Talking transdisciplinarity

Last December (2020), Alex Chausson and I ran a workshop at the British Ecological Society’s virtual Festival of Ecology. After running a workshop the previous year on interdisciplinarity, this seemed like a natural next step. I learnt a huge amount from the process, not least about how to increase the likelihood of “having impact” through research. Here is a short post Alex and I put together for the IIED blog, to share our key learnings from the event.

A word cloud from the event, demonstrating which words sprung to mind for participants at the end of the workshop when they thought about “transdisciplinarity”.

Round the world in eight peatlands

In December 2020, Charlotte Wheeler and I ran a session at the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, all about peatlands. Here is my round-up of that Zoom-show. This piece was first published in Peatlands International 1.2021 and is being republished here with kind permission from the International Peatland Society.

On 18th December 2020, a group of peat experts gathered in a Zoom-room to share their tales of peatlands from across the world. They were all invited to take part in the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting, in a Thematic Session focusing on the climatic, ecological and societal importance of peatlands. Each of the eight speakers had significant knowledge and experience to share on a particular geography of peatlands and/or thematic area of research, from investigating burning in the peat swamp forests of Borneo to exploring research gaps in the Sphagnum-dominated bogs of Wales. Here we summarize some of the key points raised by each of our esteemed speakers.

The session was opened by Susan Page with an excellent summary of the key roles that peatlands play in societies across the world, and of the key challenges they face. Despite the multiple services they provide (as illustrated by Fig. 1), peatlands are being subjected to many different drivers of change (Loisel et al., 2020), which are degrading the peat carbon store at a rate that is incompatible with recovery over human timescales (Goldstein et al., 2020). Sue reminded us of the importance of addressing the world’s drained peatlands, a huge and increasing source of carbon emissions that will continue to emit until the peat is depleted. Within decades, the use of this finite resource for extractive and agricultural purposes will no longer be possible.

Fig. 1 The multiple ways that peatlands support livelihoods, presented by Sue Page.

Agriculture is one of the dominant ways in which people interact with peatlands across the world. In the peatlands of Southeast Asia, and notably Indonesia, smallholder farms and industrial plantations growing oil palm on peat are common. This has led to the generation of emissions from peatlands across Southeast Asia over the last 25 years, approx. 2500 Mt C, equivalent to half of the complete stock of carbon held in the UK’s peatlands, approx. 5500 Mt C. These UK-based stocks are also rapidly dwindling, as many organic soils are exploited for commercial agriculture and horticulture. In the year 2000, it is thought that peatlands worldwide changed from a net sink to a net source of carbon. In addition to emissions, peat subsidence is a significant issue, and one that will prevent use of peatlands in the future, especially with sea-level rise in coastal areas.

How then can peatlands continue to support the many livelihoods that depend on this wetland ecosystem and its resources? Balancing livelihood and climate security is a key challenge. One of the solutions is to think more strategically about where to produce food. Carlson et al. (2016) demonstrated that those peatland areas that produce some of the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from drainage-based agriculture, also produce some of the lowest returns when it comes to nutritional calories.

Sue reminded the audience that there is no such thing as truly sustainable management of drained peat soils; ‘responsible’ use is the only option. The essential first step in responsible use and in addressing the livelihood and climate challenge is raising water tables, leading to reduced emissions and increasing the lifetime of peat. Further research is needed and trials performed to explore viable ways of producing food using wet agriculture, or paludiculture (as named in the areas with the highest water table). There will be constraints to what can be produced and where, and inevitable trade-offs, but dryland agriculture is not a sustainable option for peatlands. Some of the key challenges that still need to be overcome include knowledge gaps, selecting appropriate types of crops, and balancing the needs of food security and livelihoods. Sue concluded by emphasising that there are significant compromises, constraints and inadequacies in education that need addressing to promote responsible peatland management. But as peat-based emissions continue to use up our national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement, coupled with the continuing loss of agricultural land, the global community needs to act NOW.

