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Job opportunity UU | Assistant Professor of Land and Trans-local Development

Assistant Professor of Land and Trans-local Development, Utrecht University (1.0 FTE)
Application deadline: 11 March, 2022

The Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning at the Faculty of Geosciences of Utrecht University is interested in attracting an early career academic in the fields of international development studies, geography, migration studies and linked social science disciplines.

The candidate will join the International Development Studies group at the department. Embedded in the Urban Futures programme, IDS has specialised in understanding local development in a context of rapidly changing flows of capital and people. Looking at the world as an interconnected place, an important starting point for our approach is that rather than depending essentially on ‘local resources’, livelihood opportunities are to a large extent determined by trans local relations, development corridors and development chains; what occurs in one locality will to a large degree depend on what is occurring in other places or, more precisely, on how local agencies interact with external (e.g., global, regional) forces. Focusing on the crossroads of migration and investments flows, we analyse the consequences of new flows and circulations (of people, goods, capital and knowledge) for inclusive and sustainable development in Asia, Africa and Latin America, focusing on the implications for sustainable livelihoods and human wellbeing. Against this backdrop, we are looking for a new colleague who is familiar with and has an ambition to develop our research agenda in critical development geography, cultural/social anthropology, agrarian or urban studies, and related fields.

The position involves 60% teaching and 40% research time. Core tasks include:

  • teaching our Bachelor’s and Master’s level courses;
  • Bachelor’s and Master’s thesis supervision;
  • research, project acquisition and publishing and generating societal impact;
  • PhD supervision;
  • building and strengthening research and education networks in the field of International Development

Click here for more information and to apply

Land Tenure and Sustainable Agri-food Systems | GLTN publication

The aim of this paper is to consolidate lessons from existing evidence that demonstrates the role of equitable access and tenure security to land in achieving sustainable food systems transformation, and subsequently, for the overall achievement of the SDGs. It makes the case of the importance of reforming and securing access and tenure rights to land and natural resources. In doing so, it identifies key actions and recommendations concerning tenure security and access to land that can contribute to a broader policy agenda for improving food and nutrition security and agri-food systems transformation.

Click here for the full publication

Mekong Land Research Forum | Annual Country Reviews 2021-2022

The Annual Country Reviews 2021-22 has just been published by the Mekong Land Research Forum.

It can be found at:

The Annual Country Reviews reflect upon current land relations in the Mekong Region, and has been produced for researchers, practitioners and policy advocates operating in the field. Specialists have been selected from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to briefly answer the following two questions:

  1. What are the most pressing developments involving land governance in your country?
  2. What are the most important issues for the researcher on land?

Responses are not intended to be exhaustive, and they represent personalized images of the current situation in each country. They serve to inform and inspire discussion on land-related topics in the Mekong Region. This sixth edition of the Annual Country Reviews has been compiled at the end of 2021, looking forward into the new year. There is also a regional perspective drawing together country-based observations to look at land and agricultural investments through the Mekong region.

To take part in discussions on these and other related topics, join the Mekong Land Research Forum researcher network. To apply, please fill in the form found here

Call for session deadline is extended!

We have extended the deadline for our Call for Sessions of the LANDac Conference 2022 until February 18!

We also have more information for you about the conference.

First of all, we are happy to announce two of the keynote speakers: Dr. Richard Sliuzas and Dr. Laura German. Both of them have been involved with LANDac over the years in different ways. Richard Sliuzas is Professor of Urban Planning for Disaster Risk Reduction at ITC University of Twente. Laura German is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research at the University of Georgia.

Second, we will launch the Call for abstracts on the 7th of March and the deadline for submission is 26th of March.

Finally, the fee join the full conference on site is €200. If you would like to join us for a dinner, you pay an additional €25 as a contribution. For students and a limited number of other participants we are able to offer a reduced conference fee. Please contact us at if this applies to your situation.
The fee to join the conference online is €50.

Gender in Mining Governance: An annotated bibliography for artisanal and small-scale mining (70 resources)

The global artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector is estimated to comprise nearly 45 million people worldwide. These women and men produce significant amounts of the world’s minerals, from 20% of the world’s gold to nearly 80% of coloured gemstones. Both women and men play critical roles in the sector: women were estimated in 2003 to make up nearly 30% of the global ASM workforce, a figure that is much higher in some countries and contexts (e.g., artisanal salt mining in Uganda). Not only do they contribute directly to mineral production, but they are also heavily involved in the provision of services (e.g., mining inputs, mineral processing, etc.) to ASM communities. However, despite the important role they play, women are among the groups that face marginalization in the sector.

