Event: Decolonial Approaches to Environmental Law

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On 18th November 2020, the EUI Environmental Law and Governance Working Group held its first event of the year; ‘Decolonial Approaches to Environmental Law. Our fellow EUI law researchers Arpitha Kodiveri and Julie Wetterslev facilitated the interactive and insightful session for the Working Group and other attendees.

 Julie Wetterslev and Arpitha Kodiveri brought the workshop together to introduce us to a decolonial approach to the study, teaching, and practice of environmental law. They have been tussling with these issues in their research and teaching efforts themselves, andbrought with them a wealth of experience in working with indigenous communities in countries with varied impacts from the colonial encounter onthe post-colonial legal frameworks .The workshop came at a moment of reckoning globally on inequity based on race, when many of us are considering how our own research, writing and teaching in environmental law can address and attempt to dismantle racism and eurocentrism. The workshop was designed in a way to incubate reflection on what it means to adopt a decolonial approach, and on the politics of how we operationalize it – keeping our own positionality and privilege in mind.

We were invited to watch the film ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ created by the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign at the University College of London. This was a perfect introduction to the issues of Eurocentrism and lacking cultural diversity and sensitivity in academia and universities in general. Arpitha and Julie had facilitated a course on ‘Law and Decolonisation’ at the EUI earlier this year, so they shared their experience on promoting debates about decolonising the study and practice of law. We were then offered opportunity to chat with our peers (via Zoom breakout rooms) about what decolonisation meant to us, and how it plays a role in our research projects. Many of us realised that whileour research projects may not obviously relate tocolonial themes, in reality, all our research topics have been (or still are) shaped in some way by the history of colonisation and imperialism. Julie and Arpitha then provided us with short lectures on notions of legal pluralism in post-colonial settings and on the tensions between decolonisation as sovereignty and the right to development versus decolonisation as a movement against hegemonic capitalist logics – especially in the context of environmental protection.

 Why Is My Curriculum White?

The rest of the session was dedicated to addressing decolonisation through our current or future teaching activities. We were asked to reflect about how we have (or would) attempt to ‘decolonise’ our teaching, whether it be when designing the curriculum or when teaching in the classroom. Some of the main reflections and practical steps raised were as follows:

  • Reflecting on where our own knowledge came from (e.g. paying attention to institutions and authors that might be perpetuating eurocentrism);
  • Consider what sources are used and reused in academic discussion, and avoid reproducing dominant academic narratives without questioning the assumptions and sources behind these;
  • Asking ourselves – ‘who’s questions are we asking?’ and ‘what questions are we able to ask’ when teaching a particular topic to ensure marginalised perspectives are considered and addressed; but also being cautious about speaking on behalf of others who’s struggle we might not form part of or might not thoroughly understand;
  • Challenging disciplinary boundaries;
  • Realising that learning can happen outside of a university, and from people other than Professors; and that cooperative research and dialogical research is key
  • Thinking about the appropriation of knowledge and methodologies to ensure that we are not further harming marginalised or underrepresented groups. Do we have understanding of the struggle of where theories came from? Are we using the resistance struggles of others to ‘brand’ ourselves as liberal and progressive academics? Are we giving enough credit and paying back to those who help us with our research?

Julie and Arpitha honestly shared the issues they struggled with when designing and teaching their own course on ‘Law and Decolonisation’.  In particular, they raised the limitations of their own knowledge with regards to geographical scope (as they are more familiar with the South East Asian and Latin American context) and how this may have caused the exclusion of particular voices and perspectives in their course. Additionally, as they were working with socio-legal and ethnographic methods they recognised they may have limited knowledge of other important methods that could be used in a decolonising research project. They also raised the issue of intersectionality when including writers from the Global South, in particular recognising that academics might have come from a particularly privileged class and cultural background.  We were then offered another opportunity to reflect on our own research projects to further a more decolonial and less Eurocentric approach in our research. Whilst travelling and working with local communities might be off the cards due to COVID-19 this year, this still gave us opportunity to consider the state of our own bibliographies, assumptions and limitations in our PhD research.

We are grateful to Julie and Arpitha for taking the time to put the Workshop together for us. It was a great event to start the year with, and it really gave us opportunity to reflect and reset our research intentions for the year. Below are the readings provided by Julie and Arpitha for the session and on decolonisation and law more generally.

Decolonising the Archive and the University:

  • Achille Mbembe: Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive
  • Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, Decolonization is not a Metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society Vol. 1, No.1, 2012
  • Nelson Maldonado-Torres: Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality and Decoloniality https://www.academia.edu/30466103/Outline_of_Ten_Theses_on_Coloniality_and_Decoloniality
  • Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd Edition London and New York: Zed Books, 2012

Environmental Law and Decolonisation

The Coloniality of Legal Systems and Legal Pluralism

  • Sally Engle Merry: Legal Pluralism, Law & Society Review Vol. 22, No. 5 (1988), pp. 869-896.
  • Kirsten Anker, Law As… Forest: Eco-Logic, Stories and Spirits in Indigenous Jurisprudence, Law Text Culture, 21, 2017, 191-213.
  • Julia Suárez-Krabbe, Race, Rights and Rebels – Alternatives to Human Rights and Development from the Global South, Rowman and Littlefield 2015

Post-Colonial Experiences with Environmental Law

  • Sandhya Pahuja Decolonizing International Law: Development, Economic Growth, and the Politics of Universality (Cambridge Studies in International and Comparative Law)
  • Amita Baviskar, In the Belly of the River (Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Anna Tsing, Friction (Princeton University Press 2004)

Please follow the EUI’s Environmental Law Working Group @EUIEnvLaw on Twitter.

Julie (@JulieWetterslev) and Arpitha (@ArpithaKodiveri) are also on Twitter if you would like to keep up to date with their research and posts!