WASS Research Theme: Natural Resources and the Environments

In an age of increasing uncertainties, complexities and extremes, cross cut by globalization processes, the competition for natural resources and environmental goods and services is intensifying, leading to competing claims and conflicts.

Rising food prices, an increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, floods and typhoons (possibly due to climate change), environmental degradation, increasing scarcities of land, water and other natural resources and growing political and socio-economic vulnerabilities are interlinked in complex ways to produce multifarious effects on livelihoods. This raises important questions concerning power, politics, governance and markets, in balancing planet, profit and people, and how these can be understood, amongst others from a complex adaptive systems perspective.

WASS research on natural resources, disasters and the environment studies the social processes, knowledge contestations, and conflicting interests around the access to and the management of natural resources, the environment and the production of vulnerability. In this it focuses on a series of interwoven questions and issues:

What are the dynamics of the contestations, competition and conflicts over natural resources and the environment?

Who has access to natural resources and environmental goods and how does access and consumption change in time, space and among different (interest) groups, at local, national and global levels? This research looks at what type of conflicts and contestations have emerged, are emerging and can be expected to emerge in the future at different scales around the growing scarcity and competing claims over different natural resources, such as land, water, forests and nature. More specifically, what are the drivers and implications of the use of land and water for other purposes than food production (biofuels, fibres, nature, tourism, etc.), for instance in terms of inequalities, conflicts, prices, distribution and profits? How and where are natural resource scarcities and abundance, access and consumption a basis for (violent) conflicts and what are the consequences of such conflicts for poverty and prosperity, inclusion and exclusion, power and hegemony? People, households and communities throughout the world are confronted with continuous processes of change and the increasing impacts of disasters. How do these affect people’s livelihoods and household organization, and the ways in which people develop coping and adaptive strategies to deal with these challenges? What specific policies and measures in the preventive, mitigation and reconstruction domains are needed and feasible? How do these differ along cultural and gender identities and how can these be implemented in view of the prevailing institutional complexities?

How are the institutional arrangements for managing natural resources and the environment changing at different scales?

Collective actors manage natural resources and the environment through the use, adaptation and development of a variety of institutional arrangements (related to markets, politics, and culture) across different scales. What is the role of actors and different institutions in governing natural resources and securing sustainability? How and where do such institutional arrangements align or conflict, for instance across multiple scales of environmental governance, between formal and informal rule systems, or between state and non-state rule systems? How do these institutions change over time and what are the drivers of institutional change, including globalization processes? What are the implications of such (changing) institutions for equity and justice, distributional issues (see also theme 1), and economic efficiencies in resource use? And in extreme circumstances, such as disasters, wars and post-conflict situations: how do people rebuild livelihoods and institutions linked to natural resources management? And how can such rebuilding be supported effectively? All these questions involve research on political processes (e.g. on the redefinition of the state, conflict resolution and reconciliation, the emergence of new (democratic?) forms of politics, rights and entitlements), on the role of markets and their actors (such as private labelling and certification systems, strategies to minimize waste and spoilage, valuation of environmental goods and services), and on non-governmental movements and their value systems (for instance related to environmental justice, nature protection and sustainability).

What are the relationships between social transformations, technologies and changing ecosystems?

Science and technology are key mediators in the use and management of natural resources and the environment. What are the relationships, underlying mechanisms and resulting dynamics between people, technologies and natural resources? How are complex sociotechnical processes and socio-ecological change intertwined, how can this be studied from a complex adaptive systems perspective and how does this relate to resilience and sustainability? This requires detailed attention for how this is reflected in the histories of local and regional developments and the influence of global processes on regional and local changes in resource management. Who determines what risks are acceptable, and how health, environmental, social and economic risks and benefits should be compared? What is the role of risks and uncertainties in natural resources management? This research aims to develop new insights in the dynamic relationships between social behaviour, technology development and ecological change using an interdisciplinary approach integrating gamma and beta sciences (see also theme 4). Technology development stems from the scientific and non-scientific construction of knowledge concerning the (optimal) use of resources. Against this background, this research aims to understand technology itself as a sociotechnical phenomenon, and looks at how social dimensions closely relate to the materiality of a technology and to ecological conditions.