Field research updates from SNRE master’s and doctoral students

Waikato River Co-Management

The Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest, snaking 425 km from Mt. Ruapehu Northwest to its mouth in the Tasman Sea near Auckland. It has been an important river in many regards to the Māori people since their arrival to Aotearoa, New Zealand. With its important transportation attributes, power generation potential, and fisheries (including native spp and eventually introduced trout), the Waikato has also been a nexus of Māori-European conflict over land and natural resources.

Following around 150 years of degradation due to hydro-electric dams, timber management practices, farming and other sources of pollution, five Iwi (tribes) and non-tribal partners recently initiated the Waikato River Co-Management Agreement to restore the health of the river. This newly formed resource management institution aligns a diverse and complex group of partners including a large number of local governance councils and five Iwi. Each Iwi is further divided into smaller local tribal units. For example, the largest Iwi, Waikato-Tainui, is comprised of dozens of sub-tribes called Hapu and over 100 village-level units or Marae.

I am initiating a research project with partners from Victoria University’s Māori Studies unit and Landcare Research to study the complex governance structures of the Waikato River Co-Management framework. We plan to study decision-making and implementation given the multiple scales (levels) and forms of governance represented within this co-management partnership. We will also study how the cross-cultural partnership uses Mātauranga Māori (Māori traditional ecological knowledge) and Western scientific knowledge as the bases of ecological monitoring and decision-making. We envision this aspect of the study lasting around 1 year and leading to additional research projects concerning the Waikato River and it’s guardianship.

Nick on the Waikato

overdue update

I haven’t done a good job blogging during my time in Aotearoa New Zealand. It has been a busy trip and I haven’t had much computer time or wifi access. It has been an amazing trip so far, and this week I’ll try to catch you up on my progress with a series of blog posts.

Let’s start with an overview. I have spent most of my time in Wellington, but have also visited Matiu-Somes Island, Lake Taupo, Rotorua, Waitomo, Hamilton, Auckland, Waiheke Island and right now I’m in the Coralmandel Peninsula. I have given a lot of seminars including 4 at 3 different New Zealand universities and two for tribal groups. I’ve met with faculty members and Iwi (tribal) representatives to discuss co-management, land claims and other land and resource topics. I’ve met with Māori students and discussed grad school opportunities at U of M. I’ve learned a lot about Māori people and Iwi. The Māori word for the Māori language is te reo. Given my surname (Reo), we’ve had lots of laughs and begun saying my name using Māori pronunciation. When I book reservations, etc. and say my name is Dr. Reo, people always assume I have a Māori name. It’s a very cool coincidence.  In my next post, I will update you on what I’ve learned about Waikato River Co-Management and my emerging research project looking at this complex river management initiative.

PS here’s a picture of a Giant Weta I encountered on Matiu-Somes Island.

Gathering Pipis


This weekend, some of my new Maori friends took me out to gather pipis (Paphies australis) at Waikanae Beach. Look up this location on Google Earth/maps. It is right across from Kapiti Island, and the view is remarkable. Pipis are bivalves. You gather them by going out into the shore break at low tide and doing the “pipi shuffle” to feel for them with your feet. We ate them raw with a twist of lemon off my host family’s lemon tree. Truly delicious traditional food. The experience reminded me of harvesting blueberries up in Ojibwe Country. I’ll never forget my first pipi gathering experience. Watch for a couple pictures soon.

pasta with pipis!

Veteran’s Day


I’m spending Veteran’s Day in Aotearoa (Maori homeland/NZ). It won’t be Veteran’s Day in the U.S. until tomorrow, but here it is Nov 11th already. Veteran’s Day is considered a very important day within American Indian communities. We have many tribal members in the Armed Forces and our people have served in great numbers in every conflict since European contact. So today, we take time to sing, pray, and thank all the Ogitchiidaa (warriors) of all nations. I sang a song for the Veterans this morning way over here in Aotearoa, standing in front of the traditional Maori flagpole at Te Herenga Waka Marae. You can hear the person who wrote this particular Veterans Song sing it, way better than I can sing it, at the Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig website.

