Project 8: Political ecology of environmental conflicts, or: who owns the tropical rainforests?

Project team

Benedikt Korf
Peter Schaber
Jennifer Bartmess
Anna Deplazes

Research aims - This project will study the political ecology of environmental conflicts around tropical rainforests and their link to biodiversity loss through a study of the complex relations between nature and society, the forms of access and control over resources and their implications for well-being. It combines an analysis of political economy with a normative approach of environmental ethics in order to derive regulatory propositions for environmental justice at the interface of human activities and well-being with global change and biodiversity.

Multi-site ethnographic study (sub-project 8.1) – We will apply a multi-scale approach, whereby the complex geographies of resource extraction and commodification across different places will be analyzed, using insights from project 4 on ecosystem functions and services, which will allow to specifying the commodity networks of selected forest uses. In this sub-project the political networks and economic flows of different forest user systems will be studied at replicate sites in a forest area, which experiences a proliferation of palm oil plantations. The site will be selected in consultation with project 4. The study includes (1) a screening of local livelihoods of different types of forest users, (2) an analysis of land-use changes and the emergence of palm oil plantations, (3) an analysis of property rights regimes and their changes, (4) an analysis of the appropriation of different ecosystem services through different actors, (5) an analysis of resource conflicts and (6) an analysis of the political mechanisms that shape these transformation processes. These steps require a tracing of relevant multi-local political networks and related economic flows (commodities, production networks).

Normative analysis of property rights governance (sub-project 8.2) – The second sub-project provides a normative analysis of property rights governance (e.g., Who owns the natural resources? Who has a right to reap the benefits of resource exploitation?) and links them to questions of a desirable global resource management (who should be accountable to whom with regard to national resource managements?). The subproject will apply and modify Wenar’s property rights analysis framework (Wenar 2008, Schaber 2011) to adapt it to the case of tropical forests. It will deliver a regulatory framework, which will outline how environmental justice could be secured in this social, political and economic transformation of forest use and how ecosystem services can be justly distributed and what responsibilities and obligations resource users have vis-à-vis larger social and political communities and mankind as a whole.

Expected contributions to research theme – The case of the tropical rainforests in Borneo illustrates the “tragedy” of tropical forests well (Moeliono et al. 2009). Borneo’s rainforest, both in Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s state territories, have become increasingly incorporated into the nations’ territories through new state legislation, intensification of resource use and a proliferation of plantation economies, in particular palm oil production (Persoon and Osseweijer 2008). Palm oil plantations transform the social and natural landscape of tropical rainforest, as they degrade the biodiversity of its ecosystems, thereby undermining the resource stocks of local forest users and transforming the property rights system from a common-pool to a private property rights system, whereby customary user rights to forest resources and local production systems are coming under threat. Palm oil plantations have also been a strategic instrument of Indonesian governments to take the resource periphery of the Indonesian-Malaysian borderlands in Borneo under control, as a result of which contests over land use erupted at various scales (Potter 2009). The shift to oil palm plantations is most advanced in Sabah, Malaysia, and this proliferation has been largely uncontrolled by state authorities (Potter 2008). As a result, ecosystem functions have been degraded as the findings of the Sabah Biodiversity Experiment confirm (Saner et al. 2010). While previous research has focused on native land tenure, “illegal” logging, state policies and geopolitics of Borneo’s plantation rush (e.g. Potter 2009, Doolittle 2007, Wadley and Eilenberg 2005, van Klinken 2008), our research will provide an innovative combination of a political economy analysis of ongoing resource struggles and an analytic-normative approach that develops ethical principles of resource governance applicable to the specific resource contestations and property rights struggles involved. The two subprojects will be analytically and empirically linked as the first provides empirical details, which will inform the property rights analysis framework of the second.