Envisioning emergent environments: negotiating science & resource management in rural communities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Inst for Science, Innovation and Society

Abstract

Belize is a small country on the Caribbean coast of Central America, currently addressing the challenge of developing effective policies to manage its vulnerability to environmental hazards. As part of efforts towards sustainable development goals, governmental and non-governmental bodies are undertaking data-led 'watershed management' projects to assess and manage not only water but also land, ecosystem and human aspects of resource stewardship. Belize's history of rural development and conservation interventions has been complicated by legacies of colonialism, indigenous land rights struggles, territorial disputes and past failed projects. Given this context, my research will examine what contemporary watershed management interventions mean and entail for rural residents whose lives and livelihoods depend on the environments in question.

Using theoretical tools from anthropology, science & technology studies, and political ecology, the analysis will shed new light on the conceptual and practical implications of watershed management. By tracing interactions between rural residents and the scientists, government representatives, land developers, NGOs and civil society organisations with whom they negotiate environmental knowledge, the study will examine the processes of translation and participation that may or may not occur during scientific environmental assessments and management interventions. Importantly - and relevant to contexts beyond the Belizean case study - it will ask whether emerging technologies and scientific practices including remote data collection and 'citizen science' raise new challenges and/or opportunities for effective and equitable human-environment engagements in small developing countries. The ultimate aim is to advance original understandings of how tensions between different ways of knowing and valuing environments can generate new social and environmental outcomes.

The research will document rural residents' concerns and expectations; in doing so it will highlight lessons and recommendations for Belizean governmental and non-governmental institutions interested in promoting effective and transparent conservation and development. This also bears relevance for UK-based institutions: Belize has been a recipient of government overseas development assistance (and remains on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development's aid eligibility list), and has links with the UK as a Commonwealth member and former British colony. UK-based NGOs that operate development/conservation programmes in Belize are also potential beneficiaries of the project's findings.

The field research will include ethnographic participant observation, surveys, interviews and action research focus groups across two field sites in rural Belize. I will embed a collaborative approach into the research from the outset, including dedicated knowledge exchange and impact activities for both academic and non-academic audiences.

Planned Impact

In addition to academic impacts for the beneficiaries listed above, this project has the potential for societal and economic impacts beneficial to a wide range of audiences in Belize and the UK, and beyond in the long term.

Given the current development of policies in climate change and water management, there should be a significant opportunity for the findings to inform policy development that reflects the expectations and concerns of rural communities regarding data-led environmental monitoring and management programmes. Thus, the research has the potential to increase the effectiveness of environmental policy in Belize; to improve community empowerment; and to increase clarity in negotiations between citizens, NGOs and governments in other countries experiencing similar issues. The project will be relevant to UK-based governmental and non-governmental organisations seeking to improve the effectiveness, equity and transparency of international development assistance.

Primary intended beneficiaries of the research are its participants in rural Belize, and their wider communities. The project will document their perspectives and perceptions of the practices and values underpinning watershed management projects, and I will communicate these findings to influential governmental and non-governmental stakeholders currently developing and implementing environmental management policies. I will recruit and train Belizean field researchers, thereby building local social research capacity and having positive impact on my own research leadership skills.

The research will also benefit Belizean civil society organisations and NGOs who must negotiate diverse and sometimes conflicting discourses and values when planning and carrying out projects with environmental/social sustainability goals and ambitions for community participation. Regional organisations promoting best practice in sustainable development will be able to use the outputs of this research to inform their work and that of their partners across a broader geographical area than I am able to engage directly under the scope of this project.

Belizean government institutions and private sector will benefit from the project's insights into ground level contexts and interactions that bear on the feasibility and success of programmes to improve economic productivity, maintain Belize's reputation for biodiversity, and negotiate resource ownership issues with Maya groups and other rural residents.

Envisaged conceptual impacts include reorienting development policy debates away from an assumed dichotomy of 'scientific' and 'traditional' knowledge. By unpacking dynamics, assumptions and values among different actors, my aim is not to force agreement but to animate debate, by drawing attention to issues of inequality of access and legitimacy that matter to rural people, and recognising the value of their knowledge of managing resources. I will seek instrumental impact through understanding inadequacies of past interventions, documenting hopes and concerns, and offering guidance for more effective and inclusive negotiations of environmental knowledges in developing countries.

I will integrate pathways to impact into the project from the start, to ensure collaborative research and maximise the potential for application of findings to benefit Belizean users (communities, NGOs, government), and UK users (government, NGOs). I will achieve this through a strategy involving consultative meetings, action research focus groups, and multi-stakeholder workshops. These will promote dialogue between researcher and participants; the workshops will also facilitate multi-way conversations among diverse user groups to increase transparency and mutual understanding. These consultative activities will also elicit input from users about appropriate output formats, which may include community meetings/radio for rural residents and briefing papers for NGO and government practitioners.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The project aimed to advance understanding of how diverse knowledges are negotiated in environmental interventions. It explored what data-led watershed management projects mean and entail for local residents, NGOs, scientists and government representatives. Fieldwork was carried out in Belize, against a backdrop of policy developments to address water resources management and climate change challenges. The findings have relevance for Belizean government and civil society and UK-based institutions working in conservation and development, and for communities/organisations addressing comparable issues in other small (island) developing states.

