Category Archives: anthropology

Unexpected Research

So, last week I got a call on Thursday afternoon from a new research partner asking if I’d like to take their place on an upcoming trip to Africa.  Kenya and South Africa specifically.  He didn’t even get to finish his sentence before I said yes.  I feel a little guilty because it (a) throws the plant work off schedule and (b) I’m replacing the ecological ethicist who threw out his back.  However, it puts me in a position to do some pilot research for a new project that could lead to something else in the conservation/climate research nexus.  This new research project, Saving Africa’s Vultures, synthesizes what is known about why vulture populations are declining in eastern and southern Africa to develop tools to improve vulture protection through societal/behavioral and legal means.

White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) feeding.

I hadn’t intended to instigate a whole new project this summer but that is exactly what is happening.  This afternoon I drafted questions for a semi-structured interview with social network questions.  My next step is to get feedback from my research partners and write my IRB application.  Based on the overarching research goals, my interviews will be aimed at (1) building/strengthening the current vulture conservation network; (2) identifying/ranking known vulture species stressors; and (3) identifying tools for vulture conservation education.  This last one will be interesting as vultures are definitely not the first thing people think of in terms of conservation despite their important ecosystem role as scavengers/decomposers.  They are not pretty or cute or cuddly.  My work will also focus on interviewing conservation experts; learning about their environmental knowledge and networks for sharing knowledge and resources.

I expect the next month or so to be a mad scramble as I read up on vultures and prepare for new interviews with experts.  I don’t want to sound like an idiot.  At the same time I will forge ahead with my plant data.  In all it completes the circle of life – from primary producers to consumers to decomposers.

Plant Resources Online

In foraging online, I’ve discovered a number on links to plant identification and information sites. In the effort to share I have posted these links below.  As you can see, it isn’t an exhaustive list.  These are materials that I and my student research assistants use regularly to check spellings of scientific names, determine if native or not, and verify growth form.  Some of the sites give additional information about range, habitat, and use value to humans and other species.

World Collections Websites

Southern Africa Focused Websites

If you know of or regularly use other related websites, please send along.  I would be happy to add to our list.

Masala (Strychnos spinosa) and Macuácuá (Strychnos madagascariensis) – both are edible wild fruits found in southern Mozambique.

Plant Foraging – IRL and Online

Summer has finally started, now that my grades are in. This summer my focus is back on green things, plants in particular. I am a terrible gardener, and would most likely make a bad farmer, but I love to forage.  Sometimes for food, sometimes to collect for fun or research, and sometimes just for the fun of identifying old friends outdoors.  Wild plants, mushrooms, invertebrates, fossils… I can spend an entire day bent over scanning the ground or neck stretched back scanning above, and never get bored.  After a few weeks of this, I can spot species – well at least trees and flowers – driving by at 55mph.  It might not be the most useful skill in a globalized world, but it’s good for impressing drivers.

My research this summer is taking me back to old datasets – opening old files of plant photos, botanical surveys, fieldnotes, and interviews with livelihood experts on how they use and manage wild plants.  Foraging of a sort on data collected from foragers in the foraged landscape of southern Mozambique.   I’m also foraging plant knowledge from online archives and the digitized reports, surveys, and dissertations I’ve collected about this same region.  What wild plants do people use?  What parts of the plants are important?  For what purposes?  How do they manage these plants, and the habitats where they are found, for long-term, sustainable use?  How do peoples’ preferences and livelihood activities influence where the plants are found?  Is the plant diversity (presence, abundance, diversity) in places where people live similar or different to that of nearby protected areas?  Why might that be?  These are just some of the questions I am thinking about as I attempt to synthesize ecological and ethnographic research results.

Tinhueve (Manilkara discolor), Madjadjane, Mozambique. Fruit edible, wood used for timber and xylophones, roots used as a medicine, larval food for butterfly Pseudacraea boisduvali trimeni.

But why is this work important?   As the human population grows, we are breaching our planet’s protective boundaries and find ourselves in the midst of the 6th great extinction.    We are creating this extensive biodiversity loss through overexploitation of resources,  expansion of agricultural production, habitat modification, and increasing urbanization to support rapid population growth, as well as invasive species, pollution, and climate change (among other reasons).   At the same time, we depend on other living beings – plants included – to survive.  Life on Earth will survive – we’ve had 5 previous extinction events – but will it be a place where we Homo sapiens can live?  Want to live?  As much as I dream of interstellar travel, it won’t be me going to the stars, and we shouldn’t leave behind a planet that looks like a sack of unrecyclable garbage.   Today or in the future.

