Save the Planet: Ethnographic Methods for changing human-environment relationships.

Change is a constant, says the wit! Ethnographers have been obsessed with CHANGE  for a long time now; environmental change perhaps more recently. We ask: What or who is changing, how and why? And with what consequences? What role does culture, society, environment, economy and politics play in determining how we deal with change?

Having begun my anthropological career amidst the battle to save rainforests and its people from loggers and agribusiness, I seem to have moved from one environmental crisis to another, whether its deforestation, biodiversity loss, wildlife trade, water scarcity, climate change, etc. Through all I have relied on ethnographic research methods to better understand how people have perceived and responded to their changing environment.

For me, active participant observation is the best way to truly come to grips with another way of life. And one thing I have learned about life through this kind of engagement is how we and they deal with CHANCE. Such a neglected subject! Always assuming that cosmos from chaos is what human culture is all about. But what about the fact that “shit happens”, that our assumptions and predictions are often overturned, isn’t that of critical importance to study?

Given that we tend to think of the world as more precarious these days, that ecosystems once thought in equilibrium are now considered in  disequilibrium or non-equilibrium, and that future environmental change promises to throw up more surprises, it is imperative to focus on change and chance and how humans, around the world, and in the past as well, have dealt with, and are dealing with such change.

In my doctoral research, I spent two years living in central Borneo with indigenous Dayak hunters and farmers, learning to hunt and fish and live in a tropical rainforest environment. Being an active participant observer was the only way for me to really see how local knowledge was used, or instantiated, in everyday activities. One can learn a lot from interviewing or listening to hunters tell stories, as all children do, but getting out there and experiencing firsthand what its like gives one unmatched insights into daily lives as they are lived, how they prepared to go out, how they decided where to go, what tools to bring, how to walk, and search for prey with all ones senses, at the same time!


How to approach and kill often dangerous animals (bears, boar, snakes), how to process them and bring them home. Of course one gets real cred amongst local hunters for being so foolish and that helps immeasurably to be accepted and given access to people’s private lives. What I realized through my apprenticeship was that hunting required knowledge of animals and places, knowledge of skills, such as sharpening knives, throwing spears or using a blowgun, even walking was a learned skill, and thirdly knowledge of how to coordinate and adapt a hunt as it unfolded over the course of a day or days, as conditions changed.

I was able to observe how hunters reacted to variation and unexpected events, how they used their experience and accumulated wisdom to mitigate changes in weather, the hunting party itself, and the behaviour of prey. Participant observation made me realise the dynamics of hunting in a tropical rainforest, that so much change is occurring on a daily basis, and that through performance knowledge hunters are able to respond and adapt to chance events.

Ten years later I was back in Borneo and working with the Penan again. In this project, examining the dynamics of knowledge, of rattan and its use in gorgeous baskets, I and my research collaborators in Indonesia added more techniques for increasing the interactive aspects of participant observation, namely the use of video recording and computers for interviewing and analysis. One remarkably revealing technique for us, was showing recorded forest-based activities, such as harvesting rattan, to elders no longer able to go into the forest, and having them comment on the abilities of their sons and grandsons, in terms of the quality of their work, and the knowledge underpinning the various tasks engaged in.


This gave us real insight into the processes of turning botanical resources into material culture, and also the dynamics of knowledge instantiation and its transmission among generations. We were also able to observe and record basket making among the many expert women weavers, and show them pictures of baskets found in museums to also better clarify their understandings of production and change in basketry over time. Learning to weave baskets was of course a vital way to experience learning and teaching, as well as establish rapport and build social relationships.

My recent research in southern India has focused on the everyday responses of forest-dependent people to climate change-induced biodiversity change. Lantana camara, a central American shrub has come to dominate the dry arid tropics and subtropics in Australia, South Africa and India. It invades the understory of dry deciduous forests, many of which are the home of elephants, tigers and leopards, as well as indigenous tribal people, in this case the Soliga.


Lantana is so thick it suppresses the growth of grasses and herbs, which are food for the forest’s herbivores (and indirectly the endangered carnivores), as well as wild food and medicine of the Soliga and the food of their livestock. We have been following herders into the forest to see how they are reacting to the increased Lantana, and what impacts this may be having for the health of their cattle and their livelihoods more generally. We have observed, reduced distances covered, avoidance of lantana areas in favour of potentially more dangerous slopes, an increased fear of attack by wild animals, and a reduction in diversity of food sources.

As we saw in Borneo with hunters, herders also manage their daily activities using their knowledge and experience to deal with changing conditions and chance events, such as a sudden appearance of an elephant, in order to feed and protect their animals. We think that Lantana is catalyzing a trend to either outsource cattle to lowlanders or sell them off entirely, which has important impacts on livelihoods, health and local identity. Of course more is going in here than just Lantana invasion.

Climate change impacts occur in the context of many other forces, drivers and processes of change enveloping communities. It is only through careful observation of the everyday events that nature-dependent people enact that one can begin to understand the subtle ways that change is occurring and how people are responding to it.

Participant observation is certainly about following, and more, but following those quotidian acts and activities that are the mainstay of daily life for billions of people still dependent on the natural environment for all or part of their livelihoods, and through following coming to realize their uniqueness, allows us to be witnesses to the flexibility in response that people demonstrate in the face of contingency, chance and change. But participant observation is more than witnessing.

Ethnography is active too, interactive in fact; it is about engagement, both personal engagement that leads to reflexivity and self awareness, and engagement with our teachers and mentors and respondents who share their lives with us, undoubtedly with the hope of greater empathy and understanding for how their world is changing and how they are responding to the challenges that this brings. Such engagement always comes with personal costs and responsibilities for the researcher, but entanglement in other lives, whether here or there, is perhaps the best means we have to convey to other others what intervention will mean in such contexts.

Time seems to be speeding up around us, and fear grows of what the future may hold, of a climate in turmoil with all its unknown unknowns. Even though there is a great urgency to do something, rash decisions and generic interventions will only miss the mark if we don’t take the time to engage with people in a substantive and ethnographic way. That is the way to make the world safe for diversity, and to save the planet as well!

Raj Puri

Senior Lecturer in Environmental Anthropology
Director, Centre for Biocultural Diversity (CBCD)

This is a transcript of talk first given by Raj at the launch of the Centre for Ethnographic Research on the 4th of Novermber 2016.


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