Elephants as Political Actors

By Lauren A. Evans, Space for GiantsNanyuki, Kenya, and Williams M. Adams, University of Cambridge, UK

This video clip was caught by a camera trap positioned along an electric fence built to keep wild elephants away from smallholder farms in Kenya.  It shows a group of male African elephants, banded together to break the fence to raid farmers’ fields. It shows a distinct leader who breaks the fence while the others follow. In such raids, this elephant is often bigger, older and takes more risks.  In our Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers paper we show that these elephants are powerful and influential actors in human-elephant conflict (especially crop-raiding) and in shaping the politics that surrounds their conservation.

Our study site was a human-elephant conflict hotspot – Laikipia in northern Kenya – and a hotbed of diverse human actors (smallholder farmers, large-scale landowners, pastoralists, conservationists, national wildlife department the Kenya Wildlife Service) with different and often conflicting politics relating to land and elephants. We worked closely with the NGO Space for Giants.

The major challenge of bringing elephants to life as actors is that they can’t speak. We needed a creative methodology to understand the elephant experience as much as the human. We used infrared camera traps and GPS collars to directly observe elephant movement across landscapes and behaviour at fences. An elephant tracker observed crop-raiding elephants on a motorbike equipped with a camera and GPS. A network of local scouts collected information on the timing location and nature of fence-breaks and crop-raids.  We used interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups to understand human ideas about and responses to elephants, crop-raiding and fences.

Laikipia’s colonial and post-colonial land polices created a mosaic of land use. The British colonial government evicted Maasai pastoralists and settled Europeans on large-scale ranches. After independence some settlers sold their ranches and they were divided into small plots and bought by smallholder farmers.  Agriculture was hard here: land was dry and rocky so many plots were abandoned, leaving scattered subsistence farms.

Elephants were post-colonial arrivals to Laikipia in the 1970s, driven by insecurity and ivory poaching to the north. Ranches provided ideal ‘elephant spaces’ – contiguous habitat where elephants thrived. They arrived as powerful actors, protected by legislation to reduce poaching and ivory trade.  Yet elephants created a major problem for smallholder farmers. Subsistence farms with ripe crops, lay right next to ranches. When elephants raid crops, they impose their own interests on a landscape intensively used by people, and transform farmland into a “beastly place”.  Despite simple defenses have little capacity to defend their ripening crops against raids by elephants at night. Elephants hold the balance of power.

Data from GPS collars worn by crop-raiding elephants indicate an awareness and avoidance of risk. Elephants leave spaces where they feel safe and enter farmland only when the risk of injury to them from people is low (at night, when few people are around), and they raid crops where farms are scattered rather than concentrated and lie near to elephant habitat. They move faster when they leave the safety of ranches and move into farms, reflecting their awareness of heightened risk.  An electric fence was built along the boundaries of ranches to separate Laikipia into space for elephants and for farming. But elephants frequently break this fence and resisted the human ordering of the landscape, again at night, where it had a low voltage and gave a low shock, and where it was situated close to crops. Elephants impose cost and risk on farmers, and do so in a way that minimises risk and maximises opportunity for themselves.

We found distinct individual behaviour among the elephants we studied. Groups of male elephants break fences (average six, maximum 12). But three bulls – aptly known as Ismael, Nelson, Ananais to Space for Giants – carried out over 70% of fence-breaks in one year. All three were between 35 and 40 years old.  By watching breaks directly and through camera traps we found that these bulls were “breakers” – they physically broke the fence, while a group of younger smaller “follower” bulls waited to cross once the fence had been broken by the breaker. Groups of elephants always had one “breaker” in it, often with the same followers, and young adolescent bulls that would come and go.

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Fence-breaking behaviour, therefore, seems to be “learned” and “taught” among bull elephant society. Young bulls associate with more experienced bulls and learn risky behaviour. “Breaker” bulls represented a frontline of risk-taking bulls – elephants willing to face the risk of injury/mortality posed by humans to raid crops.  In Laikipia, it was the behaviour of these “breakers” in space and time that ultimately shaped the human–elephant relationship with smallholders.

