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eBulletin "Meet a Researcher" Interview: Laura Rival

7 Sep 2011

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In this episode of Meet a Researcher, we talk to Dr Laura Rival, who is a lecturer in Anthropology and Development at the University of Oxford. Dr Rival is participating in the UNRISD conference Green Economy and Sustainable Development: Bringing Back the Social Dimension in October 2011 with a paper about ecological threats, new promises of sustainability and the evolving political economy of land use change in rural Latin America.

Dr Rival, your interest in Amerindian communities’ conceptualizations of nature and society has led you to study ethnobiology. Could you tell us a little about this field?

Laura Rival: Well, it really starts with the overspecialization of Western science which has obscured the co-evolutionary relationships that exist between humanity and ecosystems. So there is much that we can learn from indigenous peoples, who do perceive the environment and the role of humanity as a unity. They know how to work with them as a whole, if you want.

We need to look beyond the relationship between human groups, because for indigenous peoples, the relations that they have with animals, with plants and with spiritual forces are social. So these species belong to their social world, they do not divide nature and society in the way we do.

In a nutshell, ethnobiology is an attempt to reunify bodies of knowledge that got separated in the modern age, and we need to do that in order to create the science we need for the 21st century.

How do the concept of green economy and the practices of Amerindian communities relate to each other? What lessons can they offer one another?

Laura Rival: Well, the goal of green economy, as I see it, is to re-embed economic activities within the bounds of nature. To achieve this, we need a new science of economics – a science that would be based on the biophysical properties of the world and the laws of biophysics. So, indigenous intellectuals, who through their own personal experience can combine the teachings of their own traditional cultural wisdom with the scientific knowledge required for formal education, are proposing such models.

How can the knowledge and practices of indigenous populations in relation to nature and natural resources impact on government policies? How can these contribute to policy coherence? How can this impact on poverty alleviation?

Laura Rival: These indigenous intellectuals lack the detailed knowledge of contemporary societies: how they work, how markets are integrated globally, etc. So there is a need to bring scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge together. And I think that’s really one of the most important things to address the question that you’re asking here. The first important step for me is recognition from the part of policy makers of the value of the ecological knowledge held by indigenous people.

Policy has to be informed by this new science, a science that gives complete value to indigenous wisdom. And that is very difficult and very challenging because indigenous people are severely affected by poverty in the world of today, and the way poverty affects them also erodes that indigenous wisdom that they hold.

What are the main challenges when integrating social and environmental governance? What role could the state play in socio-environmental governance systems?

Laura Rival: The main challenges of integrating social and environmental governance have to do with policy planning and implementation, and what we need for such integration is what I call a “green state”.

This is going far beyond what was tried in the 1990s when ministries for the environment were created throughout Latin America. It is really about restructuring the state apparatus so that there is no contradiction at any level between social and environmental policies – it is a really daunting task. A country like Ecuador, around the specific issue of keeping 20% of their oil reserves on the ground in order to avoid carbon dioxide emissions, is a good example of how people in practice try to address those enormous challenges.

Can policy coherence contribute to change the perception of natural resources as a source of conflict into a source of welfare and development?

Laura Rival: Yes, of course. That is exactly what is going to happen. I think that the idea is that the conservation of nature should not be contradictory to the goals of development. So that means that both our views of what conservation means and of what development means have to change.

But the interesting thing in the research I’ve been doing is that conflict is often regarded as something bad, as something negative that has to be avoided at all costs. But I think that conflict is part of human society, it depends on how conflict is resolved. Conflict can play a positive role – if conflict occurs in a democratic, dialogical setting, then conflict will be one of the mechanisms through which new solutions will be found to resolve the problem and the contradictions between conservation and development.

What specific social policies have been successfully applied in the cases you study? How were they integrated to accommodate the interests/perspectives of governments, the private sector and civil society?

Laura Rival: Well, the research is not complete yet, so I would not want to anticipate on the conclusions. But what seems to be coming out of the research so far is that success really depends on a good coordination – or, rather, should I say – on a convergence between the activities of civil society organizations and various levels of governance. And this is what I find very exciting in Latin America at the moment: there are lots of examples of initiatives which are trying to combine very different levels of subnational governance, of municipalities, and of NGOs and civil society organizations – all working together towards the same goals. Of course, there is conflict, there are differences between them, they argue with each other, but it is in this work of convergence that I can see a promise of policy convergence emerging.

Dr. Laura Rival, lecturer in Anthropology and Development at the University of Oxford, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

For UNRISD, this is Alice Stock in Geneva.

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