Putting the political into ecology: A week’s PhD summer school in the Netherlands


In July 2018 I joined 19 other PhD students for an intense week of learning at a summer school at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The summer school followed and was linked to the POLLEN biannual Political Ecology conference which I had attended in June in Oslo. As a PhD student most of my time is self-directed study and it felt refreshing to be back in the classroom for a week (despite the glorious weather outside!).

Political Ecology is research approach which understands real environmental conditions and human efforts to manage the environment to result from political and social processes. My research (of which I am in the final year) uses the approach of political ecology to examine the links between colonialism, capitalism and science in informing historical and present management of savanna fires in Belize (a former British colony) in Central America. I do not have a ‘formal’ training in the social sciences, or political ecology specifically, my PhD research has been a plunge into the unknown (and indeed was not originally intended to go down this route). The summer school was therefore a great chance to consolidate my understanding of the theory I am grappling with, ask questions of leading academics in the field, and reflect on my thesis plan before beginning to write.

Before and after the course there were written assignments to relate an extensive reading list to my research. It was very helpful to receive feedback on this work from new eyes than those of my PhD supervisors. The course then mixed half-day sessions led by 8 leading academics covering a diversity of themes in political ecology with half-day open sessions for which we chose the themes during the week. There was also a day’s field trip to the Oostvaardersplassen, a fascinating ‘rewilding’ experiment where cattle, ponies, reindeer and geese are allowed to live a ‘wild’ existence (without veterinary treatment or feeding), thus introducing a ‘natural’ disturbance regime to the landscape. A day off mid-week, with radiant sunshine, meant for a chance to rent a bike and explore some of the stunning rural countryside around Wageningen, together with some of the other students.

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Konik ponies at the Oostvaardersplassen

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A leafy lane on a Sunday cycle out of Wageningen

Probably the best thing about the summer school was the fantastic group of academics, both the teachers and students, that I developed lasting friendships with throughout the week. It was fascinating to relate my work to their diverse research settings and approaches. It was also lovely to interact with and learn from people from a host of different European and Latin American countries (particularly when it came to evenings watching the World Cup!).

Many thanks to the PGAF for supporting me to attend this summer school. It was an invaluable experience for me, that has given me a new confidence, and sharper focus as I begin to write up my PhD thesis.

Categories: Europe, Go Abroad Fund, Netherlands

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