I am interested in issues of biodiversity conservation, as seen from a social, cultural and political perspective. My research has two interlinking strands. Firstly, I am interested in how protected areas (national parks, reserves) interact with communities living nearby, how conservation regulations may affect local people's lives and livelihoods, how effectively protected areas can change the behaviour of local people, and how local people can in turn shape protected area policies to their own liking. Secondly, I am interested in how protected areas come about and looking at the combination of political, cultural and social factors which influence whether a country or place has lots of protected areas and conservation initiatives, or very few. For my PhD, I looked at protected areas in the Dominican Republic, which has the fourth highest proportion of its land in national parks and scientific reserves of any country in the world, but which also has lots of poor rural peasants whose lives are affected by these parks. My thesis (available here) looked at why this high percentage had come about, and how these protected areas shaped the lives of local people, how local people shaped protected areas, and what all this means for successfully conserving biodiversity whilst improving the lives of the rural poor. You can read about this in my publications.
I subsequently worked on a two year Leverhulme funded fellowship which looks at private protected areas in Patagonia. At the bottom end of South America there are a significant number of privately owned nature reserves, in contrast to the majority of protected areas globally, which are run by governments. Some of these are owned by rich philanthropists, others by families, businesses and NGOs. My project looks at why this strange phenomenon has happed here, and what it means for biodiversity. I have also found myself looking at re-wilding initiatives and projects to turn landscapes dominated by human activities into landscapes dominated by natural processes and both in Patagonia and in Scotland. I find both the ecology and the cultural and political side of re-wilding fascinating.
One of the things that I like most about my research is that it is very interdisciplinary and I find myself mixing ideas from human and physical geography, anthropology, ecology, history, and other areas, which all combine to produce some really interesting results. I feel that an interdisciplinary perspective is essential for any academic, as insularity leads to stagnation of ideas, but perhaps more importantly because successful conservation depends on looking at biodiversity not just using ecology and biological science, but also from a social, cultural and political perspective.
I have found teaching to be one of the more enjoyable parts of my job. I teach at all levels, from first year undergraduate to leading the core MSc module. Good lecturing and teaching is a craft, and an important one to master. Lectures should not be about talking for an hour or two on a subject, but about introducing complex ideas in an approachable way, pushing students to develop their own understanding, challenging their ideas and making them think. My classes tend to be pretty interactive as a result.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Association of American Geographers and the Society for Conservation Biology. I also participate in the Poverty and Conservation Learning Group, a forum of scholars and practitioners looking at linkages between poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation, which is coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development.