The University of Wisconsin at Madison, Thailand's Chiang Mai
University, and the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences in Kunming,
China, have initiated a three-way project to study watersheds
in an area known as the "rooftop of Southeast Asia."
The region, located between the Yunnan province of China, Burma,
Laos, Thailand, and North Vietnam, contains the headwaters of
six major rivers that flow through five countries and impact the
lives of some 500 million people. The cooperative initiative will
span not only national and organizational boundaries, but also
The project, known as Sustainable Management in Upland Tropical
Ecosystems (SAMUTE), received official sanction from the heads
of the three universities in a January 1995 agreement. Under its
umbrella, about a dozen natural scientists and social scientists
from Wisconsin will collaborate with a similar number of colleagues
from Chiang Mai and about 25 from Yunnan to study issues ranging
from hillside agriculture to social forestry to gender issues.
The core of the program is a small watershed management project,
scheduled to unfold in three phases over ten years. The first
phase incorporated problem identification and team building. Now
the teams are designing integrated research projects for the specific
basins that will eventually be incorporated into local and regional
policy, education and training. Each university will contribute
according to its strengths. The Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences
(YASS) will take the lead and provide a local base for a collaborative
SAMUTE Center. Chiang Mai University (CMU) will provide expertise
in community-level natural resource management and conflict resolution
in northern Thailand, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison
(UWM) will draw on its large pool of specialists in a variety
of relevant fields. It will also provide supplies, computer time,
and training at the master's and doctoral levels.
On a recent visit to CMU and YASS, and interdisciplinary group
of Wisconsin faculty members me their counterparts and visited
potential research sites. They conducted natural resource inventories
and land-use inventories, and talked to people about what they
had done and what they would like to do in the watershed.
"This kind of international exchange forces us to look at
things anew and bring back important ideas to the U.S.,"
says Dr. J Lin Compton, a professor of continuing and vocational
education at Wisconsin who was instrumental in creating SAMUTE.
"It gets us out of 'mental sclerosis,' allowing academics
from dozens of disciplines to come together to help people fight
for their survival."
Compton believes in the bottom-up approach to research formulation
and implementation. "Traditionally, scientists generate knowledge,
educators disseminate the information, and farmers apply it,"
he explains. "But that paradigm is falling apart because
we're not incorporating the most important element: what villagers
and farmers already know about their land, and how they want to
use their land."
The SAMUTE project has a strong foundation of inter-university
collaboration on which to build. Compton and Dr. Uravian Tan-Kim-Yong,
Compton's former student and a senior member of the Faculty of
Social Science at CMU, have been conducting research together
on the natural resource management practices of the Karen and
Akha hill tribes. The project grew out of Compton's 1994 visit
to Chiang Mai to evaluate a social forestry project that Tan-Kim-Yong
was conducting. Compton arranged for YASS and CMU faculty members
to visit Wisconsin, and within months, he helped launch SAMUTE.
The researchers hop their work will set a precedent. "This
means an efforts to work with a new institutional model of North
and South cooperation in research and development with a direct
linkage to the global agenda on biodiversity loss, climate change,
projected and world food deficit, and continuing trends in population
increase and poverty," Tan-Kim-Yong says. "The SAMUTE
is one alternative model which has key components in the institutional
development and strengthening and action research for problem-solving
for Southwest China and Southeast Asia."
Links between CMU and YASS are also well established. There were
more than eight exchange programs and study trips between the
two countries from 1989 to 1994, and the two institutions have
worked together to plan and implement multidisciplinary and multicultural
teamwork in the Upper Yangtze watershed and the Ailao Mountain
ecoregion in Yunnan Province.
"Through previous cooperation, we [faculty from CMU, UWM
and YASS] think we can understand and trust each other, and we
have common interests in the region," said Professor Zhao
Junchen, director of the Institute of Rural Economy (IRE) at Yunnan.
By framing their research in terms of an entire landscape, the
project's planners not only demanded a diverse team of experts,
but they also planted the seeds of the group's cohesion. Dr. Tom
Yuill, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at
UWM, said the visit to Yunnan made this dynamic explicit.
