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Year : 2014  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 343-351

Introduction: New Frontiers of Ecological Knowledge: Co-producing Knowledge and Governance in Asia

1 Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada
2 Department of Geography, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Shubhra Gururani
Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto, ON
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.155575

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Date of Web Publication21-Apr-2015


This essay makes a case for centering the questions of ecological knowledge in order to understand how environmental governance and resource access are being remade in the frontier ecologies of Asia. These frontiers, consisting of the so-called uplands and coastal zones, are increasingly subject to new waves of extractive and conservation activities, prompted in part by rising values attached to these ecologies by new actors and actor coalitions. Drawing on recent writings in science and technology studies, we examine the coproduction (Jasanoff 2004) of ecological knowledge and governance at this conjuncture of neoliberal interventions, land grabs, and climate change. We outline the complex ways through which the involvement of new actors, new technologies, and practices of boundary work, territorialisation, scale-making, and expertise transform the dynamics of the coproduction of knowledge and governance. Drawing on long term field research in Asia, the articles in this special section show that resident peoples are often marginalised from the production and circulation of ecological knowledge, and thus from environmental governance. While attentive to the entry of new actors and to the shifts in relations of authority, control, and decision-making, the papers also present examples of how this marginalisation can be challenged, by highlighting the limits of boundary-work and expertise in such frontier ecologies.

Keywords: ecological knowledge, frontier ecologies, co-production, environmental governance, Asia

How to cite this article:
Gururani S, Vandergeest P. Introduction: New Frontiers of Ecological Knowledge: Co-producing Knowledge and Governance in Asia. Conservat Soc 2014;12:343-51

How to cite this URL:
Gururani S, Vandergeest P. Introduction: New Frontiers of Ecological Knowledge: Co-producing Knowledge and Governance in Asia. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2014 [cited 2020 Oct 21];12:343-51. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2014/12/4/343/155575

   Introduction Top

Questions of knowledge and knowledge-making have long been central to the analyses of environmental politics. There is a rich and vast body of literature that has over the past few decades engaged with the cultural politics of ecological knowledge, perhaps most directly among scholars and practitioners who identify with common property research or community-based natural resource management programs (Agrawal 1995; Berkes et al. 1999; Leach et al. 1999; Mosse 1999; Dove 2000; Baird and Flaherty 2005; Brosuis et al. 2005). Broadly, this scholarship has drawn attention to the limitations of the local/traditional and scientific knowledge binary; documented the multi-scalar dimensions of ecological knowledge at the sites of production as well as circulation; evaluated competing knowledge claims; assessed the exclusions and marginalisations of gendered, ethnic, and racialised minorities; and examined the making of expert/scientific environmental knowledge in colonial and contemporary times.

In this special section we bring together papers that focus on how the production of ecological knowledge is shaping, and is shaped by, recent shifts in environmental governance. We focus on sites that we call the 'frontier ecologies' of Asia-the so-called uplands as well as the coastal zones. We are interested in the coproduction (Jasanoff 2004) of ecological knowledge and governance at this conjuncture of neoliberal interventions, land grabs, and climate change. The recent spate of writings on land grabs, crop booms, community-based conservation, payments for ecosystem services, and new conservation enclosures have noted that the current scale and speed of change is both dramatic and possibly unparalleled in history (Peluso and Lund 2012). There is a growing recognition that the networks of actors participating in the co-production of environmental knowledge and in environmental governance are proliferating. They are adding to, and decentering the colonial and postcolonial resource management agencies and networks that were primarily organised first through colonial empires, and later through the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 'empire' (Vandergeest and Peluso 2006). In many cases, these actors are competing to control what it is that they value in Asian ecologies-minerals, land, endangered species, community livelihoods, or sequestered carbon. The presence of hitherto unfamiliar and often competing actors in the terrain of conservation, resource extraction, and environmental governance raises critical questions about everyday practices of participation and authority in environmental governance, and about how the domains of ecological knowledge are being re-organised and transformed. In order to explore these questions, this special section brings together a collection of papers that draws attention to the changing politics of ecological knowledge in Asian ecologies, charts the shifts in environmental governance over the past few decades, and describes how ecological knowledge plays a critical role in emerging forms of environmental governance at different geographical scales.

