Fresh Faculty: Ashwin Ravikumar
Issue   |   Tue, 03/06/2018 - 21:15

Ashwin Ravikumar is an assistant professor of environmental studies. He holds a B.S. in molecular environmental biology and ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an M.S. in environmental studies and a Ph.D. in environmental policy and social sciences, both from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Q: What is your area of research?
Most of my career has been spent working on the politics of land use and looking at how policies that attempt to reduce deforestation in the tropics, to mitigate climate change and also provide other benefits are actually working in practice or not working. So I lived in Peru for about two-and-a-half years after my Ph.D., where I was coordinating this global comparative study on land use change and deforestation, looking at how different policies were interacting with — that is, supporting or not supporting — indigenous peoples’ land rights, affecting who holds power in decision-making, empowering or not empowering local governments and ultimately whether or not they were effective in reducing deforestation.

Q: Are you currently working on any any articles or books related to your research?
… I guess the main article that I am working on right now is challenging some ideas that are really prevalent in global development and conservation. When I was living in Peru, I was working for a big, international research organization that was pretty closely linked to global development organizations. … A lot of the kind of discourse that I heard … was [that] the main challenge that’s preventing us from slowing deforestation in the tropics is that different sectors aren’t coordinating with each other, that the environment offices of the government and the agriculture offices of the government and the mining offices of the government aren’t talking to each other enough. And if we would get these folks to talk to each other and coordinate, we could solve problems. But through interviewing people that were really on the ground, and especially from seeing how movements that were led by indigenous people have secured great victories, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, what I started to learn — what some of my friends and I started to notice — is that the victories that we are seeing aren’t happening because of coordination. They are happening because of deliberate contestation between indigenous groups and activists and advocates that support sustainable land use and the rights of communities that have been living in forests for a long time, rather than agricultural intensification, rather than mining and extraction. So I’m writing a paper right now that kind of takes to task this notion that more coordination is always a good thing.

Q: How did you transition into academia?
It was an interesting journey. I was working, doing this research post-doc basically, with an international organization called the Center for International Forestry Research, and I had a really wonderful experience there, actually. It was awesome — I had a great team of collaborators and mentors that were awesome to work with … It was really cool to just, sort of, see how these global systems across levels work together. But I kind of wanted to move from that into something that was even more advocacy-oriented. From there, I went to join the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, which, kind of under the radar a little bit, had been doing some really amazing stuff in the Peruvian Amazon … So I ended up getting a really cool job with that group doing that type of work that was much more advocacy-focused and really trying to push for conservation pretty directly, and that was awesome and a wonderful experience. What I sort of saw with Amherst College is I missed teaching and I missed working with students and I wanted to do that more. And also, even as this group continues to be super successful and I maintain a really good relationship with them — I’m still an associate with the Field Museum today — there are a lot of really important research questions about how they have been able to do what they do. And I felt like coming here would give me an opportunity to work with students and also just kind of continue to work with the Field Museum and work on those types of advocacy projects, but from a more research perspective, with more of a research lens, to ask questions about how the new ways that they work with communities have empowered communities more than conventional development initiatives have and what’s special about it and what’s working about it.

Q: What drew you to Amherst College?
The thing that I think really caught my attention when I came out here to interview and talked to other faculty was just how much they remembered students that they had had in the past and how much good stuff they had to say about students … Even when I was interviewing, just hearing about the sustained relationships that faculty maintained with students, as mentors and even friends, after they had graduated — long after they had graduated — just spoke to the kind of community that gets formed here, and that was super cool to me. Even when I’m in a faculty meeting here — I just got here a couple months ago now — you’ll have 10 tenured or tenure-track faculty members, 10 faculty brains, that will spend 45 minutes talking about two or three students because they care that much. And that was something that I think is super unique and something that I had not really experienced before at other universities that I’d been at.

Q: Can you describe the courses you are teaching this semester?
So I’m teaching two courses right now: Global Environmental Politics and Environmental Justice. In Global Environmental Politics, I do that course a little bit more as a mixed lecture and discussion … I pull from some of my own experiences quite a bit in that class, and we try to unpack not just what policies and decisions shape environmental outcomes and what challenges exist for coming up with sustainable solutions, both within countries and between countries, but also try to really dig a little deeper into why policies emerge and can get passed or can’t, what coalitions are responsible for driving policymaking and who really holds power … Environmental Justice is a smaller class. It’s very discussion-focused … My own intuitions as an activist and as an advocate in my life come out of environmental justice traditions very much. But there is also a lot that I don’t know, so I’ve been using that class as an opportunity to read stuff that I haven’t even read before, watch documentaries that I haven’t even done before. And I’m trying to do something that I think is a little bit innovative and a little bit new, which is not just leave that class in the classroom but go outside of the classroom. What we are currently doing is trying to reach out to local organizations, and I’m finding now that in the Pioneer Valley there’s a bunch that are doing great work around environmental and social justice … So really using class time and using the course as an opportunity to do work that hopefully has a real impact in the community and perhaps even more broadly, if it’s something like a [piece of] state legislation or something like that.