NIU anthropologist to lead global research work on food producers impacted by climate change

Project supported by $218,000 NSF grant to Giovanni Bennardo

Giovanni Bennardo standing amid a kape plant, or giant taro, in Tonga.

Giovanni Bennardo standing amid a kape plant, or giant taro, in Tonga, where he will conduct research on the cultural models of nature held by food producers.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $218,000 grant to NIU anthropologist Giovanni Bennardo to lead an international team of scholars in a research project that examines the cultural models of nature held by primary food producers in world regions affected by climate change.

The project involves 15 scholars and six graduate students from 10 universities in the United States, Europe, China and Middle East. They will conduct research at 15 different sites across five continents.

Whether a farmer running an industrial agricultural operation in Pennsylvania, vineyard owners in the Upper Rhine valley of southwestern Germany or fishermen in a coastal Polynesian village, primary food producers feel the impact of climate change more acutely because it affects their daily interaction with the environment, Bennardo says.

“Attempts to deal with climate change typically don’t take into consideration local knowledge, as if it were just a nuisance compared to the available ‘scientific’ knowledge,” he says.

“But if we want to implement any policy about corrective efforts in dealing with climate change, primary food producers are the ones who will be asked to change their behavior first and most profoundly,” Bennardo adds.

A Tongan farmer in a field of taro, a root vegetable.

A Tongan farmer in a field of taro, a root vegetable.

“Consequently, their knowledge about the environment or nature is of paramount importance when planning and later implementing any type of policy about climate change.”

Researchers will visit small-community field sites and investigate cultural models of nature held by different populations of food producers. Cultural models contribute to how people interpret, reason about and behave in their environments.

Field sites include the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, two river valley villages in Germany, a village in the Italian Alps, a rural town in Lithuania, traditional farming communities in Qatar, a farming community in Japan, a fishing village in the Philippines, a small coastal village in Tonga, foothill settlements in Amazonian Peru, a rural mountainside area of Ecuador, a highlands village in Kenya, a hunting and gathering community in Namibia, five mountain villages in China and a small village in the hills of Pakistan.

“The cultures chosen are representative of areas very sensitive to climate change, such as small islands with rising water levels, drought prone regions, settlements affected by retreating glaciers, and areas where precipitation patterns have dramatically changed in recent times,” Bennardo says.

“Discovering a cultural model takes a long investigation in which ethnographic, linguistic and cognitive data needs to be collected and analyzed,” he said. “The small size of these communities will allow us to conduct intensive studies.”

Giovanni Bennardo typically lives with the same family while doing his research in Tonga. Here he is pictured with his "adopted sister," Nesi Finau.

Giovanni Bennardo typically lives with the same family while doing his research in Tonga. Here he is pictured with his “adopted sister,” Nesi Finau.

The research builds on the results of an NSF-funded workshop organized by Bennardo and held at NIU in September 2011. The current funding supports the first phase of this three-part project that demands three visits to the field sites. It is very likely that the project will see further support from NSF, Bennardo says.

The NIU anthropology professor specializes in linguistic and cognitive anthropology. His primary geographic focus is Oceania, particularly Western Polynesia and the Kingdom of Tonga, where he has conducted extensive fieldwork. He will visit the Tongan archipelago in June 2014 to begin interviewing inhabitants. The first phase of the research is expected to be completed by September 2014.

“This is the first time that research of this magnitude has been attempted on this topic, and the evaluating NSF panel ranked it number one among its many submissions,” Bennardo says. “I’m especially grateful to Kellie Dyslin in the NIU Office of Sponsored Projects. Without her help and support pulling together all the complex pieces of the proposal, I don’t think that this project would have been as well received.”

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