TNRC Blog Implementing a Political Ecology Approach

Political Ecology in Anti-Corruption Efforts and Practice
Part II: Implementing a Political Ecology Approach


This blog post is the second in a two-part series. It builds upon learning from an August 2020 TNRC Learning Series webinar with Jennifer Devine (Texas State University), Andreas Lehnhoff (WWF Guatemala), Aled Williams (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre) and Kyle Rearick (USAID Office of Forestry and Biodiversity). Watch a recording of the event above, or download a PDF of the presentation slides.

A stone architecture in the forest at Uaxactún Archeology Site in GuatemalaUaxactún Archeology Site, Guatemala
Source: Jennifer Devine

Across the world, criminal organizations are destroying forests and killing environmental activists standing in their way, while several governments are undermining state institutions meant to monitor and prosecute conservation crime. Untangling the connections between corruption and conservation crime is especially urgent at this time and is a key challenge for conservation programming.

The conservation sector, however, is rising to the challenge, with international agencies, governments, donors, and partners prioritizing this issue. For example, with the recent Lima Declaration, Latin American countries committed to bringing their region into the global fight against illegal wildlife trade; USAID and its partners are building evidence and sharing knowledge on what works in combating wildlife trafficking and conservation crimes more broadly; and multiple organizations, from WWF to Interpol, are working to illuminate the dynamics of crime convergence—the linkage of conservation crime to other illicit networks.

Political ecology is well suited to study corruption and environmental crime. Political ecology is a multidisciplinary academic field that studies how politics, economics, and culture shape environmental change, and vice versa. Political ecology poses new questions, brings different perspectives, and offers unconventional solutions to anti-corruption efforts and conservation programming by focusing on how power relations impact the distribution of the costs and benefits of environmental change. A political ecology approach integrates social and natural sciences, which requires bridging knowledge, sciences, and methods that are usually separated. Triangulating or combining multiple types of data and methods often provides the clearest picture of phenomena that organized crime tries to hide. Nature from a political ecology perspective is not just a resource that produces economic value, but is also a site of belonging, identity formation, and the reproduction of life and livelihoods (Rocheleau et al. 2013).

This blog is the second in a series that aims to bring political ecology’s insights into anti-corruption efforts and conservation practice. It builds on an overview resource defining political ecology as well as a webinar in which Jennifer Devine presented her research on “narco-deforestation” in Guatemala to discuss how political ecology helps deepen understanding of corruption and conservation crime.

Political ecology has much to gain from this exchange. Political ecology’s critical stance often prevents this approach from fulfilling its commitment to “being useful” (Blaike 2012) as an applied form of research that produces socio-environmental change. Expertise from conservation practice can orient political ecology approaches by pointing to key questions and using language that policy makers hear.

How can political ecology be applied in anti-corruption and natural resource management programs to lead to more effective outcomes?

In this second post, we offer several ways a political ecology approach can be implemented in conservation practice. Three aspects of a political ecology perspective provide starting points for practitioners to examine and respond to the impact of corruption on natural resource outcomes. Each aspect corresponds to multiple application strategies as summarized in the table and detailed below. This list is not exhaustive but aims to initiate ongoing dialogue between political ecologists and conservation practitioners.

Key Aspects of a Political Ecology Approach

Application to Anti-Corruption Efforts and Conservation Programming

1. Conduct multi-scalar analysis

  • Analyze local meanings of corruption and conservation crime from multiple perspectives, especially local resource users
  • Identify drivers of corruption at local, regional and national levels in situation models, starting with the local scale
  • Produce policy recommendations at national and global scales to address structural drivers of acute inequality

2. Consider unconventional collaborations and empower marginalized actors

  • Reconsider the definition of effective program outcomes when working with marginalized populations
  • Involve and compensate local representatives as project protagonists in all phases
  • Fund Indigenous and peasant communal land tenure and resource management

3. Interrogate assumptions in program design and integrate across sectors

  • Practice the method of “reflexivity” to recognize and surface power dynamics between program staff and participants
  • Bring political ecology method and research into the evidence consultation and generation at the heart of learning agendas
  • Integrate biodiversity conservation efforts with other program areas, such as democracy, governance, and human rights

1Conduct multi-scalar analysis of corruption.

Analyze local meanings of corruption and conservation crime from multiple perspectives, especially local resource users: Corruption and crime often flourish when states lack legitimacy and/or the ability to implement the rule of law. For political ecologists and many anti-corruption experts, anti-corruption efforts are not just about implementing the law, but require understanding the gap between legality and legitimacy and who is in a position to (ab)use their power to define that line. Political ecology insists that project practitioners define and understand corruption and environmental crime in ways that integrate local level experiences and views, and explore how customary de facto understanding compares and contrasts with the law. Discussions about how corruption works in practice highlight the need to understand the state as a set of complex institutions, rather than a single entity. Political ecology can help unpack differing and often contradictory state practices and their connections to corruption, resource management, and social demands for accountability, democracy and justice.

Identify drivers of corruption at local, regional and national levels in situation models, starting with the local scale: Power relations spanning from the local to the global scales drive, shape, and constrain decisions and practices at the local level. Political ecology builds analysis inductively, starting with a focus on customary land and resource uses and histories of dispossession. From the local scale, analysis moves to the regional, national, and then global levels to understand how local dynamics shape, and are shaped by, practices and policies unfolding elsewhere. A focus on the household and individual actions neglects the true drivers of habitat destruction. Cross-scalar power relationships should be included in modeling drivers of biodiversity loss.