Previously, these transformations and associated exclusions often involved state claims on resources and on the right to set rules for managing resources. As we outline in the following sections, and as the papers in this collection demonstrate, resident peoples now find themselves negotiating a much more complex and confusing set of actors, who are more likely to be acting at a distance to collect detailed information using new information technologies, and participating in environmental governance in pursuit of diverse values and goals. The idea that state resource management agencies such as departments of forestry, fishing, irrigation, or mining have the ultimate legitimacy and expertise to manage valuable ecologies for the long term benefit of nations or colonies has increasingly been displaced by the idea that markets and stakeholders are often both more effective, and may even be more legitimate. At the same time, the idea that non-state actors should supplement or even displace state management remains contested at different scales, as illustrated by many of the papers in this section. As extractive industries, corporate buyers, certification agencies, conservation organisations, and civil society actors insert themselves into resource governance, questions of how ecological knowledge is accessed, produced, circulated, documented, and archived becomes critical. Whose knowledge will be considered relevant? What will constitute expertise and expert-knowledge? How will knowledge produced by non-local actors interact with that of residents? Who will have access to knowledge related to new crops or markets? What will shape the terms of circulation? These are some of the questions that have become pertinent in the current context.

We focus our attention on sites in Asia, and specifically on what we call the frontier ecologies of Asia. This is not to say that Asia is unique, as shown by the recent writings with a global focus on land control, resource booms, land grabs, and more (Peluso and Lund 2011, Hall et al. 2011, Borras et al. 2012, McCarthy 2012). For example, a rich body of work on Africa describes a comparable scramble for resources in which large corporations and emerging Asian states like China and India are battling to not only gain foothold in the African continent but also capture its burgeoning markets (Carmody 2011; Büscher and Arsel 2012). Even in the domain of conservation, where neoliberal ideology is intensifying capitalist growth, the entry of new actors is making an impact (Büscher and Arsel 2012). It is therefore important to track how, in the context of distinct colonial histories and postcolonial political and economic configurations, ecologies in Asia, Africa, and in the Global South more broadly are undergoing critical shifts in the domains of conservation and environmental governance.

In understanding and evaluating what is happening in Asia, we find the notion of 'frontier ecologies' useful. Tsing (2005: 33) in describing the articulations and frictions of capitalism describes the frontier not as a place, a project, or indigenous category, but as an enactment of "nonlinear leaps and skirmishes that come together to create their own intensification and proliferation". Even though frontiers invoke the image of zones on the edge of the spatial expansion of civilisation, the nation, or resource-hungry capitalism (Fold and Hirsch 2009), we follow Peluso and Lund (2011) in identifying frontier ecologies not as distinct zones where progress meets wilderness, but as frontiers of ecological change where prior governance arrangements are being challenged and dissolved to make way for new governance arrangements. We also use frontier ecologies in another more specific sense, one that does invoke the idea of an edge. First, to refer to ecologies that are 1) on the edge of irreversible ecological change, partly due to climate-change related impacts and partly due to historically embedded practices of resource extraction; and 2) in most cases, home to marginalised and indigenous peoples who tend to be vulnerable to the exploitative reaches of the market and the state.

In focussing on Asian frontier ecologies and highlighting the role of new actors and new ways of valuing ecologies, we are cognizant that many of the main drivers of change operate across different scales, transnationally, nationally, and locally. What the articles in this special section describe is not entirely unique, but they present detailed site-specific accounts of the political ecology of frontiers at this particular moment. They also provide an opportunity to identify the local and global forces of change, and document the impact of these interventions in particular sites. Keeping in mind the recent analysis of neoliberalisation of the environment and the scale of land/resource grabs, this special section on Asia refocusses attention on question of ecological knowledge, and how it is tied up with emergent forms of environmental governance.

Why ecological knowledge?

By ecological knowledge, 1 we refer to truth-claims and related claims of technical and political expertise about the dynamic relationships among the flora, fauna, peoples, hydrologies, soils, geologies, and other biophysical activities in a landscape (Forsyth 1996; Escobar 1998; Berkes et al. 1999; Goldman 2003; Fairhead and Scoones 2005). Like scientific knowledge, ecological knowledge "both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments, and institutions - in short, in all the building blocks we term the social" (Jasanoff 2004: 3).

As mentioned above, attention to ecological knowledge is not new among scholars taking a critical political ecology approach. Many scholars who are identified with political ecology have examined the creation of neo-Malthusian 'environmental narratives' that blame resident peoples for deforestation, soil erosion, and other kinds of environmental degradation. Political ecology scholars have also taken up the relationship between these environmental narratives and what is variously labelled as local or community ecological knowledge (Agrawal 1995; Fairhead and Leach 1996; Escobar 1998; Goldman 2003; Blaikie and Mudavin 2004; Forsyth and Walker 2008). The vast literature on local, indigenous, or gendered knowledges has drawn attention not only to the efficacy and importance of paying attention to local or traditional environmental knowledge, but also to the importance of considering resident peoples as experts who are particularly suited to managing the ecologies in which they live. An equally important intervention has questioned the ways local or indigenous knowledges are treated as autonomous, and has challenged the essentialisation of local knowledge that may imprison 'the native' or 'women' into these localities (Agrawal 1995; Appadurai 1995; Gururani 2002).

