‘Learning for Landscapes’ – reflections and insights from a knowledge co-production workshop in South Africa

This article reflects on a recent workshop held with practitioners working on collaborative landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa.

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We came from all different corners of South Africa to find common ground: …all the way from the West Coast: fynbos vegetation, commercial potato farmers and precious estuaries… all the way from the Marico Bosveld: thorny country with precious water resources, fiercely proud locals and the ever-present threat of mining… all the way from the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal:  hard-working farmers and agricultural landscapes covered in plantation forestry and dairy … all the way from pastoral grasslands: herders care for cattle which provide livelihoods and socio-cultural identity… and all the way from many other diverse contexts and projects, with a variety of stewardship objectives and practices.

We came from all different walks of life and work: local NGOs working with farming communities, leaders in large national NGOs asking questions about how they do the work they do, academics asking questions about how to do transdisciplinary research with landscape-scale stewardship initiatives, international NGOs piloting innovative facilitation and knowledge co-production processes for collaborative restoration of landscapes.

And we converged on ‘The Knoll’, on a small farm outside the village of Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa), to learn and connect with one another!

It was surprisingly easy to find common ground: It turns out we were all committed to ‘Research and Learning for Connected Landscapes’, and we worked together to ponder these questions:

  1. What are the enablers and barriers of stewardship at the local level?
  2. What are the processes that support collaboration for stewardship in multifunctional landscapes?


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These are the key research questions which I am exploring in my PhD at Rhodes University (Department of Environmental Science). My research is taking a transdisciplinary approach, by working across social and ecological disciplines, and co-producing knowledge in partnership between academics and practitioners. This convergence of ‘the young tribe’ of practitioners working in collaborative, landscape-scale stewardship initiatives across South Africa was the result of on-going engagements with these practitioners which culminated in a learning exchange workshop held in February 2017 as part of the knowledge co-production activities in my PhD. The pre-workshop activities included a broad survey across the country to identify suitable case studies for the more focused work. This was followed by a string of site visits to each of the six selected projects where I got to know the diverse social-ecological contexts in which the projects are embedded, and began gathering stories of their work in a ‘Learning Jar’ (see Panel 2). The six projects selected as case studies are:

  1. Baviaanskloof-Kouga-Krom Landscapes Project (Living Lands)
  2. Marico River Catchment Conservation Project (Endangered Wildlife Trust)
  3. uMzimvubu Catchment Restoration Project of UCPP (uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership Programme)
  4. Verlorenvlei Protected Areas Project (BirdLife South Africa & Wildlife and Environment Society of SA)
  5. WWF Grasslands Programme (WWF-South Africa)
  6. WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme (WWF-South Africa)

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The workshop was designed with two primary objectives in mind:

  • Through innovative facilitation methodologies, to create an inspiring opportunity for participants to share lessons for building collaboration for stewardship, and build new networks
  • To collect insights and co-generate knowledge on collaboration and stewardship in landscape initiatives

The approach was based on U-Tools (developed by the Presencing Institute, based on ‘Theory U’ principles) and included activities such as dialogue walks, learning journeys, case clinics, and guided u-journaling. The intention of using these activities was to build a team spirit among participants through deep listening and sharing of personal experiences, and provide opportunity for self-reflection. These tools were complemented by knowledge-production activities such as the development of a ‘Map of Stories’ to set the scene and represent the diversity of contexts of the 6 case studies, and a ‘Map of Learning’ on which to capture and interrogate insights, lessons and findings throughout the workshop (See Panel 3).

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So by now you’re hopefully wondering… what lessons did the tribe share and what now?

First and foremost, we learnt that we were glad to have found the other members of the tribe: Each project leader, in their local context or organisation is pushing the boundaries and innovating, working against a multitude of barriers to bring about change on the ground for improved stewardship. It can be lonely out there: there was a palpable sense of comfort, relief, renewed energy, in finding like-minded people, feeling free to express and share without having to explain too much, and feeling part of ‘a tribe’.

What lessons did we learn about building collaboration?

… that it takes time (at least 10 years), is resource intensive, requires particular skills and tools,

…that it may not always be necessary: localised, tangible stewardship actions and successes with individual farmers may be as important,

… that it can be extremely difficult and require personal sacrifices and that facilitators at the coal face need support systems,

… and that NGOs need to be catalysts and orchestrators of collaboration, but without the community and landscape taking ownership of stewardship, success will not be sustainable.

