Being a Public Scholar means doing research with direct practical relevance, not only for society "out there" but also for the people who make research possible thanks to their participation, the people who have a direct stake in the research.

Faculty of Arts
Philippe le Billon
Research Description

What are the largest concerns for land and environmental defenders who are at risk, and what protection strategies work best? These are some guiding questions that led to the development of this research. This project aims to better understand the experiences of land defenders facing severe threats, and to answer these questions through a combination of literature research and in-depth fieldwork. It also explores how, beyond established initiatives, academic collaboration could contribute in protecting the voices and lives of the people engaged in what is known in many rural communities across Latin America as ´the defence of territory. This research investigates how the Indigenous movement in Colombia’s Cauca region responds to violence and repression. 2018 alone, 22 Indigenous leaders and community members from Cauca have been murdered by the military, hitmen and dissident rebel groups, their ancestral territory becoming a literal battlefield for competing interests including drug trafficking and agribusiness. Through collaborative ethnographic fieldwork with a local Indigenous organization engaged in the “defence of territory”, this research aims to understand (perceptions of) risk and protection strategies protection of Indigenous land defenders. Understanding the territory as a site of political and ontological contestation between rooted communities and colonialist and capitalist forces, this research dives into the dynamics of protest and repression, and urges us to reevaluate support for existing (state-led) protection mechanisms in favour of community-led approaches such as the Kiwe Thegnas (known in English as Indigenous Guard).

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

To me, being a Public Scholar means doing research with direct practical relevance, not only for society "out there" but also for the people who make research possible thanks to their participation, the people who have a direct stake in the research. As a public scholar, I believe that knowledge is co-produced between the researcher and the participants; and that the research process, especially when one works with communities in conditions of vulnerability, needs to adapt to local needs and priorities, and seek to reinforce positive community-led processes.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

I think the Public Scholar Initiative invites PhD students in the social sciences or humanities to look beyond the "academic bubble" and see their PhD experience as an opportunity to contribute to something concrete, and to rethink our relationship with the people who make our research possible. It doesn't need to be figured out from the start, it is something you discover along the path. It can come in the form of helping to look for funds for projects, organizing brainstorm workshops, augmenting international visibility for a cause. For me, this is an ongoing question I constantly ask myself, and I will need to continue asking myself this question even after I leave the field. We need to listen, be patient, and be aware of our possibilities (and privileges!) as PhD students we can encourage collaborative research and attempt to set a new standard of what committed research can look like.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

Before turning to my PhD I worked "in the field" for several years, getting to know the reality of human rights defenders, solidarity organizations and international institutions. But, I have always felt that true engagement was really difficult to reach because of the many (institutional, practial) constraints, also limiting the interaction (and mutual understanding) between different lived realities. I hope that through my PhD work, through a prolonged engagement with human rights defenders on the ground, I can at least partially surpass that. At this stage I have not yet decided where I see myself working in the future, in academia or in international solidarity organisations, but I hope to take these lessons with me, build bridges, and inspire others to also leave their mark.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My research is a collaborative project with ACIN (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca) which unites 20 different Indigenous reserves belonging to the Nasa people. I plan to actively involve ACIN's Defense of Life team with my research, constantly reflecting upon the research process and its preliminary results with the team, and facilitating brainstorm workshops with ACIN and land defenders on jointly selected topics. I also plan to provide guest lectures at the school of the Indigenous Guard, where new IG coordinators are not only trained in operational matters, but also on a wide range of political and societal issues. I am very aware that a (more so an English-language) PhD thesis is of little use to the practical needs of the movement, and I am always exploring other ways to contribute in any way possible, including by helping to connect ACIN to other relevant actors in the field.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

I consider myself, in part, a messenger. Much of the knowlege I '"produce" as an academic is the result of joint reflection with the local partner. In turn, I hope that my work moves beyond academic circles directly towards (I)NGO's and international institutions working on policy and advocacy. In addition to being a public scholar, I am connected to the Interamerican Institute of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, which offers a platform to discuss and disseminate developing knowledge about human rights issues in the region. In many contexts of socio-environmental struggles in the region, repression extends beyond individual defenders toward the community as a whole, and as such, I believe that mechanisms of protection and care need to develop collective approaches. I am hoping my work can put this issue more squarely on the agenda.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

After finishing my Masters degree, I worked for several years in human rights (research) projects in Latin America. This period taught to me a lot: to relate to and move between different players in the field (rural communities, state representatives, private companies), to develop an overview of the regional panorama and to distinguish patterns and differences. At the same time, I felt that many questions were left unaddressed and I missed the possibility to engulf myself deeply in a single issue and community. Returning to academia to pursue a PhD was the right step for me to make.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

UBC has become the perfect place for me to develop professionally. My background is in Anthropology and Development Studies, but UBC’s Geography program, which has a very interdisciplinary focus, has offered me entirely novel perspectives on the issues that I wanted to study, introducing me postcolonial literature, new ways to understand the nature of knowledge, and debates on combining research and activism. I always wanted to combine field research with human rights work, and UBC gave me that opportunity. Last but not least, although this is an unfinished project, I believe UBC, itself located on unceded Indigenous territory, has made great steps in encouraging respectful relations with Indigenous peoples. Although I had worked with Indigenous peoples in Central America and Colombia before, the Canadian practice of the land acknowledgement was new to me. However, when I (being a white, European visitor) made a land acknowledgement when I first presented myself at ACIN, an Indigenous organisation in a likewise settler-colonial context, it was very much appreciated. I realised that even such small gestures of respect can be extremely meaningful.