Last week we announced the winners of the Capturing Ecology annual BES photography competition. Category 4 of the competition, now named the ‘People and Nature’ category had some exceptional images submitted, and the winner and student winner showcase the profound power of visual storytelling to represent the links between people and nature.
Here we caught up with student winner of the People and Nature Category, Lydia Gibson about her winning image, ‘Birds of a feather’.
Bird hunting is part of rural Caribbean culture and a mechanism through which other associated forest lore and tradition – such as wayfinding and plant knowledge that can improve conservation science – are maintained. This photograph, taken in a newly designated protected area, captures the complex biological and cultural considerations of hunting threatened parrots.
How did you find out about this hunting practice?
I have to be deliberately vague here, as these species are protected under national law thus making this practice illegal (though, due to the nature of this community, this is a very grey area). My doctoral research looks at the production of knowledge in conservation spaces within Jamaica, how these different epistemic forms interact, and their influence on the identity and social relations between those who produce it. In particular, I compare the production, reproduction, and use of indigenous knowledge with how data within conservation science is collected, analysed, transformed and valued. I consider circulation of these knowledge forms under the particular lens of parrot conservation in the Caribbean, where the parrots are often flagship species within very localised and fairly recent terrestrial conservation efforts. They are also a useful lens as human-parrot relations in the wider Latin American and Caribbean region are often centuries-old and are often supported by intricate ritualistic or cosmological systems.
Initially, however, my research began as an attempt to understand the impact of terrestrial conservation of a forest (designated to become a protected area) on a particular rural community. It is widely believed that no forest-based traditions or customary practices remain as the community is becoming increasingly exposed to modernisation. In trying to understand the relationship these villagers and the wider rural area had with the forest, I learned about the hunting practice. Though there have been many African/Diasporic/Cultural Studies researchers that have worked with communities in this area, there has been no research conducted on their use of the environment and how this impacts their current performance of identity and culture. After spending some months in the village, explaining that my interest is with their relationship with the forest, and convincing them that I came to learn and understand rather than evaluate and intervene, these practices, that would otherwise remain clandestine, were eventually described to me. I was the first woman to ever accompany the hunters on a hunt – next summer will be my third year accompanying this particular group on a hunt.
Why is it important this image is showcased?
Images like these highlight the social, political, and cultural dimensions of local resource use that are at odds with western conservation priorities – in this case, “poaching”. Whether they are unsustainable or simply undesirable to Western ecologists, it is important to understand the traditions that informs it, the culture that depends on it, and specific, highly specialised, and contextual forms of knowledge encoded in it – some of which can improve conservation science. In the case of parrot hunting, this is one of the few practices this community has retained that requires other specialist skills, such as wayfinding, plant knowledge, an understanding of animal behaviour, and knowledge of the effects of particular weather and environmental conditions. These skills can inform biodiversity surveys, can help us better assess the impact of climate change, are crucial for effective ecosystem management. Visual representations of the human dimensions behind the kinds of actions we admonish serve as a helpful reminder of the complex nature of ecosystems and forces us to consider solutions beyond the sweeping generalisations that can start to form in conservation science.
How does the image relate to People and Nature?
In regards to the subject matter, I have answered this in the previous question. However, I think this image also has methodological implications that relate to People and Nature’s core focus. In a recent article in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the author accused ecologists of “losing their way”; the quantification of the field of ecology to legitimise it as a science has led to the loss of some of the more observational techniques of our predecessors (Darwin being one of the most famous examples). In being objective with our outcomes, we have subjected the communities to whom it applies to moral judgements that makes learning of these practices more difficult. This negatively impacts our understanding of the environment and the factors to which it is subjected. This is why a journal such as People and Nature, that creates a space for more observational analysis while maintaining the level of rigour that encourages increasing numbers of scientists to include these approaches of relationality, is so needed.
Find Lydia on twitter @personwatcher