Imagining a transformative environmental justice research agenda

By: Hannah Gray

Across the globe, environmental justice struggles over the right way to govern and use natural resources are increasing, and so is the attention being paid to studying and understanding these environmental conflicts. The Global Environmental Justice Group at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is a case in point, where empirical approaches to analysing environmental justice struggles are being used to analyse a variety of issues in different locations, including water resources in the middle East, marine protected areas in India, indigenous territories in Latin America, forest governance in Laos, and nature conservation in East Africa.

I was privileged to take part in a Think Tank convened by Iokiñe Rodríguez and Adrian Martin from the Global Environmental Research Group in Norwich, UK, at the end of 2016. The aim of the event was to explore how environmental justice research can become transformative, in other words, how can research empower communities to work towards justice and peace instead of suffering injustice and conflict? The UEA welcomed researchers, practitioners and activists working on environmental justice issues from all over the world to join the Think Tank.  The event built on existing links within UEA (e.g. Water Security Research Centre) and externally (e.g. Grupo Confluencias, a Latin American environmental conflict transformation network and the Academic and Activist co-produced knowledge for Environmental Justice (ACKnowl-EJ) Project, which is part of the International Social Science Council’s (ISSC) Transformations for Sustainability Network).

We started the Think Tank with a gift exchange, a beautiful process where each participant brought with them a small token or gift which represented the special sense of place from the land they call home, and offered it to another participant. This exercise enabled us to get to know each other, and also created a rich depth and breadth of diversity to the discussions, as people had come from such varied countries, beliefs, worldviews and experiences. The commonality we all shared was a desire to see justice for the environment and the vulnerable people within it.

On the first day, we explored how situations of conflict and environmental injustice are linked, and discovered that there is a clear connection between conflicts and environmental justice, in the sense that environmental conflicts are both the cause and consequence of injustices. The different perspective of nature that different social groups have is often a point of contention and conflict in human relations and interaction. For environmental justice to be achieved, transformative interventions are necessary. There are pathways to justice and away from justice, and also false justice pathways which are temporary or partial, and end up looping back to conflict. How can we move towards multiple issue transformation? What institutional changes are needed?

The group then discussed four papers which were written by participants, two from the Global North and two from the Global South. The papers set out frameworks for moving towards transformation and away from injustice. We summarised the ‘ways in’ to transformation identified by the frameworks including:

  • Collective action and alliances
  • Confronting power
  • Decoloniality
  • Post-growth/ post-development
  • Showcasing best practice
  • Understanding structural change

On the second day, we applied ourselves to dreaming of what a transformative research agenda would look like. We started by sharing our hopes and values, and creating a vision for future research. This vision includes dynamic vocabulary such as ‘provocatively transgressive’, ‘empowering actors’ and ‘collaborating instead of competing’, all with the aim of having ‘social impact’.

For our final exercise, we identified four key work areas for potential future collaborations:

  • Methods and ethics – develop tools and guidelines to do research with political rigour and high social impact
  • Joint research – cross learning for action
  • Theory – re-framing nature, restoring conflicts, just transitions
  • Education and capacity building – help develop capacities to transform conflicts

The Think Tank demonstrated that there is a need for more research on environmental injustices which not only analyses, but also stimulates and facilitates, transformations to justice and peace. For me, this Think Tank was an encouraging moment to reflect that the will and the expertise exists to move towards these transformations, working across scales, worldviews and histories.

Hannah Gray is the Coordinator of the Global Environmental Research Group at the University of East Anglia.

  • Check out the full report from the Think Tank here:

  • See some ‘Testimonies of Justice’ collected at the Think Tank on YouTube here:

  • And find out more about the Global Environmental Justice Group here:

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