My research areas of interest are:

Kodaikanal mountainsForests & Regional Change

I started out as an urban planner but found myself drawn towards the concepts of regions and regional development. During my doctoral studies I became particularly  interested in how regional development was being talked about in the context of mountainous and forested regions in India.  The idea of a region varies a lot from one place to another, and it is often easier to grasp as a cultural reality than as an economic or physical entity. Read more


Mtwara taxiboatEnvironmental History

If mountains and forests provided my first foray into understanding regions, oceans and trees became the means for my second foray into exploring how regions have formed over time. My interest in the Indian Ocean world arose when I shifted my research focus from the Indian subcontinent to South Africa, which brought both places into a comparative frame in which the Indian Ocean emerged as the key agent of connection. Read more


baobab at Sungo and Zambezi river (sample 25)Political Ecology

Almost three decades ago, when I started my doctoral studies, political ecology was emerging as a radical and exciting interdisciplinary field of research. Now, Political Ecology is a well-established field, with numerous texts, journals, research groups and sub-fields of inquiry. Simply put, I see political ecology as revealing how past and present social actions and decisions make their mark on the landscape and influence subsequent actions and decision that societies undertake. Read more


1. Movements of plants across the Indian Ocean into northern Australia prior to British occupation and settlement.

This is a collaborative research project with my SGES colleague, Associate Professor Christian Kull and Dr. Daniel Murphy at the Melbourne Royal Botanic Garden, funded by the Australian Research Council Discovery Project (ARC-DP 1093100) from 2010 to 2012.  We will be investigating how the baobab and mimosa bush may have been brought across the Indian Ocean into northern Australia. We are drawing on three different sources of information – Portuguese, Spanish, and Arab records; phylogenetic analysis of plant specimens from the Indian Ocean littoral, and folklore about the two plants around the Indian Ocean Rim – to reconstruct possible connections and ways through which these trees may have arrived in northern Australia before British occupation and settlement of this region.

2. The political ecology of acacia exchanges around the Indian Ocean.

This research project with Christian Kull was funded by the ARC (DP 0666131) from 2006-2008. We conducted a comparative analysis of how Australian acacia species have fared in three sites where they were introduced: the highlands of Madagascar, the highlands of Mpumalanga Province in South Africa, the highlands in southern India, and conversely, how introduced African and Indian acacia species have fared in northern Queensland.  We focused on: 1) the reasons for the introduction of the species; 2) how these introduced species have been diffused and dispersed across the landscape; and 3) how different social groups and institutions regard and manage the presence of these introduced species in their respective landscapes.

3. The social geographies of marketplace trade.

A large proportion of people in the world are involved in small-scale trade and businesses that support the everyday life of regions.  Despite their crucial role in creating livelihood networks and marketplace trade within and across regions, most policy makers view these ‘informal sector’ actors and their economic activities as peripheral to the growth of national economies.  I am working on a monograph that rethinks the concept of ‘informal economy’ as regionalised social geographies of marketplace trade, and shows how this alternative concept can provide a richer understanding of how these ‘businesses of everyday life’ of regions contribute to different processes and patterns of regional economic growth and resilience.

4. Commons resource management and the geography of the medicinal plant trade in South Africa.

My research in South Africa focuses on two aspects of natural resource management: first, how post-apartheid reforms in rural areas affect people whose livelihoods depend on harvesting commons resources for subsistence or sale; and second, how the economic geography of trade in commons resources influences the ways in which these are subject to conservation and management.  My empirical research on the economic geography of the medicinal plant trade in South Africa has included fieldwork in the provinces of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo, and in the two largest urban centres for the medicinal plant trade, Johannesburg and Durban. This was funded by the US National Science Foundation (NSF-SBER 9709456, 1998-2001).


2013-2015 A Weed by any other name? Comparing local knowledge and uses of environmental weeds around the Indian Ocean, Chief Investigator (CI) with Partner Investigators (PIs) Christian Kull (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Charlie Shackleton (Rhodes University, South Africa) and Nitin Rai (ATREE, Bangalore, India), Australian Research Council-Discovery Project (ARC-DP 130103341) (AU$419,827)
2010-2013 The Enigma of Arrival: Movements of the mimosa bush and the baobab across the Indian Ocean into pre-British Australia, CI with Christian Kull (SGES) and Daniel Murphy (Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne), ARC-DP 1093100 (AU$545,000).
2006-2008 Australian Transplants: The Political Ecology of Acacia Exchanges across the Indian Ocean, CI with Christian Kull (SGES), ARC-DP 0666131 (AU$ 160,000).
1998-2003 Common Access lands and sustainable rural development in South Africa
2003 Exploring the Impacts of Land Use Change on the Medicinal Plant Trade in Southern Africa, Faculty of Arts, Monash University (AU$ 9,345)
1998-2001 The Question of Common-Access Lands and Sustainable Rural Development in South Africa, USA National Science Foundation, SBR 9709456 (US$ 159,525)
1989-1995 Forestry, regional development, and social movements in the Indian Himalayas
1993-95 S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellowship in Natural Resource Studies, University of California, Berkeley
1990-91 Junior Fellowship Grant for dissertation field research in the Indian Himalayas, American Institute of Indian Studies, University of Chicago (Indian Rs. 180,000).
1989-90 Travel Grant for dissertation fieldwork, Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, University of California-Los Angeles (US$1,000).
1989 Taraknath Das Foundation Grant for dissertation fieldwork, South Asian Studies Institute, Columbia University, New York (US$ 3,000).