Decolonise biogeography!


Arthur Sinclair in Peru. This image is taken from a fundraising page set up by his great-grandson, the writer Iain Sinclair, who is currently writing a book and producing a podcast series based on his attempts to retrace the original expedition.

Arthur Sinclair was a Scottish explorer and geographer whose most influential commission was his 1890 survey of half a million square miles of interior Peru produced on behalf of the Peruvian Corporation of London. In his report* he expresses limited sympathy for the indigenous inhabitants of this vast wilderness:

Poor Chuncho! The time seems to be approaching when, in vulgar parlance, you must take a back seat; but it must be acknowledged you have had a long lease of those magnificent lands, and done very little with them… The world, indeed, has been made neither better nor richer by your existence, and now the space you occupy — or rather wander in — to so little purpose, is required, and the wealth of vegetation too long allowed to run waste, must be turned to some useful account.

Modern readers with our current sensibilities will gasp at the patronising imperialism embedded in these words. Anyone with an awareness of the subsequent consequences for the people who once lived in and depended on these forests, not to mention the damage to the forests themselves, will be appalled that devastating change was proposed with such casual insouciance.

Attitudes of this nature were widespread among the imperial powers. I don’t mean to pick on Sinclair as a particularly egregious example because he wasn’t. My choice of this passage is solely due to the coincidence of having come across it recently, but I could have chosen from many; some now notorious, others obscure but nonetheless consequential at the time they were written. For example, Sinclair’s explorations took place at the same time as Joseph Conrad was embarking on his own travels into the Congo basin**.


The Peruvian railway system was a triumph of colonial engineering which opened the interior of the country for trade and resource extraction. Photo by David Gubler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For all we might be appalled by the opinions of our predecessors, and strongly disavow them now, as biogeographers we must face up to the fact that our field arose first and foremost as an exercise in colonialism. Its raisin d’etre was to describe, delineate and evaluate the natural wealth of foreign lands for the benefit of colonial powers. We remain complicit while our institutions continue to memorialise and celebrate our forebears, often in buildings paid for by the proceeds of slavery, extraction of resources and appropriation of land. It’s not sufficient to say that we know better now when the advantages we accumulated through colonialism reinforce persistent inequalities.

In our new paper*** we draw attention to this ongoing problem. Ironically human geographers are acutely aware of the need to engage with colonial legacies, while the physical and biogeographers with whom they often share buildings typically assume that such concerns do not apply to them. This position cannot be defended.

One way in which this applies is in the distribution of biogeographical researchers. We extracted the institutional addresses of over 7000 authors of papers in the three leading journals of biogeography over a five year period, and show that only 11% of them are based in the tropics. Over 5000 of them are in the northern hemisphere, mostly in what we consider Global North countries.


Distribution of all authors contributing to papers in the three main international journals of biogeography over a five year period (2014–2018). Figure 1 in Eichhorn et al. (2020).

There are lots of forces underlying this pattern, but they all act to reinforce the dominance of Global North institutions. I don’t doubt that it would be similar for many other academic fields; this however only demonstrates how pervasive the problem is.

Meanwhile, the predominant flow of information (as data and records) is from Global South countries towards these centres of influence. The main databases which compile global biogeographical records are based in Europe, North America or Australia, and are maintained by researchers based in those countries. Is this harvesting of data any different in its dynamics to that of colonial resources?

Another issue is that, mostly subconsciously, the way that studies from Global North countries are described and framed differs from those published elsewhere. In a brilliant study published last year, Ergin & Alkan parse the signal of academic neo-colonialism in the language used by authors. Global North scholars write from a perspective of supposedly impartial generality, while southern scholars include geographical indicators that reinforce their position as producing localised case studies or applications.

This is an insidious effect, and easily deniable until pointed out. When one of the reviewers questioned this, it took me only a few moments to identify a number of papers from Wytham Woods (a study site in Oxfordshire) with titles that gave no hint of their origins, and purport to make broad ecological statements. Would a paper from the Rwenzoris in Rwanda be written, accepted and published with the same level of detached abstraction? I severely doubt it.

What can we do? On recognising the problem our collective responsibility is to reverse the trend. This depends on the behaviours of individuals and research groups. Capacity building, proper recognition of collaborators and support for research agendas from beyond the Global North are all part of the process. Opening up biogeography also means enabling researchers from across the world to not only have access to repositories of data, but to develop and host their own. And when we write, we should learn from the humanities and recognise how our positionality inflects the way we view and describe the world around us.

Achieving these things is not merely an act of contrition for past injustices; opening up the field will increase the diversity of insights and validity of our findings, making  biogeography into a truly global science. We need to decolonise biogeography.


* I obtained this excerpt from the travel diary of his ancestor Iain Sinclair, who is no apologist for his great-grandfather. He also has a blog serialising his attempts to retrace the path of the Peru expedition.

** Please don’t send me comments along the lines of how Heart of Darkness is a classic of world literature. It is both a classic work and appallingly racist.

*** Thanks to my brilliant coauthors Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths who continue to teach, inspire and provoke me with their insights.


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