Displacement, resettlement and resistance: Dr Brooke Wilmsen

Displacement, resettlement and resistance: Dr Brooke Wilmsen

Around 21.5 million people worldwide are displaced every year by climate change-related events, of these, 80% are women. Dr Brooke Wilmsen researches how people respond and resist major developmental interventions, such as forced displacement, resettlement, or agricultural reform.

Interrogating who really benefits from forced interventions

While these intercessions in peoples’ lives and livelihoods are mostly peddled by governments and development agencies as legitimate responses to some fundamental problem, for example, poverty, underdevelopment, agriculturally inefficiency or vulnerability to climate change, they are often impoverishing in their own right and seek to serve the interests of the powerful.

I understand these interventions to be spatially unbounded, historically enabled and politically produced rather than altruistic responses to social or environmental problems. In unpacking how people respond to these interventions I seek to understand how people resist or cleverly incorporate such interventions in their everyday lives.

Disrupting the entrenched narrative that resettlement ‘can be done well’

Since the 1980s, this discourse has been driven mostly by men who have contributed to making the displacement of people from their land a profession. This now underpins a narrative that sees resettlement not only as a viable option, but even a preferred intervention to climate change, environmental degradation, poverty and development over more insitu responses based on local knowledges and preferences. It has fuelled and legitimised the growth of an industry of professionals who work with governments and private corporations to design resettlement plans that enable displacement. These professionals and academics believe that through good planning, participation and post-displacement support that resettlement can improve the lives and livelihoods of those displaced.

We find little evidence that this is ever the case, but the narrative is strong and there are now courses and advanced degrees run to train experts from all over the world in the “science” of resettlement. A small group of us are fighting against this narrative to protect people from organised mass displacement.

Using climate change as an excuse to seize land

The most important contribution my field can make to the climate crisis is to unpack the complexity of resettlement so that it is treated as a last resort, rather than first response to climate change. Climate change and its framing provide governments with a handy and palatable excuse to seize the land of people whom they declare vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Such claims must be carefully deliberated, particularly given the extensive evidence that resettlement causes impoverishment.

Feminist resistance to dominant dogma

Masculine perspectives drive an outdated and uncritical view of resettlement as a tool of development. The women in my field are banding together to push back on that narrative. There is a quiet dissidence building behind the scenes that seeks to disrupt the disturbing and dominant approach of old school developmentalists.

Everyday acts of dissent inspire

There is not one person I find inspiring, but instead it is the people, particularly women, who I have come across during my research who are who are not in positions of power but speak to power through their everyday acts of dissent and resistance against inequitable development.

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