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Lorax in Motion: Building the Transnational Ecosystem Politics Database

Lorax in Motion is a series whereby we report and reflect upon the Lorax project’s ongoing research activities. Here, we zoom in upon Lorax’s  Dr Cristiana Maglia, who recently received her PhD in Political Science Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), after a stay as a visiting scholar at The University of Oxford. Her primary research interests include institutions, right wing political parties, electoral markets and ideology.

View over Bani - Sahel Region - Burkina Faso.

Photo: A. Jones/Flickr

View over Bani - Sahel Region - Burkina Faso.

Photo: A. Jones/Flickr

Cristiana has been leading the development of the Lorax ecosystem dataset. In practice, that has meant she has been identifying and coding all transnational ecosystem cooperation that has taken place or is taking place around the world. The database will form the basis for the Lorax Project but also aims to facilitate further research. Indeed, Lorax will make the dataset open-access in the coming months, and so we discussed tricky coding choices and challenges, and the potential uses of the dataset for Lorax and beyond. Keep reading, and you will also difference between TEOWs and MEOWS :)

Q: How many instances of transnational ecosystem cooperation are there? When do they emerge (was there a peak or an accelerating trend, etc.)

A: The Lorax database is based on the WWF classification of Marine and Terrestrial Ecoregions. According to their definition, ecoregions are relatively large units of land or water containing a distinct assemblage of natural communities sharing a large majority of species, dynamics, and environmental conditions. In total, there are 867 Terrestrial Ecosystems of the World (TEOWs) and 232 Maritime Ecosystems of the World (MEOWs). As we are interested in more complex instances of cooperation, our database delimits to ecosystems that have four or more bordering countries.

Figure 1. Lorax – QGis map:  Cooperation initiatives in MEOWs with more than 4 adjacent countries, coded 1 for cooperation specific to ecosystem or 2 for covered by a broader regional cooperation 

(Note: do not cite this map; based on provisional coding that needs further refinement)

For the terrestrial ecosystems, we gathered information on 58 different cooperation initiatives, which appeared in several ecosystems (and then were coded 188 times in the TEOWs database). This is because the initiatives are coded differently for different ecoregions, some initiatives are closely focused on a specific area, but are also related secondarily to other adjacent ecosystems. For the maritime ecosystems, 34 different cooperation initiatives were coded 52 times.

Figure 2. Lorax – QGis maps: Cooperation initiatives in TEOWs with more than 4 adjacent countries coded 1 for cooperation specific to ecosystem or 2 for covered by a broader regional cooperation 

(Note: do not cite this map; based on provisional coding that needs further refinement)

We could see that more than half of the initiatives were established in the 1980s and 1990s, following the trend of integration and cooperation processes at that moment in history, and also coincide with a widespread awareness of ecosystemic and climate change politics.

Q: How did you find them? To what extent are you confident that your search is exhaustive?

A: The search consisted of 4 steps to identify whether ecosystems were the basis for developing ecosystemic cooperation initiatives in what I believe was an exhaustive manner, going from specific and consolidated databases to a more broadly search on Google to grasp as much as possible. The first one was reading the WWF and the Wikipedia pages about the ecoregion to get some keywords – considering the name of the ecosystem and its geography, some river, mountain, forest, sea, gulf that was central to the ecoregion. The second step was to search for these keywords in relevant databases: Correlates of War codebook of International Organizations, the International Environmental Agreements Database (IEADB), the Yearbook of International Organizations of the Union of International Associations, the UN Treaty Collection. For the MEOWs, the search of the keywords also comprised the Large Marine Ecosystems (LME) databases and the Regional Fishery Bodies (RFB) of the FAO Fisheries Division database. The third step was to search more broadly on Google for initiatives regarding environment, sustainable development, conservation, protection in each of the ecoregions, also according to the keywords gathered in the first step. The fourth step was to search for regional integration processes of which some of the countries on the ecoregion were part and which could harbor cooperation among the states in each ecoregion. Within those broader scope integration process, we also looked for initiatives that would related to the ecosystem.  