In the States, it is November 10th, my wife Angie’s birthday. Happy Birthday Buddy!

On the ground


My 24-hours of flights from Detroit -> L.A. -> Brisbane -> Wellington weren’t as bad as I’d imagined. It was very strange though, to wake up from a nap on the L.A. -> Brisbane leg, and see land for the first time in over 10 hours. The first part of Pasifika that I got a glimpse of was Vanuatu. Shortly after that, I spotted New Caledonia. Bare in mind, this is my first time traveling outside of N. America. It was a very strange experience to fly to the other end of the planet, traveling such an enormous distance in a short amount of time. And very strange to fly over many important places in the Pacific without stopping for so much as a visit.

I’m three days in Wellington now and it strikes me as possibly the coolest city on Earth. I’ve already experienced many things, and have barely begun my trip. I saw 2 tuataras on my first day. Apparently I’ll get to feed and pet them eventually. They have enormous fern trees here. That is FERNS the size of TREES. Yes, I plan to climb a fern while I’m here.

My office is at the Te Herenga Waka Marae on the Victoria University Campus. Maraes are communal houses used for ceremonial and social purposes. The people at the Te Herenga Waka Marae are the best. Here at the marae, it is a lot like my tribal community’s cultural places. To fit in, you have to pitch in around the kitchen. I have a couple of formal lectures coming up this and next week, then off to Hamilton and Waikato-Tainui to start my research project on Tribal-Crown natural resource co-management. I will post some pics as soon as I can. Cheers!




Boozhoo (hello). I’m a post-doc at UM SNRE. I leave later today for my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere and first time leaving North America. I will be in New Zealand interacting with Maori faculty and studying natural resource co-management between Maori tribes and the New Zealand Crown. This trip is sponsored by the Victoria University Toihuarewa Visiting Indigenous Fellowship. During my travels from Nov-4 through Dec-11, I’ll drop the occasional blog post, photos and videos. Wish me luck on a looooong flight!

Ojibwe phrase of the day: Izhaadaa Giizhigowaanda (Go Blue)!
Maori phrase of the day: Kia Ora (be well/healthy or ‘hi’)

Work Continues

The office

Work has been continuing in the field.  This day started off motivated and eager to hit the road.  Unfortunately, some of rumored problems the CEES team had been experiencing surfaced again.  This was my first time witnessing just how complicated the basic communication could get: our team was prepared to go at 6:30 a.m. but had to wait until 9 o’clock for the various necessary people and vehicles to be ready for us. With completion finally within grasp for the CEES team, these hurdles seemed ridiculous and tiring.

CEES team around the new stove, ready for testing

Luckily, we were able to get the promised second truck, which enabled us to split into two teams – essential for effective cocina construction.  Today, we drove to a different valley, and worked in the homesteads clustered there, moving as swiftly as possible to finish before dark.  Another important element of the day was data collect from the new stoves.  The first stove that was tested showed a marked improvement in cook time from the original.  Another, later in the day ended up showing a similar time frame.  However, this is likely not accurate because the stove was still completely wet and the additional water absorbs much of the heat energy.  Once the stoves are completely dry, they will become much more effective in terms of cooking times for the user.

Finalizing the stoves

At this point, the environmental benefits of the cookstoves remains inconclusive.  Because the cook time was still considerable on the second stove, there was little reduction in fuel use.  However, it is reasonable to hypothesize that as the stove becomes more efficient, cook time will decrease, and the environmental impacts of emissions will be reduced.  Regardless of the environmental impact, the health benefits from installing these stoves is certain, immediate, and permanent – as long as they are used, and used properly (i.e. cleaning).

As we finished the house, the education session was provided to the homeowner.  Because the indoor room was small, I stood outside and watched an amazing lighting storm above the mountains.  To my right, a Peruvian woman in traditional clothes (all wear traditional clothes in the rural community) was working through some sort of harvested crop that had spent the day drying in the sun.  I asked if she needed help and she nodded and smiled.  Kneeling across from her, we felt through the soil in the twilight and put the harvest into a large burlap sack.

