In their own words: COLANDS and landscape collaboration during COVID-19

Ph.D. candidates put field work on hold
A woman sitting on a wall
Ph.D. candidate Malaika Yanou near her family home in northern Italy. CIFOR/Handout

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Family interruptions, poor Internet access, concern for contacts in the field and broad uncertainty — these are just a few of the challenges facing researchers working while under quarantine.

Team members from the Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) project are confined to home by the highly contagious, fast-spreading COVID-19 coronavirus, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020.

That has frozen their field work in Indonesia, Ghana and Zambia indefinitely.

Here, four team members share some of their thoughts:

Malaika Yanou, a Ph.D. candidate, is in quarantine with her family in Italy. Her field work is in Zambia.  

When the pandemic was declared, I was in Zambia conducting my fieldwork in Kalomo district in Southern Province. Domestic unrest meant that we were going to have to leave the area even before the pandemic.

The decision to leave Zambia was hard. Italy, where my family lives, was the European country most affected by the virus, and I had many doubts as to whether I should leave Zambia which, at the time, had only confirmed two cases. But, I returned to Italy and spent 14 days in self-isolation in Rome to avoid potentially putting my family at risk.

I soon found myself working at my old desk in my teenage bedroom. I discovered that changing the physical space around me also changed my habits and even my concentration levels. I have had to find a new order, inside and outside of myself, to be able to continue my work. Luckily, human beings are a very adaptable species and slowly, I could see that my new daily schedule was taking a new productive shape (my sports routine helped!)

Being at a desk all day has given me time to revise my methods – changes I can apply once I can get back into the field. I am acquiring more historical background, including more understanding of the Tonga people, which is the native community living in the study area.

Do not get me wrong, I miss being in the field, meeting with people and learning from them and hearing their stories. I miss the unpredictability of what could happen next, who I might meet and listen to, of the next problem to solve, and of course, of the next landscape to view.

I think about field assistants and people from communities in the Kalomo District and I wonder how they are copying with these difficult times. I am staying in touch; exchanging texts with a man from Zambia’s Traditional Affairs and Chiefs Department who loaned me his Tonga language book.

I am trying to learn to embrace this moment as a period of self reflection (my aspirations, projects to finalize, new ideas to apply), but it’s mainly the time for patience. Besides the luxury of time, I also have the luxury of colleagues with whom I can share worries and some laughs, even though they are far away. That also helps to keep up my motivation and not feel too badly when it seems like my brain is working as slowly as the passing of the days trapped inside!

For the COLANDS project life-cycle, this slow time is an opportunity to look at details that sometimes we do not have time to think about; to find other perspectives on what we’ve done and what we have doubted and worried over. This period is a precious trampoline for COLANDS, as people and insights develop and are enriched, to be tested once we are out of quarantine. Hopefully, we will keep with us our lessons learnt, just as a PhD thesis has its final pages.

Alida O’Connor, a Ph.D. candidate, is in quarantine in Vancouver, Canada

My own work has not yet been impacted because I am still in the early stages of my Ph.D. Therefore, I have desk-based work and my comprehensive examination to prepare before I do any fieldwork. That said, I realize the greater COLANDS project timeline and the ability to conduct fieldwork are seriously impacted by COVID-19.

My desk-based work includes developing content for chapters that are part of my contribution to a COLANDS project book that is being prepared. I am also applying for research grants, attempting to publish a paper from my master’s research, and working on my PhD research proposal.

If it takes a while to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it will be quite difficult to do fieldwork, especially social science work that requires spending time with people. Getting research ethics approved by my university will be challenging, and I would not feel comfortable doing any fieldwork if that were to put the health of a community at risk. And ultimately, the community needs to give its approval for the opportunity to do fieldwork to still be on the table.

In terms of the landscape approach, it might appear, on the surface, that research to find new management strategies should be a low priority right now, as many people are focused on their basic, immediate needs. But in reality, this is also a time when increased collaboration and ensuring access to the natural resources that people depend on would be extremely beneficial. The pandemic has shown how fragile some of our current systems are, and that there is a real need for resilience and adaptive capacity. And that makes landscape approaches more relevant than ever.

