Skip to main content

The Lorax Project: Understanding Ecosystemic Politics

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - LORAX (The Lorax Project: Understanding Ecosystemic Politics)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-12-31

The Lorax project is a comparative effort to expand scholarly understanding of hitherto largely overlooked sites of politics – those located between global and national politics and built up around mutually acknowledged ‘shared ecosystems.’ The core question here is: Do regional politics around border-crossing ecosystems share important resemblances and differ in significant ways from global politics? To address this question, the Lorax project analyzes the networks of participation, hierarchies of actors and diplomatic norms of the governance fields that have grown up around efforts to ‘speak for’ border-crossing ecosystems in three locations – the Arctic, the Amazon Basin, and the Caspian Sea.

Midway in the project, our broad scale review of how ecoregions/mega-ecosystems are governed has shown that anchoring multi-issue/broader governance efforts in border-crossing ecosystems is a reasonably widespread but not ubiquitous way of governing shared nature. In other words, not every large-scale ecosystem ends up with a multi-issue effort anchored specifically in that ecosystem - some remain ungoverned or others are governed in different ways (such as through broader multilateral regional cooperation or specific treaties). This makes it especially important and interesting to understand the power political effects of building institutions around shared ecosystems (or what adjacent actors come to view as shared ecosystems). In the Arctic and Caspian cases, our research notes a common marginalization of the diplomatic stature of non-adjacent/non-regional actors over time. In the Amazon case, early findings are highlighting how Amazon states work as a network in global environmental politics, even if the actual institution of Amazon governance (ACTO) is largely seen as a zombie institution. These findings suggest that consequences for extra-regional/global actors – their influence over and access to globally significant ecoregions – is an important and still poorly understood consequence of adjacent states anchoring cooperation in shared ecosystems.

Understanding the additional consequences of sub-global cooperation around ecosystems is only set to become more important. Globally, we face pressing environmental challenges - like climate change and declining biodiversity - and we also look to the natural world to provide for more of our needs in pursuit of a more equitable and safe world. Most of these challenges are often seen as almost unsolvable on a global level, but there is a lot of hope in policy circles for what the regional level might offer as a location of environment-society governance beyond the nation-state. Consequently, we need to understand much better what the consequences of such regional efforts are and can be.
In the period covered by this report the PI and project team have:

WP1-4: the team has completed an extensive literature review and assessment of the scholarly baseline in political geography, IR and related fields (anthropology, political science) as it relates to the main phenomenon we study – cooperation around ecosystems (PI and team, 2019-20).

WP1 (Arctic): This work package is complete. A thorough analysis of normative change, network analysis of participants in this Arctic policy field and discourse analysis of an extensive archive of diplomatic documents relating to the Arctic has been conducted. Article accepted and forthcoming in 'Political Geography.'
WP 2 (Caspian): Data gathering and analysis for two articles – one on regional policy networks and the other on hierarchies around the Caspian ecosystem – is completed. One article is submitted for consideration, another set to be submitted in September 2021.
WP3 (Amazon): Data gathering and analysis for two articles completed. One article on regional policy networks is submitted and under review. A second WP2- article is currently being written based on already collected/analyzed data and will be submitted to a peer review journal by December 2021.
WP4 (comparison, project management): An early task of WP4 was the recruitment of a project team two 2-year postdocs and 2 shorter-term postdoctoral scholars with project-specific expertise. While the majority of the work in this WP is about to commence as the project enters its comparative phase, we have also added a research task and article publication to this WP over the course of 2020/21. This additional output is a database looking at meta-ecosystems/ecoregions and how they are governed and we are currently finalizing an academic article and the database for an open access repository. Outreach has also been an important part of WP4, most notably the PI giving testimony to the EU parliament on Arctic affairs and briefing to American congressional staffers as part of the Wilson Center Congressional Fellows Program.

In terms of findings so far, the database and associated article in WP4 show that there are indeed few ‘ungoverned’ ecosystems, but that many border crossing ecoregions/meta-ecosystems are governed through larger regional multilateral organizations or through issue-specific treaties. The database therefore highlights that there are a cluster of multi-issue governance efforts (beyond environmental cooperation to include security concerns, social issues, trade) that are specifically anchored in border-crossing ecosystems. Given that the phenomenon we study in the project is shown by the database to be a distinct and only occasionally chosen governance choice makes exploring the power relations generated by such forms of cooperation particularly important. The completed analyses under WP1 and 2 (Arctic and Caspian) document a decline in the influence/visibility of global actors as an ecosystemically-anchored cooperation matures. Early results from the Amazon case in WP3 has shown that, although the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) is rightly considered mostly a zombie organization, the Amazon states have forged a powerful and effective network that is visible in global environmental politics, forcefully speaking on behalf of the Amazon.
Our findings suggest that consequences for extra-regional/global actors – their influence over and access to globally significant ecoregions – is an important and still poorly understood consequence of adjacent states anchoring cooperation in shared ecosystems. The Lorax project is making strides in how to approach and systematically compare the unintended or unstated consequences of governance anchored in border-crossing ecosystems.
Photograph: Allan Hopkins/Creative Commons/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0