Ancois de Villiers: PeerJ Award Winner at Medecos 2022

The International Mediterranean Ecosystems Conference, or MEDECOS (https://medecos2022.org/), is organised under the auspices of ISOMED, the International Society of Mediterranean Ecology (https://incomme.org/isomed). ISOMED promotes research and education to advance the understanding and conservation of the world’s five Mediterranean-climate regions, all of which are globally recognised as biodiversity hotspots. MEDECOS is held on a semi-regular basis and rotates among Mediterranean-climate countries, bringing together ecologists, resource managers and students from around the world to advance the understanding of these fragile ecosystems. The international nature of MEDECOS allows participants to gain insights into the similarities and differences in how the various Mediterranean-type ecosystems function, change and evolve.

In 2022, the 15th MEDECOS conference was organised in conjunction with the Fynbos Forum (https://fynbosforum.co.za/), a South African affiliation of researchers, planners, managers, landowners and other stakeholders that meets annually to discuss management issues and research results and to formulate priorities for future research and conservation actions required to ensure the conservation and sustainability of ecosystems in the country’s Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot. The meeting, which took place from 5–9 September 2022 in Langebaan on the west coast of South Africa, was a resounding success, with more than 220 participants from 13 countries, including Australia, Argentina, Chile, the USA, South Africa, Israel, and several European countries. In addition to the ‘in-person’ meeting, MEDECOS 2022 also offered online attendance for people who were unable to travel to Langebaan, with nearly 40 participants attending the conference virtually.

Adriaan Grobler, Fynbos Forum Committee

Medecos 2022 delegates

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Ancois de Villiers PhD candidate. Stellenbosch University, South Africa & Leiden University, Netherlands.

 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

Mostly, my research involves the resilience and transformation of landscapes, with an emphasis on the social-ecological interfaces of regenerative practices. This involves creating structures and processes to support decision-making and action for individuals and communities. With these interests, I am challenged to weave together quite an amalgamation of different skills and experiences. This includes academic degrees in both conservation ecology and environmental anthropology. I also hold additional qualifications in project management, science communication, organisational change management, and coaching. Beyond research, I have been involved as a practitioner in capacity and policy development for climate change, as well as the implementation and assessment of ecosystem-based adaptation initiatives.

I am passionate about building supportive processes which people can use to grow and express their full potential in relationship with their environment. Currently, I am on the journey of completing a transdisciplinary PhD on the psycho-social dimensions of landscape-based initiatives supporting sustainability through ecosystem rehabilitation.

What first interested you in this field of research?

During my undergrad, I learned that my initial idea of what it means to be an ecologist was quite narrow. I was exposed to other ways of framing environmental problems which challenged my boundaries. From this, my understanding of ecology extended to include supporting relationships not only within ecosystems, but also the relationships between people and the environment, people with each other, and with ourselves. Particularly, while working on climate change adaptation, I was exposed to the wealth of insights emerging in the literature on the importance of inter alia connectedness with nature for mental health, the psychological barriers to engaging with risks like climate change impacts, and the deep psycho-social dynamics involved in systemic transformations. However, I found limited information or guidance on how to implement these ideas and conceptual frameworks into the practice of environmental projects. Fortuitously, my path crossed with my research partner, Living Lands, a non-profit company (NPC) who shared my interests and questions regarding this challenge.

You won the Best Student Presentation award at Medecos 2022, can you explain the research you presented?

Ancois presenting at Medecos 2022

My PhD project explores the often-overlooked importance of psycho-social dimensions in the implementation of restoration or rehabilitation initiatives in landscapes. This refers to intangible elements and processes such as politics, norms, values, identities, motivations, and paradigms that fundamentally influence the structures and dynamics of the systems we live in – and how these systems change. The importance of these dimensions is recognised and well described in the literature, and funders are also becoming more interested in social outcomes. However, implementation remains vague including how to nurture, track and evaluate these intangible dimensions.

The research intends to explore these challenges in terms of what works, for whom, in what context, how, why, and who is making the decisions. This involves an in-depth case study in two South African landscapes – the Baviaanskloof and Langkloof – as based on the experiences of Living Lands. This organisation is an NPC facilitating collaborations for landscape rehabilitation using their partner Commonland’s 4 Returns impact framework. This framework considers common indicators of sustainability capitals with the addition of a fourth “return”, namely, inspiration. This refers to supporting a sense of hope and meaning for communities living in degraded landscapes. In a researcher-practitioner collaboration, Living Lands, my supervisors, and I are in the process of developing a monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) process, as well as co-reflecting on a relational approach to implementing the framework. The research is supported by both an NRF-Nuffic Doctoral Scholarship and a GreenMatter Fellowship Bursary.

A view of the Langkloof, showing the complexity of land use

How will you continue to build on this research?

For now, I am focusing on completing my fieldwork to gain a more in-depth and complete understanding of the case studies, as well as to further scrutinise the initial insights of what we have learned so far.

I very much look forward to further collaborating with my research partners and participants on how we can take the findings forward – namely implementing what has been learned. That is the critical next step in this process – how to implement these ideas into the systems and structures of a living and evolving initiative in complex and contested landscapes.

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