In June 2015, I (SL) had my first stint with ecological fieldwork. I joined the long-term hornbill monitoring project of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) at the Pakke Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, India. On the first day, I was told to wake up at 3:30 a.m., brave the thunder and the rain, and walk inside the forest to monitor hornbill nests. The mental preparation was severely lacking, and it was quite unnerving to drive some of the way, and walk the remaining in a dark forest amidst the presence of elephants. I was certain that ecology was not my cup of tea, and started to seriously consider my plan B—becoming a railway loco driver.
But over the next month, not only was this routine possible, but it was made thoroughly enjoyable in the company of Turuk, Tali, and Kumar Daju, who work as field collaborators with NCF. To call them field assistants would be a thorough understatement to their tremendous resourcefulness and support. Sometimes, I felt like I was merely in their way. They knew the hornbills, the fruits, the elephants, the forest (Tali was thoughtful enough to first beat the soil and wake up the mushrooms before picking them up for lunch!). From someone who made up his mind to never look back at Pakke and ecology, I now make it a point to visit the place whenever I am in the area. This turnaround happened entirely because of them.
In May 2019, I (RJ) had to take a five-day leave from monitoring nests of the Indian Skimmer and other river-island nesting birds as part of fieldwork duty in the National Chambal Sanctuary, Uttar Pradesh, to travel to Bangalore for an interview. Since intensive and regular monitoring of nesting birds was the most important aspect of our fieldwork, and being the only researcher on the project, I was hesitant to travel. Despite my field collaborator, Atul Kushwaha, being competent, I was reluctant to completely handover field responsibilities, even if only for a few days. As it turned out, in my absence, he meticulously collected field data, carefully captured field photographs, expertly deployed camera traps, as and when required, all this with little to no supervision. I realised that I had severely underestimated both his ability and commitment.
Colonial hangover in the field
We often hear the narrative of the global north and its colonial mindset prevalent in the way science is done in the global south. From not acknowledging local collaborators to denying authorship, the field is full of examples. However, we must not hide behind that smokescreen and deny that field ecology is free of this distinction, even in the global south. There are ample examples of unfair treatment of local collaborators including low wages, inadequate protection, accentuated by the lack of or weak implementation of statutory provisions, unusually high workload, and fewer leaves. As Dr. Ovee Thorat, who has a PhD from the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE), Bangalore says, “We are not merely researchers, but often a bridge to an extractive system for them, which can often treat them as mere labourers. In a sense, it is quite a colonial system that we still continue to follow.”
As young ecologists who have had their fair share of volunteering, internships, and their own research, we have, over the past few years, understood that we are all handicapped without local field support. Ask any field researcher or scientist, and they will tell you the same. So what can we, as field ecologists, do to ensure their inclusivity and dignity?
Higher pay and insurance
Ensuring regular increments in wages commensurate to role, experience and qualifications, and providing foolproof insurance are essential first steps. For a fairly risky job that involves a high probability of encounter with potentially dangerous animals or with dangerous elements such as armed poachers, smugglers, and miners, personal accident insurance is a must. Wherever possible, and especially for experienced workers engaged by scientists long-term, this could be topped up with a Mediclaim policy, thereby offering a double layer of security from unforeseen events in the field.
Wages that are at least 1.25 times higher than the state’s minimum wage norms (skilled/semi-skilled/unskilled, depending on the kind of work they are expected to do) could be offered as well. These bare minima must be included in any field project’s budgetary expenses right from the planning stages. If the appointed field collaborator (up to age 50) is a graduate in any discipline, for projects being funded by departments and agencies under various ministries of the Government of India, the current legally sanctioned wage is INR 18,000 along with house rent allowance (most collaborators may not be eligible for HRA). An honest effort should be made by ecologists to make sure that this benefit reaches eligible personnel.
Wage disbursal on time is also of utmost importance. During the ongoing pandemic, depending on the budgetary space one’s project offers, one could consider offering at least fifteen days’ worth of wages in advance to cushion for any unforeseen medical expenses. Where wages are directly deposited by institutes/organisations/universities into the collaborator’s bank account resulting in a tax deduction at source (TDS) of ten percent every month, we could ensure that their tax returns are filed for the year, which might enable the reimbursement of this TDS amount.
However, standardising and increasing salaries for field collaborators can only be initiated at the institutional level, and this should not fall only under the ambit of early career researchers who are strapped for field funds, and are often forced to pay the collaborators lower than what is expected.
Institutes/Departments/Organisations engaged in ecological fieldwork must also develop a special account/corpus with compulsory contributions of, let’s say, even 0.25 percent from all sanctioned projects (or set aside some fixed proportion from institutional overhead charges) that could be put to use during emergencies that may arise due to a mishap/an accident during fieldwork. This could also be useful to early career researchers and students of wildlife, who typically cannot afford sudden expenses that may arise due to such unfortunate events. Besides these, we could explain the importance of long-term voluntary saving options for post working-age life. As an example, while most rural folk (where most wildlife/ecology-related fieldwork happens) are informed about postal saving schemes, very few know about the Government of India-backed Public Provident Fund (PPF) scheme that offers relatively higher, safer, and tax-free returns, among other benefits.
