As emerging powers such as India, China, and Brazil, jockey for control over natural resources in the “New Scramble Africa,” we examine the political, economic, and ecological linkages between sites of megaport projects in northern Mozambique and Gujarat. Twenty-first century port development in India is also creating new frontiers in coal, leading to new terminals for moving coal on both sides of the Indian Ocean. We trace the impact of megaport development on mangroves along both these coasts and consider the uneven and unequal ways in which mangroves become entangled in these asymmetrical relationships between the two regions. We also seek to reframe the Indian Ocean mangroves conceptually from insular, marginal, and fragile ecosystems to cosmopolitan networks. This conceptual move comes from our empirical research. Our work has found that mangroves nurture not only fishers, but also weave together the lives of diasporic mercantile communities, salt producers, coastal farmers, and others who depend on the mangrove in direct and indirect ways. From such empirical findings, we suggest that the resilience of mangroves rests on the fact that they support and are supported by a diverse ecology of riverine and marine interactions always exposed to oceanic and diasporic connections. Their life-giving capacity to replenish others and in turn be replenished is rooted in the fact that they are not isolated entities, but enmeshed in a wider ecology of human and nonhuman relationships.
Finally, these insights on resilience rooted in multispecies diversity beyond geopolitical boundaries makes mangroves a wonderful metonym for us to think about the ethics and pragmatics of interregional and interdisciplinary team-building, a new “ecology” or network of collaboration, as it were. Mangroves are “good to think with” as they advance horizontal connections across disciplinary hierarchies; they promote decolonial knowledge production when we set out to understand the historical, political, financial, environmental, and affective linkages between Gujarat and Mozambique.
If we use the mangrove as an empirical and conceptual anchor in our larger project, here we focus on the third aspect—our experience of thinking with the mangrove as an ethical anchor for coordinating and executing our transregional collaboration. We found that “rest and resilience” emerged as central ethical themes when confronted by intersecting crises.
Making connections in the pandemic“We aspired to hold together the aims of an ambitious transnational project amid the mounting hardships of the pandemic.”
Like the mangrove that galvanizes all kinds of lives and livelihoods across ocean and land, this project sought to bring together anthropologists, geographers, historians, a marine biologist, and an environmental lawyer across India and Mozambique to think about the pasts, presents, and futures of mangrove ecologies. We aspired to hold together the aims of an ambitious transnational project amid the mounting hardships of the pandemic. We were dispersed across four continents—Africa, Europe, India, and North America. We zig-zagged between three languages until we found a necessary lingua franca in English. We held foundational workshops to build our team. Each foundational workshop was led by a different core team member, presenting an opportunity to incorporate the intellectual and political priorities of each one. This allowed us to understand what motivated each team member and the questions driving their work. If a key feature of the mangrove is that it grows horizontally along the coast and its branches defy boundaries between overground and underground, land and sea, we aspired to promote horizontality within our team and democratize virtual meetings.
However, we felt the burdens of ongoing inequalities, along gradients of Global North and South institutions, heightened in the uncertain waters of the pandemic. Team members scrambled for alternative workspaces when university facilities were closed. Some lived in tight quarters with others who also needed to use Zoom for work and were overburdening internet bandwidth and picking up their voices. We were compelled to be flexible with the rescheduling of presentations and meetings. This flexibility required a generosity of spirit, and this spirit needed material support. Envisioned field travel would generate nervous comments from those attempting to simply reunite with loved ones. Conversations about remunerating research participants also led to uncomfortable but necessary disclosures of financial and employment vulnerability faced by those of us with terminating contracts. Vulnerability and fatigue, often thought of in the abstract as challenges faced by the researched, came to affect us directly as well. Some of us became ill with Covid-19, and some of our loved ones died. We were dealing with a disjuncture: We were having more failures of communication due to the potential of more connection. We now realize that while connectivity across regions and academic fields is desirable, constant connection may not always be appropriate.
The problem we realized was less about connecting but deciding how, when, and under what conditions we did so. Is there room for quiescence in a research collaboration and a mangrove ecology strained by invasive “externalities” of death and disease? If the mangrove holds the space for the life, death, and resurgence of diverse organisms—a space where biological rhythms coalesce with diurnal and seasonal rhythms of the tide, oceanic rhythms of sail and trade, migratory rhythms of turtles and sharks in predictable and unpredictable ways—can we create the space for honoring the dead and bearing witness to the finitude of our own replenishing and capacity to replenish? Would such quietude be an obstacle to our future flourishing in the multispecies mangrove worlds we strive to nurture?
