The Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh have a history of ethnic inequalities, and it shows in the condition of the forests.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh have a history of ethnic inequalities, and it shows in the condition of the forests. Flickr / uncultured

The study focused on the forest commons in Mount Elgon in Kenya and the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. The findings, published in the journal Sustainability, indicate that the success of democratic institutions in achieving positive environmental outcomes depends on the power relations among social groups, particularly in historically contested contexts. The authors also argue for explicitly addressing social inequalities as part of sustainable-development policies.

Below, lead author Neela Matin, of SEI’s York Centre, answers questions about the research.

Q: How did this research come about?
A: I have been fortunate to live in Bangladesh and Kenya and have been aware of processes that shape lives of various ethnic groups, often resulting in tensions and conflicts. Thus when SEI started the [now completed] Inequality and Sustainability research programme, I thought of looking into group or horizontal inequalities to see if they affect environmental sustainability. I worked with researchers from these two countries who have long experience working in the forests that are home to various ethnic groups.

Q: How well have links between ethnic inequalities and sustainability been explored before?
A: There have been studies analysing various aspects of ethnic inequalities – for example, how they adversely impact human, social or economic development. Other studies have shown long-term trends of change, degradation and biodiversity loss of forests. But there had been no study, to our knowledge, that linked the two. So we set out to investigate if and how changing rights, access and uses of forestry land allow certain ethnic groups to influence resource management at the expense of less powerful groups, and thereby impact forest sustainability.

Forest on Mount Elgon, Kenya, one of the study sites
Forest on Mount Elgon, Kenya, one of the study sites. Flickr / Krista Just
Q: How did you choose the two study sites?
A: Our choice was guided by the fact that both Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh and Mount Elgon in Kenya have unfortunately seen serious ethnic tensions and conflicts in recent years, and a good number of reports, enquiries and studies were available. These areas also have great ecological value, and aerial photographs and remote-sensing data were available that allowed us to see the trends of forest degradation over a period of time. The collaboration of our research partners in Kenya and Bangladesh was also instrumental.

Q: Tell us more about the remote-sensing aspect of this study. What were you looking at, and how did you connect it with the social and political research?
A: We wanted to capture the nature of human impacts on forests, for example, from trends in biomass and forest canopy, land uses, vegetation cover, etc. Reliable data from aerial photographs and Landsat in Kenya were available from 1959 till 2003, and in Bangladesh, from 1981 till 2010. We reviewed these data in relation to the episodes of social and political history – for example, policies on forest uses and access allowed to different groups, migration and dispossession, etc., to explore the causes and processes behind the spatial trends.

Q: What did you find?
A: Our data show that forest management depends on the local history, the legal and administrative status of resource users, and the relative power among them. We found striking similarities in the two cases. For example, the colonial and successive democratic governments played a crucial role in alienating some ethnic groups from their traditional land rights and granted these rights to others. These processes created profound mistrust and insecurity among traditional users, and encouraged a politics of identity that led to land grabs and forest destruction by the powerful.

The state also favoured profit over people and allowed extensive logging by the commercial interests. The ethnic conflicts that developed in both the countries led to further degradation. We found that the marginal status of ethnic minorities in a country’s political structure can undermine their capacity to protect their rights and save their forests from ruthless exploitation of the powerful majority groups. The paper analyses these processes in detail and finds that group inequalities negatively affect environmental sustainability.

Q: What are the policy implications of this research?
A: The social and environmental dimensions of sustainability cannot be treated separately, and the issue of equity among groups, ethnic or otherwise, needs to be recognized in policies for sustainable development. The implications of ethnic inequality are far greater in their environmental impacts than has been recognized so far. Governments, particularly where democratic institutions are fragile and vulnerable to manipulation, need to be aware of this and ensure safeguards to protect the interests of all groups in any natural resource management programme.

Read the journal article (external link)