Handling crises in Ecuador

My family and I moved to Cuenca, Ecuador last June for a year sabbatical.  Over the course of the year, we have had our share of wonderful adventures and travels – to Macchu Pichu, to the Galápagos, to the Amazon, and to other areas around Ecuador.  We have had canopy tours that soar above the treetops; swam with sharks, rays, and sea lions; learned how to work with Ecuadorian bureaucracies to enroll in school; and hiked Incan ruins.

What we hadn’t fully planned for were the unplanned “adventures”.  In October 2019, civil unrest broke out nationwide in this peaceful country, leading to a couple weeks of strikes.  The strike closed the schools, halted supply chains and limited commodity shipments, and stopped all transportation.

Civil unrest (from NY Times)

In December 2019, we had a small volcanic eruption, which made for a few days of difficult breathing. Otherwise, there was no risk and we weren’t threatened by the volcano.


We got past both of these mini-challenges without any issues.  We also weren’t affected by the earthquake last week that hit the coast of Ecuador or earlier ones last fall.

But now we, as everyone in the world, are now confronting a new threat – coronavirus.


Ecuador has been very aggressive in its response.  I think that this is, in part because of the experience with all of the turmoil over the past several months.  A few weeks ago they appointed several regional hospitals as centers for covid-19 – one in our town of Cuenca.  Last Thursday, the 12th, schools stopped for 2 weeks.  This has already been extended.  Welcome to distance learning with videos and assignments coming daily from the school.  The government also started a self-quarantine on the 14th.  They have been increasing the vigilance of this since then.  Now there is a 9 PM – 5 AM curfew.  Non essential trips (food, medicine, employment) are not allowed.  Social gatherings over 50 were stopped on Sunday.  We are not even supposed to walk on the streets or use the parks.  Supply chains still seem to be functioning well.  Even during the Thursday announcements, I went to the store.  They were out of fresh meats and bananas.  There was 10 times the number of people there, but the shelves remained stocked.  My favorite was the “hoarding” behavior that I witnessed – a cart with 5 boxes of Frosted Flakes, several carts with multiple packages of liver, another cart with 7 large tubes of toothpaste.  Interesting.

Yes, these are interesting times indeed.  We are trying to enjoy our time together as a family, keep everyone active in our apartment and avoiding unnecessary social engagement.  We will keep you updated as we deal with the current “normal”.


Webinar on Historical Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Professor Hita Unnikrishnan on using historical analysis in the study of natural resource governance and management.  A link to the recording is available here.


One of the biggest gaps in studies of environmental governance is that they often produce what may best be thought of as a snapshot of patterns observed at a given point in time. However, environmental governance regimes are usually path dependent and influenced by events that may have occurred in preceding regimes. Studying historical contexts of environmental governance is thus very important in order to understand the complexities inherent within issues such as the influence of inter and intra community heterogeneities on equitable distribution of resources, varied motivations for communities to engage in coproducing their resources, or the ongoing influence of historical inequities on contemporary landscapes.

However, working with historical data involves navigating through a complex set of challenges that include but are not limited to a) working with data that was not originally created to address the question at hand (for example with maps that originally served as battle plans), b) data that represents specific points of view (for example governmental records that are often silent on everyday experiences or challenges faced by people within a regime), and c) highly subjective data (such as those derived from oral histories). In addition, historical data may be very sparse in certain contexts making its use highly challenging in some areas.  In this webinar I will discuss the use of historical data in studying natural resource governance, the diversity of historical data, limitations and challenges in navigating through temporal data and the ways in which we may combine multiple data sources (such as historical maps, archival records, and oral histories) in order to study historical regimes of environmental governance. I will also illustrate using specific cases from our own work on urban Bangalore, the use of multiple forms of historical data to trace a) social-ecological system change and b) changes in polycentric regime, the role of power in shaping discourses of environmental governance over time, and their influence on the present day.