This annotated bibliography gives an overview of key resources on the topic of gender and ASM. Resources focus on research conducted in the past decade with the exception of those assessed by the authors to be critically important to understanding the issues around gender and ASM. The resources were selected following a wide-reaching review of the literature available on and around the topic. Resources were then assessed according to the criteria of adequate coverage of gender issues and usefulness for a policy-maker/practitioner audience, resulting in the shortlist selected for the bibliography. A total of 70 resources were selected for the final bibliography. These represent a wide range of resources, including academic papers, toolkits, policy documents, and civil society and consultancy reports, among others.

Click here to read more

LANDac Call for research applications – Ten Years After

Ten Years After: A “reality check” on impact assessments of infrastructural projects

Click here for the Call for field research applications in PDF

LANDac is looking for 3 or 4 researchers based in the Global South. The focus of the research is on the impact of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) of an infrastructural project which has been built about ten years ago. We are zooming in on the gap between projected and real impacts of ESIAs. The aim is to improve the positive contribution of ESIAs to responsible investments in infrastructural projects, in particular where these involve displacement. Therefore, we are looking for people with experience in qualitative research methods and knowledge of land governance issues and ESIAs. We offer a maximum budget of €5.000,- to cover the costs of field research, and we provide support throughout the process from the Netherlands.

Project summary
Infrastructural projects in the Global South often have adverse impacts on the environment and local communities. Environmental and Social Impact Assessments play an important role in making sure these investments happen responsibly but there is considerable debate about the degree to which they achieve this purpose in practice. One of the knowledge gaps is around the long-term experiences of such impacts: How well does this instrument predict long term impacts? And what does this mean for the appropriateness of the proposed mitigation and compensation measures? These questions become especially critical when displacement and resettlement is involved, for the serious impact that it may have on lives and livelihoods. What makes them difficult to answer is that many of the changes caused by infrastructural interventions might only become apparent over a longer time span, and it also takes some time before it becomes clear whether compensation has been sufficient and promises such as durable job opportunities have been kept

The impact of displacement of infrastructural projects are one of LANDac’s core issues. With this research we are zooming in on the gap between projected and real impacts in order to contribute to the improvement of the practice of impact assessment in the Global South. The aim is to improve the positive contribution of social and environmental impact assessments to responsible investments in infrastructural projects, in particular where these involve displacement. Following up on an earlier desk study, we are now launching this possibility for 3 or 4 field-based case studies (see Annex 1. for more information about the research project).

We are looking for (junior) researchers from and based in the Global South to study the impact of the ESIA of an infrastructural project which has been built about ten years ago. As a researcher, you select a case study, conduct data gathering, analyse your findings, formulate empirically based conclusions, and write a case study research report. Field research is supposed to take place between March – April 2022 and LANDac offers a research budget to cover the field research costs and support throughout the process from the Netherlands. The deadline for application is 9 February 2022.

Call for field research
LANDac offers an opportunity for short research engagements for 3 or 4 researchers located in the Global South. Each researcher will propose and conduct a case study on an infrastructural project, involving displacement, realised several years ago, and where a serious impact assessment has been done. Enough years should have passed to be able to see how the project has affected people over the somewhat longer term and compare this to the projections made in the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. Prior knowledge about the case and familiarity with some of the key stakeholders are a pre. This field work opportunity might be most interesting for researchers who can integrate the field research with ongoing work or (research) project(s). The assignment is also open to people who have been involved in the impact assessment and are now interested to look at it with an open mind. The research involves primary data collection between March-April 2022.

Each case study should answer the following questions:

  • Real-life impacts: How have the lives and livelihoods of people affected by the project been impacted? What adjustments have they made as they were displaced? How do people appreciate compensation measures to mitigate/neutralise these losses?
  • Gap between real and projected impacts: How do these experienced impacts compare to the projected impacts as presented in the impact assessments made for the case? Where does the gap between projected and registered impacts become especially problematic?
  • What lessons can be drawn concerning:
    • What went wrong – and what went right- with the projection of impacts?
    • What can and cannot be expected of impact assessments?


