Philippe le Billon


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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Agrarian repair: agriculture, race and accumulation in contemporary Canada and South Africa (2019)

This dissertation explores certain agricultural investment projects emerging early in the new millennium which I term ‘agrarian repair’ projects. Proponents of these projects present them as binding together two distinct ‘fixes’. First, they seek to repair processes of capital accumulation and value preservation, always uncertain but freshly destabilized by the 2007/8 financial crisis. Second, they attempt to repair histories of colonial and racial injustice, often codified as resulting in and from a particular group’s historical ‘exclusion’ from agriculture and consequently larger national economies. I examine ‘agrarian repair’ projects at two sites, one in Canada and one in South Africa, where financial investors partnered with racialized, marginalized communities to establish large scale agricultural investment ventures. In Canada, One Earth Farms established a massive corporate grain, oilseeds and cattle farm engaging First Nations in the prairie provinces. In South Africa, the Futuregrowth Agri-Fund implemented investment models involving African communities in the commercial fruit sector across the country. I trace the historical origins of the projects, situating them in two concurrent transitions unfolding in their respective national settings: one in the organization of the agrarian economy, the other in the orientation of the nation-state towards a liberal democratic ‘reconciliatory’ dispensation. I detail the specific logics, modalities, and mechanics employed by the ‘agrarian repair’ projects, reflecting on how they can advance understandings of financialized racial capitalism and its operations at the settler colonial agrarian interface. I assess the projects’ capacity to deliver on their purported fixes, showing that agriculture neither proves to be the stable financial provider that investors expect, nor do the projects deliver their anticipated social results. Benefits for the racialized communities engaged are uneven at best, while the projects actively exploit not only settler colonial and racial legacies but also contemporary redress efforts, generating new advantages and valuation channels for investors. The research lends insights into how colonial and racialized histories and reparative movements are mobilized and monetized in contemporary agricultural projects. This allows me to begin outlining a larger schema of reparative capitalism, whereby capitalism incorporates its critiques – here about its colonial and racial past – as new sites of accumulation.

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Capillaries of capital: space, power, and fossil fuel flows in the colonial present (2019)

In the spring and summer of 2018, opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline emerged as a frontline in the global struggle against fossil fuel industries. Opposition to this project had been simmering for years. In the face of planetary climate change, the Anthropocene, and the Sixth Great Extinction, pipeline developments across North America had become highly controversial matters, targeted by environmental activists, advocates of climate justice, and many Indigenous communities. This dissertation places conflicts over tar sands bitumen extraction and pipeline developments within a broad historical-geographical context of settler colonialization and capital accumulation in Canada. The chapters roughly follow the flow of crude bitumen along the pipeline, historically and geographically, from the first colonial encounters of this material oozing out or the banks of the Athabasca River, to present-day conflicts on the west coast of Canada. I begin by tracing the historical processes of settler colonial dispossession and the circuits of capitalist investment that remade tar sands bitumen into a 'natural' resource of Canada, and which have produced the landscapes of extraction that the tar sands are today. Moving along this supply chain from the sites of extraction to sites of circulation, I then consider the spatial-temporal logics with which crude oil flows across capitalist space. In the final chapter, I arrive at the site of Trans Mountain’s tank farm facility where Indigenous people and settler activists attempted to restrict the movement of tar sands bitumen by placing their bodies on the line to prevent pipeline expansion. Ultimately, I argue that the current expansion project can be understood as one that is bound up in, and reflective of, shifting constellations of capital, nation, and political authority. At stake in this conflict is not just a pipeline, but whether the material flows of the future are characterized by socio-ecological relations of reciprocity and mutualism, or relations of harm and violence.

