Current Research Projects
ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: Exploring Policy Outcomes in Asia
I am currently the PI of a National Science Foundation grant project “Understanding the Use of Ecosystem Services Concepts in Environmental Policy” which started in mid-2019 (funded from the Science and Technology Studies and Geography directorates). The project is examining how institutions and policymakers in Southeast Asia are using the concept of ecosystem services and if this use differs from previous ways of conceptualizing the environment. Payments for environmental services (PES), which provides funding from users of ecosystem services to those who provide them, is one of the most well-known of these approaches. The project aims to answer two key research questions: (1) How are ecosystem services defined, measured, and prioritized by different actors in policymaking? (2) How are different services turned into economic values and through what means, while others are not? The research project is using mixed methods, including focus groups, participatory mapping, and interviews to assess local understanding, use, and valuation of ecosystem services in three watershed-based case studies with research partners in Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar. Currently 12 people are funded from this grant and we are in early stages of doing (online) interviews with policymakers, NGOs and the science community across Southeast Asia. We will be hosting a workshop on ecosystem services policy in Asia at Rutgers, likely in 2022.
We are particularly interested in non-monetary valuation of ecosystem services, and in the cultural elements of how services are conceptualized and valued. I am currently co-editing a special issue of Ecology and Society on “Cultural Ecosystem Services in the Global South” which is slated for later in 2021, and have contributed a paper on cultural ecosystem services in Vietnam examining shifts in cultural values for landscapes of central Vietnam over a 20 year period.
This work builds on a previous grant from NSF’s Geography and Spatial Sciences division that aimed to assess the social and environmental implications of market-based policies to conserve water and carbon. This project used a multi-scale, multi-method research design, including observational data, surveys, key informant interviews, and spatial analysis of land-use change with collaborating institutions Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies in Hanoi and Tropenbos International Vietnam in Hue. My Vietnam partners were awarded one of the first Partnership for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) awards from the National Academy of Sciences, funded by the US Agency for International Development, to assist in this work. More information on their grant can be found at the NAS website.
The publications from this grant included work in Geoforum and the Journal of Rural Studies exploring to what degree payments for ecosystem services can be considered neoliberal or not, and what the implications of this are for management and outcomes. I published in Environment and Society on The Metrics of Making Ecosystem Services which argued for attention to the ways ecosystem services are measured as a way to have insight into their commodification. I also co-edited a special issue on “Beyond Market Logics: Payments for Ecosystem Services as Alternative Development Practices in the Global South” in Development & Change which argued that research on PES reveals these projects to be shaped by dynamic interactions between imposed structure and the development pathways and situated agency of actors where they are implemented, which can provide potential openings for these initiatives to be contested, adapted, and hybridized. I and two PhD student co-authors contributed a paper on Vietnam’s ‘hybridized’ PES program. I have a forthcoming article on gender and PES in Oryx later in 2021.
I was also a lead author of the global assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services of IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and contributed to chapter 6 on decision-making for biodiversity, and am current part of the joint IPBES/IPCC team writing a workshop report on Biodiversity and Climate Change linkages, due in May 2021. With several co-authors from IPBES, we authored an article on how post-COVID-19 recovery needs to tackle drivers of biodiversity loss in One Earth. I am also currently serving on the advisory board for IUCN on a Nature-based Recovery Initiative.
ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF WAR: Revisiting the Vietnam War and After
I received a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship for work on my second book, tentatively titled Rivers of Blood, Mountains of Bone: An Environmental History of the Vietnam War. I will be working on the book through archival work in Hanoi, Saigon and Washington DC, as well as fieldwork in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnam War introduced a new language for the environmental impacts of modern warfare, with fundamental consequences for military history, for international efforts to remediate impacts of war, and for tens of millions of citizens of Vietnam and the US. Yet despite the profound significance of this conflict, there remains no comprehensive look at the environmental history of the Vietnam War, post-war attempts at environmental remediation, and the long-term outcomes of the militarized landscapes created. My book project is shaped by the understanding that nature is an actor in theaters of conflict, rather than a static external backdrop. I am using multiple methods, including interviews, historical archives, and geospatial analysis to assess where impacts such as bombing or defoliation occurred; what post-war landscapes looked like and their social impacts; and where post-war restoration took place and how ecological and political factors played a role. The project will also create a web archive to share these research materials more widely.
This undertaking will not only fill in major gaps in our understanding of one of the most significant episodes in American history, but will highlight major dilemmas around human-environment interactions writ large: How do both cultural visions of landscapes as well as their physical elements shape decision-making in war and after? How do social and cultural factors influence restoration, not just in post-war cleanup, but in any large-scale environmental catastrophe? How do the remnants of post-war military landscapes shape contemporary vulnerabilities to such problems as climate change? I have a new book chapter in press on “An Environmental History of the Ho Chi Minh Trail” that will be coming out next year in Militarized Landscapes (Harvard U/Dumbarton Oaks Press). I have also written on the social impacts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as well.