It interested me that she would be outside while the men were inside receiving instruction as this woman was almost certainly the main cook in the household.  We chatted lightly in Spanish and I asked her how she felt about the stove.  She disclosed that she was not sure about it; that is was very different for her.   Her apprehension highlights the differences that the new stove can make.  Although the health benefits our undeniable, she seemed wary of the change.

After we completed our work there, it as almost dark.  Unfortunately, our team had not yet come to retrieve us.  We had to cross a few bridge-less streams and stumble through a few ditches before we got to the road.   We walked in the dark and under the lightning as older Peruvian women, motorcycles carrying whole families, and people on bikes crossed our path.  I couldn’t help but contemplate how these installed cookstoves will impact the lives of these rural Peruvians.  As my brief conversation with the woman had shown, its not only a matter of providing the equipment but also understanding the cultural  limitations of the new technology.

Data Collection of in-house Air Pollution

Making Barro for construction (a mixture of soil, clay, water, and hay)


Sinking sun

Final thoughts


I returned from Punta Allen a few days ago now. It has taken me a while to recover from what I can only describe as a trip into a different dimension. It is crazy how in so little time the mind, the body, the spirit can adjust to a new environment (or a new sleeping habit, I miss my hammock dreadfully). Maybe, my nomad life has granted me some added pliability. Maybe the beauty of Sian Ka’an helped. Or maybe we should have high hopes for adaptation… we forget we have been doing it for centuries.

Punta Allen was a completely different experience. The first thing I saw as I walked into the little town was a horde of American and European tourists that flew out of jeeps and rushed into motorboats for a tour around Ascension Bay. After being in very small fishing settlements, Punta Allen–scarcely consisting of more than four dirt roads parallel to the ocean–seemed huge to me. Fishers diluted amongst the tourism activities, and unlike the other fishing communities whose families lived in Cozumel or Chetumal, Punta Allen is home for everyone that lives there. How was I going to identify the 70 cooperative associates from those hundreds of people? Long story short, I figured out where the fishers hung out in the morning before heading out to work for a few focus group discussions on the no-take zone initiative, and then waited for them on the dock where they all unload their daily lobster catch to schedule interview visits. Pretty soon, I was going lobster fishing in the morning and then jumping from house to house in the strange and magical town of Punta Allen, interviewing until 10 pm (they have electricity there at night… if the generator works).

I lost count of the lobsters I fished, but not of the fishers I interviewed. I am happy to report an n = 90 for my total of official interviews in both bays. I might have learned the most interesting bits of information through my “unofficial” experiences, on the motorboats while fishing, in the kitchens helping to cook and savoring the best dishes I have had in my life, in the docks, where I would try to find a bit of time for myself but was always inevitably joined by a fisher who wanted to tell me more about himself and the story of his community. They refer to the lobster as their gold of the sea, and in all honesty I can say that if I was the daughter of a fisher I might not hesitate much in dropping out of school and following after his footsteps.

For final thoughts: After talking to many of the actors involved in the implementation of conservation strategies in a place where communities still directly depend on natural resources, it has been appalling to find how little time we spend listening to each other and how much of a difference it makes when we do. The importance of face-to-face interaction has been overshadowed by discursive and mediatic communication, which does little to effectively represent, understand and align different and legitimate interests. We’ve got to stop fearing complexity.