Mark Harrison continued the discussion on emissions, but with reference to fire. The now frequent burning of peatlands in Southeast Asia is causing huge carbon, health and economic losses. What we know less about is the impact that fires are having on biodiversity. When forests burn, the canopy cover is greatly reduced, causing significant reductions in habitat and creating exposed ground that further dries. Studies have shown that, for example, there are lower abundances of butterflies in peatland areas impacted by burning. Aside from understanding more about the consequences of the fires for wildlife, another important, and often complex knowledge gap is around why the fires occur. Proximate causes include peat drainage, land use change and the use of fire in peatlands by people, whether purposefully or accidentally, creating ignition sources that are inadequately controlled. Once the reasons for peatland fires have been identified, solutions for managing and restoring them can be trialled (Harrison et al., 2020a). Mark emphasised that before any restoration work is even conceived, it is vital to ask what goal of that intervention is; restoration for what, and for whom? The Kalimantan Lestari project (translating to Sustainable Kalimantan), encompassing a multi-institutional interdisciplinary research team, will aim to ask these questions, along with many others. Coordinated by the University of Exeter, it will address the challenge of fire in the peatlands of Indonesian Borneo, with a focus on: (i) drivers of fire; (ii) impacts of fire; and (iii) ways of reducing the risk of and to increase resilience to fire, with the central goal of working holistically with and supporting local communities. As a final note, Mark brought our attention to the some of the challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to tropical peatlands (Harrison et al., 2020b).

From Southeast Asia’s largely degraded, fire-prone peatlands, the focus switched to the intact peat-forming forests of the Cuvette Central in Central Africa. A huge area of peatland was mapped by Greta Dargie in 2017 (Dargie et al., 2017), lying within the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. Although the geospatial boundaries of the peatland are now known, there remain huge uncertainties in the carbon stocks held within the peat complex; a stock of great international interest. Greta reminded us to think beyond carbon though, to appreciate that these areas also hold spiritual value to local communities, along with many of the ecosystem services mentioned by our host of speakers. In acknowledgement of this important resource, the two Congolese Governments signed the Brazzaville Declaration in March 2018, which aims to improve cooperation and conservation activities between these two peat-rich nations. There are already some protective structures in place on the ground, e.g. Ramsar Sites, National Protected Areas, but with the pressures of developing economies and increasing interest in hydrocarbon extraction from the region, there is a need to enhance protection and the accountability of the Government. The international community must provide financial and other forms of support to help avoid dangerous land use change, and to ensure the peatlands are in the most favourable condition to withstand the unknown consequences of ongoing climate change in the region. New maps suggest that large areas of the Cuvette Central are made up of hydrologically isolated domed peatlands (Davenport et al., 2020), which are more vulnerable to the predicted warmer and drier conditions to come. There is currently a huge research effort underway, CongoPeat, to explore the past and present dynamics of these important tropical peatlands, and to better predict how they might respond to future climate change. The project aims to provide the two Congolese Governments with best information possible, to enable them to make wise decisions for the climate, livelihoods and biodiversity.

The Congo is not the only region with largely intact but relatively threatened tropical peatlands. The peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon contain huge volumes of carbon, stored under a large diversity of wetland forest types and open areas. Despite the peatlands being relatively intact, due to no or limited drainage activities within the flooding basin of the Amazon river, they are various notable uses of these ecosystems. Euridice Honorio described the harvesting of aguaje fruit from Mauritia flexuosa palm swamps, often found growing on peat. This harvesting is important for local livelihoods, providing them with a natural resource to sell at local markets. It is also predominantly sustainable a practice, and as such, an example of the importance of incorporating local knowledge and practices into landscape conservation and management plans. There is concern, however, that the degradation of these peatlands is an imminent possibility, as rice cultivation, mining, oil palm plantations and associated new infrastructure creep geographically closer (Fig. 2). Euridice emphasised the need for more protected areas, strengthened territorial management strategies and the use of scientific knowledge in policy making. But the first step is for greater recognition of the peatlands themselves. Euridice is currently working with Peru’s Ministry of Environment to create a definition for the nation’s peatlands, followed by a strategy for protecting them.

Fig. 2 Euridice Honorio discussing the current threats to the conservation of Peru’s lowland peatlands.

From the tropical latitudes, the discussion moved to the temperate zone, and in particular, Ireland. With the third greatest area of peat in Europe, Ireland is a nation with an extensive history of peat extraction for fuel. This practice has resulted in 82% of its peatlands undergoing drainage-based use, with the closest to a natural state being those under restoration. Catherine Pschenyckyj illustrated this point with the fact that 90% of Ireland’s soils are now carbon sources, rather the sinks they would previously have been as intact peatlands. In addition to carbon emissions, peat slides are an emergent property of these degraded landscapes, with impacts on the quality of water supplies, on communities of aquatic biota and on local people. However, Catherine provided encouraging news on the changes that are on the horizon: peat-fuelled power stations are closing; peatland rehabilitation projects are underway, with Bord na Mona, one of the largest energy generation companies in Ireland, investing money in restoring the sites from which they have harvested peat for many years; and projects monitoring restoration success being resourced in parallel. However, peat extraction has not halted yet, with still significant plans in place, driven in part by the horticulture industry. Catherine ended by emphasising the need to find solutions that benefit the environment and businesses.

