The importance of community involvement in ecological projects – reflections from #ERA2016conf

Posted by Lizzy Lowe @LizyLowe

This week, many of the members of our lab attended the joint conference between the New Zealand Ecological Society and the Society for Ecological Restoration Australia. I’ve attended many ecological conferences, but I’ve never experienced such a strong theme of community involvement. Importantly, many of the talks I attended expressed the need not just to do public outreach (which can suggest leaning down from our ivory tower to educate the masses) but to involve the community in the science, decision making and evaluation of ecological research.


Thanks @SpidermanbryceZ for this community photo!

Many of the key note presentations had an underrunning theme of community involvement. Margaret Lowman told us of her long, successful career, and her experiences getting people of all ages and backgrounds into the tree tops to study canopy ecosystems. She also spoke about using inaturalist as a tool for documenting biodiversity and to encourage people to explore the flora and fauna of their local regions. Our local equivalent it NatureWatchNZWendy Henwood showed us that iwi knowledge and experience is invaluable in the decision making process of restoration projects and talked about the success of iwi lead projects in New Zealand.

Alan Featherstone showed us that one person can have a huge impact on the landscape, even with little to no resources. He gave stunning examples of rewilding the Caledonian forest in Scotland in areas he termed “outdoor museums” (no life but full of dead and preserved natural history). It was inspiring to see the results of years worth of volunteer labour protecting and replanting the Scottish forests. Alan also drew connections between Scotland’s growing political independence and their desire to take back and rewild their natural spaces. I loved this observation because it demonstrates how important a connection with the land and an investment in land management is for a country and its people’s identity.

lizzy-blog2The importance of connections between people and landscapes were also very evident in the key note by Kevin Prime. Kevin gave many examples of important iwi cultural sites and showed how the local people’s connection with the land is integral to the process of restoring New Zealand’s natural environments.

Kingsley Dixon noted that without community involvement in ecological restoration, projects have little hope for success. He gave a depressing example of an innovative restoration project that was planned for a coastal area in Perth (my local beach in fact!) that was vetoed because the public didn’t want to lose the grassed areas for ugly native dune vegetation. This story really resonated with me and has renewed my ambition to get out and make connections with my local community.

These speakers all showed how important it is for people in the community to feel connected with their surroundings. I think that people around the world are feeling disenfranchised with political systems, left out of the decision making process and helpless to prevent the broad scale ecological disasters that are occurring globally. This helplessness can lead to resignation and reduce the initiative to maintain sustainable lifestyles. But being involved in ecological projects leads to empowerment by giving everyone the opportunity to contribute to conservation and to invest in their local ecosystems. This is enormously beneficial both to local communities and to the scientists who receive not only help in conducting the research, but a fresh perspective on tackling environmental problems. This is especially valuable when the indigenous peoples of an area are involved.

Some other highlights for me from this conference were a couple of innovative examples of increasing biodiversity in forgotten urban spaces. Margaret gave the great example of “sneaking in biodiversity” in the verges of new housing developments, and in sports grounds, cycle ways and golf courses. In the open science section Robyn Simcock used her impressive efforts in her garden as an example of how to increase the sustainability of private back gardens. I also really liked Bruce Hill’s presentation on using transport lanes as avenues of biodiversity. Areas such as road sides and corridors for telephone wires have traditionally had little ecological value, but his work in Sweden showed that these spaces can be utilised to support local pollinator communities. As urban space is always going to be at a premium, innovative ideas like this are essential for the maintenance of biodiversity in urban environments.

lizzy-blog4I also want to give a special mention to Josie who won a student award for her presentation on the consequences of feeding bread to birds and the fantastic key note by Jacqueline. The key note covered a broad range of topics including Jacqueline’s own ancestral connections with the land, the impacts of invasive wasps and the responses of native pollinators, and supporting the plight of women with children in science! The lab members also contributed to a moving waiata at the end of the presentation which I think was a marvellous close to the conference.



The student prize winners

The conversations around community involvement at this conference are really important for opening science up to the public, and I think there needs to be much more of this in Ecology. Maybe in addition to our scientific conferences we should be holding frequent open days for our ecological research, to connect with the community and demonstrate how everyone can be involved in improving the health and sustainability of their local ecosystems.

Dr Lizzy Lowe is an urban ecologist and entomologist. She is currently working as an Endeavour Postdoctoral Fellow in the Ecology Ngātahi group.

For more on the conference, see #ERA2016conf on twitter.

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