Interdisciplinary Ecology graduate students complete project focused on the Amazon
An interdisciplinary effort to improve governance and infrastructure in the Amazon (GIA) included expertise from the University of Florida. Several graduate students, including from the UF/IFAS School of Natural Resources and Environment’s Interdisciplinary Ecology (IE) program, were involved in creating and facilitating a Community of Practice and Learning (CoP-L) with partners from grassroots organizations, NGOs, and universities in the Amazon. The goal was to exchange knowledge and experiences about conservation and development strategies, such as those related to political mobilization and negotiation, among stakeholders in four regional mosaics of indigenous, protected, and other lands in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. The following IE students reflect on their involvement with the effort:
I was the Upper Madera COP-L leader, one of the four mosaics included in the GIA project. The need to improve infrastructure governance in the Amazon motivated a community of practice and learning (COP-L) among stakeholders in the Upper Madera. The COP-L constitutes an organizational platform to facilitate learning from past experiences concerning the negative impacts of dams to pursue more effective strategies for infrastructure governance. The Upper Madeira COP-L encompasses 5 universities (3 in Bolivia, 1 in Brazil and UF), 4 NGOs (all in Bolivia), 3 grassroots organizations (1 Bolivia, 1 Brazil, 1 binational), and 11 communities (7 in Bolivia and 4 in Brazil). The COP-L features the experiences and needs of communities impacted by dams. Local communities in the region prioritize access to scientific knowledge about the impacts of dams and building capacity in skills and strategies to confront proponents of dams. However, other stakeholders with that knowledge and know-how have limited access to those communities. Therefore, the stakeholders of the COP-L pursued a cascading series of activities to strengthen ties and thereby pursue joint activities. As a result, the COP-L emerged and worked over four years from 2017 to 2021. The COP-L held some 10 in-person events and 20 virtual events, which collectively reached roughly 1200 people. Along the way, COP-L partners conducted some 150 interviews as part of participatory research activities. Consequently, the COP-L generated over 50 products with substantive and strategic content, including 20 videos from community members. In addition, the COP-L facilitated the planning of collective action for the governance of infrastructure in the region. The COP-L provided all its products to the Binational Committee working across the Bolivia-Brazil border to resist new dams; they are using the products in their advocacy against dams due to their negative impacts.
Furthermore, I was part of many thematic working groups within GIA:
- Timeline group
- Stakeholder Analysis Group
- Communication for Social and Political Change group
- The Geospatial (Participatory Mapping) group
I was involved in the GIA project in many ways. First, as a graduate student member, I participated actively from the beginning of the discussions of the project. Then, I was involved in the workshop activities, including conception, execution, facilitation, and reporting. I am in the Brazilian Mosaic, also, called Southern Amazonas – Northern Rondônia. In the Brazilian Mosaic, we discussed advances and new approaches to strengthen the Brazilian Community of Practice (CoP). Later, the Brazilian CoP discussed and developed its work on legal strategies that could improve and benefit traditional and indigenous peoples in the Amazon facing infrastructure projects. I was conducting this process, and I elaborated a legal toolbox that compiled laws, treaties, decrees, cases, judgements, organizations, networks, web resources, and other resources for use in legal and judicial processes. I have also worked in a literature review to improve knowledge around Stakeholders Analysis literature focused in the Amazon. Beyond the usual GIA reports that we participated in and released on the GIA website, we had a work accepted, as a result of the collective analysis and work we made from contributions of the community of practice (CoP) from the workshops in all four mosaics. I also was involved to help in the translations of English – Portuguese.
The GIA project gave us opportunities to share our thoughts and our own opinions throughout the project. We were truly engaged as a team and our meetings always kept open space to different views and contributions. We interacted in many ways to develop the best outcomes and steps throughout the project’s lifetime. The same I can say on the faculty and graduates’ relations, which were made in great respect and appreciation from our advisors and collaborators. We were constantly in contact with partners around the four mosaics within a communication networking of information that was flowing among us. The communication-sharing process was important to leverage knowledge within each mosaic and between them. Another takeaway is that during the pandemic, we discovered the benefits of the virtual environment, and the process to overcome shortcomings. On many occasions, a minute of silence honored those we lost. We had positive and vibrant collaborations. Many of them were from grassroots organizations that improved the project outcomes and gave essential contributions.
I contributed to the GIA project in different capacities. Overall, I helped to develop the social learning approach that guided the project, to co-facilitate in-person workshops and webinars so that our partners could have engaged and productive conversations and learn from each other, and to co-develop communication materials (flyers, folders, invitations, newsletter, website). Moreover, I was part of a few regional and thematic sub-groups within the project. I contributed to the work done within the Brazilian Mosaic (Southern Amazonas – Northern Rondônia Mosaic), which included compiling knowledge and information that can support learning and reflection about the dynamics of governance and infrastructure in the region. I also contributed to the project’s monitoring and evaluation efforts, which included applying questionnaires, conducting interviews with partners, facilitating internal meetings of reflection on our work, and developing reports on the results of the project and lessons learned. Lastly, I participated in the working group on ‘Communication for Social and Political Change’ helping to promote dialogue and systematize an analysis of innovative communication strategies employed by partners.
