PhD Thesis

(Un)tangling the Net, Tackling the Scales and Learning to Fish in the Sabangau Assemblage: An Interdisciplinary Case Study in Indonesian Borneo

There is continued degradation of ecosystems worldwide and with the primary driver of environmental degradation being the human species, this new era is being called the Anthropocene. To better understand environmental degradation, there is a need to understand complex relationships between humans and their ‘environment’ and the functioning of complex human-nonhuman systems. This involves the need for interdisciplinary research approaches. However, exactly how to achieve interdisciplinary research is proving challenging, with issues including integrating the concern of various stakeholders, integrating different knowledges and the practicalities in bridging academic disciplines.

One current paradigm in this attempt to understand the relationship between humans and their ‘environment’ is the Ecosystem Service paradigm, that was born from the idea that a greater understanding and acknowledgement of how humans depend on the environment (e.g. for food and clean water) may lead to more environmentally sustainable choices. However, the concept of Ecosystem Services is heavily critiqued due to its anthropocentricity and its need for better integration of cultural and other non-quantifiable aspects of human-nonhuman relationships.

This thesis proposes an Interdisciplinary Assemblage Approach and explores its use for understanding complex human-nonhuman systems to a) support environmental conservation, b) to provide a framework for interdisciplinary research, c) to tackle the main critiques of the ES paradigm and d) to challenge dichotomies and hierarchies that are often imposed between different knowledge systems (‘local’ versus ‘scientific’ knowledge) and between academic disciplines (‘social’ and ‘natural’ sciences).

Specifically, I use the case study of fish and human communities in the Sabangau Assemblage in Indonesian Borneo (Central Kalimantan) and evoke the parallel concept of ‘assemblage’ in ecology and More-than-Human-Geographies to provide a framework for an interdisciplinary analysis of how the Sabangau Assemblage is formed, what the relationships are between human fishing communities, nonhuman fish communities and other nonhuman elements of the Assemblage (including abiotic aspects and spiritual nonhuman beings) and how these relationships lead to certain emergent properties (e.g. resilience) of the Assemblage. This is done to better understand social-environmental changes and conservation challenges in the area. With an interest in the values and benefits provided by fish(ing) to human communities, I also use this More-than-Human-Geographical approach to balance the main critiques of the Ecosystem Service paradigm as aforementioned.

This thesis draws on methods from Human and Physical Geographies which include the first in-depth fish and river surveys completed in the Sabangau River and Peat-swamp Forest, along with questionnaires, focus groups and in-depth interviews in two local human communities (Kereng Bangkirai and Taruna Jaya areas). Drawing from my results, this thesis provides recommendations for future research and management actions to reduce negative impacts on fish and fishers in the area, recommendations and considerations that will be useful for future peatland restoration projects, and lastly evaluates the proposed Interdisciplinary Assemblage Approach and its wider applicability.

Download my full thesis here.