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Chapter Three: Case Studies in Conducting Research

In this section we give examples of some of the large-scale projects where interdisciplinary and place-based working has allowed us to tackle complex sustainability problems.

3.1 Working across Academic Disciplines to Improve Forest Conservation

The development of interdisciplinary collaboration between social scientists, conservation biologists and environmental scientists has led to novel approaches to ecological restoration in a variety of ecological systems.

Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary

The tropical forest of the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain ecosystem is enormously biodiverse and supports significant populations of some of the most iconic and threatened animal species in Borneo. Since the 1970s, the Kinabatangan has experienced drastic changes due to selective logging for hardwood timber and the development of oil palm plantations. The remaining forest is fragmented and less able to support wildlife and the needs of the local communities. The huge scale of deforestation threatens not only the integrity of the ecosystems, but the lives and livelihoods of local communities, and demands a transdisciplinary research approach that considers not only restoration of the ecosystem, but also the communities, businesses and governmental bodies who are making decisions on the long-term sustainability of future activities in the region.

In 2007, the Danau Girang Field Centre was established in Borneo as a collaboration between Cardiff University and the Sabah Wildlife Department to focus on the conservation of endangered animals in a fragmented landscape. Through our work together, it has expanded into an interdisciplinary programme including research on land-use change and the effects on erosion, and on social-ecological systems in forest restoration and governance. This transformation was crucial to address underlying systemic issues that threatened biodiversity, wildlife and local livelihoods.

Our Research

Two Darwin Initiative grants focusing on Bornean orang-utans and elephants established a baseline for understanding how forest fragmentation was affecting long-term population viability for these species and subsequently many other key species. This work included developing state-of-the-art methods in molecular genetics, remote sensing, toxicology, and ecological modelling. A collaboration between the Danau Girang Field Centre in Borneo and the Sustainable Places Research Institute led to research in river dynamics, differing aspects of socio-ecological systems, including governance, how forest protection affects oil palm yields, and use of high-resolution habitat mapping and camera trapping networks to establish methods to understand biodiversity dynamics in real time.

By 2018, when the Danau Girang Field Centre held its 10th anniversary meeting, more than 100 scientific papers had been published describing research in this region, making the Sanctuary one of the best studied and well understood regions in South-East Asia. The results of this research are now being taken forward as the Regrow Borneo initiative in partnership with local non-governmental organizations, and with support from our researchers and regional institutions and businesses.

Working locally

Understanding and working with local and regional institutions and communities was an important aspect of our interdisciplinary place-based approach. These included the Sabah Wildlife and Forestry Departments, local and international non-governmental organizations, the private sector (palm oil companies, ecotourism companies, community-based ecotourism) and community groups. Richard Bloor, a PhD student from the Institute, carried out an in-depth analysis of these roles and interactions, identifying pressures, weaknesses, and potential solutions to building an inclusive approach to governance in the Kinabatangan. In 2012, our researchers brought together the palm oil and wildlife conservation sectors for the first time in 20 years. We continue to work with communities and governmental organisations to promote species conservation and forest restoration and protection, and in support of community livelihood.

Transforming thinking

Establishing an effective reforestation programme in the Kinabatangan floodplain would have been extremely challenging without an interdisciplinary appreciation of the systemic opportunities and constraints in the region. By combining a conservation approach with recognition of differing economic, community and institutional interests, we have not only created a more effective programme but also helped to secure support from key public and private actors in the area and internationally.

3.2 Understanding the Evolution of Risk after a Large Earthquake

Large earthquakes are complex events where recovering communities must manage increased rates of flooding and land sliding, while also managing changes to their communities and livelihoods. Our work showed that reliance on engineering as a method for recovery leads to increases in risk within communities.

The Wenchuan Earthquake

The 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake was one of the most fatal of the 21st century, with 87,587 deaths. The location of the earthquake in the steep mountains of Western China caused over 60,000 landslides that destroyed infrastructure and were responsible for up to one third of the fatalities.

By 2015, large financial and technical investments from provincial governments in China had largely rebuilt and expanded much of the infrastructure in the area. However, post-earthquake recovery had been hampered by catastrophic flooding and mudslides which affected the flat land adjacent to rivers where much of the new infrastructure was being built. These events were chronic, with significant mudslide events occurring during the monsoons of 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2019.

The engineering and land use responses to the original nature of the earthquake hazard has changed the pattern of risk, such that lowland flooding is now affecting more communities. Taking a place-based approach to these problems highlighted how particular elements of geography and development, from the shape of the landscape to the position of infrastructure to major transport systems, affect the potential risks of mudslides and floods after the earthquake. Without this coupled thinking, solutions can inadvertently lead to greater exposure to these hazards.

Our Research

The Wenchuan Earthquake is the second large earthquake to be examined in detail in the modern era, and our work came at a time when rapid advances in high resolution satellite imagery allowed us to see changes in the landscape, where buildings, dams and other structures were constructed, and the tracks of hazardous mudslides. These observations allowed new models of the magnitude of potentially hazardous debris flows to be developed. We gathered village-scale census data to understand how these villages recovered both in terms of economic recovery and changes to social structures. Our work demonstrated that the pattern of earthquake recovery is dictated by geography, proximity to a river and position in relation to major road networks. The research also highlighted how recovery is disrupted by debris flows and other hazards, slowing long term socio-economic development.

Working locally

We relied on traditional approaches to knowledge access and dissemination, connecting with local government through our partners, to get access to data. The dominance of the engineering approach to hazard management meant that other approaches, such as soft engineering or nature-based solutions, were not fully explored.