A focus on ecological knowledge is not new. Nonetheless, we find that the broader and political significance of ecological knowledge has been relatively underexplored, especially in recent scholarship on neoliberalisation in conservation and environmental governance. This latter literature has focussed on describing the commodification of nature, and the entry of new networks of actors into primitive accumulation, enclosure, territorialisation, and value making (Heynen et al. 2007; Igoe and Brockington 2007; Castree 2008a,b; Igoe et. al 2010; Büscher and Arsel 2012). With a few notable exceptions (Goldman et al. 2011), it has so far given relatively limited attention to how ecological knowledge is produced, how it is stabilised, how it circulates, and how this in turn contributes to land and resource control, and renegotiates the terms of environmental governance.

Where political ecologists have focussed on ecological knowledge, they have increasingly looked to Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholarship for conceptual tools that help them better understand how facts are produced, stabilised, and move, how the creation of ecological knowledge co-produces nature and society (Forsyth 2003; Goldman and Turner 2011: 10; Jasanoff 2004). Goldman and Turner (2011) argue that environmental politics are a "politics of knowledge" and it is therefore urgent to track the ways in which the production, circulation, and application of environmental knowledges simultaneously constitutes the domains of nature and society. STS scholar Sheila Jasanoff (2004), in examining the intertwined processes of knowledge-making and state-making, revitalises the term co-production and offers us a frame to consider "social and natural orders as being produced together." She suggests that there is much analytical gain in "highlighting the often invisible role of knowledges, expertise, technical practices and material objects in shaping, sustaining, subverting or transforming relations of authority" (Jasanoff 2004: 4). According to her, "knowledge and its material embodiments are at once products of social work and constitutive of forms of social life; society cannot function without knowledge anymore than knowledge can exist without appropriate social supports." In this special section, the contributors also draw on STS scholarship and direct the focus not so much on the production of broader 'society' and social order, although this is implicit, but on how new arrangements of ecological knowledges and environmental governance are being jointly produced. 2 Given the proliferating number of non-state actors in the terrain of environmental governance, the papers focus on how, at different scales, the practices of governance influences the making and use of (ecological) knowledges. We are particularly interested in how the knowledge of local residents who depend on their environments for livelihood are incorporated, erased, or undermined as environmental governance is transformed. How are ecological knowledge and governance being recalibrated through the logic of the market, and what is being kept or moved outside the logic of the market?

In his study of land concessions in Lao PDR where almost 1.1 million ha of land has been allocated to different investors by the Lao government, Barney (This issue) takes the case of a sustainable commercial pulpwood forestry project led by a Western multinational forestry company located along the former 'Ho Chi Minh Trail' zone of SouthEastern Laos. He shows how selected kinds of ecological knowledges are enrolled to ensure the project's success and evade political contestation over land. Specifically, the project proponents seek political legitimacy through environmental and social impact assessments, and the application of private certification standards such as those of the Forest Stewardship Council. Such knowledges play an integral part in staging what Barney (This issue) calls a 'moral theatre' that helps promote a "competitive corporate strategy to secure large-scale access to (inexpensive) concession land, and establish broad political backing and legitimacy, within the context of non-scripted regulation, patronage, and illiberal governance in Laos's plantation sector." It is precisely the production, circulation, and documentation of new kinds of knowledges in the highly charged context of land acquisition in frontier ecologies that alerts us to the coproductions of knowledge and governance.

