Cultural Ecology Newsletter

(CEN #29 -- Spring '97)

Listed below are several items that so far comprise CEN #29, the current issue of the Cultural Ecology Newsletter.

Notes from the Chair

I am pleased and honored to be serving my first year as the new Chair of the Cultural Ecology Specialty Group. As the annual meeting at Fort Worth draws near the CESG is once again climbing to its seasonal peak of activity. Announcements of the CESG Graduate Student Paper Award and sponsored sessions are contained in this newsletter. Latebreaking news prior to the meeting can be accessed by checking back here from time to time. Note that our business meeting this year on Thursday April 3rd promises something extra with a planned discussion of research methodologies that include ethnographic and qualitative approaches. Successful studies in cultural ecology frequently stand out in terms of the diverse and often innovative array of methods that may be applied. For example, physical geography techniques such as soils and sediment analysis and vegetation sampling may be combined in the same study with the use of historical documents, oral histories and other ethnographic methods, and economic and demographic data. (One needs consider only some of the sub-field labels that are most closely akin to cultural ecology in order to sense the extent of possible methods: environmental geography, human, political, and historical ecology; society/nature, human environment.) Not surprisingly no easy formula can prescribe the right mix of methods since each research problem in cultural ecology demands a particular set of techniques. Yet it does seem that at times the assessment of appropriate methods is glossed over at the peril of a project itself, due perhaps to the diverse and seemingly daunting range of possibilites. In past CESG discussions it was said that brief overviews of one or two areas of research methods would be a welcome addition to the business meeting and would possibly lead to follow-up discussions and perhaps even organized sessions in the future. With that in mind I would invite your participation in these and other CESG activities at the Fort Worth meeting and encourage that we begin the planning for next year's event in Boston.

- Karl Zimmerer.

Conference Report: Environmental Transformations in Developing Countries

Royal Geographical Society -Institute of British Geographers, London UK, October 16 1996.

This conference examined the current state of 'environment and development' research, and had three agendas:

1) challenging and refining Renvironmental orthodoxies prevalent in the policy community (such as Himalayan theories of environmental degradation, and widespread desertification of arid lands)

2) to provide examples of environmental histories, assembled from both scientific monitoring and local knowledge and perceptions; and

3) updating the research and policy community on an extremely diverse and dynamic range of papers dealing with contemporary environment and development issues.

The conference focused on change in four critical zones of developing countries: drylands, forests, mountains, and urban/industrial areas. The speakers were geographers, planners, anthropologists and economists, drawn from Britain and North America. With Michael Stocking (UEA) as chair, Billie Lee Turner (Clark, USA) provided assessments of the challenges facing an earth increasingly transformed at rates and in ways unknown to previous generations. Accepting that sustainable development is now a goal of governments and agencies (whether social scientists like it or not), he urged researchers to discover the real impacts on the environment of growth and development. This requires a bridge between polarised communities; those who perceive the driving forces of global and regional environmental change as a combination of population, affluence, and technological change (a neoclassical agenda) and alternative models drawing on political economy to explain change through marginalisation, exploitation, and conflict. The Land-Use/Cover Change (LUCC) programme of the IGBP, an international initiative, is looking at changes in land use in several zones where combinations of these driving forces have created envrironmental problems. Michael Thompson (Musgrave Institute) challenged Turner's eclecticism, and the whole notion of sustainability. Arguing in favour of a cultural-theory perspective, he called for the recognition of plural rationalities resulting from human reactions to complex environmental events. Robin Mearns (Sussex) then illustrated how accepted orthodoxies like the woodfuel crisis and desertification entered policy through social consensus by western scientists, and have continuing impact on the development community and national governments. Mearns concluded by referring to an interesting 'environmental entitlements' approach which is extending Sen's work on famine causation to study access to environmental resources.

