Climate change politics, land grabbing and conflict

The 'Climate change mitigation policies, land grabbing and conflict in fragile states: understanding intersections, exploring transformations in Myanmar and Cambodia' (MOSAIC) project - ran from 2014-2018.


Funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the UK Department for International Development through the CoCooN - Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change - the MOSAIC project sought to understand the links between climate change mitigation initiatives and land grabs by looking at spatial, social, ecological and institutional dimensions. It focused on two fragile states – Myanmar and Cambodia - and their trajectories of conflict and cooperation.

Understanding intersections of climate change policies, land grabs and conflict in fragile states - MOSAIC

This project aimed to investigate the social impacts of climate change mitigation strategies and large-scale land acquisitions. It takes a holistic approach by looking at the the social and ecological effects and chain reactions which the overlap of such strategies and acquisitions cause.

Climate change politics is concerned with the control of natural resources such as land, forests and water and how these are used for the production of biofuels, the construction of hydropower infrastructure, the storage and off-setting of carbon emissions (such as REDD+), or within the concept of 'Climate Smart Agriculture'.

The policies, projects, programmes and plans which result from this can trigger speculation, fear or even gossip which lead to dynamic changes in social and political reactions within and between the state and society. Climate change politics have overlapped with each other and resulted in land grabs and conflict in which the rural poor lose access to natural resources. In the two focus countries, Myanmar and Cambodia, villagers struggle for the both agrarian justice and climate justice, or ‘agrarian climate justice'.

The Canadian Journal of Development Studies, edited by MOSAIC researchers highlighted many of these themes in its special issue on Climate Change Policies, Land Grabbing and Conflict: Perspectives from Southeast Asia.

One of the key highlights of the project is its embeddedness in the ongoing advocacy work and political campaigns by activist member organizations around key social justice issues. There are numerous concrete mobilizations around practical politics, with uneven outcomes, and are probably the most inspiring and meaningful processes and outputs of the Mosaic project.

In Myanmar the project has contributed to debates and advocacy work around the policy making process in 2014-2015 of the National Land Use Policy (NLUP).

And consortium members mobilized against plantation concessions dedicated to ‘flex crops’ (crops that have multiple and flexible uses for food, feed, biofuels, and others, such as palm oil, corn, sugarcane) and expulsions due to forest conservation and hydropower.

In Cambodia, many plantation concessions have taken over local villagers’ farmland and community forests, leading to dispossession, or a problematic climate change adaptation project. One large sugarcane plantation grabbed lands from the villagers and has since benefited from a special tariff arrangement for exporting their sugarcane to the European Union via the ‘EU Everything But Arms (EBA)’ policy. Because of the Mosaic partner CSO’s campaign, the European Union is now in the process of suspending or cancelling EBA for Cambodia.

The project also faced difficult political situations:

  • Equitable Cambodia (a non-academic MOSAIC consortium partner) was shut down for sometime by the Cambodian government for political reasons
  • Fighting between Burmese army and ethnic armed groups meant there were moments when field sites are unreachable
  • Mosaic project co-coordinator Chayan Vaddhanaputi was ‘arrested’ and charged in court by the current government of Thailand.
  • The MOSAIC project was complicated on many levels - the complexity of what the researchers were trying to crack academically and pursue politically, the difficulty in managing a large consortium, and the often difficult political situations the researchers and activists faced. Yet partly because of this consortium members developed a special bond, with the intellectual and political relationships among individual and institutional partners continuing beyond the formal completion of the project.

Apart from the special edition of the Canadian Journal of Development Studies mentioned above, the research consortium published 24 journal articles, with another 12 to be published in the near future.

The consortium published in various major journals including Climate Policy, World Development, Land Use Policy and others.

In terms of intellectual and methodological framing of the research, the project was pursued and carried out in the tradition of scholar-activism: academic work that has important social relevance; activist work that utilizes academic tools and skills.

NWO evaluation

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) evaluated the project's scientific output with 4-5 out of 5, meaning ‘internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ and ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.’

The International Institute of Social Studies was one of 14 consortium members working on this project which was coordinated by Professor Jun Borras (ISS) and Professor Chayan Vaddhanaputi (Chiang Mai University).

At ISS, Mosaic involved four PhD researchers (Clara Park, Yukari Sikeni, Sara Vigil, Ratha Thuon), two externally funded post-doctoral researchers (Dr Arnim Scheidel and Dr Carol Hunsberger), and two academic staff (Jun Borras and Max Spoor). There are other five other academics who are not from ISS.

The project was complicate and extremely difficult to carry out administratively speaking: not only that it was a very large consortium, working with five different currencies – it also carried out research and advocacy work in extremely difficult political conditions.

It is in this context the the Mosaic consortium members are profoundly grateful to the key ISS project staff, for their effective intervention with their skills, patience, flexibility and profound dedication, that saved the project from imploding, and helped it conclude quite successfully.

ISS project staff Veronika Goussatchenko and Bisessar-Selvarajah, and ISS finance department staff Simona Thalen and Chaya Raghoenath, and Yuni Palupi of ICCO Bali office Yuni were just as important members of the Mosaic team as their academic counterparts.

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