MSc thesis opportunity: Environmental versus/and political ecology explanations of civil war

There is a fierce debate about the origins of the civil war in Syria.

Some argue that the civil war was caused by environmental induced scarcity (climate change). Key environmental factors identified are water-scarcity and climate variability. Drought is said to have contributed to the displacement of rural populations to urban centers, unemployment and the occurrence of food insecurity with subsequent effects on political stability (Gleick 2014).

Others have argued that the relation between drought, migration and conflict is not so clear-cut (Eklund & Thompson 2017). They content that the central causes of the war were the Syrian regime’s agrarian policy and the rural poverty it produced (political ecology). The regime’s social and economic reforms cut the peasantry from subsidies, resulted in a loss of livelihood and brought large parts of the population out of the social reach of the state (Daoudy 2020).  

For this thesis you will evaluate and assess climate change and political ecology centered explanation of the causes of the civil war in Syria. Based on this reading, you are challenged to 1) develop an approach beyond the climate change – political ecology controversy or 2) assess the policy implications of both approaches. For this study, you will analyze scientific articles, reports by international organizations and NGOs, but also consider datasets of FAO and WB.

More info:


The EU Protein Plan: shifting to sustainable supply-chains or more of the same?

Chris Chancellor, WU Graduate

The impact that our industrialised global food supply-chain has on diverse ecosystems and communities around the world is receiving greater attention than ever before. Scholars and activists have for decades emphasised how European agricultural demand has driven deforestation and environmental destruction in species-rich biomes such as the Amazon and Cerrado regions in Latin America.  Now it is becoming clear that the consequences extend far beyond the environmental harm generated by the production stage itself. When looking at the wider chain, the implications of industrial food systems for issues such as food and nutritional security, human health, social justice, rural vitality, employment, and the concentration of market control, become apparent.

Having found its way onto the political agenda, the European Union (EU) has come up with the idea of a European Protein Plan. The EU is currently heavily reliant on imports of protein crops, primarily soybean from Latin America’s Southern Cone region. As well as being linked with major environmental and human rights concerns, the reliance on imports also makes the EU agricultural industry vulnerable to shocks in international commodity prices. Soybean is the favoured ingredient in animal feed for the EUs powerful livestock industry, and therefore a price shock would have major socio-economic consequences.

The Protein Plan essentially proposes increasing the amount of domestic protein crop production. The idea is that this would lift the burden on Latin American ecosystems whilst at the same time providing the EU with greater ‘protein independence’. This has been presented as a win-win situation, and yet the manner in which this production would take place has received little or no critical attention.

A report published by civil society organisation European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) highlights the dangers of simply transplanting the same corporate industrial supply-chain into Europe. Last year, an agreement called the European Soya Declaration was signed by 13 member states, highlighting the suitability of fertile and ‘underused’ lands in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) for expansion of European soybean production. The ECVC report details the recent emergence of agribusinesses and financial investors in the CEE region. Land here is cheaper and often more fertile than in Western Europe, and offers suitable agro-climatic conditions for commodity soybean cultivation. There is therefore an opportunity for large profits to be made if land is bought up now, cultivated with soybean or other commodity protein crops, and potentially sold later when land prices have reached western European levels. As one company puts it: ‘protein crops are the new gold bars’. However, this process is not a neutral one, and entails radical reformulations of arable land ownership and control, threatening the livelihoods of the region’s small-scale producers and rural communities.

Another report from the Land and Resource Lookout reaches a similar conclusion, pointing out that ‘a control-blind approach’ to sustainability is evident. Much attention is given to the fact that this soy would be non-GM, would be deforestation-free, and would help to fix nitrogen in crop rotations. These are undoubtedly positive, yet these traits in isolation don’t automatically equal sustainable supply-chains. The manner in which this soy is produced, distributed and consumed, as well as how and who controls these processes and relevant markets, are key for building a truly sustainable and inclusive food system. It argues that sustainable food system strategies must explicitly address the issue of corporate control if effective progress is to be made.

With the European Commission set to release a report on the EU Protein Plan before the end of the year, both reports advocate for the inclusion of agroecological principles and the concept of food sovereignty in any future EU protein strategies. An agroecological transition offers a potential pathway for a truly inclusive, interconnected and mutually beneficial food system to be built, but this must receive political backing in order for it to really take hold.

The fact that the sorts of headline issues emphasised in the European Soya Declaration are receiving genuine political attention is a positive step. It provides an opportune moment to address deep-seated systemic problems in our current industrially-based food system; policy-makers must now be brave enough to seize it!

