Benessaiah, Karina

Dr. Karina Benessaiah
Assistant Professor
PhD. Arizona State University, 2018
519-824-4120 ext. 58547
Hutt 241

Human-environment geography; sustainability transformations; urban-rural linkages; counterurbanisation; vulnerability; social-ecological crises; ecosystem services; inequality; agency; human dimensions of global change.

black and white photo of Karina kneeling down with her camera in an old stone buildingI am a human-environment geographer, sustainability researcher and inter-and transdisciplinary scholar whose research focuses on understanding how people adapt to rapid, multifaceted social-ecological changes – often called crises – and assessing resulting societal and environmental transformations. Environmental changes, economic recessions, globalized trade are all drivers of change that shape livelihoods and environments around the world, often in unexpected ways. Understanding the processes involved in those social-ecological transformations highlights emergent vulnerabilities and potential opportunities towards sustainable and equitable pathways. How are people harnessing opportunity to bring about desirable social-ecological transformations? What are barriers and limits to such transformations?

I use approaches and methods from global land change, political ecology, ecosystem services/ nature contributions to people (NCPs), resilience, and sustainability science to study these dynamics focusing more particularly on terrestrial and coastal/marine food system changes – particularly changes in livelihoods, land/sea uses and landscapes. I am also interested in the interplay between science and arts and other ways to disseminate and communicate research.

These research interest have brought me to work in very diverse contexts and topics – all linked around understanding how people relate to, manage and are affected by social-ecological changes. My work has focused on the impacts of the 2010 financial crisis on the back-to-the-land movement in Greece, the effects of narco-trafficking on people and landscapes in Central America, how hurricanes and global markets affect small-scale aquaculture efforts and climate change adaptations in Nicaragua and the tangible and intangible ways in which nature benefits us.

I am currently working on projects related to the following research directions:

1)    How do we navigate towards sustainable and just pathways?

A.    Understanding how small-scale sustainability “scale up” to bring about broader transformations?

  • Project: Montreal: Building an ecosystem of change. In collaboration with Dr. Elena Bennett, McGill University, the project seeks to provide place-based understanding of transformational dynamics and the role played by seeds of the good Anthropocene – small-scale sustainability initiatives - in scaling up sustainability. This project is part of a broader project Seeds of Good Anthropocene.
  • Project: Seeds of Good Anthropocenes: Fostering food system transformation in Africa. IDRC co-funded project looking at food system seed initiatives in Ghana, South Africa and Kenya. Part of an international team of researchers, mostly coming from the Global South, that seek to understand further the role playing by small-scale sustainability initiatives or seeds in fostering new food sustainability pathways

B.    Synthesize global knowledge about “how to bring about transformations”

  • Project: IPBES Transformative Change Assessment, Chapter 5: Realizing a sustainable world for nature and people: means for transformative strategies, actions and roles for all. Part of an international team of experts synthesizing knowledge learned.

2)    Social-ecological changes and sustainability challenges in a telecoupled world
-  What are (often invisible) structural barriers to transformations?

A.    Illicit economies and social-ecological change

  • Project: How is narco-trafficking affecting rural communities and ecosystems in Central America? Part of an international team of researchers seeking to understand narco-trafficking and the environment

B.    Inequality and ecosystem services

  • Project: understand how inequality affect and are affected by ecosystem service changes. Lead on a collective review of inequality and ecosystem services

-  What are unexpected changes brought about by sudden social-ecological changes?

  • Project: Life in the time of Covid: urban flight and the social-ecological transformations of rural Greece. (SSHRC Insight Development Grant) The overall goal of the research is to understand how multiple and cumulative crises including COVID-related counterurbanisation reconfigure rural livelihoods and landscapes and to facilitate a community-based discussion of desirable futures and the capacities needed to achieve them.

3)    Arts/Science co-creation and participatory action research

How can we integrate the arts – and their power to engage, inspire, allow us to experience – with evidence-based science to better understand and communicate research about social-ecological transformations?

I co-founded and am part of a transmedia cooperative in Athens, Greece, that seeks to use media to empower grassroot efforts towards sustainability and social justice. One of our flagship project was the development of a transmedia documentary ‘heterotopies’ that explored – in collaboration with grassroot organizations in each country – projects that emerged post-economic crisis in Greece, Portugal, Italy and Greece (available in many languages).

GEOG 3020 Global Environmental Change (FALL 2022)
GEOG 1220 DE Human Impact on the Environment (WINTER 2023)
GEOG 2260 Applied Human Geography (WINTER 2023)


Winkler, K.J., K. Benessaiah, J. Botzas-Coluni, E.T.H Crockett, M.A. Crowley, M. Dade, D.E.L. Hanna, J. Garrah, J., J.T. Rieb, E.M. Bennett. Implications of panarchy for ecosystem service research: the role of system dynamics in service delivery. Ecology and Society 27(2):43.

