Heated discussions in a tropical climate: The 4th meeting of the Transformative Adaptation Research Alliance in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Maraja Riechers

While it might have been 30 degrees Celsius outside, this was not the reason why my head was boiling. We were in Oaxaca, Mexico at this beautiful venue at the Centro Cultural San Pablo – there was sun, good food and hummingbirds. Really, what do you want more?

How about an amazing group of like-minded researchers discussing fascinating topics?

In a post-normal world, scientists tackle problems with ever increasing complexity, chaos and contradictions. In a world with wicked problems, embedded in social-ecological systems, disciplinary science makes little sense. Talking about me and our Leverage points project, I do not have one discipline, and frankly, I do not see the sense in having one. My team and I research human-nature connectedness across 6 landscapes in 2 countries using various empirical social research methods incl. transdisciplinary ones. The landscapes are our boundary objects, and our knowledge stems and draws on various disciplines. Yet, instead of disciplines, a community becomes important. To further my work, I am in need of a plurality of perspectives and “an ‘extended peer community’ consisting of all those with a stake in the dialogue on the issue” (Functowicz & Ravetz 1993:739). Those people in this peer community can be the local actors in the landscape/community with whom one is working, but also the international community that tackles arising problems of environmental changes all over the word, just like you. I found such an extended peer community at the 4th meeting of the Transformative Adaptation Research Alliance (TARA) that took place around the PECs ii Conference in Oaxaca (see my other Blog Posts on the conference here).

TARA aims to further discussions on reframing nature conservation objectives in the context of global changes. In their paper (or this one) the researchers in TARA “present a case for a transformative approach to conservation and a framework that links global-change-ready conservation with transformative adaptation”. By focusing on the three perspectives of Values, Rules and Knowledge (VRK), the TARA approach aims to embed adaptation to global changes into knowledge co-production processes. “Current conservation objectives are underpinned by normative values (held and assigned), knowledge, and rules, but interactions between them tend not to be considered by decision makers”. Those interactions can, however, greatly impact the success of an adaptation and successful long-term transformation towards a more desirable system state.


Source: Colloff et al. 2017 (see link in text)


TARA sees co-production of knowledge as a vital pre-requisite to diagnose constraints on decision making – and for a solution-oriented new approach to nature conservation under global changes. Scientists, civil society actors, and decision-makers – basically everyone with a stake in the dialogue should be engaged. Through highlighting the underlying values, rules and knowledge systems that often have an invisible yet strong influence on transformation potentials, I saw similarities to our approach emphasizing the deeper leverage points.

Since the influences of the Values, Rules, Knowledge systems are rarely made visible, it is possible that some rules and values are excluded – and some take over the hegemony of decision-making. These points especially fostered a discussion among us around the use and necessity of environmental justice within transdisciplinary research (encouraged by Leonie Bellina): dimensions around participation and recognition were some issues that were brought up in the intriguing sessions. Choosing pathways to respond to the ever more complex and wicked problems is a tricky thing – there are always clashing beliefs on who is responsible (Policies? Science? Everyone?), where should we go (Economic growth? De-growth? Justice?), and what time frame are we looking at (short-term pragmatism vs long-term transformations) and many, many more issues like these. Using the VRK perspectives to focus on the social, political and cultural dynamics of decision contexts, the TARA group argues, can show not only constraints, but also arising opportunities of co-production. To quote Matt Colloff and colleagues (e.g. Lorrae van Kerkhoff and Louis Lebel) again: “This focus enables targeted activities that build on existing strength, such as good relationships between researchers and decision makers, or alert project designers to social-political power dynamics that affect the scale at which research can make the greatest contribution”.

This TARA workshop in Oaxaca in November last year was the first that was open to the public. Hence, many newcomers were integrated into the discussions. What I found incredibly intriguing was the unusually high team spirit. Outsiders like me were welcomed with open arms. There were no hierarchical boundaries and all of us had an equal voice. This spirit created an atmosphere of motivation, inspiration and creativity. It felt like a real idea hub in which the main goal was the exchange of all kinds of knowledge and raising awareness to issues close to our hearts. For me as an early career researcher, this is how I imagined collaboration to look like – across countries, status, disciplines and topics. After those successful 3 days of workshops, we found tangible links for collaboration, created a network for support and frankly also just had a splendid time in Oaxaca and the following PECs ii conference. My head was certainly boiling over with great ideas on how to use this in my research now and in the future – and I am already looking forward to the next TARA workshop!

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