Learning by Doing

April 10, 2013

Tim Lucas, 919-613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu

Xavier Basurto believes students and communities find the best solutions when they figure it out themselves.

As a teacher, Xavier Basurto refrains as much as possible from providing answers to his students. “we mostly learn by doing, not by having others tell us what to do,” he explains, “so I try to train students how to be independent thinkers who can generate questions and pursue answers on their own.

“I’ve found that if they have an incentive to solve a problem themselves, they come up with different, and sometimes better, ways to tackle it than I might,” he says.

It’s a strategy Basurto, assistant professor of sustainability science at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, believes can be used to help solve environmental problems outside the classroom as well.

For more than a decade, he’s investigated ways communities manage their environment and avoid the social, economic and ecological dilemmas that can occur when common-pool natural resources are depleted, such as when fishermen catch too many fish from local waters or loggers harvest too many trees from public lands.

Much of his work has focused on understanding why some indigenous fishing villages along Mexico's gulf of California have sustained their local fisheries while others have failed.

"It’s a complex issue,” Basurto says. “How do you manage a resource that doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, but which everyone in a community has a right to use?”

Economists call the overexploitation of public resources “the tragedy of the commons,” a phrase coined in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin, who illustrated the problem with a fable of farmers, each acting rationally in his own self-interest, who collectively allow their herds to overgraze and ruin a shared pasture.

Experts frequently prescribe one of two solutions. The first is to create an external governing body to impose rules on how the resource must be managed and set limits on how many fish, trees or other resources the community can harvest. The second is to sell the management rights to a corporation, which, in theory, then has an economic incentive to manage the resource more wisely.

But there is a third, sometimes overlapping approach, Basurto says: Empower local groups to create and enforce their own strategy for a fair and sustain able use of the resource through village councils, informal agreements or other community-based means.

“With privatization or government intervention, there’s still an underlying assumption that big government or big business has to step in and ‘clean up the mess’ because the locals don’t know any better; they can’t organize themselves,” Basurto says. This can lead to management plans that bypass local social systems, knowledge and traditions, and alienate community members who feel their rights have been usurped and their own interests are no longer being served.

“You can’t just ram some rules or policies down a community’s throat and expect it to work,” Basurto says emphatically. “You need to give them a sense of autonomy in how the problem is solved. There has to be an avenue for them to come together as a community and set rules, voice concerns and resolve conflicts.”

A growing body of evidence, including studies by Basurto and one of his mentors, the late Elinor Ostrom, who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for her work, demonstrates the benefits of the community-based approach. The studies show that in the right circumstances, local solutions can be just as effective as outside intervention, with fewer of its inherent drawbacks.

The key, says Basurto, is giving the community an incentive to make a solution work.

Lessons from the Seri

In the case of fishing communities, one of the best incentives can be to give them territorial rights to their local fishing grounds.

Fishermen who are granted these concessions are likely to be more willing to protect their turf, limiting outsiders’ access to it and, ultimately, reducing the risk of overfishing. Even though they may only fish for one of two species of economic importance, all species living in their territorial waters could potentially benefit.

Mexico’s Seri fishery is a case in point. The Seri are a nation of native people who live along the gulf of California. They have territorial rights to fish for pen shell scallops and other marine resources in ancestral waters in a shallow channel between Tiburon island and the Sonoran mainland on the gulf’s eastern shore.

“The Seri are very proud. They are one of the few indigenous groups the Spanish failed to dominate,” Basurto says. “when they realized outsiders, mostly from villages down south, were coming into their fishing ground, and threatening their fishing stocks and their rights of self-determination, they decided to solve the problem on their own.”

Putting aside internal disputes— centered mostly on family divisions— they agreed on a tribe-wide strategy to monitor and control outsiders’ access to the fishery.

Their action appears to have had a beneficial ripple effect. By guarding their bivalve fishery, the Seri might be protecting other populations, too. Snappers and other species that live in the channel and its nine mangrove forests seem to be rebounding and doing better than in other areas of the Mexican coast, where communities cannot control outsiders’ access to local fishing grounds.

“Identifying the social, biological and physical factors that are key to the Seri fishery’s health gives us a basis of comparison to identify where else the conditions for successful community-based approaches for managing common-pool resources might exist,” Basurto says. “There are more than 50,000 fishers in communities in the gulf of California. Helping sustain their health could have a big long-term benefit.”

“In an increasingly globalized world coping with global change we need to better understand what kind of governance systems enable people to sustain their livelihoods,” says Marco Janssen, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University’s global institute of Sustainability. “The work of Xavier Basurto shows that giving local communities property rights on their marine resources empowers them to create their own regulations. Such a self-governance improves adaptive capacity to the social and environmental disturbances those communities experience.”

A Broader Perspective

Lessons learned from the Seri fishery can be applied to a broad range of commonpool resources, Basurto notes. He currently is using them to investigate ways to manage biodiversity in the national parks of Costa Rica.

“In this case, the parks are the commons,” he explains. “The Costa Rican government used to be very centralized in its management of them. They then switched to a regional approach, with each region having some autonomy to decide how to manage its own parks. Some regions have benefitted in terms of conserving biodiversity; others haven’t. I’m trying to figure out why. How have decisions made by each park’s rangers and staff to manage resources within its boundaries affected the outcome?”

Basurto’s students—doctoral, master and undergraduate alike—are applying the lessons far afield, too, on issues ranging from wetland mitigation partner ships in Alaska and marine conservation in Honduras, to novel approaches for reducing plastic marine debris in coastal North Carolina.

