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Conservation Research Institute



I am a political ecologist and my research emphasises the role of political, cultural and economic factors in shaping the way natural resources are used and contested. I specialise in the tropics (with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa) and have carried out research in Cameroon, French Guiana, The Gambia, Madagascar and Senegal.

I am interested in receiving expressions of interest from potential PhD students who would like to carry out research in one the following areas: agriculture and food security; the political ecology of forests (including mangroves); the diversity of environmental values (especially green capitalism and radical alternatives); the 20th century environmental history of Africa. Please send a CV and 1000 word proposal of research.


My current research areas are:

The political ecology of tropical forests

Tropical deforestation has been a key priority in international conservation policy for the last 30 years. The possibility of reducing global carbon emissions through preserving forest cover has led to renewed interest in tropical forests.

Deforestation is a complex issue, subject to diverse drivers. Economic and social factors influence land cover change (and vice versa), and these interactions change through space and time. An understanding of the causes of forest loss demands an analysis of the dynamics of forest cover change linked to an analysis of the social dynamics of forest use.

My research in this area focuses on mangroves and looks at patterns of forest cover change, the underlying drivers of forest use and loss, and conflicts over forest use.

The emerging political economy of agriculture in Africa

The last five years have seen a rapid expansion in the cultivation of crops for biofuels. Governments from the global North are keen to reduce dependence on fossil fuels for reasons both of climate change and energy security, whilst governments in the global South hope that agrarian change will play a key role in economic growth and rural development. Biofuels also represent a new profitability frontier for transnational corporations and investment funds, especially in sub-Saharan Africa where land and labour costs are relatively low.

There is concern that biofuels are competing with food crops, and that the energy security of the global North, together with the profits of corporations and investment funds, is being prioritized over the food security of the global South.

My research looks at the political, economic and environmental dimensions of these emerging forms of agriculture in Africa, including their implications for both rural livelihoods and biodiversity.

The diversity of environmental values

People connect with the environment in diverse ways – from organised religion to personal values. Their attitudes towards nature are shaped by culture, age, wealth, gender, and education. 'Nature' is therefore something that isn't just material but also socially constructed.

My research in this area focuses on the environmental values held by different individuals and groups (from rural households in Africa to research scientists and conservation organisations) and how these play into the politics of natural resource use. How do people see 'nature' and how does this affect how they interact with it? I am particularly interested in the emergence of environmental narratives – stories that help people to simplify and explain complex environmental processes. How do these narratives come about and how do they influence the politics of resource use?

The 20th century environmental history of Francophone Africa

The arrival of European colonialism in Africa saw dramatic social and environmental changes, as policy sought to change livelihoods from subsistence agriculture and pastoralism to more intensive forms of agriculture for the production of export commodities. Following independence, many African nations continued to pursue plans based on the modernisation and commoditisation of rural livelihoods.

My research in this area draws on work in archives, the analysis of remotely sensed imagery (from aerial photographs and satellites) and maps, as well as the collection of oral histories to understand how and why African landscapes and livelihoods changed during and after the French colonial period. I am also interested in the theories, ideologies and narratives that underpinned French agricultural and forestry policy.


Sir Harvey McGrath Lecturer

Contact Details

Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place
01223 338 374