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Growing political: how forest-related violence shapes community-based forest management in Cambodia (2018)

Community-based forest management (CBFM) projects support communities to take a central role in managing their local forests. Communities are asked to enforce the exclusion of illegitimate forest users and prevent illicit extraction of forest resources. However, the practices that CBFM aims to reduce (deforestation and illicit extraction of forest resources) are often facilitated by the use of direct violence. In seeking to reduce these practices, some participants in CBFM experience violent conflicts over forest use (hereafter, forest-related violence). Such violence presents a threat to the lives and human rights of CBFM participants and has the potential to undermine the effective implementation of forest conservation activities. Yet, the extent of forest-related violence in community-managed forests, exactly how it manifests, who is involved, or the outcomes of such violence for CBFM participants and their CBFM practices are not well known. This dissertation explores these issues in the case study country of Cambodia. I draw on data collected between May and December 2015 through a national survey of eighteen NGOs involved in CBFM in Cambodia, semi-structured interviews with one hundred and fifty participants in forty CBFM sites, and participant observation in forest patrols and CBFM training sessions. I demonstrate that forest-related violence is widespread across Cambodia affecting seventy-five per cent of CBFM groups interviewed and seventy-two per cent of NGOs surveyed. I argue that these ‘incidents’ of violence are not discrete but, rather, are the manifestation of a succession of violent processes in which Cambodia’s neopatrimonial socio-political system is central. Furthermore, neopatrimonialism facilitates processes of structural and symbolic violence that preclude effective responses to direct forest-related violence. As a consequence, forest-related violence acts as a disciplinary mechanism inciting fear and undermining the effectiveness of CBFM practices. Yet, it also acts as a catalyst for the re-politicization of CBFM practices and re-conceptualization of CBFM participants’ relationships with the environment, other forest users, and the government. Thus, this dissertation directs attention to the lived experience of forest-related violence and exposes the ‘tomorrow of violence’ – the enduring legacies of violence that configure the way people conceptualize themselves, their government, and the international development community.

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Protecting places for nature, people, and peace: a critical socio-legal review of transboundary conservation areas (2018)

Transboundary Conservation Areas (TBCAs), such as ‘Parks for Peace’ which have an explicit peace objective, have been heralded for their potential to simultaneously contribute towards biodiversity conservation and peace. In a world affected by frequent armed conflicts and widespread environmental degradation, the ecological peacebuilding potential of TBCAs should inspire hope. However, TBCA literature is unclear as to whether TBCAs with or without an explicit peace objective contribute positively to peace. Political ecologists describe them as externally-imposed, heavy-handed or even coercive, neoliberal constructs, and even long-time proponents caution that they can contribute to conflicts if not undertaken appropriately. This dissertation proposes that TBCAs and Parks for Peace have not generated the peace dividends envisioned because they are not appropriately designed for peace, conflict-sensitivity, or conflict resilience. The dissertation’s analytical framework combines a political ecology approach with socio-legal analysis and peace studies perspectives. Empirically, the dissertation examines 56 transboundary agreements representing 32 TBCAs, responses to a survey of 88 TBCA practitioners, and field research conducted in two case studies from the Great Rift Valley in East Africa – (1) the Greater Virunga Landscape (GVL), and (2) the Kidepo Landscape. Findings indicate that TBCAs can contribute to peace if they are properly designed and negotiated at the appropriate level for desired functionality (i.e., operational integration on the ground may be better achieved through localized agreements, whereas regional political integration requires higher-level agreement), that sustained support to activities on the ground is essential in conflict or post-conflict settings, and that bottom-up agreements can provide greater conflict resilience. TBCA agreements must provide clear mandates supporting peace and conflict resolution through cross-border institutional frameworks and on-going activities. Most importantly, they must be conflict-sensitive for TBCAs seeking to transform violence and conflict, and conflict-sensitivity must refer to all three categories of international, social and ecological peace.

