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Optimal monitoring of socio-economic and ecological systems for robust natural resource management

Final Report Summary - ECOECO MONITORING (Optimal monitoring of socio-economic and ecological systems for robust natural resource management)

Project context and objectives

Conservation and natural resource policy has traditionally taken a piecemeal approach to drivers of biodiversity loss. With rapid global change, the development of policy to ensure the supply of ecosystem services and biodiversity requires an improved understanding of the interactions between large-scale drivers and local-level resource use. The aim of the project related to the management and understanding of social-ecological systems, where there are strong inter-dependences between people and their natural environment, focused on a case study in Madagascar. Five objectives are listed below, together with how they were met by the research conducted by the Marie Curie Fellow, Emily Nicholson:

1. to develop a model framework that integrates the dynamics of socioeconomic and ecological systems;
2. to explore the effectiveness and efficiency of monitoring strategies that target resource users' behaviour and populations of conserved species;
3. to apply the framework to a case study of community-based natural resource management in the Alaotra Wetland, Madagascar;
4. to generalise the framework to a wider set of situations;
5. to communicate findings to the research community and to natural resource managers.

Work performed and main results

1. A modelling framework that deals explicitly with the interactions between ecological and socioeconomic systems is critical to making robust conservation decisions. A key product of the project is a general framework for research in such systems (Nicholson et al. 2009), which argued that a narrow disciplinary approach, or an approach which does not consider feedbacks within and between ecological and social systems, has the potential to produce dangerously misleading policy recommendations. In contrast, if uncertainties and complexities in the provision of ecosystem services are explicitly acknowledged and addressed, progress may appear slower but models will be substantially more robust and informative about the effects of environmental change. A second study was a collaborative review paper on modelling social-ecological systems (Schlüter et al. 2012).

2. Two separate studies focused on monitoring. The first, Gibbons et al. (2011), focused on a theoretical framework and hypothetical analyses for when to monitor management actions by resource users (in this case farm managers) or conservation outputs (species of conservation interest) in payment for an ecosystem services scheme, under a range of conditions. This was published in a leading journal, Journal of Applied Ecology (Gibbons et al. 2011). The second study was conducted by two MSc students under the supervision of Emily Nicholson, and looked at monitoring the critically endangered Alaotran gentle lemur, the flagship species in the study system in Lac Alaotra, Madagascar. The study comprised three parts: collecting monitoring data on the lemur; analysing factors that affect the presence and detectability of the lemur, and thus providing recommendations for optimal monitoring of the species; and developing a species distribution model of the lemur for use in conservation planning. These resulted in two papers published in leading conservation journals (Guillera-Arroita et al. 2010b; Lahoz-Monfort et al. 2010), and a third paper in the open-access journal 'Madagascar Conservation and Development', which is aimed at disseminating current research to Madagascan managers and researchers (Guillera-Arroita et al. 2010a).

3. The key work of the project was the development of a stochastic model of a social-ecological system in Madagascar. Lac Alaotra has seen rapid conversion from a once-extensive wetland system to one of the key rice-production areas of the country. This Ramsar site also supports the biggest inland fishery in Madagascar, and has a very high biodiversity value. Livelihoods in Lac Alaotra rely heavily on wetland resources, through rice production, fishing and other wetland products - typically in all three. The model combined household decision-making (a utility model), a floodplain fishery and rice production, so as to assess the impacts on household behaviour and the well-being of extrinsic factors such as climate change and commodity prices, as well as local management interventions. At the end of the project, a manuscript was in preparation (Nicholson et al. in prep.), and the work has been presented in seminars to the non-governmental organisation partner in Madagascar (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), to various research groups around the world, and was presented in July 2012 at the World Conference on Natural Resource Modelling.

4. Further research on the study system, within a slightly different context, includes:

- working on the fishery of Lac Alaotra, in particular fishermen's behaviour, management impacts, and drivers of change;
- working with rice farmers in the study system, to gather baseline data on rice production, assess the impacts of environmental variability, explore scenarios of increasing variability in the environment, rice prices and landscape management.

5. The research conducted within the project was disseminated via scientific publications, including open access journals, conference presentations, seminars, workshops, presentations to stakeholders, and government reports (such as the report to the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partners on a research agenda for ecosystem services, Nicholson et al. 2008). The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust is working with the Madagascan government to develop a management plan for Lac Alaotra, to which the project's research will provide insight into optimal conservation management and monitoring. Their management interventions include community development and participatory monitoring and management, which the research will inform. The work on ecosystem services resulted in Emily Nicholson being invited to an expert scientific workshop as part of the establishment of the Intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES), a key international initiative to assess the state and trends in biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The project was effectively 24 months long, but was conducted over a period of almost four years as the researcher had two children (with maternity leave) and worked part-time for much of the project for family reasons.