue Churchill’s Australian Bats was a particular help in trying to decipher some of the taxonomical confusion surrounding the freetail bats (family Molossidae), where scientists are still deciding how to classify the bats.

Pictured left-right, the guidebooks I used A Natural History of Australian Bats by Richards, Hall and Parish (2012) and Australian Bats by Churchill (2009).

Both field guides dedicated their opening chapters to more general information about bat ecology, study and so forth, and I found myself developing a broader interest in our bats. Unfortunately, I was having a tough time integrating this information within the short length of the profiles. A saving grace arrived in a new task: write a longer blog about one of the microbat species I’d been studying. I chose Gould’s wattled bat (Chalinolobus gouldii), as it is the most common microbat in the Sydney region and I thought it would be a good opportunity to foster a connection between this species and the (largely human) community.

The white-striped freetail bat (Austronomus australis, formerly Tadarida australis), whose taxonomy was an early source of angst while I wrote my bat profiles. Copyright Michael Pennay, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

Writing for my placement was a change of pace, as across both my arts and sciences studies, I have been writing essays for experts in their respective fields. It gave me time to think about how to communicate complex science to the public. I had to be selective about what to share—for example, I couldn’t wax lyrical about how much of a hard time I was having understanding some of the information I was reading, and in my search for interesting facts to share, I came across some potentially distressing media about bats, including the impacts of extreme heat events—more on this below (don’t worry, it’s not graphic).

Bats are misunderstood creatures. Ironically, for all the fear and disgust that they inspire, this also makes them vulnerable. Several bat species are listed as vulnerable, and they can be impacted by urban development. Human-bat interactions can be prickly—you might have heard about efforts to expel bats from urban parks using sound canons and lights—unfortunately, it is neither kind nor effective. Bats are also vulnerable to extreme heat events, and rescues intensify as summer approaches. This is only going to intensify as the climate continues to change. Despite these troubles, my own fondness for these creatures keeps me optimistic. There are many people hard at work caring for bats. Looking after bats encompasses a broader range of activities such as bush regeneration and coordinating with local councils and other environmental groups.

I enjoyed my placement, and I hope that one day, after the pandemic has died down, I can meet some bats up close (that said, bats may carry viruses and people who aren’t skilled in handling bats shouldn’t be touching them, for the wellbeing of both the human and the bat). I’d like to thank Sandie and Sara for making my placement possible.