Crossing back over the Irish Sea, Jon Walker spoke about Welsh peatlands, and namely a project he is working on to identify key gaps in the evidence base that is available for developing policy around peatland management in Wales. Through a literature review, he identified a dearth of research on forestry practices in Welsh peatlands, and a bias towards certain areas or topics, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Results from this important study, highlighting themes that require greater research focus, will feed into the Welsh Peatland Research Network, and in turn, direct the generation of robust science to fill evidence gaps for the National Peatland Action Programme of the country.

Moving to the north of the UK, Rebekka Artz described the work she has been involved in to map Scotland’s peatlands. There has been an increasing interest in, and need to map peatlands all over the world, but in particular in those places where there is money to invest in restoration. In Scotland, £250 million has been devoted to peatland restoration; the nation where the greatest area of peatlands is being restored across the world. The Scottish Government now has to decide where they can make the most effective and efficient investment of those funds. The first step is to locate the peatlands in an unfavourable condition, using models that predict how intact a peatland is from a range of remotely sensed cues, such as surface moisture. High resolution satellite data, i.e. from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 1 and 2, along with training data, primarily obtained through ground surveys, are key to making the modelling more accurate in depicting the situation on the ground (e.g. Williamson et al., 2020). Once the condition of the peatlands has been assessed, priority areas identified and restoration work commenced, the progress of interventions needs to be monitored. Variables such as change in vegetation and water table dynamics can be measured remotely, to give an indication of the resilience of peatlands to drought conditions. With this information, Rebekka and colleagues are working to develop an online decision support tool to assist stakeholders in choosing the most appropriate management options for a particular peatland in a given condition. Restoration tools developed in Scotland may prove useful in other regions, such as Canada, where vast areas of peatlands are ripe for restoration after the damaging exploitative activities of past decades.

Finally, Sarah Proctor, of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, provided food for thought to close the session: “we need business unusual”. The recognition by UK society of the great importance of peatlands has been slow, but does appear to have now occurred and at a critical time. This is exemplified by the publication of the UK Peatland Strategy (Fig.2) in 2018. This document details solutions for managing peatlands across the UK and its overseas territories, with a vision and targets for a healthier peatland nation by 2040. The specific goals of the strategy include: (i) Conservation, of blanket bogs (globally rare), raised bogs, fens; (ii) Restoration of heavily degraded peatland to functioning ecosystems, e.g. of Blackhill in the Peak District; (iii) Adaptive Management, moving away from our established culture of drainage-based dryland agriculture, which is a huge source of GHG emissions; (iv) Sustainable Management, considering the truly sustainable options for peatland use; (v) Coordination, via instruments such as the UK Peatland Code and the Eyes on the Bog Initiative; and, vitally (vi) Communication, producing a wide variety of resources for different stakeholders. Sarah ended by emphasising that healthy peatlands are central to so many of the other goals we are striving for at a national and international level  and which will be discussed next year in Glasgow at the 26th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26).

Fig. 3 The UK’s first collaborative Peatland Strategy was developed by the IUCN UK Peatland Programme Partnership back in 2018 to capture and embed, for the long term, a shared vision for our peatlands, helping to maintain a focus across a broad partnership and allowing progress to be monitored.

The talks provided an overview of some the unique and many shared challenges that peatlands and their associated communities face across the world. Awareness of the importance of these ecosystems is rising, but there is still a lack of integrated thinking and sustainable actions at national to international levels. Research into peatland functioning and management has perhaps never been as pressing as it is now. And until we have the answers, panelists reminded the audience of the central rule of peatland management: to keep these wetlands wet. 

Tools of the interdisciplinary trade – the write-up!

Making an impact….in UK environmental policy

On 6th March B.C. (just before lock-down), I organised an event at the snazzy, “gold-standard of sustainability” British Ecological Society Offices in London, to let ecologists know how they can Make an Impact: Understanding the ways they can engage with the UK Parliament and Policy.  The event was held jointly by the Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group and the BES Policy Team.  We had an excellent bunch of speakers and a room-full of engaged attendees.

