Doctoral Dissertation Research: Land Use and Land Access Patterns Among the Achuar of the Ecuadorian Amazon: The Role of Market Integration and Shifting Institutions

Project: Research project

Project Details


Indigenous peoples around the world are experiencing important changes in their production systems as they become integrated into regional markets. The empirical evidence shows cases where indigenous groups have converged rapidly to market-oriented land uses and other cases where these groups have followed characteristic trajectories even after long term integration. Theoretical explanations of these patterns have given predominance to either structural factors that constraint local land use decisions through social relations and asymmetric conditions of power, or decision making dynamics aimed at maximization of efficiency. However, a gap persists in linking structural constraints with behavioral processes as they influence land use and land cover patterns in indigenous territories. The purpose of this research is to link agency and structure in studying land-use and land-cover patterns by investigating how social relations based on identity and local systems of authority influence local decision making in indigenous territories. The following questions will be addressed 1) How do institutional mechanisms that regulate access to land, labor, and forest resources shape land use decision making at the local level? 2) How has the integration to regional markets influenced these access mechanisms and the existing patterns of land use? These questions will be answered using information from the Achuar, an indigenous group in the Southern Ecuadorian Amazon undergoing early stages in the process of market integration. Focus groups and semi-structured interviews at the community and household levels respectively will be used to characterize formal and informal institutional arrangements that regulate access. Additionally, interviews with external actors working in the study area will be conducted to link their agendas of conservation and development interventions to local land use practices. Furthermore, the recent trajectory of land use and land cover patterns at the household level will be quantified using a combination of participatory mapping and the interpretation of high-resolution (2.4 m) QuickBird satellite images. Statistical models will be specified to explain the variability of the area under different land use types as a function of a set of independent variables hypothesized to influence the decision-making process at the household level. The information related to access regulations will be used to infer the social processes driving the observed land-use and land-cover patterns. It is expected that recent changes in land use patterns at the household level reflect an underlying process of negotiation among local actors based on identity and authority reflecting tensions between traditional and new institutions, and ultimately shifting the balance of power between marginal and powerful actors.

This study will contribute to the empowerment of an underrepresented indigenous group in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The results of this project will contribute to the understanding of how decisions regarding resource use are made when local actors interact in a context of changing institutions and shifting dynamics of power. This information will be shared with the communities and can be used by them to defend their access rights and to identify local priorities of development. Furthermore, this research can help to identify specific groups (e.g. women, young families) experiencing unfair allocation of cost or benefits associated with market-oriented land uses. From a policy perspective, the analysis of such mechanisms of change will provide guidelines to identify targets for development and conservation interventions aimed at local processes of socioeconomic marginalization and environmental degradation. As a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement award, this project will enable a promising student to develop a strong and independent career.

Effective start/end date4/1/079/30/09


  • National Science Foundation: $11,996.00


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