SUSTAINABILITY IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
I am working on a short book under contract with Cambridge Elements on sustainable development and the environment in Southeast Asia (SEA). Once lauded for the regional richness of cultures, landscapes and environments, many of the economies of SEA have been built on natural resource extraction, such as timber, pulp, and paper; minerals, oil, coal and sand; fish and wildlife; and agricultural commodities like rice and palm oil, leading to deforestation, water and ocean pollution, biodiversity loss, and land degradation. Fights and conflicts over land have characterized the rapid agrarian change experienced by many rural and indigenous populations, and migration and demographic changes have reshaped urban-rural divides. Rapid urbanization has created a number of sustainability problems, with SEA recording the highest worldwide premature deaths from air pollution in recent years, and poor city planning has allowed slums to develop, floods to threaten residents, and congestion to mark life in many SEA cities. Climate change puts future economic progress at risk, given long coastlines and vulnerability to sea level rise and natural disasters.
The book will argue that SEA’s ability to meet the global Sustainable Development Goals are constrained by development decisions that have continued to prioritize traditional paths to growth over sustainability and the environment. While terms like ‘green growth’ are now used by many countries, most policies in SEA present a narrow range of solutions to sustainability, often centered around neoliberal economic policy and inadequate state and civil society involvement in environmental governance. The book will conclude by looking at what the impact on sustainability will be from increased integration of SEA, in terms of physical networks like the East-West corridor roads, in terms of political networks like ASEAN, and in economic networks, exemplified by rapidly increasing trade with China.
CARBON MITIGATION: Using Land Management Practices to Combat Climate Change
Land use change has been estimated to contribute from 10 to 20% of global carbon emissions, particularly from deforestation. Yet while many recognize the scale of the problem, how to formulate policy for this has been more challenging. Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) is the most well-known forest mitigation strategy to lower land-use generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions; the fundamental premise of REDD+ is that if households and governments are given payments and other types of rewards that equal or exceed what is earned from deforestation, then forests will be better protected, carbon emissions will be reduced, and these areas can serve as greater sinks for future GHG mitigation. The rollout and implementation of REDD+ policies in various countries over the past decade has revealed however that implementation, particularly around participation and benefit-sharing, has been difficult. Together with colleagues in Vietnam, we have investigated these challenges of implementation, publishing on how REDD+ needs to include attention to climate adaptation and examined the process of developing locally appropriate safeguards.
I also served as a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Climate Change and Land: an IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. As a result of that work, I am co-author on several papers in press examining a range of land-based mitigation and adaptation options to tackle climate change. I also served as a co-author on the new IUCN Nature-based Solutions Global Standard to improve safeguards and outcomes from NbS interventions.
CLIMATE CHANGE IN ASIA: Impacts, Vulnerability, Mitigation and Adaptation
I have been involved in several projects in Southeast Asia focused on determining social vulnerability to climate change in at-risk ecoregions, particularly coastal and mountainous areas, as well as determinants of successful adaptation to climate threats. This research is driven by the fact that Southeast Asia in general, and Vietnam in specific, are estimated to be highly impacted, including from sea level rise this century in terms of land area inundated and populations affected. We have done work in Vietnam in the Red River Delta’s coastal areas, focusing on past adaptation practices used to cope with a variety of natural hazards (sea level rise, droughts, storms, floods, and groundwater scarcity). We surveyed 300 households affected by extensive floods in 2003 and 2008, and our work includes a paper on household flood vulnerability out in Natural Hazards.
I led a Vietnam-based team for the global Economics of Adaptation to Climate Change project, implemented by the World Bank in 2009-2011, which attempted to provide a first global scale estimate of the possible costs of adaptation to climate change. This project came up with the widely cited figure that global climate adaptation costs are likely to be on the order of $100 billion US/yr. Fieldwork was conducted by teams in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Samoa, and Vietnam. Our report on the Social Dimensions of Climate Change in Vietnam with our overall findings can be found here. I also have a popular audience article on adaptation in Vietnam in Current History.
One graduate student, Ida Ansharyani, completed a PhD with me in 2018 on climate change impacts and adaptation in Indonesia. Several undergraduates have done research projects with me on this topic. Two worked to document the size and type of climate adaptation projects being funded by international donors and national ministries in Vietnam, creating an comprehensive funding database. Another assessed the ways in which multiple vulnerability indexes determined hazards and exposure, and why Vietnam is ranked in different ways by different indexes.