I thought I’d post some of the resources from the day here:

Now over to you/me/us.  And perhaps now is the time to think about what changes are possible, what a different world could look like A.C. and how we can influence that.

Learnings from an unexpected haven of tropical ecology

A few weeks back, I attended the Joint BESTEG/gtö Symposium in one of the most beautiful cities of the British Isles (now just down the road from me) with a rich history of scientific endeavour.  The British Ecological Society tends to put on a good show from my experience, and this met expectations.  The Symposium was entitled “Unifying Tropical Ecology: Strengthening Collaborative Science”; the pertinence of which was emphasised in the Welcome Address by Pierre-Michel Forget, the Society of Tropical Ecology’s (gtö) President, as we head towards a potential division within European scientific institutions that will likely impact on all nations of Europe and beyond, unless we work hard to keep connections alive.

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A picture from Calton Hill, pre-BESt jog. (Excuse the wonky angle – one of my fortes!)

There were many excellent talks, and I listened to some fascinating presentations about things I wasn’t even aware were a thing beforehand.  I thought I’d give a quick low-down on some of my top tales from the meeting (mostly so I’ve got them recorded somewhere other than in my fraying notebook).

1. Open ecosystems need the Attenborough-effect, and fast

As Professor William Bond passionately described, these are ecosystems that naturally contain areas of non-woody vegetation.  I’m sure I’ve not given his definition justice, but basically, the natural disturbance regime, coupled with climate and soil type, create an environment where trees are not the dominant vegetation type.  I was fascinated to hear William describe fire as a biological agent in these landscapes; as the “life-blood” of most of the World’s open ecosystems.  Yet, because of our preponderance for forest, and our perception that forest would dominate most ecosystems (within certain biophysical boundaries) if us humans hadn’t tampered with them, we are biased against seeing different landscape configurations, i.e. these precious open ecosystems.  We’re not “seeing” them and understanding the ‘nature’ of these open systems because we consider them to be a result of our destructive behaviour, rather than natural.  An example of this is the very recently ‘discovered’ and designated biodiversity hotspot in the USA: the North America Coastal Plain.  As explained in this article: “several myths and misconceptions prevented ecologists and conservationists from recognizing the biological importance of the NACP until now”, its uniqueness and stability, absent of anthropogenic impact.  One consequence of us not appreciating the uniqueness and importance of these ecosystems, is that we are all too ready to turn them into forests, encouraged by well-meaning, but somewhat naïve international initiatives such as The Bonn Challenge: “a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land into restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030”.  I think it’s a challenge in itself for any international initiative to avoid being naïve when it attempts to roll-out a one-size-fits-all across the globe; often in reality, one-size-fits-none (a common problem encountered with free t-shirts).  Through the impetus of the Bonn Challenge, with careful planning, millions of hectares of recently deforested land could be replanted, i.e. reforestation.  (Though see Wheeler et al.’s recent Comment pondering some of the specific challenges of the Challenge, including where all of this magical land for reforestation might be!)  Afforestation – [converting] (land) into forest, especially for commercial exploitation – is a different matter altogether and requires a lot more consideration and perhaps guidance through policy, to ensure open ecosystems are not sacrificed in the process (and indeed, peatlands).  Hmm….

2. Termites are really quite awesome

Yes, I’m late to the game on this one.  Professor Kate Parr, through a rather annoying (at the time) and unpredicted environmental disaster, found out some fascinating new facts about these amazing creatures.  A drought revealed to her and her crew that termites are more important than we previously realised in facilitating recovery in drought-disturbed forests, significantly increasing the resilience of the vegetation.  This recent paper from her group gives much more background, and justice to the important role of termites than my few sentences.  Kate ended her talk by cautioning that termites don’t seem to be able to survive in forests impacted by recurrent fire, or fire and drought, or the other forms of ‘unnatural’ disturbance common to the Anthropocene.

3. Unlike many humans, trees are taking action to respond to climate change

Emma Bush gave an excellent presentation explaining the data she has collecting that shows a reduction in leaf senescence as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, i.e. trees are holding onto their leaves for longer.  Again, there’s way more of this story to tell (and I think Emma has a few outstanding research questions she’s wanting to answer), so keep an eye out for publications from this budding expert.