My overarching research question asks, can biodiversity and ecosystem services be supported and maintained in landscapes where people live and work, i.e. in so-called human-modified landscapes (HMLs)?  I’ve been interested in this question since I started graduate school.  Well, technically since I was old enough to understand that when the farmer up the road in NNY plows their field, it changes the kinds of plants and animals you find in the field.  Where I work in sub-Saharan Africa, this question must be definitively answered in the next decade if the species and ecosystem services that people depend upon, and the iconic plants and animals we associate with this continent, are to survive this century and beyond.  Only 12% of sub-Saharan Africa landscapes have protected area status at present. Increasingly, ecologists and conservation managers are asking whether measures to support and maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services can be undertaken in HMLs, the other 88%.

Milho (Zea mays) field in Madjadjane, Mozambique. Note the tree left standing to provide wild fruit and other benefits to the family in addition to their maize harvest.

Anthropologists, and other social scientists, working with native peoples across sub-Saharan Africa have documented an extensive range of traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices that allow communities to access and use natural resources, often plant species, for livelihood production sustainably in HMLs. Their research shows how daily household needs for hundreds of years have guaranteed that nearly every plant species finds some use as food, fodder, medicine, construction materials, hunting and fishing gear, clothing, household goods and tools, ritual items, and/or fuelwood. While modern materials may provide excellent substitutes, personal preferences, tradition, and, most significantly, poverty help preserve the traditional ecological knowledge people need to access and use wild plant species effectively and sustainably.

Interdisciplinary synthesis of ecological data with ethnographic research on traditional ecological knowledge and environmental management practices is a growing area of interest for both biophysical and social scientists. To date, botanical data collection in sub-Saharan Africa has focused primarily on diversity assessments in protected areas for ecological research and conservation management purposes. Ethnographic research, like that described previously, has not always been integrated into conservation planning and policy. Synthesis work becomes increasingly necessary as we confront threats like habitat loss and modification, overexploitation, pollution, and climate change, and seek ways to reduce, mitigate and eliminate their impacts on our planet’s diverse human and non-human communities.

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Communicating Anthropology Goals

Last summer I challenged myself to use Twitter’s social media platform (@jin_verde) to get more information out about the work I do as an ecological & environmental anthropologist. I’m not sure I did a great job promoting my own work – mainly focused on climate change and biodiversity conservation. But I have been consistent in highlighting what scientists in my field do and how they contribute to supporting the well-being of individuals and communities. (And the work of scientists in related fields.) I love finding and sharing success stories, useful links, and serendipitous findings. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of bad news when it comes to climate change and biodiversity conservation. Finding these bright points I like to share is a little more difficult, but so necessary.

It is needed as part of our larger efforts as scientists to share our knowledge and results more publicly. If the federal government is no longer willing to promote science to the public, then we need to do so ourselves. Many already are, but more of us need to be involved because federal agencies are wiping important public information off their websites under orders of their new heads. My goal then this summer is to publish a short essay every two weeks about my research, ideas I’m working on, ecological anthropology methods and processes, and environmental/climate information. I posting this here so that I can shame myself when I don’t follow through.

But there are other ways for scientists, science teachers, and science supporters to get involved, be heard, and make our scientific work known for the benefit of all living beings on this planet. Last Saturday I Marched for Science with my husband and another scientist friend, a marine ecologist, in the cold rain. Yesterday, I braved record-breaking heat (91F, plus humidity) to participate in the People’s Climate March. It’s 2017.  Why do I need to do this? The GOP-led Congress and Trump Administration are pushing our shared planet America first into a dystopic nightmare in the name of Free Market Capitalism. Or Capitalismo Brutal as my husband would say. Resisting actions that place our life support systems – land, air, water – at risk is important. For years we’ve been told to take personal action to reduce those risks at the individual level (e.g. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), but standing together as a public, as a community, and resisting short-sighted ignorance is equally important.

Last weekend, scientists around the world took the fight for science to the streets. We can also call our legislators, run for office, hold teach ins and give public lectures. Most importantly we can keep doing science. #ScienceNotSilence

There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest base of public happiness.