Berbes-Blazquez, M., M. Schoon, K. Benessaiah, E.M. Bennett, G. Peterson and R. Ghimire. “Resilience in the times of COVID: What the response to the COVID pandemic teaches us about resilience principles”. Ecology and Society 27(2):16.

Dade M., A.S. Downing, K. Benessaiah, M. Falardeau, M. Lin, J.T. Rieb, J.C. Rocha. Inequalities in the adaptive cycle: Reorganising after natural disasters in an unequal world. Ecology and Society (In press)

Benessaiah, K and H. Eakin. 2021. “Crisis, Transformation, and Agency: Why are People Going Back-to-the-Land in Greece?” Sustainability Science. October 5th, 2021. Vol (16): 1841-1858.

Benessaiah, K. “Reconnecting to nature amidst crisis: harnessing capacities and mobilities for livelihood and land transformations in the Greek back-to-the-land trend ”. 2021. Journal of Rural Studies 84: 76-89.

Devine, J. D. Wrathall, B. Aguilar-Gonzalez, K. Benessaiah, E. Tellman, Z. Ghaffari, D. Ponstingel. “Narco-Degradation: Cocaine Trafficking's Environmental Impacts in Central America's Protected Areas”. 2021. World Development 184: 105474.

Tellman, E., S. Sesnie, N. Magliocca, E. A. Nielsen, J. Devine, K. McSweeney, M. Jain, D. J. Wrathall A. Davila,, K. Benessaiah, B. Aguilar-Gonzalez. “Illicit Drivers of Land Use Change: Narcotrafficking and Forest Loss in Central America.” 2020. Global Environmental Change, July 2020, Vol. 63: 102092.   

Wrathall, D., J. Devine, B.  Aguilar-Gonzalez, K. Benessaiah, E. Tellman, S.  Sesnie, E. A. Nielsen, N. Magliocca, K. McSweeney, Z. Pearson, J. Ponstingel, A. Rivera Sosa, A. Davila. “The impacts of cocaine trafficking on conservation governance in Central America”. 2020. Global Environmental Change, July 2020, Vol. 63: 102098.  

Jacobs, Sander; N. Zafra Calvo; P.  Balvanera; D. Gonzalez-Jimenez; L. Guibrunet; U. Pascual; K. Benessaiah; A. Berghöfer; J. Chaves Chaparro; S. Díaz; E. Gomez Baggethun; S. Lele; B. Martín-López; V. Masterson; J. Merçon; H. Moersberger; B. Muraca; A. Norström; P. O’Farrell; J.C. Ordonez; A. Prieur-Richard; A. Rincón Ruiz; N. Sitas; M. van Noordwijk, Meine. “Use your powers for good: the Oaxaca statement on plural valuation of nature”. 2020.  Global Sustainability, Vol. 3: e8.

Milkoreit, Manjana, J. Hodbod, J. Baggio, K. Benessaiah, R. Calderon Contreras, J. Donges, JD. Mathias, J. Rocha, M. Schoon, and S. Werners. “Defining Tipping Points for Social-Ecological Systems Scholarship – An Interdisciplinary Literature Review”. 2018. Environmental Research Letters 3(13):033005.

Force, Aisling, D. Manuel-Navarette and K. Benessaiah. 2017. “Tourism and Transitions towards Sustainability: Developing tourists’ pro-sustainability agencySustainability Science 13: 431-445.

Sesnie S., B. Tellman, D. Wrathall, K. McSweeney, E. Nielsen, K. Benessaiah, O. Wang and L. Ray. 2017. “A spatio-temporal analysis of deforestation related to cocaine trafficking in Central America”. Environmental Research Letters 12 (5): 054015.

Chan KMA, P. Balvanera, K. Benessaiah, M. Chapman, S. Diaz, E. Gómez-Baggethun, RK. Gould, N. Hannahs, K. Jax, SC. Klain, G. Luck, B. Martín- López, B. Muraca, B. Norton, K. Ott, U. Pascual, T. Satterfield, M. Tadaki, J. Taggart, NJ. Turner. 2016. “Why Protect Nature? Rethinking Values and the Environment”. PNAS Opinions, Vol. 113 (2): 1462-1465.

Turner, VK, K. Benessaiah, SD Warren and D. Iwaniec. 2015. “Essential tensions in interdisciplinary scholarship: navigating challenges in affect, epistemologies, and structure in environment-society research centers”. Higher Education. Vol 70 (4): 649-665. 