The assignment includes case selection, data collection and analysis, and writing:

  • Selecting a specific case study and establishing access to the field. You preferably have contacts in the field and access to the ESIA report of your case study or have contacts that could give you access.
  • Data collection through desk study, expert interviews, and field work, including (not exhaustive):
  • Studying the ESIA of an infrastructural project and other relevant documents.
  • Expert interviews on the expectations of impact and developments in reality to date.
  • Experiences of locally affected or displaced communities; their expectations of the project and the experienced impact on the long term.
  • Experiences of professionals involved in the impact assessment process and their current reflections.
  • The role of the government, investors, and other actors in the ESIA and implementation of mitigation and compensation measures.
  • Data analysis in line with the overall questions formulated for the research,
  • Write a research report based on shared guidelines.
  • Including formulating recommendations to improve the practice of impact assessment in relation to predicting the impact on displaced communities
  • There is a possibility to publish (first author) or contribute (co-author) publications related to the research project.


We expect you to

  • Be fluent in English and the language of your proposed field site.
  • Have knowledge of and/or experience in working with land governance issues and local communities, and knowledge about ESIAs.
  • Have previous experience with qualitative data collection methods.
  • Have the ability to work independently, travel to field site(s) and make sufficient time available between March-April 2022 to collect the necessary data in the field and preparation before and report writing after the data collection (see planning below).


What we offer

  • LANDac will cover the costs of field research, with a maximum budget of €5.000,- per case study (including VAT).
  • Support from the Netherlands, both from the LANDac office as well as by a small working group of Netherlands-based experts from universities and non-governmental organizations.
  • The opportunity to become part of an international network of professionals from different sectors.
  • Free participation in the LANDac Annual International Conference 2022 and the Annual Summer School 2022 (excluding travel and housing costs in case these take place on location in Utrecht).


Express your interest
To express your interest, please share your CV, a cover letter (1 page) and a draft work plan (1 page), in which you detail:

  • Your current work and country of residence.
  • The case you propose to study & why this would be a suitable case.
  • Your familiarity with the case and expected access to documents, resource persons, and the field site.
  • Your affinity or experience with impact assessments and/or land governance issues.
  • Your experience with qualitative data collection methods.
  • If relevant: how this research builds on, contributes to or matches ongoing work or projects.
  • Include a reference about previous work or experience on the topic (name of a person we might approach).
  • Draft work plan: a concise idea for the research of a specific case study, including the methodologies and possible interviewees, a draft planning and a preliminary budget. (If you are selected, we will ask for a more detailed workplan)

Please send your CV, cover letter (including a reference), and draft work plan to by 9 February.

9 February 2022                          Deadline to express your interest
16 February 2022                        Selection of professionals and case studies
March-April 2022                        Data collection in selected field sites
22 May 2022                                 Draft of the research report
5 June 2022                                   Final version of the report

Annex 1.

About the research project
Infrastructural projects are often aimed at development, which should benefit the country and its population. However, adverse impact on the environment and the people often hampers the success of these projects. Environmental and Social Impact Assessment are a key component for responsible investments, as they make ex ante predictions of the expected impacts on the environment as well as on people’s livelihoods. They inform, or should inform, decisions about whether or not to pursue specific interventions, what measures might improve the project design and implementation, and what compensation measures to the displacement affected population would be needed. However, even in best case scenarios, where there is a commitment on the side of government and investors to take impact assessment and compensation seriously, there are questions about the extent to which the ex-ante predictions are accurate and measures proposed sufficient. Key concerns relate to the distribution of costs and benefits of the proposed infrastructure among different social groups. A particularly challenging topic concerns displacement and compensation for loss of livelihood options. What impact did loss of assets and displacement have on people’s lives and livelihoods? Were measures to help people make a fresh start effective? To what extent did the impact assessment make proper predictions? Are there other aspects of loss that became apparent on the long term, which were not considered in the impact assessment and compensation? And what should be the implications if impact assessments missed the mark?

To the background of current concerns about the reduced development impact of infrastructural projects and the dispossessions suffered by populations affected by them – core issues in land governance and in the LANDac agenda in particular- this project zooms in on the gap between projected and real impacts in order to improve the practice of impact assessment. Many of the changes caused by infrastructural interventions might only become apparent over a somewhat longer timespan; whether compensation has been sufficient and, after construction, what more durable job opportunities exist and for whom. Also, people’s choices about where to live and how to re-organize their lives after displacement, need some time to flesh out. This is our reason to study cases ‘ten years after’.

