Third World Political Ecology

Third World Political Ecology

Aagesen, David

Third World Political Ecology. By Raymond L. Bryant and Sinead Bailey. New York: Routledge, 1997. vii + 237 pp. Figures, tables, bibliography, index. Cloth $65.00, paper $22.99.

Political ecology is an emerging conceptual framework used to examine the interaction between political and environmental phenomena and to understand localized cases of resource degradation within a wider context of regional, national, and international systems. Traditionally used by those conducting research in rural areas of low-income countries, political ecology has its roots in a 1972 symposium about property rights and land-use practices. The framework was embraced early on by anthropologists and rural sociologists, and during the latter half of the r98os political ecology established currency in geography. Today, scholars from various disciplines steep their work in political ecology. As the framework has blossomed across disciplinary boundaries, it has become subject to criticism and subsequent refinement. For example, its use is no longer restricted to researchers working in the countryside of the Third World, and numerous scholars have called for poststructural political ecology that incorporates perspectives from social and development theory.

In Third World Political Ecology, Raymond Bryant and Sinead Bailey begin by providing a comprehensive overview of the development of political ecology. The remainder of the book primarily deals with their approach to understanding the politics of environmental change in the Third World. They argue that resource degradation is best understood by analyzing “the role of various actors in relation to a politicised environment” (p. r88). These actors include the state, multilateral institutions (such as the International Monetary Fund), business (primarily transnational corporations), environmental nongovernmental organizations, and those who have influence at the grassroots level. Bryant and Bailey put politics first in their analysis of interaction among these actors. They do a commendable job of highlighting the complexity of this interaction, which they argue is characterized by unequal power relations, and they avoid the trap of suggesting that tension exists only among these actors by explaining that there is considerable conflict within each group. In an organized and readable text devoid of cumbersome jargon, Bryant and Bailey give the reader a full appreciation of the politics of environmental issues in the Third World.

By arguing for the primacy of politics in political ecology, or by putting politics first, Bryant and Bailey put ecology last. They argue for a thorough analysis of the influence of politics on environmental change, but in doing so they diminish the importance of understanding natural processes. History is also subordinated to politics. Although Bryant and Bailey consider the importance of history in the political ecology framework, they limit their discussion of historical forces to the imprint of colonialism on the natural environment. They fail to make a convincing argument for the utility of rich historical analysis of land-use issues at the local level. The fact that an area was colonized does not mean that we understand the nature and extent of environmental change. And what about precolonial histories? A detailed investigation of land-use issues through time facilitates understanding their variability across space, and its steers one away from the temptation of explaining the world with linear models. As an emerging conceptual framework, political ecology is ripe with opportunity for robust historical research, but this point is largely missed in Third World Political Ecology.

Despite the limitations above, Third World Political Ecology is a welcome synthesis of the field. Bryant and Bailey include nearly five hundred references in their list of citations, and they provide a useful guide to further reading. The book contains excellent chapter summaries, exceptional transitional paragraphs and cross-referencing, and effective use of examples from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. It can be used as required or supplementary reading in upper-level courses having anything to do with the environment and development in the Third World. Third World Political Ecology is also a valuable reference for anyone interested in the links between political economy and natural systems.

Reviewed by David Aagesen. Mr. Aagesen is Assistant Professor of Geography at the State University of New York-Geneseo, where he teaches courses in physical geography and the geography of Latin America. He has published articles about southern South America’s temperate forest in recent issues ofEnvironmental History and Economic Botany.

Copyright Environmental History Jan 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved