An interview with Sakshi Aravind
Our guest this week is Sakshi Aravind, a PhD student in the Department of Land Economy at the University of Cambridge. Sakshi works on indigenous communities and environmental litigation in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. Previously, she graduated from the University of Oxford, where she studied for the Bachelor of Civil Law (2014-15), specializing in criminal law and evidence. Her research interests include legal and indigenous geographies, legal anthropology, comparative environmental law, constitutional law, and political ecology.
Hello Sakshi, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us about the themes that your current doctoral research explores and what a legal perspective, such as your own, can bring to our understanding of more-than-human worlds?
Sophie, it is an absolute honor to have this conversation with you and to be alongside the many scholars whom I respect immensely and who have also been interviewed by morethanhumamworlds.com. Not to mention, I also admire and closely follow your fantastic work, which inspires my own a great deal. Speaking of which – my doctoral work is about understanding the intricate relationship between courts and indigenous environmental justice. I am exploring how existing laws, legal processes, and actors such as judges and lawyers, engage with the idea of indigenous environmental justice. To this end, I study judicial decisions from a range of courts and environmental tribunals in Australia, Brazil, and Canada. I think a lot of scholarship on indigenous environmental justice narrowly misses the examination of courts as powerful agents in and contributors to, justice discourse. This is also, at least partly, a consequence of a less reflexive legal discipline and a striking absence of inter-disciplinary tools and frameworks to study indigenous environmental litigation as a question of jurisprudence. My work seeks to address this gap, making use of ideas that were triggered through critical legal studies movement (Roberto Unger, Duncan Kennedy and the likes) in the United States that began to question the strictures of certainty and predictability in law and to emphasize more the subjective roles of judges and other actors involved in judicial processes. It is imperative to understand that the mixed outcome across jurisdictions in indigenous environmental matters are a direct outcome of judicial institutions and actors responding to their socio-economic and environmental conditions. My thesis is an attempt to articulate this variation.
I find it interesting that this space (the variation that I just mentioned), which accommodates the more-than-legal, is overlapping with the more-than-human. In most instances, indigenous relations with the environment lie at the heart of the litigation. It is about seeking recognition for the environment as vibrant, living matter that is critical for the cultural and material integrity of the indigenous community in question. As you know, I work on non-human legal personhood alongside my PhD. I am beginning to think that achieving indigenous environmental justice through courts and recognizing indigenous ways of life without having to balance them against economic interests does a lot more for the rights of nature and rights of our nonhuman counterparts than the empty gesture of simply declaring rights for nature or personhood for animals. For that matter, critical legal studies moment was a break away from the doctrinal tradition of understanding law as a set of norms and principles – it was an attempt towards coloring outside the lines, so to speak. And that’s precisely what I am doing now – coloring outside the lines in a sketchbook for justice.
In a 2019 article published in Socio-Legal Review, you highlight the need to rethink the boundaries of environmental justice in regulating resource exploitation and environmental degradation. What, in your opinion, is the relationship between environmental justice and multispecies justice, as these are both actualized in the present and imagined for the future?
It was great to have environmental justice as a distinct concept in the 1980s when Bob Bullard and others started talking about it in the context of racial injustice, manifest in the uneven distribution of environmental harms. That foundational moment provided only a glimpse of many possibilities and ontologies of environmental justice. Subsequent scholarships then adapted the concept of environmental justice to different social, political, and juridical contexts. All of these, now read together, reveal an epistemic trajectory of the concept – a concept that has only grown fuller and richer in its framing. In this particular moment in the Anthropocene - an era characterized by an unprecedented scale of environmental degradation and human suffering – it is imperative that we understand environmental justice as a concentric circle within multispecies justice. Such an understanding may be gradual – theoretical first, and then legislative, and perhaps eventually it will make its way into the juridical. Just as much as there is a need to rethink our relationships with the rest of the living world, there is also a need to rethink our conceptions of justice. It is rather immanent to law and to jurisprudence. It will be easier to mobilise our efforts towards breaking the false dichotomies between nature and culture that are so deeply embedded in our institutions and legal systems once we reconcile with the fact that environmental justice and multispecies justice are inseparable.
I try to demonstrate in my work that in most of the indigenous environmental litigation, particularly in Brazil, the stakeholders are emphasizing the fact that indigenous communities have been custodians of the natural world since time immemorial and that protecting one extends aegis to the other. This is best demonstrated in the operations of extractive industries where the impacts can neither be quantified nor be apportioned to particular species. We are all in it together. In my article, I was thinking specifically of India and its tribal population. We have not even started the conversation on what is environmental justice for the indigenous population in this part of the world, let alone developed a full-fledged discourse around indigenous environmental justice. I feel theory develops fully and better when it registers the worst of the intersections between social and political violence against the people. Such a moment is imminent in India today. Probably so, all around us.