Environmental governance in principle and practice: The research highlighted questions of governance at different scales relating to environmental protection, social justice and cultural meanings. Water supply systems and protected areas are important ways in which rural Belizean citizens encounter 'the state' and reflect on plural roles, responsibilities and powers of individuals, communities, NGOs and government. Water supply and biodiversity protection feature combinations of top-down and bottom-up decisions/responsibilities; the research highlighted translations that happen in-between. Protected area 'co-management' agreements have brought civil society into partnership with government, but these relationships are ambivalent- inflected with historical and cultural politics of contested interests and values, and questions of funding, accountability, and labour.

Knowledge and practice in translation: The research challenges simplistic oppositions of 'scientific' & 'local/traditional' knowledge, documenting how environmental observations and predictions are produced and translated in the context of water decision-making. Encounters among different kinds of expertise, experience and authority can disrupt common conceptions about separate 'producers' and 'users' of environmental information; in doing so they raise questions about responsibility. A narrow instrumental focus on the uptake of environmental information (e.g. weather/climate forecasts) can obscure other influences e.g. industrial relations and land tenure struggles. By tracing debates about motivations for and potential uses of scientific water quality monitoring efforts, and the practices through which these are implemented (or not) the research illuminates meaningful and material dimensions of environmental knowledge and world-making.

Human-environment health: While the research initially focused on science-led watershed management projects linked to biodiversity initiatives and protected areas, ethnographic fieldwork opened up new questions about the entanglements of human and environmental health. This was particularly visible through case studies where water sources in protected areas were also utilised for potable water supply. Perceptions of the safety and palatability of water are linked to social-political relations among its managers and others who engage in this domain: rural residents' preferences and hopes are not only about practicality and cost; but also taste & trust. Environmental and water 'quality' is perceived bodily and emotionally as well as by instruments and lab tests.

Work continues progressing these findings and outcomes: I will update in future reporting periods.
Exploitation Route There is potential for these findings to be taken forward in academic and applied settings. One direction this could take is through comparative work in other global locations where water resources management, climate change and biodiversity objectives underpin government and NGO initiatives. Another is through extending work on perception, monitoring and regulation with respect to human and environment health dimensions of water quality. More broadly, the research feeds into understanding the negotiation of environmental knowledge and specifically the production and use of scientific modelling in environmental policy and practice.

The research findings could be carried into applied domains through deeper acknowledgement and clarification of how diverse human values and political commitments are reflected, produced and materialised in environmental management plans and practices.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

 
Description Impact generation began through a collaborative research process which included capacity building through engagement with local research organisations, university students and research assistants in the study area, and research practices designed to involve study participants, civil society organisations and their wider communities in the design of the study and its outputs. The latter practices include events and discussions that have elicited requests for more information and involvement with the project. During the second year of the award, I returned to the study areas to report on and discuss preliminary findings. I conducted meetings in each of the study communities, and organised a multi-stakeholder event in the capital city, involving participants from government departments, universities, NGOs/CBOs and rural communities. These events elicited requests for continued engagement, and fostered multi-way conversations to clarify water resource management issues among different participant groups. Evaluation of the multi-stakeholder workshop indicated that participants had been exposed to new perspectives and networks. 1. Drawing government/UN/NGO attention to the perspectives of rural communities dealing with water management by facilitating multi-way conversations about emerging findings and relevant themes with Belizean universities, community-based organisations/NGOs, rural leaders and residents, government agencies, international organisations (e.g. the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre, UNDP). Government/NGO workshop participants indicated that they had learned about citizen's viewpoints and about the challenges faced by community-based organisations. 2. Raising awareness and understanding of/facilitating dialogue about local water issues among residents and community organisations by discussing emerging findings with residents/leaders in study sites and a community-based organisation that co-manages a national park. This was facilitated through ongoing discussions with the CBO, the preparation of preliminary reports based on survey findings, and the presentation of these reports at community meetings. The CBO communicated to me that they are finding these results helpful in informing their engagement work with communities and government partners.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Impact Fund
Amount £550 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Department School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 03/2019
 
Description OX/BER Research Partnership Seed Grant
Amount € 23,000 (EUR)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Department Oxford–Berlin Research Partnership
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2019 
End 06/2020
 