Barney's (This issue) paper also alerts us to be attentive to different kinds of ecological knowledges, inscripted and non-scripted, and how they are produced and circulated in written form as well as through new information and digital technologies. Non-inscripted knowledges, like hidden transcripts, travel in distinct domains of circulation, often through informal, oral, kin, and networks. In the case of frontier ecologies, non-inscripted knowledges or silences and ignorance are often important in shaping environmental governance. Mathews (2011) in his analysis of state-making in the context of forestry in Mexico describes how silences and ignorance, like knowledge, are integral to modern state power. The papers in this special section go beyond his focus on the state, and also attend to a range of non-state actors who have come to jointly produce ecological knowledges and hold the reigns of governance and governmentality. For instance, Sundar (This issue) through a mapping of a controversy over coastal zone governance in southern India argues that it is important to "go beyond the analytics of state, class, and civil society, to examine the genealogies and networks of actors which produce particular kinds of knowledge, and their role in shaping both governmentalities and resistance." The multi-scalar networks of influence reveal the intersecting and competing trajectories through which knowledge and ignorance is produced, transmitted, and employed, and point to the difficulties of identifying binary forms such as the 'state' and the 'private', as well as the 'traditional' and the 'new,' the 'local' and the 'global,' the 'subaltern' and the 'elite'. While state agencies and interstate organisations like the FAO, that previously were the dominant actors in resource management, have not disappeared from the action, their mandates and activities are being re-organised through new relations with non-governmental actors. This re-organisation of the role and authority of new and old actors has a major impact on policy and the ways in which ecological knowledge is differentially deployed.

   New actors and boundaries Top

What is new about the current era, in part, is the proliferation of actors involved in producing ecological knowledge, creating frontiers, and recalibrating governance. In fact, it is not just the number of actors that matter but rather the distinct types of actors, often working within bounded fields of action, that have come to increasingly play a central role in environmental governance. In this special section, we outline how the many actors who are participating in the production of ecological knowledge are remaking environmental governance and resource access in the frontier ecologies of Asia.

Inspired by actor-network-theory (e.g., Latour 2005), there is a growing acknowledgement that actors and actants refer not to singular entities that are human but to the relational dynamics in which actors are made through interactions with other humans and more-than-human actors. Actors in turn form coalitions or assemblages that produce distinct identities, in part through boundary work in which networks of actors attempt to demarcate clearly specific domains (such as science) as different from other domains (such as politics).

Many of the key actors, domains, and processes shaping ecological knowledge and environmental governance in Asian frontiers have been present since the colonial period. In the case of forestry, political ecology research has shown how the introduction of scientific forestry as a domain of action in Asia paved the way for cash crops, timber extraction, and forest conservation during the nineteenth century (Guha 1989; Sivaramakrishnan 1999; Vandergeest and Peluso 2006). Colonial foresters also introduced new sets of actors, technologies, and knowledges of nature that irrevocably transformed the dynamics of social-natures, livelihoods, ecological knowledges, and property relations. Although information technologies did not move knowledge as quickly as today, these networks were global in reach. Both the organisation of knowledge about forests (for example, forest classification) and forest governance (for example, silviculture models) travelled extensively around Asia and Africa, and through Europe and the Americas, being transformed as they were applied to specific sites. The ecological knowledge and technologies for plantations crops like rubber (Fox, This issue) were similarly based in empire-based networks that spanned Asia and beyond.

During the colonial period and during the early decades after colonial rule, it was state agencies and state officials, or inter-state agencies like the FAO and the World Bank, that were the primary agents for collecting and organising ecological knowledge for the purpose of extraction or conservation. State resource agencies included those for forestry, fisheries, water, mining, and agriculture, and these agencies often set up national research and training institutions for their staff. Many of these institutions later became universities modelled on the US land grant university system with a mandate to train officials for employment with government resource agencies. The United Nation's FAO became a significant producer and broker for ecological knowledge since the 1950s (Vandergeest and Peluso 2006). The FAO was initially staffed by former employees of state resource agencies, including many colonial officials, and worked to build, support, and direct national resource agencies. Non-government organisations (NGOs) played some role-for instance, the Society for Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire, and its successors, the WWF and IUCN were set up to promote the conservation of wildlife and their habitats. But their numbers and influence remained constrained through the 1970s, and they generally did not become directly involved in administering conservation territories, leaving this function to government agencies. Private companies, e.g., forestry companies, as well as local resource users (farmers, fishers, and hunters) were supposed to follow rules set by state agencies with respect to where, what, how, and when they could extract natural resources. Although these rules were often ignored, they certainly had an effect, as over many decades state resource agencies remade governance arrangements for forestry, fisheries, water, soils, watersheds, and wildlife, usually by claiming resources as the property of the state and allocating use rights to private actors contingent (in theory) on following specified 'scientific' management practices (Peluso and Vandergeest 2001).

