Land, Water and Power: A Comparative and Critical Political Ecology of Rural Development in Times of Sustainability Crises

Senast ändrad: 27 februari 2024

Cristián Alarcón Ferrari.

Land and water use, together with the associated socio-political processes, are key issues in the discussions on sustainability and climate change worldwide. These discussions are driving a reconsideration of contemporary rural development ideas, concepts and practices. In simple terms, the meaning of rural development cannot be taken for granted and this calls for both critical theoretical and empirical research around concepts of rural development and the materiality implied in such concepts.

Within this context, research on rural development faces important theoretical and practical questions, which in many ways link our contemporary predicament to very basic and old questions in rural studies: what is rural development?  Who defines what rural development is about? How can rural development be understood within the wider context of capitalist development and conflicts? What are drivers of new policy approaches to rural development?  As it is common in critical social science research, scholarly work around rural development is also very much about conceptual work.

In this lecture, I will show why the analysis and explanation of different forms of land and water use require a theoretical and empirical approach to power relations that challenges ideas about rural development, and the implementation of those ideas in rural policy. For this, I will outline a comparative and critical political ecology approach to rural development. Political ecology is an interdisciplinary field of study within environmental research that is often characterized by concern with the role of power in the understanding of environmental problems, conflicts and changes as well as political challenges in the construction of socio-ecological alternatives.

Yet, political ecology is not a theory, and the existence of varieties of political ecology is to an important degree a matter of theoretical differences, and also a matter of competing theories of political ecology. Here different conceptualisations of power play an important role in theory building for political ecology research.  

The political ecology approach to rural development that I will discuss argues for theorizing power relations and structures in rural settings, particularly how people deal with, and confront, those power structures through other forms of power. I will illustrate this with empirical examples from my fieldwork during the last 15 years. This includes comparative studies of forestry conflicts and climate change in Chile and Sweden, as well as research on agriculture, water access, control and management in the Catskill watershed of New York State, USA, and the Tämnaren catchment in Uppsala County, Sweden.

Drawing on insights from that previous work, I will focus the lecture on my ongoing research with colleagues in Chile, Italy and Sweden that aims at providing a better understanding of the opportunities for new approaches to sustainable food security based on agroecology. We are analysing how current agricultural crises affect food provision, with special attention to the institutional barriers for agroecology-based food security.

Using empirical evidence from recent fieldwork in the three countries, I will analyse and explain power relations in the context of rural development policy with a focus on the social relations of production and reproduction associated with agroecological transitions. Finally, I will reflect on the theoretical and empirical challenges for research that uses comparative political ecology of rural development to reveal both the drivers of sustainability crises, and potential socio-ecological alternatives.