Immersion into spaces of law: Experiences from international legal negotiations

Mika Schroder is in the second year of her PhD at the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance. Her research explores the meaning and practice of the ‘participation’ of ‘local stakeholders’ within international biodiversity law from the perspective of spatial justice and ethics. This is the second of two posts related to her AHRC SDF-funded travels which took place over October and November this year.


Thanks to the SGSAH SDF, I had the opportunity of spending two weeks in November at the very southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, carrying out part of my fieldwork at the international negotiations of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). My background is in international law, so seeing the process from which it derives was fascinating, and has provided me with a new perspective of how to read, understand and relate to its texts. Crucial for the process and development of my research, I also met with relevant actors with whom I had deep and insightful dialogues, providing me with points of reflection regarding the content and direction of my research, and helped me think creatively about ways in which it can be made into a more collaborative and action-oriented project. I also presented at three side-events, which although daunting, were great experiences. For someone previously terrified of public speaking, it was a good opportunity to face this fear and further develop my presentation skills.


The COP meets every two years, and is attended by delegations from member states (with the CBD, the only non-member is the USA), alongside a number of inter-governmental, non-governmental and grass-roots organisations, representatives from local stakeholder groups, academia, business ect. It provides the final stages of negotiations (provided texts get adopted during the final days) regarding relevant agenda items, which vary from COP to COP.


L: Early on registration day, within hours this space was brimming with people and high anticipation for what the coming two weeks would bring. R: Observing sunsets behind walls, thankfully made of glass.

My attendance was primarily to carry out part of my fieldwork – an institutional ethnographic study of the spaces of participation of “local” stakeholders at the negotiations. In broad strokes, within the context of the CBD, “local stakeholders” refers primarily to indigenous peoples and local communities, women and youths, including associated grassroots organisations. Ethnography is a method grounded upon the idea of immersion into the culture and spaces that one is observing. In my case this meant immersing myself into the institutional culture of the CBD COPs, experiencing and observing the ways that these spaces provide for, or restrict the participation of local stakeholders.

To be sure, this was a monumental task, and it was made harder being a one-person team. Negotiations happen simultaneously, alongside side-events, larger thematic events, press conferences, public protests and strategic meetings. This meant that, throughout the day, I went from space to space hoping to catch glimpses of relevant interventions or discussions, and talk to people willing to spare me some of their time. Negotiations can last many hours (I was at one lasting 10 hours, with breaks), and sometimes well past midnight (one finished at 4am). These spaces were new to me, with a culture and language that reflected their legal and political nature. Polite, diplomatic language dominated interactions, and the process was at times painstakingly slow and frustrating.


L: In a 10-hour long negotiation session in one of the contact groups. R: Someone catching a (probably much deserved) nap during the Plenary.


L: In the midst of negotiations in Working Group 2. R: An eerie silence hung over the rooms at the end of COP.

For multiple reasons, I decided ahead of time to not carry out interviews while at the COP. Instead, I wanted to build relationships with people who would be interested and able to contribute to my research through ongoing dialogues after the COP finished. So instead of having a list or target of people to meet and interview, I let conversations and exchanges happen and develop organically, all off the record.

This completely took the pressure off meeting new people, and discussions covered all sorts of topics, not always directly relevant to my research, but insightful and important all the same. These discussions were my favourite part of any day – how often do you get the opportunity to meet with people from all over the world (literally) and discuss things that are important to you both, finding linkages between your interests and works, with people sharing their experiences and perspectives in hopes to ignite a response from you? It’s humbling, enlightening, motivational, and inspiring. Importantly, it gave me an opportunity to reflect upon how adequately (or inadequately) my research reflects what takes place at negotiations, and how I can, through my work address the barriers facing local stakeholders within these spaces. To me this is important – not only did people become actively keen to contribute to my research project as the two weeks progressed, but next time we talk it’ll be as colleagues, friends and/or allies. The dialogues for ‘on the record’ will be rich and targeted in content, and those participating will feel that they have ownership over their role in my research. These dialogues will hopefully not be a one-off, but rather continuous and ongoing, hopefully even past my PhD.

Post-COP reflections

Looking back, the experience was exhausting – the long-hours and non-stop observations, driven by a ‘fear of missing out’ of something important, meant that I had busy days and sparse opportunities for down-time. I managed a handful of early morning/late evening swims, some (very) late dinners with colleagues and friends, and recollect a day when I lived off only coffee, a chocolate croissant and what must’ve been pure adrenaline. That said, it was still a profound and deeply meaningful experience, I have certainly gained in professional experience and lessons, and I hope to find myself in these spaces again, both for my own work and for that of others. These are spaces of defeat and sometimes even injustice, yet they are also spaces of hard-won victories. There was a palatable energy in the air, a strong feeling of comradery and sense of community and purpose which drove action.  I learnt so much, and I am still digesting my experiences, and very much look forward to the next steps of this project. To the people who gave me their time, and who welcomed me into their spaces and shared with me their work, I am so honoured and grateful. Thank you. Thank you also to my supervisors, and to SGSAH and the BENELEX project at SCELG for making this trip possible.


L: A moth holding me company at lunch one day, about the size of my palm. R: A resident cat at my hotel giving me much-needed cuddles after a particularly laborious day. It was love at first sight.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Brittnee via email or connect with the blog on Twitter

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