Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Lorax in Motion: Mapping Amazon Ecosystem Networks

Published: 16 Apr 2021

This is the second in our “Lorax in Motion” series, which reports on our reflections from the project as it unfolds.

Here we catch up with Lucas, whose PhD from Cambridge University explored the “nested” regional networks that structure global politics. Lucas is leading Lorax’s Amazon case study, exploring the networks, hierarchies and norms that have emerged out of the cooperation (and contestation) over the Amazon ecosystem.

To get a lay of the land, Lucas’ first task was to get an overview of actors involved in Amazon ecosystem politics in some form. He is now in the process of mapping and exploring the extent and form of the relationships between these groups, which include state, private, nongovernmental, indigenous, as well as international actors. While Covid has limited Lucas’ ability to go to the field (for now), he has sought to overcome this challenge by utilising alternative methods. I caught up with Lucas as he was seeking to flesh out his preliminary mapping of the Amazonian policy field, with thicker data from surveys. I talked to him about his findings so far and the challenges of using surveys to gather network data:

Just how many actors are there engaged in Amazonian ecosystem politics? Can you give us some examples that illustrate the diversity?

I think the Amazon rainforest is a good example of how ecosystems politics can involve a complex set of actors. You have at the local level, those who inhabit the Amazon and struggle to defend their interests stemming from their everyday life within the ecosystem. Among those, I believe there are three main groups of actors, the indigenous groups, the populations involved in agriculture and the local NGOs. Of course, there are others too, such as extractive communities, but these I believe the first three are the ones that more strongly endeavour to set the debate on the Amazon Governance. For the survey, I identified 73 environmental IGOs, 18 indigenous groups associations, and 283 rural unions located in the Brazilian Amazon.

And of course, non-state local actors in Brazil are far from the whole picture. The governance of the Amazon also includes local actors in the other Amazon countries, local and national state authorities, foreign donors, international NGOs, regional organizations etc. It’s indeed a complex picture that we hope to capture mostly through the eyes of local stakeholders.

How did you find them? For instance, some of the indigenous groups may not leave much of a virtual trace right? I understand you had some difficulty at first, can you describe your struggle I think you used word - "rabbit hole" to me once - with finding information?

The difficulty of mapping these actors was that it was not easy to know how representative the whole universe of respondents. After much digging, I’ve found three lists that seem to indicate a somewhat complete set of respondents for each group. Indeed, many indigenous groups don’t leave much of a digital trace. Still, they are very well organized and a system of representation at both the national and regional level. The Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) lists all local organizations of indigenous groups in the Amazon. I intend to interview the 18 organizations affiliated with them.  In the case of NGOs, I benefited from a national register in the Ministry of Environment, where all active environmental NGOs are listed. I then selected in that universe, those located in the Brazilian Amazon. The strategy to find associations of rural workers and landowners followed a similar logic. In Brazil, we have a strong confederation of landowners and rural workers that keeps track of all affiliated organizations. For the survey, I then just selected those located in the Amazon.

Do all these actors understand themselves to be involved in ecosystem politics? Or how do they understand what they are doing?  

I believe there are varying degrees in which these actors would explicitly agree about being involved in ecosystem politics, but my understanding is that they would know that struggles about their rights to inhabit/use/preserve that ecosystem is at the heart of their political mobilization.

You are currently preparing surveys in order to gather data on how amazon organisations are related. What are you trying to identify with this survey?

The survey intends to grasp coalitions in the governance of the amazon. The primary idea was to understand how these non-state local actors (in these three groups I mentioned before) related to other actors at the national, regional, and global levels. To that end, the survey will ask mostly for actors to identify other actors they work with and what is the nature of their relations. That will allow us to project the network involved in the governance by the way multiple actors interact with local actors. At the same time, we will apply the same survey to a more unstructured set of respondents at the national level of the Amazon countries, in states from outside the Amazon, in global NGOs and intergovernmental organizations. This will entail going back-and-forth between responses and the enlisting of respondents. This process, I hope, would help us to have a picture of this multilevel network of relations comprising the governance of the amazon.

Using surveys to gather network data is quite a novel approach: what is the potential benefits of this approach for conducting network analysis? What are the challenges and how have you been striving to overcome them?

Surveys can be a good way of grasping interpersonal networks. The strategy is to elicit a specific kind of relationship and ask people to either recall other persons with whom they have such a relationship or to identify them in a list. This has been mostly used in fieldwork, but some works have explored it online. In our case, the main innovation will be to use this method to capture relations among organizations rather than persons themselves. This is a challenge since the respondent is ultimately an individual and any responses would be biased by their perspectives. To overcome it, and also to preserve the confidentiality of their political views, we devised a survey that tries to stay away from personal opinions and invites reflection on their knowledge about the overall experience of the organization.

You conducted a network analysis for your PhD that mapped the evolving nested hierarchies in the global order. This project also conducts network analysis but involves very different empirics, can you compare and contrast the research processes? What are the different challenges associated with working with this data compared to working with your PhDs data?

Yes, in my PhD, I mostly worked from existing datasets about interstate relations from which I tried to identify hierarchical relations among states. This is different from the empirical strategy in Lorax in two main ways. Firstly, in the PhD, I was able to use existing datasets, all previously vetted by the peer-review process of academic publications. The challenge there was ultimately methodological, about producing dialogue between data and theory in order to distinguish hierarchical from non-hierarchical relations. In the Lorax, the data is entirely novel, generated by the survey, so it both adds the challenge of making sure that such an instrument is able to capture the set of relations that we are interested in, and an opportunity to produce a data-gathering device that is tailored to our research questions. Secondly, in the PhD, I have defined a set of actors of the same type (sovereign states). Here, identifying the universe of actors is very much part of the process, as we just discussed.

Your data pertains to some potentially vulnerable groups, what are the ethical issues associated with your research? What steps have you taken to mitigate them?

Yes, network analysis can be a sensitive methodology because it is able to identify social positions that otherwise vulnerable people may not be even aware of. To that end, we are taking a set of precautions. Firstly, the survey is fully anonymous. We will not collect any personal data nor elicit any personal information or opinion. Secondly, the raw data associating responses to organizations will be fully confidential, with access restricted to the Lorax team of researchers only. Thirdly, the analysis itself will not identify any organization's names.

What do you expect your research will contribute to existing scholarship on the Amazon?

I think the Lorax research on Amazon can first of all help us map the complex set of relations involved in the governance of this ecosystem. In such a complex governance system, whose politics are dispersed among so many levels and involving so many distinct actors, this empirical map in itself is a challenge and relevant endeavour. Furthermore, it allows the research to understand how these relations are associated with the ability of distinct actors to affect outcomes in the governance of the Amazon and to trace back the process that produces these networks and actors positions therein.

The ERC Lorax project is a comparative effort to expand scholarly understanding of what we call transnational “ecosystemic politics”. This can include a range of political activity built upon around mutually acknowledged ‘shared ecosystems’. While environmental politics often springs quickest to mind, we also see ecosystemically-anchored cooperation around security issues or economic activity, to give a few examples. Lorax explores whether these policy-fields have distinct characteristics with a particular eye upon the social and political consequences of ecosystemic cooperation. Indeed, Lorax 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. Led by Professor Elana Wilson Rowe, the Lorax team - Lucas de Oliveria, Christina Maglia, Paul Beaumont, Krisin Fjæstad - are currently undertaking three case-studies into the Amazon, Caspian Sea, and Arctic ecosystemic policy-fields.

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