Spotlight on Development Research: Yann le Polain de Waroux

Assistant Professor, Department of Geography and ISID

Yann le Polain joined ISID in August 2017. His research focuses on understanding how local land use and livelihood decisions influence and are influenced by dynamics at other scales, and what this means for development and sustainability in rural areas of the Global South. His early work was in Southern Morocco, where he studied the livelihood and environmental changes associated with globalization in rural areas. More recently, he has been studying land use change in agricultural commodity frontiers, with particular focus on the Gran Chaco, a dry woodland ecoregion undergoing rapid deforestation in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Le Polain’s current work centers on three themes. The first is improving our understanding of agricultural expansion in commodity frontiers. There has been plenty of work on agricultural frontiers, but recent evolutions towards a greater prevalence of large-scale farms call for a new conceptual framing of these frontiers. Le Polain's recent paper in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers proposes such a new framing, based on the case of the Gran Chaco.

A second theme is land governance in a connected world. People studying land systems are increasingly recognizing that land use changes in one place are not independent from changes in others. This raises important questions for governance, such as how to increase environmental regulations without displacing environmentally damaging activities abroad. Le Polain is engaged in several collaborations tackling these questions from various methodological angles. As part of these efforts, he recently published an ISID policy brief on eliminating deforestation in South America.

Increasingly, le Polain is also interested in a third theme, that of adaptation and sustainability in commodity frontiers. Commercial farmers in frontiers operate in information-poor environments, and risk making decisions that lead to soil degradation. Smallholders and indigenous people, on the other hand, cannot compete on equal terms with expanding commercial agriculture, and are often forced to develop alternative livelihood strategies to accommodate these new landscapes. Le Polain's future research will attempt to understand the ways in which these two groups learn and adapt their practices, and how adaptation mechanisms can be supported to foster sustainability and development.

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