Description Collaboration with University of Belize Natural Resource Management programme 
Organisation University of Belize
Country Belize 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Discussions of social and environmental dimensions of watershed management interventions; placement of programme students as research assistants in the study team.
Collaborator Contribution Discussion of social and environmental dimensions of watershed management interventions; networking opportunities with relevant local experts; assistance with organisation of multi-stakeholder workshop.
Impact Placement and training of university students as research assistants for study data collection. Co-authorship of conference poster with UB student. Collaboration helped with organisation and facilitation of 2018 multi-stakeholder workshop and co-authorship of forthcoming workshop report. Multi-disciplinary collaboration including anthropology and environmental science.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Membership of Caribbean Resilience and Recovery Knowledge Network 
Organisation Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Stakeholder member to contibute insights into disaster recovery and resilience in the Caribbean
Collaborator Contribution Establishing and co-ordinating network and activities to support regional efforts to address the challenge of ad hoc and short-term aid driven research by scientists, practitioners and policymakers in Caribbean and UK.
Impact Multi-disciplinary: policymakers, practitioners, community representatives and scientists (anthropology, development studies, development economics, seismic research, human geography...)
Start Year 2020
 
Description Membership of Caribbean Resilience and Recovery Knowledge Network 
Organisation University of West Indies
Country Jamaica 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Stakeholder member to contibute insights into disaster recovery and resilience in the Caribbean
Collaborator Contribution Establishing and co-ordinating network and activities to support regional efforts to address the challenge of ad hoc and short-term aid driven research by scientists, practitioners and policymakers in Caribbean and UK.
Impact Multi-disciplinary: policymakers, practitioners, community representatives and scientists (anthropology, development studies, development economics, seismic research, human geography...)
Start Year 2020
 
Description Action research focus group 1 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact 8 participants from rural communities (mainly village leaders) attended an action research focus group, which comprised mapping and discussion activities to raise awareness of the research project, aid data collection, and elicit stakeholder collaboration with research and output design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Action research focus group 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact 15 participants from rural communities, research organisations and CBOs attended an action research focus groups, which comprised mapping and discussion activities to raise awareness of the research project, aid data collection, and elicit stakeholder collaboration with research and output design.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description AnthFOR website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Creation of a website for the AnthFOR Network on Anthropologies of Forecasting Weather and Climate. This is a hub for conversations about the production, circulation and use of knowledge about future weather and climate. It features blogs on international social science research, news and events listings, and a register of interest for members. The idea is to promote ethnographic approaches to anticipatory knowledge and to engage colleagues from different disciplines/professions and the public with this body of work
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
URL https://anthfor.web.ox.ac.uk/
 
Description Community feedback event 1 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The community meeting was planned as a way to discuss emerging findings from 2017 fieldwork with members of the study community. 10-20 community residents attended the meeting during which results from a household survey were presented along with preliminary analysis of interview and observation material. Questions were taken, and there was a discussion about the findings so far and next steps for the project and for the community and community-based organisation (CBO). Residents and CBO members expressed interest in future updates on the research and suggested ways in which the emerging findings could be helpful for the CBO's work. Representatives were invited to attend a future event in the capital city.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Community feedback event 2 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The community meeting was planned as a way to discuss emerging findings from 2017 fieldwork with members of the study community. Community leaders attended the meeting during which results from a household survey were presented along with preliminary analysis of interview and observation material. Questions were taken, and there was a discussion about the findings so far and next steps for the project. The leaders expressed interest in future updates on the research and suggested ways in which the emerging findings could be delivered in a format accessible to community members. Community representatives were invited to attend a future event in the capital city.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Multi-discipline workshop on 'Negotiating Environmental Knowledges' (Oxford) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact I organised an international workshop on 'Negotiating Environmental Knowledges'. The event brought together scholars from across anthropology, STS, geography and environmental science to discuss negotiations between diverse forms of environmental knowledge in the context of interventions designed to assess and manage resources and hazards. Twelve speakers from the UK, Norway, USA and Brazil presented work from a wide range of geographical locations (Latin America, South Asia, Australia, Ireland, Madagascar), encompassing topics including watershed management, air pollution, subterranean aquifers, coastal embankments, water pumps and human-tiger conflicts. The presentations and roundtable discussions enabled lively debates and ideas for future research on a variety of themes: how authority and expertise are enacted and contested; the roles of uncertainty, ignorance, and imagination; understandings of impact and accountability in projects we study and our own work and collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.insis.ox.ac.uk/event/negotiating-environmental-knowledges
 
Description Multi-stakeholder workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact 22 participants attended the workshop entitled 'Water: environmental knowledge and rural life'. The group included government workers, CBO/NGO/UN representatives, community members, academics and students. The aim of the event was to facilitate multi-way conversations among different groups in order to clarify rural water issues in Belize. The agenda included presentation of preliminary research fundings and talks by guest speakers representing government, community organisation, and academic research. There was also a group activity to elicit multiple perspectives on key questions about water knowledge, practices and governance. An evaluation was conducted at the end of the workshop and some participants indicated that the event had made them aware of different perspectives and extended relevant networks for discussion of future policy and project developments. A report of the workshop, co-authored with guest presenters, is included in the project outcomes as a working paper.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018