Establishing a More Meaningful Approach to Field Research in Global Communities

Any Western researcher who had conducted field studies overseas is likely familiar with the terms “parachute science” or “colonial science.” Both terms being interchangeable, they are defined as researchers coming into communities to conduct their work without appropriately acknowledging the importance of local expertise.

UBC Faculty of Forestry PhD candidate Alida O’Connor, who joined the Faculty in 2019, wanted to ensure any international fieldwork she conducted would incorporate a more meaningful approach with equitable collaborations integrated into every step in the process.

“It’s always been my goal to work in research settings where we were truly collaborating with scientists and people who live in the landscapes we are studying. My international fieldwork, which is focused on understanding the relationship between land-use priorities, decision-making power and collaborative natural resource management, has allowed me to do just that.”

Working in Zambia

In spring 2022 O’Connor journeyed to the Kalomo District in southern Zambia, also known as the breadbasket district, where she spent three months with a local team who helped her with Tonga translations, co-developing research questions, identifying study sites and so much more.

Her work is part of a joint initiative with UBC Forestry, Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and CIFOR’s large-scale project – Collaborating to Operationalise Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS). O’Connor’s supervisor, UBC Forestry’s Dr. Terry Sunderland who leads the Faculty’s Sunderland Lab and is a senior associate with CIFOR, coordinated the connection.

During her visit, O’Connor and her field assistant Emeldah Mwenda conducted many in-the-field key informant interviews and discussion groups with community members, traditional leaders and government representatives. She learned from communities about challenges with everything from a decline in soil fertility to food security.

What O’Connor was learning from Zambians in return was their innovative approaches to managing their landscapes.

Researchers and members of local communities in Zambia discussing land management practices

Southern Africa’s Innovative Approach to Natural Resource Management

“I’ve always been very interested in Southern Africa. The history with colonialism, for one, and the fact these countries are at the forefront of reclaiming their land and adapting to a changing climate through the management of their natural resources. They have a lot of interesting and innovative programs. I believe Canada could learn a lot.”

Despite working long days that sometimes involved travel, challenging primary data analysis and many hours of observation, O’Connor says it all seemed to happen quickly. She believes that was likely because the group was so grateful to have the opportunity to work in-person once more.

“It truly was a whirlwind. It was so nice to be able to get to the field after two years of COVID-19 pandemic-driven, desk-based work from Vancouver. Those in-person talks quickly became dynamic conversations that tend to happen naturally when you’re not forced to conduct it all virtually.”

Like most graduate students, O’Connor will continue to transcribe the dozens of hours of research data she collected while away overseas. While undertaking this in-depth analysis of the hours of data collected, she will also plan for her next field study – this time in Ghana.

“I look forward to continuing fieldwork early next year when I will be travelling to Ghana’s Northern Region.”

To learn more about O’Connor’s most recent research experience, read her blog here.

About Alida O’Connor

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.

Alida O'Connor

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