In a recent talk you gave at a symposium on Multispecies Justice, you analyzed how non-human legal personhood plays out in the context of Indian court system and emergent jurisprudence. What, in your view, are some of the potential pitfalls of the otherwise widely celebrated extension of legal personhood to non-human entities, such as rivers and mountains, both in India and in other regional contexts?
One of the biggest pitfalls would be that it makes us complacent. That we will neither critically engage with the limits of rights jurisprudence nor think of firmer legislative possibilities that are more representative of more-than-human participation in democratic processes. I mean to say, trying to enact a bill, such as the one which gives legal personhood to Lake Erie in Ohio, has more purchase than an empty declaration of the rights of River Ganges by a state High Court in India. The latter got stalled by the apex court for want of reasoning. While I see greater hopefulness in the outcomes and approaches of courts in New Zealand, admittedly, those decisions have been a reiteration of a pre-existing indigenous relation, working towards recognition of indigenous environmental values and opening up avenues for greater opportunities in indigenous management of nature. Anna Gade rightly points these out in her recent article in Edge Effects. So, fundamentally, nothing new being created. The decision set a precedent and made everyone enthusiastic for a while, including the Indian courts.
If there is no constitutional basis for the creation of rights, that case is less likely to be a precedent and more likely to be shelved as an outlier. Even with Rights of Mother Earth being embedded in the Constitution, both Bolivia and Ecuador have been torn apart by extractive economies. So, there needs to be robust legislative protection that can hold the government accountable for violating environmental values supplemented by constitutional principles - not merely aspirational values. This way, we can have fewer inconsistencies and judicial whims and more holistic protection through law.
Finally, Sakshi, what practical, ethical, or scholarly advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
This is tough, really! I have worked in this field for a really short time, but I have loved it for longer. While this is not advice, I invite everyone to think with me. My training as a lawyer has been important in reflecting on how easy it is to be anthropocentric and robotic in our thinking. Obviously, there is more than one way of approaching more-than-human worlds. I did it by overturning my entire world, something I had started with and thought was “mine” – all my presumptions, biases, dreams, concrete future plans, and a whole host of things. I changed disciplines – instead of becoming a criminologist, I thought I would have one last go at reconnecting with my childhood passion for the environment. It feels better than the years of law school training that make you plan ahead and have clearly defined Plans A, B, C…and so on.
While I cherished my dabbling with geography, anthropology, and critical animal
studies, I discovered that the best way to approach any field and be able to devise
novelty is to bank on my training in the initial discipline. In other words, I discovered
law again and began to love it more than before. That is what the more-than-human
world does to you – discover something you have known all along and begin to see it in a different light. One can decide on whether they like it or not gradually. But the process of discovery is a humbling one. The gatherings we encounter along the way – people, lives, knowledge forms, all things past and present – are our filters. They are our living morality. I have had a glimpse of one small discovery. I would like to know more and am curious about what is at store at the end of this journey, however long it lasts. Sometimes, it is something as simple as curiosity that fuels and sustains our journey in the more-than-human world.
"In this particular moment in the Anthropocene - an era characterized by an unprecedented scale of environmental degradation and human suffering – it is imperative that we understand environmental justice as a concentric circle within multispecies justice. Such an understanding may be gradual – theoretical first, and then legislative, and perhaps eventually it will make its way into the juridical. Just as much as there is a need to rethink our relationships with the rest of the living world, there is also a need to rethink our conceptions of justice."
"Sometimes, it is something as simple as curiosity that fuels and sustains our journey in the more-than-human world."
But the cases from India appear more like an exercise in jumping on the bandwagon than trying to locate a precise source of power from which these declaratory powers or rights be drawn. In September 2019, Tripura High Court in India granted Right to Life for animals while considering the matter of banning animal sacrifice in temples. There was no reasoning for how a fundamental right could be stretched to cover constituencies that are not considered in the Constitution at all. It was a meaningless reiteration of some of the erratic opinions of other state High Courts. The impugned judgment is now stayed and reconsidered by the Supreme Court. As you can see, this has repeated itself several times over the past and frankly, we have made no progress in jurisprudence. I wouldn’t say the same for the rights of River Klamath. It was a matter of recognition by an indigenous community before tribal courts. That is a matter of a very different worldview.