At the end of a field trip at the border of Maasai Mara National Park, Kenya, interviewing local communities, I had a bright idea that our community facilitator owned land and could fill in one of our interview questionnaires. This idea did not sit well with my Masters student. My student and the community facilitator had become friends during the trip and she did not wish to treat the facilitator as a data point. Her gut feeling went to the heart of a wider issue. Were all our Maasai interviewees just data points? What about the communities we had worked so closely with outside the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania? As ecologists, how do we engage with local communities throughout the research process, so that they are considered more than just data points?
Many ecologists, myself included, find it far more comfortable to avoid the myriad of political, economic and social issues associated with ecological problems. Ecological research in the Greater Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem has a long legacy of such avoidance. The majority of research has placed wildlife protected areas as their starting point of their research projects rather than starting their investigation with villages outside protected areas. The AfricanBioServices project has tried to buck this trend with a focus on how climate change, human population growth and land-use change are affecting biodiversity and human well-being for local communities at the borders of protected areas.
We started our project by visiting villages to find out what local people viewed as the most important ecological challenges at the border of Serengeti-Mara. However, this could still be viewed – as my Masters student pointed out – as treating local communities as a data point. Next we designed and collected ecological data together with members of each village. Our final aim was to return to villages to relay our research findings back to local communities.
Surprisingly, for many of the villages we re-visited outside the Serengeti-Mara it was the first time a research team had returned to inform the community of their research results. Perhaps this is because researchers lack the time, funds and/or enthusiasm. Yet, this is potentially damaging for long-term research in the Serengeti-Mara, because local communities can develop ‘research fatigue’ where locals no longer wish to participate in research as they never hear of the outcomes or see the point.
When engaging with local communities, we experienced the need to tailor our communication. A nice example with our research findings is the importance of termites in sustaining plant litter decomposition and nutrient cycling in soils on agricultural and pasturelands outside protected areas. Termites were aptly described by one of our Tanzanian researchers as the digestive system of the soil: if termites do not get fed, then the soil cannot function – much like the human body.
We were worried that some of our results may lead to confrontation, in particular the issue of livestock numbers around the Serengeti-Mara. Local communities outside the Serengeti-Mara have a long history of livestock rearing. However, recent findings in the AfricanBioServices project have shown that increasing livestock numbers and illegal livestock grazing inside protected areas has negative effects on several ecosystem properties from the wildebeest migration to soil carbon storage. As part of our group’s research, we presented evidence that village land management practices can make a big difference in sustaining ecosystem properties. However, many of these would involve altering livestock management practices. During village feedback, this was a contentious topic as plentiful livestock is culturally embedded in many local communities and fewer livestock is not an outcome people wish to hear, without evidence of alternative livelihoods.
We found the most effective tool for demonstrating our research was presenting villagers with a plot where recommendations were working successful in practice. During our research project, one farmer in Mwantimba village at the border of the Serengeti saw the large quantity of grass accrued after one wet season inside our small experimental exclosures i.e. fenced areas designed to keep livestock out. This farmer started to follow our recommendations, he rotated livestock every few months leaving specific areas ungrazed and stopped destroying termite mounds. The grass became more productive and nutritious, the cattle gained weight and the farmer subsequently reduced livestock numbers. Evidence of a better management approach has spread by word-of-mouth with several farmers now adopting a similar approach in the community.
Increasingly, ecological research seeks and needs to address societal challenges. Following our experience with the AfricanBioServices project, successfully conducting ecological research requires much more than working on village land. There needs to be continuous bilateral dialogue between researchers and the local community. Despite the AfricanBioServices project drawing to a close, we hope our actions have convinced local communities bordering wildlife protected areas of the Serengeti-Mara that they are more than just data points to us.
Stuart Smith (NTNU) with John Bukombe (TAWIRI), Philipo Jacob (SUA) and photos by Per Harald Olsen (NTNU)