Integrating social and ecological science to develop landscape-focused solutions to environmental problems, Osiman Mabhachi shares the story of a project supported by the British Ecological Society’s Ecologists in Africa grant.

Rural communities across Africa connect to landscapes in diverse and complex ways, and communities’ dependence on natural resources found in landscapes is well-documented. As with other continents, African landscapes are undergoing transformations primarily driven by increased demand for arable land, water and plant products. This, in turn can have a negative effect on the biodiversity the continent is renowned for. As landscapes become less biodiverse, productivity plummets, animals lose their habitats and species numbers decline. The question we continue to grapple with is how to develop effective solutions to the continent-wide problem of landscape degradation and associated decline in animal populations. It is a question I seek to answer through my research on the role of local communities in enhancing and sustaining multiple functions of landscapes.

Over the past three decades, conservationists have documented and collected evidence of the benefits community participation has in projects aimed at addressing human-induced threats to landscapes and species. This has shown a clear convergence zone between social science and ecology in conservation and created platforms for interdisciplinary research and extension. Species and habitat conservation projects are now being designed to place equal value on their social and ecological components. Unsurprisingly, a breed of conservationists that describe themselves as ‘socio-ecologists’ is emerging. Their identity is shaped by a shared need to integrate social and ecological sciences when analysing environmental problems and developing landscape-focused solutions.

Effect of fires on wetlands - the ferocity
Demonstrating the effects of fire on wetlands

Since 2003, I have been working on conservation projects that enable me to gain a deeper understanding of the social science-ecology interface as I aim to share knowledge on socio-ecological approaches to landscape management. In 2017, a successful application to the British Ecological Society’s ‘Ecologists in Africa’ grant programme helped me in my aims.

The grant supported a project aiming to involve local communities in the generation of social and ecological data for use in designing multifunctional landscapes within the Driefontein Grasslands. The project’s main premise was the importance of factoring in local systems using traditional ecological knowledge, institutional arrangements, cultural values, socio-economic patterns and socio-psychological aspects in landscape management.

My project was inspired by personal observations during my PhD data collection in the Driefontein Grasslands. As I collected data, I documented a myriad of environmental problems affecting wildlife and the livelihoods of local communities. However, I also observed local communities keen to learn and take action to address problems affecting their landscapes. I saw that their experiential knowledge, motivation and collective vision could be harnessed to solve problems. Working with them would lead to a win-win situation, with species being protected, habitats secured and livelihoods sustained. This became a departure point in my conceptualisation process. I had previously been involved in work that built upon traditional ecological knowledge and local communities’ field observations. I saw how communities became deeply interested in species ecology and conservation through participatory methods. I therefore made it a point that, in framing my methodology, I would include elements of community participation for comprehensive problem analysis and conservation planning.

My interactions with local communities during the project implementation helped me unearth various social factors. I noted that the communities had priorities, preferences and practices in land management, which had broader implications on landscape structure and functions. I realised that local land users had social norms that prevented them from pinpointing individuals behind unacceptable environmental practices. I also realised that, collectively, they had a rich environmental knowledge and unrecognised skills in analysing environmental phenomena, which was based on personal experiences.

When we brainstormed solutions to problems, many of the ideas put forward were more about assistance from external stakeholders and less about what communities could do for themselves. People also acknowledged the roles of traditional and political leaders in conservation.  Considering both the positive and negative connotations of each of these observations, I sought to create opportunities to rectify the negatives and leverage the positives in terms of conservation planning.

My project made me appreciate that, beyond just designing field data collection templates to capture numerical data, a socio-ecologist has to capture textual data reflecting sentiments, concerns, expectations, entitlements, capabilities and perceptions. While these data may not make sense at the start of the research, researchers should make an effort to piece them together and construct narratives of landscapes as told by the communities. In my case, I was able to apply context-specific answers to my research questions through the analysis of textual data. I discovered the power of photography in connecting environmental problems to underlying social causes. The pictures of undisturbed landscape patches, vegetation, degraded wetlands, burnt grasslands, agricultural landscapes and human infrastructure became pieces of a puzzle in my quest to understand how people were connected to the landscape – and how certain animal species fitted into the puzzle. In addition to observing iconic bird species) in their natural habitats, I noted that local communities had a good understanding of the species’ movement patterns and breeding cycles.

All in all, I ended up having an interesting dataset comprising figures and facts. Through an analysis of the data, trends in population status, distribution, breeding and movement patterns of iconic species (such as the Grey Crowned Crane) in the Driefontein Grasslands. I also documented community-level decisions and actions that are contributing to species survival and habitat protection. It is therefore now possible to develop focused conservation plans, specifying actions required to mitigate threats while at the same time supporting existing pro-conservation community attitudes and behaviours. The next step is to work with local communities to implement some of the suggestion landscape conservation actions.

The next British Ecological Society grant round of 2019 will open in mid-July. Find out more about the Ecologists in Africa grant here.