Last Tuesday our DPhil student Claudia Comberti was tragically killed in a bicycle accident involving a bus. Many of us in the ecosystems team, in the Environmental Change Institute, and in Oxford, are still reeling and devastated as we try to come to terms with with the loss of a talented colleague and friend taken from us so suddenly. There are many tributes to her flowing on Facebook and other fora. Here is mine.
Claudia was original, smart and had a passion for the Amazon and its indigenous peoples, in particular the Tacana II peoples of the Bolivian Amazon, with whom she lived both before and during her DPhil studies. I first met her in 2011. I was living in Ghana at the time, she had just come back from Bolivia, and she contacted me to fix a meeting at Heathrow airport on one of my short visits to Oxford. I immediately saw what potential she had and encouraged her to apply for the MSc Programme. Such was her quiet force of persuasion that by the end of the short meeting she had convinced be to pay for her to attend an ecology conference in Cambridge! She came from a natural sciences background but was moving to a social sciences and policy focus. She cared deeply about the reciprocal relationships between indigenous peoples and their environment, relationships she thought were often misrepresented, poorly understood or just ignored. Whenever our lab group discussions veered into the heavily ecological, Claudia would put up her hand and I could always predict that her interjection would be some variant of “but what about the people?”. She felt strongly that many traditional peoples did not just benefit from nature’s “services” (a form of thinking that has become very popular in our field in recent years), but many peoples actually nurtured and cultured the natural world, providing “services for nature”. I sometimes suggested to her that her ideas sometimes verged on overly romantic idealisation of indigenous peoples, and this always provoked stimulating and vigorous debate that occupied the rest of our meetings. But her ideals were also blended with a passionate pragmatism. She had already written some important papers which have had a significant influence in high level debates on indigenous peoples within the UN climate change and biodiversity conventions. For the last two years she had also been a much-loved teaching assistant on the Environmental Change and Management MSc course.
She had so much to contribute to the world and is taken from us far, far too soon.
In the day after her death there was a spontaneous and moving cycle ride tribute where we rode from the city centre to lay a white bicycle at the scene of her death. The bike was soon decked with the most lovely flowers, scarves and poems. On Friday at 11 am around a hundred of her colleagues in the department gathered in a moment of tearful silence, followed by a few words of tribute by her co-supervisors that remembered the quirky and unique individual she was. The laughs this generated did not feel out of place – I feel she would have been there laughing with us.
We (her supervisors and colleagues) are thinking of other ways to honour her legacy, and some ideas will be announced in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Claudia, may the webs of connection and hope that you have spun throughout your life continue to resonate to your name.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University