CNH: Feedbacks Between Human Community Dynamics and Socioecological Vulnerability in a Biodiversity Hotspot

This interdisciplinary research project will focus on people, community organizations, and the long-term health of natural ecosystems that support people's livelihoods. Early research on human well-being and the environment showed that strong, collectively governed institutions help people to manage common lands in ways that enhance ecosystem services and quality of life. This knowledge has been a key facet of biodiversity conservation and resilience of rural societies worldwide. Some communities are able to adaptively manage their natural resources much better than others under conditions of rapid change and uncertainty. What factors enable collectively governed management institutions to effectively respond to potentially catastrophic environmental disturbances? In rural societies that are urbanizing, activities of daily life increasingly take place outside the family home, in "non-family organizations" that expand people's perspectives and choices, such as schools, stores, employers, and health clinics. These non-family organizations are not collectively governed and have no clear constituents or responsibilities other than to respond to supply and demand for their services, goods, and experiences. In this project, the researchers will test the hypothesis that the responsiveness of resource- management institutions to rapid environmental change is ultimately tied to the distribution and types of market-driven, non-family organizations within communities. They will conduct their research in the forested buffer zone of the Chitwan National Park, Nepal, a biodiversity hotspot that is home to the endangered Bengal tiger and more than 200,000 Nepali people who live and farm nearby. One of the world's most invasive plants, Mikania micrantha ("mile-a-minute weed") recently has spread through community forests and degraded critical ecosystem services that affect wildlife habitat and the livelihoods of residents. To explore the links among non-family organizations, management institutions, and the spread of Mikania, the researchers will collect social and ecological data in 21 heterogeneous community forests to develop models of social-ecological vulnerability and resilience to environmental change. They will conduct two experiments to test the relative strength of factors related to Mikania success, including an educational intervention with management institutions, and a common garden experiment that manipulates environmental variables linked to Mikania growth.

This project will test the ability of the "family modes of organization" framework, a powerful explanatory tool in demography, to identify factors that cause coupled natural and human systems to be vulnerable or resilient to rapid change. The project will be an exemplar of "translational science," interdisciplinary research focused on practical solutions to current problems. The investigators will translate research findings into local action through an intervention aimed to slow the catastrophic spread of invasive, exotic species that threatens biodiversity and human well-being. More broadly, the research will aid sustainable development efforts in other settings in south Asia and the Pacific through partnership with a non-profit organization focused on solving issues in agriculture and the environment. The project also will provide education and training opportunities for a new cohort of junior scholars by involving them in interdisciplinary, international research focused on real world problems and their solutions. This project is supported by the NSF Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems (CNH) Program and the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering.