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Using historical political ecology to understand the present: water, reeds, and biodiversity in the Camargue Biosphere Reserve, southern France

Raphael Mathevet, UMR 5175 CEFE CNRS, Montpellier
Nancy Lee Peluso, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
Alexandre Couespel, UMR 5175 CEFE CNRS, Montpellier
Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison


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Exploring both ecological and political-economic histories sheds light on the long-term effects of social and environmental changes. Wetlands provide an excellent context for examining the re-working of society-nature relations in a landscape over a long duration. Wetland conditions and social-ecological dynamics show changes rapidly and visibly because they are frequently re-engineered to account for changes in both technology and social preferences. Wetlands are subject to multiple, concurrent property and access regimes that have consequences for both management and ecosystem health. We discuss the social-natural history of the Scamandre Marshes in the western part of the Camargue Biosphere Reserve using a historical political ecology approach to analyze the shifting dynamics between power relations under a variety of political-economic arrangements, and the ecology of the marsh environment. The approach highlights how historical political ecology is a means of identifying historical socio-natures and how European or national conservation actors’ constructions of a place as “natural” affect its use, conservation, and management. We show that contemporary ecological dynamics are best explained by past conflicts related to property claims, access to natural resources, and their effects on the flows and composition of water in the marsh. A general model of wetland transformation stresses repeated cycles of stability and upheaval, emphasizing that the lack of historical analysis threatens both wetlands and conflict resolution. No landscape is produced locally or ahistorically. We emphasize here that history is not only a hallmark of political ecology, but a way of understanding ecological changes that can help advance biodiversity conservation science and policy.

Key words

adaptive cycle; biodiversity conservation; Camargue; historical political ecology; wetland management

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087