Essay: Political ecology

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  • Political ecology
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1.0 Introduction
For the past few years, economic development has been centralized heavily on the exploitation of natural resource, leading to serious land degradation and soil erosion in most countries (Hitzhusen, 1993). Defined as a long-term loss of ecosystem function and services, the UN described land degradation as a cause of disturbances from which the system cannot recover unaided (UNEP, 2007). With concerns of desertification and soil erosion gracing most national governments, it is inevitable that effective practices of natural resource management should be identified in order to curb the problem. Muchena et al. (2005) defines land degradation as the loss of land productivity resulted from physical, chemical and biological changes, both by natural processes and human induced. However so, there are no commonly agreed definition or measure of degradation, as there are many diverse ways in which environmental changes may or may not be experienced as degradation (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; IFAD 1992; Stocking 2000). Compared to other global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, land degradation is seen as a small threat, but remains a serious problem for communities across the world particularly among smallholders and farmer (Andersson, Brogaard and Olsson, 2011).
Highly complex and dynamic, land degradation couldn’t be explain merely by scientific explanations but should be taken into account for different factors leading to land degradation. Despite being able to be mapped and observed at a physical level, degradation can only be explained and understood at levels where hidden social, political and economic structures are analyzed (Bush and Showers, 1985).
2.0 Political Ecology and Land Degradation
Political ecologist has often used political economy to analyze environmental issues, where problems can only be solved through structural changes. Not only has the approach now has been applied to various environmental and land management issues such as biodiversity and forest conservation as well as agriculture and agricultural change (Armitage 2002; Bates and Rudel 2000; Brown 1998; Anderson 1994; Awanayo 2001; Janses 1998; Neuburger 2000; Park 1993; Steinberg 1998; Stonich 1993). Political ecology now has emerges from a large and fragmented literature from several disciplines including geography, sociology, anthropology, ecology and biology (Brown and Purcell 2005).
One of the main aims of the political ecology concerns is the understanding of the environmental conditions that can underlie the social conflict among people (Forsyth, 2008). In regards of land degradation, concerns focusing on soil loss and erosion rate has led to failed land use schemes, and that dominant narrative of soil degradation fails as a predictor of agricultural performance over the long term (Jones 1996; Stocking 1987; Mortimore and Harris 2005).
So why do land use policies usually fail? Blaikie (1985) deduced fundamental theoretical assumptions in his work where soil degradation and erosion can be explained in terms of surplus extraction through social relations of production in the sphere of exchange. With this he came up with five reasons regarding this matter. First is that inadequate research leads to technical failure in soil conservation, and that the conservation techniques does not fit into agricultural and pastoral practices. Blaikie also added that conservation effort is hampered by existing land tenure condition, where there is often no organization and regulation for soil conservation. This is further emphasized by lack of participation by land user in government-sponsored conservation, where resistance to soil conservation measures was based on the fact that the techniques actually aggravated erosion. Last but not least, institutional weakness is also a factor. In his analysis however, Bush and Showers (1985) rebutted that Blaikie has reduced to setting his analysis entirely within the context of political economy of colonialism & post-colonial dependency theory, and by taking land degradation problem from a purely technical definition to a purely political economic when there should be balance in both. While Blaikie (1985) challenged the assumptions about the causes of land degradation, he had also assumed that there was a universally understood process of soil erosion and that it was occurring to the extent that it was a significant social problem (Dove and Hudayana 2007.) But Blaikie’s work in attempting to place the technical processes of soil erosion in a socio-political-economic context has become a pioneer in the evolution of ideas in political ecology, with a particular focus on land degradation.
