Tapia heads to Costa Rican jungle to join discussion on sustainability

Sustainability research, which examines the complex interactions between humans and the rest of nature, has the potential to bring economic and social benefits to the developing world and tropical countries such as Costa Rica. However, sustainability research in the tropics has been slow to develop. Andrea Tapia, an associate professor in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), is one of about 30 people worldwide who have been invited to participate in a consortium that will hold its first planning meeting in June in the jungle of Southern Costa Rica, where they will discuss issues of sustainability and biodiversity conservation in the tropics.

“They've invited me along to help with incorporating some citizen-science efforts using mobile phones in developing countries,” said Tapia, who is the only participant with a technical background.

“Technology can be used to encourage citizen participation and lead to better conservation and knowledge of the land,” she said.

The meeting, which will be held in Las Cruces Biological Station, will be hosted by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS-Costa Rica), Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden – Chinese Academy of Sciences (XTBG-CAS) and the Center for Tropical Forest Science (CTFS--Smithsonian). The event has been funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The researchers who will attend the conference propose to build a global network of international research organizations to better understand the relationships among diversity, ecosystem function and system viability. The primary objective is to integrate principles of sustainability into biodiversity research in the tropics. Project participants are researchers and educators representing international organizations with interests in biodiversity and conservation of tropical forest ecosystems. These organizations propose two planning meetings to establish collaborative research, education and training priorities. The purpose of the meeting in Costa Rica is to set priorities for biodiversity research and ecosystem valuation. A follow-up meeting will take place in China in 2014, where partners will draft a strategic plan for long-term partnership, offer a proof-of-concept field course in biodiversity research for graduate students, and complete a report of their recommendations for promoting sustainability research in the tropics.

Tapia, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of New Mexico, is an academic with expertise in social research methods and social theory, applying those to the study of information and communication technologies (ICT) and their context of development, implementation and use.  She is interested in government, education, humanitarian relief, community organizations and non-profits, emergency responders and military, and groups engaged in collective action or social movements.

“Most community members in developing countries already have a vested interest in protecting their natural resources-- their rivers, their forests, their land-- from degradation,” Tapia said. “It is often the source of their livelihood. Since mobile phone use has grown so rapidly in these developing nations it makes sense to help communities protect their resources with the technological resources at hand.”

For example, according to Tapia, farmers in Costa Rica could benefit from a centralized information center that they could access on their mobile phones to receive answers to questions about farming practices, the environment and biodiversity. While most farmers are equipped with mobile phones, she added, there is currently no information hub to provide resources.

According to Tapia, an information center that could be accessed by mobile phone would not only aid farmers who are seeking answers to their questions, but also scientists who are studying biodiversity and sustainability and biodiversity in the tropics, and are looking to collect data to support their research.

“There’s no reason why we can’t serve both needs,” Tapia said.

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Last Updated May 10, 2013