Governing from a distance: Disentangling the global-local interconnections shaping transnational conservation

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis


Protected Areas (PAs), the primary mechanism for enhancing biodiversity conservation, today cover over 15% of global land. On the backdrop of rapid and accelerating biodiversity loss worldwide, the PA commitment under the post-2020 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is likely to increase to 30%, with some conservation groups calling for 50%. Biodiversity conservation through PAs has a long and complicated history. These have historically relied on exclusionary measures targeting local residents, also known as fortress conservation, such as evictions, physical displacement, and strict law enforcement at the expense of local livelihoods. Although in the past few decades a range of more inclusionary measures have emerged, framed around Community-Based Natural Resource Management, participatory governance and market instruments such as ecotourism and value chain initiatives to generate alternative livelihoods, PAs must contend with the context-specific governance conditions for resolving competing natural resource claims and therefore typically rely on a complex mix of measures. As a result, they typically imply substantial social costs for local residents that are inequitably distributed, particularly in the Global South. This has engendered significant scholarly attention to the place-based manifestations of PAs. However, an exclusive focus on PAs masks the astounding diversity of practices and activities that constitute transnational biodiversity conservation.
Over a century of intergovernmental and non-governmental work on conserving nature has made contemporary biodiversity conservation a global phenomenon. Various Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) such as the CBD, billions of US dollars in funding from institutional and voluntary funders, and millions of projects implemented by international and national Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), has led to intricate transnational and cross-scale networks of actors endeavouring to improve conservation outcomes. Whether influencing national government policy decisions, designing a Payment for Ecosystem Services programme, or launching a campaign to raise funds to save an iconic species, activities rely on cross-scale and distant interconnections and flows of funding, information, and discourses that are mediated at multiple levels. Attention to the networked and flow-based dimensions of biodiversity conservation is growing. Environmental discourse analyses have shown how global discourses influence national policies, ethnographic work at international events such as the World Conservation Congress has illustrated the social interconnections underpinning global conservation governance, and telecoupling research on transnational conservation has highlighted how biodiversity conservation constitutes one of multiple networks that place competing claims on land.
However, more work is needed to understand the networked dimensions of conservation that engender context-specific manifestations in particular geographic spaces. There is a persistent disconnect between global-scale policy discourses on conservation and the local realities in which proposed policies and measures are integrated. In other words, it is necessary to interrogate the discursive practices, flows, and networked interactions that interconnect the place-based and flow-based components of transnational biodiversity conservation. The aim of this thesis is therefore to contribute to explaining how global policy discourses on biodiversity conservation manifest in a specific local context through the mechanisms that interlink distant policy and actor networks, with a particular focus on PA governance. To do so, I draw on a telecoupling approach and ground the analysis in multiple theories to elucidate the nonmaterial interconnections that shape environmental governance.
Informed by a critical realist epistemological perspective, I combine a case study approach with methodological tools associated with “follow the policy” to trace nonmaterial flows and actor interactions across sites. Focusing on Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park (NEPL) in Lao PDR as a case of a PA, the former allows me to examine how conservation flows and interactions materialise in the conditions of a particular place. For this, I combine in-situ extensive methods to identify and measure indicative patterns of how PA conservation affects local livelihoods and land-use practices, and intensive methods to interrogate the causal relationships and explain observed changes. Furthermore, I employ documentary analysis to examine how park governance evolved over time and how related measures materialise in practice. “Follow the policy” allows me to trace the flows and interactions of transnational conservation and PA policies across spatiotemporal distances using intensive methods at multiple levels. Empirically, this work took me beyond NEPL to the networks of conservation NGOs that engage in transnational conservation.
The thesis consists of four papers. While much work on tracing material flows has been conducted using telecoupling, the conceptual lens of telecoupling is not well attuned to analysing nonmaterial interconnections between distant places. Therefore, in the first paper I develop a conceptual framing for analysing discursive-institutional dynamics in telecoupled systems, “discursive telecouplings”. Particular attention is paid to the role of intermediaries in shaping the institutionalisation of global discourses and feedback processes, discursive practices around agent framings, and competing environment and development discourses at local scales that are marked by heterogeneous conditions. I apply this conceptual device to the emergence of a win-win discourse in global biodiversity conservation, drawing on empirical insights from the literature to elucidate important cross-scale and networked dimensions.
In the second paper, the focus is on the global-national networked interactions through which transnational conservation actions manifest in changes in policy and practice, building on interviews with programme managers of conservation NGOs in Cambridge (UK), Bangkok and Vientiane. Applying an actor perspective, I argue that the inter-organisational dynamics of transnational conservation actions can be understood via two interacting dimensions: (a) the bureaucratic and organisational infrastructure that conditions conservation flows and actor interactions; and (b) the interpersonal social relationships underpinning and patterning these interactions. Grounding the analysis in literature on the anthropology of conservation NGOs, the paper contributes to understanding the social worlds and organisational contexts of conservationists and the logics through which conservation actions emerge.
In the third paper, I move to biodiversity conservation policy in Lao PDR and NEPL. I trace the historical evolution of NEPL as a PA and examine the suite of instruments employed to govern human-environment practices in the landscape. This allows me to explain how distant policy and actor networks drive parallel land-use change processes that manifest in context-specific trade-offs. I draw on the Multiple Environmentalities Framework and telecoupling to illustrate how environmental governance interventions are grounded in multiple, sometimes conflicting, logics of governing subjects that create unintended outcomes at local scales. The paper contributes a networked and scale-based dimension to work that draws on environmentality to examine local manifestations of global environmental governance programmes.
The final paper is based on a mixed methods case study of eight villages in NEPL, focusing on the interactions between the exclusionary and inclusionary mechanisms of PA conservation, expanding market institutions driving land-use change, and the multidimensional livelihoods of local residents. Grounding the analysis in a sustainable livelihoods perspective, I demonstrate how park residents navigate trade-offs arising from conservation interventions. Extensive methods revealed five dominant livelihood strategies by groups of resident households with highly unequal capacities for livelihood diversification and capacities to respond to PA measures and expanding market opportunities. I show how household asset endowments and market and conservation linkages at village level shape capacities, thereby highlighting an important scale dimension to how conservation-market interactions unfold.
The thesis contributes nuances the transnational and cross-scale nature of biodiversity conservation by emphasising the how nonmaterial interconnections across multiple scales and sites materialise in social practice. The ambition is to make substantive causal propositions about transnational conservation policy and its manifestations in local contexts, thereby disentangling the complex material and immaterial interconnections driving transnational conservation actions. A number of policy implications emerge from the thesis, including informing discussions of compensation for livelihood loss from conservation interventions and questioning the value of technocratic governance tools that emphasise rendering local interventions coherent vertically rather than enhancing capacities to engage with biodiversity conservation as a political process.
The methodological approach utilises telecoupling as a heuristic lens to guide the process and combining examination of in-situ manifestations of environmental governance programme interventions and a network-centric perspective to trace the flows and interactions through which these materialise in practice and manifest in policy and practices. I thereby demonstrate the value of interrogating the place-based and flow-based dimensions of global environmental governance programmes to understand how interactions and discursive practices interlink these across sites. The globalisation of environmental governance is creating complex interconnections that can have substantial and unintended consequences for people’s lives. In the thesis, I demonstrate methodological and conceptual tools to help make sense of these entanglements.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherDepartment of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, Faculty of Science, University of Copenhagen
Number of pages302
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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