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Batterbury S.P.J. 2018. Political ecology. In Castree N., M. Hulme and J. Proctor (eds.) The
Companion to Environmental Studies. London: Routledge. 439-442.
Section 4.14 Political ecology Simon Batterbury
Political ecology (PE) is concerned with how humans relate to the biophysical world. Political
ecologists have investigated the many environmental challenges that vulnerable communities across
the world must face. These include the unequal impacts of global warming on different societies, the
health effects of environmental toxics in food, air and water, the environmental crimes of corporations
and syndicates, tropical deforestation, wars over control of natural resources, land grabbing, and
urban environmental injustices. Political ecology has been important in explaining such phenomena,
and particularly the social and political inequities both causing them and mediating their impacts
. PE is interdisciplinary and most closely associated with the disciplines of geography, anthropology
and development studies. PE’s distinguishing feature is tracing environmental problems and human
vulnerabilities to inequalities in power, although many political ecologists also carry out analysis of
environmental processes. In general, political ecologists believe that the human struggle for resources
and healthy environments is strongly influenced by how much power societies, and individuals hold,
and how they use it.
Access to resources
Inequalities in ‘access to natural resources’ is a central theme of political ecology. Consider the widely
reported acquisition of African land by investors, foreign governments and corporations wanting to
grow biofuels and conduct agribusiness in the 2000s. This saga of ‘accumulation by dispossession’
(Harvey, 2004) peaked in 2011–2012, but has major effects on access to land and water. In SW
Cameroon in West Africa, deals were made with government that permitted vast tracts of land to be
occupied legally by offshore industrial corporations for palm oil plantations, including the US-based
Herakles Farms. Tens of thousands of hectares of gallery forests and farmland has been cleared and
replanted for palm and other monocrops. Political ecologists identify the process as political, since
although SW Cameroon has suitable environmental conditions for palm, that is not why companies
have gained a foothold in this particular place – rather, there is weak and sometimes corrupt
governance, outdated and undemocratic land tenure rules, as well as divided communities who are
poor and vulnerable to demands for land
Foreign investors have exploited these conditions at different scales. Worse affected are rural
women, who lack a political mandate to speak out collectively. A further inequality is that the loss of
land is not compensated by the few agro-plantation jobs and minor financial returns from palm oil
production. And, because this region is geopolitically marginalised and in conflict with the state, legal
challenges to land grabbing are going unanswered. The political ecology of land access remains
central to the region and its people (Batterbury & Ndi, 2017).
Hatchet and seed
So, a broad-ranging political ecology investigation is required to understand such complex
environmental issues, and particularly to reveal inequalities and injustices. For geographer Paul
Robbins, political ecology can be used as ‘hatchet’ and ‘seed’ (Robbins, 2004). In this case, the first is
an exposé of power inequities, and the effects of deforestation and palm cultivation. Empirical
research may be useful in defending the rights of local residents. Indeed in other locations, the ‘green
economy’ of conservation reserves, biofuel plantations or renewable energy installations also closes
down access to resources. Sometimes this pits political ecologists against conservation biologists and
large environmental NGOs (today, sometimes in partnership with business) anxious to preserve
habitat, at the expense of local livelihoods (Adams, 2017).
‘Seeding’ involves generating fresh and useful ideas that may find a home in direct advocacy, legal
challenges, or activism. PE has supported better environmental governance, and efforts to ‘fight back’
against injustice. Most directly, PE practitioners have not just researched the origins of injustice, but
tackled it, with constituencies including local scholars and community organisations. There is an
‘environmentalism of the poor’ involving political coalition-building, an Environmental Justice Atlas,
and concerted action against tough opponents, (Martinez-Alier et al., 2014). While some struggles are
international and combative, others are more localised community efforts to capture or sustain access
Political ecologists note that persuasive narratives skew our judgements about human–environment
relationships. The ‘power to convince’ is important in explaining how land was ceded in Cameroon for
example; local chiefs were persuaded that benefits would result from palm oil plantations. This is a
common story; narratives embody power, and can have tangible effects on environments and people
(Adger et al., 2001; Escobar, 2008). The ‘post-truth’, pro-business, anti-environmentalist narratives
rolled out by the 2017 Donald Trump administration in the United States are not supported by
scientific analysis of climate change and other environmental phenomena. This is a struggle for truth,
which for political ecologists and their ilk involves “resisting truth claims that lead systematically to un-
freedoms and objectionable practices” (Sullivan, 2017: 234). There are potential alliances here
between the objectives of climate science, political ecology and global coalitions of activists and
affected communities – and of course, many questions to be resolved about the values and justice
claims that are adopted.
