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This is Part Two of Diya’s reflections on Fieldwork and Funding. Click here to read Part One.
I am so glad my funding applications worked out. Receiving sufficient funding to carry out field work and having even one good local contact (or a network of contacts) in the field made preparing for the everyday so much easier. The American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), formed in 1961, supports American scholarship on India. As a funding organization the AIIS is very supportive. In addition to linking fellows with affiliate institutes in India they also offer an opportunity to network and meet with other research scholars who are conducting short and long term research in India.
My research examines the production and maintenance of unintended wildlife habitats with a focus on the diverse landscape matrix and everyday livelihood practices of rural people in the Eastern Ghats in India. Conservation efforts, and the fortress model in particular, hinge on a clear demarcation between what is social and what is natural. This ontological binary informs policies and strategies for managing people, wildlife and space. Yet, biodiversity exists in everyday, anthropogenic landscapes where humans and wildlife share resources and co-constitute spaces. In my study area these include several endemic and threatened wildlife species, including the four-horned antelope, sloth bear, wild boar, the slender loris, wild dogs, and migratory leopards. Hence, I interrogate both the physical/biogeographic landscape and social practices that co-produce these spaces in the absence of conservation mechanisms. I use a mixed methodological approach that includes the use of satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques to characterize the landscape matrix, household surveys and semi-structured interviews with forest dependent communities living around these unprotected forests to understand the social landscape and the ways in which humans and wildlife coexist in anthropogenic landscapes. The results point towards an urgent need to acknowledge the value of wildlife conservation in anthromes, and shift the debate and praxis of conservation beyond protected areas.
I spent six months in the field located in Arogyavaram (close to Madanapalle town in Andhra Pradesh, India) generating data on land use practices of local communities who live around forests through household surveys and interviews. Along with investigating the social, I also undertook land use and faunal surveys (which involved being excited about seeing animal scat) in the forests to understand the physical
landscape and presence of wildlife in the unprotected, fragmented landscape matrix of the Eastern Ghats in India. At the end of six months, I had learnt a lot and worked on all the different aspects of my proposed project with minor changes and adaptations on the way.
But most of all I had a wonderful team who helped me do all of this. The funding I received from AIIS helped me compensate these individuals for their time and effort. The interdisciplinary focus of my work and mixed methods meant that I had to navigate both the physical and social landscape. In a perfect world, this could have been one person, but since reality is different, I had help from three people who were all involved at different stages in the process. This is in addition to all the others across six villages who volunteered with their time to answer my questions.
Sajeeda is a young nursing student who had never been to the forests in the area before working with me, but she has a good grasp of three languages making her the perfect translator and field assistant.
Suresh is a good friend and local naturalist who runs a small NGO that works on conservation in the area. And finally, Anji is a farmer with an amazing depth of knowledge on local biodiversity. He is also an ace wildlife tracker.
Field work involves a learning curve as no amount of preparation really prepares you for the experience. There are good and bad days, delightful surprises and disappointments. Along the way, I learned to deal with curious villagers, difficult to reach bureaucrats, and learned about interesting lives and livelihoods. I also developed multiple ways to explain my research objective and what I was doing, to people in the field. Overall, I think applying for funding in graduate school is critical not only for actually getting to the field, but also as an exercise that lets us preview what we may be doing in the future in or outside academia.