-President George Washington, 8 Jan 1790, 1st State of the Union Address to Congress

Environmental Anthropology for the People

Earlier this week a fellow anthropologist from Australia posted a suggestion to our environmental anthropology listserve that we “consider ways to move our posts and conversations online to Twitter. I am serious about this.”  I giggled.  Not at my colleague, because I think she’s absolutely right about the need to take our work to the people, but at the idea that anthropologists could condense their thoughts into 140 characters.  Despite our ability to craft pithy interview questions and participant observe quietly for hours on end in far-flung communities, members of our chatterbox tribe tend to pontificate when provided the opportunity.  We are a long-winded and multi-syllabic people.  Yet a challenge had been issued.   And that’s when I found myself reopening a Twitter account from 2009 to see how it had evolved.

Needs pencils, notebooks, cameras, and digital recorders

My fellow environmental anthropologist raised some great points about how Twitter could be used by us all to reach a wider audience.

  • Are you worried about the public understanding of how environmental anthropology can help respond to pressing regional and global issues?
  • Would you like more people to know about your recent publications, job announcements, or call for papers?
  • Would you like to expand your network of colleagues, potential collaborators, and co-authors?
  • Is your university placing increased emphasis on rewarding scholars who seem publicly visible and engaged?
  • Would you like an open-access forum to debate topics about environmental anthropology, one that includes public participation?
  • Would you like to help build a database of searchable resources that secondary, higher education, and continued education learners could access on their smartphones and tablets within seconds of following a hashtag?

As a whole we are an invisible tribe.  That is not to say that exceptions don’t exist.  Margaret Mead, Temperance Brennan, and Indiana Jones are the most likely candidates for household recognition (well, at least those are ones my mom could name quickly), and two of them are fictional characters.  Those of us who work at the human-environment interface should really be making our work more widely known.  Sure a virus or an asteroid could wipe out life as we know it, but the majority of environmental problems we face as a species have their roots and solutions in human behavior and decision-making.

Engaging the public by relating what we do, how we do it, and what it means requires that we actually put something out there for consideration, recognize that people will respond, and commit to civil conversation that may take us in unexpected directions.   Public environmental anthropology might not get counted towards tenure (if that’s your goal), but it takes a step towards building scientific literacy, public trust, and a community that works together to make the planet a more sustainable place for all living beings.

So, I accept the challenge and will give Twitter a try for the summer. #environmentalanthropology

For more information:

Creative Dialoguing with the Nile Project

When Jane Hirshberg at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center asked me last May to participate in a creative dialogue with musicians from The Nile Project, April 2015 seemed a long way off. I was asked because of my research regarding rural African livelihoods, knowledge production, adaptation to environmental change, and community empowerment.  As the date approached I became nervous. I’d never done any research in the Nile River basin. I didn’t know much about the water security conflicts going on in the Nile Basin other than what I could google.  I’m not from the Nile Basin.  I don’t speak Arabic or Amharic or Swahili. I would be onstage at the Smithsonian in the Museum of Natural History.  I feel like I sound like an idiot whenever someone asks me serious questions regarding my research and anthropology in general.  In retrospect, it was basically a huge flare up of imposter syndrome.

Creative Dialogue on The Nile Project. L–>R Atesh Sonneborn (Smithsonian Folkways, Assoc. Dir. for Programs & Acquisitions), L. Jen Shaffer (UMD Anthropology, Assist. Prof.), Meklit Hadero (Nile Project, singer & co-founder), Ken Conca (American U School of International Service, Prof.), Mina Gergis (Nile Project, ethnomusicologist & co-founder), and Kojo Nnamdi (NPR host & journalist). Photo by R. Diaz Pulgar.

The dialogue focused on the Nile Project’s social and environmental messages.  From their website:

The forward-thinking musicians of the Nile Project channel the unsung beauty of East African traditions. In the collective’s collaborative compositions, resonant harps and lyres from up and down the river have learned new musical modes, while buzzing timbres and ingenious polyrhythms support vocals in more than ten languages.

Designed to captivate local audiences but feel equally accessible to international listeners, the Nile Project uses music to inspire curiosity about and active engagement with the cultural, social, and environmental challenges of the world’s longest river. The Collective’s collaborative model is a blueprint for a new way to organize the Nile.

The project began in 2011 by two San Francisco-based East Africans in response to the deepening water conflict in the Nile Basin. In a few years, the vision of Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero rapidly expanded to bring together musicians of all 11 Nile countries through Nile Gatherings and African and international tours. Building on the success of its musical program, the Nile Project is launching education, leadership, and innovation initiatives to empower university students around the world with the tools they need to make the Nile more sustainable.