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Geographeis of Settler Colonial Dispossession: Rejecting Gold and Prosperity on Tsilhqot'in Territory (2016)

My objective in this thesis is to trace how mining laws politically inscribe Indigenous space and territory. In doing so I situate gold mining regulations as central to Canadian settler colonialism and the legal dispossession of Indigenous land. I examine the origins of British Columbia’s mineral staking regulations and juxtapose these historical regulations with those today in order to outline two distinct, but comparatively relevant moments. The first moment is the writing of mining laws in 1858 and 1859, during the formation of the region as a settler colony. I illustrate how the British Crown enacted a system of free entry mineral staking that negated Indigenous sovereignty over resources. The dispossession of land was central to the functioning of colonial mining regulations, and reveals this regulation was and continues to be complicit in reproducing uneven geographies. The second moment is in the contemporary era, and focuses specifically on a mining company’s New Prosperity copper-gold mine proposal on Tsilhqot’in territory at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake). I outline how the environmental assessment process for this mine gave limited but significant space to Indigenous people as participants and decision makers. The mine was rejected based on a panel report written through the guidelines established in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. This rejection represents a major victory for the Tsilhqot’in, who remain adamantly opposed to mining at Fish Lake. This decision, though, still rests within the colonial legal framework, and is not a sovereign decision by the Tsilhqot’in. Ultimately, I argue that the dispossession of land is a central tenet of how mineral regulations function through an examination of the everyday enactments of resource regulation, and the resultant resistance, rejection, and refusal of Indigenous people to accept settler colonial terms of engagement. In contemporary Canada these terms of engagement, including environmental assessment, are couched in the politics of recognition and reconciliation that fail to address the fundamental property relation mechanized through Western legal structures.

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Neoliberalizing violence : (post)Marxian political economy, poststructuralism, and the production of space in 'postconflict' Cambodia (2009)

In spite of a United Nations sponsored transition to democracy and peace in the early 1990s, violence remains a ubiquitous feature of the Cambodian landscape in the posttransitional era. Contra the commonplace Orientalist renderings that suggest an inherently violent and authoritarian culture underpins Cambodia's failure to consolidate democracy and its ongoing encounters with violence, this study advances an alternative interpretation. Combining (post)Marxian and poststructural theoretical approaches, this study proceeds as a (post)anarchist critique through a series of distinct yet thematically connected chapters that examine the intersections between neoliberalism and violence, and the (re)productions of space that both result from and contribute to their entanglement. This critical approach reveals how neoliberalization plays a paramount role in the continuation of violent geographies in Cambodia's contemporary political economy. The first half of this study theorizes the geographies of neoliberalism and violence through an analysis of the discursive procession of neoliberalism and the imaginative geographies that position it as the sole providence of nonviolence. In orienting itself as a 'civilizing' project, neoliberalism as discourse actively manufactures the misrecognition of its violences. Struggles over public space are viewed as a necessary reaction against such symbolic violence, allowing us to relate similar constellations of experiences across space as a potential basis for emancipation, and thereby quicken the pace at which neoliberalism recedes into history. The second half of this study examines the violent geographies of neoliberalism in 'postconflict' Cambodia, bringing empirical focus to the (re)visualizations, (re)administrations, and (re)materializations of space that have informed the neoliberalization of violence in the country. The pretext of security under which marketization proceeded, the asphyxiation of democratic politics through ordered productions of space, the discursive obfuscations of the 'culture of violence' thesis, and Cambodia's ongoing encounters with primitive accumulation are all revealed to inform the exceptional and exemplary violences of neoliberalization. Ultimately, this study illuminates the multiplicity of ways in which the processes of neoliberalization are suffused with violence. A critical appraisal of neoliberalism's capacity for violence can open geographical imaginations to the possibility of (re)producing space in ways that make possible a transformative and emancipatory politics.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Defending Indigenous territories through energy sovereignty : community energy projects in Guatemala (2023)

