Research Projects

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. We also have a recent article on gender and PES in Oryx.

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 as well as how transformative governance of biodiversity should be conceptualized. I am also currently serving on the advisory board for IUCN on a Nature-based Recovery Initiative.


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 argues 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 trade and lending 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. I am currently focusing on how climate and biodiversity issues can be coupled together, such as in nature-based solutions like mangrove restoration.

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.

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 which looks at the environmental history and contemporary legacies of the Vietnam conflict. I will be working on the book over the next years 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.  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 titled “An Environmental History of the Ho Chi Minh Trail” recently out in the book Military Landscapes (Harvard U/Dumbarton Oaks Press). I have also written on the environmental and  social impacts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as well.

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 ConservationEnvironmental ManagementAmbio, and other journals.