For final thoughts: I will end as I began, expressing my deepest gratitude. This experience could not have been defined by more generosity, grace and protection. I would like to thank three people that I have not yet mentioned, but whose presence and support has been vital.  My advisers Sara Adlerstein and Julia Wondolleck. A phrase that I heard my first semester in SNRE in Julia’s class on Natural Resource Conflict Management defined the confidence with which I approached people: “Everyone wants a chance to participate; they just need to be granted the opportunity.” Not one fisher refused to speak to me. Sara skillfully balanced my altruistic tendencies by always reminding me to consider the natural and ecosystem characteristics of the issue, and offered me the possibility to vent my excitement and concerns in Spanish (which makes quite a difference). Both of them responded to the lengthy emails I am famous for and joined skype conferences for academic and even moral support… I must be one of their most needy students! Finally, I would like to thank fellow Fulbrighter Ranjay Singh who works with traditional communities in removed corners of Northeastern India, and is now working with the rural communities of North India. He was kind enough to guide me prior to my departure to the field. In an hour-long conversation over tea and scones in the Espresso Royal in South University, Ranjay shared with me his wisdom, which defined both the humility and forcefulness of my every step in Sian Ka’an. “Let me see how you write,” he told me and held a pen and a napkin to me. I think I gave him a confused look. “Your most important tools will be paper, pen, language and presence. Do not rely on your recorder and do not rely on your memory. Write it all down. And as for presence: like a swan you must be concentrated; like a crow, you must be able to do distant learning and value this as much as your direct interactions; like a dog, you must be alert, ready to seize any opportunity.” I believe I did.

Thanks for reading. I have loved sharing this experience. I leave you with a few more images and an invitation to write to me with any comments or questions: Salud!




All promise is debt

I believe I promised a few pictures….

Sian Ka’an: Mayan for “gift of heaven, origin of the sky”


I have emerged from the Bay of the Holy Spirit. These two weeks have been like taking a vow of silence. Like few other times in my life, I have put aside my story, my interests and my concerns, for that of many, many others. I know the names, last names and nicknames of at least 50 fishers as well as their relationships with each other and their roles within the fishing cooperatives. But I am getting ahead of myself; allow me to paint a better picture. Please bare the length, it’s been a while since I have had the pleasure, and it might be another week or more since I can come back, so you may read in bits and pieces.

My ride and Mr. Jose Canto from the Cozumel Cooperative

I entered the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve with José Canto, Secretary of the Cozumel Cooperative. It was quite a nice ride, we travelled in the cooperative’s van that has a fridge and carried the ice the fishers needed to quick off lobster season. To reach the settlement of Maria Elena, where the cooperative members reside, you have to enter the reserve through its southernmost part, all the way up to the settlement of Punta Herrero (what would be my second destination) and then cross the bay by motorboat, a water journey of about 20-25 minutes. I stepped into Maria Elena absolutely drenched, dried-up in no more than 15 minutes with noon sun and ocean winds and was received by Jose’s family with fresh lobster, beans and tortillas. Had to mention that.

The fishers had been expecting me. That first afternoon I walked from house to house (there are only about 12 of them), greeting fishers, trying to remember a couple of names, letting them know I would be there for a week and was looking forward to learning about their work and talking to them about the no-take zones. It seems quite a while ago that I saw their kind, but distant stares. I knew I had to show them my sincere interest and gain their confidence. I believe I silently sighed the challenge.

I evidently won’t tell you the details of every day,

Fishing live lobster one way...

although I do feel compelled to do so and list all the sea banquets that were graciously prepared for me (and for those of you that don’t really know me, when I said I hoped I could summon my sister’s love for seafood I was not kidding; the only two things I have been afraid of in this trip are hurricanes and having to eat something my psyque couldn’t swallow… alas, I can no longer say I don’t like

...or another

seafood and I will even contest those who say that Caribbean lobster is not as good as the northern, cold-water one; it’s insanely good). Apart from the fact that I became mosquito bait since day one (repellent is useless, trust me), everything has gone along very well. As planned, I climbed into a different motorboat every morning to observe and learn from the lobster fishing. I am happy to report that I was taught to lasso live lobster from the “casitas cubanas”, the concrete refuges the fishers place in the ocean floor to gather and separate their prey according to size and reproductive state. I would say that my catch of 20 lobsters, well within the permitted size, is a good contribution to the cooperative… especially since at times I accompanied them to diving depths of over eight meters. These lung-divers (fishing with tanks is not permitted in the reserve) are quite the masters. Thanks to the fisher Pablo Catzim, I have proof of my new abilities, just waiting for him to reach civilization as well so he can send me the pictures. Very exciting stuff, which permitted me to gain some rapport amongst the community (trust me, they wanted to verify that I had the stomach for a good few hours at sea every morning) and which made my stay in Maria Elena both enriching and very productive. I was able to interview 30 fishers, cooperative members and workers, and learn a lot more about their work and their stance on the no-take zones by pretty much spending the entire day with them.  Exiting and overwhelming, and although the hammock mastering objective was also met, some nights the fierce gods of Sian Ka’an kept me wide awake: at the edge of the beach, I did not know if I was listening to the wind, the ocean or rain. 