To reduce crop raiding, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) de-tusked some “breaker” elephants – removing part of the tusk to make it harder to break electric fences. Yet elephants invented new ways to break the fence with their stumped tusks and with their feet, body and trunks. KWS then anesthetized 12 of the most prolific breakers and translocated them some 200km away to Meru National Park. After a year, the fence was broken as frequently as before, now by three former – “follower” elephants. Meanwhile, the translocated animals had introduced fence-breaking to Meru National Park, where the fence had never been broken before.

As a species and as individuals, elephants are powerful, political actors, determined to maintain landscapes as a shared space whatever the wishes of their human neighbours.  To accommodate the individuality, vibrancy, and adaptability of elephants in human occupied landscapes, the management of human-elephant conflict needs to become more dynamic. Protected areas are too small and rigidly conceived to accommodate the needs of elephants to move, and their capacity to enforce this movement by crossing barriers erected to stop them.  Human-elephant conflict needs to be understood as emerging from interactions of individual elephants and people in specific landscapes, rather than as a standard problem likely to be tackled effectively by a standard solution. It needs to pay close attention to the individual behaviours, social dynamics and associations of elephants as actors, their predilection for crops and their tolerance of risk.

Evans L. A., Adams W. M. Elephants as actors in the political ecology of human–elephant conflict. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2018;00:1–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12242






Alternative geographical traditions from the Global South

By Federico Ferretti, UCD, Dublin, and Breno Viotto Pedrosa, Federal University of Latin American Integration  


Envelop of a letter from Milton and Marie-Hélène Santos to Anne Buttimer (1938-2017), likewise a cosmopolite and transnational scholar, UCD, School of Geography, Anne Buttimer Papers, folder Latin America.

In the last few years, a rich literature has addressed what might be defined as “alternative geographical traditions”, accounting for a plurality of views, in the history and philosophy of geography. Scholarship in anarchist geographies analyses the shared ‘roots’ of the anarchist tradition and the geographical one (Ferretti et al., 2017; White 2015; Springer 2016). Historical geographers also investigate labour history, anti-racism and global networks of solidarity beyond nationalistic views of the concept of anti-colonialism (Davies 2017, Featherstone 2012; Griffin 2017).

Recently, critical scholarship produced by political dissidents in Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century has been brought to the attention of Anglophone readers.  For example, Anglophone readers have engaged with the work of three Brazilians who were persecuted by the military dictatorship, which ran their country between 1964 and 1985: Josué De Castro (1908-1973); Milton Santos (1926-2001); and Manuel Correia de Andrade (1922-2007) (Ferretti 2018). These authors can be understood as exponents of alternative geographical traditions for three reasons: first, they criticised mainstream discourses on development, countering neo-colonialism and Malthusianism; second, the places and spaces of their work were alternative to the circulation of mainstream scholarship as they established scholarly and activist networks outside Europe and North America, including South-South relationships; and third, they represented a cultural alterity to the dominant discourses mentioned above, being multilingual scholars publishing in English but also (and especially) in Latin languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and French.

Important materials on the figure of Milton Santos have emerged, especially thanks to the work edited by Lucas Melgaço, Carolyn Prouse and Tim Hall, including translations of Santos’s work (Bernardes et al. 2017; Davies 2018; Melgaço 2017; Melgaço and Prouse 2017; Santos 2017) and an Antipode forum collecting interventions by Santos’s students and friends. Now, a paper by Federico Ferretti (UCD) and Breno Viotto Pedrosa (UNILA), published by TIBG, provides for the first time an analysis of Santos’s networks with critical and radical geographers of the ‘Global North’. It does so through archival research on Santos’s unpublished correspondence, which is held at the São Paulo IEB (Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros), a collection only recently opened to researchers and whose story is told via the Milton Santos’s website.

Other initiatives are recovering the memory of radical geographers of that generation. For example, the digitalization of the archives of the Union of Socialist Geographers Newsletter on the Antipode Foundation website.  Our paper explores unpublished correspondences between Santos and Neil Smith (1954-2012) on the initiatives of this association. The paper demonstrates that Santos played an influential, albeit still neglected, role in shaping the field of international critical and radical geographies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Born in Bahia, in the Nordeste region, one of the states with the most numerous Afro-Brazilian communities, Santos was a radical and transnational scholar aware of both anarchist and Marxist traditions. Showing the importance of Santos’s activism in both the French-speaking and the English-speaking circuits, which inaugurated key journals in the field such as Hérodote in France and Antipode in North America, contributes to a reassessment of the role played by the Global South in ‘theorising back’. At the same time, it exposes the importance of doing research on primary sources in different countries and different languages to reconstruct transnational and transcultural networks. In a nutshell, decolonising geographical knowledge.

