Peace Science Digest

Conversations on Indigenous and Decolonial Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding: Interview with Dr. Diana Arbelaez-Ruiz

We conducted a series of interviews with experts to gain deeper insight into Indigenous and decolonial approaches to environmental peacebuilding.

Diana Arbelaez-Ruiz was born and raised in Colombia in a family with campesino origins whose elders suffered internal displacement due to the political violence of what is now known as the “Violencia” years. Today, she is a researcher looking at mineral extraction contexts to understand people’s experiences and needs and how mining affects them. She builds on that understanding to support more informed decision-making processes. In polarized contexts, she works to find common ground and ways people can work together towards a more peaceful society and engagement with nature.

PSD: Can you introduce yourself and provide some background on how you came into the environmental peacebuilding field?

DAR: I trained as an engineer and was very interested in environmental issues. So, then I worked in environmental economics, and re-trained in environmental sciences, anthropology, and finally peace and conflict studies. My Ph.D. was done with Indigenous people around mining and its connection with conflict and peace. It’s been a long journey across multiple fields and connecting different disciplines. In the last decade, I’ve worked with Indigenous people who live in areas where there is mineral extraction—legalized or not. There are different interactions between that mineral extraction and armed conflict processes. It’s trying to understand what mining means to Indigenous people through their understanding of conflict and what peace means to them.

PSD: When you work with an Indigenous community, what does that look like in practice?

DAR: We do it in a participatory way and use ethnographic methods. The needs people express and the context determine how we work together. For example, I’ve worked with the Nasa Indigenous people in Colombia. It always begins with a conversation with people from their organizations. The Nasa are extremely organized and experienced in doing research with academics and have a model that they favor—participatory action research. It’s a back-and-forth dialogue to understand what it is that they are interested in learning, what it is that you are interested in learning, and how you can bring your capacities and knowledge to come together. One important thing for me is to be aware that many of the Indigenous leaders are not only activists but also experienced researchers. These leaders have taken the time to mentor me and to teach me. It’s been a real exchange—it’s not like this academic expert coming in from the outside but a meeting of different forms of expertise that cross pollinate.

PSD: Can speak on potential conflict or tension around Western and Indigenous knowledge generation? Do you see them as being in opposition to each other or equally valid approaches?

DAR: This is the main question for me when doing environmental peacebuilding research. These approaches—Western and Indigenous—shouldn’t be in opposition to each other. However, I’d say we have a long way to go. Academic institutions—the processes and the power structures that Western universities work under—do not favor collaborative research and engagement with Indigenous people. The difficulty in negotiating the two spaces, especially for early career academics is marked. There are pressures to publish rapidly and in English, and to lead the research with academic output as the top priority. This is neither fair to Indigenous collaborators in a violent conflict setting, nor does it align with the principle of free, prior, and informed consent.

For example, take my experience working with an Indigenous community that was at once heavily stigmatized as “violent” and at the receiving end of violent repression. Academic expectations became difficult to navigate. The community I worked with has been targeted with systematic murder campaigns, threats, harassment, and violence. It happens very regularly that their leaders are murdered. Speaking up against the illegal elements of the mining system, or other illicit economies, places them at risk. So, I was writing about a topic—mining—that is polarizing and dangerous. In academia, the expectation is that you must quickly write up and publish the research in English, a language the community do not speak. When you go into these very polarized and violent contexts, you need to write about it carefully and respectfully, considering the implications for the Indigenous people. One needs distance. One needs time to consult with the community. In practice, what this means is time, and that time can be hard to find in academic institutions.

PSD: In our special issue, we use the following definition for environmental peacebuilding: “environmental peacebuilding comprises the multiple approaches and pathways by which the management of environmental issues is integrated in and can support conflict prevention, mitigation, resolution, and recovery.”[1] What is your reaction to this definition? Anything you might add or change?

DAR: When we speak about peacebuilding, in the context of decolonial and Indigenous approaches, there are two key words I would ask that we reflect on: harmony and violence.  Within Indigenous communities, nature is not seen as a set of resources, a supermarket or hardware store, or a set of recreational areas. Nature is often understood as a sentient being, a motherly being. Nature is not seen as a set of natural resources to be managed. This makes harmony a priority.

