The political economy and ecology of sustainability initiatives in the Global South

CFP AAG 2019: The political economy and ecology of sustainability initiatives in the Global South

New and more complex sustainability initiatives are emerging to address the sustainability of natural resource use in the Global South. These initiatives variously link donors, governments, community-based groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), business, consultants, certification agencies and other intermediaries. High expectations and many resources have been invested in them. Yet, we still do not know whether more sophisticated organizational structures, more stakeholders involved (including the private sector) and more advanced participatory processes have delivered better social and environmental outcomes – and if so, in what places and sectors, under what circumstances, and with what distributional effects.

These sustainability initiatives are taking shape as contexts of, and narratives about, resource depletion are changing – bringing new global audiences, alliances and policies to bear on previously local and national issues. Linked to a growing sense of urgency, sustainability agendas now call for innovative measures and transnational and cross-sectoral cooperation and investment. Thus, wildlife resources now matter in the context of the severe increase in extinction rates due to human activities, wildlife crime and poaching; illegal fishing matters in the context of the global decline of capture fisheries; and forest cover in developing countries matters in the context of global climate change mitigation and adaptation. With a similar sense of urgency, experiences of nature’s wilderness and pristine status are being promoted as compensatory, even emancipatory features, almost essential for balancing stressful busy lives of modern consumers, leading to an intense commodification of nature and land into ecotourism products. While conventional narratives on resource depletion place the blame exclusively on actors and processes within the Global South, emerging narratives increasingly link local and global factors and actors.

Political economy and ecology approaches have shown that these relations are creating new kinds of values to previously existing resources and attracting more actors in competing for their access and utilization. New actors are appearing or becoming more prominent as old products and services (e.g. timber, fish, wildlife tourism) come under processes of sustainability certification or are more closely monitored. New products are being devised through new forms of commodification of nature (e.g. carbon credits and payments for ecosystem services), which require a similarly complex apparatus operating from local to global levels. Thus, in addition to a push towards more adaptive, participatory and collaborative management, new partnerships are arising in part to initiate or strengthen these commodification processes. By inserting economic logics related to pricing, promotion and product volume into the conservation decision making, commodification distorts the scope and purpose of conservation partnerships from unbiased protection adding new layers of complexity to the understanding of partnership dynamics.

Much research on the governance of natural resources so far has focused on the institutional features, potential, construction and participatory elements of these partnerships at the local/national levels and transnationally, and on ethnographies of conservation-development funding and of experts. The literature on local partnerships has shown that different configurations have resulted in both success and failure. The presence of many partners and linkages has often been reported as a feature of successful community-based initiatives, but with little in-depth analysis of whether and how socio-ecological contexts shapes outcomes. The literature has also shown that the possible erosion of government authority opens up opportunities for entrepreneurial actors and alliances to take on the leadership of sustainability, but often without a specific mandate or clear guidelines.

In this session, we seek contributions that engage with these issues empirically and/or theoretically. For information or contributions, please email Stefano Ponte ( or Christine Noe (