Countermapping Cockpit

Latest update July 30, 2019 Started on May 31, 2019

Cockpit Country is home to the indigenous Maroons as well as many species that are not found anywhere else in the world! Using indigenous knowledge we will create an open-access map to understand this ecosystem and improve conservation

May 31, 2019
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In The Field

OpenExplorer vlog 5: Parenting and Pitfalls

In this vlog:

  • I am back working at the stream (and taking measurements),
  • I discuss the methodological relevance of going with the "pulse" of the community,
  • I explore another stream (I want to run long-term monitoring on three streams - one of which is the one next to the medical marijuana farm)
  • and we go on a mapping hike to an important Maroon cultural heritage site (and find interesting things on the way)

Between this vlog and the one that I am filming now, I now start to feel good about data collection; I am now more confident that we are gathering what we need for the project (same can't quite be said for the PhD, but the hunting season hasn't fully gotten underway yet!)


Vlog 4: Protests and Night Surveys

In this vlog, we finally resolve the drone issues in Stream 1 (of three that will be mapped), I accompany some Maroons to an anti-mining protest, and we conduct our first night survey of amphibians in Stream 1.

I talk in this vlog (and the previous) about the website for the Culture Camp - the link is here if you would like to check it out and offer your support!

See you in vlog 5!


Vlog 3: Drone fail

In this episode, I photograph and video the Accompany Maroon Culture Camp and we take the OpenROV out for its first spin!

I'm here!!!

Vlog 2 outlines some of my reactions to returning to the field after 10 months. I aim to vlog once or twice a week; this will be determined by the amount of content I generate and my schedule, but I commit here and now to posting at least one vlog every week.

The vlog was filmed the first day of arrival (Tuesday) and is more of an extended talk; future vlogs will be split up into days over the course of the filming period (Wednesday for example, I talk about filming the drum-making short and taking the pictures for culture camp - see my instagram feed for examples of the pictures; later in the week, I will be showing our first mapping outing).

Thanks for all the well-wishes and support, From me and the team.


Vlog 1:

I decided to make this post a vlog format, as in the field I want my collaborators to be able to share this platform too and vlogs are probably the easiest way to do this... so I thought I'd prepare you all lol!

In today's vlog, I reflect on the act of communicating science and the process of making these OpenExplorer posts. With 12 days to go, I also go over my equipment and my intentions as I start my preparations.

From Canopy to Groundwater...

as I plan this expedition, the expanse of what I proposed to do and the smaller projects nestled within it are not lost on me. As well as at least 100 datapoints - that I also refer to as biocultural markers (the oral histories, the photography, the raw data, the wildlife photography, the factsheets, the scientific illustrations) - there is the canvassing, the storytelling, the species finding, the patient reasoning.

But as time draws closer, fear has crystallised into resolve as it becomes less about proving myself worthy of my donors' support (for which I am overwhelmingly grateful and truly indebted) and more about the action me, my fellow teammates, and the wider community need to take.

I want to talk about something that was recently shared with me by one of the team members (remember my teammates for these collection of projects are all members of the Maroon community - not only by lineage, but who were born and raised there, have lived there since, and continue to live there to this day). One of the projects incorporated into Countermapping Cockpit is a stream restoration project, funded by Wild Planet Fund (formerly WWCT) and Auckland Zoo Conservation Trust. This project initially came from the desire of a small group of Maroons to restore one of the streams closest to them. Some time ago, attempts were made to turn the stream into a fish pond to increase tourism and the resulting blockage turned the whole square kilometre into abandoned wetlands. Last summer, a Maroon whose animals grazed nearby saw a turtle in the stream; he showed his best friend, his best friend showed me, and from this arose a swell of interest to restore the stream and a nearby water source.

Look at the power of wildlife! (... though I should add that climate change has made the dry season longer and so there is some pragmatism to this desire as well as wildlife inspiring the community into action).

But we now face a problem. Our initial plan with the stream restoration project was to monitor the amphibian and reptile life as parts of the stream was restored. The wetlands had become somewhat of a biodiversity haven - an undisturbed ecological niche full to the brim with frogs, turtles, insects... many of which were endemic not just to the country but the forest.

The first image is what a part of the stream looked like then. The second image is what it looks like now. Private investors and the Ministry of Agriculture have invested in a medicinal marijuana production project to be piloted in the village. I was there when the army for shiny 4x4s descended upon the village with promises of economic development and a livelihood stream for the villagers. "We want to use indigenous knowledge to bring jobs to the community", the Ministry declared. The plan is for the Maroons to grow medicinal marijuana using methods prescribed by the Ministry and cultivating only a non-native certified strain that is THC-free (free of the chemical compound responsible for the "high"). "Accompong is a trademark", one of the private investors let slip. This is the likely motivation behind the involvement of the community: to market it as an indigenous product.

A paper published in Nature Sustainability argues that indigenous communities make sustainable decisions about land and resource use in the absence of development projects enticing villagers with financial incentives and pressurising leaders into compliance. So, this project of ours now serves two very important purposes: a) to document the rare and threatened amphibian life that got the community interested in conserving and restoring the stream in the first place b) to locate, with my Maroon team members, other streams so that we can compare the ecosystem health of this stream against other non-affected streams across the life of this medical marijuana project.

