Ecosystems, Culture, and Governance: A Systems View of Development

Boston University faculty from the fields of international public health, anthropology, and biology spoke of the complex connections between human and natural systems and the impact of those relationships on development during the March 26 Pardee House Seminar titled Ecosystems, Culture, and Governance: A Systems View of Development.

Pardee Faculty Fellow Les Kaufman (Biology) moderated the lunchtime session. The other speakers included Prof. Susan Foster (School of Public Health), and Prof. Cheryl Knott (Anthropology).

Prof. Foster opened the seminar by discussing how governance issues can have major impacts on public policies, citing the typically weak position of ministries of health in developing countries compared to other ministries that govern financial and economic programs or the military, for example.  Because ministries of health are perceived as “consumers” of resources instead of “producers”, they often have lower status in the overall government and are poorly funded compared to other ministries, she said. As a result, important public health programs – such as those focusing on non-communicable diseases, which are now responsible for 70 percent of morbidity and mortality in developing countries – lack the resources needed to be effective.

Prof. Foster also spoke about the increasing “dependency ratio” – or number of productive citizens relative to those who are dependent on others – in many countries around the world.  She noted in particular China’s “4:2:1” issue, in which the country’s one-child policy of the past several decades has created a situation in which one adult child is now responsible for caring for two aging parents and four elderly grandparents.

She noted this demographic issue may be further complicated by high rates of cancer in China, which recently acknowledged its status as the only country in the world where cancer is the leading cause of death, tied largely to environmental pollution and high smoking rates. “The elites can buy (clean) water, but they can’t buy air – everyone breathes the same air,” Prof. Foster said, noting China’s severe air pollution issues. “This may be what galvanizes China to take action” in moving to clean up and protect the environment, she said.

In discussing her work researching orangutans in Indonesia, Prof. Knott focused on the need to create “living landscapes” with opportunities for human development to co-exist with protection of wildlife and natural habitats.  As an example, she cited the efforts of her conservation program, working in the communities near her research site in Borneo’s rainforest, to stem the tide of illegal logging by helping villagers find non-timber forest products that provide a source of livelihood as well as incentives to conserve the forest instead of cut it down.

She also discussed the need to resolve human-wildlife conflicts, which she characterized as wildlife, such as orangutans, being killed or hurt as they encounter humans and an increasingly human-dominated landscape.  Additionally, she discussed the problem of competing land use interests and described efforts to help villagers attain legal title to their traditional forest lands. She noted that universities can play a role through environmental education programs at all levels, research to improve the understanding of local ecosystems, and fieldwork to identify areas where there are conflicts between humans and wildlife and to identify consequences of changes in land use.

Prof. Kaufman spoke of a still-developing interdisciplinary program based at BU’s Pardee Center that will bring scholars together to pool knowledge and put pieces together to better understand where the rapid changes in various areas of human and natural systems are leading.

“The basic idea is that human and natural systems are one, and we’re drunk in the driver’s seat,” he said. “We need a model or scaffold to organize knowledge and anticipate the way the world will look if we alter it this way or that.”

As an example, he talked of his research in an area of Cambodia called Tonle Sap, at the base of the Mekong Delta, where annual flood-and-flow cycles provide a rich environment for fish that supplies 80 percent of the protein consumed by the country’s population.  However, several hundred miles upstream in China, more than 200 hydroelectric dams are planned or being built on the Mekong system to provide a much-needed clean energy source in that country. But that system of dams will eliminate a major source of food in Cambodia.

Prof. Kaufman said we need to be able to look for and see related environmental, economic, and social changes and understand the options and trade-offs as decision are being made. And we need both knowledge and sophisticated modeling tools to help visualize what potential changes will mean.