Note: are you a WU master student and interested in doing a thesis research on this issue, please contact

Opportunity for Wageningen students: Study at Kyoto University

wp_20160526_12_28_46_proThe Rural Sociology Group and the Graduate School of Economics at Kyoto University have a close collaboration for several years. As a result, Wageningen University and Kyoto University have signed a student exchange agreement, and now in the process of strengthening our collaborative partnership through the Platform for Global Sustainability & Transcultural Studies (see For students who are interested in studying at Kyoto University in the academic year 2017/2018 (from April 2017 to March wp_20160527_15_06_26_pro2018) for a period of approximately 4 months, or who are interested in doing their internship or master thesis research at Kyoto University, we have secured funding. If you are interested in studying in Kyoto, the centre of Japanese culture and scholarship please contact Joost Jongerden at the Rural Sociology Group.  

PhD course on place

Coming April and May we organize a PhD course called “the politics of place”. With James Ferguson, Hannah Wittman and Scott Prudham we will  explore and discuss a range of issues related to place and politics, such as place and new understandings of citizenship, social movements, capital & ecology and redistribution. The course will be a mixture of lectures, discussion and tutorials. For more info see:



Satoyama Stories: A Glimpse on the Movement for Regeneration of Matsutake Forests in Kyoto

The Rural Sociology Group and Kyoto University maintain a close collaboration. Flora Sonkin, a MSc student at RSO, participates in a summer school and participated in field work near Kyoto this month. In this posts she shares her experiences.


I arrived in Kyoto, Japan a few days ago as a visitor for the FEAST project at RIHN (Research Institute for Humanity and Nature), and to join the Kyoto University Graduate Seminar on Sustainability Studies.

Being in Japan in autumn has a special effect on one’s senses. Feeling awakened by the warm yellow and red colors that paint the mountainous landscape, and by the fresh smell of fallen leaves and pine trees. On the first day of my visit, Mai Kobayashi (my host at the RIHN) took me to a Satoyama nearby RIHN, were a community-led forest management project is trying to regenerate a red pine forest – and hopefully matsutake mushrooms along with it. Continue reading

Beyond binary thinking

Marit de Looijer successfully defended her thesis “Beyond Binary Thinking, A spatial negotiations perspective on refugee tarries in South Lebanon”. In her thesis she discussed refugee settlement and settlement processes from a socio-spatial perspective. This perspective allowed her to move beyond the binary camp/non-camp characterization of refugee hosting and understand refugee settlement and settlement processes as hybrid and fuzzy. In her thesis she also discusses the policy implication of this perspective. Below the abstract/summary of her thesis.

MSc Thesis - Marit de Looijer - Final Version - May 3, 2016“Lebanon presents a game-changer for our thinking about and protection approaches to refugee hosting and settlement processes. In Lebanon, refugees from Syria do not live in large, formal camps, but reside scattered over the country in and around cities and villages, which affects relations between refugees, host communities and other actors involved in the country’s hybrid political order. This research has investigated how refugees and host communities negotiate the use and meaning of space with regard to the establishment and experience of refugee tarries, community formation, governance and livelihood strategies. It is an ethnography of social and spatial ordering based on fourteen weeks of fieldwork at a time when Lebanon’s refugee hosting situation had outgrown the state of emergency, but had not yet become protracted. The findings suggest that bureaucratic labels that reflect binary thinking, such as camp versus out-of-camp refugees or self-settled versus assisted settlement, should be perceived as extremes of a range on which refugees move strategically or subject to changing circumstances. This implicates acknowledging the hybridity, diversity and informality of the socio-spatial dialectic around refugee hosting. Consequently, academics, policy makers and aid workers should rethink the debate on displacement versus embeddedness into one about socio-spatial bordering, human (im)mobility and hybridity of places, and adjust their interventions accordingly.”

Supervisor-examiner: Bram Jansen; Second reader-co-examiner: Joost Jongerden


A politics of appearance

Hanne Wiegel successfully defended her minor thesis “A politics of appearance: a theoretical exploration of private accommodation initiatives for refugees”. Hereby a summary of the thesis, which received qualifications such as “well-structured””, “good logical reasoning”  and “theoretically sophisticated” .

“Publicly organized asylum seeker accommodation in Germany often involves a strict spatial and social segregation of asylum seekers from the wider society, which contributes to turning individuals who seek asylum into an abstract, impersonal category. For the individual asylum seeker, this creates a situation of harmful visibility vis-à-vis the state and harmful invisibility vis-à-vis the receiving society. Against this background, this paper will theoretically discuss the socio-political implications of recently developed civil society initiatives that organize the accommodation of asylum seekers in private housing arrangements in which asylum seekers live side-by-side non-refugees. Drawing on the approach of autonomous migration, Rancière’s disruptive politics and Butler’s performative theory of appearance, I argue that these civil society initiatives can be understood as providing spaces of appearance for asylum seekers to become visible as individuals amongst non-refugees. This can be considered as a performative act of disruption, changing the spatial and social ordering of asylum (accommodation) policies. Far from glorifying the effects of private accommodation for asylum seekers, however, I argue that these do not affect the legal status of the asylum seeker, but that nevertheless living side-by-side non-refugees can change asylum seekers’ invisibility vis-à-vis the civil society, and allows for personal encounters and individuation which might enhance their social emplacement.”