The crises shaping our assemblage—our team and our ongoing network of scholars and students—wasn’t only the pandemic, but also violence that has overtaken Cabo Delgado province to the northern coastal zone of Nacala, Mozambique, where we base our study. A war resulting from an isolated jihadist militia since 2017 exploded dramatically in 2022 into an insurgency in the province, bent on establishing an Islamic state (in supposed connection with Al-Shabaab and ISIS). Beyond the virus, we were reminded that people in the mangrove ecologies often experience other pressing crises.“We did not seek out these crises, but were pushed to bear witness to how ordinary dwellers experienced personal grief.”
War filtered into everyday life. Our team ended up at a residential school. Amid the bustle of students, we encountered people who were tired, traumatized, and displaced by intensifying violence to the north. The school had become a transit camp, flooded with people fleeing ransacked villages and murders. Our team did not plan for this proximity to violence, even as we followed it closely in the news. But we became inadvertent witnesses to the pain of internal refugees. A man was crying inconsolably for his abducted daughters. Women sat in catatonic silence. We did not seek out these crises, but were pushed to bear witness to how ordinary dwellers experienced personal grief. We reflected on the uncertain ethics of the unexpected encounter: the overwhelming feeling of standing by witnessing the urgency of war that dwarfed attitudes toward the global pandemic. Project Principal Investigator Inês Raimundo, drawing on her vast experience studying cyclones, made sense of this encounter in the following way: “With cyclones, people are eager to get back to their homes. They accept help eagerly and are working toward returning and rebuilding their homes and communities. Yet, in war, people are in such pain. They hold little hope of return.” We learned that the global pandemic eclipsed, even as it intersected with, historical struggles of violence to shape the unpredictability of research. Beyond abstract ecological time and biological rhythms coalescing around the mangrove, the pandemic highlighted that any ethical study of mangrove ecologies must attend to the place-specific sociocultural and political histories shaping them.
Politics of rest
In India, we were confronted initially by the impossibility of fieldwork. The blurred lines of home and field encouraged new creativity with desk research. But it also precipitated reflections on the separation of work from life. Conversations within our team initially revealed a frantic desire to prove ourselves as fieldworkers, latent biases that fetishized the field, looked down upon and invisibilized desk work as not “real” work. By desk work we mean the administrative work of corresponding and coordinating a team as well as analysis of digital archives. Such a latent devaluation of desk work became an opportunity for us to think seriously about its value. We found that it was essential to tracing structures of power, necessary to honoring principles of ethical rather than extractive work.
At the peak of India’s pandemic in May 2021, we temporarily suspended activities in-country. This suspension was necessary to ensure that our team members could participate in nationwide efforts provisioning oxygen tanks at under-resourced hospitals, connecting Covid patients to medical attention. Team members decided to press on with desk research, which generated some unexpected gifts. Some used the time to analyze understudied documents—natural history documents—and read them for the thwarted and possible futures embedded in them. Mangroves, harbors, birds, lighthouses, freshwater pools, occupied the same official and analytical imagination in these documents, supporting our reframing of mangrove ecologies from marginal spaces to spaces that offered possibilities of alternative life beyond doom and destruction.“The mass production of documentation serves to distract public outrage from human agents causing coastal dispossession via land reclamation.”
This time also allowed us to investigate significant structural questions. It turned our attention to tracing supply chains, interrogating state policies, and examining political, legal, and economic relationships that produce exclusions and necessitate resilience from mangrove ecologies. Our research in India starts from the megaport project in the Gulf of Kutch, which started growing in the 1990s, boasts of handling India’s largest trade, and has emerged as a model of port-building across the Indian coastline. We analyzed and collected environmental impact assessment reports on this project, corporate social responsibility pamphlets displaying mangrove plantation activities undertaken by the port project, and interspecies records produced by the port proponents and opponents alike. Our findings were puzzling. We found not only a proliferation of documentation about the Gujarat coast, but that such information-gathering obfuscated the coastline. The mass production of documentation serves to distract public outrage from human agents causing coastal dispossession via land reclamation. It obscures ongoing socioecological degradation by suggesting that the matter was being settled increasingly through mangrove restoration. Meditating on abundant documentation, we found a conspicuous absence of a systematic study connecting spatial and ecological transformations in mangrove coverage, and coastal geomorphology with port development. This finding pushed us to undertake our own study in 2021–2023.
Team researcher Rashid Kk, then a student at IIT Gandhinagar, through desk and on-the-ground research has now found that the megaport project, after years of draining and reclaiming mangroves, was now engaging in a “multispecies” mangrove restoration project. Critical social science vocabulary rooted in intentions for creating a regenerative and equitable collective socioecological life has, in this way, been co-opted by extractivist projects of port development. We discovered that a battery of variegated ecologists across the ideological spectrum, from community to government-led conservationists had a stake in this project. At a time when nature is being instrumentalized to meet new climate goals, these preliminary findings have now led us to ask what grounded histories of mangrove ecologies can tell us about coastal planning in the twenty-first century, how climate goals are being instrumentalized across scales to create new forms of accumulation by dispossession.