About the authors: Federico Ferretti is a lecturer at the School of Geography at UCD Dublin. Breno Viotto Pedrosa is Professor at the Federal University of Latin American Integration. 


Bernardes A et al. 2017 The active role of geography: a manifesto Antipode 49, 4 952–958.

Davies Archie 2018 Milton Santos: The conceptual geographer and the philosophy of technics Progress in Human Geography [early view http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0309132517753809]

Davies Andy 2017 Exile in the homeland? Anti-colonialism, subaltern geographies and the politics of friendship in early twentieth century Pondicherry, India Environment and Planning D, Society and space 35, 3 457-474

Griffin P 2017 Making usable pasts: collaboration, labour and activism in the archive Area [early view: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/area.12384/full]

Featherstone D 2012 Solidarity: hidden histories and geographies of internationalism Zed, London.

Ferretti F Barrera G Ince A and Toro F 2017 Eds. Historical geographies of anarchism – Early critical geographers and present-day scientific challenges Routledge, Abingdon.

Ferretti F 2018 Geographies of internationalism: radical development and critical geopolitics from the Northeast of Brazil Political Geography 63 10-19

Ferretti F, Viotto Pedrosa B. Inventing critical development: A Brazilian geographer and his Northern networks. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2018;00:1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12241

Melgaço L 2017 Thinking outside the bubble of the Global North: introducing Milton Santos and ‘the active role of geography’ Antipode 49 4 946–951.

Melgaço L & Prouse C Eds. 2017 Milton Santos: Pioneer in Geography. London: Springer.

Santos M 2017 Toward a new globalisation Springer, London.

Springer S 2016 The anarchist roots of geography Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis.

White R 2015 Following in the footsteps of Elisée Reclus: disturbing places of inter-species violence that are hidden in plain sight in Nocella II A, White R and Cudworth E eds. Anarchism and animal liberation, essays on complementary elements of total liberation Jefferson, Mc Farland & Company, 212-230.



Urban Roma, segregation and place attachment in Szeged, Hungary

By György Málovics, University of Szeged, and Remus Crețan, West University of Timisoara


Photo 1: Housing conditions in one of Szeged’s segregated neighbourhoods

Romani people occupy a complex social position within Europe, due to the stigmatization and discrimination they have faced for centuries there. Numerous studies have shown a strong ‘Romaphobia’ in European contexts (van Baar, 2011), positioning the Roma as Europe’s dehumanized ‘outsiders’ (Powell and Lever, 2017). This literature highlights that ‘the trajectory of the Roma in Eastern Europe is towards ghettoization’ rather than towards integration thus limiting life opportunities in numerous ways for people living in those neighbourhoods, but also providing advantages like protection and solidarity (Wacquant, 2012). A significant amount of research and media news cover this marginalization and urban spatial segregation of Roma in Europe, but the experience of living in ‘Gypsy ghettos’ needs to be examined in a more structured way. Our recent publication in Area (Málovics et al. 2018) addresses this challenge by providing a bottom-up view of the complex phenomenon of place attachment among marginalized urban Roma in two ghettos in Szeged, Hungary.

Approximately 3% of the Hungarian population (300,000 Roma) reportedly live in segregated environments, of which at least 1,633 ethnicity-based segregated neighbourhoods are known (Domokos and Herczeg, 2010). Findings from Szeged activists’ six-year participatory action research (PAR) project demonstrate that characteristics of both place and community relations are key determinants of place attachment for segregated urban Roma. Social relations within marginalized Roma neighbourhoods are shaped by dual ties. Traditional relationships based on reciprocity still exist, representing not only significant material and emotional support for families but also strong expectations towards sharing and the lack of a private sphere. In addition, we observed a process of social and spatial disintegration: Roma communities are becoming more fragmented, members aid others only in times of great distress, and they exclude those on the margins. The physical characteristics of segregated Roma neighbourhoods exert a dual influence on place attachment: these are ‘beyond-the-pale’ areas for local and national authorities. Basic public services are thus often neglected, resulting in poor housing conditions and an untidy environment (Photo 1), but also the perceived benefits of cheap housing and the relatively unregulated use of open spaces.

