As a researcher you need to be aware of the social setting in which you are conducting your research; it influences your results, but you might also inadvertently influence the people and environment you are working in. Work of anthropologists in the Amazon with the Yanomamö people have for example raised a fierce debate about the harm we do, which is well depicted in the documentary Secrets of the Tribe. Something to take into account in my research as well.
On the 10th of October 2010, the Caribbean islands Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba became special municipalities of the Netherlands. At this date, the Dutch Antilles were abolished and St. Maarten and Curaçao became autonomous countries within the Kingdom, a status Aruba has had since 1986. The integration of the islands into the Dutch government is a slow process, in which small steps are taken at a time, but eventually the islands will have to adapt to Dutch legislation and regulation. At the same time, the Dutch government now bears responsibility for the islands, which for example has led to investment in the scientific research on the islands. Thus, the Caribbean Netherlands Science Institute has been established at St. Eustatius in 2014, to encourage research relevant for the Caribbean.
Invasive plant species
A year earlier, the Dutch Scientific Organisation (NWO) had published a call for research focusing on the Caribbean region, for which Copernicus Institute submitted a proposal, titled: “Exotic species on the Caribbean: foreign foes or alien allies?”. Exotic plant species, brought to the islands for example by ships, can become invasive when they spread at a very high rate and do not seem to experience any deterrence, for example from a natural enemy. Invasive plants pose enormous threats to the ecosystem on an island, amongst others by decreasing biodiversity. They can however also have benefits, such as protection against hurricanes or ornamental beauty. Next to that, slowing down their spread might ask changes in people’s use of the landscape, such as cattle grazing and agriculture. Deciding on a management strategy for the species is thus a challenge, for which the ecological and social sciences should team-up in order to answer two general questions: what do the plants do, and what do people want to do about it?
Supporting decision making in a delicate setting
Since mid-March, Elizabeth Haber has been working on a way to answer the first question, and I have been trying to do the same for the second question. We have both been appointed as PhD candidates on this project and are currently in the phase of Great Confusion: what exactly do we want to investigate, what is possible to investigate, how will we go about that and lastly, will that indeed result in solutions for the invasive species problem? At the beginning of a four year research project, the possibilities and things to do seem overwhelming, and plans change every day. Importantly, we need to curb our ambitions a bit, since the aim is not to tell the islands what to do with the plants, but rather to provide a system that supports their decision. Such a system would probably have a longer span of influence than a report would, and more importantly, avoid adding to the wariness feel towards the Dutch entering the islands and telling local people how things should be done. The recent decision by the Dutch government to put the islands under administrative supervision has only increased the tension. To prevent starting off on the wrong foot, this episode on Bonaire shows the importance of trying to integrate into the society, for example by learning the language. As we have understood from other researchers working on the islands, the researchers themselves have by now slowly become seen as invasive. If we don’t proceed carefully, we might find ourselves having to construct a decision support system regarding the management of invasive researchers, rather than plant species…