“Students constantly surprise me with their ideas and insights,” he says with pride. “You never know where it’s going to lead. I view them as colleagues from whom I learn a lot.”

Basurto values give-and-take with students so much that in the Nicholas School courses he teaches on policy analysis of the commons and community-based conservation, there are few long lectures and no tests.

“I don’t consider them effective ways to teach, or to gauge what a student knows,” he says. instead, he assigns heavy reading loads and requires students to prepare and present a brief synopsis or memo of what they’ve learned nearly every class. Spirited discussions usually follow.

“I find it much more rewarding, and revealing, to engage with students when they have invested a considerable amount of time and effort wrapping their heads around a particular issue,” Basurto says. “we all get more out of it.”

Annual field trips to the Seri fishery—offered each April as part of a short course he teaches on community-based marine conservation—are another cornerstone of his teaching style.

“To really understand common-pool resources and community-based conservation, you have to get on the ground and immerse yourself. learning from a community provides a much more powerful and useful cultural perspective than learning about it,” he says.

Students who take part in the field trip ride side by side with fishermen in their boats, and explore the region’s reefs, islands, mangrove forests and waters with local biologists, resource managers and conservationists—who provide differing views of the problems being faced there and the best solutions for them.

The students discuss community politics and economics with Seri leaders and community members; camp on the beach for three days with Seri families; try their hand at free-diving for scallops; and take a cooking class with fishermen’s wives to learn how to cook what has been caught. in between the activities, there are daily reading assignments, blogging assignments and group discussions, the best of which, Basurto says with a grin, take place over dinner or around a roaring campfire.

This year, with $20,000 in extra funding from the Nicholas School, Basurto has been able to extend the trip’s length to 17 days and expand its study area to fisheries on the Baja side of the gulf. He’s also been able to offer scholarships to three Mexican students to join the class.

“Last year, a couple of Seri students came and interacted with us and it was great,” he says. “They brought a new perspective to our students’ experience.”

In addition to funding from the Nicholas School, Basurto’s research receives support from the Christensen Fund, the walton Family Foundation, the world wildlife Fund and the National Science Foundation.

Born to be Wild

Basurto grew up in Mexico City and lived there until he was 18, but he never felt at home in an urban environment. He preferred to spend time at his grandfather’s farm near Tuxpan, on the Veracruz coast.

“My grandfather was kind of a naturalist,” he says. “His farm was strikingly different from typical ranches. He planted trees and enjoyed wildlife. I loved walking on the beach there, watching the ocean and the fishing boats.”

To pursue his interest in nature, Basurto majored in marine resource management and biochemical engineering at the institute of Technology and Higher Studies of Monterrey’s coastal campus in guaymas, Sonora.

“Without knowing what the commons was, I started studying conservation and working with local fishermen and researchers over the summers,” he says. “I got to see the issues we were learning about in class from their perspective.”

He gained added perspective in 1997, when he spent his senior year as an exchange student at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada.

“Newfoundland was a terribly interesting place to be at that time,” he explains, “because the cod moratorium was in force. I saw firsthand the consequences of overfishing: 20,000 fishermen were out of work and on unemployment. Some of them took classes with us at the university. when we’d discuss overfishing or other marine resource issues, they’d cut through the bull and explain stuff in realworld terms.”

He stayed in Nova Scotia that summer to work at a scallop aquaculture farm, where he pulled and cleaned mussels and scallops eight hours a day.

“I wanted to immerse myself in the culture and see what it was like to make a living off marine resources,” he says. “Every muscle hurt. it was very formative.”

After returning home, Basurto cofounded Comunidad y Biodiversidad, one of Mexico’s leading grassroots nonprofits focused on marine resource issues, and began working closely with the Seri and other small fishing communities along the gulf of California coast.

“It was incredibly challenging,” he says. “I soon realized that to more deeply understand how people interacted with their environment, I needed a better grasp of the issues.”

Leaving the beach behind, he enrolled at the University of Arizona and earned dual master’s degrees in natural sciences and public administration, and a PhD in public management with a minor in cultural anthropology. it was here that he met Elinor Ostrom and began working with her on the complex interrelationship of social and biophysical factors that affect how communities govern their resources. She eventually became part of his doctoral committee and offered him a job as a visiting scholar at her renowned workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at indiana University.

After two years at the workshop, during which he authored two studies with Ostrom, he joined the Nicholas School faculty as assistant professor of sustainability science at the Duke Marine lab in Beaufort, N.C.

“It’s a great fit,” he says. “The caliber of faculty and students here is remarkable. The community is tight-knit. There are outstanding opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. And the environment isn’t bad either.”

He and his wife Rocio (her name means “morning dew” in Spanish) love exploring the area’s beaches, sounds and barrier islands with their daughters, Sofia, 10, and ghita, 8. Most days, Basurto commutes to work from their home in Beaufort by bike, but on days when he has a bit more time, the 39-year-old avid outdoorsman slips his kayak into Taylors Creek and paddles down Beaufort inlet to his office.

“You can maintain a close connection with nature here,” he says. “For me, that’s a daily reminder of why I do what I do. People ask why they should care about fisheries. The answer is simple. wherever you live, your life is influenced by the ocean whether you eat fish or not. we’re trying to identify what factors contribute to the health of the ocean, and how fishermen play a role in this. That’s something we should care about.”