Harmony comes up a lot when working with Indigenous peoples: the idea of having balanced relationships, relationships of reciprocity, and relationships of mutual care between people and with nature. We need to think about how we can integrate notions of harmony in our understanding of environmental peacebuilding. When I was in Australia, for example, I was doing social impact studies for the closure of a mine. The Aboriginal people from the area would constantly refer to their responsibility to care for country. It’s the ideal that people hold—you balance damage with reciprocity or a mutual care act towards the land, the country, the territory.  We need to include harmony in our understanding of nature.

Let’s turn to violence now. We tend to concentrate on conflicts that attract the media or recent conflicts, but there are many other forms of violence. There is subtle violence that happens slowly but is just as painful and damaging. So, in the definition of peacebuilding we need to ask whether we’re only focusing on conflict or on building harmony. Thinking about harmony addresses the causes of all these different types of violence that people can be subjected to. It is often because of not attending to disharmonies that slow “violences” end up into larger conflicts. When you think about harmony, it makes the slow violence more visible. It’s making your lens more sensitive to subtle forms of violence, thus working to prevent conflict.

PSD: Can you describe how Indigenous or decolonial approaches are distinct in environmental peacebuilding?

DAR: Indigenous approaches are not the same as decolonial. A decolonial approach is about bringing in voices, ways of understanding, ways of acting, and concerns of people that tend to be silenced because of gender, faith, class, ethnicity, economic factors, education, or any other factor or difference that is used to silence others. It’s not one set approach. It’s a variety, a range of approaches. A decolonial approach can include an Indigenous approach if it has been built by the Indigenous people in their terms, through their organizations, their concepts, their strengths, and if it considers all the diverse perspectives I just spoke about. Indigenous approaches to peacebuilding come from Indigenous people from their territories, their values, from their everyday experiences.

In Colombia, Indigenous notions of peace are connected to this notion of Buen Vivir (or, living well). It comes from the First Nations of Latin America. It’s an alternative to development discourse that prioritizes harmony: harmony with yourself, with your family, with your community, with nature. The idea of Buen Vivir is an integrative concept. It’s not fragmented as in a water management project, or land rehabilitation project—it’s the whole way of viewing different dimensions of life. That integrative approach helps us to build a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between people, with nature and what damage to people and nature does to all. For example, one thing I find interesting when I’m working with Indigenous people in Colombia is that they will say, “This land has a lot of blood in it.” Meaning that the land has been injured by the violence that has been enacted on people. Buen Vivir contests the idea that linear economic development is something to wish for or that we should aim for material accumulation at the expense of our natural environment and ourselves. This is an ideal of course. It’s not the reality that people live in because we’re all immersed in this political economic system that sees nature as a resource.

Because of structural, ongoing factors, Indigenous peoples are often dispossessed, targeted with violence, and oppressed. As result, there is a lot of effort to prevent disunity within Indigenous societies. There is an emphasis on not letting people get to the point of open conflict through different social mechanisms. From the Indigenous world, you learn about many mediation or reconciliation approaches that can be useful and that tend to involve not just the conflicting parties. The whole community gets involved because the conflict is seen as a rupture or injury to the social fabric of the whole group. People can go to great lengths to prevent those fractures, with different degrees of success.

PSD: We’re talking about these huge structural inequalities between the Global North and the Global South, between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. There’s a lot of painful history there. It’s hard to figure out how to move forward.   

DAR: It’s not easy, because it’s in our head. There are academic scholars from Latin American who talk about the coloniality of being—when you have absorbed the colonial approach. You’re colonized in your head and that happens to all of us. When you’re an immigrant, for example, you try to fit in and adapt to the environment (maybe in academia or outside). Sometimes that forces you to give up the very sources of what makes you unique, your own strength. And that’s the loss of when you don’t apply decolonial approaches—we try to turn everything into the same. Decolonial approaches acknowledge that there’s all these different ways [of] doing things. It’s not going from the dominant Euro-centric perspective to another one. It’s embracing the reality of the many different ways people think about the world and how people think about peace and nature.

PSD: To what extent has the environmental peacebuilding field embraced an Indigenous or decolonial approach?

DAR: Traditionally in peacebuilding, you would hear a lot of this idea of the local people as a resource for peacebuilding actors. This is a transactional way of thinking about local people. Recently, there has been more of an acknowledgement of everyday peace and local peace. But I still feel like sometimes in discussion and work, it can still seem transactional.