In an environment where large-scale hydropower projects pose a continuous threat to Indigenous livelihoods and territories, this research follows Indigenous communities and a civil society organization (CSO) in Guatemala as they defend Indigenous territories by establishing and controlling small-scale community energy initiatives. These projects represent concrete energy alternatives that go beyond typical forms of resistance against extractivism prevalent across Latin America. This study delves into the activities of Colectivo Madreselva (CMS), a prominent civil society organization (CSO) that supports communities in designing, building, and managing micro-hydroelectric projects in Zona Reina region (Uspantán, Quiché). Their advocacy carries a particular significance in Guatemala, a country deeply scarred by a 30-year genocidal civil war against Indigenous peoples. The core of the analysis revolves around the Indigenous communities' unique strategy of defending their territories through energy sovereignty. By building and controlling small-scale hydropower projects, these communities not only secure an energy provision for themselves but also resist large-scale hydropower initiatives. This thesis provides a detailed examination of the role played by CMS in fostering these micro-hydropower projects and explores the challenges that communities face in their quest to maintain autonomy over their energy projects as an alternative to mega-developments. The study also scrutinizes the past and present impacts of the Guatemalan state's and corporations' counterinsurgency tactics against Indigenous peoples now involved in developing community energy projects. In shedding light on the intricacies of energy and food sovereignty, land rights, and Indigenous resistance in the context of post-war Guatemala, this thesis offers insights into the possible trajectories toward achieving a sustainable and just energy transition.

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Decolonizing conservation? The politics of recognition in Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) (2021)

This thesis explores the role of Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) in promoting decolonization. By drawing on critical Indigenous political theorists and decolonial scholars, I assess how recognition-centered approaches that maintain structural and subjective dimensions of colonial power dynamics within conservation may limit the potential of ICCAs to support decolonialization for Indigenous peoples and local communities. I situate ICCAs within mainstream biodiversity conservation practices, including their histories of enclosure of Indigenous and customarily held lands through protected areas, the displacement, criminalization, and oppression of Indigenous peoples and local communities associated with many protected areas, and current conservation-associated threats to life and sovereignty for Indigenous peoples. Based a critical literature analysis of ICCAs case studies, I find that the State and institutional maintenance of power renders the decolonizing potential severely limited by a politics of recognition. This mostly results from forms of recognition which restrict access to territory or livelihood practices and limit sovereignty by withholding certain rights. Yet, I still argue that ICCAs can offer significant benefits for Indigenous peoples and local communities to practice territorialization and reclaim sovereignty to defend their lands, waters, and resources. Even within recognition-centric approaches, Indigenous peoples and local communities can still realize some critical collective and self-recognition objectives and actively resist colonial encroachment while creating resurgent Indigenous alternatives, transcending a politics of recognition. This is made possible through reterritorialization and acts of everyday decolonization, grounding normativity, revitalizing alternative political economies, and embodying ontological decolonization.

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Fair trade certification and social determinants of health: the case of coffee producers in Rwanda (2010)

Health of individuals and populations is now understood to be strongly influenced by social conditions and structures, yet health policy remains focused on addressing individual medical and behavioural factors instead of the more fundamental social factors that determine health. Without policies that address the social causes of health, there is a risk of not only imposing interventions that are ineffective, but also missing opportunities to adopt broader societal interventions that could produce significant health benefits for populations. For small-scale agricultural producers, one way to improve the social determinants of health is through certification systems that use production standards, monitoring, certification and labelling to identify and reward items produced under exemplary social conditions. This thesis examines the effects of Fair Trade certification, one of the most established product certification systems, on producers in order to understand its effectiveness as a market-based tool for improving the health of populations. A meta-study of the Fair Trade literature finds evidence that Fair Trade certification positively affects producer health through three main processes: improvement of material conditions (physical capital); better education (human capital); and more extended and robust social networks (social capital). Yet the research design of the reviewed studies limits the ability to conclude that benefits are the effects of certification and not associated with prior cooperative organization resulting in the adoption of certification. These shortcomings in research design were addressed through a case study of Fair Trade certified coffee producers in Rwanda. Given the importance of social structure for health outcomes, the study tested the relative importance of Fair Trade certification versus cooperative organization for producer-level social capital. Regression analyses of farmer survey data and interview responses indicate that both Fair Trade certification and cooperative organization are associated with dimensions of social capital. It seems that prior social organization matters more than certification, and how much more depends on a farmer’s particular experience of his/her producer organization. The research suggests that government and non-governmental organizations may help ensure positive effects of Fair Trade certification on the social determinants of health of producers through interventions that strengthen cooperative producer organizations.

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