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【JICA-RI Focus Vol.8】Interview with Visiting Fellow Jin Sato

March 5, 2010

Challenging Disciplinary Fragmentation:
An Interview with JICA-RI Visiting Fellow Jin Sato

Jin Sato

JICA-RI Visiting Fellow Jin Sato (also Associate Professor of the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo) heads an ongoing research project entitled “Conflicts and Cooperation in Resource Governance: State Control of Public Domain and the Role of Local People in Cross-National Perspective.” From case studies in Thailand and Indonesia, Sato is studying how interests among administrative institutions affect natural resource governance. What is natural resource governance? What significance does this research have? The following is his story.

The essence of the research project

What inspired you to take on this project?

Originally, when I was consulting with JICA-RI on a project within “Environment/Climate Change,” one of the Institute’s priority research areas, I realized that many other researchers of the Institute are already involved in studies on climate change. So I decided to focus on an area of environment that seemed much closer to the livelihood of people.

Conventional environment study, however, is a bit limiting and often only emphasizes “protection” as an a priori objective. Instead, I wanted to address such “trade-offs” as infrastructure development and environmental conservation, which are often more intense in developing countries. Many developing countries require not “A or B,” but both “A and B” as solutions. I invited experts who engage in conflict resolution and participatory approaches to join our team. Finally, the theme of “Conflicts and Cooperation in Resource Governance” was set. Fortunately, I was able to assemble researchers capable of handling field-level discussions through employing tools of engineering, sociology and jurisprudence among others.

What is “natural resource governance” research?

Fragmentation lies at the root of various social issues including development and environment, and hinders solution efforts. Fragmentation occurs when one approaches a problem or an issue and acknowledges only a part of the whole, thus bringing about irrelevant prescriptions for it. There is a saying: “You can't see the forest for the trees.” The very cause of this state is fragmented cognition.

Why does fragmentation occur? During my visit to Thailand as a student, I learned that there are many ways to approach a forest such as how botanists study trees, or how anthropologists study the people who live off of the resources of the forest. Furthermore, in looking at public administration, one will see that more than 10 departments are related to the “land” that comprises a forest. This is the actual, existing social structure. In other words, fragmentation does not occur simply as a mishap, but is systematically produced and maintained.

Through my fieldwork in Thailand, I have witnessed how local people in particular are being imposed a substantial burden by administrators who, rather than approach a problem holistically, choose to focus only on problems that fall within their own departmental turf.

When looking at both promotion of development and environmental protection, it is not enough that land be only expanded to increase villagers’ income, or that reserves be only designated for conservation. These should all be considered issues of natural resource governance—how land as a resource should be used. Integration policies and promotion of comprensive perspectives have been raised on various occasions. However, there are no clear-cut answers to conflicts that arise from various interests or explicit solutions. When looking at the issues typically dealt with in different fields, what prospects do we have as solutions from a unified standpoint? And what are successful working examples on the ground? Responding to these questions is the aim of our study.

Why do you focus on contention among administrative organizations?

I focus on governments because conflicts within them are under-studies. Traditionally, fragmentation has been dealt with in the context of disagreements between government and citizens. What I wish to focus on now, on the other hand, is conflicts among administrative bodies. Regarding conflicts between the government and citizens, most tend to consider the government as a singular entity. But in reality, a variety of actors are involved in the government itself, struggling and competing with each other. For instance, typically conflicts exist between the land and the forestry departments, or the mining department versus the conservation department.

These conflicts among administrative bodies can often lead to instances of “inaction” ? a serious policy failure. This means that each department knows what needs to be done but neglects to do it because it lies outside their jurisdiction. Thus, in the end, they just sit on the issues.

Minamata disease (a severe mercury poisoning incident caused by factory pollution in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan which lasted several years) is a typical case of “delayed decisions.” However, most decisions of inaction rarely stand out and draw attention. Internal conflicts among administrative bodies have rarely been tackled in research until now, despite their significance to the environmental and natural resource management fields. Also, how local residents cope with administrative failures to compensate is rarely the subject of study.

Recently I was highly impressed at encountering villagers along the Mekong River in Thailand who are overseeing and making use of three natural resources ? rivers, forests and fields ? in a cyclical manner according to the state of the resources and available manpower. These three resources provide a safety net for the villagers during financially difficult times. Not only that, they are well aware of the fact that the three resources are interlinked as one ecosystem; forestry provides nutrients to rivers so that fields yield a rich harvest. This three-resource interrelated system functions so as to not place too much burden on any one resource. Natural resource governance aims at bringing governance back to the integrated standpoint which the villagers have, in contrast to a more “sectoral” approach.

What values and prospects can you see from this research?

We researchers are trained to take on research activities in specific fields, then raise our successors to do the same. In this sense, we have contributed to propagating fragmentation. To break the cycle and overcome this tendency, we must link together fragmented senses, knowledge and disciplines with a common element?like pieces of meat joined by a skewer. In my case, the conceptual skewer was “natural resources.”

A resource is subjective in that some see it as a resource whereas others see differently. In other words, it does not attribute its own value to itself, but is something in which value is instilled by people. It is a concept laying in the very midst of man and nature. We have to think of how people can make use of resources to build future prospects, or how we can regulate and share them when ideas and possibilities differ. Ultimately “governance of knowledge” itself will encompass the governance of resources.

In this study, we broadly interpret the concept of resources as a bundle of possibilities that contribute to our living; we want this to serve as a “skewer” for fragmented institutions and problems. It doesn’t matter whether the approach belongs to sociology, economics or political science. It is not necessary to categorize it in the area of traditional disciplines. I believe that this "skewer" which may enable a shift in paradigm has the potential to bring about reconsideration of how foreign aid should be conducted.

For this kind of research, of utmost importance is the information only JICA can obtain through its many experts dispatched to administrative bodies of developing countries. One comparative advantage of JICA?RI is that its researchers can fully utilize such information. This is exactly what we wish to do.

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