One of the reasons for the gap between projected and real impacts is the complexity of life choices involved and the differentiated ways in which compensation measures impact people’s options and challenges. Impact assessments might improve if these complexities are better anticipated. Additional problems arise around the implementation of compensation measures, which may be badly managed and fail to meet the initial promises. This raises the question to what extent the impact assessment should – and feasibly can– consider potential caveats around implementation of compensation and anticipate ways to address this.

The project addresses the following questions:

  • Reality check: What people have gained and lost due to the infrastructural project in terms of their livelihoods and quality of life and what have mitigation and compensation packages meant to mitigate/neutralise these losses? How do people appreciate compensation measures in view of the life readjustments they have had to make as they were displaced?
  • Gap between real and projected impacts: How do these lived experiences of gains and losses compare to the projected impacts as presented in the impact assessments made for the case?
  • What lessons can be drawn concerning:
    • the accuracy of ex-ante impact assessments and where the gap between projected and registered impacts becomes especially problematic
    • what can and cannot be expected of impact assessments.

PhD Positions in Anthropology for NWO Eco-Imagining Project in South Africa

Application deadline: 20-01-2022

Are you interested in doing ethnographic research on issues of urban ecology and climate change in South Africa? Is your ambition to contribute to co-creating real-world solutions for complex socio-ecological problems? Do you want to learn how to do participatory qualitative research and be part of an international, interdisciplinary team?

The Department of Anthropology is one of the departments at the University of Amsterdam’s Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. The Department is currently seeking two PhD candidates for the NWO project, Ecological Community Engagements: Imagining sustainability and the water-energy-food nexus in urban South African environments (Eco-Imagining), led by Professor Eileen Moyer.

Eco-Imagining studies community understandings, responses and actions to regenerate damaged urban ecologies. Working in three sites in South Africa (Johannesburg, Makweng, and Alice), we will engage with current projects on urban farming, local gardening, water and soil pollution, flash flood mitigation and the supply of potable water to co-create models for socially innovative and community-driven urban responses to water, energy and food (WEF Nexus) precarities.

Many promising ideas to address insecurities of food, water and energy fail at the design stage due to limited institutional support, challenges of scale-up and active actor engagement. Lack of compelling evidence for innovation reflects limited support for bottom-up approaches, hence our commitment to learn from community members, support them to identify local innovations, and to support citizen scientists to generate evidence for policy and programme uptake.

The WEF Nexus framing is an example of systems thinking designed to conceptualise and address the complex interconnection of these related socio-ecological challenges. To date, the WEF Nexus has been primarily utilised to explore the relationship between these vital resources and sustainability of the (global) economy. Efforts to securitise these resources for the future have often been top-down and technocratic, without attention to community priorities, social justice, inclusivity, livelihoods, or environmental issues.

How might the WEF Nexus framing be used to promote inclusive and sustainable urban ecologies through a transdisciplinary, engaged grassroots approach? How can inclusive societal engagement build local participation and action, and contribute to culturally driven and locally sustainable urban ecologies?

Click the here for more information about the position and application

Vacancy: Baseline Study Amahoro@Scale in Burundi

Amahoro @ Scale (Peace-at- Scale) is the Burundi country project of the larger “LAND -at- Scale” program funded by RVO (The Netherlands Enterprise Agency) which is currently active in 14 countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.

Amahoro @ Scale has two distinct aims. The first aim is to use the experience of current and previous Land Tenure Registration (LTR) activities in Burundi to prepare the scaling up of LTR across Burundi. This requires cost-efficient, conflict sensitive and effective processes to be defined and agreed upon by all relevant stakeholders. In essence, a business model for LTR needs to be developed that takes into account the lessons from other districts and to the national legal framework and international standards for LTR. Sustainable LTR needs to facilitate the resolution of land related conflicts that are rooted in, among other things, divergences between statutory and customary land governance, migration and return as well as the discrimination of particular groups and gender discrimination. A second, practical aim of the project is to finalize LTR in Makamba province. This is a crucial step in preparing the scaling up of LTR. It provides an opportunity to find solutions to remaining challenges, e.g. related to the financing of the Communal Land Services (SFC). Read more about the project here.

