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Written By

Hannah Gray

Research Centre

The Cairns Institute

Publish Date

13 September 2023

A career built on curiosity

When we think of marine research and conservation, we often think of marine biologists or environmental scientists diving amongst the coral and fish. But the truth is that there is a vast range of professionals, volunteers and activists working across multiple industries and fields to help marine environments flourish.

This diversity of contributors was highlighted in Reef Values: Ecologies, communities and connections, the recent public symposium facilitated by The Cairns Institute. Here, the keynote speakers and many of the attendees were scientists of a different kind — social scientists.

One such contributor is Dr Gillian Paxton, an environmental anthropologist at The Cairns Institute. Though an environmental anthropologist can be broadly described as someone who studies people’s relationships with the environment, Gillian uses a keener definition.

“An environmental anthropologist is someone who’s really, really curious about the different ways that people practise those human-environment relationships,” she says. “It’s a diverse field. One day I might be out talking to commercial fishers and anglers about how they manage their very direct relationship with the environment, while the next I might speak with conservationists or writers about communicating issues within the environment, which is a very different relationship.”

Gillian says a key point of difference between an anthropologist and similar professions is their method. “Whereas a sociologist might use a survey or formal interview, anthropologists are all about being out in the field, talking to people and closely observing their practices,” she says. “It’s about being very curious and asking lots of questions.”

It’s this curiosity and drive to conduct on-the-ground research that allows environmental anthropologists to make vital observations and discoveries that can improve the function and impacts of human-environment relationships.

Reflections of diversity

Being based in Cairns, it is almost inevitable that an environmental anthropologist would conduct work related to the Great Barrier Reef. Covering a vast 348,700 km2 and harbouring global interest, Gillian says the diversity of allies and advocates of the Reef reflects the diversity of the Reef itself.

“The Great Barrier Reef is massive, and there is so much interest in how it is managed.” she says. “It has huge, global importance, and everything about the Reef is complex. There is never going to be one person or authority who can be complete experts on each of its elements.

“That makes the work of social scientists really important. With the Great Barrier Reef being so important to local and regional communities, but also to the Australian and international public, the Reef needs to be considered a community asset and an ecological asset. Social scientists help navigate shared and conflicting interests across many groups, sectors and institutions, all of which have great significance to the Reef.”

Understanding the Reef as a communal, ecological asset begins with understanding that it is many different things to many different people. “Within a conversation with just one person, the Reef can become several things at once,” Gillian says.

“It is a physical structure that protects the coast of North Queensland, but it’s also a living system of wildlife and environmental processes. It has economic capital. It yields jobs and there are livelihoods dependent on the Reef. It is a global icon and is internationally recognised and celebrated.

“It is profoundly important to some 70 Reef Traditional Owner groups. It is locally significant and globally significant. There are so many other communities connected to the Reef, including recreational users, artists and photographers, researchers, tourists, Reef managers, activists, conservationists and more. People have a deep, personal love of the Reef.”

“Social scientists help navigate the shared and conflicting interests happening across many industries and fields, all of which have great significance for the Reef.”

Dr Gillian Paxton

A core part of environmental anthropology is being in the field to make key observations.

A community effort

A common narrative around the Reef emphasises the harmful impacts of human behaviour, from climate change and pollution to unsustainable fishing and tourism. However, Gillian says this paints an incomplete picture.

“We’re seeing large communities of people who are working together to cultivate and nurture the Reef,” Gillian says. “Traditional Owners, Tourism operators, scientists, government organisations and non-government organisations are now exploring ways to grow and restore coral and help it to adapt to climate change”.

For example, Australia’s key management agency for the Reef, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, works with government, industry and community to protect this vast environment. Their strategies include a Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan as well as a Reef Blueprint, which outlines actions that strengthen the Reef’s resilience and capacity to recover after disturbances and challenges.

“That’s what I think would be most surprising to people who had no knowledge of the Reef, is just how many people actively care for it and how diverse that looks,” Gillian says. “There’s not a stereotype. There are many, many people involved.”

“That’s what I think would be most surprising to people who had no knowledge of the Reef, is just how many people actively care for it and how diverse that looks."

Dr Gillian Paxton

Dr Gillian Paxton standing in front of a purple-leaved bush.
Dr Gillian Paxton standing behind a podium and beside a projector screen while presenting at the Reef Values symposium.
Left: Dr Gillian Paxton. Right: Dr Gillian Paxton presenting her research on Crown of Thorns Starfish management at the Reef Values symposium. © James Cook University 2023

Be part of a community

With such a diverse, expansive range of people involved, the Reef is a space ripe for social science. Gillian is a part of the Social Science Community for the Great Barrier Reef, which operates as a central community for social scientists to share research and knowledge on Reef issues, and hosts the annual symposium.

“It’s about forming a kind of critical mass of social scientists,” Gillian says. “It’s about scholarship, of course, and good science, but it’s also about those key networks amongst social scientists as well as between social scientists and other professions. It crosses industries, fields and institutions.”

The Social Science Community identifies five human dimensions of the Reef: sustainable use, stewardship, governance, heritage and connection to the reef. All five of these dimensions were highlighted at the Reef Values symposium (11-12 September).

Symposium attendees heard in-depth presentations from nationally acclaimed speakers across fields such as sociology, economics, geography, demography and more. The presentations explored eight main topics, including communication and behaviours, emerging management, community perceptions and assessing pathways for change.

At the heart of such a comprehensive, deep-diving symposium is the celebration of community, ecology and impact. “What I would like to see at the symposium is a whole lot of discussion and sharing,” Gillian said prior to the event. “Not just from social scientists, but people in the community who want to advocate and talk about their own experiences.”

Want to know more about the important research being conducted in tropical societies? Explore the upcoming events hosted by The Cairns Institute to find out about the discoveries, insights and projects occurring across the fields within humanities and social sciences.

The Reef Values: Ecologies, communities and connections Symposium is facilitated in a partnership between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian Government, The University of Queensland and the Queensland Government.

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