HEEAL – Team of researchers deepen our understanding of ecological development in Africa
For Dr Paul Lane of the University of York in the UK, the co-ordinator of the four-year HEEAL (Historical Ecology of East African Landscapes) project, the significance of the Marie Curie Action (MCA) which made the project possible was immense. 'It allowed me, for the first time, to run my own research group,' he says, 'with post-doctoral and early-stage researchers working under my direct management with a focused set of research questions.'
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It also led to a number of subsequent opportunities and collaborations for both Dr Lane and the individual members of the team, as well as providing important knowledge to support future sustainable development in Africa.
The primary objective of HEEAL was to understand the factors which have shaped the landscapes and ecologies of East Africa over the last 500 years. It is widely believed, explains Dr Lane, that many of today's environmental crises facing East Africa have their roots in the 19th century and late pre-colonial period, when the region was opened up by large-scale trading, including the trades in ivory and slaves.
'But there are a number of gaps in our understanding,' says Dr Lane – in particular because East Africa is a region where written historical records only go back a maximum of 150 years, whereas ecological cycles of growth-decline-recovery can take up to 400 years to complete.
The purpose of HEEAL was to fill these gaps by 'putting an archaeological eye' on the issue.
Supported by a Marie Curie Excellence Grant, essential to attract talented young researchers and support their mobility, Dr Lane assembled a team at York consisting of two post-doctoral researchers and three early-stage researchers, to implement a highly innovative programme of archaeological research in selected areas of Tanzania and Kenya. Drawing on techniques of bioarchaeology, archaeozoology and palaeoecology, the team was able to investigate phenomena such as soil erosion, agricultural intensification and ivory extraction, and detect their historical patterns over hundreds of years.
The results challenged many of the prevailing assumptions about the ecological development of the region. As Dr Lane emphasises, this understanding is of great significance for modern policy measures to improve land use and sustainability. If the original causes of degradation are misunderstood, the interventions that are chosen – and the money to finance them – may be wasted, or even harmful. For example, far from starting in the 19th century as previously assumed, the project showed that agricultural intensification and soil erosion showed clear signs of having been in existence for up to 2,000 years, while there was also evidence that the trade caravans had not placed the strain on natural resources that many had thought.
As the world's largest donor of development aid to Africa, it is crucial for Europe to improve its understanding of these issues – an idea emphasised in the European Union's Strategy for Africa.
As a result of the project, the 6 HEEAL researchers gave a total of 48 presentations around the world. In addition, 8 papers directly related to the project were published in leading journals, an edited book on the project is in preparation and 9 more papers are in the pipeline. Approximately 12 more papers, while not directly related, were assisted by the project. HEEAL also contributed to the better dissemination of knowledge between Europe and Africa by establishing links with related projects such as KITE (the York Institute for Tropical Ecosystem Dynamics) and the PLATINA (People, Land and Time in Africa) group in Stockholm.
Following on from the HEEAL project, one of the early-stage researchers has since taken up a teaching post at Dar-es-Salaam University, as Tanzania's first-ever Archaeozoologist. Another has moved on to take up a Lectureship in Anthropology at Goldsmith's College, London, and the remaining team members are developing their own research projects.
For himself, Paul Lane says, HEEAL has led to a number of new opportunities. These include collaboration on a University of Pretoria landscape historical ecology project around the area of Great Zimbabwe and its precursor, Mapungubwe, as well as being invited to participate in the EUROTAST Marie Curie Initial Training Network focusing on the legacies of the Transatlantic slave trade.
In the case of HEEAL, it is clear, the Marie Curie grant paved the way not only for an improved understanding of the ecology and landscape of East Africa, but also the development of several individual academic careers.