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Thursday 20th June 2019

National Geographic Open Explorer: pre-field post 3

This is a pre-field post from my Open Explorer blog. To learn more, follow my expedition here

Original wetland

From Canopy to Groundwater...

as I plan this expedition, the expanse of what I proposed to do and the smaller projects nestled within it are not lost on me. As well as at least 100 datapoints - that I also refer to as biocultural markers (the oral histories, the photography, the raw data, the wildlife photography, the factsheets, the scientific illustrations) - there is the canvassing, the storytelling, the species finding, the patient reasoning.

But as time draws closer, fear has crystallised into resolve as it becomes less about proving myself worthy of my donors' support (for which I am overwhelmingly grateful and truly indebted) and more about the action me, my fellow teammates, and the wider community need to take.

I want to talk about something that was recently shared with me by one of the team members (remember my teammates for these collection of projects are all members of the Maroon community - not only by lineage, but who were born and raised there, have lived there since, and continue to live there to this day). One of the projects incorporated into Countermapping Cockpit is a stream restoration project, funded by Wild Planet Fund (formerly WWCT) and Auckland Zoo Conservation Trust. This project initially came from the desire of a small group of Maroons to restore one of the streams closest to them. Some time ago, attempts were made to turn the stream into a fish pond to increase tourism and the resulting blockage turned the whole square kilometre into abandoned wetlands. Last summer, a Maroon whose animals grazed nearby saw a turtle in the stream; he showed his best friend, his best friend showed me, and from this arose a swell of interest to restore the stream and a nearby water source.

Look at the power of wildlife! (... though I should add that climate change has made the dry season longer and so there is some pragmatism to this desire as well as wildlife inspiring the community into action).

But we now face a problem. Our initial plan with the stream restoration project was to monitor the amphibian and reptile life as parts of the stream was restored. The wetlands had become somewhat of a biodiversity haven - an undisturbed ecological niche full to the brim with frogs, turtles, insects... many of which were endemic not just to the country but the forest.

Degraded wetland

The first image is what a part of the stream looked like then. The second image is what it looks like now. Private investors and the Ministry of Agriculture have invested in a medicinal marijuana production project to be piloted in the village. I was there when the army for shiny 4x4s descended upon the village with promises of economic development and a livelihood stream for the villagers. "We want to use indigenous knowledge to bring jobs to the community", the Ministry declared. The plan is for the Maroons to grow medicinal marijuana using methods prescribed by the Ministry and cultivating only a non-native certified strain that is THC-free (free of the chemical compound responsible for the "high"). "Accompong is a trademark", one of the private investors let slip. This is the likely motivation behind the involvement of the community: to market it as an indigenous product.

A paper published in Nature Sustainability argues that indigenous communities make sustainable decisions about land and resource use in the absence of development projects enticing villagers with financial incentives and pressurising leaders into compliance. So, this project of ours now serves two very important purposes: a) to document the rare and threatened amphibian life that got the community interested in conserving and restoring the stream in the first place b) to locate, with my Maroon team members, other streams so that we can compare the ecosystem health of this stream against other non-affected streams across the life of this medical marijuana project.

Indigenous communities often have the unfair burden of having their practices deemed unsustainable, when many of them only exist as a response to external interference. There is an urgency to my project now - this is why my fear has given way to purpose. So, I go forward; armed with dataloggers (to monitor the environment), traps/nets, camera traps, and hoping to get an OpenROV, we fight to keep the land in the hands of its inhabitants (human AND non-human).

Thursday 7th May 2019

#Mermay: Mami Wata

Mami Wata drawing

I stumbled upon #Mermay this year - I'm still working on my drawing skills after returning to it later in life, but I wanted to give it a try. Two things I love are #nature and my #heritage, so I decided my first #mermay contribution should be Mami Wata: the popular pan-African deity featured heavily in Afro-Jamaican cosmology. There are a number of theories for its widespread prevalence among the African diaspora:

1) She brings fortune - important during a time of global capital accumulation (Drewel, 1988; 2008): the Transatlantic Slavery, the unacknowledged steam-engine of the industrial revolution

2) Etymology. The name “Mami Wata” (the name, not the long-established deity) was popularised by Kru traders from Liberia in the 1800s. It was here that snake charming became entangled in Mami Wata’s characterisation (Drewal, 1988; Stipriaan, 2002): which was now both siren and water serpent. The pidgin English and the extensive networks slaves had through trade (contrary to belief, they didn’t just stay on the plantation - it was more economical for masters to let them have a subsistence economy than to feed all those slaves) consolidated this shared spirituality.

3) The ocean voyages during slavery. The inhumane conditions on slave ships may have led the slaves to seek particular support from water spirits. Symbolism may have been derived from the slave ships which were decorated with mythical figureheads, such as mermaids (Stipriaan, 2002).

Whatever the cause, Mami Wata became a very important symbol in Afro-Caribbean cosmology. Mami Wata would be invoked through dance by a water source (used to kill masters) ( Browne, 2011), so runaway communities often emerged around deep groundwater sources. Water became a sacred geographical feature, in Jamaican cosmologies such as Myal, Revival Zion, Kumina water is used to cleanse souls and unbind curses. I am undertaking a stream restoration project with the Maroons, I have had to take the sacredness of water into account in the project design. When the Maroons and I decided to undertake this project, I initially asked for the project site relatively free from use... I was seeking funding - this formalised our efforts. My name would be attached to the project, I would have to be transparent; I didn't want to have to report findings that suggested that the Maroons had not even enough restraint to see this research unhampered - that they were given a chance to be heard and they blew it. The science must always be unrestrained, which meant they could not afford to be.

