In the Spotlight: Dr. Juliet Lu

Juliet Lu is an Assistant Professor with both the Faculty of Forestry and UBC’s School for Public Policy and Global Affairs. She is a political ecologist focused on the implications of China’s growing investments in land and other resources in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Juliet Lu

Tell us about yourself!

I’m a political ecologist and a global China scholar, and most of what I study centers on struggles over land and their larger social, environmental, and territorial implications. I’m an Assistant Professor in Forest Resources Management and in the School of Public Policy, and I was hired by the Interdisciplinary Biodiversity Solutions (IBioS) cluster for their qualitative social science position to focus on environmental governance and business.

Outside of work, I play ultimate frisbee and love cooking and complaining while losing to friends at Settlers of Catan. I also co-host a podcast called the Belt and Road Pod, which covers what I refer to as ‘grounded’ research on China’s growing engagements in the developing world. 

Can you give us an overview of your research? What drew you to this work?

The core research questions I ask center on the political economy of the expansion of rubber plantations–what drives rubber expansion, who decides where and how it’s grown, who reaps the benefits (in terms of profit and power), etc. With time, my focus has shifted from the plantations themselves to the actors involved and power relations further down the supply chain. However, the greater questions I often run into relate to the world’s fixation on monoculture production, how we determine crop feasibility for sustainable growth, and whether China’s rise is causing shifts in dominant global structures (particularly with regard to development and environmental governance). 

I became interested in these questions during the five years (2009-2013) I worked and lived in the Mekong Region before grad school. After college, I moved to Yunnan Province in Southwest China and worked as a translator and junior researcher for the World Agroforestry Centre. Here, I became fascinated with the transnational dynamics of environmental governance (e.g. how China’s logging ban was affecting Myanmar’s and Lao’s forests) and the push to expand tree crops (walnuts, tea, and rubber especially). I wanted to see how those dynamics looked on the other side of the border.

In 2012, I moved to Laos to work with the Centre for Development and Environment on an inventory of land investments. The work I did with them introduced many questions I couldn’t answer within the given project timelines and so I went back to school, setting me on the path towards landing here at UBC.

With the pressing urgency of the climate crisis, how does your research shed light on another approach/perspective to understanding our environmental issues?

Rubber has been identified as a primary driver of deforestation (and related carbon emissions from land change) in the Mekong Region, and indeed, much of the region’s lost forest has been replaced by rubber. I look at the rubber boom in comparison to other crop booms that have also driven mass deforestation, and I work with several groups asking how to prevent future forest loss from agricultural expansion. My research (and that of many others) shows that the drivers of crop booms – from policies that promote cash crops, to market signals, to struggles to claim territory and property – play out way above the heads of the individual land users cutting down the forest and planting rubber. This helps us understand why mitigation interventions that target specific locations often create leakage of emissions (i.e. farmers or land investors moving away from a protected location instead of deforesting it) instead of reducing them overall. As such, I think a focus on greater systemic factors – often referred to as indirect drivers, although I think they’re pretty direct! – that drive crop booms and deforestation is needed.

Open farm land in China

Can you share with us some of the most interesting things you’ve learned from your research on China’s growing demand for raw materials on land and natural resource management in Southeast Asia? 

What tends to surprise folks (and surprised me) most is that Chinese actors have had far less success in acquiring land and extracting resources than most people assume. There was a lot of excitement (and fear) surrounding China’s rising interest in land in the 2000s, and with the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, China’s infrastructure investments also became a major focus. But China is very new to investing overseas and has faced a number of steep learning curves. Early narratives around China’s investment boom also ignored how important host country politics are. They overlooked the sensitivity of local communities and governments to land as the basis of their livelihoods, sovereignty, and identity. This is not a new story, nor a Chinese story – the tendency to view land and resources as commodities that are easy to disaggregate, buy, and exchange is widespread, and the tendency to forget their social and political entanglements is not uniquely Chinese.

What are you looking forward to most here at UBC?

I’m very grateful to find myself in such an interdisciplinary intellectual community as we have here at UBC, especially to be in departments that encourage applied work and collaborations beyond academia. Some of my new research I think really lends itself to working with folks outside my methodological wheelhouse – engaging colleagues who do land change science, who look at global economic trade policies and institutions, even those who might want to look more closely at rubber wood supply chains, for example. I’m also really excited to start teaching the fundamentals of political ecology in my graduate course (Resource Governance and the Corporation, FRST 578C 203) this spring, and in the longer term to connect students with the civil society organizations I work with in hopes of developing further research projects and advocacy outputs for my partners. Perhaps most importantly, I’m looking forward to getting out more and exploring BC’s incredible forests and the awesome food scene here in Vancouver!

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