Blog Archives

Why I love vultures

I’m looking forward to meeting Munir Virani, at the Peregrine Fund and National Museums of Kenya, and learning more about vultures this July in Kenya.  In the meantime, I ran across this short TedX talk from Nairobi about why vultures are so important to a healthy environment and what can be done to help prevent their extinction.

Peregrine Fund – Vultures

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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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

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.

Stay on target! We’re too close! Stay on target!*

by Rachel Ridley

     After all the weeks of coding, re-coding, exporting, and now pulling it all together in a final analysis, we are finally at the end. We went through elephants, fences, and machambas [agricultural fields] all the way to standing water, hospitals, and weather (for Health in the SES Model, at least). It seems like we covered so much ground in so little time. I find myself still thinking back to coding interviews about elephant damage and realizing just how extensive this research was and is. I’m continually amazed by it as I sit down and try to bring it all to a close.
     One of the biggest struggles was having to organize all of the exported codes together and find themes in them. The problem is, not all of us (in my group) coded the same things in the same way. At first, this seemed immensely problematic. I kept thinking, “How is this going to add up to make any sense together at all?” But in the end, I think it was important that we had experience working on a project such as this in a group. I know I gained a lot from looking at the way the same thing could be interpreted in multiple ways.
     But now that we’re working on our final analyses, I realize that that wasn’t the hard part. Somehow we’ve got to pull all of what we’ve done through the whole semester into one analysis paper. I keep going back and forth, worrying that I won’t have enough to say and then realizing I probably have too MUCH to say to be concise! How to pull together these complex, interrelated themes without minimizing them or making them larger than life?
     Not to mention it’s the end of the semester (finally!) and there’s all kinds of absurdly long papers and cruel, unusual final presentations to do, and it’s hard to keep focus. I want to make sure that the material I create to finish up this project does the full experience and research justice. I keep stalling by making more and more maps or finding some new way to tie them together (I’m using online mapping software) and waiting around, as if I expect that if I do enough maps, a beautifully crafted full-length analysis will pop into my head, fully formed.
Finals1-e1326497361395
     In all, I think it’s bittersweet. Of course, here in this moment, I want everything I have to do for the semester to just be over and done with. I want to move on to holiday celebration, sleeping until 2pm, and not having any deadlines to even consider. Yet there’s a whole other part of me that wants it to continue. I want more time and more space to write about it, because in many ways, the interviews – the issues themselves – that we studied became important to me personally. I find myself regularly thinking about the problems and subject matter that I spent so much time organizing and analyzing. In some ways, it has become larger than life for me.
     We’ve all got until Friday to pull our masterpieces together, and I’m hoping we can make them just that! It has been more than fulfilling to spend so much time with this research, so here’s hoping we can all produce some worthwhile thematic analysis from it.
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     The KRAC Lab research assistants this term have struggled mightily to work though a ton of crazy data.  They’ve ridden a rollercoaster from learning how to code all the way through to their final analysis.  Their learning process is very much the same that socio-cultural anthropologists of all levels go through – down to the part of having so much to say and so little space to say it.  Their analyses has contributed to one submitted NSF proposal and two more in the works.  Their work will also go into a report for the Mozambican government and local communities, as well as multiple anticipated articles (and depending on how much work they’ve put in may include their names as co-authors).  I’m really proud of all of them.  ~ JS
* Gold Leader to Gold Five, Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep. IV)

There’s a map for that!

by Adriane Michaelis

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that we’re wrapping up our data analysis for this semester’s projects. Everyone’s been busy–organizing data, looking for themes, and making some amazing Excel spreadsheets. Now we’re taking that analysis one step further, and trying to visualize the big picture (literally). We’ve moved on to map-making. I’m not talking about applying our cartography or ArcGIS skills (though that may come later), instead we’re using the data we’ve been spending so much time with to create mind maps.

What is a mind map you ask? A mind map is “a graphical organization of ideas and concepts that can be used to facilitate the generation of ideas and the learning process” (thanks to Michael Poh for the succinct definition as well as some examples of pretty creative maps). In the spirit of the semester, see the figure below for a mind map that provides a visual schematic of how to prepare for exams.

Instead of making maps to help us study for the end of semester exams, we’ve been mapping our data for each of the three projects, and maybe, just maybe, eventually creating a super-map that incorporates all three projects (or at least aspects of all three). Through the use of many colors, arrows, shapes, and even illustrations for those so inclined, we’re thinking of different ways to consider and visually depict our data. This can be especially helpful when pulling together large qualitative datasets, and will hopefully help guide the next step, putting all of our analyses to paper…as in writing a paper for each group’s project.

One of the more interesting things about the mapping process is that, though we’re attempting to map other people’s interview responses, perceptions, and ways of thinking about certain things, we’re actually getting a glimpse of how each member of the group thinks (mapping our own minds, one might say). As you can probably imagine, there are a number of ways to approach creating a map of a data set, and you can see different approaches and interpretations in the form that each map takes. This is not a bad thing—we can compare maps and reconsider our interpretations to try and create the most appropriate representation of each analysis.

As a final thought, it’s not so bad to have the task of playing with crayons and colored pencils for a bit. 🙂

The Home Stretch

by Hayatt Mohamed

So we’re in the home stretch! After weeks of coding we have finally reached the analysis phase, which feels like even more coding. While coding had its own share of frustrations between deciding whether or not a segment fits the criteria of the description of the code, the tedious re-reading, or the constant insecurity that you’re doing absolutely everything wrong (something that I personally always am worried about and anyone who is the lab with me probably gets tired of me asking and re-asking to make sure) it has been interesting. That’s the funny thing about coding though, what you may interpret the definition of a code may be different than how someone else may think the code to be. And you won’t even know that they are looking at it differently than you until you ask them a simple question, or until you are organizing and analyzing a code. Coding for the Health in the Social-Ecological model proved to be hard because I couldn’t help but think SES stood for socio-economic model, and I couldn’t help but focus on that. Even when coding I would look at the blockers that affect the community’s health like lack of infrastructure or transportation. I had to constantly re-remind myself to also look at climate and ecological factors. Though often ecological factors tied in with infrastructure at times (for instance in regards to quality of water and sanitation both factors in the spreading of malaria and cholera). There were times where I didn’t even use certain codes and times where I felt like something should have been created into its own code rather than lumped in a broad code but was overruled. The thing about coding is that it’s subjectively objective; the facts are there but are very open to interpretation.

rock-climbing-desktop-hd-wallpaper-free-mountain-pictures

The analysis has proven to be just as daunting as coding-if not more. Here is where we see if our coding was even remotely similar to our group members and also comparing how we coded and what our interpretations of the codes were. In my personal group when I have analyzed codes I noticed slight differences in what each member has found to be appropriate to code. Also some people tend to be more generous with their coding-something I tend not to do but the great thing about working in a group is that they might have caught something you intended to code and didn’t but it also becomes frustrating when you feel like maybe that should not have been coded and it is (once again these are times where it is great to have someone else in the room working beside you so you can ask them a few questions). Color coding the analyses by comment has definitely made these excel spreadsheets easier to look at and more fun and I just feel like color makes everything better. I’m still not quite done with my analysis but it’s oddly comforting. It feels good to turn disorder to order so although it’s tedious, I’m enjoying the process.