Research

My research focuses on the political dimensions of socio-ecological transformations. I examine how socio-ecological change is directed and governed and who benefits and who loses in the process. I have conducted over three years of academic fieldwork in Latin America and Southeast Asia, as well as at organizational headquarters and international negotiations in the US and Europe. I have also worked as a consultant on tropical forest issues in Central Africa. I am fluent in French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and I have advanced proficiency in Bahasa Indonesia.

I am currently working on two major projects drawing on my dissertation research. First, I am preparing a book manuscript based on my dissertation, “Forest Governance and Global Development: The Land Sparing Fallacy in Brazil and Indonesia.” Tropical deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia is central to global trends of biodiversity loss, climate change, and agro-industrial expansion. Since 2004, new governance measures in Brazil have helped reduce deforestation in the Amazon by nearly 80%. Similar governance measures in Indonesia have failed to slow forest clearing, however. I explain this divergence through a comparative and ethnographic study focused on the programs of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international environmental organization. I conducted six municipal-level case studies of TNC projects and an organizational ethnography of TNC’s tropical forest programs, including 181 key-informant interviews and analysis of socio-economic and environmental datasets.

I find that forest governance in Brazil and Indonesia is strongly influenced by the “land sparing hypothesis,” which holds that increasing agricultural productivity can spare land for nature. In Brazil, government, corporate, and non-governmental actors have reduced deforestation through a land sparing model that links forest conservation to agricultural intensification, state-building, and socio-economic development. In Indonesia, by contrast, land sparing efforts have been stymied by government and corporate actors who extract resources for private gain. Overall, I show that land sparing in Brazil favors agro-industry over small farmers, however, and is mostly canceled out by displacement of deforestation to extractive zones like Indonesia. I therefore argue that the land sparing model is a fallacy: it supports industrial expansion and state-building but displaces social and environmental costs, producing negative global outcomes.

The second project, titled “Tropical Oak: Forests, The Nature Conservancy, and the Rise of Transnational Conservation,” extends my organizational ethnography of The Nature Conservancy to examine the world of transnational environmental conservation. Since the 1980s, a small group of environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has expanded and transnationalized, assuming a pivotal position in global environmental governance. Despite their influence, little research specifically examines these wealthiest and most ubiquitous non-governmental, non-profit environmental actors.

Beginning from TNC’s founding in the 1950s, I trace organizational developments in the role of science, an ideology of pragmatism, construction of a transnational bureaucracy, and market-centered conservation strategies. In each domain, I link TNC’s evolution to broader political-economic shifts and transformations in the environmentalist movement. This project illuminates how international environmental NGOs function as linchpin actors in environmental governance, bridging different levels and sectors and brokering between different values, interests, and forms of knowledge. Moreover, it expands ethnographic methods for the study of transnational organizations and provides a historical perspective on the development of conservation science and environmental pragmatism, which are at the center of contemporary debates about the ‘Anthropocene.’