Overall, it was a fantastic experience.  The focus (thank goodness!) was on the music and Nile Project.  Kojo spoke with Ken about water security and conflict – historic and contemporary – in this region, and Atesh talked about how music is an important component of social movements (see Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, etc.).  I was asked about livelihoods, the interconnectedness of rural/urban communities and water and the environment, and links between art and indigenous environmental knowledge.  I was super jealous of how composed and strong the answers Mina and Meklit had to Kojo’s questions regarding the work and passion of the Nile Project.  But I realized about midway through that they’ve been answering these sorts of questions for the past 4 months.  Practice does make perfect.  So does having passion and belief in what you are doing.  The musicians of the Nile Project are an inspiration and I feel rejuvenated in my own work after just a little time interacting with them.

Meklit Hadero’s TED Talk on The Nile Project

The Nile Project – Full Performance on KEXP (Seattle, WA) 19 Feb 2015

A successful catch

Just as March came to a close, Adriane Michaelis, a first year PhD student in the KRAC lab, received word that she’d been awarded a 2015 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  The award covers tuition and provides a stipend for up to 3 years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period – a huge investment by the US government in its young STEM researchers.  Essentially, a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution for study leading to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in science or engineering.  According to the NSF website, they received approximately 16,500 applications for the 2015 cycle and awarded 2,000 fellowships to a diverse group of individuals.

Adriane has proposed to study what factors contribute to effective, and ineffective, community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) of Mozambique’s artisanal fisheries. As part of her comparative ethnographic study she intends to work with local fishermen to develop a community-based monitoring plan and assess the efficacy of this activity in improving CBNRM.  Within a broader framework, Adriane writes “[t]he motivation of this study is to enhance natural resource management dynamics by providing agency to those without. This need is not exclusive to Mozambique, and results can be applied elsewhere, including the United States.  Important to this project will be sharing results with relevant groups, such as community fishing councils (CCP) or the Ministry of Fisheries.”

Artisanal fishers, Maputo Bay, Mozambique

Artisanal fishers, Maputo Bay, Mozambique

What have I said yes to?

As scholar-teachers, all professors at R1 universities are expected to devote time towards research, teaching, and service.  My expected ratio of 60-30-10 for my “40” hour workweek was described to me when I was hired.  It doesn’t really work out that way very well unless you are an expert at time management and saying no.  Most professors work way more than 40 hours a week to get everything accomplished.  I read recently it was more like 60-80 hours per week, including weekends (thank goodness I don’t work in Wisconsin).  Plus, saying no, when you stand in the shadow of the tenure monster, is difficult.  If I say no to this person or this project or this committee now, will it come back to haunt me later?  This is the question that keeps many an assistant professor up at night tossing and turning.  Read the blogs.

I didn’t do a good job saying no my first three years as an assistant professor.  Let’s just say that in Fall 2013, just before my mom died, I did a back of the envelope calculation and figured out that between classes, research, and advising I was interacting with roughly 220+ students.   Go ahead and laugh if you’re running a calculus program or managing introductory biology, chemistry or physics lab courses.  Get it over with.  It’s all relative.  In a small department like mine, you sit on multiple committees.  And with my interests in environmental change and sustainability, I was identified pretty early on and asked to participate in a couple of larger university initiatives focused on these topics.  Lastly, I was also trying to establish an international and interdisciplinary research program.  So lots of stuff to do, people to manage, projects to get up and running.

Now I am not complaining.  I love challenges, and took all of this head on.  However, as I head into my third year as an assistant professor I am seeing the need to slow down and change things up if I want to survive long-term and have some measure of success.  And as awful as it sounds, the deaths of both my parents last year put a lot of things about life and living into perspective for me.  A final lesson from parent to child.  So no is my new, old favorite – my mom told me once that no was the second word I learned to say.  My brother had to learn to say no last year at work when he was taking care of my dad.  He told me the other day he is still reaping the benefits and getting what he needs to get done.

