Research team

Development processes, actors and policies

Expertise

My research focuses on the politics of knowledge in conservation and development, on critiques of neoliberal natures and ‘green economy’ proposals, as well as on alternative (transformational) paradigms, social movements and processes related to degrowth, and decolonial approaches to social-ecological futures. More specifically, I focus on the social and environmental justice aspects of climate change and ecosystem service policies in ‘development’ contexts, such as carbon and biodiversity markets, payments for ecosystem services (PES), and green microfinance. Most of my research has focused on Central- and South America, using different strategies mostly inspired by processes of participatory action research. My theoretical approach is interdisciplinary and draws largely from the fields of political ecology, ecological economics, and critical geography.

Multifrictional Crops: The Social Lives of Cacao and Oil Palm in Times of Extinction and Hope. 01/10/2021 - 30/09/2024

Abstract

From wild trees to world crop commodities, from forest destroyers to forest saviors: cacao and oil palm have a special place in histories of global socio-environmental connections. Responding to threats posed by the expansion of commodity agriculture to climate and biodiversity, policy-makers now seek solutions in these tree-crops themselves. They are deemed to be able to integrate multiple ecosystem services with commodity production to improve communities' livelihoods. This project engages with the analytical challenge of an improved understanding of the complex relationships between the material specificities of cacao and oil palm, and the human meanings and values that make them drivers of both extinction and hope. Through the innovative conceptual approach of multifrictional crops, this research follows cacao and oil palm from Congolese forests to Dutch and Belgian cities and ports. It looks at how various forms of environmental governance and knowledge, everyday practices, and multispecies relations come in tension to shape the social-ecological lives of these crops, and those of the people and landscapes who grow them. Comparing a nonnative to a native crop in the Congo Basin allows to explore the importance of cultural-environmental histories and of place-based knowledge to (agro)biodiversity. As such, it will critically broaden conceptions of sustainability and justice to ask how ethical human-nonhuman encounters can be built so as to produce just outcomes.

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ePEStemology: Towards a consolidation of social and ecological integrity for conservation and development in Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). 01/01/2021 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

Over the past 15 years, payments for ecosystem services (PES) have become a leading tool to advance both conservation and sustainable livelihood transitions by offering economic incentives to protect soils, water, sequester carbon, and protect biodiversity. While premised as a market-based transaction, PES design and implementation is shaped by diverging value frameworks predicated on the intersection between contextually-specific socio-cultural relations, historical asymmetric relations of power in the governance of land and resources, emergent ecological processes, and ongoing economic land-use drivers. This research project will be the first attempt to systematically compile all peer-reviewed literature on PES research, resulting in the "ePEStemology" database to identify plural epistemologies in assessing PES success or failure. It will complement this database with in-depth case studies in Québec (Canada) and Nicaragua (building on the long-term development cooperation of the Flemish host institution) as two differing agrarian contexts experimenting with PES for more than 10 years. Research will be grounded in a transformative paradigm prioritizing social and environmental justice by holding scholars, practitioners, and research participants accountable to how knowledge is co-generated. The project also aims to initiate a global consortium, building off the database to foster transdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration on existing conservation projects around the world.

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Defying the 'Plantationocene': Exploring the ways a 'Green Economy' can lead to socio-ecological transformation. 01/11/2020 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

In response to growing concern on the detrimental impacts that modern society is having on the earth's life support systems, scholars have begun adopting the 'Anthropocene' concept referring to the geological epoch of humanity's physical imprint on the planet. In response, policy-makers have sought to transition to a 'green economy' in which environmental problems are addressed through economic growth based around technological improvements in material and energy efficiency and the internalization of environmental values through market-based solutions. However, social scientists have been quick to point out the historically uneven political and economic systems, along classed, racialized, and gendered lines, which shape how the Anthropocene gets reproduced in practice. By adopting the recent conceptualization of the 'Plantationocene', this research explores the way 'green economy' strategies, such as carbon and biodiversity offsetting and ecotourism, are still informed by the disciplining power of historical plantation logics, rooted in efficiency, calculability, predictability, and controllability. Through the use of multi-disciplinary methods and two case studies in Indonesia and India, this study aims to advance crucial insights on how plantation logics are reinforced or defied through these strategies in responding to dynamic and uncertain socio-ecological conditions. As such, this research lies at the heart of clarifying important debates within sustainability science. GENERAL - 1

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When global threats meet localized practices: Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) vs. recognition and regeneration of ecosystem knowledge in Nicaragua and Guatemala. 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2023

Abstract

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) has become a dominant paradigm in environmental and climate policies. The approach encourages land users to generate benefits of nature (ecosystem services) on their land through conditional payments from interested consumers (e.g. energy-intensive companies paying for forest conservation). Global climate finance instruments such as voluntary/compulsory carbon markets, the UN programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation & Forest Degradation (REDD+), and biodiversity offsetting mechanisms reflect PES' popularity among donors. While appealing, PES also elicits criticism. Practices often impose global neoliberal governance on territories, dispossess land users, retrench existing inequalities, spawn resource struggles and prioritize carbon outputs over biodiversity. Tensions between PES' win-win promises and 'green grabbing' concerns, combined with mounting evidence of ecosystem collapse, begs for critical attention to how global concerns entwine with localized knowledges. Comparing of PES sites in Nicaragua and Guatemala, we study how PES shapes and is shaped by contested understandings of place, power and difference (class, gender, racial/ethnic. This research breaks open bounded or abstracted understanding of both PES and local ecological knowledge, offers insights into how historical geographies condition and rework global policies, and makes visible the multi-scaled processes through which alternatives emerge and gain traction.

