Home About Committees Anthropologists and the Environment Dewan, Camelia

Name: Camelia Dewan

Affiliation: PhD Candidate University of London (Geography, Environment and Development Studies at Birkbeck and Social Anthropology at SOAS)

Contact details: dewan.camelia@gmail.com

Statement of interest: My doctoral research in Social Anthropology and the Environment deconstructs an increasingly depoliticised and technical climate change knowledge production paradigm to show how climate change has become one of the latest development ‘buzzwords’ (Cornwall 2007). Using the case of Bangladesh’s coastal zone, my research uses insights gathered from long-term ethnographic fieldwork and archival research to deconstruct narratives which depict Bangladesh as a “victim” of climate change. Such representations simplify the multitude of complex and interlinked processes affecting livelihoods in Bangladesh’s coastal zone. Through the lens of climate change as a development discourse I show that, despite attracting substantial development funds, the development industry has failed ordinary, non-metropolitan Bangladeshis in significant ways by funding unsustainable infrastructure, aquaculture and agriculture that are destroying local ecology and livelihoods, and further exacerbating indebtedness due to microcredit.

Until recently, anthropological engagements with climate change have mainly focused on investigating the local effects of global climate change (Crate and Nuttall 2009). Some scholars even advocate a shift from ‘environmental ethnography’ to ‘climate ethnography’ (Crate 2011). However, by doing so anthropologists risk losing a holistic understanding of livelihood challenges, while also engaging in ‘climate reductionism’, an increasing trend of placing disproportionate attention on climate as a causal explanation of change over other factors that shape societies and the physical world (Hulme 2011). The current development paradigm in Bangladesh is based on causal assumptions that climate change causes floods. However, using archival research and oral histories, I trace the environmental history of floods and embankments and show how the changing narratives about their forms and functions are embedded in the social power dynamics of each time period. Embankments were originally used to prevent salinity (1770s-1850). During the British Raj (1860s) they were re-cast as ‘flood protection’ infrastructure, allowing for the expansion of railways and today major donors like the World Bank promote them as ‘climate change adaptation’ infrastructure. My research underscores that siltation, not rising sea levels, is the key factor exacerbating flood risks in Bangladesh. Donor projects to build higher and wider embankments as a form of climate change adaptation may, ironically, serve only to increase climatic vulnerability.

Long-term ethnographic fieldwork with a historical perspective helps bring these complexities to light through the messy disjunctures of history and the voices of people so often neglected and has much to offer in terms of improving livelihoods and redirecting development funds to that cause. I do so by exploring indigenous knowledge of the effects of agriculture on health and the environment, as well as that of precarity, indebtedness, gendered livelihoods and the importance of everyday migration. It is essential to add these perspectives to discussions of climate change which otherwise tend to be dominated by natural science perspectives and ‘scientific models’ which often do not probe the assumptions of the models themselves and the intricate chains of causality behind the correlations they measure.

Geographical/topical area of interest: Bangladesh, South Asia, climate change, development aid, environmental history, agriculture, aquaculture, environment and food, flood protection, embankments, environmental migration, ‘climate refugees’, indigenous knowledge on the effects of agriculture and aquaculture on the environment and health, gendered livelihoods, everyday migration, microcredit and indebtedness.