Benessaiah, K. and R. Sengupta. 2014. “How is Shrimp Aquaculture Transforming Coastal Livelihoods and Lagoons in Estero Real, Nicaragua?: The Need to Integrate Social–Ecological Research and Ecosystem-Based ApproachesEnvironmental Management 54(2): 162-179.

Raymond, C., G. Singh, K. Benessaiah, J. Bernhardt, J. Levine, H. Nelson, N. Turner, B. Norton, J. Tam and K.C. Chan. 2013. “Ecosystem services and beyond: Using multiple metaphors to understand human-environment relationships”. Bioscience 63 (7): 536-546.

Benessaiah, K. 2012. "Carbon and livelihoods in Post-Kyoto: Assessing voluntary carbon markets". Ecological Economics. Volume 77: 1-6.

Eakin, H.; K. Benessaiah; J. Barrera; G. Cruz-Bello, and H. Morales. 2011. “Livelihoods and Landscapes at the Threshold of Change: Disaster and Resilience in a Chiapas Coffee Community”. Regional Environmental Change, 1-14.

Raudsepp-Hearne, C; Peterson, G. D. ; Tengo, M; Bennett, E.M.; Holland, T.; Benessaiah, K.;  Macdonald, G.K.; Pfeifer, L. 2010. “Untangling the environmentalist’s paradox: why is human well-being increasing as ecosystem services degrade?Bioscience 60 (8): 576-589. 

Oestreicher, J. S., K. Benessaiah, M. C. Ruiz-Jaen, S. Sloan, K. Turner, J. Pelletier, B. Guay, K. E. Clark, D. G. Roche and M. Meiners. 2009. "Avoiding deforestation in Panamanian protected areas: An analysis of protection effectiveness and implications for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation." Global Environmental Change 19(2): 279-291.

I am always looking forward to speaking to motivated and passionate students interested in human-environment dynamics, just and sustainable transformations, grassroots innovations, urban-rural relations, social-ecological change, and the role of crises (e.g., climate change; covid-19; environmental degradation, economic crises) in driving those changes. In the FALL 2023, I am looking to recruit one or two master’s students (or exceptionally a PhD student) to work on these  topics. I have opening for a specific project (see below) but I am also open to discuss other project interests if they fit with my broader research interests.

  • Interested in doing social-ecological research integrating fieldwork abroad? Always wanted to discover other parts of the world? Interested in digging deeper to understand how crises such as Covid-19 change our world? I am looking for one or two master’s students to work on a SSHRC-funded project entitled “Life in the time of Covid: urban flight and the social-ecological transformations of rural Greece”. The students will complete a social-ecological research project on the implications of crisis-led counterurbanisation  (i.e., move out of the cities into rural areas) for rural island communities and ecosystems. The project includes fieldwork in Greece.

    A background in social sciences and/or integrative fields such as sustainability, resilience; familiarity with qualitative research methods (e.g., interviews and focus groups) and/or mixed-methods approaches (e.g., linking remote-sensing and GIS to interviews and stories); engagement in arts-science based-approaches; interest in working in a foreign country and to familiarize oneself with other cultures and ways of being; Interest in rural or urban-rural dynamics; knowledge of Greek; would all be considered assets. If you feel interested or passionate about those topics and do not have these experiences, please apply anyways, being motivated and curious are the main requirements.

    More specifically: 1) one of the positions will focus on arts/science integration using photo or video-voice elicitation methodologies to understand the island’s changes and people’s experiences and visions for the future. Experience and/or interest in video-creation; design; arts-based methodologies and fieldwork encouraged. 2) The other position will focus on documenting the islands’ transformations through qualitative or mixed methods approaches (for instance, integrating a land use change analysis with interviews). Experience and/or interest doing fieldwork and using GIS and remote sensing as well as interviews and focus groups encouraged.
  • If you are deeply interested in other topics linked to my research such as just and sustainable transformations; inequality; scaling up of small-scale (social) innovations, contact me.

 If admitted, students will receive funding following our department’s graduate financial support policy. Funds for fieldwork, conference attendance and other opportunities for professional development are also available and will be allocated based on the needs of the students’ and research projects.

Our department and I strive to foster collaborative and genuinely supportive spaces that value diversity and wellbeing in research and in our personal lives. I strongly encourage application from people that have been under-represented in higher education. This includes people from equity-deserving groups as well as people actively engaged in efforts towards more equitable, diverse, and inclusive communities (for e.g., through social movements and grassroot activism). I not only encourage these applications but also want to emphasize that these diverse visions would be an asset to our research group as they challenge and transform the nature and praxis of research, that is, what is researched and how to go about it.

Prospective applicants should contact me via email – - and forward an unofficial transcript and resume or CV, and a brief statement outlining their interests as they relate to the project.