This request, of course, was not granted. Not but a fortnight after I had left for the fieldwork season, people began ad hoc use of the wetland. One Maroon grew marijuana near the river for a short time, believing it would invest the crop with the fortitude he would need to solve his problems. The group of Maroons with whom I collaborate to undertake this project have scarely followed the project timeline and have cleared sections of he stream at whatever stage they pleased. These are not barriers to data collection - this IS data. How cosmology influences water management must be incorporated into our efforts to monitor amphibian and reptile microhabitats.

It is in fact important to take all of these deep historical, cultural, and cosmological artefacts into consideration when you are doing ecology/conservation. It heavily influences resource use. Anohther example: in Jamaican cosmology, spirits such as Mami Wata have preferred “hangouts” or haunts, called Seal Grounds. These are distinguished by the planting of sugar cane. This legacy has driven common rural agricultural practices. The Forestry Department of Jamaica are currently undertaking a USD$5 million project to conserve Cockpit Country through identifying alternative livelihoods (which includes regulating agrarian communities); without understanding of how customary practices drive land use, this project (that has already encountered obstacles) will follow a long line of failed initiatives in the region

Thursday 21st March 2019

The Generosity of Observation

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Obervational Tools

Since philosophy and science diverged into fundamentally different disciplines, Natural History has given way to a more quantified, deliberate, precise ecology. There is great urgency for a better understanding of our ecosystems and the reasons and means for its protection. This must be rooted in reproducible, robust science that yields solutions to mitigate against climate change, species extinction, habitat destruction. This, however, is not – and has never been – at odds with the slow and patient methodologies upon which this discipline was built. In a British Association for the Advancement of Science address, ecology, and its relation to the wider discipline of biology, was defined:

‘oecology, … uses all the knowledge it can obtain from [physiology and morphology], but chiefly rests on the exploration of the endless varied phenomena of animal and plant life as they manifest themselves under natural conditions.’(Sanderson, 1893)

At its core, ecology is a study of relationships within nature. Yet the breadth required to understand how relationships manifest into the complex network we know the natural world to be has been sacrificed for depth. A depth that narrows our analysis to single lines of inquiries, a particular species, or even a specific phenomenon within that particular species – and further down the rabbit-hole we go in search of tangible solutions.

Art Historian Jennifer Roberts challenges the increasingly rapid tempo of study (in any discipline) by advocating the importance of deceleration into “patient investigation” and “deep contemplation”. Lost are two of our most important tools in scientific inquiry: ourselves and time. Observation furnishes us with multiple forms of data. “Patient investigation” reveals more of our surrounding to us: not only does it expose hidden meanings within paintings – it lays bare differences in beak widths, flaunts abundance, or discloses scarcity of organisms within a landscape. Observation, and the time required to engage in it, unveils insights to which deeper exploration can be anchored. But observation gives us more… it yields information about the observer; for we, too, are part of these web of relations.

‘Stories’, sociobiologist Donna Haraway argues, ‘are a core aspect of the constitution of an object of scientific knowledge’ (1991: p82). Demonstrating a parasite’s prevalence within a community or behavioural change of species due to climate change are acts of storytelling: world-building is required, narratives are constructed, alternate endings are proposed. Our background, the economic and political pressures we face, and our institutional culture all affect what we observe and how we reconstruct and make sense of it – no metric, model, or test removes this. Nor should it.

Bias is not a dirty word; it is the frame of reference through which the social dimensions of these relationships are understood. It is the way our tool is calibrated. While we should attempt to diversify it, we ought not to ignore it. Observation – patient, indulged, contemplative, honest observation – gives us worlds to explore, a path on which to start, the time to travel it, and an understanding of our arrival at a destination.

An abridged version of this blog article was published in British Ecological Society's The Niche magazine: issue March 2019.

Wednesday 26th April 2018

The Ethics of Mediation in Conservation Spaces

Indigenous hunters resting

Last year I wrote an article about the difficulties of being (or, rather, being forced into the role of) a mediator in conservation spaces. In this position you are acutely aware of both the importance and the problematic nature of each side's stance and how perspectives could be easier reconciled if collaboration was increased in a more meaningful way.

At the time, I chose to remain anonymous because I feared any repercussions the Maroon community might face (the parrots they hunt are protected under national law). I no longer write about these things under anonymity for a number of reasons. Firstly, in order to make real change, I believe discussions need to be generated on a very practical level about practices that are currently take place in conservation spaces. We cannot generate real change from hypotheticals. Secondly, I believe with the community-based conservation initiatives that are now in place in the village, we are in a stronger position to have these conversations without fear of reprisals. Jamaica has remained servile to a colonial strangelhold that still governs the island; as we continue to engage in conservation science funded by western institutions, the likelihood of prosecution (or any form of persecution) of Maroons decreases. I speak in a forthcoming publication about the power that can be harnessed from indigeneity (both by the indigenous commuity and those who seek to dominate them) - I am not convinced that there actually ever was a significant likelihood of any repercussions.

With all that said, if you would like to read my thoughts on the matter, click the picture for a link to the article!