Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Four Stages of Interview Success

Camp! Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar, 2007
Fieldwork is often the bread-and-butter of many researchers' work. This ritual of going 'out' to collect 'data' forms the core of how both natural and social scientists build their understandings of the world. I fell into field ecology my second year at university, doing fun things like counting the number and size of trees in a certain area, or seeing how many different types of bugs we could catch in pitfall traps set at regular intervals. The methods were pretty much the same if we went to the rainforest in southern Mexico, a deciduous forest in northern New York, or across the globe to the temperate humid forests in eastern Australia. Expeditions could require a fair amount of logistical magic - between wrangling gear (like massive measuring tapes for transects or containers for sample collection) and obtaining appropriate permits (particularly if in a foreign country or accessing protected areas). Something will inevitably go wrong - inclement weather, malfunctioning equipment, lost luggage - and it can get lonely. But it can also be peaceful, contemplative, and rejuvenating (...anyone need a field assistant?).

I don't think we made it to the village... Central Ghana, 2014
But this 'fieldwork' has changed a fair bit for me since the last excursion in ecology just over a decade ago, as more of the natural gets replaced by social. Yet, particularly in a school of biological sciences, I get the feeling that social science methods are underestimated in terms of their complexity and questioned for their legitimacy and robustness. In becoming more familiar with the social sciences over the last few years, though, I'm coming to terms with their own methodological challenges not too dissimilar from carrying out an ecology fieldtrip. Yesterday, while trying to sort out a few remaining interviews for a study here in Indonesia, we were discussing all the behind-the-scenes activity involved in the final 45-90 minute interview. For your benefit, I've detailed the four stages of "interview success" below:

First Success! Obtain contact information for the target interviewee, either directly, or through circuitous process of snowballing. For example, you know someone, who knows someone, who used to work at the organisation the right person might still be affiliated with.

Second Success! Make contact with target interviewee, and proceed with a long series of WhatsApp messages, often missing vowels or half the word. Then, you realize that your explanation in bahasa Indonesia implied you are implementing a “project” and not “studying” something on the topic of interest, and you spend the next exchange of messages explaining that you’re doing something else entirely, and you really just want to talk to them and hope it eventually makes a difference in the world.

Third Success! Set a time, date, and location for the interview. Change said time, date, and location because of heavy rains and flooding. Then realize the location is actually perfectly situated for acoustic augmentation of motorbikes revving, which is all a dictaphone or mobile actually picks up. 

Fourth Success! Actually meet target interviewee, conduct congenial interview, shake hands (maybe taken token photo), and part ways. This does eventually happen. 

Bonus Success! Interpret your notes scribbled during the interview and somehow manage to fit them into a framework you thought was applicable to the "study system". Proceed with analysis and writing up, ultimately trying to make some sense of the messy world we live in.

A recent paper reviewing the use of interviews in conservation research provides some useful insights into good practices when choosing interviews as a methodology.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Embrace the Cloudy Skies

We all have those days. You wake up to the light pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof. Peering tentatively out the window, and all you see is a blanket of gray. You pull the covers back over your head and hope no one notices you straggling in several hours late for work. 

DSC_0406Last week, many of my Brisbane compatriots may have tried to pull off something along these lines, bemoaning the gray and rainy weather. Though I love the usually brilliant blue skies and sunny days of Brisneyland, I have to admit that my Seattle upbringing makes me crave dreariness and gloom (weather-wise) every now-and-again. But the lack of rain piques my interest (and concern) for another reason. It's indicative of a worrisome trend across the globe - one that is not just about how much water falls to the ground in a specific place, but at what time of year and how intensely. So, let's talk a bit about rain!

Queensland is home to the Great Barrier Reef and a belt of tropical rainforest. But it also seems to have a recurrent precipitation problem. During December, arguably the start of the wet season, rainfall and soil moisture were below average for most of the state. Here in Brisbane, like the rest of Southeast Queensland, we rely on capturing rainwater in reservoirs throughout the year to feed demands for drinking water, etc. While this is efficient during the frequent summer deluges, it leaves us at a bit of a risk when the skies are clear for too long.

Moving to a more arid region, Cape Town has made headlines repeatedly in the last week or two. This is because the South African city with a population of 4 million people is likely to run out of this year's water by around May. Growing water demand (i.e. more people) and record-level drought (potentially augmented by climate change) are being implicated in the urban water shortage. Ultimately, the city is drawing on its underground aquifers and rivers faster than rain can replenish. Indonesia's capitol city, Jakarta, also made headlines for unsustainable use of groundwater (caused by illegal well-digging), though the big concern here is the risk of land sinking and falling below sea level.