Produce policy recommendations at national and global scales to address structural drivers of acute inequality: Tackling structural issues of inequality and injustice at the national and global level is often defined as outside project parameters when working with marginalized communities, but a political ecology approach encourages practitioners to make those connections in the interest of more complete learning agendas, program design and implementation, and policy recommendations. Multi-scalar analysis of inequality and insights into how local people understand corruption and governance frequently produces policy insights at the regional, national, or even global scale. Analyzing local-level dynamics of governance and crime in the Maya Biosphere, for example, revealed how counter-narcotic interdiction policies fueled corruption and the power of drug trafficking organizations, offering a wider range of explanations and potential reform avenues (Wrathall et al. 2020).

2Consider unconventional collaborations and change agents and empower marginalized actors.

Reconsider the definition of effective program outcomes when working with marginalized populations: Political ecology suggests engaging with local communities in defining what success looks like, as well as the most important factors to monitor to ensure the program is doing no harm. This builds on the Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples operating principle of engaging Indigenous peoples across the program cycle. Effectively addressing the negative impact of corruption on natural resource and conservation outcomes could include reducing gender inequality, reducing poverty and lack of rights over land or resources, and increasing access to sustainably managed resources in Indigenous and peasant communities.

Involve and compensate local representatives as protagonists in all phases of programming: In many places where corruption and conservation crime abound, local residents and community organizations may hold legitimacy in ways that national elites and elected officials do not. To unlock political will in conservation practice, community members and grassroots leaders must be protagonists of conservation projects at all phases—design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. Dialogue in early phases to define program outcomes and an ongoing process to identify any needed changes during monitoring and evaluation help achieve another programmatic goal—reducing power inequalities between local participants and program officers rather than reproducing them in everyday programming. Empowering Indigenous peoples and peasants in natural resource management and anti-corruption efforts also requires funding and incorporating non-western knowledges and land use practices. In the current climate and biodiversity crisis, institutes and organizations formalizing this knowledge are thriving and should be included in governance and conservation programming when they desire to be.

Fund Indigenous and peasant land tenure and communal resource management: Political ecology analysis often reveals how practices of land dispossession and unequal resource distribution drive corruption and environmental crime (West 2016). Indigenous and peasant communal resource management is a means of redressing this injustice and often produces positive results for biodiversity, conservation, and governance (Davis and Sauls 2017). However, securing Indigenous and peasant usufruct and communal land rights is insufficient; communal leaders and organizations need local support and legitimacy and economic development strategies must accompany their rights over land and resources. Mainstreaming communal resource management into conservation programming means ensuring that communities have a right to benefit from conservation efforts. It also entails strengthening the role and skills of conservation practitioners as facilitators supporting Indigenous and peasant communities in the pursuit of their conservation and sustainable land use goals. This political ecology approach complements the objectives and operating principles identified in USAID’s Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and WWF’s Statement of Principles on Indigenous Peoples and Conservation.

3Interrogate assumptions in program design and theories of change and integrate biodiversity conservation and development sectors.

Practice the method of “reflexivity” as a strategy to recognize power relations between program staff and participants: Reflexivity is a research practice often used as part of a political ecology approach that interrogates the assumptions and biases that people bring to conservation efforts. Reflexivity is a process of constant, self-conscious scrutiny of the self as a researcher and of the research process (England 1994). Reflexivity allows practitioners to recognize how their assumptions/biases shape anti-corruption efforts, and reduce their effectiveness. This practice can take the form of training program staff and practicing reflexivity through reading and writing exercises. It also translates into continuous reflection on the power dynamics and assumptions of the practitioner with the objective of improving program outcomes.

Bring political ecology method and research into the evidence consultation and generation at the heart of learning agendas: Since 2018, the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act requires that U.S. federal agencies develop learning agendas to support evidence-based decision-making. Learning has also become a crucial complement to monitoring and evaluation in conservation and development project management more broadly. Opening spaces for dialogue on political ecology approaches in conservation practice could support collective learning and “bridge the research-implementation gap” (Dubois et al. 2020). For example, in developing a Latin America and Caribbean regional learning agenda, mission staff have questioned the effectiveness of strengthening law enforcement as the principle strategic approach to combat conservation crime. They list the pervasiveness of corruption in law enforcement and judicial systems, lack of trust of local authorities, and fear of retaliatory violence as issues undermining this strategic approach. Integrating a political ecology approach in conservation practice could bring new understandings and explanations of corruption into this learning initiative.

Integrate biodiversity conservation with other program areas: Political ecology’s central tenet that politics, economics, and culture shape environmental change, and vice versa is increasingly reflected in conservation programming. Threats to environmental defenders have centered human rights as powerfully linked to many conservation objectives. Natural resource corruption and conservation crime highlight the inseparability of governance and conservation. Stating Conservation is Development, USAID’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity (FAB) is working to identify and promote integrated programming approaches. Its supplemental guide on “Enhancing Thinking and Working Politically When Practicing the Conservation Standards at USAID” is part of a widespread push to bring Thinking and Working Politically into the conservation sector. As the conservation world moves forward with the important work of integration, a key challenge will be building the evidence base that integrated programming produces positive social and environmental outcomes. Political ecology can contribute to that evidence. Recent innovations in measuring resilience could provide a starting point to measuring socio-environmental outcomes across scale.

Works cited and additional resources:

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus