Hello, welcome to my first i-CONN blog entry/post!

It has been more than a year since I started the amazing i-CONN journey last September. In the past year, I have focused my research on applying different connectivity methods to environmental issues. I will divide this post into a few general topics based on the methods that I have learnt and applied (and will continue to learn and apply) to different environmental settings. They are Input Output Analysis (IOA), Networks of Action Situations (NAS), and Social Network Analysis (SNA). I will finish with a summary to compare and compile the findings from these methods in environmental studies. The very first part will be on the NAS approach, and today, in the first piece on my PhD journal, I am giving an introductory taste of its conceptual relevance and how you can get started with this method. More in-depth discussions will follow on in up-coming blog entries/posts.

Telecoupling and polycentric governance in the case of palm oil sector in Indonesia

There is a growing body of literature taking into consideration connectivity in institutional analysis of environmental issues, extending from the scope of small-scale social-ecological systems with internal physical feedbacks (Ostrom 1990; Cox et al. 2010) to addressing interactions and effects over larger distances, for example among global commodity chains (Young et al. 2006; Brondizio et al. 2009; Oberlack et al. 2018). The latter is conceptualized as “telecoupling”, which refers to socioeconomic and environmental interactions of distantly connected human and natural systems (Liu et al. 2013). Specifically, the telecoupled resource perspective recognizes the interdependences of actors, flows, causes, feedbacks, and outcomes embedded in multiple distinct but connected resource systems.

Here I will give an example of the global agro-commodity system to illustrate the interrelated nature of actors’ decisions involving natural systems within a broader biophysical and institutional context over distance. For instance, Indonesia is one of the world’s largest palm oil producers, accounting for 60% of global production[1]. China, India, and the European Union (EU) are the top three importers, accounting for up to nearly half of its total exports (UN Comtrada Database 2021). The high global demand for palm oil has increased the pressure on land, driving land use change (i.e., deforestation), and leading to social and environmental vulnerability in Indonesia. Historically, deforestation related to palm oil production was mainly driven by large-scale plantation, while recently more evidence has identified smallholders as important actors in clearing forests and peatlands (Daemeter 2016). The narrative of blaming smallholders for their seemingly unsustainable practices largely ignores how a set of interconnected social, economic, ecological, and political contexts, dynamics and interactions have driven the phenomenon. As Schleifer (2017) stressed, while local conditions clearly matter, greater attention needs to be paid to these dynamics in a changing political-economic context. For instance, when major importing countries and economies like the EU imposed a stricter regulation on importing palm oil as its biofuel source (EU RED II, 2019), a study found that such unilateral tariffs or bans on palm oil imports lead to a market re-directional leakage effect (Wilman 2019). This means that more palm oil (with lower sustainability standard) will be redirected to emerging countries like China and India, which have lower regulatory standards. In the meantime, another leakage effect, known as the competitive channel (Holand 2012), indicates that the oil palm production frontier has been expanded to other countries because suitable land in south-east Asia is depleting[2]. Such expansion has been observed in Africa and South America. Ecuador, Cameroon, Colombia, and Peru have become some of the fastest growing producing countries of palm oil in recent years[3]. The environmental and socioeconomic impacts of the palm oil industry’s operation in South-east Asia are now being experienced by indigenous communities in the Amazon forest[4]. To conclude, the local context and distant influences are intertwined with each other in shaping the outcome of the environmental problem (i.e., deforestation related to palm oil expansion in Indonesia).

A systemic governance perspective, rather than an isolated local or global perspective, is thus required to address the above-mentioned interconnected socioeconomic and environmental processes, interactions and structural patterns of the telecoupled systems. Specifically, the local governance approach tends to ignore the distant interactions that are out of the pre-defined local case boundaries; while the global governance approach, such as the Paris Agreement in the context of climate change, is often not able to address the local specificities and lacks the binding capacity to trigger on-time actions. In contrast, the concept of polycentric governance, which involves multiple interlinked decision-making arenas through processes of cooperation, coordination and conflict, shows the potential to fit the purposes well (Pahl-Wostl and Knieper 2014). Recognizing the connections between the two concepts, Oberlack et al. (2018) used the approach of Networks of Action Situations to illustrate the complexity of a polycentric system of governance, in the case of the sustainability challenges of the global interconnected land system.

Introducing the Network of Action Situation (NAS) approach

The Networks of Action Situations approach is an analytical tool that was first proposed by McGinnis (2011), derived from the core analytical unit, the action situation (AS), of the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework by Ostrom and her colleagues (1994). The action situation is a core component of the actor-centered institutional analysis commonly used in studying the field of resource governance, which can be analyzed from the operational, collective, and constitutional level. The action situation is composed of a set of actors, their positions, information, choices and outcomes linked to their choices.

The NAS perspective is able to capture the interdependences of multiple situations that contribute to the environmental problem of the study interest. According to McGinnis (2010), action situations are directly adjacent to each other if the outcome of one AS affects the structure or actors in other situations. Identified by Kimmich (2013), there are four types of links between action situations: biophysical transactions, information, institutions, and actors involved in both situations. Empirically, NAS has been applied in various resource governance contexts: The water-energy-food nexus (Kimmich 2013; Kimmich and Villamayor-Tomas 2019), transnational land systems (Oberlack et al. 2018), energy governance (Gritsenko 2018; Grundmann and Ehlers 2016), water and river governance (Möck et al. 2019; Sendzirmir et al. 2010), value chain analysis (Villamayor-Tomas et al. 2015), among others.