The relationship of segregated Roma to their neighbourhoods is shaped by further factors that extend far beyond the neighbourhood. Being embedded in the surrounding area(s) might represent numerous advantages (including work opportunities). However, poverty, prejudices, discrimination and, stigmatization from mainstream society limit life opportunities in numerous ways, for example, the ability to use public spaces. Because of poverty and ethnic stigmatization, numerous Roma are unable to ‘appear in public (spaces) without shame’ (Sen 1999, p.71). The same applies to important social institutions, including even primary schools: Roma pupils either attend segregated schools or classes or are marginalized within integrated primary schools. Overall, place attachment among marginalized urban Roma is a contradictory phenomenon: it varies from one segregated neighbourhood to the other and is influenced by social relations, the physical characteristics of the neighbourhoods, and relations between neighbours and everyday processes within the wider society.

The desegregation of urban Roma ghettos has become an official goal of Hungarian local development policy but we found that numerous issues should be considered in this process. The most important issue is that Roma communities are marginalized and stigmatized at the micro-level of daily social relations. In order to understand marginalization we must look beyond merely policy-oriented approaches and consider wider (historical) social processes and power relations within society. The question for further research remains: how to effectively struggle against centuries of social and spatial exclusion and ‘political pragmatism’ (Marinaro, 2003) as regards the marginal position of Roma within European societies.

About the authors: György Málovics is an associate professor of economics at the University of Szeged, Hungary. His academic interests are mainly dealing with local development, urban sustainability, marginalization and participatory action research. Remus Crețan is a professor of human geography at the West University of Timisoara, Romania. His recent research covers marginalization and stigmatization of Romani communities as well as (post)communist memory studies, political ecology, and social movements in Central and Eastern Europe. This blog post was written on behalf of our paper’s co-authors, Boglárka Méreiné-Berki and Janka Tóth.


Domokos, V., and Herczeg, B. 2010. Terra Incognita: magyarországi szegény- és cigánytelepek felmérése – első eredmények. Szociológiai Szemle 3: 82–99.

Málovics G, Creţan R, Méreiné Berki B, Tóth J. Urban Roma, segregation and place attachment in Szeged, HungaryArea2018;00:1–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12426

Marinaro, C. I. 2003. Integration or marginalization? The failures of social policy for the Roma in Europe. Modern Italy 8: 203–18.

Powell, R., and Lever J. 2017. Europe’s perennial “outsiders”: A processual approach to Roma stigmatization and ghettoization. Current Sociology 65: 680–99.

Sen, A. K. 1999. Development as Freedom. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

van Baar, H. 2011. Europe’s Romaphobia: Problematization, securitization, nomadization. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29: 203–12.

Wacquant, L. 2012. A Janus-faced institution of ethnoracial closure: A sociological specification of the ghetto. In R. Hutchison and B. D. Haynes eds. The ghetto: Contemporary global issues and controversies. Westview, Boulder CO, 1–32.

Birds eye view of climate variability

By Anusha Sanjeev Mehta and Robert Wilby, Loughborough University 


(c) Anusha Sanjeev Mehta

The monsoons are the most important climate feature of India. They dictate the seasons and ultimately shape human well-being and livelihoods. But these dramatic transitions between hot/dry and cooler/wet conditions affect not just people but also the region’s flora and fauna.

Recently there has been a surge in nature-related recreational activities in India, particularly bird watching. Home to more than 1,000 species (of which about 45 are endemic), India is the ideal place for ornithologists. However, bird counts can vary a great deal between years, dropping markedly for example in 2015. Could there be a connection between climate conditions and birds in India?

Our new study, published in the journal Area, found that ocean-atmosphere patterns, such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, could be affecting the number of bird species and counts of selected bird types in the states of Goa and Tamil Nadu. This is because ENSO and IOD patterns are linked to regional precipitation and temperature anomalies over large parts of the world, including India.

We pooled bird data for the years 1990 to 2015 by prevailing ENSO and/or IOD phases. They discovered that greater numbers of bird species occurred under El Niño and/or negative IOD events compared with La Niña and/or positive IOD events. In particular, bird diversity is higher when both Goa and Tamil Nadu experience locally wet conditions (under El Niño) compared to locally dry conditions experienced during La Niña. It was also found that temperature has a strong effect on the number of birds. Overall, bird communities were more abundant under warmer/wetter conditions.

