Published 01 March 2020
Could you tell us about your background and previous research?
I was born to a Bidayuh father and Filipino mother in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) and have spent most of my life in Borneo (Sarawak, Sabah and Central Kalimantan). My father’s constant engagement with his Indigenous Bidayuh heritage throughout my life, has been influential in my scholarship, especially his apprenticing as a traditional priest, following his parents’ (my grandparents’) footsteps as traditional priests in our communities, and intimate knowledge of Bidayuh traditions and co-engagement with nature and wildlife.
Prior to my postgraduate studies at the Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography & Environment, University of Oxford, I worked for over 12 years in conservation fieldwork, where I commenced the first long-term population study on wild orang utans in Sarawak. My fieldwork experience, including camera-trapping tigers and wild cats, has spanned throughout Malaysia, Sarawak, Sabah and Central Kalimantan.
Throughout my later years as a conservation practitioner, and because of the influence of both my father and sister, working on keeping Bidayuh heritage and traditions alive in our communities and being involved in native collaborations state and nation-wide, I started working on native land rights issues, particularly on the building of mega-dams in Sarawak. I assisted members of the protesting native communities and native activists on their media campaigns, demonstrations and wider networks, linking to other similar campaigns elsewhere. This experience, including my own understanding as someone with native Bidayuh heritage, helped me understand the impacts of conservation and development actions beyond the obvious benefits. I grew interested in exploring these impacts more and how someone like myself could be better-placed to help make a difference.
I was fortunate to be awarded with a Chevening scholarship funded from the Foreign & Commonwealth office (FCO) and University of Oxford, to read for a MSc degree in Environmental Change & Management in Environmental Change Institute (ECI) and Oriel College. Emboldened by the challenge, I immediately applied and was accepted for a DPhil within the same school, on a full scholarship. My DPhil (PhD) research took me back to my conservation roots, where I explored a decolonial Indigenous approach to orang utan conservation in Sarawak. My mentors included my father before he passed away suddenly, my Iban interlocutors, my supervisors both in Oxford (Yadvinder Malhi) and University of Newcastle, Australia (Sarah Wright), Noah Theriault and Zoe Todd.
My work seeks to understand the multiple Indigenous strategies to maintain relations with lands and orang utans through an interdisciplinary approach of decolonial and political ecology frameworks, including decolonizing ethnographic methods. Through my work, I provide a theoretical and decolonial grounding of understanding the different ways of Indigenous Iban presencing, and provide a way forward in developing a decolonial political ecology of orang utan conservation.
What are the environmental issues or problems that most interest you?
Human-wildlife, human-plant relationships particularly from an Indigenous/native perspective, have always been the core of my personal interest especially after growing up and watching my dad enact his Bidayuh relations with multi-species. Seeing these relations in other Indigenous communities play out in the context of conservation and development interventions, thus interest me greatly. As well, I grew up in Borneo before the annual haze due to wide-spread plantation burning, took place in the late 90s, therefore environmental change due to development needs and capitalist interventions, and responses from the state, other institutions and communities, are important to me to pay close attention to. With my prior conservation fieldwork and NGO experience, combined with my postgraduate research that is critical-based and Indigenous focused, I hope to bring worthwhile reflections that may benefit others and the work that we do.
What will you be working on as an SEI Research Fellow?
I hope to continue my long-term work on native relations and the environment, and environment change in Malaysian Borneo, with the native communities and coalitions that I have worked with since the early 2000s. I also look forward to bringing my perspectives and experience to current SEI collaborations, including the multi-species justice research project, whilst learning from my colleagues. I hope to deepen my emerging relationships in Australia itself, as part of SEI and with the Creature Collective, a transnational group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, activists, artists, and communities who are collaborating to challenge the world-breaking violence of extinction by directly and collaboratively fostering alternatives to the dominant biodiversity-conservation paradigm. As such, my intent for the first several months at least, is to listen and learn from everyone around me.
What inspired your interest in working with the SEI?
Coming from a biology background where my BSc was in Biological Sciences, and being based in the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford for my postgraduate studies where harder sciences tend to have more prominence, I wanted to consider how my work and thinking could grow in an academic space such as SEI where acknowledging Indigenous territories and rights, social justice, importance of social sciences and humanities are the foundation of the centre’s work. In the first few weeks in SEI, I feel gratified to see such interest, talk and action emerging around social justice and environment issues that affect not just the university body, but also wider communities (and multi-species!) in the country. More importantly, with the help of the vast experience of my SEI and other Australian (Creature Collective) colleagues, I want to appropriately acknowledge my presence as a person on other Indigenous peoples’ lands, in particular unceded Gadigal lands where I am currently based, as I navigate my way with care through emerging and new relations with other Indigenous communities.
1. Rubis, J. M., & Theriault, N. (2019). Concealing protocols: conservation, Indigenous survivance, and the dilemmas of visibility. Social & Cultural Geography, 1-23.
2. Rubis, J. M. (2017). Ritual revitalisation as adaptation to environmental stress: skull-blessing in Bidayuh communities of Borneo. Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, 2 (2-3), 356-375.
3. Chua, L., Harrison, M. E., Cheyne, S. M., Fair, H., Milne, S., Palmer, A., Rubis, J., et al. (2019). Conservation and the social sciences: beyond critique and co-optation. A case study from orangutan conservation. People and Nature.
4. Theriault, N., Leduc, T., Mitchell, A., Rubis, J. M., & Jacobs Gaehowako, N. (2019). Living protocols: remaking worlds in the face of extinction. Social & Cultural Geography, 1-16.