Development studies and global health student to go on a solo expedition to the Yamal Peninsula

Development studies and global health student to go on a solo expedition to the Yamal Peninsula

To gain more insight into why Alegra decided to undertake postgraduate studies in development studies and global health, and learn about her supervised research-based project component of the degree where she is undertaking a solo expedition to the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, we asked her a few questions.

What are you studying at Macquarie University?

I am currently doing a Masters degree in Development Studies and Global Health in the Department of Anthropology. I’ve started preparing for my thesis titled: Women at the End of the Land that will document my solo expedition to Yamal Peninsula in Siberia in late February 2016. This thesis is based on principles of visual anthropology so it will integrate written theory, observational film and ethnographic photography. The Women at the End of the Land expedition is part of my larger project Wild Born.

Why did you choose Macquarie University for your studies?

I was particularly interested in the Department of Anthropology because it has an innovative curriculum, high-quality teaching and very strong research. I wanted to work with Associate Professor Greg Downey and Dr Jaap Timmer as well as the rest of the staff. I couldn’t be happier for making this decision. The department has been vital to my project development and has given me support in many ways.

Tell us about your experience of the research project component of the degree, where you design and conduct your own independent project, practise newly acquired skills and put theory into action.

The expedition Women at the End of the Land is part of my larger project called Wild Born and is going to be used for my thesis that will be constructed as a part-written, part-media-based presentation. I’ve been working on Wild Born since 2011. In it, I aim to study and document the traditional ways and sacred rituals surrounding pregnancy and childbirth amongst tribal women around the world. Women at the End of the Land will research and document the socio-cultural and environmental aspects of natural childbirth amongst Nenets women, especially these women’s traditions and birthing practices. Besides exploring the rituals and traditional heritage of their ancestors, the expedition aims to also document their adaptation to changes in their environment and economy.

On the expedition, I will join a Nenets family for sixty days and travel with them during their winter pasture, crossing the forests and tundra in the Arctic Circle and continue migrating northwards across the Gulf of Ob. Few places on earth are home to a more challenging environment. In this area of Siberia, temperatures plummet to -50C, and the Nenets’ yearly migration routes cross many deep-frozen rivers. During this time, I will be accompanying a Nenets woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. With her acceptance, I will follow the whole process of preparation for the birth.

The Yamal Peninsula contains the largest natural gas reserves on the planet. Oil and gas extraction is crucial in shaping the Nenets’ future. With rapidly expanding infrastructure and the appearance of thousands of exploration and drill sites, one of the main threats is the release of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Climate change threatens the Nenets with increasingly unpredictable weather and places the environment under immense strain. On the peninsula itself, the expansion of the oil and gas industries is squeezing the Nenets’ traditional migration routes, and campsites are lost to gas development.

This expedition should provide not only anthropological knowledge about the heritage of the Nenets people, but also an understanding of their current patterns of cultural change and which forces enrich or, alternatively, threaten their collective identity. Through field ethnography, observational film and documentary photography, the expedition seeks to provide a collection of oral traditions and imagery that can act as an educational reservoir.

How has what you have learnt in your degree so far helped you in your work and to achieve your goals?

The degree has enriched me and broadened my knowledge. The opportunity to engage with such a variety of people and the willingness of lecturers to contribute and be involved in my study and journey has been essential to my success so far. Specifically, the units I have taken have helped me to frame my research project objectives in a profound way, adopt a clearer view on current topics, and enabled me to personally define in a more accurate way what I would like to specialise in, in my future work. The program has also helped me to better understand global issues and to question some of my own assumptions and the thought patterns I had. Anthropology has helped me to see issues I have long cared about in new ways. Practically, it has helped me prepare myself for going into the professional world.

What are your plans after completing your studies?

After completing my degree I would like to develop different projects that explore issues related to Indigenous ecological knowledge, human-environment relations and the empowerment of women and girls.

I look forward to specialising in Indigenous people’s rights, studying issues related to land ownership and rapid social change. Ultimately, I would like to reach a point where I can position myself on the front line negotiating and bridging between big corporations and Indigenous communities. I am also looking forward to developing my film directing skills and to enter the world of documentary filmmaking.

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