Q: How do you define transnational ecosystem politics? And how do you differentiate between types? Are some more active and important than others?

A: The database was conceived to systematize information about international political cooperation initiatives that are anchored in ecosystems, but going from a more natural scientific approach to grasp whether and how the countries in that specific area - sharing that environmental conditions - cooperate. With this, we could code ecoregions in different ways: when there is no cooperation initiative at the ecosystem, when there is at least one initiative specific to the ecosystem, and when there is no specific cooperation to the ecosystem, but adjacent countries have co-membership in one (or more) regional organizations that overlap the geographic scope of that ecosystem. But we noticed that each ecosystem could have distinct cooperation initiatives, with distinct levels of importance and specificity. Then we opted to classify each one of the cooperation according to the level of geographical scope (if specific to the ecoregion or broader) and the focus (if issue/resource specific or multi-functional/multi-resources) to capture if the initiatives have been established around the ecosystem in some instance.

Q: Can you give us some examples of the different sorts of ecosystem cooperation that are out there?

A: We could see broad initiatives - both in geographical and focus scopes - such as the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the Association of Caribbean States and the Union for the Mediterranean, that have more than 20 member states and develop some specific projects related to the environment in the area. We could also see some other broad initiatives, such as the European Green Belt and the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO), that have specific issue focuses in a European geographical basis. There were also initiatives that are specific in geographical scope and have multi functional focus, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO). And finally, we could see initiatives that are specific both geographically and focused, for instance, the Sahel Drough Control Cooperation, the Central Africa Forests Commission (COMIFAC) and the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM).

Q: What have been the data gathering and coding challenges?

A: The main challenge of the data gathering was that for some cases we did not know if the initiative was active, so there was a different amount of information for different initiatives. As we were trying to collect as much data as possible, sometimes there was missing information. The biggest coding challenge was related to the way in which WWF divides the areas and ecoregions. To give some examples, in the case of MEOWs, the Gulf of Guinea appears in two entries, divided as Central and West. The same happens in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In the case of TEOWs, as the ecoregions are more numerous, some areas/regions that have a specific initiative are divided into many WWF ecoregions; for instance, the Mediterranean is divided in 8 entries, the Sahel and the Sahara into 7 entries, the Gulf of Guinea in 5 entries, the Himalaya in 5 entries and the Zambezian area in 4 entries. Our choice was to minimize the effects of WWF classification on the political outcome of the analysis and, considering that these cooperation initiatives seem to encompass all these ecoregions as single ecosystems, we chose to code as specific in geographic scope.

Q: Now you have the data, what stuck out to you as particularly interesting or surprising?

A: I think what I found most interesting about the database is that it treats ecosystems themselves as units of analysis and then studies variation in the level and type of cooperation. It does allow for future research on the causes and effects of variation in political cooperation across ecosystems. From the database, we can research why some ecosystems have specific cooperation initiatives while others have it anchored in broader regional cooperation, and yet others have no institutionalized cooperation at all - and this lack of cooperation is also significant. This analysis is only possible because we are starting from this more natural science perspective on universe of ecosystems and then turning to the question of cooperation.

Also, another interesting thing to me is that several countries are present in cooperation initiatives non-adjacent to their region. This invites us to question how different patterns of relations among countries influence ecosystemic cooperation beyond adjacency.

Q: While lorax is focusing on Caspian, Arctic, and Amazon, are there any other particularly interesting cases or patterns that have emerged in the data?

A: I believe that the case of Sahel and the Sahara seems really interesting, especially because they have ecosystemic specific cooperation that include many adjacent countries (for instance, the ecosystem called Sahelian Acacia savanna touches on 13 countries).

Key Words: Lorax, Ecosystem cooperation, dataset-building, International Environmental politics, research methods.


  • Africa
  • Climate
  • Governance
  • International organizations


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 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, Cristiana Maglia, Paul Beaumont, Krisin Fjæstad - are currently undertaking three case-studies into the Amazon, Caspian Sea, and Arctic ecosystemic policy-fields.