What lessons did we learn about enabling stewardship and overcoming barriers to stewardship?

… that identifying ways of ensuring tangible benefits of stewardship practices to farmers is important but difficult,

… that making links to market enablers and economic incentives can drive behaviour change and enable stewardship,

… that re-focusing stewardship on stewards, recognising their needs and priorities, and creating an enabling environment for them to become good stewards is an important starting point. This might mean doing things what do not seem directly related to the overall conservation outcomes we are striving for.

… that embedding stewardship facilitators in a landscape, for the long-term, and building meaningful relationships based on trust and mutual understanding is key to bringing about sustainable shifts to collaborative stewardship in multifunctional landscapes.

What did I, as a young scholar, exploring transdisciplinary research methodologies for place-based social-ecological research, learn from the experience?

… that facilitating knowledge co-production processes which emphasise both trust-building and knowledge building is a tricky tight-rope to walk: in this instance, I think we were more successful in building relationships, and did not have sufficient time to dig more deeply into the research questions,

… that the u-tools are a powerful means of bringing people together and creating ‘safe spaces’ for people to share personal experiences and self-reflect,

… that good food and drink, and beautiful outdoor settings are powerful enabling conditions for collaborative learning processes! (as provided at The Knoll!)

What now? The knowledge co-generated during this process will be incorporated into my PhD research, and I am in the process of analysing and writing it up. Furthermore, sparks of connection have been created through this learning exchange, and we hope that the various members of the tribe will keep in contact with one another. We have developed an online platform to share further lessons, resources, and information with the rest of the group in the future.

We all diverged back to our different landscapes, fields of work and research, and homes again after the two days. Keeping connected can be difficult, but this may just be the start of a new community of practice. I believe that the inspiration, energy and new connections that were made during this first gathering of this young tribe may have unexpected outcomes far into the future, and will be a positive force for good in the community of practitioners and researchers working on collaborative landscape stewardship initiatives in South Africa.

How are you building collaboration for stewardship? How are you using innovative methodologies for knowledge co-production? Connect with me on Twitter @jess_cockburn or drop me an email… let’s start a conversation to keep learning for landscapes: jessicacockburn@gmail.com

I would like to acknowledge the support and collaboration of my supervisors: Georgina Cundill, Mathieu Rouget,and Sheona Shackleton; fellow workshop facilitators: Catherine Andersson, Dieter Van Den Broeck, and Daan van Diepen, and workshop participants: Vaughan Koopman, David Lindley, Sue Viljoen, Ayanda Cele, Samantha Schroder, Marijn Zwinkels, Ancia Cornelius, Ian Little, JP Le Roux, Joyce Loza, and Nicky McLeod.

Jessica Cockburn is a PhD student in the Department of Environmental Science at Rhodes University, in Grahamstown, South Africa. This research is part of the PECS Working Group on Collaborative Governance and Management and was cross-posted from the SAPECS Website – Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society.

How do we do what we do?

Place yourselves in uncomfortable situations. Such was the advice of Debra Roberts, one of the keynote speakers at the recent PECS conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Although I was inspired by her ideas, the conference also provided comfort, and I really appreciated the safe spaces where “young” scholars openly discussed how we do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

How can young researchers do novel sustainability science that bridges different disciplines and engages societal actors in a meaningful way? How can we do this while still operating within conventional institutions and time constraints?

All of these questions were raised by early career scholars at the first conference organized by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), which took place between the 3rd and 5th of November. It gathered about 250 participants interested in the social-ecological dynamics of the Anthropocene and transitions towards sustainable stewardship. Instead of just presenting our research results, we could share the challenges we face and the strategies we have developed to deal with them.

At a SAPECS (the South African branch of PECS) learning event before the conference, Christo Fabricius facilitated a discussion with about 30 young scholars around how to engage stakeholders in a meaningful way in our research. A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how, during a PhD, can we find time to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers?

During one of the coffee breaks, Karen Esler shared some of her experience on this topic with Jessica Cockburn:

As Karen mentions, one strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavour. Your own PhD research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building has already been done. Another strategy is to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process.

From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system. However, in the longer-term, I still think there is a need to question the major incentive for researchers to allocate most of their time to producing scientific publications.

At the “young” scholars session during the conference, organized by Jessica Cockburn, Vanessa Masterson, Odirilwe Selomane and Marika Haeggman, we had a chance to further reflect on our competencies and identity as place-based social-ecological systems researchers.

