Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Political Ecology and Socio-Ecological Conflicts in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Political Ecology and Socio-Ecological Conflicts in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt


From July 2015 onwards, forest and peat fires raged once again in Indonesia, mainly on the remaining forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan. By the end of the year, acrid haze extended to the neighboring countries of Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, releasing CO2 emissions equivalent to the annual emissions in Germany and driving a public health emergency across the region. Under the Haze Wave, everyday life in Indonesia was brought to a standstill, thousands of people were evacuated, and offices and schools were closed. Land clearance through slash and burn practices for industrial plantations that feed a massive global demand for palm oil and pulpwood were reported as the root cause of the fires (Balch, 2015; Osborn, Torpey, Franklin, & Howard, 2015).

The appropriation and control of land for these patterns of resource-based development - along with selective industrialization processes and rapid urbanization - have significantly contributed to economic growth in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the region - and especially marginalized groups - face the environmental and social costs of centuries of resource extraction (e.g., deforestation, water pollution, flooding, biodiversity loss, eviction of indigenous people or ethnic minorities, surge in urban poor) that give rise to resistance and conflicts against these forms of economic development. This special issue features a focus on such socio-ecological conflicts from a political ecology perspective. It brings together an interdisciplinary collection of expressions of conflict over land, forests, water, mining, and environmental assets, and discusses the power relations underlying these forms of contestation as well as the strategies of different actors to deal with the unequal outcomes of environmental and resource politics.


In contrast to debates about natural scarcities, political ecology highlights the societal and political character of resource extraction and environmental impacts (Robbins, 2012). The interdisciplinary research agenda analyzes the appropriation of nature and the distribution and consumption of natural resources as an explicitly political process that is linked to social relations of ownership and control (Bryant & Bailey, 1997; Neumann, 2005; Robbins, 2012). Society-nature relations hence evolve in historically and geographically embedded constellations that are linked to power, domination, and inequalities. Based on a political economy understanding, Bryant and Bailey (1997) conceptualize power as the "ability of an actor to control" (p. 39) the access to nature and natural resources as well as the access of other actors to these resources. Power is, then, the control that one person, social group, or state has over the access to and the distribution of natural resources of another person, social group, or state, both in material (e.g., control of access to land, natural resources, and environmental risks) and symbolic terms (e.g., control of access to knowledge systems and environmental discourses) (Pichler, 2016). Hence, the appropriation and transformation of nature is shaped by social relations of power and domination and the associated actors who control the access to natural resources (Wissen, 2015). As Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) put it: "one person's degradation is another's accumulation" (p. 14).

Focusing on the political character of environmental problems implies taking related conflicts into account. Conflicts serve "as a prime form and expression of politics" (Le Billon, 2015, p. 602) where underlying relations of power and domination, and (contradictory) interests are revealed. Whereas mainstream environmental research often strives for the prevention of conflicts, political ecologists challenge the depoliticization of environmental issues and highlight the emancipatory potential of contestation and conflict.

Over the last three decades, political ecology research has developed diverse conceptions of socio-ecological conflicts. …

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