“It’s not enough to treat justice as a subcategory of ‘social issues’”

“If we fail to address issues of justice – from the perspective of everyone concerned – there’s a risk that sustainability will remain an empty phrase”: That’s the conclusion that Elena Zepharovich comes to in her CDE doctoral dissertation, for which she received the 2021 Bernese Award for Environmental Research of the University of Bern. Her research on deforestation in the Argentinian province of Salta shows that environmental justice plays a crucial role in globalized value and supply chains – but has been little discussed to date. The public award ceremony on 5 May 2022 will give her a chance to draw attention to the concept.

“The award kind of makes up for my cancelled graduation ceremony – but it’s even better, because it means people saw my results and said: ‘This issue is important!’ It puts what’s happening in the Chaco back in the spotlight”: Elena Zepharovich

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

You investigated deforestation in north-western Argentina. What motivated you carry out your research in this particular region?

Deforestation is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. Everyone thinks of the Amazon in this regard. But the Chaco – South America’s second-largest tropical forest – is a global deforestation hotspot (see box below). At least during the period of my PhD study, the Chaco Salteño in north-western Argentina displayed one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. At the same time, the region is characterized by numerous land use conflicts. This combination made it very interesting for research.

What are these conflicts about? And who is involved?

The most important actors in these conflicts are smallholders, indigenous people, and large-scale landowners. They all have different views about how the land could or should best be used – and they possess different rights to it. The smallholders use the forest for subsistence farming; for them, the forest means home. For the indigenous people, the forest is a core part of their culture and identity and, in this way, constitutive of their lives. For the large landowners, the forest is a symbol of underdevelopment, poverty, and unused economic potential. Accordingly, people’s interests strongly diverge.


“In the reasoning of the large landowners, the forest has only negative associations”


Why does the forest symbolize poverty and underdevelopment in the eyes of the wealthy?

The people who live there often lack access to running water, electricity, and education. More importantly, however, the forest in itself doesn’t generate a profit. But if you cut down the forest and grow soya – especially genetically modified soya – there’s major potential to make very high profits within a short time. This has led to the absurdity that a forested piece of land is worth much less than a deforested one, as the former first has to be cleared. In such reasoning, the forest has only negative associations.

Argentina has passed laws guaranteeing land rights and access to indigenous populations. It also enacted a forest law that regulates forest use and provides for participatory processes. This actually looks like a model example.

That’s true. But if you don’t consider the local conditions, especially the power structures and justice aspects, you won’t eliminate any problems. In Salta, the elites consist of either politicians or large landowners – or people who are both at the same time. That’s the problem.


“A participatory process did take place, but its result was swept under the rug”



For example: In order to implement the forest law, a land use map was drawn up. The process was truly participatory – including over 30 meetings involving NGOs, indigenous people, scientists, etc. The resulting map was excellent. It featured a sort of “traffic light” system, indicating what was allowed and where: red meant protection against deforestation; yellow meant semi-protection for tourism purposes; and green meant the land was open for clearing.

But the large landowners had also drawn up a land use map. It consisted almost entirely of green areas. The few red spots were places where agriculture wasn’t even possible. The contrast between the two maps was so stark that, before the participatory map could be published, a totally different map was pulled out of a hat – a new map representing a sort of middle way. It now determines how land in the region may be used. In other words: a participatory process did take place, but its result was swept under the rug. But what’s even more important – and this is independent of the map: over 50 percent of the deforestation actually occurring is illegal.


“With respect to the economy, you have to identify who benefits and who bears the costs”


A central aspect of your work is the concept of environmental justice: this, you claim, is just as important as sustainability for a long-lasting solution to land use conflicts. What’s the difference?

Environmental justice encompasses the categories of recognition, distribution, and just processes, whereas traditional understandings of sustainability are defined by the categories of environment, economy, and society. In my research, for example, I found that the neoliberal development scenarios for the Chaco didn’t appear so bad according to these sustainability criteria. This was because the needs of the indigenous and marginalized populations didn’t even factor in. But if the local population isn’t incorporated, they won’t accept the changes.

So, you have to consider both: environmental justice and sustainability?

Exactly. Because it’s not enough to focus on whether or not something is profitable when it comes to economic aspects. You have to identify who benefits and who bears the costs. It’s also not enough to call for radical environmental protection without considering who lives there and who is impacted. It simply isn’t enough to treat justice as a subcategory of “social issues” – in a world where the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Otherwise, change will always be at the expense of the weak and powerless, and of future generations.


“Smallholders and indigenous people who stand up for land rights risk their lives”


You studied the lines of conflict in the Chaco, but also tried to identify areas of agreement between the different parties. Did you find anything?

Yes. There were many more points on which the stakeholders’ opinions differed, but there was also a certain consensus about the need for long-term participatory land use planning. Everyone agreed, for example, that the government did not consider the real conditions and stakeholders’ needs. Everyone also said that large landowners had better access to public institutions. In terms of the reasons for this, however, opinions again differed widely.

A striking aspect of your work is that you didn’t bring all the stakeholders together at one table, but rather separated them into three groups. What was the reason?

On the one hand, it was because smallholders and indigenous people who stand up for their land rights put their lives at risk. On the other, participants speak more freely when the setting is right. Large landowners are articulate and know their arguments by heart. They express themselves in ways that the smallholders often don’t understand. And some indigenous groups don’t even speak Spanish. For this reason, I chose a method – the Q method – that makes it possible to capture complex spectrums of opinions and value orientations. In this conflict-ridden situation, it enabled me to present each group with the statements of the others and capture their reactions – agreement or disagreement – without them being in the same room together.


“The award provides motivation to continue – and also recognition of the importance of the issue”


What comes next for the Chaco? Are there any concrete solutions?

One concrete solution would be to support the grassroots movements that bravely stand up for their rights. Another would be that governments, but also researchers, account for existing power structures and include them in their decisions and investigations, respectively. And, of course, on a very practical level, one could say that we should all eat less meat.

And what does it mean for you to have won the Award for Environmental Research?

Completing a PhD is very hard, and I’m proud that I did it in three years and graduated summa cum laude. But you hardly get any positive feedback during your studies. And then my viva voce took place in the middle of the Covid restrictions. I sat in my room and gave my presentation online. There was no celebration afterwards, no graduation ceremony or anything. And now came this award. It’s sort of like a substitute for the doctoral graduation ceremony that didn’t take place – and it also serves as recognition of the importance of the issue, putting what’s happening in the Chaco back in the spotlight.

Gran Chaco and Chaco Salteño

Map of Gran Chaco and Chaco Salteño, Matthias Fries, CDE

The Gran Chaco extends from Argentina and Paraguay to the southeast of Bolivia, and is characterized by dry forests. The Gran Chaco is the second-largest contiguous forest area in the Americas after the Amazon. At the same time, dry forests are one of the most-threatened ecosystems on Earth. The Chaco features one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Alone in the Argentine province of Salta – the Chaco Salteño – over two million hectares of old-growth forests, grasslands, and shrublands were lost in 2015.

Bernese Award for Environmental Research

The Bernese Award for Environmental Research promotes disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in the field of environmental sciences and sustainability. Every two years, researchers at the University of Bern are honoured for outstanding scientific works that make a socially relevant contribution or set the foundation for improved understanding of environmental and sustainability problems and their solutions while offering inspiration for practical application. The award ceremony with presentations by the award winners is open to the public and will occur on 5 May 2022 at the University of Bern.