Hita Unnikrishnan is a Newton International Fellow (funded by the British Academy) at the Urban Institute, The University of Sheffield.  She is also a visiting faculty at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Her research focuses on examining the politically situated nature of blue and green social-ecological systems transformations in urban areas, highlighting the influence of development and governance trajectories on geophysical, political, and cultural transformations of social-ecological systems, particularly as they relate to the multiple, contested ways in which urban social-ecological resources are perceived and appropriated in cities of the global south. To do this, she deploys a highly diverse and interdisciplinary repertoire of methods that span the range of natural and social sciences including GIS, field ecological methods, analysis of archival documents, oral histories, and textual analysis for context and discourse. Hita has also previously been a recipient of the Prof. Elinor Ostrom Fellowship for Practice and Policy in the Commons for the year 2013.

This is the fifth webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Webinar on Institutional Analysis

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Professor Abigail York on institutional analysis and the use of mixed methodological approaches and how they can be used to study collaboration.  A link to the recording is available here.


Building upon the Institutional Analysis and Development Framework, this talk surveys complementary mixed methods. Focusing on the bidirectional feedbacks between institutions and the environment, Abby York discusses how she and transdisciplinary teams use a suite of qualitative, quantitative, and modeling approaches to understand when policies and norms change due to environmental or other factors and how institutions, in turn, affect the environment. The talk will use vignettes from several ongoing research projects including on western water use, urbanization in Phoenix, and governance in the face of dramatic sea ice change in the Arctic to motivate the discussion.


Dr Abigail York (abigail.york@asu.edu) is an Associate Professor of Governance and Public Policy at Arizona State University.  She is fascinated by the ways that people come together to collectively govern resources, York investigates how, when, why, and who is able to manage neighborhoods, cities, forests, water resources, biodiversity hotpots, and agricultural lands sustainably. By focusing on diverse research sites in the present, historic, and ancient contexts within the USA and around the world, she is able to better understand generalizable principles for governance. Funded by National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, York has examined urbanization in the southwest USA, collaborative environmental governance, land use policy adoption, community forestry in Nepal, premodern cities’ public service provisioning throughout the world, land use and environmental injustice in Phoenix, water policy and agricultural livelihoods and transitions in Arizona, and the ability of communities to leverage fracking revenue for more sustainable futures in Appalachia. York deploys diverse methods including econometrics, social network analysis, spatial analysis, surveys, content analysis, and fieldwork; results from this work are integrated into decision-making models, agent-based models, and scenarios.

This is the fourth webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Webinar on the co-production of knowledge through dialogue

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Ro Hill and Maria Tengö on linking indigenous, local and scientific knowledge through dialogue and how it can be used to study collaboration.  A link to the recording is available here.

Dr Ro Hill leads participatory research into collaborative ecosystem governance and multiple knowledge systems for sustainability, including biodiversity futures, climate change and how indigenous knowledge can inform resilience. She is a senior principal research scientist with Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, and coordinating lead  author of the IPBES Pollination assessment and a member of the IPBES Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge from 2014-2018.

Dr Maria Tengö is a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), Stockholm University and senior advisor at SwedBio. She leads the Research Stream on Biosphere Stewardship at the SRC, including investigations of resilience in social-ecological systems, indigenous, local and collaborative governance, and theory/practice for collaborations and partnerships between indigenous, local and scientific knowledge systems.

This is the third webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Research happenings in Cuenca

In an earlier post (A Sabbatical in Ecuador), I discussed some early stage research in Cajas National Park.  I’m optimistic that this research will get a boost through partnership with the University of Cuenca.  With researchers there, I am discussing some research collaborations with students interested in studying social-ecological systems and collaboration and conflict with the national park and its neighbors.  This has particular relevance as Cajas National Park is part of a larger Man and Biosphere Reserve (Biosfera Macizo del Cajas – see website here) and the importance of buffer zones and creating the capacity to live sustainably in the broader landscape.  Here’s a map to show the area we are talking about:

Cuadro Datos Biosfera

As a means to build capacity towards this research, I am delivering a presentation tomorrow on resilience and social-ecological systems:


Webinar on Agent-Based Modeling and Collaboration

Hi All!

I wanted to share the recording of a webinar by Jacopo Baggio on agent-based modeling and how it can be used to study collaboration.  A link to the recording is available here.