The current era is distinguished from colonial era land and resource grabs in part through the entry of new kinds of actors in the production of ecological knowledge, and new technologies for producing and moving knowledge, as they enter into more direct participation in governing conservation territories. Many papers in this special section describe the increasing involvement of non-governmental or semi-private actors in co-producing ecological knowledge and governance. Attending to the ways actors form coalitions around particular objects such as a coastal zone management proposal (Sundar, This issue), an ethical tree plantation project (Barney, This issue), or sustainable mushroom harvesting (Hathaway, This issue), the papers in this special section offer an analysis of the boundary work that creates distinctions among actor-domains. Hathaway's (This issue) paper is particularly useful in this regard. In his account, the matsutake mushrooms in Northern Yunnan (China) are critical ecological actors that enter a network of relations with scientists, foresters, pickers, dealers, consumers, and conservationists. Matsutake mushrooms, for Hathaway (This issue), are a '"boundary object"-that is, an object that inspires attention from a number of groups who understand and engage with it in different ways' (see also Star and Griesemer 1989). In focussing on boundary objects, Hathaway and others in this collection show how brokers are able to work with multiple actors to facilitate coordination and communication, and collaboration across boundaries (Tsing 2005). One could read Sturgeon et al. (This volume) in a similar light, as Chinese scientists re-made boundaries to exclude farmers but enlisted international researchers. Lamb, Leblond, Forsyth and Walker, and others in this special section describe how environmental controversies produce contending coalitions, as well as collaborations, around specific projects or activities, while strategically maintaining the distinctions/boundaries that produce them as actors (such as state, non-state, or villager).

It is important to note that many of these actors are acting at a distance with respect to these ecologies, often in interaction with state agencies. For example, the IUCN decides on which species need to be protected, triggering national-level (state) protection measures. Similarly, organisations like the New York-based Social Accountability International influence labour standards among eco-certification institutions around the world (Vandergeest and Unno 2012). Other actors are based in the frontier ecologies, and they often emerge in order to contest and participate in environmental governance. 'People's organisations' such as forest user networks, community forestry networks, dam-affected peoples, or fisher organisations have also become effective in shaping resource management practices (Sundar, This issue). In some cases, they act in more limited areas to create and legitimise community-based management (Leblond, This issue), but in many cases they have been able to scale up their actions so that they are not contained by the local, as illustrated by Sundar (This issue). The community forest movement in Thailand also provides an example of how local conflicts can be scaled up, in this case to engage national policy (Leblond, This issue; Forsyth and Walker, This issue). 'Publics' who are supposed to have access to inscripted knowledge are also being produced as significant new actors, especially where governance processes mandate public participation through public hearings (Lamb, This issue), or through provisions for posting comments on the internet in standard-making (Vandergeest and Unno 2012).

A key way that these sorts of groups legitimate their involvement in governing Asian ecologies is through their self-creation as experts. The making of expertise is in fact central to the remaking of authority and governance in Asian frontier ecologies. Mitchell's (2002) Rule of experts provides us with a particularly useful set of conceptual tools for understanding expertise: he shows how the making of technical expertise involves not so much the introduction of expertise where none had been in use before, but the concentration and re-organisation of knowledge, at the expense of a more distributed expertise in which knowledge was dispersed throughout the population-e.g., the knowledge of how to build a hygienic house, or manage irrigation water (Mitchell 2002: 41). Expertise re-organises knowledge in a dualistic fashion, situating experts with knowledge on one side and the object about which they have privileged knowledge on the other. 'Nature' as an objective category is often the outcome of this process of separation (Mitchell 2002: 34-37). In the previous era, it was the state agencies, whose staff were trained in specialised institutions, who claimed the expertise to govern resources by scientific principles, for the long term public good. But today the authority and legitimacy of states are questioned; state agencies are now seen as under the influence of the extractive industry, or as corrupt, or as lacking in technical expertise, and thus not capable of acting in the public good (Vandergeest and Unno 2012; Brydge 2013). Increasingly, as Hathaway (This issue) describes in his paper, other non-state actors now claim the sort of expertise that was once monopolised by state agencies. In his paper, we see how multiple actors all claimed some kind of expertise with respect to the management of the Matsutake mushroom: food safety inspectors concerned about contamination of Japanese consumer bodies; government scientists who succeeded in having the mushroom declared endangered, triggering a series of governance interventions; conservation groups like the WWF promoting mushroom extraction as an alternative to logging and forest destruction but concerned about sustainability; pickers and dealers concerned about market access as well as, we imagine, the intimate ecological knowledge necessary for gathering mushrooms.

