‘Where ecological problems are concerned, there is almost always a power struggle involved’

The battle against rhinoceros poachers is becoming more and more violent. However, the solution does not lie in the use of more drones, sniffer dogs, guns, and helicopters, according to Libby Lunstrum, Associate Professor at the Centre for Refugee Studies at the University of York and one of the speakers at the PE-3C conference (Political Ecologies of Conflict, Capitalism and Contestation) at Wageningen UR. The focus should be on socio-economic structures and inequality. ‘In the case of ecological problems, you always encounter power relationships,’ says Stasja Koot, a researcher of political ecology at Wageningen UR.

Lunstrum’s story made a big impression on Koot. ‘The battle against wildlife crime is becoming increasingly militarized. Countries put together complete armies and companies respond cleverly to this with specialised equipment and weapons. Of course I also believe that rhinos need to be protected, but you can ask yourself how much money and how many people’s lives that is worth. Greater attention for the relationship with political and economic problems and the role of violence is therefore important.’

Botswana has a shoot-to-kill policy. People who walk around in conservation areas are frequently assumed to be poachers by park rangers. Even if people are just looking for berries to eat, or walking home, they can accidentally get shot. ‘That has happened a lot already,’ according to Koot. ‘That is a lot of violence in order to protect animals. The irony is that such measures often don’t help. You might catch more poachers, but there are always more ready to spring into action. The solution does not lie in more violence as the problem lies in socio-economic structures and inequality.’

Science with a statement

Political ecology relates to the power relationships and other relationships between businesses, the state and population groups, for instance in the extraction of raw materials, land issues, wildlife crime and access to water for agriculture. ‘Where ecological problems are concerned, there is almost always a power struggle and conflict of interests involved,’ says Koot. ‘Our consumer behaviour causes damage elsewhere in the world. We know this, as these relationships are visible in globalisation, but it is often difficult to gain an overview of all the interests involved.’

The world of science should really make a statement on this, Koot believes. ‘As Wageningen UR, you can’t just think in quantitative terms. The slogan is ‘For quality of life,’ and with good reason. As political ecologists, we look at the context in order to determine whose quality is concerned. And what exactly does ‘quality’ mean? You can study how to get more milk from a cow and then look at the political actions. Who owns the cow? And who benefits most from the extra milk?’

Win-winsituations don’t exist

Koot has previously carried out research among the Bushmen of Namibia. He examined ecotourism and development projects with which they had become involved, and the consequences of these for local power relationships. ‘The difficulties relate primarily to who gets the jobs and which land will be used? In my experience, win-win situations don’t exist. We live in a world that is based on power relationships and politics.’

This type of research doesn’t fill people with optimism. ‘That’s true,’ say Koot with a wry laugh, ‘but I find it interesting to gain insight into what is happening behind the scenes. It is not an easy thing to look closely at the people living in poverty in Bangladesh, whose fields of crops are flooding due to climate change, or to look at the wretched conditions in clothing factories. We now need to make choices for their grandchildren. The difficult thing is that Bangladesh is far away, and these people don’t have grandchildren yet. It is important to continue to look critically at relationships.’

Global story with global cases

The PE-3C conference (Political Ecologies of Conflict, Capitalism and Contestation) from 7 to 9 July was about the global story, with cases from all over the world: from Latin America and South East Asia to Africa. Six chair groups at Wageningen UR jointly organised the conference. ‘This made it very diverse. We didn’t have just one message, but we wanted to bring the various issues to people’s attention. It was good to see so many young people at the conference, including people from developing countries. It is important that they are part of the dialogue. You can have ideas about Tanzania, but there’s not much point in that if there are no Tanzanians present.’

Koot also found a panel discussion on the role of fences fascinating. ‘I do a lot of work in Africa, where rich farmers with large herds of cattle often put up fences, preventing the poorer people from getting to their land. Sometimes these fences are illegal, but they are still not removed. Everything revolves around power, and you need to enter into relationships with the powerful farmers putting up fences. I find it a very interesting phenomenon that people who traditionally have never recognised land ownership are now putting up fences.’

Bring about real change

Koot describes himself as a positive person, but he is also realistic and looks at what is actually feasible. ‘At the conference, one of the speakers argued that we should also have the courage to be unrealistic. To be an idealist. The inequality between rich and poor is the cause of many problems. The question is how you can gain control over inequality. You can use political ecology to bring about real change.’

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