The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 1 : January – April 1996 [Research]
The University of Wisconsin at Madison, Thailand’s Chiang Mai University, and the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming, China, have initiated a three-way project to study watersheds in an area known as the “rooftop of Southeast Asia.” The region, located between the Yunnan province of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and North Vietnam, contains the headwaters of six major rivers that flow through five countries and impact the lives of some 500 million people. The cooperative initiative will span not only national and organizational boundaries, but also academic disciplines.
The project, known as Sustainable Management in Upland Tropical Ecosystems (SAMUTE), received official sanction from the heads of the three universities in a January 1995 agreement. Under its umbrella, about a dozen natural scientists and social scientists from Wisconsin will collaborate with a similar number of colleagues from Chiang Mai and about 25 from Yunnan to study issues ranging from hillside agriculture to social forestry to gender issues.
The core of the program is a small watershed management project, scheduled to unfold in three phases over ten years. The first phase incorporated problem identification and team building. Now the teams are designing integrated research projects for the specific basins that will eventually be incorporated into local and regional policy, education and training. Each university will contribute according to its strengths. The Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences (YASS) will take the lead and provide a local base for a collaborative SAMUTE Center. Chiang Mai University (CMU) will provide expertise in community-level natural resource management and conflict resolution in northern Thailand, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UWM) will draw on its large pool of specialists in a variety of relevant fields. It will also provide supplies, computer time, and training at the master’s and doctoral levels.
On a recent visit to CMU and YASS, and interdisciplinary group of Wisconsin faculty members me their counterparts and visited potential research sites. They conducted natural resource inventories and land-use inventories, and talked to people about what they had done and what they would like to do in the watershed.
“This kind of international exchange forces us to look at things anew and bring back important ideas to the U.S.,” says Dr. J Lin Compton, a professor of continuing and vocational education at Wisconsin who was instrumental in creating SAMUTE. “It gets us out of ‘mental sclerosis,’ allowing academics from dozens of disciplines to come together to help people fight for their survival.”
Compton believes in the bottom-up approach to research formulation and implementation. “Traditionally, scientists generate knowledge, educators disseminate the information, and farmers apply it,” he explains. “But that paradigm is falling apart because we’re not incorporating the most important element: what villagers and farmers already know about their land, and how they want to use their land.”
The SAMUTE project has a strong foundation of inter-university collaboration on which to build. Compton and Dr. Uravian Tan-Kim-Yong, Compton’s former student and a senior member of the Faculty of Social Science at CMU, have been conducting research together on the natural resource management practices of the Karen and Akha hill tribes. The project grew out of Compton’s 1994 visit to Chiang Mai to evaluate a social forestry project that Tan-Kim-Yong was conducting. Compton arranged for YASS and CMU faculty members to visit Wisconsin, and within months, he helped launch SAMUTE.
The researchers hop their work will set a precedent. “This means an efforts to work with a new institutional model of North and South cooperation in research and development with a direct linkage to the global agenda on biodiversity loss, climate change, projected and world food deficit, and continuing trends in population increase and poverty,” Tan-Kim-Yong says. “The SAMUTE is one alternative model which has key components in the institutional development and strengthening and action research for problem-solving for Southwest China and Southeast Asia.”
Links between CMU and YASS are also well established. There were more than eight exchange programs and study trips between the two countries from 1989 to 1994, and the two institutions have worked together to plan and implement multidisciplinary and multicultural teamwork in the Upper Yangtze watershed and the Ailao Mountain ecoregion in Yunnan Province.
“Through previous cooperation, we [faculty from CMU, UWM and YASS] think we can understand and trust each other, and we have common interests in the region,” said Professor Zhao Junchen, director of the Institute of Rural Economy (IRE) at Yunnan.
By framing their research in terms of an entire landscape, the project’s planners not only demanded a diverse team of experts, but they also planted the seeds of the group’s cohesion. Dr. Tom Yuill, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at UWM, said the visit to Yunnan made this dynamic explicit.
“When you’re standing out there and talking to local people about their problems and what they want to do, and you can see some of the problems, it’s very clear that one has to have an interdisciplinary team approach. One individual certainly can’t cover the range needed to provide a holistic approach to this project,” he said. “One just really is absolutely compelled to work interdisciplinarily. We came together very easily with our counterparts on that basis in the field.”
Collaborating across two continents, three countries, and many disciplines presents a number of challenges-mostly logistical, but also conceptual.
Robert Ray, a Wisconsin professor who studies tourism and development, said bringing together the resources of the three universities creates a powerful force for learning.
“It fits well, but there is a whole bunch of stuff that people have to get through. We have three languages, three universities, three cultures,” says Ray. “It’s always an interested ferment, because we all say the same thing, but mean different things. It’s a learning process for the team, for instance, to learn something about the flora and fauna of a particular area, but unless I know how it influences the local people, my understanding is not complete.”
Zhao said one challenge facing the project is the difficulty of communication in many forms. First is the problem of language. Some of the IRE staff cannot speak English and have to rely on translators, and there is another language barrier between researchers and local people. Secondly, communication among scientists from different disciplines poses problems. Finally, he said, communication facilities are inadequate. The IRE does not have email yet, and faxing is too expensive, and mail is too slow.
The SAMUTE project is now in the stage of drawing up specific proposals and seeking funding. The researchers chose to focus on small watersheds because they provide a scale small enough to understand relationships between human and natural ecology and large enough to incorporate a significant degree of diversity. They will study the Yangtze River, because YASS is already working there; the Red River, because it provides an opportunity to promote collaborative efforts between China and Vietnam; and the Mekong River because development projects in the area are causing rapid land-use changes.
In their search for funding, SAMUTE participants have run into the common academic problem of needing to emphasize different aspects for different potential donors.
“It’s the white suit principle,” Yuill said. “You go out and buy a white suit. If you need a green suit, you turn on a green light, a blue suit you turn on a blue light. So we’ve got the white suit-it’s watershed management, it’s got a little policy focus, but it’s mostly grassroots. Now, as we look around at potential funding sources, we see that some organizations are more interested at the policy level, interested in training. You take the base, and it lends itself perfectly well to a training program, for example for our counterparts or officials at the local level. We can take what we have and begin to shape it without doing damage to it and without being dishonest.”
Changing political winds also influence funding decisions. For example, Wisconsin has applied for an inter-institutional linkage grant through the United States Information Agency, but some members of the U.S. Congress have proposed eliminating that agency altogether.
“The key to making them [projects] work is people who know and like and trust each other at each end and maintain good communication,” Yuill said. “If you don’t have that, it’s just not going to work, that’s just part of the reality. You have to be able to move people and things around, and then you need money, and so one needs to have reasonable expectation that what one is interested in is really fundable.”
Among SAMUTE’s overarching objectives is the promotion of environmental literacy. The ULSF Secretariat is working with the project to establish a Southeast Asian Environmental Literacy Institute. “Environmental literacy is an essential ingredient in the long-term impact of SAMUTE,” notes Compton, who participated in the 1994 Environmental Literacy Institute faculty development workshop. “We want to make use of the scientific analysis of our upland ecosystem work to create environmental leadership programs for educators, government officials, industry representatives, field workers, and NGOs from throughout the region.”
SAMUTE’s interdisciplinary approach fits the principles of the Talloires Declaration and the existing curricula at UWM. Wisconsin Chancellor David Ward is a charger signatory to the Declaration, CMU is a recent ULSF signatory institution as YASS plans to sign on to the document as well. “I view the SAMUTE project as an important initiative that is bringing together natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities in a holistic approach to scholarly research, instruction, and application to the solution of real world problems,” says Ward.