ZOA is looking for a consultant to conduct a baseline study for the project. This baseline study is an important element of the 6 months inception phase of the project which serves  to generate the necessary knowledge to start the activities and to prepare for the implementation. The baseline study has the purpose to generate the baseline data for the project’s indicators which will serve as reference for the mid-term and final evaluation. The study will further help to set more realistic projects targets for the indicators. Conflict mapping and a legal framework analysis should be realized in the inception phase. The study is expected to take 40 consultancy days.

Read more about the vacancy here on the Land Portal website.

Click here to download the ToR for baseline study Amahoro@Scale (Burundi)

PLN Research publications & video

Our Professional Learning Network has been working in groups researching different topics related to land governance and inclusive investments. The groups consisted out of 3-4 people from different countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is where the research activities were carried out. Now, their research reports have been published.

The impact of customary land titling on tenure security (Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique): This group found critical gaps in the effort to convert customary land tenure into freeholds. Such is a lack of consideration of the role of customary law and local dynamics (gender therein), thinking land titling is a means to an end and the issue of government’s limited capacity to ensure these initiatives achieved desired outcome. Click here to read the report

Drivers of positive impact of large-scale land-based investment on women (Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Sierra Leone): The group that focused on women established that women continue to be marginalized in large-scale land-based investments which could be addressed by, among other things, promoting equal participation, FPIC, encouraging women empowerment among development practitioners, governments and investors, and their involvement in land data collection and management. Click here to read the report

Community perspectives on displacement, compensation, and resettlement (Uganda and South Africa): Focusing on fair compensation and resettlement, this group found there are diverse priorities and perspective in the communities. Despite critical research being done on this topic, the group has established that this work rarely reaches important stakeholders such as government, CSOs and private sector actors. Also, communities involved often never know how the data collected from them is used. Click here to read the report

This group has also created a video where people affected by large-scale land based investments tells us about their experiences:

Click here for more publications

Blog | Privatisation and commodification: Ecotourism as capitalist expansion in Sumatra, Indonesia

Privatisation and commodification: Ecotourism as capitalist expansion in Sumatra, Indonesia
By Stasja Koot, Lubabun Ni’am, Chantal Wieckardt, Roderick Buiskool, Nadya Karimasari, Joost Jongerden

In this blog post, we explore recent ecotourism developments as capitalist expansion in the buffer zone to the east of the Mount Leuser National Park (MLNP), Sumatra, Indonesia. The close interaction with nature, and some specific charismatic animals, provide for spreading neoliberal values through tourism to otherwise remote places (Duffy 2013), including important processes of privatisation and commodification. We first elaborate on privatisation. Specific attention is paid to the Green Life volunteer ecotourism project in Batu Katak and its role in ‘green grabbing’ for conservation. Second, we focus on commodification and how value is created through human interactions with captive elephants in Tangkahan. The blog ends with a short conclusion on the development of tourism growth more broadly and its potential effects for nature and people. The blog is based on two recently published papers (Ni’am, Koot, and Jongerden 2021; Wieckardt, Koot, and Karimasari 2020) and one forthcoming book chapter (Buiskool and Koot forthcoming). Research for these publications was carried out between February 2017 and April 2020.

Batu Katak and Tangkahan are both situated adjacent to MLNP, which is the main biodiversity hotspot of Sumatra, consisting of tropical forest. Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation, and Sumatra stands out in this regard. Most people living in the vicinity of MLNP are dependent on the forests for their sustenance and livelihoods, making the conservation of the rainforest highly important for the local population. Tourists are attracted to MLNP because of its endemic flora, including the biggest flowers in the world, and endangered fauna such as the Sumatran orangutan, the black-furred gibbon, the Malayan sun bear, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the Sumatran elephant. Ecotourism activities include jungle trekking, wildlife spotting, caving, bird watching, camping, cultural activities and wild water rafting.






Sumatran tiger

Ecotourism and Green Life in Batu Katak
Most inhabitants of Batu Katak live from smallholder farming and fishing, while some residents relied solely on monoculture agriculture such as rubber and palm oil. As a source of livelihood diversification some inhabitants of Batu Katak started to develop tourism around 2010. Besides international tourists, domestic tourism plays an important role. Most of the activities such as trekking, rafting, or caving are usually done by international tourists while domestic tourists tend to be more interested in daytrips, picnics, and photoshoots at charming natural scenes (e.g., at a waterfall). This makes international tourists more profitable.

