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Colin Thor West is an associate professor of anthropology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Faculty Fellow at the UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies. More specifically, he is a cultural anthropologist broadly interested in the human ecology of global change. He is interested in the ways individuals, households and societies adapt to the impacts of climate change and globalization. West mostly conducts social-ecological fieldwork in the Sahel of West Africa where he has worked in the northern Central Plateau region of Burkina Faso. Some of his research has also been in Western Alaska and the Southwest United States.

West’s research themes include: climate change, sustainable livelihoods, food security and especially households. He employs a wide range of methods that include: GIS, remote sensing, ethnography, household survey and agent-based modeling. CURS spoke to West about his National Science Foundation project integrating ethnography with remote sensing in Burkina Faso.

Below is a transcript of the video: Conversations at Hickerson House: Colin Thor West on the Greening of the Sahel – Remote Sensing and Ethnography

My name is Colin Thor West. I’m an associate professor in the department of anthropology here at UNC.

Tell us about your ongoing research in the Sahel region of Burkino Faso.

My ongoing research is interested in exploring landscape dynamics in northern Burkina Faso. So, the northern part of Burkino Faso is a part of the Sahel of West Africa that’s been synonymous with land degradation and particularly desertification. And so it’s maybe around the mid-2000s or so that people started to take satellite imagery and look across the Sahel of West Africa and they found these isolated clusters of increased greening where they would expect to see desertification. Scholars have wondered about these patterns and we feel like we have a unique opportunity to explain some of these patterns and the mechanisms behind them in northern Burkina Faso by actually talking to people about their environment. So what we’re doing is we’re using high resolution satellite imagery and we’re doing these participatory mapping projects with communities across northern Burkina to try to have them explain these processes of both greening and browning from the bottom up. Whereas most other people have just looked at them from the top down using satellite imagery.

What has been most surprising about what you’ve found so far?

When we first wrote this proposal to the National Science Foundation, like many things in the social sciences or anthropology, we don’t have this linear hypothesis testing procedure that you might have for other social sciences or the natural sciences. But I would say that, at this point, the hypotheses that we did have are proving to be correct. We’ve had students working on this project for a year now and we’re working across three different areas of greening, browning and mixed areas of northern Burkina. So what we’ve found so far is that we thought there would be local land use practices, especially investments in soil and water conservation, that explain these patterns. At this point across this gradient of green and browning we are finding that indeed it looks like we are correct that these three different areas have different local land use practices, and tell you the truth, that’s kind of surprising to us. But we’re going back this summer to further validate that by doing these participatory mapping projects.

What do you hope to find in the next stage of your research?

So far most of what we’ve seen is based on just an analysis of GIS data and satellite imagery data, so we need to actually talk to people to see whether or not these ideas or these notions or these variables that we’re looking at are valid. So that’s what we’re doing this summer. We’ll be working in three different areas of Burkina Faso: an area called Kaya; an area called Oula; and also an area called Kongoussi. We do these participatory mapping projects, or workshops. So we print these satellite images onto relatively large sheets of cloth that are about three feet by three feet and then we gather people together in groups of ten. We usually have older men, younger men and women, and we do these workshops separately with them. We bring them in, we have them look at these satellite images, and at first it’s kind of uncomfortable because a lot of people in Burkina Faso have never seen their village and their landscape from a bird’s eye point of view. They haven’t flown in planes. They haven’t looked at Google Earth. So it takes a little while for people to orient themselves to these images, but once they do we have them do this rich and elaborate discussion on the changes that they’re seeing in their environment. We have them place these buttons – these are buttons like you have on a shirt – identify areas of greening and also areas of browning. They collectively place these buttons, and once they’ve placed them, then we ask them: what’s going on in this area that you see is greening; or what’s going on in this area that you say that’s browning. Then once they get involved in those discussions, we get these rich descriptions of things that are going on. We found that just as it’s fun for us to get this kind of empirical data from them, it’s also fun for them because they want to talk about their landscape. After we do these exercises, we then take the placement of those buttons and we take a digital photograph of them and then we use their specific placement to actually classify these satellite images. Other people have done things that are similar, but so far as I know, very few have integrated the ethnography – the discussions with people – with the actual analysis of the images themselves. We find that that’s really powerful and exciting, because you get these two different perspectives that in some ways mesh very closely with each other.

What are your next steps in this research?

Right now, we’re just doing this in three different parts of northern Burkina Faso. What we would like to do is this. These areas are relatively similar – similar ethnic groups, similar types of farming systems and it’s also a similar climate. We would like to take this method that we have, integrating ethnography with remote sensing, and take it to other parts of Burkina Faso that we know are very different. Of course, to do that you need more money so we’re hoping that with our preliminary results of this project that we’ll be able to justify doing a larger project with the National Science Foundation. We think we know that some of these areas of Burkina Faso are heavily affected by climate change, so we think that there might be differences there, or there are areas that are highly affected by migration, that are attracting a lot of migrants from these areas – and so those dynamics are different. We think that by working in this area, over larger parts of the country, over a longer period of time, that hopefully these findings can get integrated into policy as well, so that policymakers can start instituting laws or mechanisms by which people can protect their environment, not only a northern Burkina Faso, but other parts in the country, to prevent it from being degraded and prevent desertification.

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