Political Ecology
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Political Ecology

A Critical Introduction

Paul Robbins

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eBook - ePub

Political Ecology

A Critical Introduction

Paul Robbins

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About This Book

An accessible, focused exploration of the field of political ecology

The third edition of Political Ecology spans this sprawling field, using grounded examples and careful readings of current literature. While the study of political ecology is sometimes difficult to fathom, owing to its breadth and diversity, this resource simplifies the discussion by reducing the field down into a few core questions and arguments. These points clearly demonstrate how critical theory can make pragmatic contributions to the fields of conservation, development, and environmental management.

The latest edition of this seminal work is also more closely focused, with references to recent work from around the world. Further, Political Ecology raises critical questions about "traditional" approaches to environmental questions and problems. This new edition:

  • Includes international work in the field coming out of Europe, Latin America, and Asia
  • Explains political ecology and its tendency to disrupt the environmental research and practice byboth advancing and undermining associated fields of study
  • Contains contributions from a wide range of diverse backgrounds and expertise
  • Offers a resource that is written in highly-accessible, straightforward language
  • Outlines the frontiers of the field and frames climate change and the end of population growth with the framework of political ecology

An excellent resource for undergraduates and academics, the third edition of Political Ecology offers an updated edition of the guide to this diverse, quickly growing field that is at the heart of how humans shape the world and, in turn, are shaped by it.

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Information

Year
2019
ISBN
9781119167457

Chapter 1
Political versus Apolitical Ecologies

For many of us who are unable to travel to the plains of East Africa, our images of the region are given life on late‐night cable wildlife television, in bold IMAX presentations at natural history museums, or perhaps in the vivid spectacle of Disney's The Lion King. The imagined patterns of the “circle of life” in these media – complete with lions, hyenas, and baboons – play out on a yellow‐filtered savanna where migrations of wildebeest cross the Serengeti, chasing seasonal rainfall, hunted in turn by stoic predators. The scenes are compelling and they inspire in us a justifiable affection for the beauty and complexity of the non‐human world around us. These images are also ecologically important, since they give us a picture of connectedness, which is essential to understanding life on the savanna. Across the borderlands of Kenya and Tanzania forage grasses follow rainfall, wildebeest pursue forage, predators pursue wildebeest, scavengers pursue predators, and so on.
The absence of people from these imaginary landscapes seems in no way strange for most of us; these are natural landscapes, apparently far from farms, factories, and the depredations of humankind. It is perhaps inevitable, therefore, that an intuitive reaction to the news that wildlife populations are in crisis – including declines in giraffe, topi, buffalo, warthog, gazelle, and eland – is to imagine that the intrusion of humankind into the system is the cause of the problem. Growing populations of impoverished African people, we might imagine, have contaminated the natural rhythm of the wilderness. Indeed, the sense of loss in contemplating the declining biodiversity and destroyed landscapes may inspire frustration, coupled with a feeling of helplessness; the situation in the Serengeti and the steady march of growing populations seem far beyond the control and influence of life where we live (Figure 1.1).
Photo displaying a herd of wildebeests crossing the Mara River in Kenya.
Figure 1.1 Wildebeest crossing the Mara River in Kenya. The migration of wild animals across the region occurs amidst a fully humanized and highly political environment.
Source: Photo © Paul Banton/Shutterstock.
Stepping back from the savanna, however, and gazing across the Serengeti–Mara ecosystem both in time and in space, habitat loss and wildlife decline appear more complex and more connected to the daily lives and routines of urban people in the developed world. A cross‐border analysis shows that the decline in habitat and wildlife in Kenya is far higher than that in Tanzania. Why? Rainfall, human population, and livestock numbers do not differ significantly. Rather, private holdings and investment in export cereal grains on the Kenyan side of the border have led to intensive cropping and the decline of habitat. These cereals are consumed around the world, as part of an increasingly globalized food economy. As Kenya is increasingly linked to these global markets and as pressure on local producers increases, habitat loss is accelerated. Less developed agricultural markets and less fully privatized land tenure systems in Tanzania mean less pressure on wildlife. The wildlife crisis in East Africa is more political and economic than demographic (Homewood et al. 2001).
These facts undermine widely held apolitical views about ecological relations in one of the most high‐profile wildlife habitats in the world. They also point to faulty assumptions about the nature of “wild” Africa. First, the image of a Serengeti without people is a fallacious one. The Masai people and their ancestors inhabited the Central Rift Valley for thousands of years before European contact, living in and around wildlife for generations. Indeed, their removal from wildlife park areas has led to violent conflicts (Collett 1987). More generally, the isolation of these places is also a mistaken perception. Export crops from Kenya, including tea and coffee in other parts of Kenya beyond the Central Rift Valley, continue to find their way to consumers in the first world, even as their global prices fall, constraining producers who must increase production, planting more often and over greater areas, further changing local ecological conditions. With three‐quarters of the population engaged in agriculture, economic margins for most Kenyans become tighter every year, and implications for habitat and wildlife more urgent.
The migration of the wildebeest, and its concomitant implications for grasslands and lions, therefore, does not occur outside the influences of a broader political economy. Land tenure laws, which set the terms for land conversion and cash cropping, are made by the Kenyan and Tanzanian states. Commodity markets, which determine prices for Kenyan products and the ever‐decreasing margins that drive decisions to cut trees or plant crops, are set on global markets. Money and pressure for wildlife enclosure, which fund the removal of native populations from the land, continue to come largely from multilateral institutions and first‐world environmentalists. All of these spheres of activity are further arranged along linked axes of money, influence, and control. They are part of systems of power and influence that, unlike the imagined steady march of the population “explosion,” are tractable to challenge and reform. They can be fixed.
The difference between this contextual approach and the more traditional way of viewing problems like this is the difference between a political and an apolitical ecology. This is the difference between identifying broader systems rather than blaming proximate and local forces, between viewing ecological systems as power‐laden rather than politically inert, and between taking an explicitly normative approach rather than one that claims the objectivity of disinterest.
When the bottom drops out of the coffee market, as it did in 2014, what happens to the peasants who depend upon it and the forests in which it is harvested? When the government of India spends billions of dollars on massive afforestation programs, aimed at expanding tree cover and animal biodiversity, what actually happens to the areas designated for plantation and the people who live there?
These are the questions of political ecology, a field of critical research predicated on the assumption that any tug on the strands of the global web of human–environment linkages reverberates throughout the system as a whole. This burgeoning field has attracted several generations of scholars from the fields of anthropology, forestry, developmental studies, environmental sociology, environmental history, and geography. Its countless practitioners all query the relationship between economics, politics, and nature but come from varying backgrounds and training. Some are physical scientists (e.g., biologists, geomorphologists, and hydrologists), others are methodological technicians (e.g., geographic information or remote sensing specialists), while most are social scientists. All share an interest in the condition of the environment and the people who live and work within it. These researchers, moreover, advocate fundamental changes in the management of nature and the rights of people, directly or indirectly working with state and non‐governmental organizations (NGOs) to challenge current conditions. This book reviews the work that these people do, pointing towards the common factors evident in a research area often noted for its diversity, and revealing the strengths and weaknesses in a field that has grown far too quickly to prepare a comprehensive survey or census of its accomplishments and failures.

What is Political Ecology?

The term political ecology is a generous one that embraces a range of definitions. A review of the term from its early use (first used to describe this kind of work by Wolf in 1972) to its most recent manifestations shows important differences in emphasis. Some definitions stress political economy, while others point to more formal po...

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