Adjacent to Batu Katak an important conservation and ecotourism initiative, Green Life, developed since 2009 on privatized land. A Czech and an Indonesian NGO are the new owners and managers of the land. Green Life buys the land from local landowners, claiming to give them a very good price for land of little value. As such, Green Life presents a clear case of “green grabbing”, which is “the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends” (Fairhead, Leach, and Scoones 2012, 238). The project aims to prevent large-scale deforestation by the oil palm and paper industry, and to curb “the illegal encroachment of poachers, loggers and plantations”.[1] Currently, Green Life consists of 107.3 hectares and there is the ambition to grow to 700 hectares.







The location of Green Life[2]

In Green Life’s perception humans and nature, especially wildlife, can no longer peacefully co-exist and thus nature needs to be separated from “the greedy, spiteful, stupid, or characterless people who, around us, commit crimes against nature”.[3] Various Green Life employees and enthusiasts considered people living around MLNP as the biggest threat to nature, especially poachers from the neighbouring villages who “haven’t been confronted yet”.[4] To prevent illegal practices, they have set up the ‘Tiger Commando’, an anti-poaching unit and they have started to use camera traps, put up posters and sign boards that list all forbidden activities inside MLNP and on their reserves.

Initially, Green Life barely engaged with the local community. This changed when the project tried to obtain a license to extend the range of the Tiger Commando and to gain authority to patrol against illegal activities inside MLNP. To receive this license, the Indonesian government requested Green Life to involve the surrounding communities. To establish a good relationship with local inhabitants, connect to global audiences, and to raise funds, a crucial activity is ecotourism, which is presented by Green Life as an income-generating opportunity through guided tours, to ensure that “local people protect nature because it has become valuable to them” (fieldnotes, 13 January, 2018). Volunteer ecotourists generate a steady source of income for the project and they support the inhabitants of Batu Katak by creating employment.

Since its arrival, Green Life has been buying up small-scale rubber and oil palm plantations on the border of MLNP, increasingly reducing agricultural opportunities. Although Green Life states that the inhabitants from Batu Katak can buy land that is located closer to the village, inhabitants claim that there is no land available there, or that the price of land has risen since the arrival of Green Life. Furthermore, according to Green Life ‘poaching’ also includes fishing, which is officially forbidden inside MLNP and no longer allowed by Green Life in or close to its reserves either. Yet, many inhabitants from Batu Katak are at least partly dependent on fishing. Access to the rivers has become a sensitive matter between Green Life and the community.

The volunteers are a source of revenue for Green Life; they help to maintain the camps and reserves, and shy away poachers by their presence in the forest. Although volunteers can also go on excursions with local guides from Batu Katak, people working in tourism do so mostly for Green Life’s volunteers, as tour guides, porters of food, as assistants to do shopping, or as drivers to the airport in Medan. New forms of (irregular) employment have thus emerged from Green Life’s volunteer programme, diversifying livelihood strategies. Working as a tour guide for one day can earn someone a wage that sometimes equals a week’s work on a rubber plantation and is therefore a popular job, but the downside is that these are not a very stable type of employment because they are irregular, and some inhabitants have been able to gain more benefits out of the project than others, thus changing socio-economic structures.

Green Life and its employees have experienced violence and threats in the past. These included anonymous phone calls, threats to burn down Green Life’s camps and the damaging and stealing of camera traps and signposts. Such responses by the community obviously undermine Green Life’s conservation practices and goals and are interpreted by the Green Life management as evidence that local communities do not know (yet) how to live with, or protect, nature and are just interested in money. However, the valuation of land and nature by the local community seems to be more complex and is not necessarily valued in terms of money only, but also in terms of livelihoods and intrinsic value. From such a perspective, establishing a nature reserve to which the local community does not have access might therefore seem illogical and wasteful to the local community itself. One manager acknowledged: “You need to be friendly with the locals and cooperate with the government. You cannot be too strict, or they won’t like you” (interview, 7 February 2018). He therefore tries to support the village and wants to establish good relationships with its inhabitants, but another manager explained not to be interested in people, but only in saving nature. Arguably, in its current form, ecotourism at Green Life is unlikely to establish the intended sustainable relations with the community, necessary for long-term conservation success. The main reason is that the strategy of privatisation comes with too many downsides for the villagers of Batu Katak.