Transforming thinking

The project was developed within the Sustainable Places Research Institute by working between different disciplines, particularly the physical and social sciences. By taking a place-based approach, we had to think about the differing spatial and temporal scales to align the different effects and methodological approaches of landslides and social vulnerability.

3.3 Working Locally for Generating Action and Understanding of the Marine Environment

Seagrass plays a crucial role in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Through a local and collaborative approach to research, we have supported its protection and restoration.

Seagrass Conservation and Program Lamun Wakatobi

Seagrass meadows support marine life, biodiversity, and human populations globally. They remain marginalised within conservation planning and continue to decline globally at an alarming rate. Major threats to seagrass systems include declining water quality, physical disturbance, overexploitation and pressures of climate change.

We initially focused on four study sites within the Wakatobi National Park in Indonesia, encompassing the four main islands in the Wakatobi chain – Wanci, Kaledupa, Tomia and Biningko. These are coral islands with no ground above 300 metres. Invertebrate and fin fisheries are essential activities, sustaining the livelihoods of more than 90 percent of the Wakatobi population. Later, our research progressed to sites in Cambodia, Philippines, and an additional site in Indonesia.

Our Research

Our case study examined the potential of seagrass meadows to provide food security in Wakatobi and to develop an evidence-base to guide marine protected area management. Through a programme of cooperative research, outreach, and engagement, together with data gathering on the sea fisheries, we were able to determine the links between seagrass meadows, fisheries productivity and food provision.

Working locally

We collaborated with several local services, researchers and community members. The research engaged local community members and fisheries non-governmental organizations from all four islands. We also worked with national parks rangers, Wakatobi government fisheries officers, the Banda Sea fisheries department, WWF-TNC Indonesia staff, Hasanuddin University and a Kaledupan environmental education official. Our knowledge exchange workshops, focus groups and research training to support citizen science strengthened our research and supported the delivery of our outcomes.

Transforming Thinking

By working with local communities, the research has added to the ecological evidence for the importance of seagrass to food fisheries, as well as socio-economic evidence of the economic value and food security potential of seagrass meadows in these coral islands. We were able to identify previously undocumented threats to seagrass meadows alongside seagrass habitat decline, as well as fostering a community-level desire to stem the degradation and loss of seagrass meadows through community education and outreach programmes. The research programme has also led to the development of the Indo-Pacific Seagrass Network and opened up avenues for dialogue with governmental institutions on the protection of seagrass meadows.

3.4 Recognising Local Understandings of Nature and Sustainability

Research often takes a very technical, expert-led approach to issues. By working with local people, we gain a deeper understanding of social and environmental issues and can help to empower those communities to take action themselves.

The Research

We undertook research in the Seychelles on the local, ecological knowledge held by artisanal fishers about their marine environment. We examined its use in the governance of marine biodiversity through marine spatial planning designed to ensure the abundance and species richness of fish. This research explored the dynamics involved in promoting the value of local ecological knowledge, which has often been discriminated against by western science, based in colonial views of indigenous peoples. This relates to the concept of ‘epistemic justice’, which recognises the diverse ways of knowing and understanding.

Working Locally

We found that local ecological knowledge contained information that would be of critical importance for marine spatial planning. Fishers’ knowledge was found to be very sophisticated and fine-grained, including about population health, species abundance and composition, and ecosystem dynamics and interactions. This information is critical for shaping temporal and spatial systems of management for marine protection.

Transforming Thinking

The research transformed our thinking about the diversity of values and related knowledge and the importance of taking this knowledge into account in decision making, and in the formulation and implementation of public policies. Hindering knowledge exchange, and the ability of local groups to act, compromises the ability of society to respond to the natural world and to express its intrinsic worth. Including local voices and knowledge helps to address conflicts over the use of natural resources and promote more equitable decisions. This new understanding is also carried forward in research into Marine Spatial Planning in the Turks and Caicos Islands and through participation in international biodiversity assessments, examining the globally diverse ways of thinking about of the value of nature and of its benefits to society, including biodiversity, and how this diversity can be used to support efforts to address biodiversity loss.

3.5 How Place-Based Working Challenges Conceptions of Socio-Economic Activity

Here we examined the contributions of Fairtrade communities to sustainable practice. Our research showed that working at a place-based scale demonstrated how simple socio-economic models may miss the real value of sustainable practices.

Fairtrade communities

Fairtrade is one of the best-known examples of sustainable production and consumption. It is viewed as a means by which global markets can be harnessed to deliver more equitable development for poorer communities. The discipline of economics views Fairtrade as the abstract willingness of consumers to discriminate in favour of products that include an ethical premium and to consider the general impact this has on supply chains.

Our research

We engaged with specific communities within which the consumption or production of Fairtrade goods takes place to understand the personal and social dynamics of Fairtrade. The consumption research with Fairtrade Towns and our work in producer countries shared the experience of producers of Fairtrade wine in Chile, Argentina and South Africa, and its local impact.

Working locally

Our ground-breaking study of Fairtrade Towns worked with communities and activists and revealed how local activists acted as “citizen marketers” influencing everything from local place branding efforts to local consumption habits, even the local school curriculum. The towns wove the Fairtrade status together with ideas about local identity, for example farming communities connecting support for farmers in poorer nations with the travails of local farmers. Research in producer communities confirmed many of the socio-economic benefits from accreditation accrue to producers and their communities, but also raised issues about the impact of the distribution of these benefits.

Transforming thinking

Our research showed that Fairtrade towns are not about simply promoting a premium for goods but act as a doorway through which communities at the opposite end of otherwise abstract global supply chains could meet, support, and better understand each other. At the same time, research in producer communities showed that action in pursuit of global trade justice could create local injustices. This indicated a need for more locally inclusive Fairtrade governance processes to improve how Fairtrade is experienced and lived by these communities.