By Alida O’Connor
I pull three wooden chairs into a patch of shade under a mopane tree. One for me, one for my research assistant Emeldah, and one for the interview participant I will be meeting on this sunny morning. We’re sitting outside of the home of the headwoman in Siankwembo Village in Siachitema Chiefdom, one of three Chiefdoms that make up Kalomo District in Zambia’s Southern Province.
The headwoman has welcomed us to her community, one of the oldest known villages in the district, to conduct interviews and focus group discussions with community members. I’m here to ask people questions about their land-use priorities, who makes decisions about natural resource management, and their experiences working with other stakeholders in the landscape.
All of my questions and their responses will feed into the broader objectives of the Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) initiative, which aims to understand the opportunities and constraints of integrated landscape approaches (ILAs) in practice.
This matters, because ILAs aim to bring together a variety of stakeholders from different sectors and scales so they can try to negotiate synergies and trade-offs for more sustainable and equitable land management. The hope is that improved collaboration might better address interconnected challenges, like food insecurity and deforestation. The concept is well-known in the academic literature, but there is little evidence supporting its effectiveness and diverse stakeholder experiences in the real world.
It had been clear to me where my research questions fit into the academic literature. However, after two years of COVID-19 pandemic-driven, desk-based work in Vancouver, I became less certain about how these questions would translate into conversations on the ground.
Fortunately, I have had the benefit of being part of the COLANDS initiative with local teams in three countries – including Zambia. This has allowed me to hear from colleagues in-country and discuss research questions and approaches via Zoom while travel remained restricted. Still, these conversations can’t replace spending time in a place and meeting with the people who live there.
Kalomo District is known as the breadbasket of Zambia, with livelihoods deeply rooted in maize and cattle production. To begin to understand landscape dynamics, I would need to talk to men and women, youth and elders who work as farmers, grow gardens, mold bricks and find other piecework to support their daily needs.
After going through my interview questions with Emeldah to figure out translations from English to Tonga, it was time to try them out and listen to what people in Kalomo District were willing to share. Interview by interview, my uncertainties about my research questions began to melt away as people shared their stories.
Community members spoke of changing weather patterns leading to unpredictable harvests and the need for fertile soil and dependable water sources. People explained why they choose to follow some rules and break others. For many, it depended on the level of respect they held for whoever made the rules. For others, following the rules depended on whether that affected access to familiar markets (i.e., charcoal production) and an opportunity to earn quick cash in times of need.
Depending on whom I was interviewing, some questions were more relevant to certain groups than others. This helped me learn about the differences – and similarities – across stakeholders, be they men, women, youth, elders, traditional leaders, government departments or NGOs.
Government representatives in Kalomo town talked about the challenges of conflicting policies and managing a landscape ruled by both state and customary law. They shared examples of departments coming together with traditional leaders, community members and NGOs to recover from recent floods that damaged fields and homes. They also described some of the challenges to working together that were caused by transportation problems preventing people from physically coming together; or contradictory mandates from various agencies or departments that created divisions.
Harmonizing policies to align with a clearly defined and sustainable management plan were among solutions suggested by participants. Ward councillors were perceived to be an important and under-used link between village committees and district departments. Everyone emphasized the importance of clear communication and a shared objective.
The three months that I spent in Kalomo District meeting people and talking with them in person was an invaluable learning experience that I hope to feed back into the science and policies that are shaping landscape management. I look forward to continuing fieldwork early next year, this time in Ghana’s Northern Region.
Every community is unique, making landscapes a complex mosaic of cultures, social norms and land uses. I will be curious to see if the landscape I will visit in Ghana shares any similarities to Kalomo and how learning from these two places can close the gap between theory and practice.
Alida O’Connor is a PhD candidate based at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in Vancouver, Canada. Alida’s work explores the social dimensions of conservation through topics such as community-based conservation, local perceptions and values, and integrated landscape approaches. She holds a Master’s degree in Resources, Environment, and Sustainability from the University of British Columbia and a combined Bachelor’s in International Development and Environmental Sustainability from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Her current research contributes to the COLANDS project.