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Dr Vanessa Burns
University of Sheffield
Early Career Fellowship

Adaptation and indigenous labour: colonial extraction on the climate frontier

Using historical, ethnographic and collaborative qualitative methods, Vanessa Burns establishes new bases in geographical research for the decolonisation of environmental governance

Sunset on a beach.

Equatorial small island states (SIS) are doubly vulnerable to the effects of environmental change: they are vulnerable to the damaging effects of extreme weather and to the neo-colonial structures that continue to govern them. This is especially the case for indigenous subsistence communities whose livelihoods rely on agriculture and fishing. Recent research highlights the successes of indigenous adaptation to environmental change, yet this inadvertently positions the knowledge produced for extraction. The task of adapting to environmental change is a new form of labour. We should be wary of any approach which might position the knowledge thus produced as something that might be exploited by, and directed to, the primary benefit of minority world economies. International environmental governance frameworks aim to address the inequities of environmental change and, in doing so, might appear benevolent; yet, in some respects, they also embody a subtle contemporary form of colonial hierarchy and colonial violence. 

My research investigates the physical and intellectual labour of indigenous adaptation, the conditions of environmental violence under which it is performed and the emergent parallels with conditions of slave labour on the colonial frontier:

  • I examine how the effects of extreme weather on equatorial Pacific SIS dictate that the labour of adaptation is undertaken under conditions of violence. 
  • I will compare contemporary Pacific indigenous adaptation labour and the slave labour of the Pacific colonial frontier to investigate emergent parallels between the contemporary and historical extraction of natural and knowledge resources.
  • I will examine how indigenous environmental knowledge, produced through adaptation labour, is extracted for use in developing international climate change adaptation policy. I will conduct fieldwork in Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands and Fiji, situated in the Coral Triangle and Melanesian regions of the West Pacific.

The project establishes critical bases in human geographical research for the decolonisation of environmental governance. A key aim is to establish a typology of adaptation labour that recognises environmental knowledge as an essential resource and the inequitable conditions in which environmental knowledge is produced. I hope this will be useful to scholars and policymakers in analysing and developing good regional and international environmental governance.  

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