4. And a few more of the cool things I learnt:

  • Trees don’t get on well without neighbours, as demonstrated by Isabel Jones, showing results of reduced regeneration of trees on islands created by the construction of mega-dams; more info here. I wondered what impact these dams were also having on the fauna of the now-fragmented landscape and consequently on seed dispersal for the trees, e.g. are they creating “silent forests”?  But I sadly couldn’t find her at coffee to ask!  Neat work.
  • Talking of seed dispersal, Professor Kim McConkey, gave a really interesting plenary on the role of megafauna in seed and fruit evolution in the Tropics, and indeed the mysteries that still remain on that front. An impressive piece of detective work, involving many people over many years, as told in part here.
  • Various presentations made me realise that the impact of drought on the vegetation of the forested Tropics is complex (yes, late to the game there too!). Different environmental and interacting factors make for a wide array of (sometimes unpredictable) responses of vegetation to the disturbance of drought.  And ‘drought’ itself is a different beast in different ecosystems: one man’s drought is another man’s shower….or something like that.
  • You can learn all sorts of things when you start a new project, or when an old project gets a bit fruity, with many outcomes being far from any hypotheses you might have scribbled down (sometimes post-hoc!)….if you keep your eyes and mind open!
  • Having an early morning jog, around a beautiful city, with a bunch of other hungover ecologists, is a very great idea.

Thanks to the BES, and everyone else who joined in the fun.

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Having fun with Project Awesome Edinburgh, at sunrise, on Calton Hill. They meet there every Wednesday. Well worth joining in.

 

Un-CAP the Brexit can….and unleash the worms?

Back in February, the British Ecological Society’s Special Interest Group in Conservation Ecology (which I’m enjoying Chairing) ran a thoroughly interesting event in London on what Brexit might mean to/for early career ecologists.  It was a sell-out, despite concerns of Brexit-fatigue.  And I was so impressed by the level of engagement of those that attended.  It was expertly organised by Dr Andy Suggitt, whom wrote a great piece on the event here.  Kate Howlett has also written this and this piece on the day, which provide another interesting perspective on the event and learnings from it.

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Some wisdom from Dame Georgina Mace, whom herself confessed being pretty baffled by what the future might hold. 

One of the key learnings I took away from the event was concerning the one (ONE) positive outcome that could (COULD) result from Brexit: the ability for the UK to manage their agricultural landscapes independently from the top-down regulation currently dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy.  Leaving the EU would mean we could reform the policies which dictate how we manage the countryside, mostly those rules and structures which presently determine to what degree we degrade our rural environments in the different corners of our green and pleasant island.  “Common” is perhaps a warning sign for any environmental policy, which requires the particularities of the “local” to be central in decision-making if a policy is to stand any chance of being “sustainable”.  But that was never the central aim of the CAP.  Perhaps, if someone does finally make a decision on which direction the UK will go in (before it self-implodes) we can create a nature-focused LAP: a Local Agricultural Policy, which considers the lay of the land, the local livelihoods, and the living biodiversity, above- and below-ground (e.g. our down-trodden worms).

But we only could leave the EU.  And we only could have the bravery and sense in Leadership to listen to the evidence for how to responsibly, perhaps even sustainably manage our countryside and the resources within it.  And if we don’t leave the EU, we could try to reform things from within; building on the important research (e.g.) that is already being done in the UK and Europe on what sustainable agriculture might look like.  We need to hook those scientists up with the policy makers and shapers.  And wouldn’t that be great – to have a leading influence across Europe.  The worms would be proud.

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What does the future hold for our green and pleasant, and depauperate land?

Las turberas de Peru

I learnt a new word this week: turberas.  In about three weeks’ time, I’ll be off to Peru’s turberas.  In case you hadn’t guessed, turberas = peat.  My new gig is on a project entitled Valuing Intact Tropical Peatlands.  I’ll be heading out to Iquitos, a city (inaccessible by road – for better or for worse) within the Peruvian Amazon, which will be the base from where a crew of us researchers will be heading into the swamp forests this side of the Andes.

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Talking shop with the team, at the edge of a bog.

There are still a fair few questions to answer on the exact details of the research and the associated fieldwork that we will be doing, but we made huge head-way this week at our first project meeting.  We were fortunate to have four of our Peru-based colleagues join us (all from the Instituto de Investigaciones Amazonía Peruana) for three and a half days of intense discussions.  And my, it was frazzling.  (I have a new-found respect for the MPs of the UK Parliament after two+ years of what have effectively been intense interdisciplinary discussions.)  This project is the first truly interdisciplinary one I’ve been a part of, i.e. much more than just lip-service is being given to the notion of working together, across disciplines, to answer some multifaceted questions.  I’m re-learning the importance of patience, open-mindedness, clarity, humility and perspective: all immensely valuable skills for any project, and any well-lived life.