The two influential papers by Blaikie (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries and Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) Land Degradation and Society (Jones, 2008), are both were seen to be the foundation of sub-discipline of political ecology (Jones 2008; Muldavin, 2008). The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries traced land degradation in Africa to colonial policies of land appropriation, which opens to the debate and the idea of land degradation to be a much more complex and dynamic concern. Blaikie (1985) states that “erosion is indeed a very serious problem which cannot be overcome as a purely technical issues”, and the excerpt “land degradation should by definition be a social problem” proved to be controversial, where what was once thought as a purely technical and physical problem shows a complex interrelation of human social, political and economy systems (Bush and Showers 1985). One of the key concepts on Blaikie’s work was social marginalization, where both the result and cause of land degradation are highlighted (Jones 2008; Paulson et al. 2003). Forsyth (2007) added that Blaikie sought to link structural Marxism with environmental crisis. Blaikie ‘chain of explanation’ however linked the land user to these wider forces operating at multiple scales central premise that decision making of individual farmers cannot be understood without reference to wider society’s dynamics (Dove and Hudayana 2007).
3.0 Critical Approach in Political Ecology, Orthodox Science vs. Critical Approach
However so, the debate on land degradation has been characterized by battles between disciplines and perspectives by two but sometimes disconnected scientific debates, which is land degradation and political ecology. The scientific understanding of land degradation is highly fragmented and the gaps between science and policy are substantial (Andersson, Brogaard and Olsson, 2011). In addition, land users’ own understandings and evaluation of environmental change and degradation have been largely neglected.
In the early days, many writings of environmentalist and political ecologist show ecology as subversive science (Sears 1964). Many had suggested a line to be drawn, either by using science to explain environmental problems or as a scientific project, and discussion of environmental policy as political project on the other. Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1996) concludes that environmentalism represent science and reason, while Lester Brown (2001) claims that economy should changed to reflect the ecological truth. This is further stem by the source of the confusion, the term of ecology in environmental debates as allegedly accurate science. This leads to the need to tie policies better with research, by justifying political ecology approach focusing on interaction between the physical environments, social, political and economic processes at different temporal and spatial scales.
Forsyth’s book Critical Political Ecology and Environmental Science (2003) challenges the many existing beliefs about the separation of environmental science and politics. The book demonstrates epistemological linkages and advance debates in political ecology, focusing on assumptions political ecologist use to discuss environmental degradation. Forsyth (2003) also suggest the means to integrate political analysis with the formulation and dissemination of environmental science itself. Forsyth argued that both should be seen as co produced, by integrating political analysis with formulation and dissemination of environmental science. Failure to acknowledge this may lead to environmental explanations and policies that fail to address the diverse institutional bases in which environmental problems are experienced. Merely depending on orthodox scientific explanation is ineffective, and such can be seen with the issues of soil fertility and desertification where there is overlooked actions taken by poor people to lessen degradation.
Forsyth (2003) specific environmental explanations as contingent upon social and political framings – does not deny existence of environmental degradation, illustrate the inadequacy of concepts use to define it. Eg does not imply erosion is never a problem, but more attention should be given to alternative causes of declining soil fertility, than simply to assume that erosion are universally problematic.
Furthermore policies restricted livelihoods and increased vulnerability of people by reducing land availability for agriculture or other economic options. While Forsyth challenges the orthodox science in explaining environmental issues, he by all means does not undermine the informed debate about environmental concerns and regulations. Sullivan (2000), writes a fundamental aspect of many modern environmental narratives, particularly those relating to the developing world is that they have been accepted as fact even in the absence of what today scientist would acknowledge as the praxis of science. In the case of narrative around desertification, for exampled Swift (1996) noted that this concept has less to do with science than with competing claims of different political and bureaucratic constituencies. Science should be used to discredit these simplified narratives, use of such an expert knowledge. Neumann (2007) states that natural science research is often used to discredit old truth claims in deconstruction of environmental narratives.
A critical political ecology allows an engagement with both the social framings and the predictive capacity of ecology in order to show the coproduction of environmental politics and science within different contexts. There is absolutely no point in conducting political analysis of environmental degradation if concept of degradation and risk are political and are not acknowledge as such. Critical political ecology is meta-narratives about environmental degradation, whilst adopting a critical attitude to how such supposedly neutral explanation of ecological reality were made..