The one-day conference divided into four sessions in the afternoon. Under the theme of drylands, Bill Adams (Cambridge) showed how farmers in northern Nigeria have successfully integrated crop and livestock production under conditions of high population density. This research illustrated how careful maintenance of farming systems had achieved year-round cultivation in a zone historically associated with food shortages. Philip Woodhouse (Manchester) pursued this theme in the Sourou wetlands of Mali. Ian Scoones (Sussex) presented his fascinating research reflecting recent trends in ecology and soil fertility in Zimbabwe, showing how new ecological models propose these environments are not in equilibrium. Deborah Sporton (Sheffield) discussed socio-economic factors in pastoralism and land-cover change in the Kalahari. As the discussants David Simon (Royal Holloway) and Andrew Warren (UCL) proposed, this workshop illustrated the need to continue filling gaps in our knowledge about both social and physical trends in environmental change.

For the forests session, Melissa Leach (Sussex) (with James Fairhead, SOAS) argued against the persistent narrative that local communities generally assist deforestation in west Africa in the transitional zone between dense forest and savanna. Using hybrid research techniques including field surveys, archival work, and questioning local communities, she proposed that 'anthropogenically assisted forest regeneration' best describes the situation, and should be recognised by giving a greater role for local people in management plans. Oliver Coomes (McGill) challenged similar myths in Amazonia, arguing against the belief in 'pristine forest', and disputing the uniform value of ecological knowledge from all social or ethnic groups. Janet Townsend (Durham) specifically addressed gender by discussing the alternative labels of 'destroyers' or 'saviours' for women settlers in Mexican rainforests. Discussant Steve Nugent (Goldsmiths) argued that the three papers illustrated how research on forest destruction has underestimated social factors.

In the highlands session, Tony Bebbington (Colorado) developed an institutional approach to communicating environmental knowledge and technological improvements in Bolivia and Ecuador. Indigenous social capital can help form 'islands of sustainability' in a landscape otherwise characterised by declining agricultural productivity. Paul Sillitoe (Durham) presented evidence from Papua New Guinea collected over many years, showing how Wola cultivation practices actually preserve soil fertility and are unlikely to be responsible for lowland sedimentation as commonly thought. Similarly, David Preston (Leeds) showed how accepted wisdom about land degradation in Bolivia has assumed erosion is recent, whereas geomorphological research indicates it predates agriculture. As discussant Colin Sage (Cork) summarised, environmental orthodoxies about mountain zones have reflected lowland agendas and fears, rather than detailed research of highland processes and people.

For urban and industrial areas, Rick Auty (Lancaster) discussed global investment under the 'industrial transition', and proposed that countries undergoing industrialisation at present were, contrary to popular belief, less environmentally polluting that early industrialisers, yet constantly blamed for noxious emissions and environmental damage. David Satterthwaite (IIED) challenged this by arguing that industrialisation was usually accompanied urban transformations, and often basic provision of sanitation and housing for poorer groups was avoided by the authorities and exported by the rich, thus increasing health problems. He urged people to realise that the social transformations during development were equally as important as the changes in land cover identified by Turner. Tim Forsyth (LSE) drew on both these viewpoints by discussing 'ecological modernisation' and public-private synergy in Thailand and Vietnam. He argued that global solutions to problems of industrialisation effectively repeated northern agendas, but strong local governance structures could utilise social capital for public, rather than elitist, ends. Discussant David Drakakis-Smith (Liverpool) summarised by stating that fighting urban/ industrial problems were difficult to tackle with local skills alone, unlike the treatable deterioration natural resources experienced in rural settings.

