Organized by Professor Dirk Roux (NMMU/SANParks), our second meeting for the ‘Virtual SES Lab’ took place on the 8th of April 2015 at Loerie’s Nest, Ebb and Flow Restcamp in Wilderness.

The purpose of the ‘Virtual SES Lab’ meetings is to advance social-ecological research in the Garden Route by promoting networking and information sharing between SANParks and NMMU. They entail conversations that are structured around scientific and experiential knowledge of social-ecological relationships in and around the Garden Route National Park (GRNP).

The foundation for the meetings’ discussions was laid by Jill Bundig-Venter, manager of GRNP, who elaborated on SANPark’s vision of connecting society with national parks. The organisation entrusts in stakeholder engagement as a mechanism to achieve this, but faces severe impediments in its application. Jill described their challenges with questions related to the participants of engagement, the subjects of engagement and the processes of engagement.

Professor Christo Fabricius (NMMU) encouraged our group to begin the day with a collective reflection of the values of engagement. Our brainstorming session was characterized by significant consensus amongst the group. This inspiring exercise set the spirit for a series of presentations and lead discussions by, as Dirk Roux gratefully noted “an all-women team”.

In her refreshing reflection of an adventurous exploration of the Knysna River, Maretha Alant (SANParks) presented an innovative form of stakeholder engagement. Through a direct experience of the river ecosystem, private landowners, scientists and conservation practitioners gained common knowledge of ecological communities, invasive species and erosion issues. This shared experience appeared to be a valuable process of engagement from which social-ecological subjects of engagement organically emerged.

Another process of engagement was presented by Bianca Currie (PhD at NMMU), who described facilitated sustainability dialogues as a method for enhanced social learning. Apart from the positive experiences with her own Knysna case study, Bianca and NMMU colleagues have successfully applied the method to numerous organisations, occasions and concerns in the GRNP. Inherent to the notion of social learning is the premise that improved processes of communication have a direct impact on the outcomes of it.

Elaborating on the challenges of efficient communication within the SANPark organisation, Sandra Taljaard (SANParks) reported on her experience from a dialogue in Skukuza earlier this year. Sandra described how the persistent gap between science and management entities impedes the co-creation of knowledge and objectives. Our group discussed that the real challenge (and solution) in linking diverging worldviews and conservation paradigms lies in developing communication strategies that are process- instead of purely outcome-oriented.

In her presentation about stakeholder maps and perceptions regarding benefit sharing, Aneri Roos (NMMU) addressed the question of the participants of engagement. She presented her efforts of mapping the various collective identities that have emerged in mutual dependencies with the Wilderness and Swartvlei lake systems. Apart from offering a thorough strategy to assess relevant stakeholders, Aneri stimulated a group reflection of the social diversity that inherently drives the GRNP.

Carli Bundig-Venter (Stellenbosch University) deepened the topic of subjects of engagements. She presented her PhD research addressing the negotiation and creation of public values in local and regional governance structures. Despite her focus on economically-oriented organisations, our group absorbed valuable lessons related to the ethical considerations in the engagement about natural capital and environmental health. 

The group summarized the day in a short reflection session. All attendants expressed a sense of community which does not only share concerns and challenges, but also the knowledge resources for possible solutions. In this sense, the ‘Virtual SES Lab’ meetings are experienced as meaningful platforms for stakeholder engagement from which positive action can arise.