Environmentalism in the Periphery: Institutional Embeddedness and Deforestation among Fifteen Palm Oil Producers, 1990 – 2012

Kent Henderson, Kristen Shorette


Environmental sociologists highlight the exploitative nature of the global capitalist economy where resource extraction from nations in the periphery tends to disproportionately benefit those of the core. From the Brazilian Amazon to mineral-rich Sub-Saharan Africa, the practice of “unequal ecological exchange” persists. Simultaneously, a “global environmental regime” has coalesced as a prominent feature of the contemporary world system. In the post-World War II era, legitimate nation-states must take steps to protect the natural environment and prevent its degradation even at their own economic expense. Stronger national ties to global institutions, particularly international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) consistently yield more positive environmental outcomes. However, previous work suggests that normative expectations for improved environmental practice will be weak or nonexistent in the periphery. We use the case of palm oil production and its relationship to deforestation to provide a more nuanced analysis of the relationship between material and institutional forces in the periphery. Using unbalanced panels of fifteen palm oil producing countries from 1990 to 2012, we find that stronger national ties to world society via citizen memberships in INGOs result in greater primary forest area among palm oil producers. However, this effect is strongest where production is lowest and weakens as production increases. Even in the cases of Indonesia and Malaysia, where palm oil production is substantially higher than any other producer, ties to global institutions are significantly related to reduced forest loss. These results indicate the variable importance of national embeddedness into global institutions within the periphery of the world system.


Environment; Unequal Ecological Exchange; Institutionalism; Palm Oil

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/jwsr.2017.699


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