Jul 5 2022

Balancing the Tides: Marine Practices in American Sāmoa

Reviewed by Thomas Moorman and Dr. Kelly Dunning, Auburn University of Forestry and Wildlife, Auburn University

The spread of colonial legacy through the lives of American Samoans, and all indegenous people interacting with the western form of governance.

Balancing the Tides: Marine Practices in American Sāmoa

Balancing the Tides: Marine Practices in American Sāmoa, by JoAnna Poblete, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2020, 214 pp

Poblete shows with great skill that there is much to be learned from the historical and ongoing relationships between the United States government and colonized American Samoa. Utilizing the framework of bioregionalism, she clearly demonstrates the relationship between the region’s ecology, contemporary political dynamics, culture, and colonial legacy, making a compelling case for a native rights-based, bioregional approach to contemporary management decisions involving American Samoa’s marine resources. Poblete’s extensive interviews demonstrate that Western management models can easily fall into conflict if vā fealoa’I, or the tradition of American Samoan “social respect”, which includes proper communication along deeply rooted cultural lines and values, is not followed or satisfied.

The first half of the book shows the colonially-rooted tension between the island’s native fishing rights, and socioeconomic reality relative to U.S. fisheries data-based management models, and wage policy. Shown through the tuna industry minimum wage discussions, and commercial vs. traditional fishing access disagreements, Poblete makes clear that U.S. management of industries and waters can easily conflict with native realities if vā fealoa’I is not followed. The second half highlights how U.S. grant reporting, fisheries management decisions, and goals of environmental preservation, require and use specific data at scale, but that the reality of traditional American Samoan fishing practices and culture and the difficulty of local data collection generate tension between traditional American Samoan ways of being, and U.S. Western knowledge-based decision-making. Poblete finds that when traditional customs are followed and respected, co-management approaches and initiatives such as Village Protected Marine Areas found greater success.

Poblete’s work explains/clarifies how colonial legacy spreads through the lives of American Samoans, and by extension all indigenous people interacting with Western forms of governance. Her exploration of this tension, be it discussion of federal minimum wage or the expansion of new protected zones carries globally important insights and lessons for anyone working in governance, especially where indigenous or native rights are concerned. She demonstrates that flexible, adaptive management which incorporates and respects traditional ecological knowledge and social cultures often leads to greater conservation and management success. Her work provides an excellent starting point for both colonial activists and governance managers to improve not only relations, but also global and socio ecological wellbeing.

Jul 5 2022

The Nile: History’s Greatest River

Reviewed by Sudhirendar Sharma, independent scholar

The secrets of the great Nile River can be uncovered, by slowly uncovering the river’s heartbeat and following it upstream. The Nile emerges as a wellspring of knowledge, the history of human evolution, and development in the region through its flowing waters.

The Nile: History’s Greatest River

The Nile: History’s Greatest River, by Terje Tvedt, I.B Tauris, 2021, 400pp.

History written on water

If one doesn’t understand the past, misinterpretation of the present is inevitable. Apt in the context of river Nile that courses 6,800 kilometers across 11 countries, historical knowledge becomes critical to make sense of the hydropolitical transformation the region is currently going through. From Herodotus to Flaubert and from Alexander to Napoleon, the waterscape that cuts across the sprawling desert under a cloudless sky and a scorching sun, was as much an inexplicable wonder as an ideal subject of divine kindness. However, it was only during the nineteenth century that the Nile’s geography was systematically mapped.

Having established himself as an acknowledged water historian, Terje Tvedt has condensed 7,000 years of history as one of the greatest rivers in an immensely readable volume that is insightful, engaging and reflective. The Nile can be considered as a historical travelog that begins in Egypt, at the mouth of the great river, and moves upstream along its banks tracing the source of its twin streams – the Blue Nile from the Ethiopian highlands, and the While Nile from Lake Victoria – before the two merge at Al-Mogran in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The author illustrates that it is only ‘by following the river up from place to place, as slowly and systematically as the river’s own heartbeat, that its secrets can be uncovered, and its role and significance for society’s development can be understood’. The Nile emerges as a wellspring of knowledge, the history of human evolution, and development in the region through its flowing waters.

Written in a nonfiction story telling style, the narrative has been built on the characters and events in history – from Caesar to Cleopatra, to Churchill and Mussolini, and to Abiy Ahmed and Donald Trump – who sought the control and use of the Nile. In the course of its checkered history, the river has remained a perpetual object of political intrigues and power struggles. The colonial march of subjugation of the natives upstream of the river contributed to shifting the goalpost of contention along the river – from the Aswan Dam in Egypt, to the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. Over the years, each country sharing the river course has sought to emulate Egypt’s model of development at an ecological cost to its free-flowing waters. Will the river be allowed to ‘live’ remains a compelling question that only emerging geopolitics will foretell.

The Nile qualifies as a fascinating read. It is a travelog enriched with ancient and colonial history that has transformed the region in which most governments in the river basin have drawn plans to control, tame and harness the river. One wonders if the finite natural resource can satisfy everybody’s needs at the same time? Tvedt, a professor of geography at the University of Bergen, is an unrivaled communicator who has kept the interests of a wider readership in mind, while unfolding the biography of a river which is a lifeline for over half a billion people. Without getting hold of the history of the region, understanding its present predicaments may remain evasive/difficult to find.

The contribution of the Nile to the origin and growth of civilization is unparalleled, it nourished the earliest humans who wandered from Africa and populated the earth. No one would disagree that the river has played a crucial role in the histories of the countries through which it flows, even if its importance is somewhat exaggerated in determining the political outcomes. Presenting a multidimensional and pluralistic perspective on the historical water course, Tvedt wonders if piquing the interests of member countries will cause hydrological anarchy, or whether the impending threats will propel the governments to collaborate (for Nile hydro solidarity).

