Monday, 23 February 2015

Can we overcome the “blues” in conservation and natural resource management?

Can we overcome the “blues” in conservation and natural resource management?

By: Javier Mateo-Vega (Ph.D. Candidate - Biology/NEO)

It is surreal to grapple with critical conservation challenges occurring in the Kingdom of Bhutan (yes, that exotic country that lies at the eastern flank of the Himalayas) while sitting near the confluence of the Chagres River and Panama Canal in the town of Gamboa, Panama! But this is what happens when you take part in the course, “Foundations of Environmental Policy” (ENVR610), one of the two required NEO courses.

Under the guidance of Prof. Gordon Hickey (a rare scholar with vast experience as a practitioner and policy-maker), we had spent all afternoon discussing the issue of human-wildlife conflicts in Bhutan and attempting to identify viable solutions to this “wicked” problem. At first, it was fun to be transported momentarily to this remote Kingdom through our readings and complementary videos. But as we were challenged to explore options for addressing human-wildlife conflicts in a manner that is sensitive to the environmental, socio-economic, cultural and political realities of the country, many of us began to feel overwhelmed and even a little “blue”. Are true win-win solutions possible; who decides when it’s a win-win; are win-wins able to endure over time?

Over the course of the following five days, we were confronted with many similar cases, from deforestation and cattle ranching in Brazil, to horseshoe crab harvesting practices in eastern US, to community based eco-tourism enterprises in China. We also had the opportunity to visit the mind-blowing expansion of the Panama Canal on the Caribbean coast, and visit STRI’s Punta Galeta research station to discuss with Dr. Stanley Heckadon (STRI Staff Scientist), and other staff, the potential environmental and social impacts of megaproject developments on mangroves, coral reefs, forests, and the “social fabric” of the region. We were challenged to wear multiple “hats” and approach these problems as scientists, community members, indigenous leaders, policy makers and concerned citizens.

All of these cases illustrate the enormous difficulties in linking science with environmental policy, and the trade-offs that are inherent to managing any natural resource. Clearly, there are no right or wrong answers or solutions to these issues. In most cases, any decision or action will result in either a net loss of biodiversity or a net loss of livelihoods. Finding how those net losses can be minimized is tricky, especially because natural resource management decisions take place in contexts of changing conditions (e.g. environmental, political, social, economic), incomplete information and uncertainty, conflicts due to varying interests from different stakeholders, and complex - and often poorly understood - interactions between environmental and social systems.

At the end of each day of the course, some would joke, “environmental policy could lead any person to drink heavily”; “this course should include a therapist to ensure we don’t fall into a deep depression”; or simply “my brain hurts.” For many, it was the first time they had been exposed to the world of environmental policy and gotten a glimpse of where their professional paths may lead them. We have witnessed past generations of NEO graduates take on jobs in academia, NGOs, government agencies, and the corporate sector. Almost all have and will invariably engage in environmental policy at some point in their careers. This course undoubtedly prepares all of us for this process.

As I listened to each one of our classmates introduce themselves and their research at the beginning of the course, it is clear that NEO attracts individuals from all walks of life and corners of the world who are passionate about nature, science, rural livelihoods, politics, and economics, among many other topics. Over meals, you could hear conversations about genomics, manatees, seaweed cultivation, phylogenetics, indigenous peoples rights, etc. This proved to be the way I got over my “blues” throughout the week. Seeing the passion of the group, their sophisticated and innovative approaches to problem solving, and commitment to action was both empowering and inspiring. I think all of us walked away feeling much more motivated and prepared to participate in the environmental policy arena.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Tropical Biology and Conservation Course: Interdisciplinary Groups… or People?

The following is a blog post I wrote for the McGill-STRI-University of Illinois "Tropical Biology and Conservation" course. Enjoy!
There’s a prevailing idea in academia that we need increasing interdisciplinary partnerships, and increasingly interdisciplinary people. This is an ideology that framed my entire undergraduate career, and something I’ve noticed in several lectures throughout this course; collaboration is critical to producing high quality and publishable work. This is clearly a no-brainer; however, all that being said, I feel there is still a long ways to go.
Anthony Coates gave an incredibly interesting talk on the geologic history on the isthmus of Panama. Once I’d looked up what an isthmus was, I was intrigued by the sheer volume of work done by geologists. (An isthmus, in case you were wondering, is a small strip of land that rests between two oceans or seas that connects two much larger land masses, thank you Wikipedia). Tony opened his talk by stating that geologists and palaeontologists often spend much more time learning about biology, than biologists take the time to learn about geology or palaeontology. This is often the case, though there are always exceptions; however, much of this can be said for every discipline when it comes to research outside their own field. Not that this is justification for ignorance, but it raises the question of the value of specialization versus generalization. If diversity within academia is so critical to addressing our world’s problems, are we better off with a diversity of researchers, or a diversity within each researcher?
This same idea came up in a much different context a few days later, when we attended the STRI Tupper seminar on the History of STRI. A question was asked at the end of the talk regarding the limited integration of Latin American scientists into STRI, and what efforts have been made to improve the diversity within the research community. One of the responses to this question referred to the historical context of Panama and its relations with the United States. There is a significant, and tumultuous, history between these states that really has been more conducive to friction and separation, as opposed to collaboration. These relations have improved in the past few decades, but the remains of the political tension still persist. You might wonder where this relates to interdisciplinary research, but my point comes from the fact that as academics we often become so focused on our particular disciplines that we forget to look at the broader context of where and what we’re researching. We can be so focused on the microcosm that we study, that the history framing our study site becomes lost in translation.
On a more practical note, this history, be it evolutionary, political, economic, social or otherwise, can also explain why collaborations can be so successful… or not. This is where I think one of the values of this course lies, in that we have such diversity of perspectives, research focuses, and people, and we have no choice but to interact with and learn from each other. We are forced to expand our conception of how the world works, or how it should work. Collaboration is not an obligation so much as an exciting prospect. Perhaps the future wave of academia will move in this direction, or it already is. Tis food for thought at any rate.