Our last case study of rain troubles is Seattle, WA. This is another story altogether. Here it rains. In fact, in 2017, Seattle got a year's worth of rain in just 5.5 months. Cool, so water shouldn't be an issue, right? Climate change predictions show Pacific Northwest of North America as getting wetter and warmer. Unlike arid Cape Town or sub-tropical Brisbane, much of Seattle's drinking water comes from spring snowmelt. And this, my friends, is reliant on the temperatures dropping low enough for winter snows to fall and remain in the upper parts of the watersheds. Or, if precipitation becomes more concentrated at certain times of year, when it is less likely to fall as snow, we are also likely to see water shortages.

So Brisbane is back to sunny skies, but rain should never be far from our minds. We had three different water supply stories, but a common thread of precarious precipitation ran throughout. It matters where, when, and how much, but perhaps we could still embrace those cloudy days just a bit more!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Acknowledging the Traditional Owners

Rock art in the Daintree, Northeast QLD
Happy 2018! As we leap into the new year, it seems - perhaps more than years past - that issues of racial justice have not only become prominent fixtures, but are actively discussed and demanded in very public spaces. Similar to the United States, colonial Australia has an embroiled history with the indigenous peoples of the country - one of massacre, displacement, and oppression, with disparities in things like health and education continuing to this day. This year Australia Day, celebrated annually on the 26th of January, marks the 230th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans on the island continent. Proposals to move the holiday, often referred to as "Invasion Day", have been on the table for years as a way to celebrate the country rather than extol the conquering of an inhabited land. But as of yet, Aussies continue to take a long weekend each January, perhaps without even recognising the implications of the observance.

The thing is, aboriginal Australians represent the oldest continuous indigenous cultures (~150 language groups still exist) in the world, having inhabited the land for at least 50,000 years. That's a fair amount of time for deep connections and understanding of the land to establish. One of the things that has struck me during meetings and conferences in Australia is the "Welcome to Country" and Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners. This cultural practice by Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders has been incorporated into many formal gatherings as a small means of reconciliation. It is also seen as a recognition of traditional owners' roles as custodians and stewards of the land (though often it seems more lip-service than tangible and genuine).
Land protection in Australia. Credit: Altman, 2014

While Australia as a whole is doing a pretty rubbish job of conserving the country's unique fauna and flora, traditional owners are responsible for maintaining a large proportion of what land is protected. Indigenous protected areas comprise nearly one-quarter of Australia's National Reserve System, which covers almost 20% of Australia's land mass (don't get too excited...). Aboriginal lands are not limited to these protected areas, though, ranging from exclusive native title to co-managed protected areas, to land use agreements. And these areas can have important implications for biodiversity conservation. A recent study modeled the ranges of 272 threatened animal species, finding that close to 3/4 of species overlapped with aboriginal lands. This study showed the relevance of areas outside the national reserve for protecting populations of threatened species, while also arguing for a more cross-cultural approach to conservation.

In this sense, "caring for country" by Aboriginal Australians may not conform entirely to a western protectionist view of conservation. For example, fires managed by people has had a long history of shaping ecosystems on the continent, influencing the assemblages of plants and animals. This socio-ecological practice can be important for supporting wildlife, but may not be seen as a typical inclusion in a conservationist portfolio. While the flavour of land management might differ in Northern Queensland and the wet tropics in some respects, it still draws on indigenous ecological knowledge, often built over thousands of years of interacting with an environment.

So can I bring this back to Australia Day? Well, today we have a public holiday that has seen considerable controversy stemming from the embedded social justice issues. Rather than focus on the barbecue time the day provides, it can also bring attention to the still very real struggle for reconciliation ... and perhaps the role that conservation might play in achieving it, through more than just acknowledging traditional owners, but actively supporting that strong connection to land

Just for fun:  
Atlas of Indigenous Australia -  AIATSIS, 2017.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sun Sets on 2017

It’s a bit of a tradition by now to reflect on the past year of blogging. But this seems to have been the year of benign blog neglect. Between prepping for a PhD milestone, traveling a cumulative 3.5 months for work and leisure (actually on a wander in NZ at the moment...), and wasting considerable time reading and stressing over the news, blog posting has taken a backseat. So I snagged a few snippets from unfinished posts and from a year of tweets.

The year itself was filled to the brim. Besides an endless barrage of media attention around the demise of whatever integrity had remained in US democracy, earth, wind, and fire seemed to take out their collective rage on human beings. An unusually intense hurricane season, an untimely Indian monsoon, and drought-fueled forest forest made extreme weather a trending topic.

An erratic Indian Monsoon, the life force of much of South Asia, began this anomalous year of weather. Unprecedented flooding resulted in over 1,200 deaths across South Asia. Yet this extreme rainfall was uneven, swinging in both directions with some parts of the region receiving as little as 1/3 less rain than usual. An agricultural system highly dependent on rainfall means that crop losses this year have had substantial consequences for people's lives - hunger and health. But it was the Northern hemisphere hurricanes that made headlines in 2017, as a series of hurricanes smashed into Caribbean islands and the southern US. While not completely unheard of, warmer sea surface temperatures did make for really favourable conditions that spawned some powerful storms. The Caribbean felt the brunt of four consecutive categories 4 and 5 hurricanes, and much of Puerto Rico is still without electricity or running water.