Environmental peacebuilding is a diverse field that is still evolving. We are seeing more voices of people from the Global South, and we need to hear even more. This is always going to be a work in progress. We need to keep things open. What we lose when we don’t keep things open is expertise, knowledge, research rigor, and better approaches. We need to continue to open the field. It’s going to grow amazingly if we do. It already is growing. It might not be easy for everybody but it’s going to lead to a much better practice. However, these disciplines are very difficult to separate from what is happening in the world. For every effort to open and include, there are other efforts to keep things closed or exclusive.

PSD: How does militarism and militarization show up in environmental peacebuilding?

DAR: What I’ve seen in conflicts around mining is military intervention after grave situations have developed because communities were not looked after, taken care of, or protected, for a long time. For example, in Colombia, you have an issue of people participating in illegal economies. How do you get to the point where you have to put together hundreds of police, army, and navy to dismantle a huge illegal mine that is destroying a river? It’s a livelihood question, unanswered, in a remote area. The people are doing what they can to survive in areas of Colombia that are difficult to access.

Once you get to the point where you have these large-scale illegal mines where there are no environmental controls or social controls—it’s horrifying how they are destroying the rivers. How long do people have to be forgotten for things to get to that level? Once these large-scale illegal mines are dismantled, it’s not an easy fix. The army and police may come in, but these illegal ventures come back from the ashes.

The Nasa advocate for demilitarization. In their context, they have had so many armed groups going through their territory. The state doesn’t come to those areas to compete to offer services or opportunities. These armed groups create strongholds and take on illicit economies—be it mining or drug trafficking—they are extremely profitable. Then, the state wants to send the army to fight the armed groups. The local communities are caught in between. In response, the Nasa have declared territories as zones of humanitarian protection or territories of peace. They make efforts to deter armed actor entry in their communities or territories. It is not easy.

PSD: Have you found common challenges or trends in social and armed conflicts that occur in mining regions?

There are huge problems that are simply alarming, and then there are things that we can call challenges. The huge problems compound themselves, and they affect similar communities. One is the criminalization of protest, including incarcerating people or oppressing people in other ways, getting them entangled in the judiciary system to punish them for protesting. The other is the waves of violence and harassment, and efforts to stigmatize people who work as human rights defenders or environmental defenders. Even the term “defenders” presents them in a vulnerable situation. Those people are often Indigenous or campesino leaders in rural areas.

So, you have these two problems: the criminalization of protest and the violence against people who are advocating for rights and nature. Then, on top of that, you have regressive reform. Regressive reform means, for example, simplifying the environmental protection process for mining approvals, or reducing community participation requirements. The excuse might be “the economy,” the urgent energy transition, or the “national interest.” In the end, fast-tracking approvals can lead to looser regulations and less social inclusion in mining. These processes compound.

As for challenges, there are a few that come up in mining regions. For example, the issue of how outsiders engage with Indigenous, Afro-descendant, or campesino people. Indigenous people see nature in a very different way than how a mining company or professional geologist or engineer might see nature. Indigenous people may see an ideal future in a different way from these professionals. For example, an Indigenous community may view untouched nature as better left as it is, whereas an engineer may see it as ripe for improvement.

Continued Reading

Arbelaez Ruiz, D. C. (2024). Indigenous responses to mining in post-conflict Colombia: Violence, repression and peaceful resistance. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge. 

Arbeláez-Ruiz, D. C. (2022). Indigenous resistance to mining in post-conflict Colombia. The Extractive Industries and Society9.

Arbeláez-Ruiz, D. C. (2021). How to be a good immigrant in Australian academia. In Martin, S. B., & Dandekar, D. (Eds.), Global South scholars in the Western academy (pp. 53-64). Routledge

Arbeláez-Ruiz, D. C., Lee, R. (2023). Indigenous ways of knowing and peacebuilding. In Martin, S. B., Peacebuilding practice: A textbook for practitioners. Phnom Penh: Women Peace Makers.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

[1] Ide, T., Bruch, C., Carius, A., Conca, K., Dabelko, G. D., Matthew, R., & Weinthal, E. (2021). The past and future(s) of environmental peacebuilding. International Affairs, 91(1). doi: 10.1093/ia/iiaa177

This interview is featured in our Special Issue: Decolonial and Indigenous Approaches to Environmental Peacebuilding.