Dr Sango Mahanty is a Senior Research and Teaching Fellow for the Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program, Crawford School of Public Policy.
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Associate Professor Sango Mahanty is a human geographer working on contemporary environmental challenges in mainland Southeast Asia.
Based at ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, Sango spoke with us about her research in the Asia-Pacific region and her hot tip for the best Indian food in Canberra.
How long have you been in Canberra? What’s your favourite thing about living here?
I grew up in Canberra from the age of six, when my family moved here from India. In the intervening years I’ve moved around and returned to Canberra in 2007 when I joined the ANU. Canberra holds a lot of great memories for me and it is a wonderful city to raise a family. We enjoy cycling, walks in and around Canberra, and the live music scene here.
What is human geography and why is it so important?
Contemporary environmental challenges are complex, interrelated and intransigent. Understanding their causes and effects is the core business of human geography, which explores the relationships between people and nature across diverse places and over time. Geographers using a political ecology approach, like me, understand nature-society transformations as politicised and socially contested processes, with complex causes and unequal effects. For example, our current Australian Research Council (ARC) project is examining the dramatic social and ecological effects of hydroelectric dams in the Mekong region, and how civil society and state actors are responding to these disruptions. This kind of knowledge can support more inclusive and effective environmental governance.
What is the most interesting project you’ve worked on and why?
I recently finished an ARC Future Fellowship which studied smallholder crop booms in the Cambodia-Vietnam borderland. I followed trading networks for boom crops like cassava, starting with farmers through to traders and factories in Vietnam. One of the main products of cassava – refined starch – is used in everyday products like biodegradable packaging and instant noodles, which connect all of us to these borderland farmers. It was very rewarding to contribute new knowledge on how crop booms emerge and their significant social and environmental impacts. CartoGIS, a group of full-time cartographic and geographic information system (GIS) specialists at ANU, helped me share some of these findings through a storymap.
What drew you to working on mainland Southeast Asia?
It all started with my NGO role before I joined ANU. At the Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC) in Bangkok, I worked with community forestry projects in Cambodia, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. I found this a very dynamic and interesting part of the world, with dramatic histories, rapidly changing societies and pressing environmental challenges. After joining ANU, I continued to develop projects in this region, including work on water pollution in northern Vietnam, a project on forest carbon schemes, and the projects I mentioned earlier about crop booms and hydroelectric dams.
Why did you choose to come to ANU?
ANU is a great base from which to study the Asia-Pacific region. Our group at the Crawford School of Public Policy works on Resources, Environment and Development issues, and is home to some top scholars. I can’t go through a day without being introduced to a new angle on an issue or piece of news about the region that helps me understand my research in a deeper or new way.
ANU also has some very distinctive coursework programs. It’s great to teach into the Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development and the Master of Environmental Management and Development where we can share fresh knowledge from our research – this research-teaching nexus is one of the University’s strengths.
What’s the best place to eat in Canberra?
I have several favourites. For Indian food, I love Daana in Curtin with their Saturday night regional thalis. Au Lac in Dickson has the best vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine. I’ve recently discovered Malaysian Chapter in Belconnen, which is also great.