The Brahminy Kite, Indian Pond Heron, and Lesser Whistling Duck were used as marker species to further detect the influence of ENSO and IOD. All three species were much more abundant in Goa during El Niño than La Niña events, while more Kites were found in Tamil Nadu during negative IOD than positive IOD events. Some seasonal and lagged impacts on bird communities were also observed. The picture could be further complicated by ENSO and IOD events operating in tandem, but datasets are generally too short to be sure.

The changes in bird species and individual bird numbers may be due to the indirect effect of ENSO on prey, habitats, nests, and migration. Wetter conditions during the winter and pre-monsoon period are favorable for birds due to the increase in food and water availability and reduced negative impacts on eggs and young birds caused by high temperatures. However, very wet weather and flooding can destroy breeding grounds, negatively affecting bird communities.

The study contributes to scientific knowledge by showing how ENSO and IOD signatures may be detected in the bird communities of India. The approach could be extended to other indicator species. This could deepen our understanding of the future climate vulnerability of one of the most ecologically vibrant areas of the planet.

About the authors: Anusha Sanjeev Mehta is Loughborough University graduate and Rob Wilby is Professor of Hydroclimatic Modelling at Loughborough University.  



Kotteswaran, C. S., (2015) Vedanthangal bird sanctuary closes early. Deccan Chronical, 31st May 2015. Available at: http://www.deccanchronicle.com/150531/nation-current-affairs/article/vedanthangal-bird-sanctury-closes-early [Access date 7 November 2017]

Mehta AS, Wilby RL. Modes of climate variability and associated bird communities in IndiaArea2018;00:1–13. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12412

Exploring Cultural Geographies of Coastal Change

By Cormac Walsh, Hamburg University, and Martin Döring, Helmholtz-Zentrum Centrum Geesthacht


© Cormac Walsh, Wadden Sea coast, Northern Germany, looking towards Nordstrandischmoor (Hallig island).

Coasts are gaining increased attention worldwide as sites of dramatic and disruptive environmental change. Coastal settlements and ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise (Moser et al 2012). Exploitation of marine resources also contributes to coastal change, resulting in subsidence or loss of land at coastal locations, including at Louisiana and the Dutch Wadden Sea (Wernick 2014, Neslen 2017). Despite the evident interweaving of the natural and the social, the ecological, and the political at the coast, coastal geography has long been firmly positioned within the domain of physical geography with comparatively little input from human geographers. Indeed within the social sciences more generally, coastal and marine spaces have tended to be marginalised in favour of land-based narratives of societal development (e.g. Gillis 2012, Peters et al. 2018).

Physical, social, economic, and cultural processes come together at the coast, and meanings become enmeshed and intertwined. The power of the sea and the physical evidence of geomorphological change at the coast is a reminder of the materiality of place and the potential for dramatic and disruptive change. But coastal landscapes are also lived spaces, often embodying historical narratives of struggles against the sea, building coastal defences, reclaiming land, and learning to work with the daily and seasonal rhythms of a dynamic and fluid environment. In our recently published Special Section of Area on ‘Cultural Geographies of Coastal Change’ (Walsh & Döring 2018), we bring together diverse perspectives concerned with the cultural dimensions of understanding, interpreting and responding to processes of both environmental and socioeconomic change at the coast. In recognition of the need for a broad spectrum of diverse perspectives, we deliberately write of cultural geographies in the plural. Indeed our understanding of cultural geographies extends beyond the discipline of geography itself, to embrace related endeavours in the environmental humanities (Palsson et al. 2013) and the applied field of spatial planning (McElduff & Ritchie). The papers in the Special Section address issues of place attachment and climate change adaptation at the Wadden Sea coast of Germany and the Netherlands (Döring & Ratter, Van der Vaart et al, Walsh), conflicting perspectives on marine conservation in the Scottish Hebrides (Brennan), questions of land- and seascape designation in the UK (Leyshon) and pathways towards place-based coastal resilience in Ireland, North and South (McElduff and Ritchie).

