Wednesday, 29 October 2014

UNHCR 2014 Statelessness Research Award interviews... Helen Brunt

"Now is a unique and pertinent time to research statelessness from multi-disciplinary perspectives and through a variety of lenses including natural and social sciences. Furthermore, within the Sustainable Development Goals 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."

In this series of blog posts, we are asking the students honoured in this year's UNHCR Awards for Statelessness Research about their experiences studying the phenomenon on statelessness and their research findings. Fourth in the series is Ms. Helen Brunt who received a Certificate of Appreciation from the jury for her graduate thesis Stateless Stakeholders, seen but not heard? The case of the Sama Dilaut in Sabah, Malaysia, written in completion of her degree in Anthropology and Development at the University of Sussex (United Kingdom).

Could you summarise, in 2 or 3 sentences, what your research was about?

Natural resource management and statelessness are two growing areas of academic study yet remain, so far, under-researched in combination. In my Masters dissertation I explored their relationship. Through the lens of statelessness, I investigated how some stakeholders are marginalised from participatory processes, how the condition of statelessness affects the extent to which meaningful participation in marine conservation management can occur, and how institutions involved in this management perceive and respond to stateless people. I used a case study of the Sama Dilaut (also referred to as ‘Bajau Laut’), stateless people without political recognition in Malaysia, to challenge some of the assumptions that marine protected areas (MPAs) can provide a win-win solution for conservation and sustainable development.

What first got you interested in the problem of statelessness?

As a passionate environmentalist, in 2004 I was thrilled to be offered my ‘dream job’ coordinating a community and marine conservation project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. While I was engaged with indigenous peoples’ issues, ten years ago I was ignorant to the plight of people with no nationality and no human rights protection, things that I as a British citizen took for granted. However, over the course of the next 8 years I became increasingly aware of the implications of statelessness through first hand experiences and close involvement with the Sama Dilaut, largely stateless group but who 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, yet are not considered to be citizens of any country. Today, 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. My research interests were therefore motivated directly by my personal experiences.

Why did you choose this particular research topic?

Whilst living in Sabah, on an almost daily basis, I saw out of one eye the dire state of our planet from an environmental perspective, and from the other, I saw people who were unable to move freely, be legally employed or married, access affordable healthcare, receive an education or make their voices heard. I saw such inequalities and barriers to inclusion of the Sama Dilaut in Malaysian society as being reinforced and perpetuated by their stateless status. Through my research I wanted to move anthropological and conservationist theories of stakeholders beyond what I saw as the problematic frameworks of ‘community’, ‘marginalised or minority groups’, and ‘resource users’ which I felt overlooked a lack of recognition by the state and thus denial of access to rights and representation allowed by citizenship.

I took the opportunity of dissertation research to examine in more detail the implications of statelessness on peoples’ every day lives, and to question whether ‘community participation’ is ever really possible due to the complexities of power dynamics, issues of visibility and audibility, conflicting interests, as well as the quality of participatory processes. I also examined how stateless people in Sabah are portrayed by the state, NGOs and other stakeholders, how the Sama Dilaut interact with management authorities and NGOs, and what some of the perceptions and processes are that serve to sustain the stateless position of the Sama Dilaut.

I titled my dissertation ‘Stateless Stakeholders, Seen but not Heard?’ as although the Sama Dilaut may be ‘seen’ through documentaries about their traditional lifestyle and livelihoods, and ‘consulted’ by NGOs espousing ‘participatory’ approaches to natural resource management, as stateless people they are not ‘heard’ by those whose decisions affect their lives, and thus they remain peripheral in every sense of the word.

Could you briefly describe how you went about your research? E.g. did you base it on existing sources – and were they easy to find? Did you do fieldwork or interviews – and what was that like?

I chose my research topic due to my existing personal connections and because marine conservation reflects many of the broad environmental and social issues facing protected area managers. I also felt that there was a need to draw out formal and informal connections which reflect power dynamics and relations between different stakeholders, including the lived experiences – their reality – of people living in an area where there are restrictions to accessing the resources on which they depend.

I approached my research using qualitative and quantitative methods of data collection and analysis (a ‘mixed methods’ approach), drawing from both primary and secondary sources. My principle sources were the work of academics from 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, including data I had collected while coordinating the Semporna Islands Project from 2004 until 2012. I also conducted an additional 2 months of fieldwork in 2013, which involved conventional anthropological techniques of participant observation, as well as interviews with key stakeholders. Fieldwork was the part of my research that I found the most inspiring.

What was the greatest challenge you had to deal with in undertaking your research?

One challenge I had to deal with was logistical. Despite being meticulously planned, 3 months prior to my departure, my fieldwork trip threatened to be seriously 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 UK government’s travel advisory was lifted just 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.

Another challenge I faced was a personal one. As the coordinator of a multi-stakeholder project, I had held a unique and interstitial position, through which I developed an awareness of the complexities surrounding the multiple divisions of ‘insider:outsider’ at a micro-level. Subsequently, I realised the need to reflect on my own positionality. The opportunity to return to the field after a year away, and the research and writing of my Masters dissertation, allowed me the time and space for this.

Could you briefly summarise your main findings or conclusions – or what you think is the most important outcome of your research?

My analysis of the nexus of statelessness, participation and stakeholders revealed that environmental management is a complex domain involving power constellations and competing demands for natural resources as well as equitable benefit sharing. The ability of different stakeholders to communicate their views is a vital component to the process. However, in my research I found that a disjuncture has emerged between marine conservation managers and the stateless Sama Dilaut, a key stakeholder group.

In reality, their vulnerable position as stateless people is driven by various physical, economic, political and social barriers to meaningful participation in natural resource management, all of which overlook the unique aspect of their statelessness. I also exposed the interstitial position of conservation NGOs at ‘brokers’ who mediate in ‘participatory’ processes.

Have you found it rewarding to research statelessness – why/why not?

Research and writing my Masters dissertation was one of the most rewarding and cathartic periods of my life so far. During the process I reflected on the complex social dynamics and personal dimensions at the locale in which I was involved.  I became enlightened to the many advantages that the inclusion of ethnographic research can bring to conservation and development. I am now fortunate enough to be working with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, and am deeply committed to elevating statelessness on regional and international platforms, and advocating for the rights of stateless people around the world.

What tips would you give to students who are getting involved in statelessness research to help them? E.g. are there particular questions you think they should be looking at or methodological issues they should consider?

Echoing Dr Jason Tucker, and as identified during the First Global Forum on Statelessness commemorating the 60th anniversary of the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, now is a unique and pertinent time to research statelessness from multi-disciplinary perspectives and through a variety of lenses including natural and social sciences. Furthermore, within the Sustainable Development Goals 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. Following Amal de Chickera’s article, I would also encourage more holistic and ethnographic studies on statelessness by a wide spectrum of researchers (including the stateless themselves) in order to unveil the multitude of human stories behind ‘statelessness’.

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