Event wrap - Africa & it’s People - Interdisciplinary Lessons from ANU Research

By Rachael Lowe

On the 4th March the Fenner School of Environment & Society at ANU held an all-day symposium called “Africa & it’s People – Interdisciplinary Lessons from ANU Research” to share and discuss their research in a number of sub-Saharan African countries. Through a series of presentations and round table discussions, the event facilitated interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration, bringing different perspectives together to develop new research opportunities. Participation included those from other Schools, including Anthropology and Public Policy.

The day kicked off with a yarn circle run by Yuin man, a founder of the Fenner Circle and PhD Student, Sam Provost, with an acknowledgement of country and a moving discussion about the process and importance of decolonizing research. This set the tone exceptionally well for the day as all speakers and discussions pivoted around this concept for the remainder of the day.

The first half of the day was focussed on Ecology: people and wildlife. Dr Rosie Cooney, formerly of the IUCN, who spoke about supporting the inclusion of indigenous and community voices and perspectives in conservation deliberations and debates addressed sustainable use of wildlife in offsetting conflict and incentivizing conservation. Her talk was followed by Associate Professor Nick Abel who discussed the interaction of conservation ecology and politics. He noted the lack of protection of land rights for groups such as hunters and pastoralists by political elites. PhD student Rachael Lowe concluded the session by amusingly asking if ‘Climate Change was Irrelephant’ and exploring the impact of climate change on elephants, especially regarding the availability of water, and the use of GIS to illustrate the issues and guide coping techniques as access to water and land reduced.

The second part of the day focused on Food, Water and Climate in Africa. Professor Jamie Pittock provided an overview of research on smallholder irrigation being conducted in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Tanzania. He noted that there had been many failures in the past, with much expensive infrastructure abandoned or under-performing. The importance of recognizing the complexity of situations was stressed, and how these were being addressed through agricultural innovation platforms. Alongside the platforms, simple technical tools were used to help farmers to learn how to manage water inputs.

Post Doc Yandisa Ngqangashe from the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) and from the Transkei spoke about Regulatory Governance of Food Environment Policies and their Implications on Policy Outcomes, giving the example of how transiting from traditional foods to heavily processed food was causing obesity and cardio vascular disease, especially among women in low income areas in South Africa.

Jonathan Chikankheni, a Master of Environment student, provided more information about the irrigation research project, noting in particular that much attention had been paid in the past to construction and far less on operational and management issues – being the major reason for failure of such projects.

The next two speakers were PhD students focussed on different aspects of the subject of water. Anthropologist Kirsty Wissing spoke about the significance of human control over water, or the lack there-of, providing a mundane, everyday example of where water streamlining in through the broken roof of a mini-bus inundated passengers, including herself – appropriately illustrating how ‘unruly water undermines human authority’. More seriously, she spoke about Ghana’s Lake Volta and the enormous social disturbance its construction for power creation had caused, further illustrating how efforts to control water in human lives can have unintended consequences.

Fenner PhD student, Adegboyega Adeniran, spoke about the proposed TransAqua Interbasin water transfer project. This exercise plans to move some 5% of the flow from the Congo River to the almost empty Lake Chad, upon which some 40 million people rely on for fishing and agriculture. He also mentioned the issue of illegal water use I the region which may have contributed to Lake Chad’s situation.

Dr Bruce Doran, Senior Lecturer in Geographical Information Systems at Fenner, spoke about the use of remote sensing to monitor changes in farming practices in a small irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe. Dr Tingbao Xu, a senior researcher at the Fenner School and Climate Change Institute, wrapped up the speaker sessions by emphasising the importance of training people in data collection techniques to enable better understanding and address climate change. He noted that long term data was most valuable and that some very useful software packages had been produced by ANU.

The role of inter-disciplinary understanding was crucial in all of these projects, where science needed to be tempered and informed with socio/cultural/political understanding for interventions to be effective in addressing the impact of Climate Change.

Two round table sessions were included in the programme, allowing for enthusiastic discussion of the various issues raised by the speakers. There was also much networking during the breaks, including with participants from outside the Fenner School, with the commonality being Africa, a continent at great risk from the effects of Climate Change.

The day successfully fostered interdisciplinary discussions and brought together a wide array of researchers, and received a lot of great feedback. The event organisers are looking to follow up and grow the project with another event later in the year, and are grateful to the Fenner School for the support.