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Engaging 'workforce' and 'water': towards more sustainable engagements around small-scale gold production in southern Peru. 01/01/2020 - 31/12/2021

Abstract

Peru is the sixth largest producer of gold in the world (USGS 2017). At least 15% of Peruvian gold is produced through small-scale, informal operations – more than half of which are in located in the region of Puno. Mining is undoubtedly one of the most important livelihood activities in the region; yet it comes at a considerable socio-economic and socio-environmental cost. This project aims to address these issues by developing knowledge that will promote a more sustainable, more inclusive and socially just ASGM sector. We will achieve this aim by delivering on two objectives. Firstly, we will improve the co-creation of critical knowledge about the process of gold production, both in terms of how the activity is embedded in local communities (by focussing on 'workforce') and its impact on the surround environment (by focussing on 'water'). Knowledge will be co-created by academic and non-academic stakeholders so as to ensure that the work has practical as well as academic value. Secondly, we will develop a mechanism to ensure knowledge is effectively shared among all relevant stakeholders.

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Towards a power-sensitive and socially-informed analysis of Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). Comparative case studies in Nicaragua and Guatemala. 01/10/2018 - 30/09/2022

Abstract

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) has become a dominant paradigm in international environmental and climate policies. The approach looks appealing: land users, often poorly motivated to protect nature and the benefits we obtain from it (the so-called 'ecosystem services'), may be incited to do so through conditional payments from interested consumers/buyers (e.g. carbon-constrained electricity companies paying for forest conservation). PES schemes also tend to be hailed as attractive tools for rural poverty alleviation in the Global South. The idea of conditional 'green' payments is clearly reflected in international climate finance instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol, voluntary and compulsory carbon markets, and the UN global programme for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+, included in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord). All of these can be conceptualised as global PES mechanisms. Despite their increasing popularity among donors and governments, evidence regarding the environmental and social outcomes of PES projects is not unequivocal. Indeed, PES remains weakly theorized in socio-economic and political terms, resulting in a superficial understanding of how power relations and cultural diversity shape the social-ecological outcomes of these projects. Through the comparative analysis of at least two cases in Nicaragua and Guatemala, this research will further develop a novel methodology to address important analytical and empirical gaps in current PES scholarship. It also aims to study in greater depth how PES instruments succeed or fail to reshape nature-society relations and how they change resource use behaviour in socially and culturally diverse contexts. In this way, this research offers crucial policy-relevant insights into the ways in which global-to-local interactions reshape PES interventions, allowing to better fit local notions of value, justice and equity, while contributing to global ecological goals.

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TRUEPATH: TRansforming UnsustainablE PATHways in agricultural frontiers: articulating microfinance plus with local institutional change for sustainability in Nicaragua 01/12/2018 - 30/11/2021

Abstract

The project addresses the global-local institutional dynamics that generate the socially and environmentally unsustainable cattle development pathway. In Latin America, this pathway is the main driver of deforestation, contributing to climate change, the destruction of critical biodiversity stocks and the dispossession of indigenous people. The research specifically focusses on the agricultural frontier around the Bosawas Nature Reserve in Northern Nicaragua and consists of an action-research process in cooperation with the microfinance organization Fondo de Desarrollo Local and the environmental NGO Centro Humboldt. The project analyzes the potential of a 'Green Microfinance Plus' program (loans + technical assistance + Payments for Ecosystem Services), and connects to broader reflections in local deliberative fora promoted by the project and a citizen science approach to local climate data generation and use. In terms of research methodology, a multidisciplinary mixed methods set-up combines inputs from development sociology and economics with the Agrarian Systems approach, and makes use of an original simulation game informed by local data. The research aims to co-identify in-roads for policies of 'institutional entrepreneurship', offering opportunities to affect relevant institutional processes to transform today's detrimental pathway in the direction of more sustainable, equitable and climate-sensible agriculture, less dependent on deforestation and cheap land. The objective is to develop scientific outputs and policy proposals (in particular also for environmentally responsible rural finance) that contribute to change towards sustainability in the Nicaraguan agricultural frontier and beyond.

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Payments for Ecosystem Services and land use dynamics: motivational and institutional interactions - case studies from rural Nicaragua. 01/10/2013 - 30/09/2016

Abstract

During the last decade, the conservation tool of 'Payments for Ecosystem Services' (PES) has attracted growing attention in both academic and policy circles. The approach looks appealing: land users, often poorly motivated to protect nature on their land, may be encouraged to do so through direct and conditional payments from interested consumers/buyers (e.g. local urban water users paying upstream farmers for land conservation). PES mechanisms are also increasingly seen as promising tools for rural poverty alleviation in developing countries. PES schemes are, however, not uncontested. Despite the growing literature on PES, there is still a theoretical and empirical knowledge gap on the socio-environmental and political-economic consequences of PES schemes and on the way payment incentives influence individual and collective decisions on land use and sustained pro-environment behaviour. Through comparative case studies in Nicaragua, the research project contributes to a more comprehensive and holistic agenda on the appropriateness and socio-ecological consequences of PES schemes.

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The role of "Payments for Environmental Services" for a sustainable water management in Central America. 01/10/2006 - 30/09/2010

Abstract

Water systems in Central America suffer from increasing pressure caused by the absence of integral water management and weak public institutions. In the context of a number of pilot projects in the region, the project will investigate if and to what extent the new concept of "Payment for Environmental Services" offers perspectives to improve upon the current situation by introducing market principles.

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