Conceptually, the Special Section explores the concepts of ‘liminality’, ‘metageographies’, and the ‘coast-multiple’ in an effort to grasp the complexity of a multiplicity of ways of knowing the coast, and the potential for coastal places to occupy in-between-spaces of possibility and alterity at the boundary between the land and the sea. We emphasise the need for a reconceptualization of the coast which opens up possibilities for imagining alternative futures, of thinking the coast differently (Leyshon 2018, also Köpsel et al 2017). We thus seek to move beyond established categories of mutually exclusive land and sea spaces, natural and cultural landscapes and fixed, immovable coastlines in favour of a hybrid geography of fluid and dynamic spaces of hybrid nature-culture relations (also Ryan 2011, Satizabal & Batterbury 2017). Such spaces of possibility require inclusive processes of dialogue among a broad range of stakeholders and community interests, proactive, forward-looking leadership and informed input from the social sciences, humanities, and arts (McElduff & Ritchie 2018, van der Vaart et al 2018). It is hoped that the Special Section will provide a point of departure for future engagements with the complex geographies of socio-environmental change at the coast.

About the authors: Dr Cormac Walsh is an environmental geographer at Hamburg University, Institute for Geography. He is also co-editor of the recently launched Marine Coastal Cultures research blog. Dr. Martin Döring is an interdisciplinary researcher in the Human Dimensions of Coastal Areas Working Group at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Centrum Geesthacht. 


Brennan RE. 2018. The conservation “myths” we live by: Reimagining human–nature relationships within the Scottish marine policy contextArea50:159–168. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12420
Döring M, Ratter BMW. 2018. Coastal landscapes: The relevance of researching coastscapes for managing coastal change in North FrisiaArea. 50:169–176. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12382
Gillis, J. R. 2012. The Human Shore: Seascoasts in History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Köpsel, V., Walsh, C., & Leyshon, C., 2017. Landscape narratives in practice: implications for climate change adaptation The Geographical Journal. 183: 175-186 https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12203
Leyshon C. 2018. Finding the coast: Environmental governance and the characterisation of land and seaArea50:150–158. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12436
McElduff L, Ritchie H. 2018. Fostering coastal community resilience: Mobilising people‐place relationshipsArea. 50:186–194. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12419
Moser, S. C., Williams, S. J., Boesch, D. F. 2012. Wicked Challenges at Land’s End: Managing Coastal Vulnerability under Climate Change Annual Review of Environmental Resources 37 51-78
Neslen, A. 2017. Gas grab and global warming could wipe out Wadden Sea heritage site, The Guardian, 16th June 2017.
Palsson, G., Szerszynski, B., Sörlin, S., Marks, J., Avril, B., Crumley, C., Hackmann, H., Holm, P., Ingram, J., Kirman, A., PardoBuendía, M., Weehuizen, R. 2013. Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research Environmental Science & Policy 28 4 3-13
Peters, K., 2010. Future Promises for Contemporary Social and Cultural Geographies of the Sea,  Geography Compass, 4, (9), 1260-1272.
Ryan, A. 2011. Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Explorations of Landscape:  Representation and Spatial Experience Farnham: Ashgate
Satizábal, P. and Batterbury, S. P. J. 2017. Fluid geographies: marine territorialisation and the scaling up of local aquatic epistemologies on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12199
van der Vaart, G., van Hoven, B., Huigen, P.P.P.  2018. The role of the arts in coping with place change at the coastArea50:195–204. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12417
Walsh, C. 2018. Metageographies of coastal management: Negotiating spaces of nature and culture at the Wadden SeaArea50:177–185. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12404
Walsh, C., Döring, M. 2018. Cultural geographies of coastal changeArea50:146–149. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12434
Wernick, A. 2014. Louisiana’s coastline is disappearing at the rate of a football field an hour, Public Radio International, September 23rd 2014.




Coping with drought in Madagascar – a Role-Playing Game approach

By Maren Wesselow, University of Oldenburg and Susanne Stoll-Kleemann, University of Greifswald

Baobob tree on the Mahafaly Plateau © Jacques Rakotondranary

Baobob tree on the Mahafaly Plateau © Jacques Rakotondranary

The island nation of Madagascar is well known for its abundance of species and unique habitats. The potential loss of this impressive biodiversity, due in part to a combination of ongoing population growth and decreasing precipitation, is alarming for environmentalists and researchers. Threats to biodiversity in Madagascar have direct adverse effects on ecosystems and in turn on the people’s livelihoods, which largely depend on these diverse ecosystems.