Methodologically speaking, I had to scratch my attempt at a quantitative survey. I tried it after my first seven interviews and the fishers kept expanding my “very much / some / little / none” scale with “absolutely”, “very, very much”, “too much”, followed by more details as to why they had such opinions. Others shied away from such formality, a reaction that was also solicited by the presence of the voice recorder, so I decided to adjust my intervention so as to establish the highest sense of trust and security. The absence of the voice recorder meant that I had to rework and transcribe my notes as soon as possible, which unfortunately meant a few mornings without the excitement of lobster fishing, but I feel confident with the veracity of my notes and transcribing them on-site meant I could always go back to the fisher and clarify my doubts.

Morning view from my window in Maria Elena

The week in Maria Elena passed by pretty quickly. I cannot begin to describe the generosity that was extended to me by the fishers. They all wanted to share with me their goods and their stories… there was an afternoon when I was summoned from house to house, from fish empanadas, to lobster salad, to fried fish and then coffee and cookies. Rejecting anything they offer is out of the question, and on top of this, such human kindness is matched by amazing natural beauty. Some lobster dives included more impressive corals than ones I have seen on scuba dives, there was a day

Left Maria Elena with a gift from fisher Porfirio Vela

when dolphins got as near as three meters from me while I was in the water, squids flew alongside the motor boats, and turtles and rays are a common thing around here. I know it’s hard for you to imagine that I have been working… trust me, I am exhausted, but it does make quite a difference to be tired in this environment. The one disappointing thing has been the amount of trash that is thrown by the currents into Sian Ka’an’s shores. It’s embarrassing that one of Mexico’s most renowned reserves is in such state and it is clear that the cruises that enjoy these waters are not exactly being responsible. Talk about some serious externalities.

Something quite challenging was the change of beat between Maria Elena and Punta Herrero, home to the members of the José María Azcorra Cooperative. Although they are separated only by a 20 minute boat ride, they are on the same reserve and follow most of the same fishing rules, the two communities are quite different. After a week of overwhelming generosity, I entered a more reticent community with quite a different lifestyle. As I walked from house to house introducing myself, a few fishers did not even give me a chance to briefly explain my presence, and said they would not answer any questions that day (justifiably, they are tired of the bunch of students that have passed through here to inquire about their practices). Instead of being received by a family like in Maria Elena, I was given my cabin and left to my own devices. Despite the fact that I was tired, I decided to sit with the fishers who huddled around a small television they had set up to watch the sub-17 (I hope that’s how you say it in English) soccer final between Mexico and Uruguay.

We won, and being there, definitely helped; the next day things slowly quicked off and confidence in a small

Three days of work and nearly two tons of lobster are shipped to Merida

community, it seems, snowballs. Interview count in Punta Herrero reached 23, the total number of cooperative members and workers available. Also went lobster fishing, helped cook and was also kindly received by a number of families. By now, I have my interview gig and my note-taking codes down, quite a picture on the different dynamics of each community regarding the no-take zones, and one more cooperative to go. Punta Allen will be different. The Vigía Chico Cooperative has around 60 members, a couple of tourism cooperatives composed by the same fishers, who are all dispersed in a little town. I hope to come back with good news from there as well, and maybe say a bit more on the no-take zone process… although not too much since I would like a few of you to read my thesis.

Sunset in Punta Herrero


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