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Written by: Pierre Merlet
Organizations: University of Antwerp
Type of document: Scientific article
Pierre Merlet. Doctoral dissertation
Prof. Dr. Johan Bastiaensen, Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp
Prof. Dr. Tom De Herdt, Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp
Prof. Dr. Saturnino J. Borras, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) Erasmus University, Rotterdam
Prof. Dr. Griet Steel, University of Utrecht
Prof. Dr. Sara Geenen, Institute of Development Policy (IOB), University of Antwerp
Prof. Dr. Christian Lund, University of Copenhagen
ISBN: 9789057287138; Depot number: D/2021/12.293/34
This research was funded by a Ph.D. grant of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR-UOS)
The ongoing transformation of forests into agricultural land, in what are known as agricultural frontiers, is recognized worldwide as a key issue. On the one hand, the related land use changes account for huge transformations in the biophysical environment at local and global levels and play a crucial role in the current global environmental and climate crisis. On the other hand, processes of land use changes in agricultural frontiers are also related to the emergence and expansion of specific cultural and social agrarian systems, mainly geared towards products for the world markets (e.g., coffee, dairy and meat, soy, and palm oil), which often bring conflicts over the appropriation and use of resources and create huge inequalities both locally and between local and external actors (i.e., related to the adverse insertion of smaller farmers into global value chains). As such, the processes taking place in forested agricultural frontiers bring huge challenges in terms of governance, environmental and social sustainability, and fairness both at local and global levels.
This Ph.D. dissertation contributes to a better understanding of these processes and challenges taking place in forested agricultural frontier regions. It focuses on analysing the socio-ecological transformations related to agrarian change processes in the Nicaraguan agricultural frontier with the objective of bringing insights that could better inform development practices and interventions. In Nicaragua, agricultural frontier dynamics have been a key component of agrarian development and a common thread has been a process of specialization (in cattle breeding and coffee production), land concentration, expulsion of small farmers towards still active pioneer fronts and huge deforestation rates. Lately, new trends have influenced these historical processes such as the increasing presence of the State, the growing insertion of local producers in global value chains, or the emergence of new actors (NGOs, private agro-industrial investors, and conservationist organisations). These imply changes in practices and rules regarding access and use of natural resources as well as the distribution of the benefits extracted from them, while they also engender new struggles over the meaning of sustainable development (as for instance tensions between conservation and agrarian production).
Drawing on the debates related to the ecological agrarian question, the dissertation argues for the adoption of an integrated nature-society approach to better understand and describe the processes of socio-ecological transformations taking place in agricultural frontiers. This implies taking distance from approaches that conceptualise nature and society as two different but overlapping categories and embracing the idea that nature and society are part of the same whole that cannot be disaggregated. Concretely, this means moving from looking at what society does with and to nature towards focusing our attention on the processes of co-evolution of nature and society as a whole. In order to achieve this, the dissertation proposes an analytical framework that conceptualises rural landscapes as complex socio-ecological systems and focuses on trying to better understand the evolving dynamics of such systems, particularly the emergence of dominant development pathways in relation to the establishment of a specific matrix of land uses. Within this framework, particular attention is given to analysing the socio-institutional and relational elements related to these processes of change in order to better understand the actual space that exists for individual and collective actors’ agency and the margin of manoeuvre for the implementation of development interventions and policies.
The empirical part of the dissertation applies this framework in two small regions within the Nicaragua agricultural frontier with a multi-fold objective. First, it tries to identify and characterise the ‘development pathways’ that exist within the Nicaraguan agricultural frontier. To achieve this objective, it focuses on the case of a small region where the transformation of forested areas into agricultural land started in the 1960s. The historical analysis of the dynamics of socio-ecological changes implemented includes the analysis of the processes of both land-use change and social differentiation that have taken place in the region. Altogether, it demonstrates the existence of a dominant cattle-based development pathway characterised by social inequalities, power imbalances and negative environmental outcomes. Nevertheless, the analysis also shows that, despite the dominance of this cattle-based pathway, alternative pathways always exist, with the existence, for instance, of a peasant-like pathway characterised by family-based diversified production systems where cacao plays a key role.
