What have we done in 2021? Celebrating a year of research in the Social-Ecological Systems Institute

2021 has seen many successes and causes to celebrate within the Social-Ecological Systems Institute (SESI) at Leuphana University and across its collaborations, along with the challenges that emerge from conducting research in a pandemic. This year we have worked hard in SESI to understand and respond to a wide range of social-ecological challenges. In doing so, we have provided better understandings of social-ecological interactions and leverage points that can improve sustainability and justice.

Some of the social-ecological systems in which SESI researchers work.

People in SESI have conducted research on six main topics throughout this year: biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and nature’s contributions to people, relational values, biocultural diversity, cross-scale governance, and leverage points and transformation. Our blog this year has featured many of the publications and projects targeting those six topics.

Biodiversity conservation has been a central focus for SESI researchers, who have worked in both the Global North and South. For example, Jacqueline Loos and colleagues reflected on the role of protected areas for biodiversity in the Global South, as well as the conservation of butterflies in eastern Europe. Additionally, human-wildlife interactions were explored in collaborations with Stellenbosch University, wherein Kansky et al. (2021) explored how rural communities and wildlife interact. Research focusing on Ethiopia took a social-ecological viewpoint on connections between food security and biodiversity conservation (Fischer et al. 2021), while Patricia Rodrigues and colleagues explored how settlement expansion affects mammals. In Northern Spain, knowledge, and perceptions of social actors to improve conservation management were uncovered by Berta Martín-López.

Ecosystem services and nature’s contributions to people (NCP) were also a major research focus. Both the negative and positive aspects of these services and contributions were explored, and many SESI publications emerged. Topp et al. (2021) investigated how different NCP emerge from decision-making contexts regarding the management and conservation of critically-endangered ecosystems in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa. Ghoddousi et al. (2021) portrayed NCP as an essential variable in monitoring social-ecological interactions to evaluate the effectiveness of protected areas in protecting biodiversity. Alternatively, Pascual-Rico and colleagues explored human-ungulate interactions from a NCP perspective. In agricultural contexts, Schultner et al. (2021) applied an ecosystem services framework to see which variables affect human access to farm and forest ecosystems in rural Ethiopia, while Schmitt et al. (2021) explored farmers and citizens’ perceptions of grassland ecosystem services in Bavaria, Germany.

Relational values communicate the importance of nature to decision-makers and are important in protecting biodiversity. Human-nature connectedness was explored in depth by authors this year, such as Maraja Riechers and colleagues, who explored land use change impacts on relational values and human-nature connectedness in Lower Saxony, along with relational values in Germany and Romania. Emmeline Topp explored relational values in her work on the Cape Floristic Region. Vicky Temperton has been leading the new “Grassworks” project from 2021 onwards, which will investigate (amongst other things) how landscape simplification can potentially erode relational values. In addition, an internal working group led by Maraja Riechers explores relational values across case studies, in which Jasmine Pearson, Milena Gross and Hannah Wahler are contributing with their empirical research.

Special Issue of Ecosystems and People: Human Nature Connectedness as a Leverage Point for Sustainability Transformation. Geographical distribution of study areas and exemplary case studies by the articles of the Special Issue (Riechers et al. 2021).

Biocultural diversity is a concept that embraces the richness and interdependency of ecosystems and human cultures and is recently becoming incorporated in global policymaking and academia. Often the Spanish literature dominates in this field, due to the embedded nature of this concept in Latin America compared to Europe, both in academia and non-academic contexts. Much of the work on biocultural diversity within SESI focussed in Bolivia, where the research project led by Jan Hanspach is taking place. Research on biocultural diversity also includes cases in Colombia by Stefan Ortiz Przychodzka, Kathleen Hermans, and in Germany by Annika Drews-Shambroom.

Under the theme of cross-scale governance, SESI research has sought to understand how informal and formal institutions affect social-ecological system outcomes. SESI author Joern Fischer contributed to work led by Levin et al. (2021), which investigated how effective governance deals with extreme events; similarly , in Ethiopia, Tolera Senbeto Jiren and colleagues explored in Ethiopia which governance challenges exist when looking at biodiversity conservation and food security at the same time. Ignacio Palomo and co-authors also looked at the effectiveness and transformative capacity of nature-based solutions in mountain systems.

Lastly, leverage points and transformations were a major focus within SESI research. Leverage points is a systems thinking approach to understanding where to intervene in complex systems to create transformative change. Two special issues on leverage points were co-authored by SESI members: Majara Riechers, Jacqueline Loos, and Dave Abson. While Jiren et al. (2021) discussed how leverage points can affect food security governance in Ethiopia. Julia Leventon, Dave Abson and Daniel Lang researched the potential of leverage points for sustainability transformations. David Lam similarly applied this perspective to biocultural landscapes and transformative change in Transylvania, while Maraja Riechers engaged with leverage points linked with human-nature connectedness, landscape simplification, and marine pollution.

On top of research, this year we initiated the SES Global Conversation, a series of online seminars on social-ecological systems research. In our first session, the key themes of social-ecological research were laid out by Berta Martín-López and Joern Fischer. In the second seminar, Berta Martín-López, Isabel Díaz-Reviriego and David Lam discussed promoting care and collaboration in sustainability research. In the first trimester of 2022, we will host two more seminars. The first seminar, scheduled on the 27th January and led by Jacqueline Loos and Marina Frietsch, will focus on the topic of environmental justice and area-based conservation. The second seminar of 2022, scheduled on the 10th of February, the SES biocultural working group including Jan Hanspach, Camila Benavides Frias, Stefan Ortiz-Przychodzka and Isabel Díaz-Reviriego will share their research and discuss why biocultural diversity is important.

The SES Global Conversation

We are proud of what SESI people has achieved in 2021, not only in terms of publications or projects, but also with regards to collaborations, innovative transdisciplinary research and our ‘care-full’ modus operandi. We are excited to share with you more of our research in the New Year and wish all of our readers Happy Holidays and a great 2022!

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