2. Political Ecology and Water Justice: Conceptual Building Blocks

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss what a political ecology approach towards the study of water contestations comprises.
  • Formulate and define what conceptualizations of water justice exist, and what they mean for the study of water struggles and injustices.
  • Apply these approaches to a specific case of contestations over (water) territories.

Key Concepts

Political ecology, water justice, situated knowledges, socio-natures, contestations, scalar politics

1. What is political ecology?

This module is focused on conceptual approaches that will provide you with an enriching perspective on conflicts over land and water resources. In particular, the approach of political ecology and studying water justice will be central in this module. Completing all the activities, including videos and several readings, will take you approximately two hours. First, the following video (a production of the ENTITLE Project) presents different aspects and approaches within the political ecology approach. In order to help your understanding, you might want to consider noting down the key points mentioned in the video.

In this video, different members of the ENTITLE Network explain what political ecology is and how it can help to understand roots and characteristics of conflicts and disasters related to natural resources; how it makes use of concepts such as commons, and in what way it relates to activist movements and democracy. The video thus gives a first brief introduction to the supra-disciplinary field of political ecology. It was produced by the ENTITLE Network in 2014.

As an addition, here is more information on the concept. This will support you in understanding what was said in the video and what the political ecology approach is about.

Just to recap.

  • What are key insights of political ecology (PE)?
  • How are environmental problems and socio-environmental conflicts analyzed and understood?
  • On what scales does PE analyze environmental change and conflicts?
  • Where does PE come from and how does it relate to democracy?

2. What is water justice and what does doing research on water justice mean?

One particular field and focus within the realm of political ecology is water justice, which is about studying the “realities of injustice as experienced by the politically oppressed, the culturally discriminated and the economically exploited, relating them to both local perceptions of equity and hegemonic discourses, constructs and procedures of formal justice”.

3. Practical assignment – the case of gold mining in Ecuador

In order to apply the conceptual notions of political ecology and water justice, watch the video below about territory and water struggles surrounding gold mining in Ecuador. In Ecuador, like in many other countries around the world, the rise of mining activities – promoted by national governments and powerful companies as  development and economic growth – has led to severe socio-political-environmental contestations. The Al Jazeera documentary presents one story.

Produced by Al Jazeera in 2010, this video documents the discussions and conflicts surrounding gold mining in Ecuador. It demonstrates how different actors frame gold mining according to their particular interests and how the evolving mining conflicts go far beyond purely environmental issues but include discussions about what path of “development” the country should follow.

The guiding assignment and questions for analyzing the case of gold mining in Ecuador are as follows.

Key Readings

Key Readings

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
For the readings:

  • What do Zwarteveen and Boelens criticize about concepts of justice based on abstract, universal criteria-- and why?
  • What is the difference between formally accredited justice and socially perceived justice? What do the authors propose concerning the use of these different understandings of justice?
  • Explain in your own words the key concepts of situated knowledge, socio-natures, contestations, complexity and scalar politics: how do they relate to water justice?
  • What are the different aspects of water justice (four central realms)?
  • What are the four echelons of water contestations?
  • What is needed to 'make water justice happen', according to Zwarteveen and Boelens? Do you agree and do you know a good and inspiring example from your own experience?

For the video:

  • Apply the echelons analysis proposed by Zwarteveen and Boelens (2014) to the case of gold mining in Ecuador. Can you identify each of the four dimensions of contestations?
  • What alternative "valuation languages" (see ENTITLE video) do mining opponents use to underpin their struggles?
  • What different scales are mobilized in discourses and movements in Ecuador? And how can one say that the local phenomena presented in the video are manifestations of supra-local processes and power?
  • Why is the presented case an excellent case for the Political Ecology field? And how does approaching the case with a PE lens differ from what for example a mining engineer would have seen in the situation?

As an indication you can find some possible answers here.

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules


Next submodule: Contested Water Territories: Water Grabbing

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