One of the participants, Megan Davies, highlighted the difference between going into a familiar vs. an unfamiliar context to do research. Megan and I  both do transdisciplinary research with a municipality in our vicinity, in South Africa and Sweden respectively. This facilitates our understanding of the system, the power dynamics and the culture, and could also decrease the time needed for trust-building and stakeholder mapping. On the other hand, researchers working in a familiar context could have more pre-assumptions, and it could be difficult to be critical when research “subjects” are also friends and collaborators.

For panelists Joana Carlos Bezerra and presenter Shauna Mahajan, doing research in communities far from home raised other issues, such as not speaking the language, having to use translators, and relying on key individuals to access a community. One of the presenters, Johan Enqvist, reflected on whether “objectivity” in this type of research is actually more about reflecting and questioning our values and assumptions. By being critical, for example, and exploring the potential adverse effects of initiatives that we think are good.

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The ethical dilemmas we face in conducting transdisciplinary and place-based research was another important discussion point. By transdisciplinary research I refer to approaches that include multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and include the active input of practitioners from outside academia. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which might jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants!

For sure, there are no solutions that will fit all cases. Nevertheless, sharing our different experiences certainly provided new ideas and encouraged us to reflect on our roles as researchers. In the end, I think it is this reflection that will help us become better researchers. Here, I think this website has an important role to play. However, to strengthen and develop this reflectiveness and understanding of how to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research, we also need to build institutional capacity. We need training for scholars early on in their PhDs, and we also need to create spaces and institutional cultures that encourage reflection.

The practicalities of engaging with society in social-ecological research

Just before the first ever Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) conference this past November in Stellenbosch, SAPECS organised a pre-conference learning event for early career social-ecological systems researchers at STIAS; coordinated and facilitated by Christo Fabricius from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). The topic of the event was “Participatory Action Research in Social-Ecological Systems”, and the focus was particularly on discussing the principles and practice of doing this research.

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Role playing game. Picture by My Sellberg

The format for the day was three 15 minute food-for-thought presentations, each followed by an hour of dialogues and discussions in break-out groups, with a role-playing game between the morning and afternoon sessions. First Maria Tengö, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, presented on the importance and usefulness of multiple evidence and the role of these evidences in participatory action research. This was followed by Dirk Roux from South African National Parks presenting and stressing the need to create space that enables authentic engagement, so called ‘third spaces’. Franck de Saint Simon was invited as a practitioner to share his experiences and insights on engagement; he told stories about engagement processes for various projects in West Africa and stressed the importance of first understanding the context in which you are working.

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Break discussions.  Picture by My Sellberg

The role playing game simulated a public participation meeting in a remote rural area, with ‘researchers’, ‘consultants’, ‘officials’, ‘a politician’ and ‘rural communities’ discussing the pros and cons of building a large dam. Role players came to realize that ‘the community’ consists of diverse interest groups and that there are no simple solutions to society’s challenges.  The discussions, which were loosely based on the ‘Knowledge Café’ approach, revolved around the challenges facing early career researchers related to time management, ethics, expectations created in the engagement process, stakeholder fatigue and the role of feedback to participants to build trust and credibility in research projects. Feedback and active listening motivated participants to respond truthfully without merely giving the ‘right’ answers that researchers want to hear.

The group discussed changes needed in our attitudes and approaches in order to improve outcomes of participatory research, and made practical suggestions such as funder flexibility, embedding students within long term process-based projects, the value of pilot studies to determine mutual interest between researchers and society, and clarity and honesty about intent. The event created space for lively discussions and possibilities to link up with other existing initiatives. The feedback received from participants was extremely positive, with many commenting on the value of pre-conference get-togethers to form new and lasting connections.

For some reflections on the event, check out this blog post by one of the participating PhD students from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, My Sellberg, or watch this YouTube video featuring Prof Karen Esler from Stellenbosch University and PhD student Jessica Cockburn from Rhodes University discussing the tensions of engaging in a meaningful way with stakeholders while also producing high-quality scientific papers.

The organising committee was made up of Christo Fabricius, Karen Esler, Linda Luvuno, Odirilwe Selomane, Vanessa Masterson, and Lisa Heider. The event was partly funded by SwedBio. We thank everyone for their support in making this another successful SAPECS learning event and look forward to more fun learning activities in the future!
This post was originally posted on the SAPECS website.