In all these reconfigurations, however, the state remains an important site for the creation of expertise. For example, Lamb's (This issue) paper can be read as an example of how state-mandated Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for major projects situated the team that conducted the EIA as 'experts' who in effect produced representations of the relevant environment that would be impacted. Echoing Mitchell, Lamb shows how this concentration of knowledge in the EIA is at the expense of the environmental knowledge of resident peoples. However, what scholarship on expertise has often overlooked is how expertise can sometimes distribute knowledge and break down dualisms. In Lamb's research, this distribution is being forced by Villager Research Projects that use a methodology that simultaneously claims scientific validity but also positions residents as ecological experts. This process is also highlighted in Sundar's (This issue) account of the role of an important 'straddling' or 'interface' layer of NGOs and technical 'experts' working with a coalition that opposed a proposed coastal zone management regime. According to Sundar, the work of these straddling experts enabled a cross-cutting circulation of knowledges, challenged binaries such as 'traditional' and 'modern,' or 'local' and 'global,' and rendered unpredictable the outcome of contestations over policy and governance. Sturgeon et al. (This issue), in their discussion of how Chinese ecologists worked with farmers in Yunnan prior to their integration into international science networks, show that it is possible for knowledge experts to situate themselves as having only partial knowledge, and to acknowledge and work with resident people in producing ecological knowledge and governance.

Technology is one important way of distinguishing the colonial period from the contemporary period. There is a huge difference between a colonial forester using paper, pencil, and measuring tapes to catalogue species and measure trees for possible allocation to a logging company for harvest; and the remote sensing and digital mapping of vegetation that often organises forest measurement and governance today. When we embarked on this collective effort, we had envisioned that the introduction of new information technologies, along with new values (economic, cultural, ecological), new actors, and extraction technologies, would be a key to understanding the rapid changes in the ways that ecological knowledge was produced, and how it was used to facilitate ecological governance and restrictions on resource access. However, during the workshop in which we identified the key themes for these papers, new information technologies did not emerge as crucial in most cases. Perhaps this was partly because of a lack of attention to this question among researchers and activists, as implied by Leblond's (This issue) argument about how NGOs in Thailand have failed to use new information technologies to contest deforestation narratives. But it may also be that the new information technologies per se are often less significant than the new actors and actor-technology assemblages that are dissolving previous governance arrangements, creating new relations for facilitating access to resources, and creating new ecological values, based on often multiple interacting logics. These values and logics are not just those tied to resource extraction and profit, but also those promoting conservation, community participation, social responsibility, food safety, sustainable livelihoods, and more. In other words, it was the new actors, networks, values, logics as well as the politics of expertise, scale, and territorialisation that most often turned out to be crucial in the cases discussed during the workshop. However, information technologies did not disappear entirely from our analysis-they were often present in a facilitating role in the creation of new networks, boundaries, and expertise.

Information technologies and extraction technologies more broadly, from an actor network perspective, can usefully be considered as actors that have effects. Information technologies create, transform, and move knowledge in ways that facilitate the involvement of yet more actors who act at a distance. With respect to technology, Fox's (This issue) paper is focussed on demonstrating how rubber as a technology has actor-effects-damaging, ironic or 'revenge' effects such as loss of biodiversity; increasing use of water; the introduction of agro-chemicals; and smallholder vulnerability to boom and bust cycles. These effects, according to Fox, are "due to the widespread deployment of the complex system of material and conceptual practices that define rubber as a 'technology', i.e., state farms, crop science, land tenure security for farmers, government subsidies for investors, rural farmers aspirations for better life, etc."

The analyses of new actors and boundaries in all these papers demonstrate consistently that resident peoples in frontier ecologies can be marginalised from ecological governance through their disconnection from technologically-driven actor networks due to expense, or a lack of access to tools such as computers and the internet, or a lack of technical training, or through the scientific research protocols that exclude farmer knowledge. As Leblond (This issue) shows, the means for producing ecological knowledge that is understood as scientific is not evenly distributed. Specifically he shows how Thailand's forestry department and its allies have maintained their predominance in the use of spatial information technologies for measuring forest cover. This knowledge is largely not contested by contending coalitions who seek more access to livelihood resources for forest residents. These coalitions have thus not been able to take advantage of the positive (for resident communities) political implications of a narrative alternative to the forestry-department's organised narrative of deforestation. Expensive distancing tools such as satellite imagery, to which access is limited, facilitate these monopolies. Although resident peoples and NGOs use new information technologies to undertake community-based mapping, or otherwise produce knowledge around use and management of resources, this sort of ecological knowledge is often discounted in governance processes like EIA or national forest policies.

