Rainforest canopy and vines

Reimagining leadership in global environmental movements

15 September 2021
SEI Postdoctoral Fellow Dr June Rubis considers the contours of a leadership paradigm fit for transforming our systems.

By June Rubis, Postdoctoral Fellow, Sydney Environment Institute

I was recently invited to deliver a short intervention on “Reimagining Conservation with CEESP (Commission on Environment, Economic and Social Policy)” at an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) panel, during the IUCN World Conservation Congress which took place in Marseille, France.

Other invited speakers on the panel included Jennifer Tauli Corpuz, Policy Advisor of Nia Tero Foundation, who spoke on Reimagining Justice, Kevin Chang, Executive Director of Kua’aina Ulu ‘Auamo, who spoke on Reimagining Stewardship and Jessica Sweidan of Synchronicity Earth, who spoke on Reimagining Philanthropy. As someone who has had extensive experience in both conservation fieldwork and the Indigenous environmental movement, I decided to speak on leadership more broadly.

Towards the end of the panel, we were asked: who we should bring to the table?

I replied: more Indigenous peoples and local communities.

I believe that there can never be enough representation of Indigenous peoples and local communities, including youth and elders, in our environmental justice discussions. When we think of what is at stake, including human lives (such as those of the environmental defenders who face criminalisation and other human rights abuses for protecting their lands), and ecosystems under threat of irreparable damage, then I believe we could never have enough people speaking on behalf of them.

Drawing upon my own experiences with well-intentioned activists and academics who nevertheless gate-keep (“they are not Indigenous”) and attempt to speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples, so as to claim expertise and ownership over them/us1, I spoke of Indigenous peoples not being a monolith and that they/we have a multitude of ideas and aspirations when it comes to bringing effective change to the world.

The following is an excerpt of my speech.

Through asserting and defending their rights, Indigenous peoples have sustained their interdependent and reciprocal relations with nature resulting in the protection and sustainable management of their natural environment. Yet instead of being recognised for their leadership role, Indigenous peoples are often portrayed as barriers to conservation.

Therefore I believe the time is now to reimagine leadership, through the teachings of Indigenous peoples. Here, I also want to acknowledge the teachings of my father, my community and other Indigenous leaders and activists who have taught me to reimagine leadership differently.

Before I can speak on leadership, I have to explain first where I come from. My father is Patau Rubis from Krokong, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, and throughout his life, he has played many leadership roles in our Bidayuh community, including of being an apprentice Bidayuh priest, following the footsteps of his parents, my grandparents, who were Bidayuh Chief Priest and Priestess. With other Bidayuh village leaders of Sarawak and West Kalimantan, they revived the rituals of our communities that were fading because of waning interests, however the lack of rituals were also sustaining unbalanced relations with the environment. Today, these rituals are thriving despite his absence, since he has sadly passed away several years ago, and his legacy of leadership continues on.

Often, when we think of leadership, we think of individuals, of people featured in Forbes 40 under 40, of charismatic people who have been brought into the media spotlight.

When we think of leadership, we think of a series of qualities that one must have. Often people aspire to become leaders, rather than to be led by a collective.

My father was never recognised in an international context, nor was his life-long work appreciated outside the Bidayuh village communities and other local Indigenous communities. I think we can all think of similar leadership back home, who will never get the media spotlight, but nevertheless provoke so much change within a community and beyond.

So I would like to encourage us to reimagine leadership in a collective context, and being reflective of the collective.

Collectives or movements often give rise to the most effective spokespersons who carry the burden of saying the right things at the right time, often at times, failing. They are after all, just human.

Therefore instead of individuals, I believe we need to think more about the ideas, aspirations and decisions made by the collective or communal.

Leaders are backed up by the common agenda behind the scenes — it’s not because they are necessarily charismatic but the ideas and aspirations evoked by them have found resonance in the wider public.

Ideas and aspirations, not leader archetypes. This is what I believe we need to focus on, when we want to reimagine leadership.

Of course, now you’d be thinking, ok then. What sort of ideas and aspirations – what collectives should we be supporting – particularly in a day and age, when we do have to worry about dangerous ideas.

Again, from the teachings of my parents, community, other Indigenous activists, I believe that when in reimagining leadership as quiet and collaborative, of ideas and aspirations that we should take forward with, the following, while not definitive ~ needs to take place:

1. Relationality — understanding that we are connected with each other, that there is no cause without effect, that we do not stand alone. Indigenous peoples recognise this as reciprocal relations with each other, and nature. We recognise this as needing to maintain Indigenous cultural goals and standards, as to maintain relations overall.

2. Thinking beyond yourself, your generation. We recognise this as a form of youth leadership, being led by the youth as well. We need to think of future generations who will inherit this planet. One day we will pass, and our memories of ourselves are held by a few, but the legacy of our practice could continue on, when we think of others beyond ourselves.

3. Get uncomfortable. There is no leadership nor change when we are comfortable with being where we are right now. We have to think about redistribution of resources, of justice and equity of all, of rights-based and support ideas and aspirations that hold these in their core. Often these ideas and aspirations are not welcomed in many spaces of power, so we need to continually make space for this.

4. Disruption of the current economic systems — capitalism, neocolonialism,  whatever you want to call it —  that is harming all of us today. And we recognise this harm when the most vulnerable, the most marginalized – for example Indigenous peoples and local communities who are criminalized daily for protecting nature  – are facing the brunt of disasters in the world. We need ideas and aspirations that aim to remake the system, piece by piece, to protect the most vulnerable. We need to support our designated spokespersons to ensure that they stay on the path, and not be seduced to hold the current system in place.

5. Leadership as teaching. We cannot expect people to disrupt the system if they do not question in the first place. We need to formulate questions of a world or system that we may take for granted so that this could lead to real change in the world. In turn, we also need to learn how to listen to uncomfortable questions, at times, being asked from us – of which I mean, people with a platform.

So where do we begin by reimagining leadership? We need to first start by recognising that this sort of quiet, collaborative leadership already exists amongst us – that quiet, collaborative leadership do not need to be empowered to be heard — but rather we need to be empowered to hear them.

Thank you.

June Rubis began her career as a conservation biologist and has twelve years in hands-on wildlife conservation fieldwork in both Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo. In the last few years of practical work prior to her entry in graduate school, she started working on Indigenous land rights issues in collaboration with Indigenous activists in Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), and more broadly, participatory democracy with urban youth.

She has carried out research on Bidayuh ritual revitalization, under the guidance of her Bidayuh father and relatives, linking the revitalization with environmental change in her home state of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Her recent PhD research examined a decolonial Indigenous approach to orangutan conservation in Sarawak. Much of her approach to her work follows the teachings of her late Bidayuh father, who in the last couple of decades, followed his grandparents’ journey as a traditional Bidayuh priest and priestess. She holds both an MSc in Environmental Change and Management and a DPhil (PhD) in Geography & Environment, from the University of Oxford.

June Rubis is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute.

Image header by Jeremy Bezanger, via UnSplash.

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