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Celebrating excellence: Professor Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt appointed Officer of the Order of Australia

12 March 2024

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Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt convenes the gender specialisation in the Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development (MAAPD) course and also teaches courses on Exploring Gender and Development.

On Australia Day 2024, three members of the Crawford community - Professor Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Mr Greg Moriarty and Commodore Peter Leavy CSM RAN - were recognised for their outstanding achievements. Professor Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her significant contributions to natural resource management research, gender equality advocacy, and tertiary education. We asked Professor Lahiri-Dutt to reflect on her impactful journey and the future of her work in the wake of this recognition.

Congratulations on being appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia! How does it feel to receive such a prestigious honour for your contributions to natural resource management research, innovation, gender equality, and tertiary education?

Thank you for those kind words. Yes, it feels very good to be recognised for years of hard work. I reckon anyone would feel pleased with such a terrific recognition. But for me the feeling is sweeter because Australia is my adopted country. I took up a job at ANU in 2002, and this university provided me with such a wonderful place of work that I never looked back. I never needed to. The area of my research at that time was quite ‘new’. Although women have been working and managing natural resources even since human civilisation began, for some strange reason, they remained quite invisible to researchers and policymakers. It is possible that until the late 1990s, this particular area was more dominated by male researchers who might have, often unwittingly, led to this invisibility of women. However, it is more likely that the question of gender equality in natural resource management was of lower priority even to feminists who were fighting their battles for equal rights in areas of political representation, domestic violence, and media representation. Policymakers too forgot women’s interests when making plans for water management, building dams and irrigation canals, implementing large-scale mineral extraction projects, or developing agricultural initiatives. Therefore, I am glad that my ‘down-to-earth’ research projects have succeeded in retrieving and illuminating women’s labour contributions to all these important areas of our daily lives, making them more visible. The award signifies an expansion of our understanding of gender equality to areas previously overlooked by feminists, while also positively impacting the lives of millions of women.

Can you share with us some of your personal favourite highlights from your career in teaching and research? What inspired you to pursue this career?

I studied geography purely as a matter of chance. Even as a child, I used to be a visual person and expressed myself best through colours and sometimes music. I knew that when I finished school, I would go to Art College. But alas, that was not to be. My father, a pragmatist and an economist, wanted me to study his discipline, economics. His reason was simple; if I studied art, he asked: ‘What will you eat?’ Of course, my father wanted to make sure my education would let me have the wings to fly free. That was the basis of his reasoning, but it took me many years to understand that. I didn’t give in entirely and rejected my father’s not-so-subtle suggestions to study economics, which was his discipline. I chose geography solely to satisfy my wanderlust, an insatiable desire to see the world, driven by the notion that ‘seeing is believing’. Therefore, the inspiration to start my career was quite mundane, yet still a tale worth sharing.
It took years of travel – along river courses through villages, across flooded fields, into underground coal mines and through mountain foothills – to understand how the entire field of ‘natural resource management’ relies on the arduous, uncomplaining, unrecognised and invisible work of women.

Your work has focused extensively on natural resource management. What are some key challenges and opportunities you’ve encountered in this field throughout your career?

The field is dominated by men, often those from more affluent nations. It was always a challenge to stand up and talk to them, especially as a woman of colour. Often, in international conferences, representatives would ask me: ‘Where are you from?’. When I said, ‘I am from Australia, The Australian National University’, they thought it was quite strange. It poses an ‘epistemological challenge’ - determining who holds or can hold knowledge is the issue here. We still do not live on a ‘flat earth’ no matter how much we would like to think of the international forums as creating a ‘level playing field’ where ‘everyone can be given a voice’.

Leaving aside my personal experience, I think the biggest challenges are twofold: first is the tendency to ‘generalise’. For example, all rivers are treated as the same. In my research on river islands or ‘chars’, I showed that some rivers in South Asia are quite different. They hardly have any water in their channels during the dry season but swell up during the monsoons. Chars are tiny little, impermanent islands located within the rivers’ banks and many people live on them and make a living there by farming on those lands. During the monsoons, they keep their eyes and ears open, watching the rise in the river’s water, ready to leave in minutes’ warning. I called this ‘Dancing with the River’. My research has responded to this challenge by paying attention to the microscopic worlds within rivers and focusing on impermanence rather than permanence.

The second challenge is the inability of the (usually male, but also female) natural resource researchers to treat gender as part of their problem and the reluctance of feminists to include natural resource management within their fold. Again, a tough challenge. But I turned this one too into an opportunity. Let me give you an example. Political ecologists who study natural resources and society-environment interactions were themselves protesting against a view of space as bounded. They presented extraction as ‘subterranean ecologies’ representing human greed and destruction of the environment. But my research showed that women’s labour enlivened these underground spaces, feminised them and turned them into gendered spaces.

So, yes, challenges are there, but it is not impossible to take the bull by its horns and turn the challenge into an opportunity.

Gender equality is another area where you’ve made significant contributions. How do you believe gender equality intersects with natural resource management, and what role do you see yourself playing in promoting gender equality in your work?

I recognise my privileges – of my location at the ANU, of coming from an educated family where generations of women have been educators, of having such wonderful peers and the very best facilities of work. If anything, this award has made me recognise these privileges more and made me aware of the huge amount of work that needs to be done and that I can do from this position of privilege. If possible, I will devote my life to the betterment of other women and facilitate the flourishing of others as persons.

As a Professor at Crawford, how do you integrate your research and teaching to engage students in meaningful ways?

I teach ANTH8038 and ANTH8039 courses in the second semester every year. The course is about ‘Gender and Development: Policy and Practice’. The course is based on feminist theories, but is applied in nature, and brings out real-world problems of gender equality in developing countries. Recently, I have started another course, EMDV8013, ‘Development and Environment in the Anthropocene’. Both are based on years of my research, field experience and the policy work that I have done for international agencies like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN-Women.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing careers in natural resource management or gender equality advocacy?

My advice is for everyone, especially men! Go ahead, don’t be afraid, learn more about gender and apply the knowledge in your work! Gender equality is not only ‘women’s business’. Without men understanding more about gender, equality will never be achieved.

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