The thing about “natural disasters” is they usually require some sort of human failing. The monsoon was tragic partly because poverty reduced people’s ability to weather losses (and many were probably  living in areas more prone to flood damage). The fires that have ravaged California in the latter part of the year were exacerbated by sprawling development patterns and insufficient fire prevention management activities (like brush clearing and controlled burnings). Puerto Rico is still like a war-torn country, because of insufficient federal emergency assistance (and a history of exploitative policies by a colonial government). And all of these events were in some way influenced by man-made climate change.

Speaking of climate change, I unfortunately contributed my fair share of greenhouse gas emissions via air travel. Two trips to Indonesia included a slightly longer stay in Borneo to interview people about community management of forests. A conservation conference took me to Colombia, where only this past year a peace agreement between the government and guerrilla groups was signed. Finally, a cheeky holiday in Japan highlighted the melding a nature and culture.

And just as an aside, a fellow PhD student and I started recording a semi-regular podcast this year, called Conservation Crossroads. Check it out! 

Happy New Year! Here’s to a happier and healthier one!

Read Years Passed

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lima Hal Dari Indonesia

I've started a couple of posts since arriving in Indonesia, but they both seemed too serious, too academic. It's the third time I've been in the country and, entering my fifth week now, the longest. So instead of going on about academic versus practical conferences, or the trials and rewards of social science data collection, I'm instead sharing five things that have struck me while here.

1. Jam Karet - The elasticity of time. Or literally, rubber hour. This is something I think many foreigners must come to terms with very quickly in Indonesia. In a city like Jakarta, traffic and a limited bus network mean that getting from point A to point B may take the better part of the day. I was thrilled on the days I accomplished multiple things (e.g. visit immigration and attend the second half of a conference; meet friends for brunch and visit the national monument). But, this is to some extent an infrastructure and practicality issue in a big city. The fluidity of time also seems to be more culturally embedded. My propensity for planning is next to useless here. Meetings will be set and then reset multiple times, perhaps the same day or a mere hour beforehand. Indonesians like to chitchat and socialise, and it's rude to abruptly end a meeting. Ultimately, going with the flow is both the path of least resistance and most likely to result in everyone happier. 

2. WhassssApp... Scheduling brings me to my next point: WhatsApp. Communication is important, and WhatsApp is apparently the best way to get in touch with just about anyone in Indonesia. I started using this app to communicate with friends and family on different continents and in different time zones. But over here, it goes beyond the personal. I'm sending and receiving documents, organising meetings with government staff, and generally doing all scheduling (and rescheduling) through that channel. It's brilliant! It's free. You can send whatever, to whomever, at odd hours. And it gives me a chance to craft (likely overly formal, and grammatically incorrect) messages in Bahasa Indonesia.

3. Jalan-jalan...kaki? I love to walk. It's liberating and empowering to know that one's own two feet can take you places. But that is far from the case where I've been in Indonesia. Besides the insufficient pedestrian infrastructure, people generally seem more inclined to hop on a motorbike for the smallest of distances. When I proposed to walk the thirty minutes across town, I received confused facial expressions and incredulity. It contrasts starkly with my experience in Ghana, where walking was the most accessible means of transporting goods and people short distances - roads were bad and automobiles expensive. Walking from house to house there was glorious. That said, the motorbike here is definitely the most efficient means of getting around. And some of the things people manage to fit on their bikes is astonishing - anything from timber and pallets to baskets of chickens. I'm not going to lie; this trip has made me intent on learning to drive a motorbike, you know, for next time!

4. Goreng, goreng, gorengan - One thing that seems to unite humankind is our enjoyment of fried foods. As with most places with a strong street food culture, the warung (or food stalls) typically have an assortment of fried food stuffs. While nasi goreng and mie goreng - fried rice and fried noodles - are most commonly known, you can easily find fried tofu, tempeh, bananas, vegetable fritters, chicken, etc. The decided lack of vegetables in prepared foods for sale - and my inability to cook in my current living situation - is something I feel so acutely that I'm relishing every piece of water spinach or pepper that turns up in a dish.

5. Ngopi! Finally, one of the most pleasant surprises has been the vibrant and growing coffee culture. The kopi is what one might call 'sandy' ... Ground coffee is placed straight into the mug and hot water poured over. Give it a stir and then let things settle. It is commonly offered when making a visit, and is served strong and manis-manis (very sweet). Coffee shops are open late, and one of the popular evening activities even in a smaller city like Ketapang. While I'm not about to adopt the heavy smoking habit during socialising, meetings, and the like, I'll happily fuel a coffee habit!

So that's it for now. No mention of forests and conservation. No dwelling on research activities or academic pressure. Despite the stress of organising logistics and conducting interviews, doing "fieldwork" feels much more relaxed and real than sitting in the department, glued to a computer screen day in and day out. And eventually I'll elaborate on what really brings me to Indonesia.