A good example is Sturgeon et al.'s (This issue) paper, in which they outline how upland farmers in SouthWest China have been excluded from the production of what they call epistemic communities. Between the 1960s to the 1990s, ecological knowledge production at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden (XTBG) involved learning from farmers, first under the duress of the Cultural Revolution when scientists were forced to work with farmers to survive, and then as part of international research networks organised through the Ford Foundation and other development funders. The latter were influenced by traditions of ethnobotany and cultural ecological research, and by the protocols of participatory research with farmers. But during the 1990s, young scientists at the XTBG institute became more integrated into international science networks that did not value the collection of farmer knowledge. Farmers are therefore increasingly excluded from the production of ecological knowledge, and by extension, from land use planning or ecological restoration plans organised through the XTBG Institute.

The politics of scale-making discussed by Lamb (This issue) is another example of boundary work that authorises some kinds of knowledge as scientific while discounting the knowledge of resource users. Resident peoples and their knowledge technologies are often discounted by containing them to the 'local' scale, typically defined territorially, while policy-relevant knowledge is situated at national or transnational scales. Lamb's paper on Environmental Impact Assessments in Hatgyi hydroelectric dam at the Thai-Burma border shows how scale-making in the EIA excludes the knowledge of resident peoples and thus enables their displacement. Breaking down the category 'local' in favour of categories that invoke membership in a nation-which can include 'village' in some circumstances (Lamb, This issue)-may provide vocabularies that engage more directly with the right to participate in governance and access information. Sundar's (This issue) paper shows how a complex network of community and environmental groups were able to situate the struggle for community fishing rights at the national level in a successful campaign to reverse a proposed coastal zone management approach that would have relied more on 'scientific knowledge' rather than 'local knowledge', and that favoured industrial interests over fishworkers and small-scale fisheries livelihoods. They did so in ways that mobilised both the familiar narratives of local knowledge and community rights on one hand, and new forms of digital knowledge for mapping coastal zone use and monitoring violations of coastal zone regulations on the other.

In another apparently contradictory example of boundary-making, illustrated by Forsyth and Walker (This issue), policy-makers, NGOs, and others often disregard the ecological knowledge produced by the transnational scientific research community. Instead they draw on powerful environmental narratives that organise understandings of ecological relationships in ways that may not have much basis in scientific ecological research, a theme that has often been explored in political ecology research (e.g., Fairhead and Leach 1996; Blaikie and Muldavin 2004; Forsyth and Walker 2008). Thus Forsyth and Walker show how the knowledge produced by scientists about the complex relationships between land cover change in upland areas and water availability in lowlands has been excluded from the debates around forestry and community forestry in Thailand, in favour of a simplified account that attributes lowland water shortages and flooding to land use change in the uplands. This simplified narrative is often invoked around Asia to justify eliminating forest-based or upland farming. Opponents of exclusionary forest conservation often reinforce the environmental narratives that blame upland people for lowland water problems, making the policies that dispossess upland peoples more difficult to contest (e.g., Forsyth and Walker, This issue; Leblond, This issue).

The final kind of boundary work implicit in the co-production of knowledge and governance is that of territorialisation. While existing spaces like protected areas, or community forests, are remade through new actors and technologies, other emerging institutional arrangements involve the creation of hybrid territories where the values and knowledge of different players-state, local, and international NGOs, retailers-produce new governance arrangements. Barney (This issue) takes up this process most directly for a plantation site in Lao PRD. He describes how the erasure of previous governance arrangements characteristic of frontier-making was partial, with a plantation company also actively producing knowledge about human communities and socio-ecological history. The company carefully documented wartime destruction of landscapes, the threat of unexploded bombs, and the poverty and food insecurity of resident farmers, with the goal of legitimatising their claim to land through the creation of programs to address these problems. In the end, however, the performance remained oriented to turning the territory into a plantation, and to this end, other aspects of the local human ecological history were erased-specifically, the historical and geopolitical causes of ecological degradation and existing land management practices such as swidden and grazing. The effect is the creation of what Whitington (2012) has usefully labelled a "sustainability enclave": a territory subject to the co-production of knowledge and governance arrangements performed in a sustainable and socially just manner. This gives the company domestic legitimacy for the project, and potentially for future projects as well, in a country where there is growing contestation over land access. The creation of a sustainability enclave could also give the company access to international eco-certification, and to international financing for the project. But the sustainability enclave neither addresses the broader sectoral problems of the plantation sector in Lao PDR, nor does it allow for alternative approaches in which the rights of local communities to participate in planning for sustainable and safe development are prioritised-the sort of participation illustrated by Sundar's (This issue) study in India. It is striking how in Sundar's study, local communities mobilised to claim the right to participate through state governance processes. In Barney's study, by contrast, this right to govern resources and people has been partially taken over by a non-Lao-based private company, helping to produce an uneven sovereignty in which private companies supplement or supersede the authority of state agencies (Vandergeest and Unno 2012)-in ways that undermines the participation of resident peoples.

