February 17, 2012

Walk the Line: A transect/landscape approach to ecological monitoring

By Dr. David Molden, Director General and Dr. Eklabya Sharma, Director of Programmes
International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Kathmandu, Nepal

Most readers browsing posts on this blog need no long introduction about the importance or value of mountain ecosystems or the many challenges facing mountain environments and people in mountain communities. But what about solutions to those challenges?

One challenge we face in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan (HKH) region, no doubt common to other regions, is the absence of accurate and reliable environmental data. Such quality datasets provide the scientific basis for informed decision making for conservation, adaptation and sustainable development in the context of a rapidly changing climate.

What we are aiming for is a regional cooperative effort for environmental data collection and long-term ecological research within a coordinated framework. This cooperation would be based on common protocols and principles of open data exchange as a basis to sample, characterize, and ultimately model the diversity, topography, heterogeneity and remoteness of this vast region – no small task when the ‘region’ is Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. HKH waters also support over some 3 billion people in another 18 countries.

Thinking in terms of ‘landscapes’ is useful because a landscape is “a contiguous area, intermediate in size between an ecoregion and a specific site, with a set of ecological, cultural and socio-economic characteristics distinct from its neighbours.” Using a landscape as a unit of analysis, we can look across large, connected geographic areas to more fully recognize natural resource conditions and trends, natural and human influences, and opportunities. Our transboundary landscape ecosystem management approach includes both natural and managed components of biodiversity (agro-biodiversity, wildlife, wildlife habitats) and explicitly recognizes the important role of cultural diversity in maintaining biodiversity.

The tool we have chosen to use for monitoring is the transect approach. A transect is a line along a defined path that represents a particular range of diversity. A transect need not be a straight line and there may be more than one transect. In our case, we have designed four north-south transects to capture: i) a longitudinal moisture gradient going from west (dry) to east (wet); ii) an altitude gradient going from tropical to alpine; and iii) a latitudinal gradient from south to north. These four transects, within seven nested trans-boundary landscapes, provide the geographic basis for ecological monitoring and representative sampling. They also provide a platform for facilitating collaboration and cooperation among regional member countries, local, national and regional institutions, and the global research community.

In addition to the improved data collection and analytic capacity, we hope to build a framework of agreements involving regional member country governments. This framework would include a long-term commitment to collect, interpret and make available data, information and knowledge relevant to informed scientific decision making. The aim is to facilitate on-going regional trans-boundary dialogue that will lead to trans-boundary landscape ecosystem management and community-based approaches for climate change adaptation, biodiversity conservation, and sustainable development.

To implement this program, we are working closely with representatives from national governments of the regional member countries, conservation and development organizations, and community-based organizations.  We see our role as one of facilitator and broker among and between regional partners.

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