In the Mahafaly Plateau (southwest Madagascar) periods of drought constitute a major threat to rural livelihoods, which are based around subsistence agriculture and rely on rainfall for irrigation and zebu husbandry. In face of the impacts of climate change, it is crucial that rural communities like those in the Mahafaly Plateau develop adaptation strategies. Generating knowledge about the existing adaptation strategies is essential for supporting local actors to achieve food security by safeguarding their livelihoods and the ecosystems they depend upon.

Community participation through Role-Playing Games

In transdisciplinary science, researchers integrate the knowledge of various scientific disciplines and stakeholders such as resource-users, decision-makers, and practitioners into the research process. This demand for integrative knowledge production calls for innovative and integrative methodologies. The so-called Role-Playing Game (RPG) methodology is presented in our recent publication in The Geographical Journal.

The method involves a number of stakeholders in a gaming situation where they act out (or role play) individual and collective decisions in response to particular scenarios. During the games, roles are assigned to the players, and, typically, a game board is used as a stylised representation of a real-life situation.

The Livelihood Game

A participatory role-playing game (RPG) was used to understand household strategies in Southwestern Madagascar in years where “normal” rainfall was observed and in periods of drought in. Since the thematic focus of the RPG was on the maintenance of a livelihood, the game was termed a “livelihood game”. The fictional duration of the game was four years, with each round representing one year. A satellite map of the village layout containing mapped plot boundaries was used to set the spatial and topographic context for the households’ activities.

Four household roles, ranging from relatively wealthy to relatively poor, were randomly assigned to players. To simulate the households’ decisions, players could locate their fields on the map and decide how to cultivate them. Moreover, a set of seven action cards illustrating activities like livestock farming, trade, making charcoal, and making handicrafts were also available to the players. Expenses and revenue were calculated for the end of each year and were symbolised by beans. We found that anonymisation, achieved through the random assignment of roles, encouraged participants to open up more in comparison to other forms of group workshops. Watch this video to find out more about the RPG methodology as applied in the Madagascar case https://vimeo.com/222374756. (WOCAT, Sulama).

Learning by doing and learning by failing

The results helped researchers understand the strategies different household types pursue in order to secure their livelihoods. Moreover, participants stated that they gained insights about how to improve their livelihood strategies from the in-game discussions. For example, they strategically accumulated starting capital to access more profitable livelihood activities. In times of drought, participants diversified their activities and increasingly opted to collect edible forest products or migrate temporarily.

The strength of the RPG method is that the close-to-real situations allow the creation of ‘safe, dangerous places’ (Lankford and Watson 2007, 426) where various courses of action can be tested and discussed. Furthermore, it constitutes a platform that helps to build trust, negotiate interests, and mediate conflicts between participants.

Jacques Rakotondranary2

Players discussing their livelihood decisions during the livelihood game © Jacques Rakotondranary

Power and empowerment

One problem associated with participatory methods is that power imbalances can arise between local research participants and non-local researchers. This means, for example, that the game, developed by non-local researchers, might be designed in a way that reflects the researchers’ prior assumptions about who holds power and who is to be empowered (Kothari 2001). In these situations, participatory approaches run the risk of reproducing such power disparities by providing a platform for those voices that are already most dominant (Mosse 2001), while marginalised groups such as women or the poorest members of the community might be sidelined.

The method requires a lot of preparation and communication skills. Therefore, it is crucial that facilitators have a good knowledge of the region and should pose critical questions when they suspect bias or distortion in participants’ answers. At the same time, they should act as neutral persons who allow all participants to contribute their knowledge and opinions. If applied in a thoughtful way, the method constitutes a powerful tool for observing players’ behaviour and eliciting their decisions in context, as well as providing a platform for the discussion of the consequences of their actions.

About the authors: Maren Wesselow is a PhD Candidate at the University of Oldenburg/ Germany, and Susanne Stoll-Kleemann is a Professor in Sustainability Geography at the University of Greifswald/ Germany.