Second, building on the previous insights about the existence of alternative development pathways that could be more socially and environmentally sustainable, the dissertation tries to better understand the margin of manoeuvre that exists for the design and implementation of development interventions and policies that could promote those alternatives. It moves then to the analysis of a concrete development intervention in the Nicaraguan agricultural frontier. The intervention is a Payment for Ecosystem Services intervention where a local conservationist NGO introduces a payment for farmers to motivate them not to clear the remaining forested areas on their farms. The focus of the study is on the interplay between farmers’ agency and decision- making processes and the historically built rules and norms, social structure, culture, world views and macro-economic structure that characterise the dominant cattle-based development pathway, trying to bring insights on how to design and implement interventions that could promote a change in farmers’ practices. The analysis demonstrates the strength of the dominant pathway in shaping actors’ decisions and actions, not only for farmers but also for development practitioners and other actors. As such, it highlights to what extent actors involved seem to be locked within historically evolved practices embedded in the production logics and socio-cultural and socio- ecological contexts that characterise the dominant development pathway. As a result, the dominant cattle-based pathways appear to be hegemonic, leaving little space for alternative views and practices and for the emergence of more sustainable alternative pathways.
The dissertation argues that a drastic change must therefore occur in the way development interventions are designed and implemented and in the way issues are problematised. It calls for a more thorough engagement with the realities of local territories and their actors, in order to have a more realistic view of what problems and solutions might be. This implies escaping from the implementation of blueprint types of designs that would fit all time and space contexts, instead being explicitly flexible in the design and implementation of those interventions and policies for them to be adapted to the specific and concrete development pathways in which they are embedded and that they are attempting to challenge and transform. It also implies thinking of processes where development interventions and policies are constructed bringing into the debate the views, perceptions and power of different actors in order to collectively negotiate and co-create a common understanding and valuing of the issues to be dealt with, the results hoped for and the strategies to implement. Finally, the recognition that the emergence of dominant pathways is also shaped by broader-level (national and global) structural factors implies that development interventions and policies need to be thought through and problematised taking these factors explicitly into account, becoming part of broader strategies and alliances aimed at transforming those global structural elements as a result.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1. GENERAL INTRODUCTION. SETTING THE STAGE FOR THE RESEARCH
1. INTRODUCTION. A FRAMEWORK TO MAKE SENSE OF THE RESEARCH PROCESS.
2. AGRICULTURAL FRONTIERS, THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS AND THE FUTURE OF FARMING
3. THE ECOLOGICAL AGRARIAN QUESTION, FROM A POLITICAL ECONOMY OF AGRICULTURE TOWARDS A POLITICAL ECOLOGY OF AGRICULTURE
4. RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND DISSERTATION OUTLINE
CHAPTER 2. DEVELOPMENT PATHWAYS IN THE AGRICULTURAL FRONTIER: UNRAVELLING COMPLEXITIES OF RURAL LANDSCAPE DYNAMICS
2. CONCEPTUALISING RURAL LANDSCAPES AS COMPLEX SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL SYSTEMS
3. UNPACKING COMPLEXITIES: INTRODUCING AN ANALYTICAL FRAMEWORK TO INVESTIGATE THE ECOLOGICAL AGRARIAN QUESTION
4. CONCLUSION: THE WAY FORWARD TO THE CONCRETE-SPECIFIC ANALYSIS
CHAPTER 3. DEVELOPMENT PATHWAYS IN A SMALL RURAL AREA OF THE NICARAGUAN AGRICULTURAL FRONTIER. A CASE STUDY
2. METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH
3. THE LANDSCAPE ANALYSIS: TOWARDS A ZONING OF THE AREA OF STUDY
4. PROCESSES OF AGRARIAN CHANGE IN THE AREA OF STUDY
5. FARMERS’ TRAJECTORIES AND EMERGENCE OF DEVELOPMENT PATHWAYS
CHAPTER 4. CAN FINANCIAL INCENTIVES CHANGE FARMERS’ MOTIVATIONS? AN AGRARIAN SYSTEM APPROACH TO DEVELOPMENT PATHWAYS AT THE NICARAGUA AGRICULTURAL FRONTIER
2. UNRAVELLING SOCIAL-ECOLOGICAL COMPLEXITIES IN RURAL TERRITORIES THROUGH THE ‘AGRARIAN SYSTEM’ CONCEPT
3. PAYING FARMERS AT THE NICARAGUAN AGRICULTURAL FRONTIER
4. CAN FINANCIAL INCENTIVES FOR FOREST PROTECTION ALTER THE CATT LE- BASED DEVELOPMENT PATHWAY?
CHAPTER 5. PLAYING BEFORE PAYING? A PES SIMULATION GAME FOR ASSESSING POWER INEQUALITIES AND MOTIVATIONS IN THE GOVERNANCE OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES
2. THE POTENTIAL OF SIMULATION GAMES FOR ES GOVERNANCE
3. THE PES SIMULATION GAME
4. AN EXAMPLE OF THE PES SIMULATION GAME IN THE NICARAGUAN AGRICULTURAL FRONTIER
5. REFLECTING ON ES INTERVENTIONS THROUGH THE USE OF THE GAME