ENVIRONMENTAL ANTHROPOLOGIST TACKLES DYNAMIC RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN WATER AND PEOPLE

Author: Alyssa Giffin

Read Time: 935 words about 6 minutes.

Transition is a five-part blog series, the sequel to Emergent, that follows ARI’s Post-Doc Research Fellows as they navigate the next stage of their academic journey post-PhD. Take a journey with them and hear about some of the lessons they have learnt and what drives their passion for their research.

A group of people sitting at a beach

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Dr Sarah Laborde in the field                       Photo: Michael Douglas

In our final part of the Transition series we put a spotlight on Dr Sarah Laborde, an engineer turned environmental anthropologist who is interested in the relationships and links between water and peoples’ lives. Sarah works to bridge knowledge gaps across the hydro-ecological and indigenous sciences to help inform policy and water management. Sarah completed a PhD at the University of Western Australia in 2012 with joint affiliations in water resources engineering and environmental anthropology. She then did her first post-doc at the Ohio State University (USA), working on a large Coupled Human and Natural Systems project focused on the hydro-social dynamics of the Logone River, in North-Cameroon. She started her current post-doc in ARI in 2017 and works in partnership with Aboriginal organisations in the West Kimberley to help articulate Aboriginal Water governance principles and requirements for the Fitzroy River.

If I could stay a postdoc for the rest of my life, I probably would! There is the freedom to pursue research questions that you really care about, without the administrative pressures usually associated with more senior academic positions.”

What is your favourite aspect about your research?

I get to learn from much wiser people than I.

Why does your work matter?

My work bridges ways of knowing and understanding water, for example across the hydro-ecological sciences and Indigenous sciences and knowledges, as well as water policy. It matters because for research to have impact it has to be translated across languages and ways of knowing, even if it’s just the language of policy-making.

Where do you get your inspiration?

The Kimberley landscapes inspire me (I am lucky to live and work here). People too (generally), as well as poetry, and patterns in the natural world.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

In this postdoc? A short film I made with Gooniyandi elder Mervyn Street, called “Veins of the Country”. It felt like it made itself, because I was so inspired in the process. To me those are the best achievements, when the sense of joy and momentum is stronger than the sense of effort, and things just flow. I think those are also often the works that end up having the most impact. In the case of this film, it isn’t public yet, but we have screened it to various audiences, including to Government Departments in Canberra. The feedback we received so far is that it really touches audiences and helps them think deeply about rivers.

What continues to challenge you?

True collaboration. Also, surrendering to my own creative process, even as it takes me far from what I know or have practiced for years.

What would you say to inspire other post-docs and HDR candidates looking to move into a post-doc position?

If I could stay a postdoc for the rest of my life, I probably would! There is the freedom to pursue research questions that you really care about, without the administrative pressures usually associated with more senior academic positions.

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Logone River, Cameroon                               Photo: Sarah Laborde

What are the main issues you see need addressing in your field?

True commitment at a water governance and policy level to listen more openly to Indigenous ways of knowing and to co-design governance frameworks, rather than “consulting” with an agenda to fit Indigenous knowledge in categories and frameworks designed by Western minds (e.g. as “values” within ecosystem valuation frameworks). It is a big challenge and there are some signs that it is slowly happening.

What brought you to ARI?

Prof. Sue Jackson. And I love rivers.

How do you tie your own interests or culture into your scientific career?

They are increasingly interwoven. My work looks at the social and cultural dimensions of water and I am also interested in healing practices within different wisdom traditions – water is often one aspect of the latter, as well as connection with the natural environment (especially water places).

What has been your funniest moment doing research?

One of the funniest I can remember is my first meeting with Aboriginal collaborators up here in the Kimberley. I gave a short presentation about my project and at the end of the day asked for some feedback. One of my current collaborators, a Ngarinyin woman, said “Honestly, I couldn’t understand a thing”. We have laughed about it together many times since then.

Do you teach as part of your role, if so, what do you enjoy the most about it?

I don’t teach. I gave a couple of guest lectures at UWA and I really enjoy it, but I move around a lot and I am now based in Broome – neither of which are conducive to teaching.

How did you find the transition from PhD into being a Post-doc?

This is my second post-doc. I have always been quite independent in research, including during my PhD, so it wasn’t much of a change except that the projects I now manage are larger (also, a postdoc’s income is more sustainable than a PhD scholarship!).

Learn more:

Sarah Laborde
Dr Sarah Laborde    Photo: Matthew Ayres

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