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Mega-Development, Scientific Expertise, and the Remaking of Indonesia's Degraded Peatlands

  • Author(s): Goldstein, Jennifer Elaine
  • Advisor(s): Carney, Judith
  • et al.

Though an analysis of the Ex-Mega Rice Project site—a one million hectare degraded tropical peat swamp in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo—this dissertation asks how and why degraded tropical landscapes become valuable. Some of political ecology’s foundational questions address discourses, agents, and institutions that contribute to and enable environmental resource degradation. This dissertation proceeds with degradation as its starting point to explore how this site has enabled certain actors to claim value from degradation while reducing value for others. Using qualitative methods, this research analyzes conjunctures of development, science, and value in and through this degraded landscape. I begin with an historical account of how the Mega Rice Project was planned and executed, despite warnings from scientists that it would be an ecological disaster. I then explore the seemingly paradoxical economic, cultural-scientific, and political values of degraded tropical landscapes, and of wastelands generally, within global discourses of planetary climate change. In a departure from traditional conservation research in the natural and social sciences, I also broaden notions of what value and values are inscribed on and in landscapes without high biodiversity, agricultural fertility, and/or aren’t obviously economically profitable. As the Indonesian state and transnational capital seeks to re-develop land classified as degraded, questions of how degraded environments might be refashioned are very much in play. Furthermore, Central Kalimantan—and the EMRP site in particular—has been the place of generative scientific knowledge about tropical peat soils as a global carbon threat since the late 1990s. I thus draw conceptually and methodologically from science and technology studies investigate how and why this scientific trajectory was located here and what implications that holds for future capital accumulation and livelihood strategies in this and similar sites.

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