4.0 Questioning Environmental Narrative to Political Ecology
In one of the key early articles exploring the idea of environmental narratives, it is explained that ‘crisis narratives’ are the primary means whereby institutions claim rights to stewardship over land and resource they do not own (Jones 2008; Roe 1991). Indeed, many of the narratives that drive contemporary environmental policy in Africa can be traced to colonial times. Narratives have apparently incontrovertible logic but depend on naïve, unproven and simplifying assumptions about the problem to be addressed (Hoben 1996). The assumptions tend to universalize, package and label environmental problems to justify standardized off the shelf solutions (Leach and Mearns 1996). Solution constricts local practices and undermines indigenous knowledge (Jones 2008). Leach and Mearns (1996), development consultants may be commissioned to examine the causes and consequences of particular environmental problems without ever questioning its existence. Could have limited impact on literature as it is heavily permeated by studies that focus on specific relationship between one variable and land degradation. Warren at al 2001 noted that scientific research must isolate one or very few factors from an extremely complex mix of factors of production. In the case of social studies of land degradation, 1 or 2 variables have been isolated which is population and poverty (most prevalent).
It is noted that while many of the studies examining the casual relationships and processes between population, poverty and environmental change in regards to land degradation, it is unusual to see land degradation referred to in the narratives literature (Jones, 2008). Instead land degradation is compartmentalized into desertification, rangeland degradation, soil fertility decline and Himalayan environmental degradation for example. Neo Malthusian explanations for environmental degradation have dominated the development literature historically and present a particularly pessimistic view of human environment interactions (Jones 2008) Many insights of non equilibrium Botkin 1990 – urge more attention to social and political influences behind identification.
Jones 2008 – Ideas about ecological equilibrium, carrying capacity and the notion of climax vegetation have in particular been attacked (Behnke and Scoones, 1993) to the extent that it has been suggested that there has been a paradigm shift (Warren 1995). Paradigm shift challenging view of environment as an equilibrium, disturbed by overgrazing – acknowledging the recognition of the existence of multiple equilibrium between which there may be non-linear (chaotic) fluctuations triggered by abiotic shifts. Votality and spatial and temporal heterogeneity of the environment is stressed, tendency to regard nature stable and homeostatic. Land degradation may view as non equilibrial phase.
Desertification is perhaps one of the best example of set of ideas about the environment that emerge in a situation of scientific uncertainty, and the prove persistent in the face of gradually accumulating evidence that they are not well founded. (swift 1996`0Desertification narrative is long standing, having its origin in the colonial period. New research has undermined the idea of human-induced desertification. Suggest drylands are resilient and local pastoralist strategies highly flexible to cope with an nstable and disequilibirul environment (Adget et al 2001).
Forsyth (1996, 2007) and Blaikie and Muldavin (2004) highlights the familiar neo-Malthusian explanation for Himalayan degradation: population increase leads to land shortage, so farmers expand agriculture onto steep slopes and cut down trees for agriculture and firewood, thus leading to soil erosion. Furthermore policies restricted livelihoods and increased vulnerability of people by reducing land availability for agriculture or other economic options. Counter narrative founded on both natural and human factors, suggesting that anthropogenic causes of erosion grossly overplayed and are dwarfed by natural causes (Blaikie and Muldavin 2004). Ives and Messerli (1989) noted that Himalayan region is highly tectonic active, rates of erosion are naturally high and landslide is common occurrence. In terms of human management (eg) terraces reduce soil runoff and erosion rate as opposed to making the land unstable people actually induce land sliding to bring new soil and increase ease of terrace construction on unterraced slope. Road construction is more significant in triggering landslide than agricultural practices. Shows importance of locally grounded and empirically informed studies, necessity of avoiding overgeneralization and extrapolations. Suggest that blaming indigenous producers and small-scale farmers / high rate of population growth is primarily misplaced. Forsyth (2007) Such generalization overlook local environment strategies adopted by local farmers should reflect on relocating upland minority groups, restricting citizenship & justifying plantation forestry.
5.0 Conclusion
As argued by Simon (2007), political ecology can definitely provide the missing political, economic and environmental dimensions to sustainable livelihood analyses, where sustainable livelihood analyses can lend political ecology to a finer texture and an enhanced socio-cultural dimension, thereby helping to integrate different scales of analysis more efficiently. Neumann 2007 concluded empirical methods recognized by natural scientists can be combined with post structural social theory to produce findings that have direct policy relevance.

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