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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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: https://youtu.be/X0S0Y1h4NoE

Tuna fishing in the Indian Ocean – marine political ecology (PhD Mialy Andriamahefazafy)

July 15, 2020

With pride and pleasure I’d like to announce the successful doctorate of Mialy Andriamahefazafy, which she defended publicly on July 13. Mialy’s previous work with a marine conservation organisation in coastal Madagascar showed her that local fishers were complaining about big boats fishing offshore, while in the inland capital, government officials were keen on the revenue they could gain through access agreements with foreign tuna fleets. This inspiration led to her thesis work, in which investigated the socio-material matrix through which fishing occurs. She narrowed in on three main topics: how diverse actors ‘access’ the fish, how these actors ‘narrate’ their concerns over overfishing, and whether there is any sense in approaching this issue by appealing to a sense of ‘regional identity’. Mialy undertook fieldwork in three countries (Madagascar, Seychelles, and Mauritius), interviewing more than 223 individuals including small-scale fishers, industrial boat captains and sailors, government officials, cannery workers, retailers and more. Mialy also observed landings of tuna in ports both big and small, and practiced event ethnography by joining delegations to attend two international negotiations.

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Sheep and shepherds in the Swiss Alps (PhD Hélène Weber)

February 26, 2020

I’m proud to announce the successful public PhD defence of Hélène Weber, who has worked with me for five years as a doctoral assistant.  Hélène researched a practice operating in the spatial, cultural, and political margins of Swiss agriculture: sheep farming. She investigated the on-going transformation of sheep farming in Switzerland, pushed by eco-modernist policies, market institutions and demands, and also by the actors themselves and their practices and relationships (farmers, herders, sheep, grass, dogs…). Hélène’s intuition was that an ethnographic, practice-centred approach to her topic would give different and complementary insights.

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PhD scholarship in political ecology

February 3, 2020

I am recruiting a doctoral student to work with me as a graduate assistant in the Development, Societies, and Environments group at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability at the Université de Lausanne next year.   Read the rest of this entry »

Photo essay on forest change in central Vietnam

December 6, 2019

I’m happy to announce that the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development (r4d) has published my photo essay regarding our work in the mountains of Thừa Thiên-Huế province in central Vietnam. You can see it here:


Forest livelihood transformations: from wartime ‘A Shau valley’ to today’s A Lưới district

May 1, 2019

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of joining PhD student Nguyen Thi Hai Van in her field sites in the upland A Lưới district of Thừa Thiên-Huế province, central Vietnam. She introduced me to her key informants, took me around the fields and woodlots, and translated as she conducted a number of focus group sessions. Of the many interesting ideas and observations that emerged, the overall theme was certainly one of the dramatic and rapid changes affecting the peoples’ livelihoods and landscapes.

Van (second from left) leads an animated participatory mapping session.
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Towards a “critical” invasion science

June 11, 2018

The study of invasive plants and animals might be seen as the domain of biology and environmental managers.  But in a recent piece I argue for a “critical” approach due to the deeply social nature of invasion landscapes, the power relations affecting the science of invasions, and the differential impacts of weed or pest control on lives and landscapes. By “critical” invasion science, I mean research that is informed by social theories, with a sensibility to questions of social justice and to the social construction of scientific knowledge. The piece investigates several aspects of invasion science ripe for critical analysis: the history of the science (to understand what the science is doing and why), the terminology and categories of analysis, and the highly contested social, political, and ethical context within which invasion management takes place. The piece conclude with four proposals for further work in critical invasion science and examples of the types of questions it might ask. Read the rest of this entry »

Governance of forests, food commodities, and rivers: introducing my current doctoral team

May 25, 2018

I’d like to introduce my current doctoral team, who are a great pleasure to work with.  Their research interests have coalesced around the political ecology of environmental governance, specifically of forests, commodities, and rivers.  In other words, who decides, who wins, who loses, and why, when decisions are made about trees, water, fish, cocoa, and sheep?  What ideas are decisions based on, and how does the materiality of the object shape the outcomes?  Here are some brief words on the team and their interests, grouped by three general themes: Read the rest of this entry »

What are the environmental humanities?

March 10, 2017

Among the most potent recent academic buzzwords must figure “The Environmental Humanities”. This bandwagon is clearly attractive: an ever-growing bouquet of new journals, positions, institutes, books, and networks carries this label.[*]

In this blog, I’d like to propose an alternative definition for what the environmental humanities constitute, one that goes a little bit against the standard definition. In short, instead of emphasising meta-discipline, interdisciplinarity, and knowledge domains, my definition emphasises modes of knowledge creation and communication. Let me explain.

The environmental humanities emerged in particular out of history and literature departments (environmental history, eco-criticism), with a number of other contributors from across a diverse spectrum of academia (Nye et al. 2013). Well-known figures like Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold are claimed as predecessors. Definitions of the environmental humanities, in my (perhaps naïve) reading, seem to coalesce around three points: Read the rest of this entry »