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

June 15, 2022

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.

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.
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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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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.


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 »


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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Trees threaten grasslands in Madagascar more than fire

June 10, 2020

Malagasy grasslands are often ignored, or worse, deplored. Biological research concentrates in the forests, many still shrinking despite conservation efforts. Yet research by plant ecologist Cédrique Solofondranohatra adds another layer of argument to the case that Malagasy grasslands have an ancient history and are important reservoirs of biodiversity themselves. Despite this, recent tree-planting efforts for climate change mitigation (of the ‘trillion trees‘ mode) often seem to take the easy path formed by a century of habit: planting exotic pines, acacias, and eucalypts in the grasslands, perceived as open, available, fire-damaged, and worthless. A much more laudable goal would be to restore trees to areas recently deforested.

A new look at Malagasy grasslands: researchers visit Ambohitantely
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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 »