NAS is powerful in providing an in-depth systemic analysis of the interlinked situations, actions and events surrounding the environmental problems the analyst wishes to study. To get the analysis started, the analyst needs to identify the focal AS, the outcome of which is the main phenomenon of interest or the purpose of the study. In studying environmental issues, it is usually related to the exploitation of a common-pool resource or the inefficient provision of a public good. In the case of common-pool resources, for instance deforestation driven by palm oil smallholders in Indonesia, the focal AS would be a palm oil plantation. After identifying the focal AS, the next step (critical but also challenging) is to identify the other situations that link to the focal AS and contribute to the environmental problem. Again, in the case of palm oil industry, the expansion of palm oil plantation into forestland is linked with situations from multiple levels, considering the complex local contexts, as well as the high demand from the global market. Here we name a few: local trade; global trade; (national and foreign) legislation; civil movement, among others (a more in-depth analysis and discussion of the palm oil case will be in one of the next blogs). In the end, the method will allow the analyst to map out an overall picture of how the action situations are linked with each other and how each of the situations can directly and/or indirectly impact the outcome of the environmental problem. Based on that, policy insights can be drawn to better support sustainable resource governance.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this! More about how to apply NAS in different settings will be out soon. See you in the next post!



Brondizio, E.S., Ostrom, E. and Young, O.R., 2009. Connectivity and the governance of multilevel social-ecological systems: the role of social capital. Annual review of environment and resources34, pp.253-278.

Cox, M., Arnold, G. and Tomás, S.V., 2010. A review of design principles for community-based natural resource management. Ecology and Society15(4).

Daemeter., 2016. Indonesia oil palm smallholder farmers: access to operational and investment finance. Working paper.

Gritsenko, D., 2018. Explaining choices in energy infrastructure development as a network of adjacent action situations: The case of LNG in the Baltic Sea region. Energy Policy112, pp.74-83.

Grundmann, P. and Ehlers, M.H., 2016. Determinants of courses of action in bioenergy villages responding to changes in renewable heat utilization policy. Utilities Policy41, pp.183-192.

Holland, S.P., 2012. Emissions taxes versus intensity standards: Second-best environmental policies with incomplete regulation. Journal of Environmental Economics and management63(3), pp.375-387.

Kimmich, C., 2013. Linking action situations: Coordination, conflicts, and evolution in electricity provision for irrigation in Andhra Pradesh, India. Ecological Economics90, pp.150-158.

Kimmich, C. and Tomas, S.V., 2019. Assessing action situation networks: a configurational perspective on water and energy governance in irrigation systems. Water Economics and Policy5(01), p.1850005.

Liu, J., Hull, V., Batistella, M., DeFries, R., Dietz, T., Fu, F., Hertel, T.W., Izaurralde, R.C., Lambin, E.F., Li, S. and Martinelli, L.A., 2013. Framing sustainability in a telecoupled world. Ecology and Society18(2).

McGinnis, M.D., 2011. Networks of adjacent action situations in polycentric governance. Policy Studies Journal39(1), pp.51-78.

Möck, M., Vogeler, C.S., Bandelow, N.C. and Schröder, B., 2019. Layering action situations to integrate spatial scales, resource linkages, and change over time: The case of groundwater management in agricultural hubs in Germany. Policy Studies Journal.

Oberlack, C., Boillat, S., Brönnimann, S., Gerber, J.D., Heinimann, A., Speranza, C.I., Messerli, P., Rist, S. and Wiesmann, U., 2018. Polycentric governance in telecoupled resource systems. Ecology and Society23(1).

Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press.

Ostrom, E., Gardner, R., Walker, J., Walker, J.M. and Walker, J., 1994. Rules, games, and common-pool resources. University of Michigan Press.

Pahl-Wostl, C. and Knieper, C., 2014. The capacity of water governance to deal with the climate change adaptation challenge: Using fuzzy set Qualitative Comparative Analysis to distinguish between polycentric, fragmented and centralized regimes. Global Environmental Change29, pp.139-154.

Sendzimir, J., Flachner, Z., Pahl-Wostl, C. and Knieper, C., 2010. Stalled regime transition in the upper Tisza River Basin: the dynamics of linked action situations. Environmental Science & Policy13(7), pp.604-619.

Schleifer, P., 2017. Private regulation and global economic change: The drivers of sustainable agriculture in Brazil. Governance30(4), pp.687-703.

Villamayor-Tomas, S., Grundmann, P., Epstein, G., Evans, T. and Kimmich, C., 2015. The water-energy-food security nexus through the lenses of the value chain and the institutional analysis and development frameworks. Water Alternatives8(1), pp.735-755.

Wilman, E.A., 2019. Market redirection leakage in the palm oil market. Ecological Economics159, pp.226-234.

Young, O.R., Berkhout, F., Gallopin, G.C., Janssen, M.A., Ostrom, E. and Van der Leeuw, S., 2006. The globalization of socio-ecological systems: an agenda for scientific research. Global environmental change16(3), pp.304-316.

[1] United States Department of Agriculture, OilSeeds Reports (Various years)

[2] Source: https://politicsofpoverty.oxfamamerica.org/the-next-frontier-for-palm-oil-expansion-latin-america/

[3] Source: https://www.indexmundi.com/agriculture/?commodity=palm-oil&graph=production-growth-rate

[4] Souce: https://news.mongabay.com/2021/03/deja-vu-as-palm-oil-industry-brings-deforestation-pollution-to-amazon/