The politics of environmental protection and social justice

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In the latest instalment of our popular “Book Club” feature that brings you the best insights of the most important new volumes, Prakash Kashwan discusses his new work Democracy in the Woods – and gives you the opportunity to read some of it for free … we really are spoiling you this week.

The ongoing climate emergency has rekindled scholarly and policy interest in the role of the state. Recent commentaries have evoked the rather unexpected story of ‘green states’ in the global South, the potential emergence of a global climate leviathan, and the advocacy of a utopian technocratic state. These references to centralized state apparatuses – at either the national or supranational level – begs several questions about both the efficacy of environmental efforts and their implications for social justice. In my book, Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico I address the following questions:

What explains the differences in how the global agendas of environmental conservation are articulated within national policies and programs? And why do some countries balance the apparently competing agendas of environmental conservation and social justice more successfully than do others?

In my search for answers, I analyzed the social consequences of the formidable efforts to protect forests, biodiversity, and wildlife in India, Tanzania, and Mexico (Table 1). These statistics are even more impressive considering the various barriers, that is, extremely high population density in India (445 people per sq. km of land area in comparison to a world average of 58); high levels of poverty in Tanzania, and Mexico’s long history of peasant mobilization and land redistributions.

Country Forest area (% of total land area) Terrestrial protected areas (% of total land area)
India 23.83 5.97
Tanzania 51.58 38.12
Mexico 33.92 14.27
World 30.72 14.56

Source: World Development Indicators (2016)

Environmental conservation in these three big countries have produced remarkably different consequences for social justice, which I assess by examining how each of these countries has resolved conflicts and contestations over the local residents’ forest and land rights in forested regions.

Explaining variation

The heavenly beauty of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania has been sullied more than once by the brutal burning of 100s of homes of the Maasai, at the hands of park officials. The potential for similar outcomes lurks over the future of nearly 2 million households or at least 10 million Adivasis (India’s indigenous people),  because of a lawsuit brought by some wildlife conservation groups, with the tacit support of Indian government. Yet, these types of outcomes are unheard of in Mexico (and most other Latin American countries) despite the presence of a large number of protected areas. What explains these differences of the social consequences of global environmental protection efforts?

Democracy in the Woods shows that the translation of global environmental conservation intervention into national policies and programs, with varying social consequences, is contingent on the existence and endurance of the mechanisms of political intermediation – the well-established forums, processes, and relationships that enable citizen groups, civil society organizations, and social movement participants to engage in political and policy processes that affect them directly.

Examples of such mechanisms include the national federations of peasants and indigenous peoples in Mexico, which influenced Mexican government’s policies and program in the areas of nature conservation and forest-based climate mitigation programs. Similarly, the relatively short-lived experiment of India’s National Advisory Council afforded citizen groups the opportunity for active and sustained policy engagements in the first decade this century. The weakening of these mechanisms also led to the gradual and consistent weakening of the state commitment to the protection of resource rights in India, and to some extent in Mexico since the 1990s.

Electoral politics in Tanzania

Tanzania lacks such recent examples of political intermediation, even though militant labor unions active in the run-up to the country’s independence provided a strong foundation for the emergence of such mechanisms. The opening up of the civil and political space in Tanzania during the 1980s led to a surge in social and political mobilization.

In 1989, grassroots groups worked with a Maasai member of parliament, Edward Mollel, to prevent the leasing of 100,000 acres of land to a European company, Cattle Ranching Inc. Since then, despite the restoration of the country’s multi-party political system in 1992, party leaders and government officials have resorted to overt and covert oppression of civil society, including the women lawyers’ association and the social activists mobilizing for pastoralist land rights.

More recently, the apparent competitiveness of the general elections of 2010 and 2015 prompted President Jakaya Kikwete and the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party to make strident promises about land redistribution and the protection of peasant land rights. None of these promises have been kept.

From explanations to solutions

Neither the conventional theories of electoral competition or multiparty democracy, nor the mainstream theories of property rights can explain the significant divergences in the protection of resource rights in these countries. My analysis of the mechanisms of political intermediation affords a more robust explanation of the functioning of the state in this realm. In Democracy in the Woods, I offer three different tests of the arguments about political origins of natural resource regimes.

First, it explains why it took Indian political elites nearly sixty years to introduce meaningful reforms of the colonial-era forestland regimes. Second, it successfully explains the rather counterintuitive local outcomes of the programs for formalization of land rights in India, Tanzania, and Mexico. Third, it provides a coherent explanation of why each of these three countries proposes a significantly different distribution of the benefits of international programs for forest-based climate mitigation.

These and other analyses from my research show that any large-scale regimes of environmental protection or climate mitigation and adaptation would be socially just only if such regimes are negotiated through broad-based citizen engagements in politically legitimate processes directly linked to national policymaking.

Technocratic solutions executed by a centralized state, including a utopian technocratic state advocated by some on the left, cannot guarantee socially just and environmentally sustainable outcomes. Substantive engagements between the state and citizen groups, active in multiple spaces in the state and society, is the only way we can instil accountability in our collective responses to global inequality and global climate change. The fullest possible repertoire of the means and methods of substantive democracy is the only way we know toward a resilient and socially just planetary system.


To access a free chapter from this book, click here (until August).

Prakash Kashwan is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs in the United States.

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