Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN System. They come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time Dr. Mindel van de Laar speaks to Silke Heuser, who currently works for the World Bank in its Global Climate Change Research and Advisory Team. She defends her PhD thesis on 20 November 2018.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just released a landmark report, urging us to limit global warming to max 1.5 degrees. Your thesis deals with a major aspect of this: deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest and the role of indigenous people in preserving the Amazon area. Can you elaborate?
Forests are important for biodiversity and for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. They have long served as a great sink for carbon dioxide, thus mitigating the effects of climate change. Recently, however, tropical forests have become net emitters because of forest fires and deforestation. This has quickly become one of humanity’s biggest challenges.
My research addresses the problem of deforestation and forest preservation in Brazil. This country has the largest stretch of tropical forest in the world. Surprisingly, and this is good news for once, Brazil has reduced yearly deforestation levels dramatically over the last decade. Since the Rio Conference in 1993, the Brazilian government has given protected status to 40% of the ‘Amazônia Legal’ region. This means it has demarcated indigenous areas, monitored deforestation via satellite imagery on a daily basis, and implemented measures on the ground such as enforcement missions to punish offenders.
Indigenous peoples tend to be good stewards of forests, preserving them for future generations. My research covers whether the policy of providing indigenous communities with land titles actually saves forests. I conducted an impact evaluation that compares 150 indigenous communities living on 400,000 km2 of rainforest (or 8% of Amazônia Legal) with and without land titles. I also had the privilege to visit a few communities in the Amazon and explore whether community land titles were restricting indigenous people’s mobility and harming their livelihoods. In fact the opposite was true. Indigenous communities seem to thrive and use their land sustainably!
When comparing indigenous communities with and without land titles, the difference between both groups is small. The reason for this finding is that remote indigenous territories are not yet threatened by deforestation and therefore do not show a significant difference between both groups. However, satellite images clearly show that some indigenous territories can act as a buffer against deforestation (see picture below — mainly ‘solid’ green areas).
You’re currently working on a citizen engagement strategy at the World Bank. From your experience, how can citizens be encouraged to take ownership of climate change?
We are working directly with communities in a bottom-up approach; the end goal is to empower them to help themselves. This means that vulnerable people including women, children, the disabled, indigenous peoples, and the elderly know how to prepare for natural disasters and become resilient to climate change. We then link communities with local or central government agencies, so that disaster preparedness and evacuation drills become formalised.
Right now, I am working on a proposal for a report that captures indigenous knowledge on how to cope and adapt to climate change. Here we plan to organise consultations with indigenous communities to capture their knowledge about what to do during droughts, for example. We then pair this indigenous knowledge with results from scientific research and develop models to ensure projects funded by the World Bank are able to make communities more climate-resilient.
You graduated in three years and eight months — which is fast even by full-time standards. Can you tell us how much time you invested in your PhD, and how you managed to combine the workload with that of a consultant and mother?
It was challenging, but keeping yourself focused on the goal is critical. I also had supportive colleagues who encouraged me, which helped provide additional motivation to work in the evenings and on weekends. Most importantly, you and the great GPAC2 programme gave me flexibility, and without a large community of advisors, professors, other students, and friends who contributed in one way or another to getting the work done, it would have been a different story.
Already an expert in your field, you’ll formally defend your PhD research on 20 November 2018. Yet beyond the knowledge acquired, what lessons have you learnt from this research training?
What I appreciated in the programme was the guidance we received on how to turn our work experience into research, such as developing research questions and hypotheses and grounding the research in both theory and the literature. I am also grateful for the opportunity to deepen my knowledge in quantitative research methods.
The small class size in the first year, with students from all over the world working predominantly in international development, allowed us to learn from our peers and build bonds and friendships that will outlast the programme.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.