The conference ended on a cautionary note. Koy Thomson (IIED) summarised the day but questioned how far 'new orthodoxies' bettered the old ones they were trying to overturn, and the extent to which previous research was gratuitously de-bunked to to forge academic careers. Policy may falter if researchers are presenting conflicing viewpoints without clear messages. One unwitting result of the conference may have been to suggest that rethinking orthodoxies may mean pushing aside or even denying some environmental problems. In a article about the conference, the UK's Sunday Telegraph used the overstated headline, 'Exposed: the myth of African tragedy'. On the day itself, the papers sparked discussion between Tony Allan (SOAS), Andrew Dillworth (Friends of the Earth), David Satterthwaite (IIED), and John Soussan (Leeds), each variously pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility for change, and how relevant policy linkages as well as new forms of working could overcome the impasse facing some development research on environment/natural resources issues. A representative of DFID (Sam Bickersteth), was forced to defend DFID's record in taking on board new reseach findings. The 250 delegates were impressed by the depth and quality of the papers (which were published in the Geographical Journal in July 1997), but some were left rather confused about the the new 'discourse' on offer. The major lessons were that environmental problems in developing countries are increasingly going to require investigation using hybrid research into both physical and social factors behind long-term change, and a greater contextualisation of knowledge to explain, challenge and inform policy agendas. This agenda is largely absent from much postmodernist and theoretical work in development studies, which appears of little value when dealing with issues of poverty and environmental change. It is time for geographers and related disciplines to seek greater common ground, in order to apply advances in theoretical debates and practical management to the real world problems raised at this and other meetings. Visit the conference website for full abstracts and more details.

- Simon Batterbury (Development Studies, London School of Economics), and Tim Forsyth (Dept. Geography, London School of Economics)


Funded by: NASA, Center for Integrated Studies, Carnegie Mellon University Associated with: IGBP-IHDP LUCC International Project

Lead research units: George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University Harvard Forest ECOSUR-Unidad Chetumal (El Colegio de la Frontera Sur - Chetumal Unit)

Lead researchers:

B. L. Turner II (geography); Basil Savitsky (remote sensing & GIS); Jacqueline Geoghegan (economics); David Foster (ecologist); Pedro Macario Mendoza (ecology); Eduardo Bello Baltazar (anthropology)

Schedule of research:

May 1997 - Image analysis begins

Oct. 1997 - field work begins

June 1988 - modeling begins

May 2000 - project finishes

Central field stations: Xpujil, Campeche & ECOSUR-Chetumal (Quintana Roo)


The project seeks to improve understanding of global land-use/cover change through a study of the southern YucatŠn peninsular region (SYPR). SYPR contains one of the largest expanses and oldest tropical forest in the Americas outside Amazonia. Akin to the Amazonia frontier, SYPR has witnessed significant changes in its land uses and land covers over the past 30 years registered in a boom-bust pattern. Following the international science plan on Land-Use/Cover Change (LUCC) of the IGBPIHDP, this project seeks to contribute to NASA's LCLUC program specifically by: (i) identifying the regional dynamics and their linkages that are driving land-use/cover change in SYPR, both documenting in detail and modeling the land-use changes (Focus 1); and (ii) extending these findings to the land-cover changes that have occurred there, leading to new versions of probbility (e.g Markov-chain) analysis for near- to mid-term projections of land'use and landŮcover change (Focus 2).

Focus 1 identifies the 'regional situation' or basic character of land-use/cover change (tropical deforestation and agricultural development and expansion) over the past 30 years as detailed through the transforming processes acting on the land managers. The evidence will be derived from analysis of historical data (e.g., census documents, local land-use maps), structured and informal surveys with current land managers, and observations. The results will provide the details (narrative) of the history of land-use change, a test of certain critical variables required for a new, generic LCLUC model and the development of a spatially explicit, SYPR -LCLUC model linked to remotely sensed imagery.

Focus 2 links land uses with land covers, extends the spatial coverage of both over the entire region, and develops new generation of empirical probability (Markov-chain) models useful for LCLUC analysis. The use-cover linkage and spatial reach is made through the use of remotely sensed imagery Landsat TM data and geographical information systems. The evidence generated informs the development of 'probability' models based on past changes but improved through the addition of spatial explicitness (where the change takes place) and the consideration of the type of manager/user in charge of the land (the socioeconomic condition/character of the land managers).