Methods and theories
Methodologically, political ecologists use a wide range of approaches, to illuminate exactly how
political and economic activities influence the fate of ecosystems and local cultures, and how
institutional arrangements and organisations are (or have been) responsible for these outcomes.
Geographer Piers Blaikie and colleagues were the originators of a distinctive ‘regional PE’ approach
which analyses processes that operate at different scales, but are interlinked. Blaikie identified a
“chain of explanation”, or a cascade of effects, linking soil erosion to changes in land use practices,
caused not by poor local land management but by poverty and denial of access, even arguing that
“soil erosion in lesser developed countries will not be substantially reduced unless it seriously
threatens the accumulation possibilities of the dominant classes” (Blaikie, 1985: 147).
This type of explanation has been applied in other contexts, including lifting the gaze to global issues
like carbon emissions and the new ‘green economy’ (Peet et al., 2011). PE draws upon a range of
theories to explain human–environment relationships (Bixler et al., 2015). Theorists including Karl
Marx and Michel Foucault, show how inequalities are embedded in capitalism, and in the subjugation
and control of entire populations through monitoring and categorising. There are rational
underpinnings to environmental struggles that create winners and losers (Bixler et al., 2015;
Hornborg, 2017). Bruno Latour’s work is rather different, used by some political ecologists to look
closely at relational networks or ‘assemblages’ involving objects (like trees, and genetically modified
seeds) as well as people (Latour, 1991). Feminist political ecology sees power as gendered, focusing
on the marginalisation of women but also their vital role in maintaining livelihoods and in struggling for
access to resources (Rocheleau et al., 1996). Anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s work, based on the
Pacific Coast of Colombia, develops unique theories of resistance to modernity and development
Political ecology addresses political and economic agendas that have real effects on resources,
environments, and people. Its practitioners dig deep, exposing these agendas but also the practices
of those who survive in an unequal world. This work is important in the world of ‘post-truth’, in which
‘facts’ seem negotiable if they are unwelcome to powerful interests. ‘Received wisdoms’ can too easily
direct bad policy. In the current, desperate context where unscientific narratives are imperilling
everybody’s environmental future, political ecology has come of age as a necessary dimension of
The following offer rich resources written by political ecologists:
Journal of Political Ecology (free access) http://jpe.libary.arizona.edu
POLLEN (political ecology network) https://politicalecologynetwork.com
ENTITLE – collaborative writing on PE https://entitleblog.org
Environmental Justice Atlas https://ejatlas.org
Adams, W.M. (2017) ‘Sleeping with the enemy? Biodiversity conservation, corporations and the green
economy’, Journal of Political Ecology, 24: 243–257.
Adger, N., Benjaminsen, T.A., Brown, K. & Svarstad. H. (2001) ‘Advancing a political ecology of global
environmental discourses’, Development and Change 32, 4: 681–715.
Batterbury, S.P.J. & Ndi, F. (2017) ‘Land grabbing in Africa’. In Binns J.A., K. Lynch and E. Nel (eds)
Handbook of African Development. New York: Routledge.
Bixler, R.P., Dell’Angelo, J., Mfune, O. & Roba, H. (2015) ‘The political ecology of participatory
conservation: institutions and discourse’, Journal of Political Ecology, 22: 164–182.
Blaikie P.M. (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. London: Longman.
Bryant, R. (ed.) (2015) The International Handbook of Political Ecology. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Escobar, A. (2008) Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham, NC: Duke
Harvey, D. (2004) ‘ The “new” imperialism: accumulation by dispossession’, Socialist Register, 40, 63–
Hornborg, A. (2017) ‘Artifacts have consequences, not agency: toward a critical theory of global
environmental history’, European Journal of Social Theory, 20(1): 95–110.
Latour, B. (1991) We Have Never Been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Martinez-Alier, J., Anguelovski, I., Bond, P., Del Bene, D., Demaria, F., Gerber, J-F., Greyl, L., Haas,
W., Healy, H., Marín-Burgos, V. et al. (2014) ‘Between activism and science: grassroots concepts for
sustainability coined by environmental justice organizations’, Journal of Political Ecology, 21: 19–60.
Peet, R., Robbins, P. & Watts, M.J. (2011) Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge.
Robbins, P. (2004) Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Rocheleau D, Thomas-Slayter, B. & Wangari, E. (eds) (1996) Feminist Political Ecology: Global
Issues and Local Experiences. London: Routledge.
Sullivan, S. (2017). ‘What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology
of the “green economy”’, Journal of Political Ecology, 24: 217–242.