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Ribot brings world of experience to new initiative

Beckman Institute faculty member Jesse C. Ribot is lead person for the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy (SDEP) initiative, a five-year experimental research line at the University of Illinois aimed at understanding the relationships between institutions, local populations, and the environment.

Published on Feb. 4, 2009

Because of his life experiences and extensive research, Jesse Ribot is able to put a human face on issues facing Developing World populations such as the effects of climate change on rural peoples or the management of their natural resources.

When Ribot, a former Senior Associate at the World Resources Institute and now a Beckman Institute and University of Illinois faculty member, talks or writes about woodcutters or fishers in small villages in Africa it is with the voice of an expert with firsthand knowledge. He has lived in the forest villages and studied the impact of natural resource management driven by forces outside the villagers’ control.

As an example, Ribot says, different organizations can make claims on a natural resource such as a river that has been fished by locals for generations. A foreign gold company may have been awarded mineral rights by the fishers’ national government but, after fishing the river for perhaps hundreds of years, the local people also have a claim. If the environmental effects of the gold mining prove harmful to the fish downstream, then the fisher’s resource is affected.

I’m interested in issues of justice for rural poor populations. Are they secure, are they represented, do they have access to the resources they need.
– Jesse Ribot

“So the global demand for gold is shaping this local person’s ability to sustain themselves on the fisheries,” Ribot said. “Although there are local conventions for managing and preventing overfishing, their whole convention for management is obliterated by something that is on a scale that has to be dealt with by governments, states, international treaties, and with them the voice of that fisher is rarely ever heard.

“My concern is: how do we get that voice in there. The fisher has a traditional claim even without title or right because traditionally, or as with common law, he has some claim.”

Bringing the rights and the voices of often poor and disenfranchised people living in remote areas into the worldwide roundtable discussion of topics like climate change and resource management has been a passion for Ribot for two decades. He has been around the world, living with villagers in places like Senegal, taking part in seminal world conferences on the environment, and studying issues that often get overlooked by others, such as the daunting problems facing some of the poorest regions on earth.

Both the World Bank and the United Nations have called on Ribot often as an expert in the areas of local government and the environment, climate change as it relates to the vulnerability of local peoples, and access to resources by local peoples. He worked for nine years as a Senior Associate at the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think tank concerned with protecting the environment while also improving the lives of people.

Ribot’s work isn’t easy to define by typical scientific research markers, but the place he is now carving out for himself in academia is one that will have increased relevance as topics like resource management, global warming, and the rights of poor and/or indigenous populations grab our attention in the future.

“I’m interested in issues of justice for rural poor populations,” Ribot said. “Are they secure, are they represented, do they have access to the resources they need.”

Ribot studied physics and linguistics as an undergrad but in graduate school veered toward the type of topics he has been focusing on for twenty years in his professional life. He earned a Ph.D. in Energy and Resources from the University of California, Berkeley, then won Fellowships at the Max Planck Institute, Harvard, Yale, and also at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He came to Illinois as an excellence hire.

“I was delighted and thought it was an appropriate moment to go from this world of applied non-governmental institutions into academia,” Ribot said.

Ribot recently joined the Geography Department at the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute, approaching issues through the means of academic research and educational outreach. He is hoping to leverage his previous work with the World Resources Institute and as a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center into a major research line at Illinois.

Ribot is lead person for the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy (SDEP) initiative at Illinois, a five-year experimental research line that is centered in and supported by the Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, the campus, and Beckman. The approach to issues and problems in the SDEP will incorporate many dimensions. Ribot says that institutions, implicit values, and laws “all shape how people behave and use resources” and that nexus is at the heart of his research.

“We’re interested in that relation between institutions and the use of the resources,” he said. “When that becomes dysfunctional, meaning that the use ends up hurting the user or others, than that becomes a social, or political, or economic problem. We can look at the way those problems emerge over time.”  

Ribot’s world of academia will be centered in the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy (SDEP) initiative. The mission statement of the SDEP initiative states that it “improves management of earth’s environment through research on social and policy dimensions of sustainability” and that it “aims to understand the social and political-economic forces shaping just and sustainable environmental policy.”

Ribot said the SDEP is based around three often interrelated threads. One of them is local government and the environment, which includes questions of rural representation, rural rights, and issues of distribution and equity. That thread will focus on how people are represented when it comes to topics like natural resource management, for example, those fishermen affected by the gold company’s mining practices.

Those types of conflicts, Ribot said, are ones of scale and usage. The mining company’s usage of the river and its effects on the fish are on a much greater scale than that of the fishers. So too is the mining company’s voice when it comes to rights.

“How do we create institutions that give weight to the marginal voices so that the rural poor are not just screaming into the wind?” Ribot asked rhetorically. “How does an individual, a household, or a community gain access to forests, pastures, fisheries, that they need to have access to in order to survive? How do they gain access to markets?”

