By Ruby Pap
Environmental science is not just about sampling the natural world, going to the lab and writing up the results — what about the human piece? How does a scientist really know what’s going on in a community? Bridging this divide is what community-perceptions research is all about, and it’s a key piece of sustainability.
Take Halele‘a Moku, or district, on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. The area has experienced increased population pressure over the years, resulting in environmental, social and economic impacts. Visitors have increased significantly to the point where they outnumber residents. Increased traffic, property values and resource degradation have taken their toll.
‘Anini was once a resilient place known for its beauty and marine bountifulness. It is now at risk of losing its environmental health. How does the community perceive and cope with resource challenges such as coral disease and bleaching, and declines in native limu (seaweed) and fish?
This is where University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa student Francesca “Frankie” Koethe, seeking master’s degree in natural resources/conservation, comes in. It all started last year when her mentor, Dr. Mehana Vaughn, introduced her to Anini through a unique class called Kaiaulu: Collaborative Care and Management of Natural Resources. Through qualitative interviews and walking tours, the students investigated the perspectives of more than 30 community members who grew up in ‘Anini. They spoke of “abundance”, what it was like before and how it has changed. Issues surrounding reef health, land use changes from residential to tourism, decreasing affordability, lack of tourism facilities, ocean safety and loss of community identification were dominant themes in the discussion.
Koethe realized ‘Anini is a humble, close-knit community, with few links to the government structures in Līhu‘e. She decided to dig deeper with her current thesis research, and hopes the research may help bridge that divide by presenting community perspectives to better inform planning, management and sustainability.
Koethe’s research builds off of the questions raised by community members in the Kaiaulu class. Utilizing a social research tool called “Analytical Hierarchy Process,” Koethe designed a community survey for residents, visitors, property owners, and experts who implement management strategies (such as planners and natural resource managers). Do sustainable development preferences vary across these groups? Do visitors have the same connection to ‘Anini as residents? Do concerns regarding environmental damage vary across these various groups? These overarching questions are addressed in the survey, which queries about land- and ocean-based pollution, human impacts, public access to resources, cultural practice, community involvement in decision making, visitor accommodations, livability for residents and local jobs.
Over the last six months, 100 visitors and 100 residents took a survey. Koethe still needs more surveys from experts and landowners, so if you are in either of those categories, contact me and I can put you in touch. Landowners are the hardest to find, since many of them live off island.
Koethe believes the research will help the community and government better address environmental issues. For example, if visitors have a much different perception of the environment than residents, there may be means to manage the area in a way comfortable for both the visitor and the resident identities.
“How are we going to approach management based on what we know of people and how they perceive the area?” This is what interests Koethe, who plans to bring the research back to the community so they can use it for themselves.
Koethe also feels this community survey technique, if successful, could be used in other rural communities that have a strong history and culture, but aren’t plugged into the “normal” government discourse.
“(It is) a way to get community discussion and discourse in an area (where) people don’t know there is a community.”
Ruby Pap is a Coastal Land Use Extension Agent at University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program. She can be reached at email@example.com.