31 January 2019

Pita Verweij and Madelon Eelderink nominated for the Agnites Vrolik Award

Copernicus Institute researchers Pita Verweij and Madelon Eelderink have been nominated for the Utrecht University Fund 2019 Agnites Vrolik Award. The Agnites Vrolik Award is given to talented scientists whose research contributes to solving urgent and important societal issues.

A total of 12 researchers have been nominated by the dean of their faculty or the director of a strategic theme. Both nominees from the Faculty of Geosciences work at the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development.

The winner of the Agnites Vrolik Award is awarded the sum of € 25,000 and the Agnites Vrolik medal. The award was established thanks to dentistry alumna Cobi de Bree (1920-2013), who on her death left a legacy to the Utrecht University Fund. The award is named after Dr. Agnites Vrolik (1810-1894), the first chairman of the Utrecht University Fund when it was founded in 1886.

Pita Verweij

Pita Verweij: The impact of hunting and infrastructure on biodiversity

The latest edition of the WWF Living Planet Report shows that since 1970, populations of vertebrate animal species have decreased by 60% worldwide. But where to start when trying to understand such a shocking statistic?

Pita Verweij, Assistant Professor in Land Use and Biodiversity in the Energy & Resources group, has been nominated for the Agnites Vrolik Award for her project Effects of infrastructure and hunting on mammals and birds. This work has given insights to decision making in infrastructure planning, and created legitimacy for strategies to curtail hunting.

Guiding decision-making in infrastructure planning

How does distance from roads, traffic and settlements affect mammal and bird population density? Verweij and her team found that proximity to infrastructure has an enormous effect - highlighting the importance of minimizing infrastructure development in relatively unspoilt areas. The research identified areas sensitive to infrastructure development, and provided tools to support biodiversity-friendly decision-making in infrastructure planning (Benítez-López et al., 2010).

Leopard caught in a camera trap in Cameroon. Photo: Joeri Zwerts (2018)

Creating legitimacy for strategies to curtail hunting

Hunting is another major cause of biodiversity loss. Quantifying its exact effect is important for giving legitimacy to strategies to curtail it. Verweij and her team found that the effect of hunting is seen at much greater distances than expected from hunter access points like roads and settlements. It was also stronger than initially assumed, resulting in belts of 'empty forests'.

These novel findings suggest that strategies for controlling the hunting of wild animals in both protected and unprotected tropical ecosystems are urgently needed to prevent further biodiversity loss, and culminated in a publication in the high-impact journal Science (Benítez-Lopez et al., 2017).

The publication was covered by Time Magazine, El Tiempo, Phys.org and The Mirror to Dutch outlets such as Volkskrant, NemoKennislink, Scientias, Nu.nl and EOS Wetenschap to a large number of South American newspapers.

Madelon Eelderink

Madelon Eelderink: Participatory action research to tackle complex social-ecological problems

Madelon Eelderink, a PhD researcher in the Environmental Governance group has been nominated for the Agnites Vrolik Award for her work developing a reflexive, system-based Participatory Action Research approach to understand and overcome complex problems in social-ecological systems.

Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an approach that links science and practice. It allows a community of organizational and non-organizational stakeholders to investigate their own situation, reflect on the results and co-create the best fitting interventions to tackle complex problems and achieve sustainable impact.

Madelon interviewing a fisherman on Saba.

Community co-creation of solutions

To achieve this, Madelon is looking at number of case studies, each giving important insights to strengthen the effectiveness of PAR. The case of the shark conservation project on the island of Saba, for example, has led to important insights regarding the framing of problem definitions.

When a Saba nature organisation feared shark extinction and sought to increase the population, local fishermen were not interested in joining the project as they had different priorities. The PAR process helped reframe the problem definition: by focusing on the marine ecosystem as a whole, instead of just on sharks, fishermen and other stakeholders were able to come up with innovative solutions that fit everyone’s needs.

Madelon’s research has shown that instead of investing in ineffective campaigns to persuade people about their solution to a problem, it is more effective for NGOs to explore different perspectives and co-create solutions that fit with the needs and values of all parties involved.

The winner will be announced on 31st January during a dinner with the University Fund, the deans of the participating faculties and President of the Executive Board Anton Pijpers.

Further reading

Benítez López, A., J.R.M. Alkemade & P.A. Verweij, 2010. The impacts of roads and other infrastructure on mammals and bird populations: a meta-analysis. Biological Conservation 143 (6), 1307-1316.

Benítez-López, A., Alkemade, R., Schipper, A. M., Ingram, D. J., Verweij, P. A., Eikelboom, J. A. J., & M. A. J. Huijbregts, 2017. The impact of hunting on tropical mammal and bird populations. Science 356(6334): 180-183.

Eelderink, M., Vervoort, J., Snel, D., & F. de Castro, F, 2017. Harnessing the plurality of actor frames in social-ecological systems: ecological sanitation in Bolivia. Development in Practice, 27(3), 275–287. 

Eelderink, M., Vervoort, J. and Fr. van Laerhoven, In press. Using Participatory Action Research to operationalize Critical Systems Thinking for pluralistic definitions of wicked problems in social-ecological systems.