Key-words Germany, asylum seeker accommodation, ordering, civil society, dissensus, appearance

Thesis on Knowledge production, Agriculture and Commons

soutrik_commonsSoutrik Basu successfully defended his dissertation on Knowledge production, Agriculture and Commons. The discourse on knowledge production is in constant transformation: on the one hand, there is the emergence of instrumental knowledge production based on scientific utility and socio-economic relevance and marked by property regimes, while on the other hand, there is another form of knowledge production based on cooperation, communication and the sharing of knowledge often entitled the open-source production or commons-based peer production (CBPP) mode. Both these trends are reflected partially or in full measure within the agrarian knowledge production programme called Generation Challenge Programme (GCP).

soutrik_1Created by the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the GCP is an international knowledge production platform that aims to use plant genetic diversity to develop technologies to support plant breeders in developing countries. In this work, it employs advanced genomic science and comparative biology in order to develop improved plant varieties for harsh, drought-prone environments. It focuses both on conducting advanced upstream researches with the help of genomics, molecular biology and bioinformatics and also on facilitating the downstream delivery of this research result to the farmers’ field. GCP’s knowledge production is organised in an international network that consists of CGIAR research centres, National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) institutes, Advanced Research Institutes (ARIs) and other developmental organisations. The overall framework of GCP’s knowledge production is embedded in a global public goods framework, although the GCP also uses open source software to share knowledge regarding different biotechnological tools that usually comes within the purview of intellectual property rights (IPR).

Clearly, GCP’s knowledge production is mediated through a variety of patterns that may compete as fundamentally contradictory. It becomes important to study the knowledge production process of GCP, therefore, so as to understand the type of knowledge production that has emerged there and the implications of this for the wider debates on agrarian knowledge production. Three theoretical concepts are employed to frame analysis of the knowledge production of the GCP in this thesis: instrumental and non-instrumental discourse, CBPP and commons. And to this end, drought-tolerant rice research in the Indian context is used as a case study.

It is concluded that although this rice research community is situated in an overlapping institutional sphere of state, business and international institutions, it is itself neither public nor private in nature. This research community cannot be demarcated as a legal entity or identified through the state vocabulary. It exists as a confluence of plural activities through collective action towards a common goal, and it can be seen as a shared enterprise in which shared action generated the process through which the unpatented or otherwise owned Sahbhagi Dhan variety was developed and from which simultaneously actors benefited through participating in that shared process. Thus, the product that comes out from this process is neither public nor private in nature, but it is a common. It has been developed through shared action, as a process of commoning, and no single institution can claim exclusive right over it. Therefore, the non-state and non-market character of the research community becomes an essential feature.

His full thesis is accessible under this link

The Tiny House Movement: A progressive movement or a reactive defense of place?

Isabelle van Acquoy wrote an essay on the Tiny House Movement for the course RSO-55306 A Global Sense of Place. Is the Tiny House Movement a progressive movement reaching out or a reactive sense of place, she asked herself? Below a condensed version of her essay.  

The Tiny House Movement is an upcoming ‘social and architectural trend that advocates living simply in small spaces’ (Anson, 2014). A tiny house is on average between 10 and 40 square meters and is originally a mobile house, however they exist in different sizes and shapes. The movement became booming in the United States as a result of the housing market crash in 2007 and 2008 in which a lot of people lost their homes due to the inability to pay their enormous mortgages. Quite recently, the movement also became of interest in the Netherlands where different pioneers are experimenting with this alternative way of housing and living. Continue reading

Geographies of connectivity: a relational perspective on ‘autonomous’ Eco-villages in Romania

Flora Sonkin, MSc. International Development Studies at Wageningen University, followed the course of Global Sense of Place (RSO-55306) of the Rural Sociology Group. For the course, she wrote an essay on Eco-villages. Below, a summary of her essay.

IMG_7978.JPGDebates in contemporary social theory and political geography on the use of relational theory as a conceptual framework (found in the works of Escobar, Harvey, Massey and others), have generated a fertile ground to the deconstruction of the concept of place as bounded space. Through the use of a relational approach, space is seen as a social construction (Harvey, 1994). Consequently, it becomes a result of interactions, which are neither static nor limited to boundaries. In other words, thinking space relationally means that place is not defined as a locality or mere geographic position, but as a complex network of relations, a product of multiple trajectories and practices (Massey, 2004).

The aim of the paper I wrote on eco-villages is to contribute to the academic and activist discussion on the creation of different realities or “other worlds” in the present, using the case of eco-villages and the Global Ecovillage Network to illustrate the possibility to live within alternative forms of socio-economic organization without withdrawing from mainstream connections and social relations. Here, eco-villages and the global network are first characterized as a social movement which aims for self-sufficient living, being also put into the category of an ‘autonomous geography’ (Pickerill & Chatterton 2006). Continue reading