"When you're standing out there and talking to local people
about their problems and what they want to do, and you can see
some of the problems, it's very clear that one has to have an
interdisciplinary team approach. One individual certainly can't
cover the range needed to provide a holistic approach to this
project," he said. "One just really is absolutely compelled
to work interdisciplinarily. We came together very easily with
our counterparts on that basis in the field."
Collaborating across two continents, three countries, and many
disciplines presents a number of challenges-mostly logistical,
but also conceptual.
Robert Ray, a Wisconsin professor who studies tourism and development,
said bringing together the resources of the three universities
creates a powerful force for learning.
"It fits well, but there is a whole bunch of stuff that
people have to get through. We have three languages, three universities,
three cultures," says Ray. "It's always an interested
ferment, because we all say the same thing, but mean different
things. It's a learning process for the team, for instance, to
learn something about the flora and fauna of a particular area,
but unless I know how it influences the local people, my understanding
is not complete."
Zhao said one challenge facing the project is the difficulty
of communication in many forms. First is the problem of language.
Some of the IRE staff cannot speak English and have to rely on
translators, and there is another language barrier between researchers
and local people. Secondly, communication among scientists from
different disciplines poses problems. Finally, he said, communication
facilities are inadequate. The IRE does not have email yet, and
faxing is too expensive, and mail is too slow.
The SAMUTE project is now in the stage of drawing up specific
proposals and seeking funding. The researchers chose to focus
on small watersheds because they provide a scale small enough
to understand relationships between human and natural ecology
and large enough to incorporate a significant degree of diversity.
They will study the Yangtze River, because YASS is already working
there; the Red River, because it provides an opportunity to promote
collaborative efforts between China and Vietnam; and the Mekong
River because development projects in the area are causing rapid
In their search for funding, SAMUTE participants have run into
the common academic problem of needing to emphasize different
aspects for different potential donors.
"It's the white suit principle," Yuill said. "You
go out and buy a white suit. If you need a green suit, you turn
on a green light, a blue suit you turn on a blue light. So we've
got the white suit-it's watershed management, it's got a little
policy focus, but it's mostly grassroots. Now, as we look around
at potential funding sources, we see that some organizations are
more interested at the policy level, interested in training. You
take the base, and it lends itself perfectly well to a training
program, for example for our counterparts or officials at the
local level. We can take what we have and begin to shape it without
doing damage to it and without being dishonest."
Changing political winds also influence funding decisions. For
example, Wisconsin has applied for an inter-institutional linkage
grant through the United States Information Agency, but some members
of the U.S. Congress have proposed eliminating that agency altogether.
"The key to making them [projects] work is people who know
and like and trust each other at each end and maintain good communication,"
Yuill said. "If you don't have that, it's just not going
to work, that's just part of the reality. You have to be able
to move people and things around, and then you need money, and
so one needs to have reasonable expectation that what one is interested
in is really fundable."
Among SAMUTE's overarching objectives is the promotion of environmental
literacy. The ULSF Secretariat is working with the project to
establish a Southeast Asian Environmental Literacy Institute.
"Environmental literacy is an essential ingredient in the
long-term impact of SAMUTE," notes Compton, who participated
in the 1994 Environmental Literacy Institute faculty development
workshop. "We want to make use of the scientific analysis
of our upland ecosystem work to create environmental leadership
programs for educators, government officials, industry representatives,
field workers, and NGOs from throughout the region."
SAMUTE's interdisciplinary approach fits the principles of the
Talloires Declaration and the existing curricula at UWM. Wisconsin
Chancellor David Ward is a charger signatory to the Declaration,
CMU is a recent ULSF signatory institution as YASS plans to sign
on to the document as well. "I view the SAMUTE project as
an important initiative that is bringing together natural sciences,
social sciences, and humanities in a holistic approach to scholarly
research, instruction, and application to the solution of real
world problems," says Ward.
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