FOREST MANAGEMENT: Deforestation, Afforestation and Environmental Rule
Concerns over forest loss in the tropics are longstanding, and many global and local policies have been implemented in the past 50 years to try to arrest the rate of tropical deforestation, with little success. Vietnam is an ideal case study for examining how and why households make decisions to deforest or afforest in response to different pressures and policies, as for the past few years, Vietnam has simultaneously had both the tropical world’s second highest deforestation rate and the third highest afforestation rate. I have a new book out titled Forests are Gold: Trees, People, and Environmental Rule in Vietnam which outlines these issues. Using detailed ethnographic, survey, archival, and biological data, and working with archival materials in several languages, the book draws on my fieldwork in multiple forest sites subjected to a number of different policies, and incorporates interviews with government officials, NGOs, and donors. I argue that many (if not most) policies directed at forests and the environment in Vietnam are not aimed at conserving nature for nature’s sake, but at changing people and society, a process I term “environmental rule”. Environmental rule emerges through the ways in which knowledge about forests is generated, and by whom, and how this knowledge is used by different actors engaged in forest policy, leading to a more contingent and often unexpected picture of how deforestation and afforestation happen. Several other articles on my forest and biodiversity research in Vietnam have been published in Environmental Conservation, Environmental Management, Ambio, and other journals.
GLOBALIZATION AND ACCESS TO RESOURCES: Equity and Justice in the Search for Sustainability
Another crosscutting theme is my interest in ensuring that environmental policy takes into account the specific experiences and subjectivities of women and indigenous peoples. My focus on household-level characteristics that influence resource use has highlighted the importance of gender and ethnicity, and has led to additional theoretical and comparative work in this area. I am co-editor of a book published in 2012 by University of Arizona Press, titled Gender and Sustainability: Lessons from Asia and Latin America.
Another research focus of mine is the role of ethnic differentiation in serving to establish claims and counterclaims to environmental resources, and potential conflicts arising from these dynamics. Two major projects have focused on this theme. The first was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation‘s Program on Global Security and Sustainability, on the environmental impact of rural-rural migration in Vietnam and Indonesia, where I and a co-PI conducted research in both countries with several major field sites to understand the motivations of migrants to rural areas of high conservation value, and their interactions with existing indigenous peoples. We looked at how different types of migrants adjusted to new environments by documenting land use change over time (such as conversion of forests to agriculture), as well as what impact these new migrants had on indigenous households. Results from this project were published in The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology and the Journal of Vietnamese Studies. Another major project was undertaken with the World Bank in Hanoi in 2006-8 to assess the impact of development policy on ethnic minorities, who consist of 15% of Vietnam’s population. The Bank wanted to know why, given Vietnam’s rapid growth rates in the 1990s-2000s, non-Vietnamese were lagging behind in poverty reduction rates despite considerable investment in what are seen as ‘pro-poor’ development interventions. A report titled Ethnicity and Development in Vietnam, of which I was the lead author, was published by the Bank in 2009, and which led to new directions in funding priorities for indigenous people in Vietnam.
I have also published on indigenous engagements with ecological restoration and on indigenous ecologies generally, as well as how the IPBES global assessment incorporated ILK into its’ work.
Future Research Projects
BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION: New Technologies and Capital in the Anthropocene
I have plans to work on a future book about biodiversity conservation in the Anthropocene, the idea that no space on the globe has been untouched by man. For decades, conservation organizations have urged all nations of the world to set aside 10% of their country’s land area as sites for conservation, a goal first developed at the Bali World Parks Congress in 1982. Many countries, including poor developing ones, have subsequently followed this advice and organized extended protected areas in the past three decades to meet this goal. Indeed, by 2010, more than 13% of the earth’s surface was under some form of conservation protection. This book project looks at what happens after such a territorial goal of conservation is met: what follows next? And does a property-based approach to conservation still make sense in the Anthropocene, given new deterritorialized threats like global wildlife smuggling, climate change, and potential genetic collapse of endangered species populations? These novel threats raise the question of how conservation in the 21st century ought to be practiced. Yet in addition to new threats, advances in science and technology may also present new opportunities for conservation, in the form of the ability to ‘rewild’ degraded areas with new species, including some genetically engineered novelties or regenerated previously extinct animals, or through assisted migration whereby species are helped to move out of harms way from threats like climate change.
But what has not been explored in a systematic study is what these changes mean for conservation in poor, developing countries. Will advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering reduce the urgency of responding to conservation threats? Will deextinction, rewilding or assisted migration only be possible in richer countries? These are troubling questions, given the fact that the most biodiverse nations are those that cluster around the tropics, and which tend to face the most challenges in terms of financing, science and research capacity, and labor for conservation, let alone general economic development for rural populations. In other words, what will conservation in the twenty-first century mean for countries like Vietnam? My book project will explore these ethical and scientific issues through a case study of novel conservation threats in the biodiverse country of Vietnam: monitoring of poachers from satellites, rewilding with resurrected extinct species, in vitro captive breeding and cloning, among others. Using ethnographic work with rangers, captive breeders, and conservation biologists in Vietnam, this book will explore how conservation is changing in the Anthropocene via new technologies, new sources of capital, and new threats.
My PhD student Hoang Thach is currently working on a thesis exploring the concept of ‘rewilding’ in Vietnam. Two undergraduates also worked on this project with me in 2016-7: one documented the changes in biodiversity instigated by hunting in French Indochina from the 1860s to 1960s, and one mapped the wildlife trade impacts of captive breeding facilities in Vietnam.