Q&A with Research Affiliate Dr Rebecca Lawrence

SEI welcomes research affiliate Dr Rebecca Lawrence from Stockholm University.

Mining Quarry in Poland, by Mariusz Prusaczyk via Unsplash

Rebecca is a Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. Her research, highlighting the importance of integrating Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making, has seen her working across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia to explore the impact of mining on local Indigenous communities.

What made you interested in working with SEI?

Three things made me interested in working with SEI. First, I am passionate about the role of the public intellectual and action-research. I believe academics have a dual role to debate new ideas and theories, but also to contribute to policy debates and actual change on the ground for local communities and the environment. Obviously, these dual objectives – academic enquiry and community outputs – are closely coupled, but many traditional academic environments tend to privilege the former and pay too little attention to the latter. I see SEI as a place where the two come together and are equally valued: we are academics engaged in academic debates, whilst also ensuring we provide outputs that are relevant outside of academia, whether that be in regard to public policy debates or the grassroots work of local communities. Second, and following from this, I find collaborations very rewarding – with academics, communities, NGOs, and the private and public sector – and SEI is a great platform for collaborations. Third, I see SEI as a truly interdisciplinary research space, which means I don’t have to choose which of my disciplinary hats to wear. Instead, I get to wear all of them: sociologist, political scientist, human geographer and wannabee anthropologist.

What are the environmental issues that most interest you most?

I am interested in how histories of colonisation and modern resource extractive industries intersect: how the dispossession of indigenous peoples by the state and resource companies play out in modern planning regimes, and indigenous peoples’ resistance to those same dynamics. I am also interested in environmental controversies more generally, whether it be climate change, the use of nuclear power, the social impacts of coal-mining, or large-scale impacts of hydropower. I am fascinated by how particular narratives around the perceived impacts of these various environmental issues are deemed legitimate – for example, the view that hydro-power and nuclear power are “environmentally friendly” or “climate smart”- while other narratives, such as the impacts of those industries on local communities, are marginalised or disregarded entirely.

How has your work with Indigenous communities in Scandinavia translated to the Australian context?

When I came back to Australia 3 years ago, after living and working in Scandinavia since 2002, I was reminded of something: relationships with Indigenous communities as a non-Indigenous researcher are hard-earned. It took me over 10 years to develop strong relationships with Sami communities and organisations in Scandinavia. Those relationships with Sami community are inherently local and place-based and I am respectful that those relationships don’t necessarily hold currency with Indigenous communities and organisations in Australia. Research doesn’t always easily transfer, at least not when it comes to the emotional labour of building ethical and reciprocal relationships with Indigenous communities. Building new relationships takes time and I am working with colleagues in Australia to develop those in a respectful and meaningful way that is reciprocal to those Indigenous communities.

Having said that, on an intellectual level, there has always been a symbiotic link between my work in Scandinavia and Australia. The one has always informed the other. So, when I worked with Saami communities to resist or negotiate with mining companies in Scandinavia, we were always drawing on the experiences of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal organisations in Australia. And now, following debates in Australia around Aboriginal peoples’ claims to be included in the Australian constitution and have political representation, I can reflect upon my own research on the history and governance structures of the Sami Parliament in Sweden in terms of what has worked and what hasn’t, by way of institutional arrangements for achieving Indigenous self-determination.

Apart from research, what are your interests?

The Australian beaches. The Swedish forests. Yoga. Swimming. How-to-survive-parenting literature.

Rebecca Lawrence is a Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making.