For the inaugural post on our BIOSEC blog, we asked two members of our Advisory Board – Professor Tor Arve Benjaminsen and Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland – some key questions about their research.
Tor and E.J. work in very diverse fields, spanning the political ecology and conservation biology. Their answers demonstrate why we need a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to understanding the growing intersections between biodiversity conservation and security. Both point to the need to understand the complexities behind the headlines – be they about desertification or greening of the Sahel, or the motivations of those who hunt or consume wildlife. Tor and E.J. have never just accepted the explanations presented to them – they have sought to delve deeper and really understand the underlying reasons for environmental change, including species loss. People, and the need for environmental justice, lie at the heart of their on-going work. Their advice will be crucial to shaping the BIOSEC project. It is important to be open, and to spend the time needed to work out why some people consume wildlife, what are the effects of thinking about wildlife trafficking as an environmental crime, or why poaching suddenly started to be linked with global security concerns. Only by doing this can we meet the growing challenges of global environmental change.
Tor A. Benjaminsen
- What are you researching at the moment?
I am leading a project titled ‘Greenmentality: A Political Ecology of the Green Economy’, which is studying how green economy ideas are being implemented in East Africa and India. The primary objective is to investigate three distinct forms of green governmentality (ecotourism, carbon forestry and climate-smart agriculture) and their reactions from below in selected cases. We are interested in how green economy ideas travel from international conferences and policy papers through national institutions to practical implementation at the local level, what the impact of these practices are, and how people on the ground respond to them through participation and adaptation or various forms of resistance.
- Is political ecology a useful conceptual approach for understanding global environmental change?
Political ecology typically aims to study the global through a focus on the local. The idea is that one can study global (environmental) processes through detailed case studies where one tries to follow the influences of power and money to other scales. Political ecology has a long history of criticising Malthusian perspectives on environmental change in which population growth and resource scarcity are seen as the driving forces. Instead, there is a focus on political economy factors such as access, rights and distribution as key to understanding change, while keeping an eye on natural fluctuations and the agency of nature. In addition, political ecology often aims to study environmental change both at the level of meaning as well as at the material level and to see how these levels are linked. This is certainly an ambitious research agenda that doesn’t always succeed!
- Why did you become interested in researching the relationships between conflict and environmental change?
A large part of my research has taken place in the African Sahel, in particular in Mali, where fluctuations in rainfall have caused considerable environmental change during the last few decades. During the droughts of the 1980s, this change was called ‘desertification’, but later rainfall has increased again leading to a re-greening of the Sahel. These drylands are also hotspots of land-use conflicts and in policy-making and media presentations there is a tendency to portray these conflicts as being caused by natural resource scarcity. This means that while there has been a greening of the Sahel, policy-makers and journalists still pretend that widespread desertification is taking place and that this is causing conflicts. I find this contradiction intriguing and interesting.
- What is the focus of your current project?
I have a few projects relevant to BIOSEC, linked by an overarching interest in understanding the motivations of individual people who are involved in the wildlife trade. We focus on the two ends of the commodity chain. One set of projects tries to understand the relationships between people and wildlife in rural areas of the developing world (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa), and the effects of conservation interventions on these relationships. For example what role does hunting play in people’s livelihoods, and how can conservation interventions be designed so as to have positive impacts both socially and in conservation terms. At the other end, I’ve just started a project to understand consumer behaviour towards illegal wildlife products in Asia; we will monitor trade in these products (both online and in physical markets), understand how illegal products fit within the broader purchase landscape for these consumers, and explore how to design effective interventions that can change people’s behaviours.
- What first ignited your interest in illegal wildlife trade?
I first got into this field during my PhD in the late 1980s. That was a time when the ivory trade in particular was of major public concern at the international level, and I was just starting my PhD with an interest in wildlife population dynamics and conservation. My supervisor happened to have a contract to work with CITES to understand the effect of the ivory trade on elephant population dynamics, and he brought me in on it in my first term as a PhD student. It was fascinating, but also a rather brutal introduction to the world of international conservation politics – the ivory debates now give me a strong sense of deja vu! After my PhD I continued working on issues around hunting and human motivations, but in less high profile areas such as bushmeat; I have been drawn back into the big international debates on trade in species like rhinos and elephants now, but I feel much more confident to engage now after 25 years working in the field than I did then as a young student!
- What do you think are the most pressing issues in the illegal wildlife trade?
I think we need to separate out urgency from long-run importance, and also think about how we can be proactive rather than reactive. Although people feel an urgent need to clamp down on the illegal wildlife trade in order to save species, we also need to realise that conservation takes time to work, and the people who are actually affected by conservation need to support it if it is to have any chance of long-run success. So for me the most important thing is to ensure that interventions at the supply end (e.g. around African protected areas) are designed properly, in a participatory way, so that they have a chance of working into the long run. They need to be tied in with wider societal issues like land tenure and human rights. I am less concerned about clamping down hard on international criminal networks who are profiteering from the abuse of the rights and heritage of the people whose wildlife is being decimated. But at the consumer end, we need to understand and respect the reasons why people are consuming wildlife products, and work with their perspectives, needs and desires rather than against them; again, that’s the way to have long-run success. There also needs to be a concerted effort towards making international conservation policy-making more effective and more evidence-based; this means everyone working to understand others’ perspectives and taking a clear-eyed look at what the uncertainties and evidence gaps are, rather than theorising in abstract or going with their gut feeling about how things should work.
If you would like to contact either Tor or E.J. about their research, you can find their details on our team page.