Science and culture collaborate to save marine ecosystems

An ecomusical approach to coastal habitat conservation...
20 October 2023

Interview with 

Francesca Porri, Rhodes University


Fishermen on the horizon on the seashore


Coastal ecosystems are under pressure. The best way to save them is to garner the support of local communities; if they understand the issue and the solution, and they have a stake in the game, interventions are more likely to succeed in the long term. But gaining the trust and support of the community, and making the knowledge they already possess part of the solution is critical. And that’s where, as she explains to Chris Smith, Rhodes University's Francesca Porri comes in. She’s merging the arts, indigenous knowledge and science to, in her words, “ensure that the knowledge gathered through nature-based scientific research remains a part of community developed Indigenous knowledge systems. The merging of innovative, eco-creative approaches the potential to sustainably and ethically improve the functioning and diversity of coastal urban habitats.”

Francesca - The art is helping hugely in communicating the science, but also into getting the communities that we are working with really engaging, and getting the buy-in from relations with the environment and being really co-creators. So far it has been a truly active participation from the community that we work with. So the art is almost like the mechanisms that help us integrate this potential challenges in communicating and talking to one another.

Chris - Are you arguing then that if a scientist comes along and talks to a remote community, a coastal community and says, we've got some good ideas to help you, they're more likely to trust a musician than a scientist? Is that what you're saying? It's, it's, there's, there's an, there's an element of familiarity with art, which isn't there with science?

Francesca - In part, yes. When we work with community - and in this case, the art helped a lot - the other part was working already with not approaching the community as the typical type of getting into a community and imposing certain rules, but engaging with the community through a community that is already working with the community. We've been quite lucky to engage through the Keiskamma Trust, which is a small organisation in the Hamburg Village in the Eastern Cape, working as a trusted corridor to the community. So the art on one side and a very trustworthy and trusted by the community organisation help opening the doors to the scientists and, and show that we really wanting to do the best for everyone, which is taking care of the environment. Because the stories that have been documented through the music or through the storytelling, it really brings back to that point where everyone, it doesn't matter what background you've got everyone is intimately interested in preserving what you have as an environment.

Chris - Playing devil's advocate though, how do you know this is better and that this is the way it should be done? Have you got a sort of before and after comparison; or are you just saying, "this is one way we've done this, this is one way we've approached this, this appears to work, so let's use this as a foundation, a starting point?"

Francesca - You're totally right. I don't think there is a perfect recipe to something. We are exploring these approaches because we realise that, at least in South Africa, the news don't really report much about conservation of the environment. I still think that science communication, it's quite an elitarian type of experience that not everyone can afford. And so for us, this is the right way to do it. And we of course still having quite parallel lines, so not as integrated as we would like to have. I still have to supervise PhD students that have got very hard science type of projects, but the same students are exposed to become integrated in this setting with the community. And of course we've got the industry on the other side because the port authorities of South Africa are our key partner in this project. So I'm not saying that this is the only way going forward, but I think, like in anything, different people use different approach.

Chris - How's it gone down with the communities but also with the researchers? Does everyone buy in to this? Does everyone see the value in approaching it this way?

Francesca - Definitely the project attracted a certain type of students. Last year we already had our first <inaudible>, which is a Zulu word for gathering, and that was a space given to scientists, to musicologists, to the communities. And that's where we discussed how do you want to work together on this? This is, I must say, my first experience, and maybe I may sound a little naive, but it's already a win from my side because we've opened those channels.

Chris - There are only so many hours in the day, and the more that we add to a project in terms of endeavours and activities, the more it costs, and there's only so much funding to go around. So would your argument be then that doing these additional things, these additional duties, additional obligations, returns actually greater value despite detracting away from just doing science and pure conservation work? Because you ultimately end up achieving more, because you've got that buy-in from the community and there'll be not just the immediate benefit, but then a legacy as well?

Francesca - Definitely. We often say we have got so much information already from this project that, especially from the social sciences side, we could do more out of this project. The struggle that we get is to gather human resources for that. It's almost like within the same project we could get so much more done. And we've seen how, for example, there are PhD and Master's projects being developed through the music. I think some of the funding is still not ready for it, because the multi- and transdisciplinary research has got a component that is quite complex from a funding point of view, but in terms of information and potential output, we've got more. And so it's been a strategic good choice to add this component as well.


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