Saying no to things though, I’m finding out means saying yes to others.  Options, in some cases, that I didn’t even know existed.  Now I have time to finish that manuscript that’s been languishing in my files, learn a new data analysis program that I’ve been wanting to test with an old dataset, and really network with other researchers in order to develop new projects.  It’s a bit bewildering.  Just what have I said yes to?

no yes

Upcoming AnthroPlus Conference

Each year our department hosts a student research conference, Anthroplus, at the University of Maryland. Only graduate and undergraduate students may participate as presenters of either papers, speed talks, or posters.  It’s kind of nice to sit back and see what the students can do – both the awesome and the cringe-worthy*.   It is good practice for students in a safe setting, and I generally encourage all the students who work with me to participate.

From PASA’s soliciting email:

The Practicing Anthropologist Student Association will be hosting its 6th Annual Student Conference, Anthro+ on Saturday, 11 April 2015. The theme of this year’s conference is A World Made Safe for Differences: Addressing Diversity in the Discipline. For those unfamiliar, this conference is an opportunity for students of anthropology and related disciplines to present a broad range of research, often in nontraditional ways.   Registration is free.  Abstracts should be submitted by 1 March 2015.  As the conference develops, we will post updates on the Anthro+ website.  If you should have any questions, concerns, or comments, please email us at anthropologyconferenceumd@gmail.com.

Be the solution*Bear in mind that the cringe-worthy can be because of bad research, bad presentation, or that the individual just chokes getting up in front of people and you feel awful for them.  And as an adviser/research supervisor, if my student is cringe-worthy, that means I need to step in with my mentoring of their learning and research.

Playing Inside the Lab on a Very Cold Day

It is amazing what you can get accomplished at work when you all is quiet and distractions are at a minimum.  This past summer I collected some networked type data.  I asked folks at my field site in southern Mozambique to describe the social-ecological system in which they live and how it all connects together.  The interviews are part of a longer-term (I hope) project to map/describe the savanna social-ecological system (SES) of southern Mozambique from the perspective of the people who live and work there.  Maps can then be used as a focal point for discussions about key elements of SES sustainability, building long-term adaptive capacity, locating best intervention sites, identifying risk and uncertainty, potential tipping points, etc..  I got the idea from a paper I read about a Turkish team of environmental scientists who used interviews, cognitive mapping, and graph theory to construct maps of a local lake ecosystem from the perspective of the stakeholders.  They used their mapping method to run policy simulations and facilitate the creation of a participatory environmental management plan.

This afternoon I finally got a chance to play with my data.  It has taken me this long to get to it because I first had to learn how to use the software analysis program, Gephi.  Learning new software, at least for me, takes time, solitude, and a lot of button pushing.  I make a mess, delete, start over, delete, repeat et nauseum. Basically, having interruptions (student or otherwise), or at least the potential for them, does not make for a good learning environment for me.

Gephi is relatively easy, particularly if you want to download large datasets or use the datasets they give you – which are aimed at social network analysis.  However, I chose Gephi because it allows you to look at other sorts of networked data.  Including data like mine, linked social-ecological system elements drawn from TEK interviews.  But to do this I had to figure out how to configure a data set for importing into the software.  Surprisingly, Gephi doesn’t have a tutorial on how to put together a basic .csv (comma delimited) file for importing into their program.  I guess they assume everyone who uses this open source software is in the know.Thank goodness for Literature Geek (a.k.a. Amanda Visconti) and History Blogger.  Both researchers have provided detailed instructions about setting up basic .csv data files in Excel for use in Gephi.

So here are the initial results from a single mapping interview.

Salema.practice.map

First some translation and the legend.  A machamba is the local Ronga word for agricultural field and esteiras are floor mats handmade from Cyperus papyrus stalks.  The colors denote different types of capital: green for natural capital, red for human capital, and blue for infrastructure.  The purple denotes a process rather than a type of capital (I haven’t yet figured out what to do with this).  I enlarged the nodes for trees and bees because my informant told me at the end of the interview that these elements were “super important for the life of the community.”  The enlarged nodes of hospital, electricity and machamba show that they are sustainable elements, while fire and charcoal are unsustainable elements in this SES.  I provided weights, based on the perceived strength of connections, for each of the edges but they didn’t come out so well – particularly for elements that are connected but there isn’t really any perceived connection strength like charcoal and esteiras (both household money-making activities).  There were also negative weights given to connections between elements that were perceived as bad.  I’d like to figure out how to show good versus bad connections too.

At this point, I am still playing.  While I plan to create individual maps for each informant, my goal is to eventually link all the maps together.  The interviews were long but people provided a whole lot of very detailed information.  I’m looking forward to seeing more results from my playdays.