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Sustainable Transboundary Governance of the Ecological Commons

Updated: May 31, 2018


ARI has been awarded a major Social Science Research Council (SSRC) grant entitled Sustainable Governance of the Transboundary Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia. Led by Professor David Taylor and Professor Jonathan Rigg, the grant is based in ARI’s Inter-Asia Engagements Cluster and brings together collaborators from NUS and across Southeast Asia with diverse disciplinary backgrounds ranging from human and physical geography to political science, economics, human ecology and biology.

The grant has enabled ARI to hire two new research fellows: Dr Rini Astuti works on peatland governance and the scales of linkages in palm oil supply chains that contribute to transboundary haze, while Dr Thong Tran conducts research on the transboundary implications of hydropower development on common pool resources in Laos, Thailand and China. Dr Michelle Miller, who has re-joined ARI as a Senior Research Fellow on the grant, will conduct new research into how the commodification and conservation of common pool resources is reconstituting social and material constructions of the border via transboundary communities of commoning. In addition, the research project is funding a Research Associate, who will be based in ARI for up to four years, together with two PhD students, both of whom are based in the Department of Geography, NUS. The two PhD students are Tan Zu Dienle and Sumiya Bilegsaikhan. Both joined NUS at the beginning of the current semester. NUS faculty who are also part of the research team, in addition to Profs Rigg and Taylor, comprise Associate Professor Alberto Salvo (Economics), Associate Professor Dan Friess (Geography), Associate Professor Sooyeon Kim (Political Science) and Dr Roman Carrasco (Biology). The research team also includes researchers based in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Canada.

The overall goal of this five-year programme of multidisciplinary research is to further our understanding of key issues in the sustainable development of the ecological commons in Southeast Asia from a transboundary governance perspective. Specifically, members of the research team are concerned with the regional governance of two types of common pool resources: air and freshwater.

Such collective resources defy territorial enclosure within individual countries, flowing as they do across administrative borders for use by diverse collectives of users. The open access nature of the transboundary commons renders air and water resources vulnerable to unrestrained exploitation in the absence of enforceable international legal instruments.

The collaborators aim to identify, across a range of spatial scales, the drivers and impacts of governing the atmospheric and freshwater commons that are producing cascading transboundary environmental disruptions and major challenges for sustainable development. Building on previous multidisciplinary environmental research at ARI, the grant brings new attention to environmental problems that cannot be neatly contained within nation-states such as the impacts of climatic instability, seasonal atmospheric pollution (regionally known as ‘haze’), biomass fires, droughts, crossborder floods, and the depletion or destruction of riparian ecosystems. Reconceptualising these challenges through the lens of the ecological commons will help to identify relevant examples of best practice in governing shared resources within and beyond the context of ASEAN and Southeast Asia.

The policy orientation of the grant is geared towards providing a firm foundation for decision-making about issues in transboundary environmental governance at the national and regional levels. In linking knowledge to action in this way, the programme is concerned with studying connections between the trends of resource interdependencies, economic integration, urbanisation, population growth, climate change, globalisation, and growing levels of consumption in the region. These trends are bringing the development interests of ASEAN countries and their transnational partners into growing tension with conservation agendas. At the same time, the socioecological impacts of these interconnected processes highlight both the shortcomings of existing transboundary environmental governance regimes and the need to forge more comprehensive and inclusive pathways to planning, managing and implementing policies for sustainable development within and beyond the Southeast Asian region.

Here, we treat governance as intrinsically transboundary because questions of access to common pool resources in the current era of converging megatrends are producing socioecological transformations across multiple scales. What this means is that problems of regional sustainable development need to be viewed more holistically to account for the ways in which ecologically unsustainable behaviours at one scale are triggering perturbations that cascade across a range of scales of human interest. Posing sustainable development as a collective problem of transboundary governance thus involves moving beyond the national-level orientation of sustainable development goals (SDGs) and land use regimes. It also involves taking a deeper look at the informal modes of sustainability that are often overlooked in macro-development agendas, such as intergenerational knowledge systems, acquired cultural strategies and emerging transboundary networks that locate sectoral interests within wider conservation agendas. For this reason, some of the collaborators involved in the research programme are focusing on the politics of transboundary cooperation and economic integration, including how the language of sustainability is being used to pursue highly differential development objectives even within the same sector.

Just as this programme of research is multi-disciplinary and multi-scalar, it takes a multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach to transboundary governance. It is now widely understood that the devastating health and socioeconomic impacts wrought by transboundary pollution of the atmospheric commons of Southeast Asia through seasonal biomass burning require ongoing cooperative efforts between governments, multinational companies, financial institutions, activists and communities if the haze problem is to find any meaningful redress in the longer term. Decisions on hydropower dam developments in the riparian regions of continental Southeast Asia similarly require collaborative efforts among multiple stakeholders to stem the degradation of aquatic habitats and protect the complex array of livelihoods that depend upon them within and between countries.

With the transboundary commons emerging as a political space, new and diverse voices are participating in progressive approaches to conservation efforts and innovations in sustainable development. Such transboundary networks of cooperation are bringing people together across jurisdictional divides in Southeast Asia, creating opportunities to build more inclusive and effective environmental governance regimes. To this emerging space, ARI’s programme of transboundary environmental research seeks to contribute the richness of empirical research and theoretical insights in the service of promoting more resilient and sustainable regional futures.

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