Professor Jaboury Ghazoul is plant ecologist studying the bidirectional impacts of land-use decisions and ecological processes. Previously focused on the tropics – including tropical forests, agroforestry and plantation palm oil systems – he has recently turned his attention to the landscapes of Scotland.
Pathways to impact
Jaboury is clear from the outset that we face massive global challenges around climate, food and biodiversity, and therefore, “We cannot afford ecological research that does not have clear impact. Research outcomes must be relevant to management or policy processes, leading to positive social and environmental change.”
He appreciates, however, that impact can be direct – such as providing clear data on the most effective processes for forest restoration – or indirect, perhaps through facilitating dialogue between policymakers and stakeholders around scenarios for landscape management. His current research sits clearly in the latter camp, creating participatory and interactive models of landscapes and resources underpinned by biophysical data.
“In getting policy makers, land managers, environmental NGOs and communities to collectively engage with these models,” he explains, “We build a shared understanding from which we can predict how policy or management options might unfold.” Ultimately, they can be used to support just transitions towards more biodiverse and resilient landscapes.
One such project is ‘Landscapes as Carbon Sinks,’ an EU Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community created in partnership with Edinburgh Climate Change Institute and working with Scottish Government, WWF Landscape Finance Lab, Wageningen University, the Peatland Partnership, private landowners, and others. The project co-designed ways to transform Scotland’s landscapes from carbon sources to sinks in line with our 2045 Net Zero Target, considering future agricultural policies, climate mitigation targets, forest restoration goals, and land reform.
The project comprises a process of ‘deep listening’ with key stakeholders who, Jaboury emphasizes, include both “those who have most influence in the system of interest, and those who are most impacted by decisions being made.” This is followed by designing and testing approaches for ‘unlocking levers of change’, such as new technologies, products, business models, governance systems, financing, or management approaches and behaviours.
A key feature of Landscapes as Carbon Sinks is the use of visual, interactive ‘system maps’ to explore the network of factors and forces in a system. So far, these have been created to explain how we might scale up the use of wood in construction while drawing on domestically-produced timber, and why the uptake of private finance for natural capital investment in Scotland has been limited.
“As far back as I remember, I have been fascinated by the natural world,” Jaboury tells me. “I think I was born a biologist! My first love was (and still is) marine biology: the immense variety of life in a simple rock pool on a wet and windy rocky shore is a constant reminder of why I do what I do.”
Born in Iraq, he moved to the UK in 1980 and studied for a PhD at the University of St Andrews on the evolutionary ecology of social behaviour in sphecid wasps. Appointments followed with the Vietnamese Ministry of Forestry, the Natural History Museum, London, and Imperial College, before taking up his present position at ETH Zurich and a just-completed three-year period as Director of the Centre for Sustainable Forests and Landscapes at the University of Edinburgh. “I was lucky,” he says, “early in my career to have been given the chance to work in Egypt, Vietnam, Thailand, Costa Rica and many other fascinating places, and I have been supported by, and worked with, excellent people throughout my career, which has certainly helped me access opportunities. There has been a lot of hard work along the way, but this was made easy by the people I have met and the places in which I have been privileged to work and live.”
Fascinated by the complex interactions between social and ecological systems, Jaboury believes the big challenge for biodiversity and conservation science today is to effectively integrate these disciplines. “Conservation science is not about ecology, or even biodiversity,” he says, “It is foremost about people’s values and decisions.” However, it is still challenging to secure funding for such complex, trans-disciplinary projects, where outcomes are often uncertain. He would like to see a change in the culture of research funding to support higher-risk, trans-disciplinary research.
He continues, “We need many more interdisciplinary thinkers to respond to the multiple environmental crises that we face. We must create opportunities and platforms for exchange of ideas across different sectors.” And we have to start early: “We need to change the culture of learning … in the early days of higher education, offering courses that force students to think across disciplinary boundaries.” For himself, “I am an ecologist,” he says modestly, “But I am keen to bridge the divide between ecological and social sciences to ensure that our ecological theories are interpreted and applied in the context of the socioeconomic realities on the ground. Landscapes must be managed to respond to the multiple needs and values that people ascribe to them.”
It’s clear that Jaboury finds humans as much, if not more, captivating than the plants and animals he started out studying. “I enjoy meeting and talking to people in the landscape, understanding their perspectives, how they manage their land and resources, the conflicts and challenges they face, and the reasons they make the decisions that they do. This is endlessly fascinating, and serves to put my ecological knowledge in the context of the messy realities of life,” he enthuses. “We need to build good relationships between scientists and land managers, business and policymakers. It’s only through trust and mutual respect that new ideas are developed.”
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