The Nile is an ambitious undertaking, vast in scope and expanse. It is a highly recommended workbook for all those who are interested in how rivers shape history, politics and culture.

Jun 1 2020

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

How will marine institutions, laws, and policies respond to radically and quickly changing seas?

Climate Change and Ocean Governance

Climate Change and Ocean Governance: Politics and Policy for Threatened Seas, edited by Paul G. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 2019, 445 pp.

This edited volume starts to fill what is still a major gap in the ocean governance literature—the existing regime’s ability to respond to climate change. The meat of the book is split into five sections: The risks that small islands and coasts face; marine fisheries; possibilities for polar governance; mismatches between ecosystems and governance regimes; and specific issues or cases across sectors rather than across regions.

A case study approach allows each chapter to explore an issue in its specificities while extrapolating broadly applicable lessons. This brief a review can’t begin to do the collection justice, but just one example: Alger’s Chapter 11 illustrates the complex stakeholder politics of large-scale marine protected areas. For instance, often the fishing industry fights with environmentalists to push for “management” rather than “protection.” Alger argues that, while the pushback may seem disproportionate to the actual impact on the fisheries, it is partly due to the fishing community needing to manage the challenge of decreased yields even without the addition of no-take zones threatening to lower their catch.

While the thread throughout the book is oceans, the chapters ask to be separated into two volumes—one on ocean governance and one on coastal adaptation. Each raises such different legal and governance questions (with the exception of how rising seas will affect territorial claims) that bundle them but diminishes the collection’s clarity. Nevertheless, the book is a rich, accessible picture of how ocean governance institutions are currently dealing with the effects of climate change, the challenges they face, and how they might address climate change in the future. It represents a field of inquiry in its youth, and together the chapters lay out an array of important questions and offer launching points for future investigations.

Jun 1 2020

Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services in Southeast Asia

Reviewed by Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

The governments of Southeast Asian countries are creating more and more marine protected areas, but is their centralized management structure really the way to go?
Managing Coral Reefs


Managing Coral Reefs: An Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Ecosystem Services in Southeast Asia, by Kelly Heber Dunning, Anthem Press, 2018, 234 pp.

In Managing Coral Reefs, Dunning compares two ways to manage marine protected area (MPA)—Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s. Malaysia’s MPAs are centrally managed; the central government makes major decisions in the capital city Kuala Lumpur and disseminates them to local governments and to satellite offices of the Department of Marine Parks. In contrast, the Indonesian MPAs are co-managed, meaning that the central government works with local governments and villages to determine their socioeconomic needs and environmental goals and to carry out their management plans. Dunning asks, which structure is more effective?

She converses with the academic literature on institutions and environmental management—in fact the book is a good primer on those bodies of work—but her research is far from dry. Dunning dives deep, figuratively and literally. She offers lively details to illustrate her conclusions, which come both from talking to policymakers and locals and from actually diving and surveying the reefs herself. The book is well worth reading if only to learn how to conduct field research, and it offers great insight into the relationship between institutional organization and marine conditions.

Broadly speaking, in Malaysia people see management as the central government’s job. This sense of distance and disconnection leads to reefs in worse shape. In Indonesia, the picture is more complicated. Where people don’t see the link between MPAs and their own lives, the reefs look much like Malaysia’s. On the other hand, when local management takes local customs, needs, and practices into account and helps people connect their own well-being and reef health to MPA management, reef conditions are much better. Where the central government offers technical and scientific support, even more so. In the interest of brevity, I’ve drastically oversimplified the complex picture that Dunning presents. But ultimately, a system based on some combination of centralized and distributed power proves to be the most effective.

Jul 31 2017

Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

Global water governance is based on the hidden philosophy of “normal water”––a finding with important ethical and ecological implications for water management in the Anthropocene. 

schmidt comps.indd

by Jeremy J. Schmidt Water: Abundance, Scarcity, and Security in the Age of Humanity, New York University Press, 2017, 308 pp.

Is water governance guided by a comprehensive philosophy? Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, geographer Jeremy J. Schmidt answers this question in the affirmative: water governance is based on a hidden philosophy which conceptualizes water as a “resource” to be managed in support of liberal ways of life. Rooted in a particular confluence of early American geology and anthropology, this view of water has attained global dominance through strategies of international development. It has become accepted to the extent that its ethnocentric and utilitarian foundations now seem all but forgotten within the global water governance mainstream. Thinking about water as a resource is commonplace today. Schmidt seeks to challenge this complacency by opening our eyes to the fact that what appears to be “normal” is in fact a normative choice.

The bulk of the book traces the origins and subsequent globalization of the philosophy of “normal water.” Schmidt provides insights into the roots and evolution of the “narrative of abundance, scarcity, and security,” while also discussing the implications of this narrative for water management in the Anthropocene. While the accounts of the thinking of protagonists such as John Wesley Powell, William John McGee, David Lilienthal and Gilbert White are illustrative and engaging, frequent philosophical excursions render the book somewhat impenetrable for readers unfamiliar with the philosophical works of Hannah Arendt, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Søren Kierkegaard and several others.

If the book is meant to showcase the results of an interdisciplinary intellectual exercise, its purpose has been achieved. However, Schmidt seeks to go further, spelling out the applied implications of his work. What, specifically, are the problems with viewing water as a resource (a very fundamental question)? What are the mechanisms by which alternate place-based approaches to water are being oppressed or marginalized by “normal water?” Beyond recommendations addressed to social scientists (e.g., disrupt the colonial project of water management within academia, relativize existing “stopping rules”), what are possible action avenues for practitioners committed to promoting water justice and equity in the field? Addressing these questions more explicitly and extensively could enhance the transformative impact of the book and make its important message accessible to a wider audience.