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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - IRI THESys

Michalis Revmatas: "I want to be a change maker"

From 14 to 18 September 2015, IRI THESys was home to 22 doctoral researchers from Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and United States who participated in its Summer School. They came together in order to explore current trends, discussions and methodologies in research on human-environment relations.

Michalis Revmatas from the University of Exeter was one of them. His PhD project focuses on "Exploring values of mangrove ecosystem services in Kenya".

Michalis, why did you want to become a scientist?

What drove me wasn't science in the first place. My first passion was travelling. Experiencing the world, I realized that there are many problems, from social issues like inequality, injustice, poverty or exploitation through to environmental issues like destruction, degradation or overconsumption. That really burdened and affected me.  So I am originally driven by emotive forces, but became deeply interested in scientific concepts to pick apart all these questions I was faced with.

What did you study?

Maybe I have always been interdisciplinary without even knowing it. I never wanted to be a chemist or a biologist or an ecologist, but a change maker. Thus I landed up studying International Development at the University of East Anglia (UK) with a focus on natural resource management. That offered me the opportunity to get to know multiple approaches, from anthropology, politics or economics, and to get an idea of all this amazing knowledge that helps us to better understand the world's complex system. After my Bachelor, I did a Master in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security at the same university. This was when my interest went closer and closer to the linkage between humans and the environment.

Mangrove boardwalk set up and supported by the Wasini women's group to guide tourist

Mangrove boardwalk set up and supported by the Wasini women's group to guide tourist (figure: Michalis Revmatas)
Fig.: Michalis Revmatas

What is your PhD about?

Using the example of mangroves on Wasini Island in the South of Kenya, my doctoral research examines how values of ecosystem services are constructed, how and why these values are changing over time, and how they differ across groups. I found myself drawn toward mangroves because they are quite understudied as an ecosystem. Of course, their ecological importance is well known as they provide beach protection, biodiversity etc. But nobody ever linked that to the human site. Therefore I am looking for the social dimension of how communities drive benefit from mangroves, and what do they actually mean to the people living there.

What's your conceptual approach?

The common way of how we value nature is dominated by the economic perspective: How much is it worth? And indeed, the economic valuation technique has its place. It gives us a number that translates ecosystem services into a certain amount of money, emphasizing the benefits they provide for our societies. But that's only one approach. Therefore, I want to unpack that number, looking into people's individual value systems integrated in their daily lives. For me, it's important to understand the whole complexity.

Could you give us an example?

What I found out is that values differ related to categories such as gender or age. A middle-aged woman might mention the importance of fire wood resulting from mangroves which is linked to the topic of cooking food, nutrition, and health. However fire wood also links to social relations. In that collecting fire wood is a female group activity and it seems to provide a protected area for discussing issues that are deemed taboo, for example teaching a young woman about married life. In general, I was surprise by the diverse meanings mangroves have for women, ranging from toys for their children all the way up to guided tours through the forest offered by women's groups. All these interesting stories are hidden in the mangroves and tell us a lot about culture. Unravelling these complex nets of linked values is a big part of my research.

Which methods do you apply?

Community-created map of Wasini Island, Kenya

Community-created map of Wasini Island, Kenya (figure: Michalis Revmatas)
Fig.: Michalis Revmatas

I am convinced that if I don't understand the community I cannot understand the human-environmental relationship. Therefore, my first field work period, I spent four and a half months on the island living with a family in the village, trying to become part of the community and develop participatory methods. Next to participatory observation, I conducted interviews, co-constructed timelines and used participatory mapping methods as a visual catalysts followed by focus group discussions. The community-created maps represent the meaning that people give to their environment, empowering the community to represent their lives. I find that participatory methods are a really amazing tool to generate new forms of knowledge production in a respectful way. I always say to the participants, before a focus group, that "you are the teachers and we are the students" to emphasize that I am here to learn.

How did you like our summer school?

To be honest, on a personal level a PhD can be an emotional rollercoaster with ups and downs, and this summer school really pushed me right back up again. Meeting people from different disciplines and from all over the world always inspires my own work. In general, the program did really well in going from big ideas to smaller ideas, from massive change to practicalities. After all, we need a solid foundation if we want to make the world a better place.

Michalis Revmatas' PhD, supervised by Prof. Katrina Brown,  is part of the SPACE project (Sustainable Poverty Alleviation from Coastal Ecosystem Services) funded by the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA), a global research program looking at the link between ecosystems and human wellbeing.