What are the everyday sounds of climate change? How might mangroves connect India and Mozambique? And how do dispersed fishing communities adapt to environmental ruptures? These are some of the many questions to be investigated by recipients of year-long planning grants from the SSRC’s new Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean.

Established in 2019, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Collaboratory aims to support interdisciplinary research partnerships that illuminate the intersections of social and environmental change around the Indian Ocean. This program has emerged out of several longstanding concerns of the SSRC, including the development of scholarship engaged with transnational phenomena and regional formations, like the Indian Ocean, and the fostering of best practices for international research partnerships. It also speaks to urgent challenges regarding the social dimensions of environmental change and climate justice. With these concerns in mind, the Collaboratory’s work is twofold: to facilitate research that deepens understanding of shifting social, political, and economic conditions in the context of profound environmental change throughout Indian Ocean rim countries, and to simultaneously develop ethical standards and models to promote equitable, just research practices and knowledge production in both South–South and North–South partnerships.

The Collaboratory took its first major step towards achieving these goals in Spring 2020, through its inaugural funding competition. With significant input from regional stakeholders, program staff crafted a call for applications for 12-month grants to plan transregional, collaborative research projects relevant to the program’s thematic interests. Applicants were asked to envision a project that would connect across locations and disciplines, to explain how the planning grant would help them establish the networks and access resources required to begin the project, and to reflect deeply on the possible ethical implications of both the project itself and the collaborative research process. Given the program’s commitment to foregrounding knowledge production from the region, principal investigators were also asked to demonstrate their embeddedness in and connectedness to their chosen Indian Ocean contexts. The call received a very encouraging response, with over 80 applications submitted by both individual researchers and small teams from Indian Ocean–based institutions and those further abroad. This response alone illuminates a wealth of interest in the field of Indian Ocean studies, in questions of environmental change in the region, and growing commitments to collaborative and ethical research.

Ultimately, eight proposals were selected for funding by an independent committee of regional and interdisciplinary experts. Together, the funded projects will incorporate researchers from 15 Indian Ocean countries, in addition to partners based in the Global North. The successful proposals reflect the breadth of approaches to understanding the mutual shaping of social and environmental change in the region, and myriad specific concerns faced in particular parts of the Indian Ocean world—from droughts and monsoons, to managing marine resources and migration. A project led by Jonathan Cane, Euclides Goncalves, and Lindsay Bremner will explore changing human-ecological-monsoonal relations on Ilha de Moçambique, using digital collaboration to facilitate dialogues between sound, music, photography, film, and climate mapping to study monsoonal changes and related shifts in both human and nonhuman lives. Also focusing on an island context, Issa Haji Ziddy, Mary Mtumwa Khatib, and Cailtyn Bolton will analyze the ethical, political, and environmental stakes of transnational efforts to extract coastal resources in Zanzibar. Projects led by Almas Mazigo and Gayathri Lokuge, both focused on fisheries in Asia and East Africa, demonstrate how a similar area of inquiry can result in quite distinct research initiatives. Mazigo’s team plans to examine the social innovations of coastal communities in response to ineffective governance systems, while Lokuge’s team will explore how the social economies of fisheries shape possibilities for communities’ adaptation to emerging economic and environmental changes.

The grantees’ proposals also demonstrate the various ways in which transnational linkages may be conceived, including the importance of subregions. For instance, Nathalie Peutz and Alden Young’s project will draw our attention to environmental transformation and political economies as elements of unity across the Red Sea. Focusing on the other side of the ocean, a team led by Annu Jalais, Aarthi Sridhar, Rapti Siriwardane, and Alin Kadfak proposes creating a collective to foreground grassroots knowledge about marine resources and migration in the northern Indian Ocean. Alongside these subregion-based studies, several grantees’ projects focus on approaches to Afro-Asian connections and comparisons. Debojyoti Das, Simi Mehta and Stephen Maluka’s team will compare the experience of environmental refugees in South Asia and East Africa, while Ines Raimundo’s group will use the mangrove as a conceptual-ethical-empirical device to understand resonances between Western India and Mozambique.

Over the course of the next year, these multisited teams will develop their collaborative projects, preparing to seek more substantial funding to carry out their work. Alongside their own convenings on project planning and pilot research, principal and coprincipal investigators of each team will participate in SSRC-sponsored workshops. These workshops will focus on strategies and principles of ethical collaboration and the logistics of transnational research partnerships, among other themes. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, much of this work will be conducted remotely, which adds another layer of learning and development vis-à-vis transregional collaborative strategies for both the grantees and Collaboratory staff.

The planning grants initiative will intersect with additional program components, currently in development. A number of thematic working groups will bring together grantees and senior experts to discuss select themes that resonate across the various projects, while a separate committee on ethics will reflect on grantees’ experiences and develop resources for researchers and project managers indicating emerging standards, principles, and models of ethical research collaboration.

List of 2020 Transregional Planning Grant Recipients