The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 3 : September – December 1996 [Research]
Most academic structures and tenure systems encourage faculty individualism and perpetuate disciplinary borders. Students often shun the perceived hassle of group projects, preferring the ease of working alone. Nonetheless, over the past two years, 62 professors and 100 students from five Brazilian universities conducted collaborative research to help preserve the ecological integrity of the Pantanal wetlands and ensure the socio-economic wellbeing of the region.
The project, officially titled the Conservation Plan for the Paraguay River Basin, focused on the Brazilian area of the Pantanal and was implemented through 17 interdisciplinary teams. What was the key to success in crossing disciplinary boundaries? “Shared ownership and pursuit of a common goal is essential,” says Dr. Clovis Miranda, coordinator of the project. Miranda, a professor and senior advisor to the rector at Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso in Cuiabá, points out that the serious threats to the Pantanal region brought individuals together to collaborate for an important cause. “The viability of this ecosystem is of critical significance not only regionally, but also globally,” he emphasizes.
An holistic perspective
The Pantanal-bordering southwest Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia-is the world’s largest remaining wetland. The area covers more than 106,000 square kilometers and is rich in biodiversity. It is estimated to contain more than 150,000 species of birds, plants, and animals, many unique to the region. The ecosystem is threatened by poor planning, large transportation and development projects, agricultural expansion, municipal pollution, unmanaged tourism, and marginalization of local communities.
The total project research area is 396,000 square km, which includes the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, and covers both the Pantanal wetlands and surrounding watershed uplands. The project objectives were to organize existing information on the Pantanal region, research and produce new technical and scientific data on sub-ecosystems and communities in the area, and develop recommendations to support both large-scale and community-based sustainable development and environmental conservation.
Though first proposed by the Brazilian environmentalist movement in 1989, it took several years for such a comprehensive research project to be approved. The Ministry of the Environment gave the green light to proceed with the first phase in 1992. Funding was secured from the World Bank through the Brazilian National Program for the Environment in 1993, and the program was officially launched the following year.
“Our target goal is to preserve the Pantanal wetlands. To accomplish this we need to look at the region as a whole,” says Miranda. “We cannot do successful conservation work if we are not addressing the socio-economic as well as the bio-physical issues involved. That means involving local people in the process,” he explains. “Being inclusive is a requirement for holistic change.”
Focusing on the micro scale, local institutions
The project began with a study of landuse. “We felt it was important to research the land on a micro scale to truly understand its use from both a socio-economic and bio-physical perspective. In addition, we looked at institutional and infrastructure issues. This allowed us to make targeted recommendations for distinct areas,” explained Miranda. “We wanted to avoid sweeping strategies that might neglect the specific needs of some communities and smaller ecosystems.”
To achieve a micro perspective, Miranda and colleagues mapped the study area on a 1 cm-2.5 km scale and identified 45 “zones” to evaluate. Assessment of socio-economic issues within the zones was comprehensive, covering demographics, education, health and sanitation, housing, labor and employment, land tenure systems, tourism, indigenous groups, etc. The bio-physical assessment included geology, geomorphology, climate, soils and vegetation, wildlife, hydrology, water quality and water systems.
Researchers also surveyed local institutions within each of the zones to assess perceived roles, current activities, and sense of responsibility in community development and conservation efforts. Institutions included government and non-governmental organizations, businesses, the media, tourist associations, unions, social clubs, judicial units, religious groups, etc. “We need to bring local institutions to the table to facilitate change,” says Miranda. “It is important to go through this process before bringing in groups from outside the region or from abroad.”
A team approach
Five universities joined forces to implement the project. These were: Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso (UFMT) in Cuiabá, MT; Universidade Federal de Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS), in Campo Grande, MS; Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, RS; Universidade de São Paulo, (USP) in São Paulo, SP; and Universidade de Cuiabá (UNIC) in Cuiabá, MT.
These were joined by federal and regional government entities including: the Ministry of the Environment, the Brazilian Corporation for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA) a national government institution with a unit in the Pantanal, the National Soil Service, the Brazilian Institute of Geography, and the Department of the Environment of the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. In addition, the researches interacted with the municipal governments of the 81 towns in the study area.
As a first step, a project steering committee was set up, comprised of one representative from each of the participating universities and the federal/regional government agencies. This group met every three months and on an ad hoc basis as needed. Facilitation responsibilities were rotated among committee members to ensure equal participation.
