Transdisciplinary research is not a solution to environmental problems

Over the weekend, Joern Fischer wrote a criticism of transdisciplinary research. I was very eager to read it because it is something I have been wondering about over the last few months too. I began commenting on his blog, but, as my comment grew longer, I thought it is perhaps a better idea to flesh out my thoughts into a full post. Overall, I agree with Joern’s misgivings, but I would go even further to suggest that he was perhaps too forgiving towards transdisciplinary research.

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Conservationists must realise that farmers are central to conserving nature

The patchwork of farmland near my childhood home

The patchwork of farmland near my childhood home

Between finishing my PhD and starting my current job, I spent several months of unemployment on the family farm near Bethlehem in the Free State Province, South Africa. Rather than actively searching for a real job, I procrastinated by watching birds and tracking mammals with a camera trap.

The experience was like re-reading a really good book; I kept seeing things I hadn’t noticed before. Despite spending my childhood in the area, it wasn’t until I actually started paying close attention that I realised the amazing nature around me.

Although it is an agricultural heartland, the region is teeming with life. For example, the sampling quadrat for the South African Bird Atlas Project near my house contains 257 different bird species. To put that in perspective, the entire Island of Madagascar supposedly only hosts 265 species (give or take 10 species depending on the source).

No wonder the area is part of the Rooiberge-Riemland Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.

If I, as a professional ecologist, took so long to realise the amazing biodiversity of the area, then surely others are also oblivious to it? As conservationists, we should be concerned by this.

Most of the half-a-million hectares of the Rooiberge-Riemland Important Bird and Biodiversity Area is on commercial farmland. How can we expect to conserve this area without the buy-in from the local farmers? They are, after all, the owners of the land and are solely responsible for what happens on the ground.

As a consequence, I am trying to realign my own career trajectory. The idea now is to make it as easy as possible for farmers to conserve nature. To this end, I wrote an essay for pilot African version of the The Conversation.

If you’re interested please click through: Farmers hold the key to nature conservation: let’s treat them that way.

We’re used to hearing great tales of conservation in faraway tropical forests and coral reefs, but I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to conserve nature in my own backyard. Hopefully, this is just the first in a long-line of things I have planned. Watch this space.

Conservation and poverty alleviation: the case of Golden Gate Highlands National Park, South Africa

Biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation often walk hand-in-hand. At the global scale, most species and the majority of poor people are concentrated in a narrow band near the tropics. This is also true at smaller scales, where formal protected areas for conservation are regularly situated away from urban centres and, therefore, often coincide with poor communities deprived of basic infrastructure. As a consequence, any conservation strategy that hopes to be sustainable in the long-term should pay careful attention to local socio-economic conditions.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I have a soft spot for Golden Gate Highlands National Park (GGHNP) in South Africa (e.g. the history of the park and the guide to the hiking trails). This national park happens to be in one of South Africa’s poorest regions: the Maluti a Phufong local municipality.

Consider these scary statistics for the region:

  • Only 1 in every 4 people (26.8%) has successfully complete secondary school education.
  • Approximately 75 % (155 429 out of 208 296) of people aged between 15 and 64 are unemployed.
  • 80% of households earn less than ZAR 40 000 per annum (that’s roughly US$10 per day shared among 3.35 people per household).

There is no doubt that the region surrounding GGHNP is in dire need of rejuvenation. I suppose it’s unsurprising then that the South African Journal of Science published a commentary in December last year criticising the recently approved 10 year management plan for GGHNP. In short, the authors argued that the management plan failed to highlight the need for conservation strategies that address the harsh socio-economic realities of the region and they suggested that tourism in the region be fast-tracked to generate revenue.

Here are some snippets from their essay:

The GGHNP management plan can only succeed in promoting biodiversity and heritage conservation if it provides livelihood opportunities that safeguard continued socio-economic benefits.”

Park resources, if managed properly, can provide long-term sustainable benefit to individuals, communities and institutions.”

There must be speedy documentation of cultural heritage sites to promote route tourism development.

The GGHNP has rich cultural and heritage resources, yet is unable to effectively preserve them and to turn these assets into tourist attractions that earn revenue and provide opportunities for local economic development.”

At first inspection, this all sounds good. They use all the right buzzwords and seem to tick all the boxes. But I couldn’t help being annoyed when reading this commentary. Along with disagreeing with its general argument, I also had other misgivings, mostly due to the misrepresentation of the current situation at GGHNP.  I pointed out these errors to the editor at South African Journal of Science and these views were published last week (open access). Continue reading

The startup culture of conservation entrepreneurship

I’ve written about the need for self-started conservation initiatives on this blog before. And now I am pleased to boast that some of these ideas have just been published online in Conservation Biology. (If you don’t have subscription access through the publisher’s website, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll forward the article to you as a PDF).

It’s a short opinion piece that is mainly intended to introduce the concept of social entrepreneurship to an audience of conservation scientists. The article should definitely not be considered as a how-to guide to conservation entrepreneurship, nor is it a comprehensive review of all the ways entrepreneurship can help to protect biodiversity. Instead, I hoped to convey three key points:

(1) there are conservation problems that are especially amenable to small, fast bootstrapped solutions;

(2) there are new ways of funding conservation initiatives that weren’t available 10 years ago; and

(3) most early-career conservation biologists in the current employment landscape will, at some point, be unemployed, so self-started conservation initiatives could become a necessity.

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Handling cumulative impacts during the environmental decision-making process

Although ecology doesn’t have many general laws, one most likely to qualify is the species-area relationship. If you walk through a field in a straight line and count all the different species you come across, you’ll notice that the total number of species increases as you progress along your straight path. After a while, however, you’ll start seeing the same species over and over again until you eventually find that you’re no longer spotting any new ones. This is the asymptotic species-area curve. While the exact mathematical form of the relationship is still hotly debated, it is safe to assume that it is an increasing function that reaches a plateau once all the species have been encountered.

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A trail guide to Golden Gate Highlands National Park (South Africa)

I’ve written about Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the past.

It’s a region that is very close to to my heart; I’ve spent hundreds of hours (and thousands of footsteps) on the sandstone slopes. Unfortunately, there are no complete guides to the hiking routes in the park – so I set out to make one of my own.

You can find route descriptions, hiking profiles, maps and photos of the main routes in the park by visiting this new page on my site. You can also download the route information as .kml shapefiles that can be imported into Google Earth or any other GIS platform.

View of Wodehouse

Crush the economy for the sake of conservation? Why not, we’ve done it before…

Should we conserve nature at the expense of the economy? Specifically, should we risk the collapse of major industrial sectors to save species?

We’ve created modern buzzwords like “sustainable development” and “new conservation” to explain multiple-objective conservation programs because many argue that conservation is only sustainable when it aligns with other economic, social and political goals. I’ve even argued this point-of-view in the past. Society is petrified of putting an end to the exploitation of nature because we worry about the terrible consequences of dismantling the modern-day economy. Should we worry about the impending threat of unemployment, debt and unpaid mortgages if we were to choose conservation instead of consumption?

The short answer: No! Well, at least not if the past is any predictor of the future. Continue reading