Participating in the GIA Project taught me a lot about how to facilitate the creation of a community of people that learn with each other through a project led by an inter- and transdisciplinary team from a university with multiple partners and countries. It was not an easy task, but we managed to do a great job and achieved significant success. One salient takeaway for me is that sometimes the best thing we can do is to use our knowledge and expertise to create the space and the conditions to promote dialogue between different stakeholders and to engage them as co-researchers in the production of knowledge that will benefit their livelihoods and conservation and development work.
As part of GIA, I supported the organization of webinars, meetings, and workshops to exchange experiences, reflect on lessons learned, and discuss future actions, both within and across Amazon regions (Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia). Specifically, I was the graduate student leader of the GIA Colombian Amazon Mosaic. This mosaic focused on the development of large road infrastructure in the Western Colombian Amazon and has a strong focus on local participation in governance. I also supported the communications team, with the creation and editing of content for webpage, newsletter, and social media accounts. Finally, I participated in the working group on ‘Communication for Social and Political Change’ where we brought together communicators and practitioners from some of the organization’s members of our community of practice and promoted individual and collective reflection of their own strategies. The main question we posed in a series of meetings with them was whether or not their communication efforts were leading to a change of behavior and policies. As a result, I developed an ArcGIS StoryMap in Spanish and Portuguese with a summary of these dialogues.
My involvement in the GIA project made me reflect on the possibility of Academia stepping out into the real world to promote the exchange of lessons learned among very diverse and important stakeholders making decisions right now about the future of the Amazon. It was our transdisciplinary team, with experience from every corner of the Amazon, that made it possible to promote the creation of a unique community of practice and learning.
My involvement in the GIA Project was as co-coordinator of the Loreto Mosaic, Peru. This Peruvian Amazon region, as many others, faces great challenges therefore the interest to examine how conservation organizations responded to those changes. In this mosaic there are two main infrastructure projects planned or soon to be implemented: “La Hidrovía Amazónica” – The Amazon Waterway, – and the Saramiriza – Iquitos Highway. Both projects will affect several protected areas and the communities depending on them. The direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts and consequences of infrastructure projects are of great concern for conservation organizations in this region. Conservation organizations often must navigate changes while at the same time adapting their current conservation strategies. The GIA project focused on understanding how key conservation organizations in this mosaic responded to those changes, the strategies they resorted to, and the partnerships they drew upon. I was able to be part of many working groups within GIA: timeline group, stakeholder analysis group, also assisting in the organization of workshops over the course of the project. I also assisted in conducting interviews and questionnaires with personnel of key conservation organizations working in the region. Using network analysis, we were able to conduct a preliminary analysis on conservation organizations working in the Loreto mosaic and the strategies they use. This assessment led to a comparative analysis of all the mosaics (Loreto, Peru; Upper Madeira, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia) to examine the patterns of key conservation organizations and their collaborators, and the strategies they use.
Participating in the GIA project allowed me to engage in interdisciplinary research in different Amazon regions; knowing diverse and rich experiences from conservation organizations working at the present in these regions, and to work with a supportive, dynamic, and competitive group of professionals (faculty and students). While working in GIA, I strengthened my skills in network analysis, data management, and critical thinking. In terms of my research and professional development, the GIA project opened many doors for me to explore aspects of collaboration and information exchange, and the role of partnerships in conservation governance. Another key takeaway for me was the approach GIA adopted by bringing together conservation practitioners (NGOs, grassroots organizations, government, etc.) and academia to enhance the knowledge of how infrastructure projects affect conservation governance in these complex socio-ecological systems.
Each of the graduate students’ academic advisors was part of the GIA project. The project’s current phase ended with a 3-day, virtual, pan-Amazon workshop in May 2021 that allowed UF to synthesize lessons learned and make recommendations, both for strategies to improve infrastructure governance in the Amazon and for continuity of the GIA network. A portfolio of GIA products, aimed at both academic and community audiences, is being finalized and made available to partners and via the www.giamazon.org website. Participating GIA partners are continuing their work in each region, with 15 documented cases of how they are applying lessons and strategies that emerged from GIA and continuing to work together in innovative partnerships among academic, NGO, and grassroots organizations. UF is now working with 27 GIA partner organizations in four regional and thematic sub-networks to design new projects that continue these ongoing collaborations for knowledge management, communications, and dialogue among stakeholders and partners that improve governance of infrastructure to meet local needs and interests for development and conservation.