   Conclusions Top

In assessing the unfolding dynamics of environmental governance in the context of the dramatic changes taking place in Asia, this collection has drawn attention to the questions of new technologies and ecological knowledge in the re-making of frontier ecologies. With the globalisation of commodity chains and the entry of powerful national and transnational actors in environmental governance, questions of authority, control, legitimacy, rights, access, and exclusion in frontier ecologies continue to be crucial to ecological governance. In this introduction we have shown how governance is co-produced with ecological knowledge, and how shifts in governance transform the terrain and terms of ecological knowledge. Any account of the production of governance which does not also consider how the governance is co-produced with ecological knowledge is, from this perspective, missing a key feature of how resource governance and resource access are being reconfigured in the frontier zones of Asia.

Current transformations in ecological governance in the frontier zones of Asia are not driven by a single entity or agenda. Ensconced in the messy context of multi-scalar and transnational logics of shifts in resource governance, it is not any one of the usual suspects-the state, community or corporations-that emerge as the key protagonist. The logics of neoliberalism or the market do not necessarily provide all encompassing explanations of the range of overlapping and competing changes currently taking shape, although all these actors and logics are important. Instead, the papers describe how networks of experts, who are often working from a distance, come to shape local and regional dimensions of ecological governance. These actor networks increasingly play a critical role in such frontiers, and force us to pay close attention to the unpredictable and often unintentional outcomes that tend to marginalise resident peoples, undermine customary resource access, and erase historically-sedimented knowledge.

The papers overall suggest that the growing acknowledgement of the relevance of local/indigenous/traditional knowledge for resource governance is often not matched by evidence of growing democratic participation in governance. The deployment of new knowledge technologies, the entry of new market and conservation-oriented actors, the continued production of scientific expertise and scientific narratives, and the ongoing boundary work around scale and territory often serve to marginalise resident peoples from participation in many of the processes that are transforming frontier ecologies in Asia. Exceptions to these broader trends often fail to constitute a counter-movement, but are instead contained to 'sustainability enclaves'. In these enclaves, private project proponents commit to a more transparent and participatory governance regime, but with clear limits on what is possible-i.e., that the project itself is not challenged.

There are, however, some countervailing movements. These counter-hegemonic processes emerge primarily where there are broad-based coalitions such as those formed around people's participation. Fishers, community forestry advocates, and riverine peoples in India and Thailand all mobilised the idea that the knowledge of local people is legitimate and useful, while at the same time challenging national level policies that aimed to contain the relevance of this knowledge to the local scale. While scientific knowledge often continues to be deemed more valid than so-called traditional/oral and local knowledge, it is important to recognise that the resident peoples are often able to navigate the terrain of resource governance and scientific expertise in innovative ways. It is thus the fine-grained attention to specific actors and their networks of influence and authority, that reveals to us not only the changing dynamics of governance but also the multiple and messy ways in which ecological knowledge is being re-cast.

   Acknowledgements Top

This collection of papers emerges out of a workshop-Changing Frontiers of Ecological Knowledge: A Critical Dialogue on Asian Ecologies on the Edge-that was held at York Center for Asian Research (YCAR) in October 2011. We would like to express our thanks to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), File No. 646-2010-1128 for funding the workshop. We especially thank YCAR for their generous organisational support that was invaluable in making the workshop possible. Ours thanks to all graduate students and faculty members who participated in the workshop, and especially to Susan Henders, Tania Li, Robin Roth, Peter Brosius, and Dawn Bazely, who offered critical commentary at the workshop.


  1. Even though we choose the term 'ecological knowledge,' we are aware of the danger of treating the concept of ecology as a stable and fixed naturalised entity that is external to the domain of social relations. Drawing on recent rich literature and debates at the intersection of political ecology, and science and technology studies (e.g., Goldman et al. 2011), we consider ecology and related terms, like nature, as simultaneously social and natural processes that are co-produced by human and non-human actors.
  2. According to Lemos and Agrawal (2006: 298), environmental governance refers to "the set of regulatory processes, mechanisms and organisations through which political actors influence environmental actions and outcomes." Governance "includes the actions of the state and, in addition, encompasses actors such as communities, businesses, and NGOs."[49]

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