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Ecological Knowledge, Social Construction and Environmental Conflicts in the Tropics

2.5 ECTS Montpellier Year 2 Semester 3 Elective Humanities, Integrative/inter/transdisciplinary, Tool 17


Sound understanding of the structure and functioning of ecosystems is a key contribution to the identification of sustainable management schemes for tropical ecosystems. However, scientists, experts and managers should not miss how far knowledge and instruments are partial and biased, referring to different epistemologies, and sometimes remaining discussed in socio-technical controversies.

Some ecological knowledge remain deeply rooted in past colonial administration legacy or more broadly are instrumented through narratives that promote specific projects and policies. Without necessarily contributing to SDGs, they shed a particular light on environmental degradation and the way it should be handled, favouring interests of some actors to the detriment of others. Such instrumentation is favoured by the magnitude of the unknowns and controversies in tropical ecology, and more generally by the fact that most often their underlying epistemological framework are not made explicit by ecologists. Other ecological knowledge are more reflexive but have to deal with knowledge and social practices which ontology does not set a radical separation between nature and culture. Lastly, ecological knowledge remains political since environmental issues are also socio-political disputes, involving different social groups competing for resources, or different kinds of authorities for legitimacy and control, asking the question of how knowledge should be used to inform decision or action in such contexts.

Different trends in social sciences (e.g., Political ecology, Anthropology of Nature, Science and Technology Studies), provide theoretical and practical frameworks to identify and analyse the (mis)uses of scientific knowledge in individual, corporate or institutional narratives that influence decision making for environmental management, and its role in socio-technical controversies and environmental conflicts.

The module introduces students to some of those theoretical foundations and methods. Students then implement them to critically analyse a tropical ecosystem case study proposed by students or by the staff (possible topics include land degradation and desertification, human legacy in today’s tropical forests properties, and trade-offs between deforestation/afforestation and ecosystem services).

Learning outcomes

Students will get an overview of the various origins of the limits of narratives on environmental objects, and how theses limits can undermine sustainable and fair management of tropical ecosystems. They will be able to critically analyse publications in tropical ecology, and narratives that draw on them in academic literature, and in institutional and corporate communication.

Participants will also be introduced to a diversity of science making in tropical forest management situations characterized by coexistence of contrasted social world, normative pluralism and power asymmetries.

In addition, students will be initiated to several approaches in social sciences, which relate production and use of ecological knowledge to socio-political and management issues.

As such participants will improve the societal relevance of their research projects (including their thesis) and prevent, to a certain extent, the misuse of their research work in tropical ecology by various decision makers.

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures (approximately 6 hours) and individual work (16 hours) supervised by the teaching staff and external experts.

Type of assessment

  • Individual
  • Oral presentation, Written assignment
  • Individual written analysis and oral defence of a case study.


  • Location : Montpellier
  • ECTS granting : AgroParisTech
  • Organisation : AgroParisTech


Alexandre Gaudin

Alexandre Gaudin

  • AgroParisTech, Montpellier France
Clément Feger

Clément Feger

  • AgroParisTech, Montpellier France