Next, the interdisciplinary research teams were established. Faculty were recruited across disciplines from the five participating universities. They were asked to present individual research proposals to indicate their interests, area of expertise, and the regional concerns they wished to address. These were matched to proposals from faculty in other disciplines at the same institution, then combined and revised into interdisciplinary team research projects which included the necessary socio-economic and bio-physical analysis of the established zones. The 17 teams met together on a monthly basis to report findings, discuss schedules, address challenges, and share resources.
The people-preservation connection
Phase I of the project was completed in June 1996. The primary outcomes of the first phase of the research initiative are planning and policy guidelines for environmentally sustainable development. Recommendations include a check list of strategies to utilize in initiatives that promote active change and involve local citizens. Miranda and his colleagues are currently holding public meetings to present their findings and provide fora for the community and local government to offer input as they move to the implementation phase.
“We didn’t want to develop actual policies,” explains Miranda. “Our goal was to provide recommendations to support politicians and local citizens to join in creating sound policies
that protect the Pantanal wetlands and the viability of the surrounding communities. It’s important that the politicians have policy input and that community members are involved in project development in order for these recommendations to be implemented and maintained.”
Miranda admits this can be a challenge. “We’ve found [in meetings] that sometimes the comprehension isn’t there and people may be shy to ask for clarification or offer input. Sometimes it’s the case that people are angry, or there is apathy among local citizens and low attendance.
Yet, it is critical to build coalitions and we have to spend the time to do this via meetings and by messages conveyed through respected community leaders. It’s important to establish connections-there needs to be trust. If the community is ignored or taken advantage of to justify what researchers, policymakers, or developers want to do there could be problems in the future,” Miranda cautions.
He also emphasizes educational outreach. “Experiential environmental education is key. We can’t hope to preserve the Pantanal if people don’t make the link between individual and collective actions and resulting outcomes,” stresses Miranda.
The next phase in the Pantanal preservation project is to execute recommendations and establish the new policies. The Inter-America Development Bank has indicated willingness to finance some portions of the implementation phase with supplemental government and private support.
To date, three large undertakings addressing both infrastructure and ecological impact have been proposed for the implementation phase. The first is a road improvement and zoning project which will include environmental easements along a 400 km stretch of highway designed to enhance transportation and trade while protecting the area from destructive development.
The second is a water and sewage treatment program designed around small watersheds as opposed to a municipal basis. “This is one of the most serious problems for the wetlands,” says Miranda. “Water and sewage treatment is not adequate in any of the 81 towns in the region. In fact, 98 percent of the communities have no sewage treatment facilities whatsoever.”
The third, which has already been launched with private funding, addresses sustainable agriculture and cattle ranching in the region. A 150,000 acre farm located in the Pantanal has been selected as a test site to implement and monitor sustainable practices. The effort is being conducted in collaboration with the private farm owners. Consistent with researchers recommendations, a local non-governmental organization has been hired to manage the project. Twelve professors and 14 students at the UFMT are providing technical assistance including an initial environmental impact assessment, development and implementation of alternative systems, ongoing monitoring, and evaluation.
Sustaining interdisciplinary efforts
The impetus to launch the Pantanal research project came out of the Talloires Declaration explains Miranda, one of the authors of the document at the 1990 Talloires conference. UFMT is one of the 22 original Talloires signatory institutions.
“The concern and focus were already there, the Talloires Declaration provided the rallying point for UFMT to initiate the interdisciplinary effort,” notes Miranda. “It serves as the flag around which ULSF members can mobilize forces for a common mission. The connection to other institutions through membership in ULSF provides mutual support.”
Links must also be forged within the university between divisions and departments in order to sustain such interdisciplinary initiatives, counsels Miranda. It strengthens the institution in the long run and can make it more efficient and effective through pooled knowledge and shared resources. The Pantanal project proved this. As professors from different departments worked together they began sharing information about their research and found that they had both data and equipment that were mutually beneficial to a number of projects. As a result, several joint papers have been published and relationships were formed that foster team-teaching. In addition, Pantanal case studies will be used in courses across the disciplines.
When asked to share lessons from his experience, Miranda offered these recommendations for success in interdisciplinary initiatives: “Priority #1 is seeking to define problems and evaluate results holistically, outside of narrow disciplinary perspectives, while using the available disciplinary tools to find solutions. To support such a paradigm shift,” he continues, “universities must strive to revise tenure and other systems that perpetuate individualism and boundaries, and allow time for faculty to focus on interdisciplinary work.”
Such changes aren’t quick or easy. “It takes lots of planning, patience, and perseverance,” says Miranda with a knowing smile, “but the stakes are high. Achieving sustainability is worth it.”