The Political Ecology Playbook for Ecosystem Restoration is a companion for ecosystem restoration. The playbook offers guidance and strategies for designing effective and equitable initiatives across local, regional and international scales. As the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration begins, it is critical that restoration initiatives are designed to tackle root causes of degradation – only then can we move towards real and transformational change. This story examines five lessons from the playbook that demonstrate what drives degradation and the complexity of restoration.
Political Ecologists study the root causes of environmental degradation. They observe issues like climate change through a socio-political lens. By embracing systems thinking, political ecologists analyse how our behaviour and culture shape the environment. Decades of research within Political Ecology demonstrate that challenges like land degradation and deforestation are driven by complex processes taking place at local, national and global scales. Understanding these “dynamic and interconnected” processes is vital to rehabilitating landscapes and restoring global ecosystems.
Here are 5 lessons from Political Ecology:
1. Landscapes and human systems are deeply entangled
Human societies and cultures have dynamic and entangled relationship with landscapes. How we behave impacts the environment around us. The state of landscapes reflects the most powerful and dominant structures of human society. And our actions – although geographically separated from a landscape – can have long-lasting and destructive consequences. What we eat is a manifestation of our relationship with landscapes.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a cheap hamburger, then it’s likely you’re connected to deforestation in South America. That’s because the global meat industry is dependent on soya production – almost 90% of soya is fed to animals – and that mostly comes from the Americas. Across the continent, vast landscapes are cleared of vegetation for monoculture soya production. This impacts local livelihoods, local and global climates and leads to the destruction of rich and biodiverse areas.
It is difficult to untangle ourselves from such dynamic and interconnected relationships. The decisions made in a company board room, a government office or in a supermarket, have a huge impact in what takes place half a world away. Because we are all connected to multiple landscapes in various and complex ways.
2. Unequal power relations influence ecosystems
Resource management, conservation and restoration often take place within ongoing power struggles. Power relates to differences in class, gender, race, ethnicity, indigeneity, as well as the legacy of colonial histories. Ecosystems are heavily influenced by the power and inequality of the human societies that are connected to them. Because power determines whose knowledge counts, whose values are considered, who has rights, access and control over resources, and “ultimately who wins and who loses”.
“Conservation refugees” are an example of such power struggles. Since the 1900s, millions of local and Indigenous communities have been displaced from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation. This is despite the fact that many such communities sustainably manage and protect biodiversity-rich landscapes while respecting wildlife. Yet, as local and Indigenous communities do not fit into powerful “fortress” conservation models, they pay a brutal price for the protection of natural areas.
Forced migration of communities is socially unjust. It shatters livelihoods and severs deep cultural connections with landscape. The process leads to people turning against conversation and the powerful groups that enforce it. Meanwhile, research shows that biodiversity is better protected in areas where Indigenous and local communities have secure land rights.
3. Unequal power leads to environmental conflict
Similarly, unequal power structures lead to environmental conflict. There are struggles for access and control over resources worldwide, such as forests rights, access to grazing land to fishing quotas. Conflict arises when one group is excluded from managing resources. And across the globe, unequal power often stems from structures established under colonialism.
Although the colonial period is seemingly over, the same political economic structures have been maintained through development and aid models and continue in programs like REDD+, the UN strategy for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.
Critiques of REDD+ demonstrate that associated projects structurally undermine forest peoples’ rights. Indigenous and local communities experience loss of land tenure, restricted land access, human rights violations and punishment. REDD+ programs often vilify and restrict local practices like shifting cultivation and agroforestry, while overlooking large-scale deforestation, mining exploration and agri-business. To fit forests into carbon markets, control of resources shifts from local communities to government and international entities. Friends of the Earth Australia interpret a REDD+ project in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, as a “foreign assertion of ownership rights over community land”.
Taken at face value programs like REDD+ seemingly create ecological and social benefits. Yet in practice these programs can reinforce unequal power imbalance, fueling environmental conflict and resulting in lost or restricted accesses for local and indigenous communities – the very groups that such programs claim to protect.
4. Market and tech fixes lead to unintended consequences
Market mechanisms and technological solutions are strategies that commodify nature and oversimplify ecosystems to what can be sold and marketed, or as “nature that capital can see”. Market mechanisms place high value on commodifiable aspects of ecosystems while ignoring other forms such as biodiversity, community attachment to land, sacred and intrinsic value. Moreover, market mechanisms and tech-fixes are often top-down and thus ignore existing power imbalance. Further marginalizing local and indigenous communities.
Currently, there is a struggle going on between smallholder farmers and multinational corporations across Africa. Million Belay and Bridget Mugambe, both part of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), describe this in Bill Gates: Stop Telling Africans What Kind of Agriculture Africans Need.
The AFSA promote agroecology and small-scale cultivation based on indigenous knowledge. And while the AFSA represent more than 200 million farmers, they are up against powerful international actors like The Cornell Alliance for Science (CSA). The CSA – which has received more than $22 million funding from the Gates Foundation – argues that crop yields are too low in Africa and promotes farming based on Western Science. The CSA promises prosperity for farmers if they shift from local seeds to GMOs, use agrochemicals and focus on commodity crops rather than local farming based on crop diversity. For Belay and Mugambe, “the Gates Foundation’s resources help further the interests of multinational corporations interested in opening our markets for agrochemicals, synthetic fertilizers and genetically engineered seeds more than they assist farmers.”
In this way, market mechanisms and technological solutions to environmental problems leads to top-down decisions and risks consolidating power in the hands of technocrats and powerful economic actors.
5. Management strategies often disregard local and Indigenous knowledge and practice
Dominant narratives often disregard local knowledge and indigenous science. Over millennia, people have developed unique and diverse ways of being in, connecting to and understanding landscapes. Yet this is often not reflected in management decisions, and, sometimes, the origin of knowledge is completely ignored.
‘Regenerative agriculture’ is a set of farming practices designed to improve soil health, increase biodiversity, sequester carbon and promote community well-being. Many of the practices were developed by Indigenous and Black farmers. Yet as, Joe Fassler describes in Regenerative Agriculture Need a Reckoning, these groups are marginalised and kept out of the conversations. This is especially pronounced in a country like the USA – where 97% of farmland is owned by White people. As A-ade Romera-Briones, director of Native agriculture and food systems at First Nations Development Institute, explains “the folks that are leading the ‘regenerative ag’ movement, the majority of them are either white men or they’re from university institutions”.
The Political Ecology Playbook for Ecosystem Restoration: putting the lessons into practice
Landscape restoration is not simple. Because the causes of degradation are complex and entangled. Political ecology offers a lens to navigate that complexity. The five lessons demonstrate the attention needed when designing restoration initiatives. During such processes, it is essential to understand power structures in an area, the relationships between groups, colonial histories and to recongnise the interconnectedness of ecosystems within local to global processes.
Tackling these root causes is essential to designing community-driven, long-lasting and effective ecosystem restoration strategies. With the five lessons in mind, make sure to check out the Political Ecology Playbook for Ecosystem Restoration.
Feature photo: Tropical rainforests of Sumatra (photo credit: Charlie Dailey)