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Climate change, and the human activities that contribute to it, is arguably the global-local issue: an environmental phenomenon that cannot be understood at anything less than a planetary scale, but one that has highly varied local impact.

Responsive and effective policy must take account of both the complexity of climate science and the complexity of the human world.  A current IAS research collaboration attempts to shape the conversation between scientific and local knowledge systems by taking a hybrid, interdisciplinary approach to climate change research. It aims to demonstrate that incorporating participatory methods produces better understandings of both climate change and human practice.

Led by IAS faculty members Santiago Lopez and Jin-Kyu Jung, the project looks at how climate change impacts the livelihoods of communities in different locations in Ecuador, from the Andes to the Amazon. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, Lopez and Jung examine quantitative climate data from the past 50-60 years together with qualitative individual and communal information to provide a locally grounded understanding of climate and environmental change.

Jung and Lopez at Cotopaxi

“It’s richer when we combine both quantitative and qualitative methods to study geography. We can learn more about the places, and also about the people who live in those places, and how we live in this world,” says Lopez.

The project builds upon Lopez’s long-term research projects examining agricultural expansion and deforestation in the critical ecosystems of the Andes and the Amazon, with a specific focus on interactions between humans and the environment. Originally from Ecuador, Lopez notes that: “Ecuador is a very diverse country. Any place you go in Ecuador, you’re going to find something different – different environments, ecosystems, people, and languages – so I became interested in diversity from a geographic point of view when I was very young.” 

Lopez in Oyacachi

Jin-Kyu Jung approaches GIS from the perspective of urban geography and planning.  He adds to the project an understanding of GIS as a collaborative tool for engaging communities in the process of making meaning and knowledge. Participatory GIS seeks to empower local communities to create and make use of spatial representations of data so that policy discussions can incorporate and benefit from local knowledge. The partnership marries Jung’s participatory GIS methods with data analysis from Lopez’s Ecuadorian research as a means of studying climate change.

Lopez and Jung collecting weather data

Jung and Lopez’s collaboration evolved in the context of two Exploration Seminars undertaken with UW students to the Andean region, the Amazon, and the Galapagos.  More recently, Lopez and Jung returned to engage communities in Cotopaxi and Oyacachi in generating and collecting qualitative data to add to the analysis. Lopez’s research had already shown change in temperatures and mapped glacial recession.  This phase of the research asked the communities about their engagement with climate change and its meaning.

Through questionnaires and interviews, Jung and Lopez found that local knowledge of climate change was often in conflict with the scientific data on precipitation in those areas. Since local farmers base their agricultural practices on what they see and understand, the resulting practices can run counter to science-informed policy recommendations coming from national and international organizations. Based on their findings, Jung and Lopez advocate for a transdisciplinary approach to studying climate change and for engaging local knowledge and practice in the policy process.

Lopez working with community member

The research also gives back to the communities Jung and Lopez engage.  One of their research findings was that in many cases, rural communities in Ecuador do not have access to accurate maps of their own areas. Using data points collected with students as part of the Exploration Seminars, Jung and Lopez produced maps of these regions (see samples below). They brought these maps back to the communities in 2013 and 2015. In their more recent 2016 trip they also brought along DVDs and other materials documenting the community’s participation in the project.  As Jung puts it, “Many times researchers go to isolated places and do their research, write their papers, and never go back – never give back to the communities that they studied.  We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.”

Map of Eco-Tourism Attractions in Puerto Villamil
Map of Eco-Tourism Attractions in Puerto Villamil

map of weather stations and study sites
Weather stations and Study Sites

Water Quality Sample Sites in Sacha River Watershed

Water Quality Sample Sites in Sacha River Watershed


Winter 2017

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