J. Christopher Brown
Office Hours: M W 10:30-11:30; or by appt.
I am a “human-environment” geographer, one who feels uncomfortable being labeled as either human or physical. Through my teaching and research, I try to tell stories about the unfolding human experience on earth as one influenced by natural systems, social systems, and systems of culture and meaning. Ever since my years as an undergraduate biology major, I have been fascinated by the rapid changes occurring in the Brazilian Amazon. My research today continues to focus on attempts to forge sustainable development in that region. Policy directives in this area have often privileged a static image of forested environments, their biodiversity, indigenous cultures, and economies, as some ideal form to be replicated throughout the region among all human groups. Such of view of sustainable development masks what are dynamic political economic and biogeographical processes that have developed as people, institutions, and components of the natural landscape react to one another in an increasingly disturbed rainforest and savanna environment. I argue our research must focus on these dynamics that will determine the success of efforts to alter the currently destructive relationship between people and the humid tropical environment.
Project 1: Social relations in Amazonian rural development.
My long-term research plans involve understanding the role of the growing movement of NGOs throughout Latin America in mediating human - environment relationships, especially in rural areas. I am interested in producing empirical studies of the spatial character of NGO activity, tracking where NGO resources come from, the types of production activities and political economic formations NGOs encourage, and what lasting local and regional effects the resulting forms of social relations have on people and the environment. Much of my current work stems from an NSF-funded project I co-authored with political scientists David Brown (University of Colorado - Boulder) and Scott Desposato (University of California – San Diego). Our findings on how funding of NGOs affects domestic politics at the state and federal level have been published in Comparative Political Studies, Political Geography, and Latin American Research Review (in press). Our general conclusion is that there is a direct relationship between NGO funding and voting for leftist politicians when people vote for presidential candidates, but when state politicians can claim credit for NGO funding, voters reward them even though they may be from center-right parties. Moreover, there is no evidence that the type of group receiving money matters when considering the effect of funding on political change. As this project comes to a close, we will begin working on efforts to understand the political impacts of the landless movement in Brazil (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra – MST).
Project 2: Expansion of soybean production in Amazonia.
The rapid expansion of soybean production has alarmed environmentalists world-wide that soybeans are the next major threat to the continued existence of tropical forest in the Amazon. Our task, involving researchers at Kansas Applied Remote Sensing, Texas A&M Geography, and Brazil’s Federal Agricultural Research Agency (Embrapa) is to integrate remote sensing and socio-economic and cultural studies to understand the human environmental dynamics involved in the expansion of this land use. The major question is whether native tropical ecosystems are being converted directly to soybean and other annual crop production or whether most of the crop production has actually, and is likely to continue, to go into areas that were already deforested for other purposes long ago (cattle ranching, for example). Preliminary research, appearing in Ambio, suggests that soybean production expands readily into areas already deforested along with some expansion into forested regions. We also seek to use MODIS 250m data to carry out high-temporal resolution remote sensing of growing areas to detect deforestation and subsequent land uses to form the empirical data necessary to test hypotheses about the relationship between agricultural intensification and tropical deforestation. A current official cooperative research effort between Kansas and Brazil’s Embrapa promises to allow for continued development of this research program.
Project 3: Development and the Politics of Scale:
This work involves a co-authored effort with Mark Purcell (Urban Planning, University of Washington), an urban political economic geographer. We are interested in the issue of scale in geography, not the common scales of analysis, but rather researching scale as the object of analysis, based on the idea that scaleis socially constructed and the outcome of political economic projects. Such research has allowed me to approach my work on so-called global/local linkages between international environmental and grassroots movements in Amazonian sustainable development efforts with much greater theoretical rigor. We argue that many human environment studies tend, incorrectly, to ascribe particular characteristics to scale (global and/or national is bad; local is good), and that understanding that scale is socially constructed helps avoid such “scalar traps”. We call for researchers in political ecology to investigate more deeply the agendas of actors, rather than assume them from knowing something about the scale at which people are organized. Our work has appeared in Geoforum and Progress in Development Studies.