BBC News 2016 Madagascar: 1.5m face hunger because of drought, UN says published on 27 October 2016 on BBC News (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37792356), accessed 20 December 2017

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Wesselow M and Stoll-Kleemann  2018 Role-playing games in natural resource management and research lessons learned from theory and practice. The Geographical Journal https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12248 



Exploring political-economic influences on official environmental reports

By Yonten Nyima, Sichuan University, China

A local government billboard that reads, “Implementing the policy of grassland ecological protection subsidy and reward, to restore natural grassland ecosystem functions”, Shentsa, Tibet, March 2017 (Photography by Yonten Nyima)


Not long ago, China’s state media, Xinhua News Agency, reported that grassland cover in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has increased by 2.5% since 2010 according to the regional Department of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry (Liu, 2017; Xinhua News Agency, 2017). According to the report, the increase results from an ongoing grazing ban and a destocking policy implemented to prevent and reverse grassland degradation (Liu, 2017). Grazing has been banned on approximately 10% of the region’s total area of grassland and the number of livestock has been reduced to 18 million from 23 million in 2010, as per the report(Xinhua News Agency, 2017). The report does not detail how this increase in grassland cover was figured out. Nonetheless, my recently published Area paper suggests that it is sensible to be skeptical about the credibility of such reports as they are often influenced by political-economic factors (Nyima, 2018).

China claims that, with a total grassland area of 400 million hectares (a total usable grassland area of 313 million hectares), which it says accounts for 13% of the world’s total area of grassland and 41.7% of China’s total area of land, it has the world’s second largest grassland area after Australia (Han, 2011). Within China, the TAR is believed to have the largest grassland area with 25% of China’s usable grassland area (Han, 2011; Zhaxi, 2016). In China, narratives of grassland degradation underlie ongoing state policy on grassland management and pastoralism. As it believes that there is pervasive rangeland degradation across the country due to overgrazing, China has launched two large grassland protection programs since 2003. The programs call for grazing restrictions and destocking through a reward mechanism.

My Area paper critically examines the credibility of official reports on grassland degradation through a case study from the TAR. It analyses the political-economic motivations behind official reports on grassland degradation over two decades, between 1992 and 2011, in the region. It reveals internally inconsistent or contradictory figures and statements regarding the magnitude and extent of grassland degradation and shows political-economic factors influencing official reports on rangeland degradation. Specifically, the government tends to play down the problem of grassland degradation when it responds to criticisms for its alleged environmentally damaging activities. The opposite is true of official reports on grassland degradation produced for economic motivation, i.e. government agencies tend to overstate the problem of grassland degradation in order to capture funding. The paper concludes that political-economic motivations behind official reports on grassland degradation may prevent alternative input about the actual condition of grassland, and alternative policies to be considered and adopted.

This finding is consistent with research elsewhere in the world; non-environmental factors play an important role in shaping environmental narratives. For example, Sayre’s review of the global history of grassland science shows that grassland science is guided more by capital and the agendas of state agencies (Sayre, 2017). Another example is Davis’s study of arid lands in North Africa, which shows that desertification assessment has been politically motivated and exaggerated, and yet such assessment still frequently informs policy (Davis, 2016). Lastly, it should be stressed that pointing out that non-environmental factors shape environmental narratives is not the same as denying environmental problems, but it is vital to have a more accurate understanding of environmental realities.

About the author: Dr. Yonten Nyima was Associate Professor, Institute of Social Development and Western China Development Studies, Sichuan University, China


Davis, D. (2016). The arid lands: History, power, knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Han, J. (2011). Survey on ecological issues of China’s grasslands (in Chinese). Shanghai, China: Shanghai Far East Publishing House.

Liu, H. M. (2017). Grassland cover in the Tibet Autonomous Region exceeds 45%; grassland ecosystems recover well (in Chinese). Xinhua News Agency 25 December. http:// www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-12/25/c_129774826.htm

Nyima Y. (2018). Political-economic factors in official reports on rangeland degradation: A critical case study from the Tibet Autonomous Region. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12418

Sayre, N. (2017). The politics of scale: A history of rangeland science. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Xinhua News Agency. (2017). Tibet sees expanding grassland. 25 December. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-12/25/c_136850815.htm

Zhaxi. (2016). The rangeland area of the TAR exceeds 1.3 billion mu (in Chinese). China Today

1 November. http://www.chinatoday.com.cn/chinese/society/xzrys/201611/