I will write more about the project as the days fly by, but at this point, one of the persisting aspects of it (whilst others seem to come and go with the wind!) is that we’re interested in finding out how and why people are interacting with their environment, notably the boggy bits of it.  For me, it’s such an exciting project, and certainly as interesting as it is challenging.  And it’s such a privilege to work with a team of passionate Peruvians, and an engaged UK-based crew, spanning the social and natural sciences.

Watch this space for more reflections on working interdisciplinarily (a word? – probably in the social sciences), and for news on how I fare in a real-life intact peat swamp.  A rare and wonderful space these days.

What we did in a decade

Back in June, a bunch of my BCM cohort made a pilgrimage back to Oxford to reunite after ten years out in the big wide World after our MSc. in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management.  It was fantastic to see each other, and through a loosely-structured day of informal presentations and discussions (and then quite a few pints) we learnt more about each other’s and our own decade of trials, errors and many adventures than we had expected to.  Championed by Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson (who assertively planted the seed for the reunion), Laura Chartier and I produced two pieces to summarise our thoughts and learnings from the event: the first published in the SOGE (School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford) Trinity Term newsletter (& pasted below), and the second, longer piece, published in PLOS Early Career Researcher Community Blog.  The event made me appreciate what wonderful people I met during my MSc. year, whom have become life-long friends, and whom I continue to learn so much from.  And gosh, life pathways come in all sorts of unpredictable shapes and sizes.
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10 years on from the MSc in Biodiversity Conservation and Management

Laura Chartier
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Laura Chartier presents (left) and the BCM class of 2007-08 pose for a group photo with current students (right).

Ten years later, where has a multidisciplinary MSc from Oxford led us? On Friday 8 June, the 2007-08 cohort of the MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management gathered in Oxford to find out. Celebrating their 10 year reunion, fifteen of the ’08 graduates summarised the last “10 years in 10 minutes” in a day of discussions on “Early career trajectories in biodiversity, conservation and management”. It was fascinating! And we certainly learnt more about everyone’s paths than we would had we gone with the initial plan of spending the day crawling between our beloved haunts of a decade ago, i.e. ye olde pubs of Oxford.

The presentations followed a common format, summarising initial career goals, actual career paths, key skills obtained ‘on-the-job’, skills and knowledge we gained from BCM that have been particularly useful, and what advice we would give this cohort of students. Each presentation provided valuable insights into the development of our careers after the Masters course, with often candid revelations about the uncertain, far from “straight paths” of career development. Some alumni succeeded in several, quite unrelated careers; changing course when they realised their soul was being sapped and their grey hairs were increasing exponentially.

Despite the diversity of trajectories, surprisingly consistent messages emerged from the presentations. One such key message was the importance of passion for whatever you are doing, and of stepping away if the passion isn’t there. This is not always easy when it means living back with your parents (as quite a few of us have done), sacrificing work that you’ve invested a large amount of time in, or even foregoing rapid career advancement prospects. But remaining humble throughout and believing in yourself and the important contribution you can and will make were other universal reflections. Networking and relationship-building were discussed at length, and the ways these can be accomplished as an early-career individual, without feeling phony! And importantly, gender issues and the challenges some of the women of the group have experienced warranted discussion and reflection. One thing we all agreed on was that conservation is more than a career choice: it is a mind set that can be taken into any career and shape life choices at every stage.

We’d like to thank Christine Baro-Hone and Paul Jepson for helping with the event organisation, and the current BCM students who attended and provided stimulating questions and feedback. Another point of consensus from our cohort was the rich experience BCM gave us and how privileged we were to have had a year with our inspiring classmates, lecturers and community in and around Oxford’s many spires.

Long live BCM!
Lydia Cole, Rowan Trebilco, Anne Christianson and Laura Chartier (BCM 2007-08)

Business cards, butterflies and boats in Borneo (Part I)

This blog post forms part one of two pieces I wrote for the Condatis News Blog, describing my recent trip to Southeast Asia as part of my role (Knowledge Exchange Assistant and Landscape Analyst) at the University of Liverpool, working under Dr. Jenny Hodgson. We spent three weeks in Malaysia and Indonesia, as a component of the 11 month NERC-funded Innovation Follow-on project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries.

