New Fellowships Support PhD Student McKenzie Johnson’s Research on Environmental Governance

July 21, 2015

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084,

By Kati Moore MEM ’16, Nicholas School Communications Student Assistant

DURHAM, N.C. – McKenzie Johnson, a 5th year graduate student in Duke’s University Program in Environmental Policy, recently received two prestigious fellowships to support her dissertation work on natural resource governance and conflict.

Johnson seeks to better understand how top-down approaches to management of natural resources and natural areas play out in local contexts and communities.

The two new fellowships she has been awarded, the Jennings Randolph Peace Scholarship from the United States Institute for Peace and the World Politics and Strategy Fellowship from the Smith Richardson Foundation, will allow her to continue her dissertation work examining approaches to natural resource governance, conflict, and peace-building across three countries with distinct ideas about how these concepts are interrelated.

As part of her work, she just returned from eight months in Ghana, where she surveyed 12 communities’ perceptions of environmental governance. She also recently conducted remote surveys with communities in Bamyan, Afghanistan. This fall, she plans use her two new grants to work in Sierra Leone.

“Ideas about ‘best practices’ in environmental peace-building are discussed in global meetings and pushed in national agendas,” Johnson says. “National governments often embrace these ideas, but they run into opposition from more traditional governance forms at sub-national levels.”

One challenge, Johnson says, is that people separate the ideas of natural resources and environment. For many people, natural resources mean economic commodities such as gold, oil and diamonds. These are managed separately from other environmental elements such as forests, water and agriculture.

“But you can’t divorce natural resources from ecosystems,” she says. “It’s all connected.”

As a result of this divide, environmental governance as a whole is often not a priority for policymakers, Johnson says. And even when national governments do adopt comprehensive policies, there is often tension between these regulations and the local governance structures. Ultimately, Johnson says, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “These things are much more nuanced than simply implementing a new policy or introducing a new institution – they get taken up in different ways depending on the context.”

One trend she expected to find is that top-down environmental policies would be more thoroughly adopted in more politically stable countries. She finds that is not always the case. In Ghana, which established a democratic government in 1993, Johnson says there are still many environmental conflicts at local levels.

“There are battles over land access and resource benefits between private companies and surrounding communities, between the government and local miners, between traditional authorities and communities . . . the list goes on and on,” she says. 

Working in such volatile conditions requires a rare sort of drive and strength that sets Johnson apart. 

(Photo:  McKenzie Johnson interviewing a forest guard in Cape Three Points Forest Reserve,Ghana. Courtesy of McKenzie Johnson)

“McKenzie is a tenacious and passionate researcher. “She does not shy away from hard questions or tough situations.,” says her faculty advisor Erika Weinthal, Lee Hill Snowdon Professor of Environmental Policy and associate dean for international programs at
Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Johnson’s passion for environmental work began with an interest in marine biology. After finishing her bachelor’s degree in environmental science at Vassar College, she spent a summer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution studying deep sea corals.  She then went on to work at the National Environmental Trust, where she lobbied for support of fisheries conservation.  

Her first international work was with Global Vision International at wildlife reserves in South Africa and Ecuador. At the Pavacachi Reserve in Ecuador, she conducted biodiversity surveys and worked with the local community to develop and promote ecotourism ventures in the reserve.

Johnson received her master’s degree in conservation biology at Columbia University, where she became interested in the politics of conservation. After graduating, she moved to Afghanistan to work at the Wildlife Conservation Society on environment and natural resource management programs.

In between finishing work in Afghanistan and beginning her doctoral studies at Duke, Johnson spent nine months studying French in Paris, where she met her husband Dries. They moved to the United States in 2011 and now have two dogs. They love to spend time outdoors, and often hike along the Eno River.