Both approaches will be linked to field studies of ecosystem fragmentation and diversity issues, conducted by Harvard Forest and ECOSUR-Chetumal. The aim is to link explicitly land-use changes with its land-cover impacts as defined, and to assess the biophysical impacts of the cover changes on land use and management strategies. The Focus 1 and 2 approaches not only provide understandings of LCLUC in SYPR, they can be compared and merged. Comparisons provide insights about the robustness of two kinds of models, indicating in what conditions (e.g., temporal scales) Markov based and behavioral and structural based models are useful, as well as role of biophysical impacts on both. And, by linking Focus 1 models to the pixel and Focus 2 pixels to the social and biophysical dynamics, ultimately the two approaches merge into hybrid model.

The outputs of the study provide a basis for monitoring and assessing LCLUC in SYPR as well as for projecting scenarios of change, both major needs of the global change community of researchers. Finally, a longer term aim of the project is to compare results with those elsewhere in the tropical Latin American transect of the IGBP to determine the value added or lost by "scaling up" to a pan-Latin American model - a central need of the human dimensions program on LUCC. The work will link various major units in the global change community. The SYPR involves research: (i) at the GPMI, Clark University, on landŮuse/cover change models of various kinds (Focus 1 and 2); (ii) at ECOSUR-Unidad Chetumal on various land-use and cover analyses of the region (the unit seeks to develop long-term monitoring and assessment of LCLUC in this tropical forest realm); (iii at Harvard Forest on landŮcover change; (iv) in cooperation with Carnegie Mellon University's "Center for Integrated Study of the Human Dimensions of Global Change" on advances in LCLUC modeling and its place within integrated studies more generally; and finally, (v) comparisons with Focus 1 modeling efforts in Costa Rica by Wageningen Agricultural University (Netherlands) and in Amazonia by the University of New Hampshire and University of Florida. Web site here

- B.L. Turner II, Clark University

1996 Student Paper Awards

Congratulations to two student members of the CESG, for winning the 1996 Student Paper Award competition:

The first place prize of $100 was awarded to Simon Batterbury (Brunel University, now LSE) for his paper entitled "Performers, or Planners? Agrarian Change and Farmer Knowledge in Burkina Faso and Niger."

A second prize of $50 was awarded to Chris Coggins (Louisiana State University) for his paper entitled "Cultural Ecology, Landscape Ecology, and Nature Conservation in the Southeastern Chinese Uplands."

News from Members

Oliver Coomes (McGill University) reports on some recent publications:

Coomes, O.T. 1996. State credit programs and the peasantry under populist regimes: lessons from the APRA experience in the Peruvian Amazon. World Development 24:1333-46.

Coomes, O.T. 1996. Income formation among Amazonian peasant households in northeastern Peru: Empirical observations and implications for market-oriented conservation. Yearbook, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 22:51-64.

Barham, B.L. and Coomes, O.T. 1996. Prosperity's Promise: The Amazon Rubber Boom and Distorted Economic Development. Dellplain Latin American Series, No. 34. Boulder: Westview Press.

Nigel Allan (UC-Davis) is leaving soon for more fieldwork and will not be able to join us in Fort Worth, so he sent in this letter:

Hi Bob,

I'll be in the Indian Himalayan State of Himachal Pradesh about 300 kms north of New Delhi. I'll be studying changes in agro-pastoralism amoung the traditional transhumants of the area which is mostly in Kinnaur District. Dave Zurick has already been visiting here and he gave me tips on all the best trout streams. The old Brits planted Scottish brown trout in these mountain rivers so I will have my #5 and #7 (if there are any lunkers) rods handy with a set of flies, terrestrials, woolly buggers, nymphs, etc. from Cabela's.

Last summer, you know, I went to the Brooks Range in the arctic. I drove up to Fairbanks and then up to the Arctic from there. I was very much interessted in how they regulate all the wildlife and how indigenous rights for hunting are meshed with local and out of state rules for hunting. The wildlife, of course, is fantastic--nothing like that in the Himalaya.

My bibliography on the Karakorum Himalaya is now out of print and you can shortly buy an Indian or Pakistani version if you go there but meanwhile you can down load the whole 80 page, 950 item biblio from the Web. The URL is:

Say hello to all the LSU crowd.

Happy days,


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