Entrance sign to Mount Leuser National Park

COVID-19 has also had a significant impact on the livelihoods of people in Batu Katak. Subsequent travel restrictions have had a dramatic impact on tourism, the largest economic industry in the world. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic highlights the limits of ecotourism to preserve biodiversity and empower people. Whereas ecotourism is often presented as an important livelihood diversification strategy to increase people’s social sustainability, a shock/stress like the COVID-19 pandemic shows that it is important to keep approaching ecotourism as a diversification strategy, and not let it grow too dominant. However, due to various attractive benefits, ecotourism often tends to prevail as a livelihood strategy, increasing dependency for marginalized groups, as was disclosed in Batu Katak and its surroundings after the onset of COVID-19.

Elephant-based ecotourism in Tangkahan
About 60 kilometres to the North, in Tangkahan, the commodification of nature and not privatisation  plays a dominant role: here ecotourism revolves around encounters between elephant handlers (mahouts) and captive elephants and between tourists and elephants. Most of the men living there used to work as illegal loggers and allegedly caused forest destruction; today, they earn a living through ecotourism, working in guest houses and on food stalls, selling souvenirs, and acting as tour guides. Elephant-based activities—consisting of elephant bathing, elephant grazing, and trekking (where the people walk alongside the elephants)—have become the main tourist attractions.











The captive elephants in Tangkahan are managed by the Conservation Response Unit (CRU), based on an agreement with MLNP. The CRU program makes a clear distinction between ‘captive’ and ‘conflict’ elephants. Conflict elephants refers to wild elephants that were involved in human-elephant conflicts. With the conversion of their habitat into agricultural plots and plantations, elephants have increasingly engaged in crop-raiding to feed themselves. With growing human encroachment around elephant habitats, encounters between elephants and humans have often taken the form of conflicts. Captive elephants are either former conflict elephants that have been captured, tamed, and trained or else the offspring of such elephants born in captivity. At the time of fieldwork in 2018/19, there were nine captive elephants in Tangkahan: six adults and three calves, of which the adult elephants were all former conflict elephants and the calves born in captivity.

Trained to sell encounters with tourists, the elephants of Tangkahan are ‘lively commodities’ in captivity: they must remain alive to gain value as a commodity. The commodity value of lively commodities “is derived from their status as living beings(Collard and Dempsey 2013, 2648, emphasis in original). Also in Tangkahan, no value is produced when the commodity somehow ceases to live, whatever the cause of death (killing, disease, old age, etc.). Commodities derived from living beings that are no longer alive, such as meat, are not lively commodities; it is the status as ‘alive’ that is crucial, together with reproductive capacity. However, it is not simply the status of being alive that produces value. In Tangkahan ecotourism, it is the human encounter with the living animal that is the commodity. This inter-species ‘encounter value’ occurs among “subjects of different biological species” forming relationships (Haraway 2008, 46). Commodification thus takes place in the encounter. This way, captive elephants take on capitalist value in ecotourism: value is exploited through moments interactions between captive elephants, mahouts, and tourists. In this case, what is sold as a commodity is not the animal as such, but an experience of/with it, the experience of having an encounter with the encounterable animals. Thus, the animals are made to produce multispecies encounters through which experience is generated. Pivotal in this process is the division between conflict and captive elephants: only captive elephants can perform activities that make them lively commodities in an ecotourism reality. The incorporation of captive elephants is thus a crucial moment in their transformation into commodities as valuable lively beings in ecotourism activities, which is where their monetary value culminates. This way they become financially productive animals.






