The Environment: Securing the Commons (WP1)

The University of Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the University of Lodz, Poland, lead the team research on the extent to which competition over regional ‘commons’ – in the milieus of sea, river, land, forest and air – is reaching a tipping point, with potentially wide-ranging consequences for the region’s security. Failure to face transnational environmental challenges could undermine ASEAN’s legitimacy.

The environment remains at the heart of many development dilemmas in Southeast Asia. New actors and technologies, changing domestic politics, policies, and economies, as well as shifting geopolitics, all hold implications for nature-society relations in the region. In this WP, we are particularly concerned with how contestation over “commons” – for land (e.g. forests), seas, rivers or even air –  at scales ranging from the local to the regional (transborder) –  is emerging as processes of regional economic integration and regionalism unfold, surrounding three themes, namely: sea; rivers; and transition to a low-carbon economy.

Our main conceptual approach considers the co-production of ecological knowledge and ecological governance. Drawing on the work of Sheila Jasanoff (2004) and Shubhra Gururani and Peter Vandergeest (2014), amongst others, we consider the production, circulation and consumption of ecological knowledge at and across the local, national and global scales and its relationship to ecological governance. Through macro and micro case studies, we relate this dynamic process of co-production to other concepts, including: environmental justice; (re)territorialization; accumulation by securitization; mobile political ecology (Elmhirst et al, 2018); and feminist political ecology.

Regarding “sea”, our research addresses two topics. One project examines the impacts of sand mining and land reclamation in Indonesia. A second project examines the marine resources of the South China Sea. Here, consideration is given to the evolving regional demand for fishery products and its political economy, including the competitive relationship between industrial-scale and small-scale fishing practices.

For the theme of “rivers”, five research projects focus on two major transboundary rivers, namely the Salween River and Mekong River. Both rivers are simultaneously seen as (potential) engines of economic growth, in particular for large-scale hydropower dams and irrigated agriculture; as well as natural resource foundations of rural subsistence livelihoods; and as important domains for environmental conservation. Two projects explore the hydropolitics of the Mekong River, including the shifting relationship between China and downstream countries that has emerged with the China-led Lancang Mekong Cooperation Framework and offers new challenges and opportunities for transboundary governance. More locally, a third project examines the impact of resettlement at a large hydropower dam from the perspective of human security. For the Salween River, a fourth project will analyze the history of cross-border teak trade and its implications for border-making, whilst the last project examines the contemporary politics of the ‘Salween Peace Park’ recently created in Karen State, Myanmar and the reterritorialization it implies within the complex, fragmented sovereignties of that area of the basin.

Our final theme, “transition into a low-carbon economy”, entails two research projects. The first examines sustainable energy transition in ASEAN, considering the political economy of the electricity sector and under what conditions entry of more sustainable technologies might occur. The second explores international cooperation through knowledge exchange networks between Southeast Asia cities. Here, the particular interest is how ecological knowledge for improved city planning, for example on energy efficiency, is facilitated by these regional and global knowledge networks.


Chayan Vaddhanaphuti


Tomasz Kaminski

Research Results