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Engaged research: Working with Uganda

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Africa's Lake Victoria, the world’s second largest lake, is in rapid transition. Conflict, progress, population shifts all weigh upon its waters. Impacts directly affect the basic food-security of the 40-million people inhabiting its basin.

The dynamics attracted Cullen Hendrix and Sarah Glaser. Fresh off their 2011 Journal of Peace Research Article of the Year award for their article “Civil Conflict and World Fisheries, 1952-2004,” Hendrix, W&M assistant professor of international relations, and Glaser, visiting assistant professor of biology and marine science, undertook an exploratory expedition to the region. They partnered with Ugandan scientists. They queried local businesspersons and laborers. In short, they got a feel for the economic, ecological and socio-political dynamics at play.

faculty feature button imageOne year later, they returned to Uganda with three undergraduate students and one graduate student from William & Mary. Their goals included refining their “on-the-ground” understanding of the forces they previously had witnessed as well as to help establish a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) center that had been identified as a pressing need by scientists working with Uganda’s National Fisheries Resources Research Institute (NaFIRRI). GIS, a powerful means of representing and analyzing spatially explicit data, is a key tool for natural resource managers and scientists.

The lure of the lake
It did not take much to encourage Glaser to turn her attention from the world’s oceans to its second-largest lake. Between 18,000 and 14,000 years ago, the lake experienced periods of drying and expansion, facilitating an extraordinary evolution of small cichlids. More than 500 species evolved. The cichlids became known as the Darwin’s finches of marine biologists.

According to Glaser, that natural development was interrupted during the 1950s when an experiment introduced the commercially lucrative Nile perch to the lake. That was followed by an introduction of a larger cichlid, the Nile tilapia. Each thrived. “However, the complex ecology of the Lake Victoria system has become biologically simplified,” Glaser said.

The perch, which are caught, processed and sent directly to markets in Europe, North Africa and elsewhere, are not consumed locally. One of the questions on which Glaser will concentrate involves the impact of exporting such a large portion of the commercial catch.

“I am interested in food security,” she said. “What has been the effect upon those who live around the lake? Maybe nothing: maybe they’re eating other types of fish, or maybe they’re using the money earned from the fishery to buy chicken or other forms of protein.”

Meanwhile, indicators are that the Nile perch fishery is in decline. Some experts fear a crash in the coming decades. Such an event would raise an entirely new set of questions.

On the shores
Whereas Glaser is considering how the Lake Victoria fishery is changing the local food web, Hendrix is looking at ways the human population affects the lake. A significant development involved recent civil conflict in the North that caused several million people to move south toward the lake. Although long considered a “bread-basket” of Eastern Africa, as many as one-in-five area residents now are considered malnourished.

“What we’re trying to do is take all of this stuff, food prices, labor-market dynamics, violence in the region, and we’re trying to understand it through the framework of Coupled Natural and Human Systems analysis,“ Hendrix said. Pertinent factors to be researched include poverty, barriers to food access, functioning of local markets and, increasingly, price pressures from global markets.

Hendrix said, “Our goals are to understand the interrelationships of ecological processes and human social-political processes. If we do good science, good research and work through the collaborative process, we can have a positive impact on natural-resource management that crucially can affect the lives and nutrition of more than 40 million people.”

Transferring technology
Although several of the undergraduates were involved in their own research projects related to conflict and crisis, collectively they joined with law student John Holden to help Ugandan scientists gain access to GIS. Trained in the university’s own Center for Geospatial Analysis under the direction of W&M professor Stu Hamilton, the students were able to transfer both equipment and software to the Ugandan scientists. During a five-day course hosted by NaFIRRI, 16 local scientists and information-technologists were trained.

A pressing application for the local scientists involves spatially monitoring Lake Victoria and other lakes in the area for water temperature and water quality as precursor to potential investment in tilapia aquaculture. They also will use the technology to monitor fish within Lake Victoria as they move between international borders involving Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya.

Hendrix and Glaser believe the successful technology transfer will prove a means of cementing relationships between W&M team members and local research scientists, ensuring their findings will have a means of reaching local and regional policy makers.

A bit of student research
Meanwhile, the individual student research projects were designed to contribute to the overall understanding of the region.

Colleen Devlin ’13 has an interest in exploring water security. In Uganda, she was able to look at wells as sources of community water and to explore how remote villages deal with sanitation issues. During one three-hour visit to a remote fishing village, she entered dialogue with local residents. Their enthusiasm marked what she called “a defining” moment. “I realized I was asking the right questions, that I was looking at the right things,” she said. “That is where I saw the impact that my research can have.”

Catherine Mahoney ’15 was able to consider the local labor market as it applied to those who fish. “There is a shortage of capital—boats,” she explained. “In a substitution of labor for capital, you may see as many as a dozen people renting a single boat. Contracts have emerged in which a boat is loaned out for one day in return for the catch being sold back to the owner at a reduced rate.”

For her, however, the GIS experience became the most meaningful. “I became really excited to be involved in a project that promises to have a tangible impact,” she said. “Having met people in Uganda who are so smart and so highly educated but who are totally hamstrung due to a lack of technology and resources, then to bring those resources and to work in partnership, made me think that I can make change there. I realized that a subtle change in the way they do business may change lives dramatically.”

Hendrix and Glaser each point out that students were able to participate through funds provided by William & Mary’s Charles Center, the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Reves Center for International Studies and the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.

Said Hendrix, “I am motivated in part by the kind of enjoyment I get from having these new experiences for myself, but to be able to provide new experiences for our William & Mary students really is the best part of the job.”

Realizing that their contributions ultimately will figure into solutions to real-world problems only makes the enjoyment that much better, he said.