One way, Ribot believes, is by tackling the issue of access, which is another thread of the SDEP, and related to the representation issue. Decentralization is a macroeconomic strategy in which people are given more representation at the local level and rights to natural resources. Typically, Ribot said, decentralization does not lead to greater rights for local people because, even with greater representation, the central government fails to transfer actual powers to newly elected local authorities. And that central government often sides with outside interests, such as a large mining operation, when it comes to access to resources.

“Access is about who benefits rather than who has property,” he said. “Property is one of many factors shaping who benefits from things. Government usually supports companies – who can gain access even when others ‘own’ the resource. Access is a broader notion than property in the ability of people to make claims to benefits from resources.

“What you find, for example, is that people are given rights to forests in West Africa but they can’t gain access to the markets or they don’t have access to the labor that they would need to exploit the forests,” Ribot said. “Access to markets is structured by social relations and government policies and only some gain access.”

Ribot’s approach to these issues comes from on-the-ground studies and extensive review of the literature on various topics. When he traveled to Africa he saw firsthand why policies such as decentralization were failing, in spite of claims of success by agencies that had recommended them.

“Almost all of the theories about local use and local management leading to better outcomes require some form of local representation,” Ribot said. “We looked at success stories of local representation but couldn’t find conditions of democratic management.

“For that you need three things: local authorities, they need to have real significant discretionary power, and they need to be accountable to the population. We found when they were empowered they were not accountable to the population, when they were accountable to the population, they were not empowered. That was the formula. It was really a lesson in the conservation of centralized power. It is an extremely steep hill to climb to get that power pried out of the hands of people at the top.”

Another important topic of the initiative revolves around questions of climate and vulnerability. Ribot participated in the famous “Rio conference” or “Earth Summit” in 1992, officially known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). It was from this large U.N. conference on sustainability and the environment that proposals for redirecting “international and national plans and policies to ensure that all economic decisions fully took into account any environmental impact” that government policies toward scarcity of water, lead in gasoline, and other issues related to climate change began to change.

Ribot is taking part in planning the “Rio plus 20” conference set for 2012. He said the Rio conference and others like it in the past held in Sweden and South Africa were vital for changing thinking on the climate and our environment.

“These have been the birthplace of the IPCCC – intergovernmental panel on climate change – and many of the conventions around environmental change that we know of either came out of declarations at these meetings or research spawned from these meetings,” he said.

Including disenfranchised populations in the discussion of climate change is essential, Ribot believes. He is co-organizing a preparatory meeting for Rio plus 20 in Brazil in 2010 that will look at climate and social vulnerability in semi-arid and arid lands.

“Usually climate debates are about what’s going to happen to coastal areas and small islands,” Ribot said. “It’s hurricanes and islands and ice sheets. It turns out that the greatest portion of the most at-risk people in the world are in areas where they depend on rain-fed agriculture, which are dry lands and semi-arid lands. So we are going to try and raise the profile of that problem through this meeting.”

Ribot wants research from the SDEP to lend its voice to the worldwide discussions about climate and vulnerability. 

“When there are major policy efforts to deal with something like the energy crisis or climate negotiations, the idea is to have a center that will be actively engaged in doing the research that will feed into those policy processes,” he said. “Gathering what we know about the social and economic aspects of that problem, energy for example, we would hope to be able to inform those sorts of policy-making processes.” 

Ribot says all of the SDEP areas are linked together.

“The questions of representation and vulnerability are sort of my way into justice, distribution, equity, that are all linked together,” he said. “Right now it’s going to be the representation and the vulnerability strands that we are starting with. But justice and sustainability are critical to these. In both cases they are justice and sustainability in the context of local government and in the context of vulnerability because it’s unjust that people live in vulnerable circumstances; vulnerability pushes them to undermine the resource base they depend on, and lack of representation does the same thing.”

In order to reach decision-makers, whether they are officials of corporations or governments, forestry departments, or policy planners at U.N. conferences, Ribot said a new way of looking at the problems is needed. 

“Environmental discourses of agencies and many actors are part and parcel of this struggle over access to resources and you need to have a very solid base in the natural sciences to challenge the specious environmental knowledge and received wisdom of these organizations,” he said.  

Ribot believes the Beckman Institute will be a good place to continue his work.

“When we work on these issues that are at the forefront between science and society, the Beckman is a terrific place to launch findings from,” he said. “I think they will get an enormous amount of air.

“It will be difficult for the hard scientist to ignore them and it will cause debates from within. That’s how you really make change. It’s very easy for scientists to write off social scientists when they are publishing in their own journals. It’s a little more difficult when they are on the same side of the aisle and working through the same channels. That’s what I did at Berkeley. I was in a technological-social science interdisciplinary group and those were some of the richest debates.”

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