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The kind residents of Kampung Sikalabaan, in Sabah’s Heart of Borneo region, showed us around their community forest and farmland for the day.

Whilst everyone was sweltering under abnormally tropical temperatures in the UK during July, Jenny and I were enjoying a relatively temperate time in the Tropics. We spent the majority of the month in Malaysia and Indonesia, visiting the partners and landscapes that are involved in our NERC-funded project: Decision support for restoring ecological networks in rapidly developing, biodiverse countries. Ghana is the other country involved in the project, which we had the privilege to visit back in April (reported on here). This time, road trip around Southeast Asia!

Our travels started with a stop-off in Kuching, Sarawak, to attend the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation’s (ATBC) annual meeting, entitled Linking Natural History and the Conservation of Tomorrow’s Tropical Ecosystems. It was a fascinating five days, attended by a huge range of nationalities talking on a similarly wide variety of topics. Jenny presented on Condatis and I on the long-term ecology of tropical peatlands (another passion). Many of our collaborators were also there presenting, including: Professor Jane Hill and Dr Sarah Scriven from the University of York, and Dr Jed Brodie and Dr Sara Williams from the University of Montana. And we made some useful contacts for the Condatis project, as my new collection of business cards testifies.

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Jenny presenting the concepts of Condatis to the participants of our training workshop at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS).

Just hours after the closing ceremony of the conference had finished (and the after party was likely still in full swing!), we flew on to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, to attend a catch-up meeting for the Sabah-based project we are involved in. The meeting was organised by the Southeast Asian Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), the charity that is coordinating this multi-stakeholder project. The other partners involved in this mapping project include the Universities of York, Aberdeen and Montana, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, the Carnegie Airborne Observatory and the PACOS Trust (an inspiring charity supporting indigenous communities in Sabah). We discussed the first set of outputs the group had developed for the project; generated using biodiversity and soils data, satellite imagery and modelling, including various layers derived through Condatis that have been incorporated into the prioritisation process. The next stage of the project will involve the PACOS Trust consulting with indigenous, forest-based communities on which of the areas highlighted through our ecological analysis, are appropriate for enhanced protection.

In order for us ecologists to understand the human-component of these forested landscapes, we were extremely fortunate to be invited to visit several different communities with PACOS. So the next morning, five of us, equipped with walking boots and mosquito nets, headed upstream, into the Heart of Borneo.

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Travelling by boat to the village (kampung) of Sikalabaan, about two hours up-river from Kampung Salong, where the road ends.

We spent three nights in the “cultural house” of Kampung Sikalabaan, along with a dozen other men and boys who were visiting in order to attend training on how to fix boat motors, organised by PACOS. These communities rely on mechanised boats to travel between villages, to school, to obtain provisions and to generate an income; with replacement parts for engines being so expensive, it is important that people know how to fix them. PACOS offers training courses for members of indigenous communities across Sabah, on subjects ranging from how to plant chilli peppers, fix broken machinery, to how to make soap, with the aim of improving their capacity to sustain a low-impact livelihood in the often remote locations they occupy.

We spent one incredible day observing how members of Kampung Sikalabaan use their forest and its plethora of resources. Members of seven families led us patiently (we were significantly slower and less agile than them, despite the laden woven backpacks they were carrying!) through the jungle to their farms, laid out in forest clearings. Along the way, they stopped occasionally to harvest wild ginger or check on a small vegetable plot they’d established, apparently opportunistically, within their community land. Early afternoon, after walking upstream/in-stream for quite some time, we stopped for a spectacular picnic: out of their woven baskets, the women produced a feast for the twenty or so of us, with freshly boiled rice, freshly picked aubergine broth and then to top it off, they caught and we cooked freshly-netted fish from the flowing waters two feet away. Beats a Sainsbury’s sandwich.

It was a privilege to see how this community so expertly uses their land, and how important it is for them to have access to the forest and its resources. With rural-urban migration and the designation of ‘communal lands’ providing opportunities for the expansion of oil palm into these areas, as well as pressures on resources and disturbance to ecosystems from logging, industrial agriculture and mining, these community-owned lands are being compromised. The Government’s goal of expanding strictly protected areas across more of its forested asset adds another dimension to the challenge of maintaining indigenous communities in these landscapes. But more discussion on this complex issue will have to wait for a future blog! We thank PACOS and SEARRP (Gordon, Angie and Agnes in particular) for organising this insightful opportunity.

