Freshers week 2020 has kicked off, and while the events are a bit different from years past, the mostly-online platform did not stop Sri Lankan marine biologist Dr. Asha de Vos from captivating her Teams crowd during an interview with the Environment Subcommittee on “Decolonising Conservation.” For those who don’t know what conservation colonisation is— as I did not before this meeting— de Vos described the term as researchers who simply “drop in.” These parachute scientists do work in under-explored countries, and then they leave. Their research, while potentially beneficial to themselves, does not give back to the communities on the ground. In fact, Dr. de Vos argues that this work is “problematic in the long term,” as the researchers do not share equal partnerships with the people who inhabit the lands and waters these scientists have claimed as labs. In allowing outsiders— often powerful and wealthy— to determine the scientific needs of the community, local researchers can be “derailed” or “put aside.”
As the founder of Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project and Oceanswell, one of BBC’s 100 most influential women in 2018, and the recipient of countless awards and fellowships, De Vos has beyond proven the importance of creating change in this imbalanced system. With a flurry of exciting anecdotes and passionate affirmations, Dr. de Vos explained that the power is with the people. “Every coastline needs a local hero… it doesn’t matter if you have a degree. You can care for stuff.” Dr. de Vos believes that ninety-nine percent of conservation is dealing with people: “Nothing would actually happen if I wasn’t actually working with people on the ground, ensuring that their needs are met… [Environmental and social justice] are things that you can not separate in many ways.”
Take, for example, efforts to reduce overfishing. Rather than funding (often Western) researchers to make conclusions about a coast and practice unfamiliar to them, De Vos believes that you need to work with the people on the ground. In this case, she would turn to fishermen. Their livelihoods are affected by the environment on a daily basis in a critical way— who better to ask about the fishing problem than those who know the ins and outs of the trade? These are the solutions overlooked and harmed by colonisation practices that we have come to see as normal. So how can we switch the expectations? Dr. de Vos says “it’s about creating ownership and responsibility.”
After the subcommittee asked their questions, the virtual floor was opened to the audience. Students and professors alike jumped to ask Dr. de Vos to weigh in on their work, their conflicting sentiments, and their curiosities. When discussing ecotourism, Dr. de Vos raised nuances, explaining, “It’s not just the boat, but also the communities involved, and their income. It’s this whole larger sustainable model. It can play a role if it’s done right, otherwise it’s just this buzzword that’s thrown around.” Each answer was met with smiles and nods of appreciation. I know I left feeling enlightened, grateful to have learned so much about a field that so deeply impacts the world we share.
For updates and more info regarding Dr. de Vos’ work, check out these links and pages:
Oceanswell— I G @OceanswellOrg
Dr. de Vos— IG @ashadevos