Change the world

Sustainability Research Unit George Campus

15/07/2014

The first social- ecological winter school, organized by NMMU's Sustainability Research Unit in collaboration with Southern African Program on Ecosystem Change and Society (SAPECS), saw twenty-one students from southern Africa gathering at NMMU George Campus from the 30th  of June to the 4th of July 2014. Aimed primarily at PhD students in their first year of study, the main goal was capacity development of new scholars in social- ecological systems through innovative use of facilitated dialogues and adopting integrated coaching principles. A systems perspective was also given through a field trip in and around the Garden Route National Park where practitioners working at the interface of ecosystems and societies highlighted the practical challenges they face.

Surrounded by the beautiful Outeniqua Mountains and situated within deeply green pine plantations, the NMMU campus at Saasveld provided a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life for 21 students from all over southern Africa. The students had gathered in this tranquil place near George, South Africa, to participate in the very first SAPECS winter school held from the 30th of June to the 4th of July 2014.

The main goal of the winter school was to develop the capacity of these new scholars in the field of social-ecological systems to plan, execute and interpret their research. To get the thinking going the students took part in a field trip in and around the Garden Route National Park, with the aim of gathering insights into the challenges of managing intricate social-ecological systems from the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders, such as the chairperson of a local conservancy, a dairy farmer and a forester – to name but a few! After being inspired to “think big and broad” about the myriad connections and feedbacks at play in social-ecological systems, students returned to campus ready to face the next few days of challenging introspection into their own research journey.

For the remainder of the winter school students went through a process of interactive capacity development sessions, characterized by dialogue and reflection between the students, established academics in the field of social-ecological research, and senior post-grads. Many aha!-moments later, and after some close encounters with the local baboon troops, students returned to their institutions with a renewed sense of empowerment and responsibility. The informal networking opportunities provided during the week (along with some FIFA World Cup action!) helped foster a feeling of community and support among the participants, which has resulted in some emerging initiatives aimed at continuing the support beyond the winter school, such as a student blog within the SAPECS website and the development of a social-ecological research handbook. So watch this space!

A big word of thanks to the organizers of the workshop, Christo Fabricius and his team at NMMU George, including Aneri Roos and Samantha McCulloch, as well as the researchers who kindly contributed their time and expertise: Reinette (Oonsie) Biggs, Georgina Cundill, Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Rika Preiser, Sheona Shackleton, Luthando Dziba and Dirk Roux. Thank you also to the post-grad facilitators Bianca Currie, Maike Hamann, Laura Pereira, Yashwant Rawat and Odirilwe Selomane!

Text by Maike Hamann, original article available here