Nepalese Himalaya

Disaster as a Catalyst for Social-Ecological Transformation: Nepal Critical Transitions Project
Project Duration: 2015-2017


Ethnographic research after natural disasters can uncover the dynamic, plural, and hybrid ways that communities understand and respond to extreme events. It can also document how populations learn through experimentation and innovation. However, much of the social science research to date has been primarily descriptive, focused on localized case studies and human agency rather than the theory building needed to enable the lessons learned in one post-disaster context to be applied to other contexts. In contrast, this research takes a coupled social-ecological systems approach. It will combine the broader theorization of interdisciplinary, quantitative critical transitions or regime-shift research with the more textured qualitative approaches of the social science of disaster.

This project funded by an U.S. National Science Foundation RAPID grant is led by Dr. Jeremy Spoon in Nepal where there was a devastating series of earthquakes in the spring of 2015. Earthquake recovery and reconstruction comprise a multi-staged process that occurs over weeks, months, and years. Spoon and his research team are in the process of conducting ethnographic and survey research using a retrospective survey of pre-earthquake states, at two short time intervals (about 10 weeks each) to track the impacts and recovery trajectory. The project enrolled 400 households in four communities. An additional 40 key consultants have been contacted for in-depth interviews. The data collection is focusing on three to five key indicator variables that express adaptive capacity and follow them over time to uncover social-ecological transformation in the selected communities. The indicators include: biophysical attributes (characteristics integral to the ecological system structure and processes prior to the disturbance); institutional context (governance of the social-ecological system); connectivity (flows of information, knowledge, resources and linkages between the system and external actors); livelihood diversity (diverse patterns of resource use and heterogeneity of income); and social memory (prior experiences with disturbances). The timing of this project allows the researchers to collect information on pre-earthquake states, the emergency response, the restoration of basic essentials, and the start of livelihood reconstruction. It will provide a window into transformation processes at the earliest stages, setting a foundation for a longer-term project that follows social and ecological reconstruction in the targeted areas over multiple years.

Life After the Nepal Quakes (Photo Blog)

Tourism in a Sacred Landscape: Political Economy and Sherpa Ecological Knowledge in Beyul Khumbu/Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) National Park and Buffer Zone, Nepal
Project Duration 2004-2008

This project, funded by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the U.S. National Science Foundation, assessed the influence of political and economic forces on Sherpa ecological knowledge inside the protected area. A stratified random sample of 100 households and 12 monks was selected and demographically profiled. One individual from each household participated in structured and semi-structured interviews on plants, mushrooms, mammals, birds, place-based spiritual values containing taboos on resource harvest, and landscape knowledge of various locations. Results of a Multiple Regression Analysis generally expressed that the more market-integrated, younger cohorts, females, and the educated had less knowledge of these various domains, although there were exceptions. These findings suggest that the loss of Sherpa ecological knowledge by these various demographics may influence decision-making resulting in less sustainable environmental interactions. The documented overharvests of tree and shrub species on the Park periphery and in alpine areas may be indicators of these knowledge changes. These results were presented back to the participants, local institutions, Park staff, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Nepal, and various national and international non-governmental organizations.