Sunday, 3 November 2013

GUEST POST: Stateless Stakeholders, Seen But Not Heard

Natural resource management and statelessness are two growing areas of academic study yet remain, so far, under-researched in combination. For my Masters dissertation I explored their relationship by using the condition of statelessness[1] to investigate how some stakeholders are marginalised from participatory processes and I challenged some of the assumptions that marine protected areas (MPAs) can provide a win-win solution for conservation and sustainable development.

My research interests were motivated by personal experiences garnered during eight years involvement in a marine conservation and community initiative in the Malaysian state of Sabah, northeast Borneo. During that time, I observed first-hand the implications of being stateless – not being a citizen of any country and having no place to belong. The Sama Dilaut (also known as Bajau Laut and sometimes referred to as ‘sea gypsies’) are a largely stateless community whose members have for centuries lived in boats and on islands in the waters now overlaid by the current nation-states of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Presently, many Sama Dilaut find themselves living in marine parks or ‘conservation zones’ and, although a key stakeholder group, rarely participate in management decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. I took the opportunity through my dissertation research to examine more closely the consequences of statelessness on peoples’ everyday lives through exploring questions such as what are some of the implications on resource use, and conservation management and policy? How are ‘stateless’ people in the Malaysian state of Sabah portrayed by the state, NGOs and other stakeholders? How do the Sama Dilaut interact with management authorities and NGOs? What perceptions and processes serve to sustain the stateless position of the Sama Dilaut?

In my research I drew upon both primary and secondary sources, principally the work of academics in the fields of natural resource management, statelessness and participation, as well as published and unpublished material from policy makers and practitioners working in marine conservation. I also conducted fieldwork in Sabah in July 2013, using a mixed methods approach including conventional anthropological techniques of participant observation, as well as interviews and discussions with key stakeholders, building upon qualitative data collected prior to starting my Masters. During my fieldwork I worked closely with Dr. Greg Acciaioli, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology from The University of Western Australia (UWA), who is part of a bilateral collaborative research project between UWA and The University of Queensland, titled ‘Stateless stakeholders: facilitating participatory governance in the Coral Triangle’. Despite being meticulously planned for several months, my fieldwork trip threatened to be disrupted by an ‘incursion’ of my field site in eastern Sabah by armed rebels from the southern Philippines, who were pursuing a 300-year old claim to the region. Fortunately the British FCO travel advisory was lifted weeks before I commenced my fieldwork but it brought to the forefront some of the challenges of conducting social research in unstable areas and with vulnerable people.

I believe that now is a unique and pertinent time to research statelessness from multi-disciplinary perspectives and through the lens of conservation and natural resource management. Within the post-2015/MDG discourse, statelessness raises particular concerns because of the serious ecological threats to our planet, the vulnerabilities associated with statelessness and the way that inequalities are reinforced by the condition. During the process of my dissertation research and writing I have reflected on the complex social dynamics and personal dimensions at the locale in which I was involved.  I have become enlightened to the many advantages that the inclusion of anthropology can bring to conservation and development and as such, have become deeply committed to elevating statelessness on the international development agenda and advocating for the rights of stateless people around the world through my professional and personal endeavours.

Helen Brunt, discussing her dissertation work 'The Case of the Sama Dilaut in Sabah, Malaysia' earning her an MA in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation. School of Global Studies, University of Sussex 2012-2013

[This blog first appeared on Sussex Global and was re-posted with the permission of the author]

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