Sharing of knowledge with field collaborators
Training field/local collaborators in various aspects of research, in whatever way possible, can ensure that they have job security outside research projects’ durations. Many of the village residents at Singchung Village, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, for example, have been trained and are exceptionally well-versed with the local birds and plants, and are also good at conducting surveys. This empowers them to potentially make additional income by guiding tourists in and around the Sanctuary, or establish their own homestay facilities with the right training and support. Such capacity-building should be encouraged, and researchers should devote time to ensure that they share their knowledge with their collaborators. “Often, local collaborators need jobs, and an exposure to a wide network of research non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can help them in the future,” says Dr. Anwesha Dutta, a postdoctoral researcher at the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI), Bergen, Norway. Wherever any field collaborator has collected substantial ecological data independently, or assisted project activities intellectually, they must be given authorship rights (not just acknowledgement) in publications resulting from the relevant work. This could help them secure more formal and long-term engagements with other organisations.
However, similarly, it is also equally important to learn and inculcate learnings from community members and collaborators into research — especially ones that have the capacity to affect the community. Field researchers are often complicit in making decisions without consulting community members and field collaborators, and hence, a large part of their knowledge is lost or unacknowledged. Through this, whenever relevant, we call for knowledge sharing to be bi-directional, rather than a top-down model from researcher to collaborator.
We believe that one of the biggest contributions that we, as field ecologists, can make is to listen to the problems of the field collaborators and try to bring them up with relevant authorities. I (SL) learnt this the hard way (I am still learning)—despite spending four months in Dehing Patkai, I was unable to address the issues of wildlife conflict in Bablu’s village (our project’s local collaborator). However, the important lesson is that, given that we usually have access to multiple resources, we must make a concerted and conscious effort to do our bit—write about the issues, bring them up with the local forest department officials or other relevant authorities, and provide financial help, if and whenever needed.
Bridesh Kumar, a trained and experienced field worker, who has assisted and worked with various researchers and organisations, such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) India, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), and the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), in projects in and around Dudhwa Tiger Reserve over the past ten years, says that the one expectation he has from researchers is being treated with respect. He says, “Field assistants like myself do not operate under any fixed tenure, but rather at the pleasure of researchers we work with. It would be nice if we are looked at as hardworking, respectable individuals who might also need the occasional day off, let’s say.”
Respect and acknowledgement
Constant acknowledgement, understanding their position in the society, their backgrounds, needs, and family considerations are some of the things that field researchers must always be aware of.
Ultimately, we believe that these are only some of the many ways in which field ecologists can begin to more actively engage local collaborators in the study they are undertaking. They are not just paid hands. There will be many more instances in which field researchers have taken up these issues in their own ways, which need to be amplified and applauded, yet normalised.
“Researchers must also always check their position when it comes to power dynamics with field collaborators,” adds Dr. Dutta. As Baker et al. mention in their recent paper, “To describe research as if carried out from a neutral perspective is to pretend to “view from nowhere” (Shapin 1998); that has been robustly critiqued by both feminist (Haraway 1988) and postcolonial writers (Spivak 1988). Instead, researchers should act to make visible the structural privileges that are integral to the production of knowledge. It matters what passport we carry, the colour of our skin, our assigned sex, where we work and study, and the language we speak, because their perceived status is tied to histories of colonisation and exploitation.” Similarly, we believe that our positions as privileged researchers and field ecologists, with access to resources for smooth functioning of research, require self-reflection and acknowledgement of the colonial power structures that continue to dictate much of the dynamics between a researcher and a field/local collaborator. For example, both SL and RJ are men from middle class, upper caste families. This privilege emanating from our position in this section of the society has enabled us to pursue studies in wildlife science, and conduct research in a new place, essentially by using funds raised from multiple sources. We believe it is important to state our own position and reflect on the privileges it accords us to employ field collaborators. As much as we call for the readers to understand their positionality, we are also equally aware of the same.
Eventually, our community can come together to ensure healthy and inclusive growth in this field. These are also principles that our community of ecologists and conservationists routinely advocate in our work as policy recommendations. If we are to truly add diversity to our voices, we should first raise ours from within.
Throughout the article, we have used the term “field collaborators” instead of “field assistants”. We believe that the term field assistant may be regressive, and has a colonial underpinning to the exploitative nature of the said work. We also acknowledge that we ourselves have used the said term in our writings and conversations in the past, but are learning to make amends. We urge readers to also reflect on the terminology they may be routinely using. We also acknowledge that there may be further nuances to our position, but our aim is to further discussions, dialogue and affirmative actions on the issue. A few essential readings on this, and other aspects we have highlighted in our article are as follows.
Baker, K., Eichhorn, M. P. and Griffiths, M. 2019. Decolonizing field ecology. Biotropica. 51(3): 288-292.
Haraway, D. 1988. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies. 14: 575–599.
Osborne, T. 2017. Public Political Ecology: a community of praxis for Earth Stewardship. Journal of Political Ecology. 24: 843-860.
Ramesh, M. 2020. A Call to Redefine ‘the Field’ in Nature Conservation Studies in India. Ecology, Economy and Society – The INSEE Journal. 3(2): 27–31.
Shapin, S. 1998. Placing the view from nowhere: Historical and sociological problems in the location of science. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 23: 5–12.
Skandrani, Z. 2017. Decolonizing ecological research. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. 8.3: 368-370.
Spivak, G. 1988. Can the subaltern speak? In: Marxism and the interpretation of culture (eds. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg). Pp 271–316. University of Illinois Press, Chicago, Illinois, USA.