Insaka 2018 – reflecting forward

Insaka 2018 participants

IWSN-linked researchers made a significant contribution to the Insaka 2018 Symposium, hosted by SANParks at the Mopani Rest Camp in the Kruger National Park, from 11-14 June:

  • Professor Bimo Nkhata (Monash South Africa) introduced the symposium theme ‘Sustaining the Ecosystem Service Benefits from Ecological Infrastructure’ and presented on regulatory challenges to green infrastructure rehabilitation.
  • Busani Masiri (Monash South Africa) presented on the role of green infrastructure in strengthening urban resilience from a water management perspective.
  • Professor Charles Breen (University of KwaZulu-Natal) presented on incorporating value chain thinking into community-based natural resource management.
  • Diilwe Siyamuntu (Monash South Africa) presented on information sharing for adaptive management of ecological infrastructure: a case study of invasive species control on the Kafue Flats, Zambia.
  • Duncan Hay (Institute of Natural Resources) provided a reflection on the symposium at its conclusion and presented on investing in ecological infrastructure to derive socio-economic benefits: the role of water pricing.
  • Jerit Dube (Monash South Africa) presented on the role of green infrastructure in flood management.
  • Linda Downsborough (Monash South Africa) presented on the research of former MPhil student Yolandi Schoeman on the diffusion of phytotechnical floating treatment wetland technology in integrated watershed management in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • Dr Lutendo Mugwedi (Institute of Natural Resources) presented on securing the benefits of investing in reforestation practice in severely degraded land.

For me, the symposium was truly memorable. At first glance, I was a little sceptical of the programme – I thought there were too many presentations and not enough focused and integrating conversations – but I was proved wrong. The presentations were, almost without exception, thoughtful and thought provoking. We might not have agreed with all that was being said but it got us all thinking.

It was amazing to see how SANParks, a conservation organisation, managed to step up to the ‘research’ plate, drawing in numerous partners to give Insaka its requisite depth. The topic of rhino poaching did dominate but if we can use this highly traumatic and emotional phenomenon to learn about the interface between crime and conservation the experience will serve us well in the future.

Perhaps my one disappointment was that three of the stars of the show, Phephile, Olwethu and Mbali (the SANParks students/interns), only fully emerged at the end of proceedings. Their passionately positive reasons for entering the conservation sector, sometimes in opposition to their parents’ wishes, were a revelation. In support of transformation, capacity development and our own learning, we need to give more ‘Insaka space’ to young academics and professionals.

In participating in Insaka and the national Indaba on Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security, and in some reading from the left wing of the Nature movement, some thoughts have come to the fore. What has become apparent to me, and was implicit in many presentations and conversations, is that (in South Africa) we are going backwards. In almost all our catchments, the ecological state is in decline and, in some cases, deterioration is quite rapid. National statistics appear to indicate that there is an overall improvement in people’s lives but I suggest that ecological decline is placing a drag on this improvement.

In the face of this, it is obvious that what we are doing is not working or not yet working. Many are already saying that the Sustainable Development Goals are not going to get us where we need to go, and that our approaches need to be less predictable, more aggressive and more disruptive. How might we turn the tide and set ourselves on a path of ‘radical social-ecological transformation’? I don’t have the answers but during the Indaba and at Insaka, I developed a mantra – smarter, larger, faster, connected.

Smarter: We tend to think of innovation in a technical sense but I think the most useful progress we could make is in institutional innovation. To quote Sam Ferreira: “We have enough biology for 100 years; we need more social scientists in the room”. Many of the Insaka presentations provided great ideas on how we might work better together for a common good. I think it is time to translate these ideas and experiences into tools and systems that society can engage with; that leverage fundamental change.

Larger: To paraphrase the acting Director General of the national Department of Water and Sanitation, Trevor Balzer, at the Indaba: we are fiddling around the edges. As scientists we love to engage with detail at small scale and assume, often incorrectly, that we can scale up using the lessons we have learnt. We are not particularly good at engaging and learning at larger scales. The rhino poaching saga is forcing us to learn and engage at the scale of the issue. Water resource issues, whether they be quality or quantity, are also forcing us to engage and think at scale, often the entire catchment or river basin.

Faster: We live in a rapidly changing world and, as scientists, we have three choices. We can reflect on what has happened; we can engage more directly with what is happening; or, to paraphrase Charles Breen, we can try to proactively influence change so as to achieve the world we would like to see. For me the only option is one where we influence change. In order to do this we have to fundamentally change the way we do science and the starting point is to move at the same speed or faster than the world around us.

Connected: Much has been written and spoken about how we need to improve collaboration. The focus on this at Insaka was most heartening and timeous – together we need to learn how to work better together. But, collaborating amongst ourselves will only get us so far. It is our ability to connect with our most important client, our citizenry, that will get us to a more meaningful destination.

One crucial way of connecting with our citizenry is communicating in an accessible way. Recently there was a debate about the name of the GEF 6 Ecological Infrastructure and Water Security Project that is at inception. The word ‘nature’ was bandied around but the technocrats prevailed and we landed back with ‘ecological infrastructure’ (EI). I accept it has got some new people in the room but at what cost? For me, EI is nature with her mystique, beauty, spirituality, capriciousness and unpredictability stripped out.