The science, knowledge, and governance of thirsty eucalypts in Chile: PhD of Astrid Oppliger Uribe

I am pleased to announce Astrid Oppliger’s successful public defence of her PhD thesis entitled Production, Circulation and Application of Scientific Knowledge: Forest Hydrology and Policy-Making in Chile. Her thesis addresses debates over forest plantations and water scarcity.  She focusses on her native Chile’s forest plantation sector, where vast areas of “water sucking” eucalyptus plantations gained attention as the country struggles with multi-year droughts. She is particularly interested in how science interacts with policy, notably in the governance of the environment by diverse actors across industry, the state, and academia.  She draws on the intersection of two main academic schools – political ecology and STS (science and technology studies) – to trace the ways in which scientific knowledge on forest hydrology is produced, circulated, and applied in the multi-actor governance of eucalyptus plantations.

The thesis, which will soon be available through SERVAL (I’ll try to update the link when it is ready), is presented as a monograph of eight chapters. The introductory chapters include a useful review of forest hydrology as a field (across Chile, South Africa, and Australia) as well as the specific context of forestry and forest plantations in Chile. Three main results chapters follow the introductory ones:  

Chapter 5 reviews the state-of-the-art in forest hydrology concerning eucalyptus plantations and water scarcity across Chile, South Africa, and Australia, three major southern hemisphere plantation lands.  For this work, Astrid had the chance to spend several months in both Stellenbosch and Melbourne with experts in the field. She undertook a structured, systematic review of publications on eucalypts and water use, documenting that, contrary to the assertions of some participants in debates over eucalypts in Chile, the science is quite clear that gum trees are ‘thirsty’ water users.

A slide from Astrid’s presentation detailing her visits to diverse sites with forest hydrologists across three countries.

Chapter 6 traces what might be called the sociology of forest hydrology in Chile, and the social, political, and network context for knowledge production and application.  This is based on interviews with key actors. The chapter applies ideas of ‘field theory’ (à la Pierre Bourdieu via Rebecca Lave). It shows the how different interests and networks have structured research on forest hydrology in the country – notably state interests in the lucrative forestry economic sector – in ways reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s relation to medical science, or the petroleum industry related to climate science. 

Chapter 7 traces the specific negotiations in the production of a Forest Plantation Protocol in 2017. This was a unique process, spurred by the urgency of mega fires and a long-lasting drought, which included diverse actors like the private sector, government agencies, researchers, and civil society. Hydrological knowledge and debates played a role as actors negotiated rules such as buffer distances between tree plantations and rivers.  In tracing the politics of these negotiations, Astrid shows the utility of Paul Sabatier’s Advocacy Coalition Framework to explain how science translates through political processes to outcomes.  

Astrid’s doctoral studies were funded by Chile’s National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research (CONICYT), with complements from the Université de Lausanne and the Société Académique Vaudoise. I give heartfelt thanks to the support from my colleagues who joined this adventure on Astrid’s thesis committee, as hosts for her overseas stays, and/or as members of the jury, including René Véron (Unil), Michael Handke (Heidelberg), Dave Richardson (Stellenbosch), Rod Keenan (Melbourne), Javiera Barandiarán (UC Santa Cruz).

Astrid during a research group excursion in the foothills of the Jura. Her presence in the research team and institute will be missed.

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