A typical scene in Tangkahan

An important job for the mahouts is to bathe the elephants by commanding them to enter the river and let them bathe there. They are brushed in the water, and to enable tourists to participate, the elephants have been trained to lie down at the riverbed so that the visitors can brush the elephants’ bodies comfortably. Elephants are also trained to deliver a performance that affords the encounter increased value by, among other things, spraying water with their trunk over their own back (which removes the sand and mud) and thus washing in the river. To provide a good photographic moment, they face the tourists when they do this, and at the end of the bathing session, tourists take pictures of the elephants and mahouts, who sit on top of each elephant. For this, they have also been trained to show the trunk affront, facing the tourists in the most photogenic pose. The encounter is a scripted performance: the elephant riverbank washing performance, for instance, is staged next to the rainforest. From the gathering point where tourists wait for the elephants to come out of the trees, the density of the rainforest ensures an awe-inspiring setting: thousands of high, towering trees are filled with the sounds of monkeys, birds, and a large variety of other animals. Tourists can easily catch sight of these creatures running, jumping, and flying around. Then, when the elephants come out from the forests on the far side of the river, they enter and cross over. This is when tourists normally start to take pictures and make videos of the elephants with the forest in the background. It is this carefully orchestrated, ‘authentic’ spectacle that provides the encounter and thus the creation of value.

In this line, an introductory talk is given to the tourists, explaining the history of captive elephants. This is important to clarify that elephant-based ecotourism as performed in Tangkahan is not about the erasure of the animals from their natural habitat but about looking after the elephants that were previously involved in conflicts. In the ecotourism narrative, the care for conflict elephants is clearly articulated to distinguish it from the previous program, in which capturing and taming wild elephants was portrayed as brutal. The aim is to provide tourists with a sense of contributing to elephant care and conservation efforts. Directly and indirectly, the ecotourism performance aims to incorporate tourists into a narrative of non-exploitative conservation activities, with ecotourism articulated as saving and caring for former conflict elephants. Yet, selling encounters with captive elephants helps to keep them in captivity, under the direct control and care by humans in a human-made enclosure. Ecotourism thus constitutes a transformative activity through which lively commodities generate value and in which this type of value production also produces and maintains captive nature.








‘10 New Bali’s’, including Lake Toba[5]

Small, remote tourism places such as Batu Katak and Tangkahan are often visited by tourists on the same itinerary, which in Sumatra also includes the mass tourism destinations Bukit Lawang (that revolves around orangutan encounters) and Lake Toba, the latter of which is located around 180-200 kilometres away. Lake Toba has been identified by the Indonesian government as one of three ‘priority locations’ out of “10 new Balis” that they have identified to stimulate further tourism growth. This growth was well on the way, including in North Sumatra, but is currently disrupted by COVID-19. Due to its proximity, MLNP is likely to be affected by the growth plans for Lake Toba, and it remains to be seen how local groups living in the buffer zones of MLNP will respond to this growth of (eco)tourism, providing for the expansion of capitalist values such as privatisation and commodification. As we have shown in this blog, privatization has serious consequences for local communities, while the commodification of nature is a questionable conservation strategy. Currently at Lake Toba, tourism growth has already led to a legal battle with indigenous peoples who have been evicted for the establishment of luxurious tourism resorts, while farms and plots have been destroyed for this.[6] This does not necessarily mean that this will also happen at MLNP, but privatisation as green grabbing and the commodification of nature are questionable strategies that expand capitalist values to the remotest rural places.

Buiskool, Roderick, and Stasja Koot. forthcoming. “COVID-19 and the limits of community-based ecotourism as a sustainable livelihood diversification strategy: The case of the indigenous Karo of Batu Katak, North Sumatra, Indonesia.” In Ecotourism impacts on indigenous peoples, edited by Wayne Babchuck and Robert Hitchcock. Lexington Books.

Collard, Rosemary-Claire, and Jessica Dempsey. 2013. “Life for sale? The politics of lively commodities.”  Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 45 (11):2682-99. doi:

Duffy, Rosaleen. 2013. “The international political economy of tourism and the neoliberalisation of nature: Challenges posed by selling close interactions with animals.”  Review of International Political Economy 20 (3):605-26.

Fairhead, J., M. Leach, and I. Scoones. 2012. “Green Grabbing: A new appropriation of nature?”  Journal of Peasant Studies 39 (2):237-61. doi:

Haraway, Donna. 2008. When species meet. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Ni’am, Lubabun, Stasja Koot, and Joost Jongerden. 2021. “Selling captive nature: Lively commodification, elephant encounters, and the production of value in Sumatran ecotourism, Indonesia.”  Geoforum 127:162-70. doi:

Wieckardt, Chantal, Stasja Koot, and Nadya Karimasari. 2020. “Environmentality, green grabbing, and neoliberal conservation: The ambiguous role of ecotourism in the Green Life privatised nature reserve, Sumatra, Indonesia.”  Journal of Sustainable Tourism. doi:

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