Madagascar’s fire regimes compared to the rest of the tropics

June 15, 2022
Figure 3 from Phelps et al. (2022). Colours represent areas with similar fire regimes (clustered based on burnt area, fire size, seasonality, and numbers of fires). Black pixels represent fire regimes not found on Madagascar. Gray pixels are places without landscape-scale fire regimes. Photos: (a) tapia branch and chameleon at Ibity, (b) uncontrolled, peri-urban landscape fire in Ambositra [photo C. Kull, 2019], (c) a forest-savanna boundary in Ambohitantely, (d) ancient biodiverse grasslands on Ibity, (e) landscape fire in an agricultural region near Ambositra, likely for grassland renewal [photo by C. Kull, 1998/9], (f) tree cover on a forest-savanna boundary in Ambohitantely, (g) smallholder land use on Ibity.

Bushfire is often seen as symbolic of environmental catastrophe on Madagascar. But is it? A global comparison of fire regimes based on satellite image data suggests care in jumping to such conclusions. A recent article in Global Change Biology, led by Leanne Phelps and to which I contributed, finds that the island’s fire regimes have analogues to 88% of fire regimes in the global tropics with similar climate and vegetation. Madagascar’s fires, while exceptionally vilified, are not exceptional. It also demonstrates that the large, landscape-scale grassland fires common across highland and western Madagascar have no relationship to forest loss; indeed forest loss occurs in places without large-scale fires.

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What is “political ecology” these days?

May 31, 2022
This Figure describes three main poles in political ecology, distinguished by a focus on 'hatchet' versus 'seed' and whether
Three poles in political ecology, as proposed in Desvallées et al. (2022)

In a recent doctoral reading group here at the University of Lausanne, we discussed the 1987 text by Blaikie and Brookfield titled Land Degradation and Society, which is often cited as the foundational text for the field of political ecology. Comparing that groundbreaking work with current discussions under the political ecology label shows both continuities and new trends. Continuities include concern over environmental change and a ‘double posture’ of engaging with science on the issue at hand as well as a critical perspective with that science (for instance measuring soil degradation as well as asking what that concept means); concerns with the impacts of capitalism and colonialism; attention to property systems etc etc. Newer trends include the full-blown arrival of various approaches steeped in continental philosophy (poststructuralism, actor networks, assemblages, hegemony, bare life, governmentality….) and in diverse intersectional and decolonial postures. But where is the field now?

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Acacias (wattles, mimosas) in your landscape: survey

February 2, 2022

Together with Charlie Shackleton, I am updating our 2011 global study of the adoption, use, and perception of non-native Australian acacias in landscapes around the world.  We seek to identify changes and trends in the presence of these trees and how they have been welcomed (or not), and used (or not). To that effect, we have prepared a brief online survey.

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What’s college? International confusion over academic and scholastic terminology

January 6, 2022

Have you ever discussed schools and universities with someone from another country or even institution, and gotten confused over terminology? Words like college, faculty, credit, … while generally sharing latin roots, have taken on different meanings around the world. In this blog post, I try to make sense of it all, using my experiences from Switzerland, France, Australia, US, and Canada, and what I’ve learned from elsewhere.

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Voices from the forest – local people and conservation in Madagascar

December 21, 2021

Congratulations to the team from the “Forest4Climate&People” project at ESSA-Forêts (University of Antananarivo) and the School of Natural Sciences (Bangor University) for this fantastic short film. It is both beautifully done and really informative. Wonderful images as well as guitar picking by D’Gary. And most of all, it has a strong and clear message, contained in the subtitle, that advocates “putting local people at the heart of decisions about tropical forest’s contribution to tackling climate change”.

