1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009)

People, Power and the Environment: 15 Years of UNRISD Research



The upsurge in international concern for environmental issues in the years leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit sparked a vast amount of research, writing and debate on conservation and natural resource management. New terminology, concepts, policies and analytical approaches emerged, as did various academic debates regarding their validity and contribution to sustainable development.

In the late 1980s, the UNRISD launched a research programme that addressed major concerns about the analysis of environmental issues and policies, as well as interventions associated with conservation and natural resource management in developing countries. These included the limited attention to social relations, institutions and the role of actors; issues of power; tensions between environmental protection and human welfare; contradictions in government and international policies; and structural impediments to natural resource management and development at the local level.

To highlight the importance and relevance of social, political and institutional dimensions of environmental change, UNRISD carried out 13 projects over a 15-year period. These projects examined the social and environmental dimensions of deforestation, desertification, fisheries and water management, shrimp aquaculture, protected areas, grassroots environmental action, sustainable tourism, population and gender dynamics, and corporate environmental responsibility.

This work, involving research in approximately 40 developing countries, had three broad objectives. First, it examined the interface between social and environmental dimensions of development, particularly the way that livelihood concerns, social and power relations, development processes and government policies affect the environment and natural resource management.

Second, it considered how different individuals and social groups are affected by and respond to environmental change, and how social and power relations influence environmental policies and outcomes. Third, the research assessed the effectiveness of mainstream approaches to environmental management and protection that involve interventions by governments, aid agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and business.

From a policy perspective, a fundamental concern underpinning the UNRISD inquiry on socio-environmental issues was to correct an imbalance that had emerged in the interpretation of “sustainable development”. Whereas the term had been defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development (“Brundtland Commission”) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”, many conservation and development agencies chose to equate “sustainable development” with “environmental protection”. The key element, people’s “needs”, was being marginalized. UNRISD work sought to bring “needs” back into the equation. This was considered important not only from the perspective of sustainable development, but also for designing and implementing measures to deal effectively with environmental degradation.

This report summarizes 15 years of UNRISD research on the environment and sustainable development, which has generated 27 books and 43 papers and reports, written or contributed to by more than 100 authors. Part 1 highlights some of the main research findings related to the theory and practice of environmental and social change. The listings in the annotated bibliography in Part 2 provide a brief description of each of the 70 publications, grouped into five main themes:
  • people’s participation in conservation and sustainable development;
  • population, gender and the environment;
  • social dynamics of deforestation;
  • social and environmental dimensions of protected areas and tourism; and
  • business responsibility for sustainable development.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Aug 2002
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 92-9085-042-6
    From: UNRISD