Eleanor Robson - Honours Research in South America

I’ve been fascinated by the way that people think about the environment and balance it with other needs, and how this translates to social, political and economic choices.

I grew up in a farming town in Western NSW, where the norm was to assume greenies were out of touch urbanites who didn’t understand the pressure that hard work and life put on people in the ‘real world’. Being raised in one of the few lefty families out there, I was always completely dumbfounded about why people would think that the environment is anything less than a top priority.

In 2015, after graduating from my undergraduate degrees at ANU in Science (Geography) and Arts (International Relations), I did an internship overseas. It was organised through the Society for Urban Ecology and I was placed in an environmental consultancy in Bogota, Colombia, South America. I looked into the relationship between the city of Bogota and a range of nearby Hills and focused particularly on why successful implementation of government conservation policies was so problematic.

There are many overlapping and interwoven socio-economic, demographic, cultural and governance problems that make conservation of the Hills elusive. The social aspects of complexity particularly took my interest, and I recognised that there had been very little consultation and inclusion of citizens, stakeholders and vulnerable people in the planning and governance measures taken over the previous decades. Without understanding how different values systems synergise or clash, governance bodies are partially blind to how effectively their policies and plans will be adopted.

I returned to ANU in 2016 to start my Honours thesis at the Fenner School on the way that Bogota citizens value the Eastern Hills of Bogota, and whether citizens’ values changed according to their experience of life. This involved returning to Bogota for 3 months of field work, surveying people around the city with a team of volunteers. When asked to rank different benefits provided by the Hills, I found that citizens overwhelmingly value ecological services like water, air and climate regulation, habitat, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. In conversations with locals, emotive values like a sense of place, symbolism and urban green space arose.

I absolutely loved my Honours year.  I developed a broad range of skills that are have proven invaluable. Some of these were practical, like street surveying, coordinating volunteers and going through getting an ethics protocol approved. Others were life skills, like having the confidence to improvise, believing in my abilities in the face of uncertainty and trusting my judgement to shape my research when advice differed. 

Nowadays I work for a Federal politician, connecting them with people in the electorate in effective and creative ways. I also work at a consultancy that provides advice in many areas including climate change and rural development, and which focuses on applying academic research in a meaningful way. The longer I go on, the more I enjoy working in the bridge between theory and practice and in looking at the intersection of different level of knowledge and disciplines. In 2017 I will be beginning my Masters in International Urban and Environmental Management at RMIT. I’m not sure what my dream career is, but that’s a freedom in itself.