English version embedded above; voici le lien pour la version française:

Company-led cocoa sustainability programs in Ghana: PhD of David Amuzu

December 17, 2021
A hot day in the shade of a cocoa tree

More good news on the PhD front:  David Amuzu today passed his public defence with flying colours.  David’s research revolves around the transformations in rural production systems in the cocoa forests of Ghana caused by the arrival of ‘sustainability certification programs’ led by chocolate companies. These are the kinds of programs that lie behind the labels on chocolate bars that guarantee that they were produced in rainforest-friendly, non-exploitative ways.  He investigates how a firm-led sustainability program has inserted itself into the local landscape and with what sorts of social and agro-ecological consequences.  He is particularly interested in the underlying power relations and imbricated social processes that can explain and highlight the dynamic social negotiations and (sometimes) injustices hidden behind sustainability certificates.  The four results chapters focus on different consequences of the arrival and operation of the sustainability scheme, ranging from changes to governance institutions and local agrarian relations (Ch 3), the creation of benefits for and burdens on farmers (Ch 4), the obfuscation of land access relations (Ch 5), and blockages in on-farm tree conservation (Ch 6).  

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The politics of a “forest transition” in Vietnam:  PhD of Nguyen Thi Hai Van

December 6, 2021
Van during her fieldwork

I am thrilled to announce that Nguyen Thi Hai Van has successfully defended her PhD.  Using a political ecology approach, Van investigated the dramatic changes in the forest landscapes of A Luoi, a mountainous district in the central coast of Vietnam.  In this humid tropical landscape, natural forests were destroyed by war and logging, but forest cover has rebounded in the last 20 years due to widespread acacia plantations as well as conservation activities in remaining forests.  Much of these changes have been attributed to successive state policies and programs, such as the allocation of forest lands to local people, the massive promotion of reforestation, and the implementation of ecosystem service payment schemes.  Van, however, looks “under the hood” of the successive layers state policies to see how they translate into specific outcomes in specific places in conjunction with local aspirations and economic pressures.   In the end, she argues that not only has the forest been transformed, but also the people – with ‘new forest people’ undertaking new livelihoods with new identities.

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Fire, afforestation, and agrarian change in highland Madagascar (video)

November 8, 2021

I recorded a short video last summer for an interdisciplinary workshop that outlines in a brief way my work on highland Madagascar. You can watch it here on YouTube.

The video was made for a fantastic workshop on the grassy biomes of Madagascar held online last summer, bringing together archaeologists, diverse types of ecologists-biologists-botanists, palaeoecologists, geologists and more. Other videos are available here.

New forests, new forest people (video presentation)

February 2, 2021

I was recently invited to give a presentation at University College London’s “Human Ecology Research Group” seminar series, and was asked record it in advance. I thank HERG for the invitation and the very fruitful discussion! I’m pleased to share the presentation here.

Summary: Forest landscapes and forest lives are mutating rapidly in central Vietnam. Non-native acacia plantations have boomed, local people have refashioned their livelihoods around these trees, in a context of diverse state policies. What is ‘sustainability’ in the face of these dynamics? This presentation seeks to give an overview of the progress of the “FT Viet” R4D project. I start describing the empirical case, then address the sustainability question before finishing with some comments on interdisciplinarity.

New forests and new forest people in central Vietnam: questions for sustainability and interdisciplinarity from KullGeog on Vimeo.

Economic pressures resurgent in Vietnam’s forests

August 10, 2020

Over the past decade, Vietnam has shifted its approach to forestlands as spaces for economic production and ecosystem services. Policy shifts — such as re-zoning forests from “protection” to “production” — have accompanied decreases in natural forest and increases in exotic tree plantations. Other new policies, like a payment for ecosystem services (PFES) program, had little impact on natural forest cover during the period of our study. More stable natural forests were associated with better governance (less corruption). In sum, despite large efforts invested in stopping deforestation and restoring forestlands, gains in forest cover are not irreversible.


Expanding acacia plantations and (in the far back) natural forest in Huong Nguyen commune, Thừa Thiên-Huế province

These are just some of the findings of an article from our r4d “FT Viet” research project just published in the journal World Development. Read the rest of this entry »