Illicit Activities: Transforming Governance and Regimes of Rule in Socio-Ecological Systems (I)

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Human Dimensions of Global Change Specialty Group, Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group, Development Geographies Specialty Group
Poster #:
Day: 4/4/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM (Eastern Standard Time)
Room: Jackson, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Organizers: Karina Benessaiah, Jennifer Devine
Chairs: Karina Benessaiah


Illicit activities drive social-ecological transformations, but are often invisible and difficult to study. As such they also pose considerate threat to conservation and development efforts. From off-shore banking (i.e. Panama papers) to narco-trafficking, large flows of illicit capital circulate globally and embed locally, often leading to socially and environmentally undesirable outcomes especially for local communities and their ecosystems (e.g. land grabs, illegal logging) (Ballvé 2012, McSweeney et. al 2017, Sesnie et. al 2017). Clandestine capital may precipitate land use transitions from forests to cattle ranches or mining operations that undermine forest conservation and community based resource management (Devine et. al n.d., McSweeney and Pearson 2013). With this influx of clandestine capital, new land markets and transactions emerge that may disrupt collective land tenure or governance structures (McSweeney et al. 2018, PRISMA 2014). Of particular concern are the consequences to ecosystems and people further marginalized through these transactions that may either buttress or thwart sustainable development in the short and long term, and affect the way development and conservation efforts unfold.

This session seeks to further discuss the ways that illicit economies and activities influence relations of governance and regimes of accumulation and rule in social-ecological systems in the context of conservation and development. To do so, the session seeks to unpack how illicit activities and economies create, sustain or influence existing governance arrangements leading to transformations in system resiliency, land tenure and distribution, land use change, resource use and access, practices of capital accumulation, and relations of power. Given the interdisciplinary nature of scholarship studying illicit activities, we are interested in diverse approaches to understanding the impacts of illicit economies/activities on “governance” from across the discipline of geography and beyond.

The objectives of this session are to:
• Explore how illicit economies affect the governance of diverse social-ecological systems around the world
• Discuss how illicit economies, and activities, challenge conservation and development efforts in particular places
• Compare diverse approaches studying the impacts of illicit activities on relations of rule and accumulation in protected areas and in sustainable development projects, including critical geographies, political ecology, Marxist geography, land change science, economic geography, development geographies.
• Assess how illicit activities and economies contribute to and often challenge our theoretical understanding of ‘governance,’ relations of rule and how people perceive and manage their landscapes, livelihoods and resources.
• Identify windows of opportunity for action, further research, and methodological challenges for studying ‘invisible’ dynamics.

Ballvé, T (2012) “Everyday state formation: territory, decentralization and the narco land grab in Colombia, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 30 (4), p. 603 – 622.

Devine, J., D. Wrathall, N. Currit, Y. Reygadas, B. Tellman (n.d.) “Narco Cattle Ranching in Political Forests,” forthcoming in Antipode.

McSweeney, K., Nielsen, E. A., Taylor, M. J., Wrathall, D. J., Pearson, Z., Wang, O., & S.T. Plumb (2014). Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation. Science, 343(6170), pp. 489-490.

McSweeney, K., Wrathall, D. J., Nielsen, E. A., & Pearson, Z. (2018). Grounding traffic: The cocaine commodity chain and land grabbing in eastern Honduras. Geoforum, 11 (95), 122 – 132.

McSweeney, K., Richani, N., Pearson, Z., Devine, J., & Wrathall, D. J. (2017). Why do narcos invest in rural land?. Journal of Latin American Geography, 16(2), 3-29.

McSweeney, K., & Pearson, Z. (2013). Prying native people from native lands: Narco business in Honduras. NACLA Report on the Americas, 46(4), 7-12.
PRISMA. 2014. Pueblos indígenas y comunidades rurales defendiendo derechos territoriales: estudios de caso sobre experiencias de prevención y defensa ante el narcotráfico y el crimen organizado en Mesoamérica. San Salvador, El Salvador: Programa Salvadoreño de Investigación sobre Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente (PRISMA), 48 pp. Available from
Sesnie, Steven E., et al. 2017. "A spatio-temporal analysis of forest loss related to cocaine
trafficking in Central America." Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 5.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Teo Ballve*, Colgate University, The Frontier Effect: The Configuration of Rule in ‘Ungoverned Spaces’ 20 3:05 PM
Presenter Jennifer Devine*, Texas State University - San Marcos, David Wrathall, Assistant Professor, Oregon State University, “Narco-Degradation” in Central America’s Protected Areas 20 3:25 PM
Presenter Laura Sauls*, Clark University, Laura Blume, Boston University, Problematizing illicit economies and territorial governance on the Caribbean Coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua 20 3:45 PM
Presenter Matthew Libassi*, University of California - Berkeley, Illicit entanglements: Formal and informal gold mining in Indonesia 20 4:05 PM
Discussant Karina Benessaiah McGill University 20 4:25 PM

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