Free Online Course on Environmental Justice

The University of East Anglia is developing an online course on Environmental Justice, taught by Prof Thomas Sikor. Interested parties can sign up for free on Futurelearn. The first course starts on 30 March 2015.

Slowly converting sloping cropland into forest.

Slowly converting sloping cropland into forest.

As the world develops, it is facing increasing environmental issues. Conservation efforts aimed at tackling these problems often face resistance because the attitudes to problem and solution may vary between people, location, interests and other factors. Navigating between global and local interests, ecosystems governance, such as Payments for Ecosystem Services attempts to litigate between the different stakeholders. Compensating providers for the valuable services they provide to the greater or future community, often at a loss to their own livelihoods, may change their attitude to the conservation effort. An integral feature of such governance is justice – because ecosystems governance almost always has moral implications – be it changes in the distribution of rights and responsibilities, people’s participation in decision making or the recognition of their identities and histories.

In a paper published in November 2014, Dr Thomas Sikor at the University of East Anglia and Dr Jun He of the World Agroforestry Centre in East and Central Asia have analysed the notions of environmental justice in China’s Sloping Land Conversion Programme (SLCP) in Yangliu in Yunnan province. It is the largest afforestation programme in China and uses public payments to promote the conversion of sloping cropland on into forest in order to protect the upper watersheds. The programme is based on the rationale that upstream farmers provide important services to downstream people, and that they should therefore be compensated for the losses they incur in the switch from cultivation to tree plantations.

Empirical Approach to Environmental Justice

Abandoning the path of simply assessing equity, whose moral scope they find too concerned with the now and here, Dr He and Dr Sikor, together with other colleagues, assumed an empirical approach to justice. First they would identify the dominant notions of justice in ecosystem governance: the dimensions, the (relations between) stakeholders and the criteria. This helps to illuminate the causes of conservation conflicts. Secondly, they examined the appropriateness of justice notions in particular context, paying attention to any prior inequality. Finally, they investigated how the technical design of the governance influences the realization of aforementioned justice notions.

The researchers’ insights demonstrate how conservationists can benefit from an empirical justice approach in the future. They can develop tools that help stakeholders verbalize their notions of justice, acknowledge differences and transform conflicts. It can open channels between proponents and critics of ecosystems governance, as they all believe in the power of justice as a motive for human action.

Insights from Yunnan

After analysing the Yangliu situation, it became apparent that a partial overlap in the nations of justice held by villagers, local state officials and state policy may have been responsible for the SLCP’s economic and environmental successes. Villagers felt entitled, reacted positively, planted trees, and were compensated for their services to downstream dwellers. They too could profit from China’s rapid growth. Failures in other areas may be partially caused by conflicting attitudes to the interventions, or because the procedural justice they adhere to was not met by state policy or local implementation.

The researchers’ insights suggest that getting PES schemes to work is not simply about identifying the right level of payment or picking a profitable tree species; designers and implementers also need to consider the notions of distributive justice held by the stakeholders.

Learn More

For those interested in learning more on environmental justice, Dr Sikor of the University of East Anglia and colleagues have now developed a free online course on environmental justice. It appeals to environmentalists around the world, especially those with a development background. Over the course of 10 weeks, it will look at biodiversity loss, deforestation, climate change and other environmental issues, while trying to find out how to strike a balance between global interests in species conservation, local interests, the needs of future generations, and rights of nature.

Those interested may sign up on the Futurelearn website before the course begins on Monday 30 March.

Read More

Sikor, T., Martin, A., Fisher, J. and He, J. (2014), Toward an Empirical Analysis of Justice in Ecosystem Governance. Conservation Letters, 7: 524–532. doi: 10.1111/conl.12142.

He, J., Sikor, T., Notions of Justice in Payments for Ecosystem Services: Insights from China’s Sloping Land Conversion Program in Yunnan Province, Land Use Policy, 43: 207-216. doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2014.11.011.'

Sander Van de Moortel

After obtaining his master's degree in linguistics and, later, journalism, Sander Van de Moortel chose to  leave his native Belgium for more adventurous lands. After a stint as a product manager for a German IT firm, he landed in China in 2011 after taking a wrong turn on a bike trip through Viet Nam. Comfortably trapped in Yunnan by his linguistic ambitions and his somewhat complicated relationship with China, Van de Moortel has been responsible for communications at the World Agroforestry Centre's East and Central Asia office, and is now assisting the communications unit in the Southeast Asia office. His research is almost exclusively focussed on exploring Southeast Asia's colourful patchwork by bicycle.

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