Photo Credit: John Gallo
November 5, 2013

Social Learning

Some reflections on my experience in South Africa

As the newest CBI blogger, the team suggested I start by sharing my perspective and experiences integrating science, community involvement, and conservation planning at different scales and geographies.  This integration was our core strategy while I was at Conception Coast Project during my formative years, and I have been focused on it ever since.

Fig 1.  There is often a “gap” or challenge, in making a conservation assessment into a plan, and another challenge to have that plan translate into action; involving stakeholders throughout the process helps minimize these gaps.  Adapted from Knight, Campbell, and Cowling 2006.

One of the primary reasons to involve a community in conservation planning is to help address what has become known as the planning-action gap (Fig 1). The underlying theory is that if people are involved in the conservation assessment phase of the planning, they will understand the issues and tradeoffs more, inject their knowledge and perspective, gain trust, and be more willing to implement the plan.  The same applies to the people that affect or perform the conservation actions.

Because each stakeholder has their own mental models of the way the world works, and usually works within different knowledge domains compared to the scientists (Roux et al. 2006), “social learning” can be a useful goal for community engagement.  Social learning is the collective action and reflection that occurs among individuals and groups working to improve the management of human and environment relations (Keen et al. 2005).

The enabling of social learning was one of the themes of my doctoral research, and I had the fortunate opportunity to continue this theme in South Africa for my post-doctoral research.  I chose South Africa because I love biodiversity, and because a convergence of events had propelled the scientists there into a global leadership role in the concept of “conservation planning for action.”

I went to South Africa to learn how other people and cultures are tackling the same problems and to hopefully share my findings and skills.  There is so much to reflect upon, but I’ll highlight just one aspect here: the social learning organization I joined that was known as the Gouritz Initiative (GI) at the time.  It was an amalgam of people comprised mostly of private and public land managers and scientists, farmers, and conservation activists.  It had several objectives, including: “To empower civil society within the Gouritz -area[G1]  to utilise and enjoy their environment optimally, without threatening the species richness of the area or ecological processes that sustain the biodiversity of the region.”
When my two year research visa was coming to a close, the discussion at hand was whether or not to apply to become a biosphere reserve.  The results of this debate and subsequent work are proudly displayed on their new website.  I love watching the rotating banner on their new website, [G2] both due to the beauty and the reminder of a very special time.

The location of the Gouritz Biosphere Cluster Reserve. (from

One thing the experience reinforced in me is the importance of face-to-face interactions in building trust and transforming the impersonal notion of “opposing stakeholders” into actual people who know and respect each other and work to get along.  It was great to see conservation assessments leading to conservation actions with this group back then (which of course had its inevitable frustrations), and I can hope that they are still successfully narrowing the planning action gap.

Now, four years later and countless days at a computer, embedded in the realm of spatial decision support systems, I feel like I am a world away...  Oh, I am!  I have continued my focus on the provision of maps and analyses to support conservation planning, and am extremely excited about joining CBI and their significant progress in this realm.  For example, Data Basin is a world class GIS Web Portal, open to all, that allows for online groups and collaboration.  EEMS is a multi-criteria framework that links to Data Basin with a graphical user interface, and is an indication of where we can go with the visualization of complex geoprocessing.

These are works in progress, and can benefit from us all asking questions and providing suggestions.  Here are some questions that come to mind from this post that I’ll try to answer in the coming years. 

 Any of your responses/questions are most welcome!

About the author:
John Gallo, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist
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