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The first river crossing. We didn’t realise there were about a dozen more to come. Each time it was so refreshing to wade through thigh-deep water; a welcome relief from the tropical humidity. Thankfully my camera avoided any refreshing dips though!

Leaving the forest and returning to Kota Kinabalu was a bit of a shock, though the washing machine was welcomed! The next day we headed into the Forestry Complex at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) campus for two days of training. We had 20 participants attend from a range of backgrounds: in addition to UMS students and lecturers, people attended from the Departments of Agriculture, Irrigation and Drainage (JPS), Forestry (SFD) and Environment Protection (JPAS), from WWF-Malaysia and SEARRP. The first day was led by Dr Sarah Scriven and introduced participants to the R program and how to perform basic analysis and geospatial data processing. The second day, led by myself and Jenny, introduced the concept of Condatis, followed by an interactive session where we guided people through performing their own analyses using the new web version of the tool. (Butterflies (rama-rama in Malay) were used as the study organism; Jenny’s favourite!) Though we were a little optimistic as to how much material we wanted to cover in two days, it seemed to be a success: our participants provided positive and useful feedback that we used to improve and refine our training workshop the following week in Indonesia.

With our fascinating range of meetings and field trips complete in Malaysia, we headed for the next stop-off: the island of Java.

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For the second episode in our Southeast Asian adventure, click here or check out the next post.  

Beyond the Haze

Today, a short piece I wrote with several other C-PEAT-land scientists was published on the Journal of Applied Ecology blog.  Last October, whilst we were excitedly sharing our tales of new peatland findings at the inaugural workshop in New York, our beloved ecosystems were going up in smoke on the other side of the world.  Thousands of years of environmental history have burnt away over the last nine months in Southeast Asia, thanks to the natural phenomenon of El Niño.  It’s ofcourse absolutely nothing to do with our extensive draining of peatlands, subsequent compaction and complete conversion into oil palm and acacia plantations.  (There’s a blog post and paper to come on this.)

I’ve pasted our concerned correspondence below.

Beyond the Haze: Implications of the recent fires in Indonesia for tropical peatland research

This post was written by members of C-PEAT (Lydia Cole, Ian Lawson, Dave Beilman, Dan Charman and Zicheng Yu) to voice the group’s concern over the consequences of the recent extensive burning of Indonesia’s peatlands for science. C-PEAT (Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time) is a thematic group of PAGES (Past Global Changes), and had its inaugural meeting at Columbia University in New York, in October 2015.

Many reports and commentaries concerning the recent fires in Indonesia, including here, have been published over the last twelve months.  El Niño conditions, bringing drier weather to this part of Southeast Asia, in combination with extensive draining of peatlands, resulted in a tinder box that started burning in mid-August of 2015 and continued even as the world’s nations gathered at COP21 in Paris to discuss tools for sustainable forest management.

The consequences of these fires for society, the economy and the environment are still being quantified.  The areal extent of last year’s burning across Indonesia has been estimated to exceed 2.6 M ha (World Bank), with up to 90% of the subsequent haze resulting from peatland fires.  Peat volume losses over such a large area are likely to represent, by analogy with the 1997 fires (Page et al., 2002), a globally-significant loss of stored carbon.

While we share the widespread dismay at these social, economic and environmental consequences, we wish also to point out the loss to science represented by the apparently relentless destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands, a topic which was discussed at the inaugural PAGES Carbon in Peat on Earth through Time (C-PEAT) meeting last October.

Peatlands, which store atmospheric carbon as partially decomposed organic matter, provide a rich diversity of palaeo-proxies that can be used to measure the effect of past climatic change and human activity on ecosystems.  Akin to the loss of climate histories from disappearing glaciers worldwide (Savage, 2015), our library of environmental history in Indonesia is going up in smoke.  The importance of understanding the past will only increase as we enter historically unprecedented climatic regimes and environmental states, for which the prehistoric palaeoenvironmental record is a key resource for insights and analogies.

References

Page, S.E., Siegert, F., Rieley, J.O., Boehm, H-D.V., Jaya, A. & S. Limin. (2002) The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61-65.

Savage, N. (2015) Glaciology: Climatology on thin ice. Nature 520, 395-397.