Looking at this period of productive rest, we reflected on when and where fieldwork is necessary and generative. As researchers with penchants for fieldwork, we explored how desk research could define field study parameters with greater specificity and intention. In the twenty-first century, it continues to be necessary to challenge the divide between field and the archive. The growing influence of social media and the internet has also expanded the domain of the field. To take these research spaces seriously is inseparable from honoring our interlocutors. For example, one team member, Aniruddh Sheth, a human ecology and development studies graduate, took a deep dive into YouTube videos started by the Gujarat-based port project. It is through such circulation of media images that the port project has garnered widespread praise as a marvel and nation-building protagonist. We now see analysis of YouTube videos and media images as an essential investigative thread into how ideas of nation-building become embroiled in mangrove ecologies.
Simply put, continually dismantling the divide between the field and the archive, aligns with our stated principles. It moves beyond unaccountable parachute research, imposing on and fatiguing our interlocutors as we ask them for their time in sporadic visits. It pushes for a long-term ethnographic engagement, rather than often unrealistic if coercive ethnographic intimacy. Furthermore, it stops us from reinventing the wheel—becoming a cog in the machine of information-gathering that culminates in obfuscating rather than illuminating the harsh truths of anthropogenic coastal degradation.
The notion of productive rest emphasizes the irony of academic resilience during the pandemic. Suspension was meant to give team members the space to attend to families and communities. Yet, we struggled to disconnect from work or simply could not afford to do so. We frequently discussed how the switch to virtual meetings, teaching, and research was arguably more invasive into our personal lives. The border between personal and professional worlds grew increasingly blurred. We felt obligated to expand typical academic support and even pastoral care to students. We were roped into doing dozens of research presentations, attending workshops, and writing commentaries on the pandemic. To-do lists ballooned, even as we tried to create a moment of rest.“The ecological and humanistic turn to infrastructure increasingly shows how projects and plans are fragile with all their promise.”
In the same way that we give serious thought to the ethics of fieldwork, to not overburden research participants, we highlight in these experiences the need for ethical guidelines toward ourselves, our colleagues, and between institutions and researchers. The ecological and humanistic turn to infrastructure increasingly shows how projects and plans are fragile with all their promise.1Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018More Info → The everyday work of their operations must attend to material and political changes on the ground as they emerge, crumble, and repair. In our emerging work of transregional collaboration, Covid has pushed us to think of new ways of creating the institutional space and time for mourning. When different regions are affected by the pandemic in unequal and uneven ways, equitable research involves allowing people to rest, recover, and grieve, even as other regional sections of the team may effectively execute research.
As sites of ceaseless port development on the one hand, and targets of climate change conservation on the other, mangroves emerge today as tired tropes sandwiched between polarizing narratives of destruction and resilience. Their imminent death, however, pushes us to move beyond treating them as mascots of uncritical return in the face of profound loss, finality, and ending. Mangroves animate the possibilities of another ethic—of quietude, of leaving be, of rest.
There’s a race back to normalcy even as erratic surges of the pandemic continue. In this race, we as researchers might be losing the window for making significant ethical changes, concretizing our insights on the promises and perils of connectivity into an agenda of institutionalized action. Scholars understand it as the “necessary messes” of collaboration.2Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015More Info → But how much of the mess is “necessary”? What ethical principles must be in place so that collateral, damaging messes are not normalized but undone and attended to when they emerge?
Over the past year—thinking with the mangrove as a place-specific, multispecies socio-ecology made by cycles of emergence, degradation, dormancy, and resurgence, growing horizontally along the coast—our team arrived at an inchoate set of ethical priorities that we insist should be institutionalized. These include making compensation for internet, childcare, workspace, and even time fundable through grant monies. We highlight the labor of grant administration and team-building by researchers that goes uncompensated. At the same time, many of us are based in the Global South and/or are early-career scholars with precarious employment. The ability to compensate our research participants as coproducers of knowledge remains murky in many grant guidelines, as is allocating substantial funds to full-time translators and other research assistance in the field.
Finally, when crises happen, there should also be a true opportunity for rupture, where rhythms of research pause, for critical reflection to take place, so that transformations might take hold, and we emerge from the pandemic with a new ethical agenda. As a team, we are concerned by how the denial of rest, grief, and squandering of a moment for radical intervention may shape academia for decades to come. Across four continents, we observe a generalized trend toward making up for the lost time of the pandemic by doubling down on research and publishing now. We think this is the wrong approach. It risks deepening inequalities, precarity, and ethical quandaries we are tasked with investigating and challenging. Perhaps the most important lessons we take away from this Planning Grant are those that could not have been planned.