Augusta Anandi, a Ph.D. candidate, is in quarantine in Singapore. Her field work is in Indonesia’s Kalimantan province.

I have heard from all four villages where I conducted research, and from a government contact, in the district of Kapuas Hulu. The area is considered remote. The nearest health facilities are about 45 minutes from the villages by speed-boat or by motorbike or car. There is no stable telecommunication signal. To get updates from the field, I regularly send a text to my contacts, although I realize the replies will be slow — usually, a week or two weeks later.

The villages have applied their own versions of lockdown against the pandemic. This means that no one who isn’t a resident of a village can visit, including their relatives that work in Malaysia or study in the city of Pontianak, and residents cannot go outside their village or hamlet. Inside, residents can do activities as usual, such as tending nearby gardens or hunting and gathering in forests within village areas. However, they cannot go to markets, schools, or government offices in the busy, larger centers. COVID-19 has impacted their economy and has reduced their incomes because many rely on selling their harvests in the markets, buying household groceries such as rice and milk for personal use, or to sell back in their village. Now, they cannot do this.

In the center of Kapuas Hulu, in the district of Putusibau, 300 km from the sites where I was working, things have been reportedly returning to normal. Government offices and schools have loosened their activities, with work and study from home. But there are restrictions on gatherings, including prayers at religious centers such as churches, mosques and temples.

This will impact our COLAND operations and the landscape approach. The work includes some face-to-face coordination and communication with multi-stakeholder groups. Therefore, there may be more restrictions to working in the villages as access to reliable health facilities is not easy for anyone.

I am fortunate because I was able to go to the villages last year, before COVID-19, and gather some data. So, during the past three months of quarantine, I have used this period to analyze my field data, and I am focused now on writing. In fact, it actually fits into the Ph.D. plan I had made, so this period is a blessing in disguise in that I am working with minimal distraction.

My plan was to go back into the field for the second phase of research in mid-2020. However, I planned to use another method of data collection based on forums or group discussions, which won’t be possible now. So, the future is blurred. I cannot control or force anything or even assume that conditions will be better in three months’ time. Both the villagers and I are in the same fragile position, in terms of what we would do if we needed health care or medication. And I worry about what would happen if I went back to the villages and I accidentally harmed people by bringing in a virus.

Freddie Siangulube, a Ph.D. candidate, is quarantined with his family in Zambia, the country where he has been doing his field research.  

I am working from home in Kitwe, a city on Zambia’s Copperbelt located about 730 km away from my field study area. It’s quite a challenge to try to concentrate, owing to family, children and the occasional uninvited guests. I have limited access to Internet services most of the time. Usually, I work in the nights (between midnight and 3 a.m. when it’s quiet and cool.) My work schedule is not heavy as I do not yet have very much field data, but I do read a lot for my Ph.D. literature review. I am also developing two papers on social networks among stakeholders as well as a paper on stakeholder perceptions about the role of multi-stakeholder platforms in resolving local problems – particularly, between conservation and development.

I have occasionally been in touch with some stakeholders from the field (mainly my field guides) when I need extra information. I was delighted to receive phone calls from two community leaders I met in the field – the headman in Mudenda village, concerning grazing issues; and the headwoman in Siankwembo, concerning water problems. They just wanted to give me some feedback on issues related to local meetings they have held.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have lost a significant amount of time and I can see this affecting my Ph.D. trajectory. This means that I will need to make a few adjustments from my earlier plan, and must discuss this with my supervisors to see how best I can proceed.

COLANDS is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI) and is funded by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

Ph.D. research is hosted at the Faculty of Forestry of the University of British Columbia and the Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) of the University of Amsterdam.

For more information on this topic, please contact James Reed at j.reed@cgiar.org.

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

For more information on this topic, please contact James Reed at j.reed@cgiar.org.
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