By Peter Bridgewater (University of Canberra), Associate Editor for People and Nature.

Read the full paper here and the Plain Language Summary here.

A new paper accepted for People and Nature (PaN) is on stakeholder perspectives on nature, people, and sustainability at Mount Kilimanjaro. Although not in the title, the paper is amongst the first attempts to use the ipbes conceptual framework (hereafter CF) as an organising framework for a particular study. The paper “puts its money where its mouth is” by including an abstract in Swahili. I think this is a first for PaN and as the paper deals with local communities and their intersections with nature, it is a very welcome development.

Designed at a participatory workshop in 2013, the CF remains a work in progress. In line with ipbes work in general, the CF brings together the worldviews of western science, indigenous and local community science, and plain language rendition of those worldviews. For example, in the CF ecosystem goods and services are also described as nature’s gifts and benefits (now contributions) to people. It is fair to say that not everyone shares an enthusiasm for this CF. As an aside, the same is true for the nature’s contributions to people paradigm, which emerged through the development of ipbes assessments, rather than through the process of critical scientific testing and evaluation. So, a paper testing how the CF is useful for a participatory local assessment is timely and very welcome.

The authors start from the premise that sustainability, to be effective, must be based on an array of stakeholder perspectives, informed by as wide a range of knowledges as possible. Mt Kilimanjaro, a significant area in Tanzania ranging from lowland ecosystems to Africa’s highest montane ecosystems, was to be the test area. Several sectors of the region’s economy were included in the assessment: local communities; home gardens; forestry; nature conservation; and tourism.

The major analysis tool developed by the authors, with the CF as a frame, was a participatory workshop, gathering information on status and trends in biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as trying to assess the key drivers of change. The workshop had five groups: local communities, including farmers; researchers and scientists; nature conservation professionals; forestry; agriculture; and water management professionals; and other professionals (mostly the economically important tourism sector).

The authors used questionnaires with open questions to feed into the workshop discussions. These discussions focused on five levels of governance and action:  household; community; regional; national; and international. While the primary language used in materials and workshops was English, materials were also available in Swahili, with Swahili also used in discussions.

Amongst respondents, there was substantial variation in the naming of habitats. Some participants organized habitats into highlands, midlands, and lowlands, whereas others used a higher level of detail, making distinctions between land-use and land-cover (e.g., Chagga home gardens, natural springs, coffee plantations etc). The authors attempted to “debabalise” this by standardising habitats to seven categories—Alpine, Forest, Agroforestry, Cropland, Urban, Freshwater, and Grassland.

Unsurprisingly (but disappointingly) all stakeholders, whatever background, agreed that the ecosystems of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the services they supply, are in decline. The direct drivers are also depressingly clear — land use and climate change, but interestingly participants acknowledged human population growth as a key indirect driver of negative change. The assessment had a consensus that a “happy future for Kilimanjaro depends on water security, a thriving economy and employment,” as well as other factors, all illustrated in an excellent and colourful illustration demonstrating the choices the communities saw in terms of the SDGs. Interestingly, the results also showed that fewer stakeholder groups saw biodiversity, sustainable infrastructure, and culture as important to a sustainable future. This is a most interesting finding that needs re-testing or testing in other socio-ecological systems.

The authors conclude that the ipbes CF enabled the effective collection and comparison of nuanced information from diverse participants and was an important starting point for developing shared visions and strategies for a sustainable future. In particular, the CF served well to understand perceptions of the relationship between people and the rest of nature as well the actual relationship. A problem remains in the use of specific terminologies and concepts, such as ecosystem services, as this undermines the achievement of shared understandings between stakeholders with different perceptions of nature (all amplified by the language barrier). As an example, depending on the language, the word ‘Nature’ can implicitly include humans, exclude humans, or be spiritual, as is the case in the Swahili term ‘Asili.’

While English remains the language of western science, numerous languages (sadly depleting as we start the International Decade of Indigenous Languages) form the cultural and communication medium for indigenous and local science. So, the cultural and emotional experiences behind “experiential knowledge” and “value-based knowledge” remain inherent to people’s vocabulary and perceptions. Especially true is that the language of western science can alienate non-scientific participants. In truth, participatory approaches are about telling stories, and listening to that telling.

In the end the authors propose the ipbes CF can mobilise non-academic knowledge about the relationship between people and the rest of nature. Undoubtedly, future applications of the CF will show its potential in eliciting stakeholder perceptions and mobilizing the non-academic knowledge the world needs for the co-design of pathways towards a sustainable future. And that will be an important impact outcome for people and the rest of nature, as well as taking ipbes beyond its current mundane success metrics.