Disentangling the links between global conservation discourses and local land-use practices in protected area governance

University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

village nestled in mountains

Despite decades of work on multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and millions of projects funded around the world, biodiversity loss continues at unprecedented rates. This loss is largely driven by land-use changes and commercial pressures arising from increased marketization of agricultural and forest commodities and national development interventions such as infrastructure construction. As a result, the urgency in the rhetoric around strengthening conservation actions is intensifying, with some conservation groups calling for expanding the terrestrial PA network to over 50% of global surface from the current 17% commitment. But PAs do not govern themselves. They rely on diverse cross-scale measures and processes that often link to distant places and actors and that do not necessarily cohere with national, subnational and local development rationales.

While there has been significant research on the socioeconomic impacts of conservation at local scales and analyses of conservation discourses on global-national scales, less attention has been paid to the interconnections, discursive practices, and networked interactions through which local interventions unfold and link to a globally constituted system of interactions. It therefore becomes crucial to examine how these global discourses are reflected in the institutions that govern human-environment practices, including the interplay with informal institutions and local environmental governance practices.

On this background, the project applies a telecoupling approach to shed light on the complex interplay between discourses, measures and practices. Four papers emerged from the project:

  1. In the first paper, we developed a conceptual framing for analyzing discursive-institutional dynamics in telecoupled systems, paying particular attention to the role of intermediaries in shaping the institutionalization of global discourses and feedback processes, discursive practices around agent framings, and competing environment and development discourses in local systems.
  2. In the second paper, we examined the suite of instruments employed to govern human-environment practices in a national park in Northern Laos and how distant policy and actor networks drive parallel land-use change processes. We show how resulting interventions are grounded in multiple, sometimes conflicting, logics of governing subjects that manifest in unintended outcomes at local scales.
  3. Employing a mixed methods approach and grounding the analysis in a sustainable livelihoods perspective, in the third paper we demonstrate how park residents navigate trade-offs arising from conservation interventions. We used cluster analysis to identify five livelihood groups with highly unequal capacities for livelihood diversification that were shaped by household assets and village conditions.
  4. In the final paper, we move the focus to the global-national networked interactions through which transnational conservation actions emerge and manifest in changes in policy and practice, building on interviews in Cambridge (UK), Bangkok and Vientiane. Applying an actor perspective, we argue that the internal dynamics of these actions can be understood via two interacting dimensions: (a) the bureaucratic and organisational infrastructure that conditions conservation flows and actor interactions; and (b) the informal, human dimension of these actor networks that pattern them.

The PhD project contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the global-local interconnections involved in transnational conservation actions and how these shape land-use and livelihood practices.


Joel Gustav Persson

University of Copenhagen, Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management
Øster Voldgade 10, 1350 København K, Denmark

“My research project helps to generate important insights on the complex and distal linkages between conservation discourses and the local decisions on which many global conservation efforts depend.”

Joel Persson

PhD Thesis

Governing from a distance. Disentangling the global-local interconnections shaping transnational conservation.

Copenhagen, 08.07.2021

Publications …

Busck-Lumholt, L.M., J. Coenen, J. Persson, O. Mertz, A. Frohn Pedersen & E. Corbera. Telecoupling as a framework to support a more nuanced understanding of causality in Land System Science. Journal of Land Use Science 17:1, 386-406. https://doi.org/10.1080/1747423X.2022.2086640

Persson, J., Ford, A. Keophoxay, O. Mertz, J. Østergaard Nielsen, T. Vongvisouk & M. Zörner (2021). Large Differences in Livelihood Responses and Outcomes to Increased Conservation Enforcement in a Protected Area. Human Ecology 49: 597-616. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-021-00267-4

Persson, J. (2021). A need for bottom-up governance in Laos protected areas. COUPLED Policy Brief, No. 3. June. https://bit.ly/3PiKJqP

Persson, J., Qin & J. Zähringer (2022). Patterning conservation flows: How formal and informal networks shape transnational conservation practice. Conservation and Society AOP: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.4103/cs.cs_79

Persson, J. & O. Mertz (2019). Discoursive telecouplings. In C. Friis & J. Østergaard Nielsen (eds), Telecoupling. Exploring Land-Use Change in a Globalised World. Palgrave Studies in Natural Resource Management. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 313-336. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-11105-2.

Persson, J. & M. Prowse (2017). Collective action on forest governance: An institutional analysis of the Cambodian community forest system. Forest Policy and Economics, 83, 70–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2017.06.008

Policy Brief

J. PERSSON: A need for bottom-up governance in Lao protected areas

COUPLED Policy Brief, No. 3, June 2021.

Key messages

  • Strengthen land tenure for multifunctional forest landscapes in protected areas to enhance incentives for supporting conservation
  • Define and guarantee livelihood safeguards and compensation for conservation interventions that explicitly accounts for the multiple dimensions of livelihoods
  • Support existing market processes for benign non-timber forest products like mushrooms and cardamom as a mechanism to foster conservation engagement for at-risk groups
  • Build meaningful bottom-up institutions for governing conservation that emphasise transparency, equitability, and an ethic of care

Read the full Policy Brief (pdf).