This is the second webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Ten Years of Ecosystem Change and Society

This past week, we had a science meeting and working session based around the latest research coming out of Future Earth‘s Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).  Under the inspiring leadership of Berta Martín-López and Oonsie Biggs, PECS focuses on a few aspects of the scientific enterprise that are truly leading the way on the study of social-ecological systems (SES) as the core of sustainability science.  In particular, we emphasize:

  • the importance of holistic research of SES,
  • the need to ground this research as place-based,
  • the need to progress from disciplinary research to interdisciplinary research to transdisciplinary research.

What this means in practice is that we take a more holistic approach to research at a systems level – not differentiating between social and ecological, but seeing them as a combined system with complex feedback loops between various parts of the system.  A focus on place-based research resonates with many political ecologists, anthropologists and case study researchers that see a need to look at context-specific cases in contrast with the ever-present global models or pure theoretic studies that push the generalizability of science at the expense of everything else – all the aspects of our day-to-day lives that we find special about where we are.  Finally, transdisciplinarity acknowledges the need to move outside of science and privileging expert knowledge at the loss of the rich and detailed knowledge and expertise of other stakeholders in the system – the business leaders, the government officials, the farmers, the campesinos, the forest rangers, the ranchers, the people that are major influences in the places in which they live, work and play.

The meeting was at Leuphana University in Luneburg, Germany in their award-winning Central Building.  Just please don’t ask me for directions in that maze of a building!


While it is dark and cold in Germany at this time of year, the Christmas markets were beautiful.

Christmas market

Early Stage Research in the Galapagos

This past week, I returned to the Galapagos to try to advance some projects there.  One of the big projects in conjunction with the Charles Darwin Foundation (https://www.darwinfoundation.org/en/about/cdrs) is to understand what happened to co-management arrangements since the inauguration of a large marine reserve around Wolf and Darwin Islands in 2016 (https://www.santacruzgalapagoscruise.com/galapagos-marine-reserve/).  Established by presidential edict, it provided the final blow to co-management arrangements between artisanal fishers, government officials, and tourism operators in the Galapagos.


Photo of Darwin and Wolf Islands                                           Source: http://www.scubatravel.co.uk

Our research looks at the arrangements on paper for the management and zoning of the waters around the Galapagos and interviews many of the people involved in the management and/or co-management of this rich, biodiverse area.  Our hope is that we can learn about how to improve governance outcomes as well as the legitimacy of the process through our work.


And why this area is known as the “Sharkiest Place on the Planet”

Source: Charles Darwin Foundation

Webinar on Social Network Analysis

Just a quick post.  I wanted to post a link to a wonderful webinar by Steve Alexander on social network analysis:  See webinar presentation here.

This is the first webinar on methodological approaches to studying collaborative governance and management of social-ecological systems as part of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) working group on collaborative governance.

Tragedy of the Commons as Conventional Wisdom

Earlier this year, I co-authored with (Marco Janssen, Rimjhim Aggrawal and Skaidra Smith-Heisters) a paper on how Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” is used in university-level education.

Here is a nice cartoon from medium.com that highlights the general message of this tragedy:


Hardin’s original message, however, was very incomplete. Unfortunately, what we found in a survey of undergraduate instructors in sustainability and environmental education, is that many share Hardin’s incomplete and misleading version without regard to the vast literature that expands on this old story.  You see, Hardin was using this metaphor of an open access commons (an area shared by all with no rules governing its use) as a way of describing his life boat ethics.  Hardin’s (twisted) logic was that the earth was being overpopulated and rich countries would be overrun by poor, overbreeding countries.  This was his tragedy of the commons.

What we found through our survey is that many instructors continue to use this simple version of the commons without governance without referencing the work of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom or that of countless others that shows that people can and often do find means of governing the commons – either through self-imposed regulation or other means.

We hope that continuing to draw attention to how people self-govern, we can move past Hardin’s tragedy and work towards better collective outcomes.

Citation:  Marco A. Janssen, Skaidra Smith-Heisters, Rimjhim Aggarwal & Michael L. Schoon (2019) ‘Tragedy of the commons’ as conventional wisdom in sustainability education, Environmental Education Research, DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2019.1632266