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A new thesis advances the understanding of disproportionate climate-related loss with a focus on land in Cambodia

Fields in Cambodia. Photo.
A key finding of Kelly Dorkenoo's thesis is that climate-related loss should be understood as occurring when people lose the ability to derive benefits from things that they value, due to climatic and socio-economic drivers.

What is climate-related loss and when can it be considered disproportionate? This question is at the heart of Kelly Dorkenoo’s thesis which explores loss associated with land in smallholder farming communities in Cambodia. Her motivation was to deepen our understanding of – and to find ways to mitigate – loss arising from climate change impacts, focusing on communities whose livelihoods are closely tied to land and natural resources in a region that has been understudied.

She focused on two areas for her research: Ratanakiri province in the northeast, a region mostly inhabited by Indigenous and ethnic minority communities, where smallholder farmers mainly grow cashew nuts, cassava, and rice. And Kampot province in the south, where sea salt producers have been using traditional techniques for centuries.  

– Within the loss and damage research and policy space, there is much discussion of how countries in the Global South are affected disproportionately by climate-related loss, but there are also many disagreements about what loss means and how it should be addressed. 

– I wanted to contribute to these debates, both from a theoretical perspective, as well as empirically through field research: what does climate-related loss actually mean and how does it come about?, says Kelly Dorkenoo, who recently defended her thesis in Sustainability Science, at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies.

A key finding of her thesis is that climate-related loss should be understood as occurring when people lose the ability to derive benefits from things that they value, due to climatic and socio-economic drivers. Another is that disproportionality should be viewed as relational – between the loss that is experienced and the ability to influence the conditions that lead to that loss.

Broader understanding of loss 

Kelly Dorkenoo explains that this conceptualisation of climate-related loss opens a broader understanding of its causes and manifestations, which can support efforts to help those most affected, especially in agrarian contexts. For many smallholder farmers, the ability to derive benefits from their land is undermined by climatic changes and socio-economic and political changes. Smallholder farmers, who have less power and fewer resources, experience greater loss from climate change compared to more influential or economically secure groups.

She argues that the less control a group has over their circumstances, the more likely they are to experience climate-related loss disproportionately. Disproportionate climate-related loss can therefore be experienced by marginalized groups within countries seemingly well-positioned to adapt to climate change.

– Through my research, it became very clear that people do not experience disproportionate climate-related loss because they happen to be particularly vulnerable but because they are – repeatedly – pushed into corners, where they have limited space to maneuver and influence the processes underlying loss.

A person draining seeds. Photo.
Kelly did field work in Ratanakiri province in the northeast of Cambodia and in Kampot province in the south.

Loss viewed through a lens of land access 

Her work illustrates how climate-related loss in Cambodia comes about through changes in how people relate to, value, and access land. The losses that people experience are driven by repetitive cumulative climatic events, value-laden trade-offs, as well as economic pressures related to the increasing influence of financial institutions and instruments in the rural economy.

More and more farmers depend on loans from microfinance institutions – and when they cannot pay them back, they end up selling their land. Larger investors or companies can then step in and take over the land, often for speculative purposes, leaving people unable to provide for their families. This is closely tied to how some values associated with the land become favoured or prioritised over others. But it is also tied to how various actors manage the uncertainties that climate change brings and make decisions in anticipation of its effects. These trade-offs result in benefits shifting away from smallholder farming communities to more powerful entities, deepening inequalities.

– Socio-economic and climatic drivers coalesce and accelerate loss. People lose the ability to predict how to plant their crops due to changes in weather patterns and events, like early or late rains. Farmers are faced with more crop failures and are gradually pushed further into debt and a situation in which selling their land becomes the only or most viable option.

How can this disproportionate loss be addressed? 

Kelly Dorkenoo reflects that, within the research, there is a discussion of the transformative potential of loss. In her thesis, she points out relational justice as a way forward – where justice can be understood as produced through repairing relationships. A relational justice perspective shines a light on the relations that underlie climate-related loss, with the land and between those affected and those who benefit from loss. It can support policy responses that are more equitable and consider the varied experiences and capacities of affected communities.

– Life doesn’t end after loss. As I see it, loss brings forth questions such as what is valued, what is at risk of being lost and most importantly why it is being lost. Loss is often a red line at the end of a long chain of events, which can trigger change. People are already organising and working to prevent loss, and they need to be supported in doing so.

Redressing power imbalances is absolutely key – since inequality is one of the main drivers of disproportionate loss. One way to address loss is to build alliances across movements that seek justice not only for climate change impacts but also other injustices, especially concerning land access and rights. She hopes her research can support discussions on different levels on how to support those most affected by climate change.

– Right now, climate-related loss is discussed mostly at the global level in the international negotiations on climate change. I think it is important to bring in evidence of how loss materializes in people’s lives across contexts, and how it relates to political and economic vulnerabilities that are historically rooted. In many countries, there is no such data.

She continues:

– My ambition is to be able to bring the evidence of what happens in Cambodia to different spaces of research and practice and to support affected communities in their work to advance more effective and fair solutions to the challenges posed by climate change.

Download the thesis at Lund University Research Portal: Seeing loss through land: On the emergence of disproportionate climate-related loss and damage in agrarian Cambodia

About the researcher - Kelly Dorkenoo

kelly photo

Kelly Dorkenoo is a recent doctorate from Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). She holds undergraduate degrees in international business administration from Montpellier Business School and applied economics from Paris South XI; and a master’s degree in environmental management and policy from the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics (IIIEE) at Lund University. 

Read more about Kelly Dorkenoo's research