May 17, 2011 – Kathleen Alexander, associate professor of wildlife, admits that she was idealistic about sustainability when she first entered her field. “I wanted to save wild- life,” she recalled, “but I was focused on conservation without including local communities in the process.” All that changed in 2001 when Alexander began study- ing sustainable community-based wetlands management in northern Botswana. The project focused on actively engaging local communities as stakeholders in the research, something that Alexander had not fully done before. “It was hard,” she admitted, “because at first the communities didn’t understand who we were, what we were doing, or why we wanted to do it. We initially spent more time dealing with the stakeholders than with the research, but laying that foundation allowed us to address the sustainability issues in a much more meaningful way.”
In all our initiatives we stand behind the communities, not in front of them.
Though the process was difficult, it taught Alexander that practical answers to sustainability problems are only possible when researchers treat communities as partners. The experience set Alexander on a new mission — to help disenfranchised residents identify their own sustainability problems and solutions. Alexander’s methods, including participatory geographic information systems (GIS) in which residents map their own wildlife conflicts, address what she defines as “the crux of sustainability.” “Outsiders have always told these communities how to address wildlife conflict,” she explained, “but for sustainability initiatives to be effective, the people who own the problem also have to own the solution.”
To fund her initiatives, Alexander builds sustainability components into grants she receives for other types of research and includes a sustainability service requirement for graduate students in her program. Over the years, Alexander — in partnership with the Center for Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use in Botswana (www.caracal.info) — has built a tiered program to address the country’s sustainability issues in age- appropriate ways. A children’s conservation club teaches 270 local children to see the beauty and value of their region’s natural resources and to imagine the diverse economic opportunities that these resources provide. A youth program allows young adults who have graduated high school but haven’t attended college to work alongside Alexander’s graduate students in her field research projects, developing skills and a passion for science. A community-run craft center, for which Alexander has secured funding and is now building, will address vulnerable adults’ economic needs by teaching them how to make and sell crafts within the area’s strong tourism industry.
“In all our initiatives,” emphasized Alexander, “we stand behind the communities, not in front of them.” This attitude of facilitating community decision making rather than dictating it has earned Alexander the trust of the communities she works with. “Sustainability is about balancing the needs of humans and ecosystems to meet both in an equitable and socially justified way,” she added. “My biggest accomplishment so far is that the communities know that I’m trying to serve them and not myself.”