Developing a holistic approach to conservation ecology in the Olifants River Basin

Kirsty Scott

2 August 2022

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening resilience and response to crises

[S]ome of the feedback that I got after completing that Master’s from my colleagues is that it’s actually still very rare to find people who are able to both think like a natural scientist and a social scientist. And be comfortable to work with both quantitative and qualitative methods… I didn’t actually realise how rare that skill would be until I actually re-entered the working field.

Ancois de Villiers

Between 2015-2019, Commonwealth Alumnus Ancois de Villiers was a Climate Change Adaptation Researcher with the South African NGO, the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD). AWARD uses a range of innovative approaches to inform the development and implementation of several programmes that build social and ecological resilience. One such programme is the USAID funded RESILiM-Olifants Programme (RESILiM-O), which focuses on strengthening climate change resilience and increasing biodiversity in the transboundary Olifants River Basin between South Africa and Mozambique.

The Olifants River Catchment (ORC) is the largest contributor of water to the Limpopo basin, an international drainage basin stretching across South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, which provides vital support to people across this region. In recent years, however, there has been growing concern about the ORC because of the wide-scale climate-related threats endangering its biodiversity and ecosystem.

As a Climate Change Adaption Researcher at AWARD, Ancois was part of a team who had two core functions: to collect, conduct, and summarise research on projected climate change impacts to help develop responsive adaptation interventions; and to strengthen climate literacy amongst practitioners across 6 projects, some of which were running within the overall RESILiM-O programme.

Addressing the scientific and social considerations of the RESILiM-O programme

Ancois began working on RESILiM-O immediately following her Commonwealth Scholarship, providing an immediate opportunity to put her skills and knowledge into practice.

Having undertaken an MSc in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Kent and having previously worked as an ecologist, Ancois’ unique skillset, combining elements of natural science and social science, enabled her to bring a range of approaches and methodologies to the RESILiM-O programme and address both the scientific and social considerations of the project. The desire to combine an understanding of the natural sciences with social science approaches and methodologies was key to Ancois’ decision to pursue her Master’s studies.

Prior to her Commonwealth Scholarship, Ancois had worked for two years in conservation ecology. Through this work, she was increasingly exposed to the social aspects of conservation and their importance. This included how different decision-making frameworks could be more or less effective in supporting adaptation and resilience in natural resource management. In turn, this introduced her to very different philosophical and political perspectives on conservation. Inspired to explore how social methodologies and engagement skills could enhance her work in conservation ecology, Ancois decided to pursue further studies.

Following her Commonwealth Master’s, Ancois gained a deeper understanding of the complexity of environmental challenges and how they interact with human societal dynamics. This has given her the confidence to engage with and navigate the existing tensions and conflicts between different disciplinary perspectives on ecological interventions.

“Being able to jump between those two sometimes made it a lot easier to understand where different stakeholders are coming from and how to attune projects and engagements to them.”

Working with her AWARD team, Ancois’ enhanced knowledge and skillset helped her develop a range of communication tools for improving internal climate change literacy among those working on the RESILiM-O project. Developing this toolkit ensured that those working on the programme had a comprehensive understanding of climate change and how it applies to their work and were able to incorporate this into the different adaptation strategies developed for the programme.

Developing the evidence base to support stakeholder engagement

During the data gathering and research phase of her work on the RESILiM-O programme, AWARD collaborated with South African climatologists to identify some key climate projections related to rainfall and temperature. The data indicated that rainfall was difficult to predict and therefore planning and preparation for both very dry and very wet periods were essential adaptation strategies. Meanwhile, from the temperature data, the projections indicated significant increases in average temperatures in the coming decades including greater frequency of heatwaves.

With this data, Ancois and her team developed technical briefs to provide a breakdown of the findings at different geographical levels. This innovative approach to communicating climate related projections highlighted how climate trends in the region, such as overall increased temperatures, may be experienced differently depending on geographical location.

“We tried to take the data right down to the local government level because it doesn’t help you if you’re working in this little area and you’ve got a climate change projection for the whole southern part of Africa. It gives you very big trends but another thing that we found is that there can be quite small nuance but important differences in different areas.”

Once the technical briefs had been developed, Ancois and her team turned their focus to communicating the findings to a range of stakeholders. Tapping into her social science expertise and emerging research from psychology and neuroscience on how people think about risk, Ancois co-formulated an effective communication strategy to illustrate the implications of their research and why it mattered to communities living in the ORC region.

Under the direction and guidance of her supervisor and project lead, Ancois implemented a social learning approach to both communicate their climate-related findings and learn from participants. To do this, they held a series of dialogues on climate literacy, the Dialogues for Climate Change Literacy and Adaptation (DICLAD). Through the dialogues, the team clarified climate concepts, such as the difference between weather and climate, and worked with stakeholders to identify local language translations of the information they were sharing.

“It’s more like telling people, okay, this is the English word, this is basically the concept. So, what word do you think we can use in the workshops? This is where the social learning process comes in. It’s not us coming and telling people. It’s literally having a dialogue.”

From these dialogues, the team were able to gain further insight from participants and institutional representatives and stakeholders, including those from local, provincial, and national government, small-scale farmers, and young people on topics such as disaster and environmental management.

Influencing policy, achieving impact

In total, the team were able to reach more than 400 individuals representing 88 institutions through the project. Since the dialogues, Ancois has reported that at the policy level, the project has had a direct impact and seen meaningful developments.

This has included contributing to the climate change adaptation strategies of two provinces in South Africa. The provinces were holding provincial forums to inform their strategies when Ancois started working on the RESILiM-O project. Together with other members of AWARD, Ancois was able to join the forums and share their research findings and recommendations which fed into the provinces’ strategy development and provided feedback on the proposed plans and policies.

Similarly, at the municipal level, they worked with municipal government leaders on development management plans, which included providing climate change information on disaster management and land-use planning to influence policy and project development.

An ever-evolving approach to influencing the ecological restoration sector

Ancois is currently completing a PhD exploring the challenges of implementing landscape-based restoration/rehabilitation initiatives in aspiring to achieve integrated social-ecological impact. Her research has been influenced in two ways. Firstly, through her observation that there is growing recognition within the ecological restoration sector that it is not enough to simply focus on ecological aspects when rehabilitating/restoring natural capital. Considerations must be given to the financial, social, and psychological aspects of such initiatives. Secondly, Ancois has been influenced by evidence emerging from psychology and other social science fields on how people think about risk, change, and behaviours.

Ancois’ research seeks to bridge the gap between these two areas and provide a model for how organisations can frame their work around natural capital outcomes whilst also supporting social and financial capital incentives that enable people to invest meaning in their landscapes. The ideas presented in her research will support her current organisation to develop a more robust monitoring and evaluation protocol and process to better track complex natural and social data variables that can assess the impact and efficacy of this approach.

At the level of large-scale industry, Ancois hopes her PhD will present a case study to funders globally on how to balance financial and resource needs with the practical realities of implementing projects on the ground level, as well as improving understanding of the nuances involved in such an initiative.

Looking back on her career to date, Ancois attributes her MSc in Environmental Anthropology in changing her thinking and approach and the type of conservation projects she has been involved in since, and will continue to pursue in the future.

“I’ve progressed more and more in my career, I’m more and more grateful to actually having had that opportunity to go and study or do that Master’s in the UK… it completely changed how my brain works and it’s helped me to actually be able to do the kind of job and work on the kind of project that I just described.”

Ancois Carien de Villiers is a 2014 Commonwealth Scholar from South Africa. She completed an MSc in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Kent.