Indigenous communities often have the unfair burden of having their practices deemed unsustainable, when many of them only exist as a response to external interference.

There is an urgency to my project now - this is why my fear has given way to purpose. So, I go forward; armed with dataloggers (to monitor the environment), traps/nets, camera traps, and hoping to get an OpenROV, we fight to keep the land in the hands of its inhabitants (human AND non-human).

image-1 image-1

So, with grant money in hand (or bank account, to the amusement of the branch manager), I now begin the purchase of this year’s fieldwork equipment.

This project is being undertaken over a number of fieldwork “phases” as part of what is initially a two-year project (though I hope to continue this longer). Phase 1 runs from July to September 2019. It runs concurrent to the final season of my PhD fieldwork – so there’ll be a LOT to do, but I am really excited about what developing very new methodologies that can improve and conservation by working outside of what are sometimes very colonial systems.

To remind you, Countermapping Cockpit will be an online interactive map that hopefully serves as a tool for conservation efforts – particularly species assessments for the IUCN Red List. Data included on the map ranges from raw data of temperature and humidity to audio files of oral histories from village elders (and everything in between). Though I want to collect as much data as I can with each fieldwork season, I have three focuses for Phase 1:

• Setting up environmental monitors that will run over the course of the project. Temperature, humidity and aquatic loggers will be set up around the forest to look at the long-term impact of climate change and any anthropogenic factors (human disturbances – from any source) on the many microhabitats in the region. • Collecting visual media for species identification. Wildlife photographs and film will be used to identify species and confirm their presence. This is particularly necessary as there are high numbers of endemic species (i.e. they aren’t found anywhere else in the world than in Jamaica and, in some cases, even the forest itself) and creating tools to help identification is going to be necessary in collecting more accurate data. • Undertaking species monitoring surveys of amphibians and, to a lesser extent, birds. Nets and traps will be used to catch, mark and release species to determine presence in locations across the forest. Now, typically some type of sampling method (random, stratified, etc) would be used to determine where these activities take place. But we’re going to do things a little differently in this project. I will be taking my cues from the Maroons that are collaborators on this project, as well as the wider indigenous community as to where these activities will take place. We seek not random “unbiased” samples, I want context-derived, locally-identified samples, rich with data and history to help invest this database with even a fraction of the wealth of knowledge the community has.

So far, so good right? Wrong. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me over the course of my PhD research – and I fear, this is likely to follow me into Phase 1 – is the collection of visual media. This is a dense forest and these are species of low-detectability: some of the frogs would fit on your fingernail (ok, maybe the nail of your big toe – but you get my point!). Camera traps cannot capture canopy or understorey birds (trust me, I’ve tried), nor can they always effectively capture small amphibians by the banks of a water source – and if they have, the species is likely so undetectable in the image that I’ve probably discarded it thinking that a wind-blown leaf triggered the motion sensor.

I’ve been trialling out a couple of solutions for the amphibians: submerging GoPros as underwater camera traps has had some (limited) success in that it confirmed the presence of a turtle that to the village was a something of a new-aged folklore, or the ramblings of a rum-fuelled citizen (have a REALLY close look at the video and see if you can spot it). I’m also applying for an OpenROV in hopes that we are able to explore more water sources across the forest in a more dynamic way.

But what of the birds?! Nest boxes won’t work in the middle of the forest with no wifi or power source (even though new nest boxes are being developed with solar panels). Radio telemetry cannot work without a clear line of sight, and it won’t be as helpful in determining species presence. Well, I’m talking with some technology developers next week to have a greater sense of the options out there, but…

I think this may be an opportunity for the Maroons and I to develop something of our own based on a centuries-old practice of theirs. I’ll keep you posted on this one!

For now, I mercilessly blow through the rest of my research budget, whilst being acutely aware that I can nigh afford to treat myself to a large coffee!

Expedition Background


I'm Lydia and I'm a National Geographic Explorer and a Human Ecology PhD student at UCL.

My PhD looks at ways that we can incorporate indigenous knowledge into conservation science to make it more robust and more effective in the place in which it is undertaken. I do this in Cockpit Country, Jamaica. It is home to indigenous Maroons - communities that began when the first escaped African slaves formed societies in the dense and inhospitable uplands with the remaining indigenous Tainos.

Whilst I was there, I realised just how many of the species that lived in the forest were endemic (can't be found anywhere else in the world). I also realised that most of the populations of this species were found in the south of the forest, where the Maroons live. It cannot be accessed by outsiders, so as a result much of the information we have about these species come from research efforts that take place in the forest north ... a much sparser place of lower altitude and the location of a conservation NGO and a research centre. These organisations care about protecting the forest and they do their best, but without the extensive knowledge of the Maroons - who over centuries have learnt to become very wary of outsiders - they are unable to accurately assess or monitor species populations or the general health of the forest.

Having worked with the Maroons for a number of years, gaining their trust - I asked them what areas they believed were the most important in understanding the forest ecosystem. They showed me key water sources, explained how the weather conditions helped them to predict the location of particular birds during hunting. I have formed a team with 3 Maroon research assistants; together we will chart this unknown territory and create an online GIS interactive map that can be used by conservation researchers to better assess and monitor the ecosystem and species within it. I leave in under two months, I am so excited to return!

Thank you Elisabeth! I am looking forward to undertaking it! I will do my best to keep you posted!

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